Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson once had a poetry slam

Australian language is fascinating. I love town names based on Indigenous dialects, including Wagga Wagga (meaning place of many crows) and my personal favourite, Grong Grong (meaning very bad camping spot). I love strine, and sayings like ‘see you round like a rissole’ and ‘carrying on like a pork chop’. I love rolling ballads from the 1800s. Australian English is one unique and wonderful mixed-up jumble.

That’s why I was delighted to learn that two of our most venerable Aussie poets, Andrew “Banjo” Paterson and Henry Lawson, once had a battle of fountain pens and wit about the city versus the country.

The contenders

These two chaps were both A-grade celebs of their day. By all accounts Banjo was a wandering, bush-loving commitment-phobe who worked as a solicitor, war correspondent, journalist and poet. Fun fact: he broke off his eight-year engagement after a scandal involving his fiancee’s best friend, who was said to have co-written Waltzing Matilda with him. Banjo was born in Orange and later had a farm near Yass but lived for much of his life in Sydney. This might have been why he had such a rose-coloured view of the country and the characters who lived there.

Lawson was more of an Aussie battler. He was born in the goldfields of Grenfell and brought up by his badass feminist mother, author and publisher Louise Albury. Lawson struggled with partial deafness, had a lesser education than Paterson and worked as a labourer for much of his early life. He was also prone to depression and drunkenness and reportedly had a terrible temper. Lawson was more of a realist when it came to the country – perhaps because he’d actually spent a decent amount of time out there.

The battle

The epic four-month slam-down went down a little something like this. The fighting ring was the Bulletin: a Sydney magazine that had a fairly nationalistic stance where poets and authors would contribute works. Bout 1 began on 9 July 1892 when Lawson published a poem called Up the Country:

I am back from up the country — very sorry that I went —
Seeking for the Southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I’m glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country’s rather more inviting round the coast.
Anyway, I’ll stay at present at a boarding-house in town,
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.
`Sunny plains’! Great Scott! — those burning wastes of barren soil and sand
With their everlasting fences stretching out across the land!
Desolation where the crow is! Desert where the eagle flies,
Paddocks where the luny bullock starts and stares with reddened eyes;
Where, in clouds of dust enveloped, roasted bullock-drivers creep
Slowly past the sun-dried shepherd dragged behind his crawling sheep.
Stunted peak of granite gleaming, glaring like a molten mass
Turned from some infernal furnace on a plain devoid of grass.
Miles and miles of thirsty gutters– strings of muddy water-holes
In the place of `shining rivers’ — `walled by cliffs and forest boles.’
Barren ridges, gullies, ridges! where the ever-madd’ning flies —
Fiercer than the plagues of Egypt– swarm about your blighted eyes!
Bush! where there is no horizon! where the buried bushman sees
Nothing — Nothing! but the sameness of the ragged, stunted trees!
Lonely hut where drought’s eternal, suffocating atmosphere
Where the God-forgotten hatter dreams of city life and beer.

Treacherous tracks that trap the stranger, endless roads that gleam and glare,
Dark and evil-looking gullies, hiding secrets here and there!
Dull dumb flats and stony rises,where the toiling bullocks bake,
And the sinister`gohanna’, and the lizard, and the snake.
Land of day and night — no morning freshness, and no afternoon,
When the great white sun in rising bringeth summer heat in June.
Dismal country for the exile, when the shades begin to fall
From the sad heart-breaking sunset, to the new-chum worst of all.

Dreary land in rainy weather, with the endless clouds that drift
O’er the bushman like a blanket that the Lord will never lift —
Dismal land when it is raining — growl of floods, and, oh! the woosh
 Of the rain and wind together on the dark bed of the bush —
Ghastly fires in lonely humpies where the granite rocks are piled
In the rain-swept wildernesses that are wildest of the wild.
Land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men,
Till their husbands, gone a-droving, will return to them again:
Homes of men! if home had ever such a God-forgotten place,
Where the wild selector’s children fly before a stranger’s face.
Home of tragedy applauded by the dingoes’ dismal yell,
Heaven of the shanty-keeper — fitting fiend for such a hell —
And the wallaroos and wombats, and, of course, the curlew’s call —
And the lone sundowner tramping ever onward through it all!
I am back from up the country, up the country where I went
Seeking for the Southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have shattered many idols out along the dusty track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses — and I’m glad that I am back.
I believe the Southern poets’ dream will not be realised
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised.
I intend to stay at present, as I said before, in town
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.

