History of Literature/Australian Poetry at the Turn of the 20th Century

The Australian coat of arms is entwined with wattle showing Australia's cultural identity with the natural landscape

Federation had a massive impact on Australia’s identity; both how it saw itself and how it was seen by others. This change can be traced through a study of the poetry of the era. Because of its geographical isolation from the rest of the world, Australia came into contact with other countries very late. At the time of Federation it was only 100 years old. This made it a poet’s dream for words of future and dawning power. The relationship between Australia and its coloniser, Britain, has also been mentioned by many poets, and is probably that most notable area of change over the time scale. Something that has remained constant would be the focus of poets on the landscape of Australia, strange and wild to their predominantly English eyes, and their neglect of the people and character of Australia. This is an intriguing segment of poetry to study.

A recurring theme in the history of Australian poetry is that of the youth of the country and the many opportunities for its future. Australia has only entered the global stage and been in contact with other countries for about 200 years and has only been a country in its own right for the last 100 years. It is important to note, however, that the published poetry of the era from Australia’s colonisation until quite recently was only that of Anglo Saxons. Undoubtedly the Aboriginal perspective would have been quite different. In most Australian poems, imagery such as that of Australia being a child, often of Britain, or an untapped source of culture and prospects is prevalent in both colonial and post federation works. Bernard O’Dowd speaks of Australia as the “last sea thing dredged by sailor Time from space” and then hypothesises what future the country will shape for itself. W. C. Wentworth names it Britains “last-born infant” and Henry Kendall proclaims himself a “singer of the dawn” as he praises the beauty and potential of the land. It is fascinating to observe the hopes and dreams of the past in light of Australia’s current situation.

Integral to the representation of Australia in poetry has been the representation of Britain and Australia’s relationship with it. This has changed drastically during the period surrounding Federation in 1901. Originally, Australia was merely a colony of Britain aspiring to the sophistication and culture of its founder. In the later years, It was evident that Australia had developed a much more individual identity and was no longer desiring only to replicate Britain. This can be easily seen in a comparison between W. C. Wentworth’s (1793 – 1872) Australasia and Dorothea Mackellar’s (1885 – 1967) My Country. Wentworth dreams that the future of Australia may be as rich as England’s past. He calls for an “Austral Milton”, “Austral Shakespeare”, and “Austral Pindar” and muses of a day when Britain has been obscured by time and Australia risen “A new Britannia in another world.” On the other hand, Mackellar draws a clear line between the English and the Australians, recognising their love for their land but saying “I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise”. As Australia has matured, this gap has grown wider and the individual identity of the country has grown stranger.

Another interesting aspect of Australian poetry is the subject matter that most poems focus on. There is a definite inclination towards the landscape and natural occurrences such as weather. Very few poems have a distinguishable Australian character or national hero. This is probably because of the youth of Australia as a separate culture, meaning that there was yet a stereotype for Australians to identify with, such as the outback Crocodile Dundee of today. An interesting development towards a national identity is seen in Henry Kendall’s Australasia where he speaks of people important to Australia. Captain Cook is glorified as an idol, along with Forby Sutherland and Arthur Phillip, all people distinguished in Australia’s history alone. The Aborigines are almost never mentioned in the poetry of white settlers and only in derogatory terms to serve as contrast for the white culture. The common people of Australia are also notable only by their absence. Only recently has Australia really identified with a unified national character.

The Period surrounding the Federation of Australia is rich with change and development. It was a time when Australia was just shaping its identity and still experimenting. This is reflected in the poetry of the time. Many references are made to the youth and inexperience of Australia and consequently, its unfulfilled potential. It was also a time when Australia was just beginning to see itself as a country in its own right, separate from Britain and British culture. In particular, the landscape of Australia was marvelled at and described in detailed passages. However, there was yet to be a definite national character and the common people of Australia are hardly ever mentioned. These characteristics and developments make it an exciting topic of research.

Last modified on 31 October 2011, at 11:34