Australia in the late 20th century, was an important period when intelligentsia were seeking to define its nation and its national identity. One powerful communicator was in the writings and articles published in popular newspapers, which offered differing ideas and approaches on this subject. In this essay I aim to analyse two documents in the form of ballads that were published in this period, and to describe how they played a part in constructing an image that could be used to define the nation and create a national identity; in their historical, social, economic and political context.
Firstly, I will give a brief summary on each document. ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, written by Banjo Patterson was an Australian ballad about a droving bushman and the imaginings of his rural lifestyle. It was first published in 1889 in the Bulletin; a newspaper that supported radical nationalist ideologies. The poem romanticizes country life and shuns life in the city. The second document was written in 1896 by Edward Dyson, and is entitled ‘In Town’. This poem was written in first person and expresses a morbid image of city life and his depressing experience of it.
Patterson and Dyson were more conservative, nationalistic and anti-imperialist in their visions of Australia and its national direction, so they objected to any ties of British ownership and governing. It is therefore not surprising (especially when both poems emerged at a similar time) that the images of Australia that each piece of work constructed were very similar. Both lead its readers to two opposing images within the nation- the bush and the city, giving an over idealized view of the country and making the latter seem utterly unlivable.
Both describe an Australian character or ‘legend’ in the poem, that is significant in personifying characteristics of their version of national identity. Through this use of the legend, Patterson constructed an identity of the quintessential Australian as being a white, independent, honest and masculine bushman. The Clancy character in this ballad is a classic example of the ‘bush legend’ which was invented with these attributes. It can be assumed the national image is masculine from the exclusion of female characters in the poem. Being an independent nomadic worker was also an image portrayed with his working lifestyle as a drover.
Clancy wasn’t at his address he was traveling Australia on his horse, ‘I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of the Overflow’ (Patterson in Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 75). Patterson made his life seem adventurous with an overtone of contentment; ‘For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know’ (Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 75), setting apart rural and city dwellers and giving some prestige to the working men of the country. The bush legend only seems to dwell in rural surrounds, so this also communicates to its readers that the ‘real’ Australia is in the bush, despite the fact that Australia was mostly urbanised by that time.
Similar to the bush legend, Dysons character constructs an image of the national identity to be strong, masculine, and white, but also a hard working family man (with mention of his children). With these attributes it could be said that this is a typical ‘pioneer legend’ character. He comes across as the strong and hard working yet selfless hero, insinuated by the line ‘I who hewed and built and burrowed, and who asked no man to give, when a strong arm was excuse enough for venturing to live’. Also throughout the text these implications also arise ‘(I) faltered at no work a man might do’ (Dyson in Readings AUS 11, 2009 p. 3). This legend created helps spur on the vivid imagination of city dwellers. The intent behind the construction of these legends has a few sides. Firstly, in an effort to gain a uniquely Australian identity away from British influence, it can be assumed that the authors were attempting to permeate Australian history with Australian heroes or, ‘Creat(ing) acceptable heroes that could give Australia a proud historical past’ (Study guide AUS 11 2009, p. 17) so that it could also be taught in schools and passed down through the generations.
Secondly, by creating a legend that Australians can successfully associate themselves with and perhaps champion themselves towards, allows the discriminative writer a powerful tool of persuasion. For example, both used evocative language in their descriptions to coax the reader into certain ideologies. The bush was glorified by making it sound like a place of purity and freedom. ‘And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars’ (Patterson in Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 5). Dyson illustrated the bush with words emphasizing its natural beauty; ‘the blossom golden fair, streams up the gladdened ranges’ (Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 73). This was in contrast to Pattersons description of the city as ‘dirty’, ‘uninviting’ ‘dusty’ with poor living conditions and the people in it ‘greedy’ ‘haunting’. Dyson used phrases for the city like ‘suffocating streets’, ‘sour and smoky suburb’, ‘maddening repetition’, and the inhabitants a ‘melancholy crowd’ with ‘famine haunted eyes’(Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 73).
The image that is constructed here is that the cities of Australia are claustrophobic, chaotic, depressing with very poor living conditions and unfriendly people. This is perhaps created to sway readers to join with them in their protest against the modernization that was changing the city at the time, focusing on the negative consequences of the modernizing process that was a direct influence of British governing. It would then be obvious that the writers over idealise the country, a place less constrained by the negative effects of British authority.
It can be said that economic and political fears lead the authors to depict Australia as a white nation. By then the British economy had fallen into depression and as a result, Australia also fell into an economic depression in 1890. Dysons poem spoke about the morbid state of the city with his referrals to unemployment, decay and overpopulation. Intelligentsia from this period who were more radically nationalist in outlook evoked a fear of ‘Asian Invasion’ as the Asian population was growing particularly in the cities after the influx of Asians fled to Australia for gold digging in the mid 19th century.
Aussie workers saw British developments as a threat, they were scared their jobs would be replaced by ‘cheap coloured labour’, which would also mean a ‘phasing out’ of the white Australian population. It can be assumed Patterson was referring to these immigrants in his ballad; ‘with their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy, for townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste’ (Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 75). Dyson appealed in a racist way to the white parents when he talks of his own family who are disadvantaged from residing in the city ‘The iddies of the settlers on the creek are red and sweet, whilst my youngsters have the sallowness and savour of the street’. He makes the city out to be almost like hell on earth ‘haunted by a melancholy crowd(s)’ and through living there has become impure; ‘with their stinks my soul is tainted’, finishing with- ‘meanwhile may all the angels up in Paradise look down, on a man of sin who died not, but was damned and sent to town’ (Dyson in Readings AUS 11 2009 p. 73).
This sends images out to its readers that the very nature of the city, or perhaps the immigrants, is blasphemous. Therefore this creates the typical Australian identity to also be white and racist, who stands against ‘coloured’ immigrants taking their jobs in order to preserve the ‘real’ Australia and protect the ‘real’ Australian. In Conclusion, from an analysis of the two documents it can be said that they both used persuasive language and the use of ‘legends’ to construct a national identity of Australians as being predominantly strong, white, hard working and masculine.
Patterson and Dysons aim was a white, independent nation free from imperial influence and the change it had incurred. Their own ideologies on the contributing social, political, economic and historical factors lead them to construct the national identity in that way. BIBLIOGRAPHY * Study Guide AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia 1A’, School of Arts, Griffith University, Brisbane. * Readings AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia 1A, School of Arts, Griffith University, Brisbane.