On this day: Banjo Paterson was born

By Natalie Muller 7 November 2013
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Banjo Paterson, the Australian bush poet who penned Waltzing Matilda, was born on 17 February 1864.

ANDREW BARTON ‘BANJO’ PATERSON was born in Narrambla, NSW, on 17 February 1864.

He lived in the city for most of his life, yet he became wildly famous in the colonies for the poems and stories he wrote about life in the Australian outback.

Just before the turn of the century he composed Waltzing Matilda, the much-loved ballad about a swagman who drowned himself in a billabong. He also wrote The Man from Snowy River, a collection of verses (including the poem by the same name) that sold out of its first edition in a week.

The stories he created about the lives and struggles of bushmen, shearers and drovers in rural farm country struck a chord with Australians.

“This image of Australia, which by the beginning of the 20th century was already one of the most urbanised countries in the world, obviously appealed to a population that liked to present itself as hard-working, laconic, and not wanting to take itself too seriously,” says Dr David McCooey, associate professor of literary studies at Deakin University, Victoria.

“Also, the ‘settler’ generations were dying out, so there was a moment to romanticise those people and their history,” he adds. 

Romanticising the outback?

Banjo grew up in the Yass region in southern NSW, but he left the area at age 10 to finish his schooling in Sydney.

In his 20s he found work as a lawyer, then as a journalist. It was around this time he also started publishing poems under the pseudonym ‘the Banjo’ in the Bulletin and Sydney Mail.

His work is often compared to that of Henry Lawson, who wrote about the Australian outback around the same period, but with less romanticism.

“One of things that appealed to Paterson’s urban readers was the vision of the bush and bushman that he presented. The bush was rough and adventurous, but not as bleak as Lawson’s vision,” says David. “He presents an image of Australia as pastoral, adventurous…and free of difficult questions about the way this country displaced its indigenous population.”

Banjo Paterson – a city-dweller at heart

David notes that Banjo probably spent less than 15 years in the rural landscape he celebrated in his prose. After establishing himself as a writer, he took up a post as war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and was sent to South Africa to cover the Boer War. He was also hired as a correspondent for Reuters, travelled to China, and was an ambulance driver in France during World War I.

At the time of his death in 1941, Banjo had produced several volumes of poetry, a book for children, two novels, many short stories, an anthology of bush songs, and dozens of newspaper articles.

David says there are different reasons why Banjo Paterson’s poems endure today – for example, they’ve been added to the school curriculum, and there is now a film version of The Man from Snowy River.

His profile and fragments of this poem also feature on Australia’s $10 note.