In his analysis of the quintessential Australian poem, Joshua Cabucos argues that although it is an important work for the formation of the Australian national psyche, it does not offer a suitable representation of Australian identity. Joshua explains with justifications.
Listen carefully; can you hear it? It’s the band playing Waltzing Matilda drifting on the wind. It’s Clancy of the Overflow galloping into irrelevancy.
I am Australian. I see Australian national identity in diversity and multiculturalism. I see it in the indescribable beauty of our unique landscape. I see it in the Australian people: courage, mateship, solidarity, multiplicity and egalitarianism. It is with regret that I say- I do not see it our current poetical canon. I am Australian and I can unequivocally attest that I attribute neither Henry Lawson nor Banjo Paterson to my sense of national identity.
Canonical Australian poetry has been synonymous with national identity for generations; it still forms a centrepiece for poetical literary analysis today. This may its biggest downfall: Australia’s canonical poetry is trapped in a bygone era and as society progresses, the static nature of this poetry sees it fading into irrelevancy. Is Australian poetry canon still communicable to the modern context? Do these poems explore relatable motifs in a pedagogy that makes it accessible to mainstream contemporary society?
The notion of canonical Australian poetry is inextricably intertwined with the stigma of apathy and is usually met with quiet dissent through educational facilities nationwide. This is an unfortunate truth and it must be addressed. Australia’s poetry canon must parallel Australia’s intrinsically dynamic conceptualization of national identity, adapted to embody Australian national identity while remaining relatable and relevant to the Australia of today.
‘The Man from Snowy River’ is hailed as the epitomization of Australian national identity. A vividly descriptive ballad, it encapsulates values cemented in national tapestry. The Man from Snowy River is portrayed as the stereotypical ‘underdog’- the nameless, independent and unsung hero revered in Australian culture. There is constant juxtaposition between his character and that of ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ and a prodigious sense of rivalry is manufactured. “No better horseman ever held the reigns”, yet the Man from Snowy River bests him- “a stripling on a small and weedy beast”. Evocative environmental imagery in, “Gorges deep and black… thick wild hop scrub… rolling plains…,” serves to further the poem that aligns heavily with traditional Australian motifs of perseverance, courage and success in the face of adversity.
Yet this poem is fading into irrelevancy. It is inherently alienating; its metaphors and imagery are trapped in this ‘bush legend’ time-vault with largely alien characters, narratives and environments. Perfectly valid as poem and a historical piece of literature, but it cannot be heralded as ‘the epitomization of Australian national identity’ because it is a context contemporary Australia struggles to relate to and is thus intrinsically exclusive. Canonical Australian poetry must be adapted in terms of poetic devices, characterisation and narrative to encompass the modernised Australian landscape- the fluidity of comprehension for consumers of this poetry is vital in expressing the intended key morals. The existence of a cityscape could contextually be represented alongside the dominating bushscape narratives.
I do not wish to rewrite established traditional Australian values but rewrite the medium in which they are conveyed in canonical poetry so as to efficaciously enlighten the reader to what it means to be Australian. A change must manifest in either our canonical poetry or our national identity, lest we forsake the other.
The legend of Anzac is deeply interrelated with traditional Australian national identity. ‘I Was Only 19’ perhaps exemplifies poetry with these underlying motifs. Themes of mateship underpin the narrative in, “But you wouldn’t let your mates down till they had dusted you off.” Therefore, war and violence is shown to be an antithesis to mateship and Australianism, “Can you tell me doctor why I still can’t get to sleep?” The themes are advanced by alluding to stereotypical imagery associated with war and emotive language illustrated in the paradoxical phrase, “Frankie kicked a a mine the day mankind kicked the moon.”
But this poem, along with the majority of canonical Australian poetry, does not convey a contemporary version of Australianism. Our cultural tapestry of a masculine society founded on mateship and perseverance have been supplemented with progressive ideals of multiculturalism, diversity and equality and these motifs are heavily underrepresented in canonical Australian poetry. These progressive ideals must be incorporated into poetry.
Our poetry needs to modernise and adapt to accurately portray Australian national identity in its totality. Our society is progressive and our poetry is not. It must address contemporary national identity and the values of our forefathers, such that a balanced conceptualisation of the Australian identity may be attained.
Let me tell you a secret; ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is one of my favourite poems. It is invaluable to Australia and our cultural history and tradition but I loathe it is put on a pedestal as the epitomization of Australian national identity.
How to reference this article?
Cabucos, J. (2020), ‘The Representation of Australian Identity in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’, sayaeducation.com, downloaded today’s date.