Happy Birthday Banjo Paterson!

Today is the 150th birthday of the Australian poet Banjo Paterson and who would I be if I didn’t acknowledge some of the great poetry he wrote and the impact he’s had on our culture.


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Banjo Paterson was born Andrew Barton Paterson in 1864 and lived at the property “Narrambla” which is out near Orange, NSW. He moved around a lot later on but when he married his wife Alice Emily Walker, they lived at Woollahra, NSW with his two children. Paterson’s parents were Scottish immigrant Andrew Bogle Paterson and Australian Rose Isabella Barton. Also, fun fact, Paterson’s mother was related to the future first prime minister of Australia, Edmund Barton. So that’s cool.

Through his life Paterson was a poet, a lawyer, a journalist, a soldier, a jockey, as well as a farmer, but his poems are what he is mainly remembered for. I think there are a few of Paterson’s poems that we all know because they have infiltrated society and culture more than others. I’m fairly sure we all know about The Man from Snowy River, or at least have heard it being referenced. Written in 1890 The Man from Snowy River was first published in The Bulletin on 26 April and has since been made into a successful movie and a TV show. The poem tells the story of a pursuit to recapture the colt of a prizewinning racehorse that has run off into the mountain ranges and is living with brumbies. The poem recounts the attempt to recapture the colt and the bravery of the hero Clancy who risks the terrible decent of the impassable slope to chase after the horses. This was not Paterson’s first poem, however, Clancy of the Overflow was a shorter poem published the previous year, but some characters reappear in The Man from Snowy River.

I vaguely recall seeing The Man from Snowy River film with my sister when I was young but it was never a favourite of mine, and I can’t say I knew of any others of his poems that well. You get taught about Banjo Patterson in primary school and you learn about of a few poems, but there are some that stay with you and some don’t. Though a few years ago now, back in 2000, the Royal Easter Show did an excellent Man from Snowy River Spectacular which broadened my love of Paterson’s poems. It was an excellent show, the arena was set up to re-enact the story and the riders and the horses put on an epic display while the poem was being narrated alongside, it was really amazing.

But before any of that, Waltzing Matilda was the one that stayed with me more than any other. That is one I think that everyone gets to know from a young age. Waltzing Matilda is a poem that is set to music that is revered by a lot of people, but if you look at the narrative it is about a man who steals a sheep and to escape being captured commits suicide in a billabong. There is something wonderfully morbid in that this is a poem we cherish. People even wanted to make it our national anthem at one point. I can’t say when we win at the Olympics or before footy games, or standing at school assemblies I would think we want that being sung, but some do. I’m not saying it isn’t an awesome poem or song, it is, but I just can’t see it as a national anthem. Because it is a song though, Waltzing Matilda has been covered by a lot of people, being originally set to music makes it more accessible I suppose than the poetry and the ballads.

What I found interesting was that Paterson did not live out in the bush while he was writing. A lot of works about rural Australia are romanticised and Paterson was no different. He was living in the city as a lawyer while he was writing about these mountain ranges and billabongs. I think though poetry needs a bit of romanticising, even if you lived in the rural areas surely in poetry you are not going to be discussing the ins and outs of farming troubles and the fact your cattle are or aren’t breeding. Instead you write about the sun setting over the hills, and the cockatoos screeching in the evening, you write about the continuing plains of barren lands and the river the winds through the ancient cliffs. No one needs to hear about the boring parts of the rural areas, romanticising is what poetry is all about.

Paterson did a lot more than just write poetry, he helped with the war effort not only as a war correspondent in the Second Boar War but as an ambulance driver in WW1 and did three voyages with horses to Africa, China, and Egypt resulting in being repatriated to Australia as a Major. He is remembered for his poetry of course more than his war effort or any of his other jobs, and after he returned home he continued writing, releasing short stories, verse, and essays but he also continued to contribute to various journalism publications.

Banjo Patterson is the guy on our $10 note for those who don’t know, and over his lifetime he wrote hundred of works which you can find a list of on Project Gutenberg, and he was even commemorated on a stamp in 1981. I’m sure there are people all over Australia who have their favourite Banjo Patterson poem, some know one, some know all, and there are always new people discovering him each day.

Paterson died in 1941 from a heart attack but he continues to live on in Australian culture and through his poetry and other works that have continued to inspire and entertain children and adults alike to this day. Happy 150th birthday, Banjo!

Learn more about Banjo Paterson