Trove Thursday – Charles Harpur – Currency Lad and Colonial Poet

Nerrigundah is usually associated with gold rushes, bushrangers and more recently farming  – not with poetry. Therefore it was extemely surprising to see a almost hidden memorial to Australia’s first ‘bush poet’ on the Eurobodalla road near Tyrone Bridge, the old wooden bridge crossing the Tuross River.

The memorial to charles Harpur, early Australian 'bush poet'.
The memorial to Charles Harpur, early Australian ‘bush poet’.

The memorial was built in the bicentenary year – 1988 – to commemorate Charles Harpur, (born Jan. 23, 1813, Windsor, N.S.W., Australia—died June 10, 1868, Windsor).

Charles Harpur is now acknowledged to be our most important colonial poet, but it was not always so. In his own lifetime, Harpur attracted both sincere praise and downright abuse. Among his friends he could number the future Colonial Secretary and Premier, Henry Parkes, the literary lions of Sydney, Nicol Stenhouse, and the gifted native youth, Daniel Deniehy; all of whom hailed him as a writer of genius.

Their encouragement, however, was more than counterbalanced by contemporary derision and incomprehension. The first survey of Australian writing, G. B. Barton’s Literature in New South Wales (1866), stated flatly that

‘the greater part of his compositions will never command much admiration’; and other writers have echoed Barton in finding Harpur’s verse unmusical, his diction awkward, and the high opinion he held of his own productions to be absurd.

Certainly some of the ridicule his poems received was because of both the political themes (Republicanism, anti-transportation, anti-capital punishment, indigenous rights); and of his love of the wild Australian landscapes rather than an idealised British landscapes that were so popular during that time.

The Currency Lad

Charles Harpur was a true ‘currency lad’  – a name given to the first generation of children born in the colony to distinguish them from the free settlers who were born in the British Isles. These people were known as ‘sterlings’. Both of Harpur’s parents had been transported; his father, Joseph Harpur, a native of Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, arrived in Sydney Cove in 1800. He was transported for complicity in a highway robbery in Ireland and was initially assigned to John Macarthur. Charles Harpur’s mother arrived in Australia from Somerset, in 1806. Joseph Harpur later became a reputable citizen, schoolmaster and parish clerk, enjoying the friendship of the Reverend Samuel Marsden. Young Charles, who may have had access to Marsden’s extensive library, became well versed in the classics and deeply influenced by Wordsworth and Shelley.

The patronage of Governor Lachlan MacquarieJohn MacarthurSamuel Marsden and theThomas Hassall family benefited Joseph Harpur materially and in social status, so that a prosperous home and its leisure, access to private libraries, and his father’s encouragement enabled Charles to acquire an education beyond what would otherwise have been his lot as a currency lad..

As a young man employed as a post office clerk in Sydney in 1834, Harpur contributed verse to the Empire, edited by Henry Parkes, whom he knew well. However, his generally abrasive personality led to a series of unsatisfactory employments. By the age of 29, he was tired of  city life and took up farming with his brother near Singleton in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. His first book, Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets, was published in 1845.   This background certainly inflenced his poetry – some of which is quite political in nature.

Harpur originally went to  Sydney to work as a postal clerk. In 1842 he went to live with his brother on a farm and published his first volume of verse, Thoughts; A Series of Sonnets (1845). By 1850 he was a schoolteacher, and in 1853, his second book, The Bush-Rangers: A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, appeared. Though the play is considered a failure, the poems are ranked among his best. In 1858 he was appointed gold commissioner at Araluen, a post he held for seven years. He then went to the same posting at Nerrigundah and settled on a property at Eurobodalla.

A collection of his work, Poems by Charles Harpur, was published by his widow in 1883.

Charles Harpur: The Bush Poet and Patriot

Harpur grew up and appreciated the rugged beauty of the Hawkesbury region rather than pine for the Irish and English vistas of his parents.

Charles Harpur’s upbring as a ‘currency lad’, the son of convicts, with a strong Irish heritage certainly had a highly significant effect on Harpur’s poetry and his obvious love of Australia . He grew up in the very early colony and knew no other landscapes. He had no reason for homesickness or sentimental attachment to Britain.

His real connection to Australia as his home is apparent to readers of his poetry even today.

