Born in Australia, Charles Harpur (1813-1866) was the first important Australian poet and wrote the first sonnet sequence ever published in Australia. In addition, The Bushrangers was the first play by a native-born Australian both to be performed and published in book form in Australia.
Called "one of the best" of Australia's early poets by Judith Wright in Authority and Influence: Australian Literary Criticism 1950-2000, Charles Harpur's work has been largely neglected by both Australian literary critics and those outside Australia. As Wright pointed out, most of his work exists only in manuscript form, in many different versions, and no reliable or comprehensive collection of his work has yet been published. However, Wright wrote, "Harpur's claim to be regarded as the first poets of his country is better founded than has yet been allowed, and … he is also a better poet than many of those who followed him."
Harpur was one of the first Australian poets whose work embodied one of the great contradictions of Australian literature: Australian writers of his time were largely of European descent, and strove to carry on the literary traditions of Europe. At the same time, however, they were so far from Europe, and lived in such a different environment, that they could not help but regard themselves as a culture altogether separate from Europe.
Son of Convicts
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Harpur was born in Australia. His parents were both convicts, sent to Australia by the British government, which attempted to dispose of many criminals by shipping them off to the new country. His father, originally from Ireland, was transported for highway robbery in 1800, and his mother had been transported in her early teens.
Although people from many other walks of life also emigrated to Australia, many of those from non-criminal backgrounds tried to distance themselves from Australia's origins as a criminal colony. These people embraced English and European culture, were usually politically conservative, and thought of themselves as superior to those who were born in Australia.
Harpur's father eventually received a conditional pardon and became integrated into respectable life. During Harpur's youth he was a schoolmaster at Windsor, a prosperous settlement west of Sydney. He gave Harpur a basic education, and Harpur continued to read on his own, borrowing books from private libraries, most likely those of local clergymen, and studying whatever poetry he could find in them, particularly that of English poets such as William Wordsworth. According to Judith Wright in The Literature of Australia, from these poets Harpur gained an appreciation for the landscape of Australia, as well as pride in his own power to educate himself. In writing about the Australian landscape, he was the first poet to find beauty and mystery where others saw only a hostile, arid, and distasteful place. In his powerful convictions about his own value as a poet, he was able to lay a foundation for future Australian poetry by combining techniques of the great English poets with Australian material.
Wright commented, "Charles Harpur seems to have chosen his calling early. His life from his youth onward was to be remarkable for the tenacity and dedication with which he clung to the almost impossible task of laying the foundation for an Australian poetry, under conditions that would have discouraged most writers."
From the age of seventeen on, Harpur made a rather impoverished living as a clerk and journalist and began publishing poetry and sketches in Sydney newspapers. His earliest long poem was probably "The Kangaroo Hunt," which was never published. In it, he described contemporary Australian life, as well as the great forests of his time. According to Wright, the poem is of historical interest, and generally well-executed, but "relies too much on contemporary poetic tricks like the use of capital-letter abstractions which seem oddly out of place in the poem's setting." Harpur, showing the great amount of thought he gave to his poetry even as a young man, wrote in the manuscript preface to it that he deliberately used irregular versification, thinking that the poem could better be varied and modeled on a musical movement.
Harpur alternated his town jobs with bouts of hard physical work and frugal living in the countryside, where he continued to write. Wright noted, "His ambition [as a poet] and a certain uncompromising pride made him frequently a target for criticism and jealousy, and he was easily wounded into retaliation." Beginning in 1833, he published work in almost all the newspapers that would print poetry, particularly those that stressed radical politics. Before he was twenty, he also wrote a play in blank verse. Titled The Tragedy of Donohoe, it was based on the life of a bandit as described in a popular song," The Wild Colonial Boy." Harpur occasionally wrote political poetry in which he urged that the harshness of English law and the injustices of the English class system not be allowed to gain a hold in Australia, but as Wright noted, his political verses "tended to sound rather ponderously idealistic." Most of his work, however, was more serious.
In the early 1840s, he moved near Singleton, 100 miles north of Sydney in the Hunter River valley. There he published many poems in the Maitland Mercury. While living in this area, at the age of thirty, he met Mary Ann Doyle, whom he called "Rosa" in his sonnets. Although he had previously had a few relationships, this one would become lasting; they would eventually marry.
In 1845 Harpur published Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets, the first sonnet sequence published in Australia. The volume contained only sixteen sonnets, but they provide an almost chronological commentary on his courtship of Doyle, its ups and downs, and their relationship. Doyle, unlike Harpur, came from a relatively wealthy family of settlers, and her family objected to her marrying the penniless son of convicts. Because of this, their courtship proceeded slowly, and Doyle did not accept his offer of marriage until they had known each other for seven years. According to Wright, the sonnets are "competent, pleasantly turned, and sometimes moving in their expression of his loneliness and frustration," but they are "not characteristic of Harpur at his best." She commented that longer poetic forms suited him better; in longer poems, his "occasional prolixity and awkwardness" are not as apparent.
