This debate was a famous dispute in The Bulletin magazine from 1892–93 between two of Australia’s most iconic writers and poets: Henry Lawson and Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson.
At the time, The Bulletin was a popular and influential publication, and often supported the typical national self-image held by many Australians, sometimes termed the “bush legend.” Many Australian writers and poets, such as “Banjo” Paterson, were based primarily in the city, and had a tendency to romanticise bush life.
On 9 July 1892, Lawson published a poem in The Bulletin titled “Borderland”, later renamed “Up The Country”. In this poem (beginning with the verse “I am back from up the country — very sorry that I went, —”), Lawson attacked the typical “romanticised” view of bush life.
On 23 July 1892, Paterson published his reply to Lawson’s poem, titled “In Defense of the Bush”. Whilst Lawson had accused writers such as Paterson of being “City Bushmen”, Paterson countered by claiming that Lawson’s view of the bushlife was full of doom and gloom. He appropriately finished his poem with the line “For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.” Other Australian writers also later contributed to the debate.
In 1939, Banjo Paterson recalled his thoughts about The Bulletin debate:
“Henry Lawson was a man of remarkable insight in some things and of extraordinary simplicity in others. We were both looking for the same reef, if you get what I mean; but I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me, while Lawson has done his prospecting on foot and had had to cook for himself. Nobody realised this better than Lawson; and one day he 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.”
There was never any clear “winner” to this debate. However, Paterson presented Australia with the desired image of its national identity, and his short story collections received spectacular sales. In 1993, Paterson replaced Lawson as the poet depicted on the Australian ten-dollar note.
It is somewhat curious that, despite their vastly differing perspectives on Australian bush life, both Lawson and Paterson are often mentioned alongside each other as Australia’s most iconic and influential writers.
Both authors experienced the bush in their youth but moved to Sydney while still young.
Lawson was the son of a struggling bushman with a small holding near Bathurst. After his parent’s marriage dissolved he moved to Sydney with his mother, Louisa, where due to his limited education he struggled to earn a living.
Paterson, the son of a wealthy pastoralist, was sent to Sydney Grammar School and subsequently qualified as a solicitor. The opposing class views of the authors is clear in their writing with Paterson idealising bush life and Lawson focusing on the difficult circumstances of ordinary working people.
Interestingly, it was only after this debate that Lawson packed his swag and spent 6 months working in shearing sheds around Bourke, probably the first time he had ever been west of Bathurst.
Henry Lawson was born on the New South Wales goldfields in 1867 and was a prolific writer of verse. He was primarily a writer and was known to suffer from alcoholism and mental illness, being treated in mental hospitals several times. He spent time in the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital in Concord West, where he wrote the poem “The Unknown Patient”. He also suffered several periods of imprisonment at Darlinghurst Gaol, due to drunkenness, wife desertion, child desertion and non-payment of child support. Such behaviour is today a little more recognised for what it is and many of the great poets suffered similar problems. Among them was Adam Lindsay Gordon to name just one of the Australians.
Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson: He was raised in the bush, though never quite succeeded in living the pastoral dream himself. He was the son of a Scottish immigrant father and an Australian born mother. In 1874 he was sent to Sydney Grammar School, left at aged 16 to become a law clerk and later a solicitor. Whilst still a law student he had his first poem “El Mahdi to the Australian Troops”, published in The Bulletin in February 1885, which criticized the British war in the Sudan.
Over the next decade, The Bulletin published his work under the pseudonym of “The Banjo”, this was the name of a Station racehorse owned by his family. The Bulletin publication of “The Man from Snowy River” and other ballads made “The Banjo” a household name and started a friendly rivalry with Henry Lawson about the allure of bush life. In 1903, he married Alice Emily Walker, of Tenterfield Station with whom he had two children Grace (born 1904) and Hugh (born 1906). (Note: Alice was the granddaughter of John William Walker, Thomas Walker’s uncle)
Paterson became a war correspondent during the Second Boer War in 1899 and his stirring accounts of battle attracted British attention. He went to China to report on the Boxer Rebellion and was editor of Sydney papers before abandoning journalism to return to the bush with his family to work a 16,000 hectare property near Yass in 1908.
In the First World War Paterson was an ambulance driver and then later commissioned to the 2nd Remount Unit, Australian Imperial Force serving in France and Egypt. He came home with the rank of Major and published his third collection, “Saltbush Bill J.P. and Other Verses” in 1917.
(Visit our museum at 1 Bent Street, Concord on Saturday, 1st February, at 2:00 pm, where Tim Hunter will speak about both of these poets and read some of their poems, as well as answer questions if, as he says, he knows the answers.)