Saturday, November 8, 2014

The national image of Australia from 1880-1920 as seen from the literary works of Dyson and Paterson.

The national image of Australia and that of the ideal Australian were in their first stages at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  This essay will discuss and analyse these images and why they were constructed.   Socio-political and economic situations, and two contemporary Australian poems; A. B. Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and Edward Dyson’s In Town, will be used to define, analyse and discuss the constructed image of Australia and Australians for that time period.  The influences of Imperialism, the idea of “The Coming Man”, and the “Bush Legend” will also be discussed for contextual purpose.

In the late 1800’s, Australia was not yet a country in its own right, and the influence of the British Empire was heavily felt.  Instead of looking to each other for support and guidance, the individual colonial capitals continued to look to London (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 11).  This Imperialistic influence was helped in its perpetuation through the media of the time; the newspaper.  Even though each capital had its own periodical, the London Daily News was more widely read, and as such gave the colonies a self perception of being outposts of the British Empire (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 11).  This viewpoint was not true of all Australians, however.  The Roman Catholic and the Irish communities held grudges against the British Empire, and the labour movement saw the Imperialists as anti-Australian. 

At the beginning of the 1890’s, Australia was plunged into a depression.  At the same time, the unions were fighting to gain better conditions for workers.  These conflicts grew and created rifts in the political and social environments, and when coupled with the racist viewpoint of the time, fuelled the unionist’s perception of Brittan, the local government, and the Imperialists being the enemies of Australia (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 12).  These and other factors helped usher in the viewpoint of ‘The Coming Man’. 

‘The Coming Man’, also referred to as ‘The Coming Australian’, according to Richard White’s work (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 76-84), was the ideal example of the new colonial Australian in direct juxtaposition to that of the staunch Imperial Britton.  White, quoting James F. Hogan from 1880, stated that there were three main characteristics of ‘The Coming Australian’:  1) An inordinate love of field-sports, 2) A very decided disinclination to recognise the authority of parents and supervisors, and 3) A grievous dislike to mental effort (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 76).  ‘The Coming Man’ was an embodiment of masculinity and the tests of coming into manhood. 

The image of Australia formed through the romanticising of the bush is due in part to the strong anti-urban and anti-metropolitan feelings of the time (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 83).  England and the cities were seen as overcrowded, unhealthy, and depressing.  This was antithetical to the bush, which was open-spaced, fresh, vibrant and full of life and adventure.  White goes on to say that the bush offered heroic struggle, adventure, wide open spaces, camp life and all the tests of manhood, and this is everything that ‘The Coming Man’ was all about (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p.83).  ‘The Coming Man’ also reflected a more hardy type of man, more rugged and better fit for work hard. 

Hard work played a major role in the constructing of the Australian image in the late 19th and early 20th century.  In Dyson’s poem In Town, he writes “I, who… faltered at no work a man might do… I who hewed and built and burrowed, and who asked no man to give, When a strong arm was excuse enough for venturing to live…” (Dyson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 73-74).  This begins to display the viewpoint of the time that a strong, hardy man, a man of labour or ‘The Coming Man’ was desirable over that of the intellectual, city man.  This can be further seen when reading Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow.  Paterson wrote similarly to Dyson, using the point of view of a man in an Australian town who longs for the romanticised bushman’s and labourer’s life.  This is easily observed through the line, “And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy” (Paterson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 76). 

These poems helped also to create the bush legend, where the bush life was idealised over the current urban structure of Australia, which was a carry-over from its Imperialistic British heritage.  Dyson paints a picture of a bleak and depressing urban city, where men are trapped in poverty or thankless jobs, women and children are sickly, unemployment runs rampant, and overcrowding is a problem.  Dyson writes, “Out of work and out of money… out of firewood, togs and tucker, out of everything but debt… the corners polished free of paint and mirk, By the shoulders of the men who’re always hanging ‘round for work.” (Dyson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 73).  He goes on to talk about the sickness that prevails in the city by writing “Where a crippled man is dying… And a woman in the horrors howls remorsefully at night…” (Dyson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 73). 

Paterson also contributes to the bush legend through Clancy of the Overflow from the viewpoint of a man trapped in an office job that he does not like.  When the narrator of this poem receives an answer to a letter he has written to Clancy, he immediately starts to daydream and fantasize about the bushman’s life particularly of a drover, which Clancy is, and was regarded as one of the standards of ‘The Coming Man’ (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 15).  Paterson wrote “In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy… For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.” (Paterson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 75).  He continues by talking about the dingy little office that he is sitting in, surrounded by tall houses that block the sunlight, the foetid air of the dirty city, and the shoulder to shoulder pallid faced people.

To contrast the drab, trapped feeling he conveys of the urban city, Dyson then talks about the bush and its appealing clean and free nature.  “Far away the hills are all aflame; the blossom golden fair, Streams up the gladdened ranges, and its scent is everywhere, And the kiddies of the settlers on the creek are red and sweet…” (Dyson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 74).  This viewpoint of the bush being free, clean, and healthy is supported by Clancy of the Overflow in its employed descriptions.  “As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing… And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him… murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars… visions splendid of the sunlit plains… And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.” (Paterson in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 75). 

In conclusion, the image of Australia and the ideal Australian at the time that Paterson and Dyson wrote these poems was anti-imperialist and focused heavily on the bush legend.  Australia was seen as a ‘last frontier’ and had a sense of open spaces, struggle, clean air, and masculinity about it.  The city was undesirable and viewed as stifling, crowded and sickly.  Quoting E.J. Brady, White sums up the image of Australia that Paterson and Dyson helped construct: “Under clear cold stars their camp fire had been lighted.  On the edge of odorous eucalyptus forests, their broad axes had flashed in the sunlight.  Mountain fastnesses had echoed the report of their rifles.  Over great plains their horses had galloped – north, south, east and west they had been staking out a continent for the White Race.” (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 84). 

Reference List

Documents AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia IA’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Readings AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia IA’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane

Study Guide AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia IA’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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