Publication of The Bushrangers
In 1853, Harpur published The Bushrangers: A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems. This was his only substantial publication. The play was a retitled version of The Tragedy of Donohoe. It was the first to be both performed and published in book form by an Australian-born writer. The volume also contained forty poems, some of which gained Harpur a great deal of attention, some of which was favorable, and some of which was unfavorable. His best-known poem from this collection is "The Creek of the Four Graves," which emphasizes descriptions of the Australian landscape and reveals his inspiration by the work of William Wordsworth. Another notable poem from the collection is "To an Echo on the Banks of the Hunter," which harks back to Harpur's own childhood, and expresses the frustration he felt about his lack of achievement of his youthful ambitions. Wright commented that the poem "has a somber strength and unity that mark Harpur's thought at its most effective."
In "The Dream by the Fountain," Harpur showed his love for poetry, and addressed the Australian Muse, the inspiring force of his own country. All of his poems show certain recurring themes: Harpur's love of the Australian mountains and valleys, and the inspiration he gained from Wordsworth's assertion that through nature, people can connect with purity and spirituality. In addition, his poems are fueled by an undercurrent of radical thought. Wright asserts that although some critics may think this theme was inspired by the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harpur himself wrote that he did not read Shelley's work until 1842, by which time the theme was already evident in his writing. It came naturally from his own experience as the son of convicts; he had seen through his parents' experience, and his own, that some people are privileged and some are subject to poverty and oppression.
In 1862 Harpur published The Poet's Home, and in 1865 he published The Tower of the Dream. Harpur paid for these publications with his own money, or with gifts from friends. He tried to gather payments for a subscription volume of poems, but the plan fell through.
An Underestimated Poet
Because of his convict parentage, and because he was born in Australia at a time when the prevailing opinion was that nothing good could come of native Australians, Harpur's work was largely neglected by the literary establishment during his lifetime. At that time, Australians were occupied with settling a vast and difficult country, unlike any place they had ever seen. They valued hard work, action, and success, and had little time for poetry, art, and ideas. In fact, many successful people had nothing but scorn for poets and artists, saying they had gotten where they were without wasting time on any education. In this environment, naturally, Harpur found few readers in Australia. In addition, because he was identified as an Australian and was not formally educated, his work was also scorned in England.
After Harpur's death, his widow gathered many of his poems and arranged to have them published. She hired a man named H. M. Martin to edit them, but Martin apparently had little or no qualifications for the job. Wright wrote, "His chief aim in editing [was] apparently to remove any passages which might excite controversy, regardless of meaning or unity." This chopped-up collection, published in 1883, remains the only collection of Harpur's work, but because it has never been corrected or revised, provides what Wright called "a very misleading guide to Harpur's work and thought."
Because Harpur's work was distorted in this way, it is difficult for critics to assess the real impact of his poetry. However, his manuscripts have been preserved and remain in Mitchell Library in Sydney, so it is theoretically possible that some scholar might someday revise the collection of his poems more accurately. In addition, newspapers preserved from his lifetime, according to Wright, "make clear the real complexity and breadth of his interests and of his ambitions."
Wright commented that Harpur's depiction of Australia "is a much more faithful and detailed one than his critics have believed." She noted that early settlers, used to the softer landscape of Britain, found it "difficult both to love and to absorb," and that "only after generations of living in it has it finally become part of our [Australian] vision; and this has come about precisely through the efforts of earlier artists and writers such as Harpur, to grasp and render its qualities."
In The Oxford History of Australian Literature, Leonie Kramer wrote that Harpur's life "is moving for its examples of endurance, loyalty and integrity to his art and his convictions, and his poetry deserves to be much more widely known and more highly esteemed."
Goodwin, Ken, A History of Australian Literature, St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Jones, Joseph, Radical Cousins: Nineteenth-Century American and Australian Writers, University of Queensland Press, 1976.
Kramer, Leonie, editor, The Oxford History of Australian Literature, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Pierre, Peter, editor, Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Wright, Judith, "Australian Poetry to 1920," in The Literature of Australia, edited by Geoffrey Dutton, Penguin Books, 1964.
Wright, Judith, "Charles Harpur," in Authority and Influence: Australian Literary Criticism 1950-2000, edited by Delys Bird, Robert Dixon, and Christopher Lee, University of Queensland Press, 2001.