Look, it’s a little wordier than the typical take-down tweet, but they were paid by the word, after all. Anyway, Paterson bounced back a couple of weeks later with In Defense of the Bush:

So you’re back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you’re cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn’t cool and shady — and there wasn’t plenty beer,
And the loony bullock snorted when you first came into view;
Well, you know it’s not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you’re better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.


Yet, perchance, if you should journey down the very track you went
In a month or two at furthest you would wonder what it meant,
Where the sunbaked earth was gasping like a creature in its pain
You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,
And the miles of thirsty gutters blocked with sand and choked with mud,
You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood;
For the rain and drought and sunshine make no changes in the street,
In the sullen line of buildings and the ceaseless tramp of feet;
But the bush hath moods and changes, as the seasons rise and fall,
And the men who know the bush-land — they are loyal through it all.


But you found the bush was dismal and a land of no delight,
Did you chance to hear a chorus in the shearers’ huts at night?
Did they “rise up, William Riley” by the camp-fire’s cheery blaze?
Did they rise him as we rose him in the good old droving days?
And the women of the homesteads and the men you chanced to meet –
Were their faces sour and saddened like the “faces in the street”,
And the “shy selector children” — were they better now or worse
Than the little city urchins who would greet you with a curse?
Is not such a life much better than the squalid street and square
Where the fallen women flaunt it in the fierce electric glare,
Where the sempstress plies her sewing till her eyes are sore and red
In a filthy, dirty attic toiling on for daily bread?
Did you hear no sweeter voices in the music of the bush
Than the roar of trams and ‘buses, and the war-whoop of “the push”?
Did the magpies rouse your slumbers with their carol sweet and strange?
Did you hear the silver chiming of the bell-birds on the range?
But, perchance, the wild birds’ music by your senses was despised,
For you say you’ll stay in townships till the bush is civilised.
Would you make it a tea-garden and on Sundays have a band
Where the “blokes” might take their “donahs”, with a “public” close at hand?
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,
For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.

I mean, damn. Banjo was a sassy dude.

The uninvited challenger

What’s this? We have a new contender in the ring, one Edward Dyson. To be honest he didn’t stand a fighting chance, but here’s an excerpt from The Fact of the Matter anyway:

I’m wonderin’ why those fellers who go buildin’ chipper ditties,
‘Bout the rosy times out drovin’, an’ the dust an’ death of cities,
Don’t sling the bloomin’ office, strike some drover for a billet
And soak up all the glory that comes handy while they fill it.

I’ve tickled beef in my time clear from Clarke to Riverina,
An’ shifted sheep all round the shop, but blow me if I’ve seen a
Single blanky hand who didn’t buck at pleasures of this kidney,
And wouldn’t trade his blisses for a flutter down in Sydney.

I feel like Dyson brought a feather to a fist fight, but OK. The next round saw Lawson slinging off again with The City Bushman (In Answer to Banjo, and Otherwise). Here’s my favourite bit:

In the bush my ears were opened to the singing of the bird,
But the “carol of the magpie” was a thing I never heard.
Once the beggar roused my slumbers in a shanty, it is true,
But I only heard him asking, “Who the blanky blank are you?

I imagine that was hilarious back in the day, and it’s still pretty funny now. Then some other dude awesomely called Herbert Humphrey Cripps Clark weighed in with The Overflow of Clancy; a parody of one of Banjo’s best known poems. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve read “The Banjo’s” letter, and I’m glad he’s found a better
Billet than he had upon the station where I met him years ago;
He was “slushy” then for Scotty, but the “bushland” sent him “dotty,”
So he “rose up, William Riley,” and departed down below.

