Mid 19-Century Poetry

Australian literature in the mid 19th century often possessed a particularly British quality. Colloquial Australian language had not yet become a popularised form of expression in poetry.  This elevated language is present in the works of Charles Harpur’s “A Mid-Summer Noon in the Australian Forest” (1851) and Henry Kendall’s “Bell-Birds” (1869). Despite their similarities, these poets bring life to the landscape in distinct contrast to one another.

Both Harpur and Kendall manipulate rhythm to express their unique experiences of Australian nature. However, we can observe a contrast between the two poets. Harpur creates tension through stillness, then contrasts this with the intensity and energy of the beetle he concentrates the 3rd stanza on. Kendall, however, creates energy through song-like rhyming, which is notably different to the soberly paced language of Harpur’s poetry.

The contrast between the rhythm and energy of these two poems feels pivotal in understanding the poet’s experiences, as each poem affirms its own value. Kendall escapes into the fantasy of the landscape as he plays with dewy movement and glamorous imagery. Harpur, on the other hand, personifies the landscape, and though flirting with a little fantasy he values a more primal connection to the natural world.

While Harpur and Kendall share similarities in language, they differentiate in their appreciation and value of the Australian landscape. It is my opinion, however, that while both poems were written by Australian poets about Australian landscapes, neither one evokes a distinctly Australian image. The use of elevated British language in mid 19th-century Australian poetry appears to have an impact on expression. Which leaves us to question; how do we define Australian storytelling?

“A view of the artist’s house and garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land.” John Glover. (1835)

John Glovers depiction of an Australian landscape that has been rendered with a quintessential British romanticism.


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