Craig Isherwood‚ National Secretary
PO Box 376‚ COBURG‚ VIC 3058
Phone: 1800 636 432
With clowns to make our laws, and knaves
To rule us as of old,
In vain our soil is rich, in vain
‘Tis seamed with virgin gold!
But the present only yields us nought,
The future only lours,
Till we have a braver Manhood
In this Southern Land of Ours.
From This Southern Land of Ours, by Charles Harpur (23 January 1813 - 10 June 1868)
Charles Harpur, Australia’s first national poet, but also philosopher, patriot, political activist and prophet, was born the second son of convict parents 200 years ago today on 23 January 2013 at Windsor on the Hawkesbury River.
Despite no mention of his bicentennial birthday on that supposed font of all knowledge, the internet, Harpur’s extraordinary and substantial collection of poetry, prose and philosophical writings are as pertinent and perhaps even more compelling today than they were when first published in the literary journals of the 19th century.
Given the proximity of his 200th birthday to the celebration of Australia Day, and that most Australians have no knowledge of this amazing forefather who felt called to be “the Bard of thy Country”, the CEC today pays tribute to Harpur’s life and legacy by introducing him to you, his fellow Australians.
In the mid-1800s Harpur and his poetry were synonymous with Australia coming of age and demanding its freedom and independence from the British Empire. In July 1826, the British sycophants at The Monitor newspaper in Sydney had written: “The people of New South Wales are a poor grovelling race… the scourge and the fetters and the dungeon and the Australian inquisition have reduced them to a level with the negro—they are no longer Britons, but Australians!” And a week later it reiterated that “they have lost their English spirit and have degenerated into Australians.”
Harpur was proud to be one such “degenerate Australian”, who like Robert Burns and other poets he greatly admired, including Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats and Poe, rejected the system of Empire and government of, for and by the oligarchs, in favour of the Republican ideal, that the common man had the potential to participate in his nation’s destiny, that he was the equal of the so-called upper classes and indeed that he was individually responsible for the future course of the nation.
Harpur also shared the vision of “freedom and independence for the golden lands of Australia” of the staunch republican Rev. Dr. John Dunmore Lang, saying of himself: “I am not only a democratic Republican in theory, but by every feeling of my nature. Its first principles lie rudimentally in the moral elements of my being, ready to flower forth and bear their proper fruit. Hence, as I hold myself, on the ground of God’s humanity, to be politically superior to no fellow being, so, on the same ground, I can feel myself inferior to none…”
Harpur maintained in fact that “the prime object of Society is, or should be, the perfection of Man” and all his important writings from early youth on, attempted, in one form or other, to nurture his fellow citizens’ “thinking power” as exemplified in the following stanza from his poem, Finality: “Why pile we stone on stone, to raise Jail, Fane, or Public Hall;—why plan Fortress or Tower for future days; Yet leave unbuilt, to wrong or guilt, The nobler pile—the Mind of Man.”
It worried Harpur deeply that “people are actually in danger of dying in their nobler part of sheer forgetfulness and want of mental stimuli” and he elaborated what he believed should be the aims and responsibilities of the true poet: “Her true vocation is at once to quicken, exalt and purify our nobler and more exquisite passions; and by informing the imagination with wisdom—suggesting beauty, both to enlarge and recompense our capacities of pathetic feeling and intellectual enjoyment, and further, in national and social regards, to illustrate whatever is virtuous in design, and glorify all that is noble in action; taking occasion also, at the same time, to pour the lightning of indignation upon everything that is mean and cowardly in the people, or tyrannical and corrupt in their rulers.”
Few Australian writers and poets of Harpur’s time, or since, could claim to have risen to his ideal. However, despite much disappointment in this regard, Harpur never relinquished his hope that one day, his vision of having a “nobler Manhood in this Southern Land of ours”, would be realised. He wrote: "At this moment I am a wanderer and a vagabond upon the face of my native Land—after having written upon its evergreen beauty strains of feeling and imagination which, I believe, ‘men will not willingly let die.’ But my countrymen, and the world, will yet know me better. I doubt not, indeed, but that I shall yet be held in honour both by them and by it.”
All Australians owe it to themselves as citizens, and to the memory of this great poet, to grant Harpur’s long-awaited hope by reading a selection of his truly beautiful and profound poetry on this day.
Click here to read more on the life and work of Charles Harpur.
Click here for a selection of Charles Harpur’s poems.
To read more about Charles Harpur and the republican impulse in Australian history, click here for a free copy of the CEC’s pamphlet, From the First Fleet to the Year 2000: The Fight for an Australian Republic.
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