Safe in town, he spins romances of the bush until one fancies
That it’s all top-boots and chorus, kegs of rum and “whips” of grass,
And the sheep off camp go stringing when the “boss-in-charge” is singing,
Whilst we “blow the cool tobacco-smoke and watch the white wreaths pass.”

Fun fact: some think that H.H.C.C was really Lawson in disguise, hence the ridiculous name. Francis Kenna was the next lightweight in the ring with Banjo, of the Overflow. Here’s a few stanzas:

 

To the vision land I can go, and I often think of the “Banjo” —
Of the boy I used to shepherd in the not so long ago,
He was not the bushman’s kidney, and among the crowd of Sydney
He’ll be more at home than mooning on the dreary Overflow.

He has clients now to fee him, and has friends to come and see him,
He can ride from morn to evening in the padded hansom cars,
And he sees the beauties blending where the throngs are never ending,
And at night the wond’rous women in the everlasting bars.

But I somehow often fancy that I’d rather not be Clancy,
That I’d like to be the “Banjo” where the people come and go
When instead of framing curses I’d be writing charming verses —
Tho’ I scarcely think he’d swap me, “Banjo, of the Overflow.”

In case you missed it, Kenna just called Banjo a total city softy. It also seems that ‘kidney’ was a popular word to rhyme with Sydney back in the day. It was time for a rebuttal from Banjo, and he delivered in spades with An Answer to Various Bards:

 

Well, I’ve waited mighty patient while they all came rolling in,
Mister Lawson, Mister Dyson, and the others of their kin,
With their dreadful, dismal stories of the Overlander’s camp,
How his fire is always smoky, and his boots are always damp;
And they paint it so terrific it would fill one’s soul with gloom-
But you know they’re fond of writing about “corpses” and “the tomb”.
So, before they curse the bushland, they should let their fancy range,
And take something for their livers, and be cheerful for a change.

Yeah guys, lighten up! Except at this point both poets seemed to run out of steam on the whole country vs. city thing, and Lawson turned that last dig into quite the dark ditty in his next poem, The Poets of the Tomb:

 

Now, if I were rotting underground, I do not think I’d care
If wombats rooted on the mound or if cows camped there;
And should I have some feelings left when I have gone before,
I think a ton of solid stone would hurt my feelings more.

Though Fortune laughs along my track, or wears her blackest frown,
I’ll try to do the world some good before I tumble down.
Let’s fight for things that ought to be, and try to make ’em boom;
We cannot help mankind when we are ashes in the tomb.

Obviously his reflective mood rubbed off on Banjo who replied with his final nostalgic poem in the Bulletin debate, called A Voice from the Town:

 

For I go to the balls and the races a lonely companionless elf,
And the ladies bestow all their graces on others less grey than myself;
While the talk goes around that I’m a dumb one ‘midst youngsters that chatter and prate,
And they call me ‘the Man who was Someone way back in the year Sixty-eight.

But a truce to this dull moralising, let them drink while the drops are of gold,
I have tasted the dregs – ’twere surprising were the new wine to me like the old;
And I weary for lack of employment in idleness day after day,
For the key to the door of enjoyment is Youth – and I’ve thrown it away.

Well that ended on a positive note.

So who won?

As it turns out, this was no hardcore competition at all – the whole thing was an arrangement between the two very different poets to bump up their word count. As Banjo Paterson later recalled:

One day [Lawson] suggested that we should write against each other, he putting the bush from his point of view, and I putting it from mine.

“We ought to do pretty well out of it,” he said. “We ought to be able to get in three or four sets of verses before they stop us.”

This suited me all right, for we were working on space, and the pay was very small … so we slam-banged away at each other for weeks and weeks; not until they stopped us, but until we ran out of material …

If you really want a definitive answer, Paterson replaced Lawson on the Australian $10 note in 1993, so I guess that’s as good an answer as any. Here’s to the weird and wonderful Australian language.