“The Man from Snowy River”, how poetry brings to life this historical period

The theme and prose of Banjo Paterson’s poem, ‘The Man from Snowy River’, does appear to have been influenced by a number of other poems from roughly around the same period. This is hardly surprising, though, as the obvious importance of the horse, and more crucially, horsemen and their exploits of speed and daring, across nearly all societies would naturally be reflected across the world’s various literary traditions. Understandably, the source for such inspiration would have been primarily from English-speaking cultures and so it is only natural that it would be literature from England and, more importantly, the United States, with its ‘cowboy poetry’ and shared frontier ethos, that would be especially significant in Australia.

So, for instance, there is Robert Browning’s poem “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” written in 1845, which recounts a tale of three horsemen on a midnight errand to relay some unspecified urgent news. Although these two poems are quite different, they do employ a fairly similar tempo and imagery, although Browning’s work follows a very frenetic pace from its first line and all the way while “The Man from Snowy River” instead more slowly builds up to its hectic crescendo. Where, for example, in Browning’s poem, the riders “were left galloping,” and beneath their “feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff”, the man from Snowy River “sent the flint stones flying” and “cleared the fallen timber in his stride” and “raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed”.

Similar imagery is apparent in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s 1870 poem, “From the Wreck”, which deals with an epic horse ride to Mount Gambier in order to get help. This poem again plays significantly with speed, such as the verse: “faster and faster across the wide heath We rode till we raced” and “galloping strong at the Warrigal Rocks”. The bush landscape and terrain is also an intrinsic character within Gordon’s verse, as in the grasses, the trees, the fences, etc, no less than the “giant hills”, “cliffs and crags that beetled overhead”, “wild hop scrub”, “wombat holes”, etc recounted by Paterson.

Related poetry of the Nineteenth Century United States also espoused similar themes and imagery. One such poem is “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Longfellow which likewise maintains a fast tempo, as conveyed in such language as “A hurry of hoofs in a village street,” and “Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet”. Courage is also evident in this, at least with respect to the horse, and in “A cry of defiance, and not of fear”, which, in “The Man from Snowy River”, is matched by the line that his “pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot”.The romanticism around the horseman only intensified in the United States, largely thanks to the prose that developed around such figures as the pony express rider and, of course, the cowboy.

The hold that the cult of the horseman on the public imagination was however not restricted to just literature and was also reflected in other public entertainments like rodeos and travelling shows. It was likewise not restricted to just the United States, but rather extended to Great Britian, Europe and Australia. In terms of Australia, one such show that really seemed to capture the public’s imagination was that of the tour of Harmston’s circus with ‘Texas Jack’, which occurred virtually immediately before the publication of “The Man from Snowy River”. The impact of Harmston’s circus, highlighted by the ‘Wild West’ performer Texas Jack, was such that Henry Lawson wrote about in his piece “A Word to Texas Jack”. The appeal of the show was not just that it involved impressive feats of horse-riding, but that it also included one opportunity per show for a member of the audience to match Texas Jack’s horse skills, thus encouraging a bit of cross-frontier rivalry, which was a real crowd pleaser.

Thus, the story of the Man from Snowy River probably reflected the influences of several long-standing cross-cultural literary traditions around the romance of both the horseman and frontier, as well as that of such widely popular entertainment extravaganzas like rodeos and frontier shows. In was in this context that this poem was published and so well-received

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