Harpur’s writings may be divided into five groups:


  1. Juvenilia and early lyrical verse, among them ‘The Bird of Paradise’ and ‘Memory’s Genesis’, and the first drama by an Australian, ‘The Tragedy of Donohoe’;
  2. Lyrical verse rising from a surer foundation and including his best work, written between 1843 and the mid-1850s, such as ‘The Dream by the Fountain’, ‘Glen of the White Man’s Grave’, ‘Sonnets to Rosa’, ‘Creek of the Four Graves’, ‘A Poet’s Home’, ‘A Basket of Summer Fruit’, ‘Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest’;
  3. Political and satirical verse of the 1840s and 1850s, aimed at the politicians and the ‘squattocracy’, for example, `The Temple of Infamy’; fourth, prose writings of political and literary criticism, discussions of problems of the day, notes on the subjects of his verse—most of all this, written also in the 1840s and 1850s, remains unpublished; and
  4. The refurbishing of old work and attempts at more ambitious writings, such as ‘Tower of the Dream’ and ‘The Witch of Hebron’.
To read the full Dream by the Fountain click here.
To read A Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest click here

An Australian Star writer wrote an extensive article on Harpur’s poetry for a publication “Australian Poetry ” which is well worth reading. A small section of the article is featured below. While acknowledging Harpur’s limitations as a poet, Harpur’s ability to paint pictures of uniquely Australian landscapes with words is celebrated.

But his worthy praise is that he was first to perceive, first to catch the sentiment of the monotonous gloom of the forest, first to catch the spirit of the billowy glory of an Australian mountain side, first to depict both the humour and the pathos ofthe true-bred bushman’s life, and to give us the first poetic glimpse of Australian tragedy. There is one passage of this poem which for true and beautiful description has never teen surpassed. It is of the laughter of the wind and the sunshine of late afternoon over a great Australian mountain’s face

I do not know where to seek for another gem of Australian poetry which may be preferred to that. It is work of the soit that an artist who desires to paint a mountain face should grave on his soul.
Windsor and Richmond Gazette
Saturday 21 November 1896, page 5

To read the full, detailed article click here.

Another testament to his standing in Australian literature forms part of an article  “How To Encourage Australian Literature‘ :

The Second Period lies between” the years 1845-1862,”and marks the work of Charles Harpur, the first true Aus tralian poet, who was able to reflect theAustralian environment. Indeed, Serle, in his valuable anthology printed five years ago says, “Eventually Harpur’s’ position will be higher than Gordon’s on the roll of Australian poets.Few of us will agree with such an estimate; but it is well to be reminded that contemporary fame frequently shrinks when it becomes posthumous!

The Kadina and Wallaroo Times, South Australia
Wednesday 1 July 1931, page 1

To read the full article click here.

Charles Harpur: The Republican and Philosopher


Harpur wrote vigorously, contributing to political and social debate by sending satires, squibs and verse lampoons to newspapers. He supported Dr Lang’s Australia League, which aimed at freedom and independence for the colony. He helped frame John Robertson’s new land settlement proposals. He also preached on ‘The Nature and Offices of Poetry’ at the Sydney School of Arts at the invitation of its Chairman, and patron of the Arts, Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse.

Harpur was a man of strong opinions and these were expressed in lengthy passages accompanying topical verse. For example, he lambasted proposals to reintroduce transportation; he criticised severely Crown land settlement proposals, preventing the squattocracy class from gaining substantial ownership of land; he derided Wentworth’s Constitutional composition of self-government as a ‘bunyip aristocracy’; and wrote passionately about the petty bourgeois in ‘Virtueless Persons’ and ‘Political and Moral Conditions in Australia’. Powerful conservatives and merchants critically attacked his views.

Canberra Times_Page_3

A fervent republican, in 1835 he wrote his patriotic poem ‘To the Lyre of Australia’, and soon afterwards ‘This SouthernLand of Ours’. On a personal level he was an ardent supporter of Dr Dunmore Lang, and, with equal enthusiasm, attacked W. C. Wentworth, the former cham-pion of the people who now thought only of himself and his squattocracy.

The Canberra Times
Saturday 14 May 1977, page 13

He ( Harpur) fought long and hard against the threat of renewed transportation. Harpur wrote often and passionately about the major evils of his day, as he saw them — and they are often the problems of our own world too. Thus his feelings on racial cruelty came out in ‘An Aboriginal Mother’s Lament‘, about the lone survivor of a massacre by white men.

His poem ‘Capital Punishment’, recalling maybe the origins of Australia itself, is penetrating in its deceptive simplicity:

Harpur is one of our first republican writers.
Harpur is one of our first republican writers.

To string a man up for the
very worst crime
Is like smashing a watch for
not keeping good time.
It were very much wiser no
To make the wrong watch
keep the best time it could
By thoroughly cleaning it out.
(Is not this at once Reason
and Rhyme?)
While to use the bad man in
a work of some good
Would patent a moral sub-
The Canberra Times
14 May 1977, page 13

Harpur was highly earnest, imaginative and compassionate but also wilful and impetuous. His temperament caused many problems throughout his life, and he led an arduous and precarious existence excluded from public office. Towards the end, Harpur felt despair—resentful, neglected and forgotten. Unfortunately his principles and ideals were too lofty for ordinary folk.

To modern writers looking back, Harpur’s themes of social justice and equity still strike real chords. These themes are expressed differently today but share the same resonance.

Charles Harpur: His Legacy

With no stylistic exemplars to follow, Harpur had ventured alone, relying on instincts. The Harpurian legacy rests on opening colonial eyes to the vitality and beauty of nature, unlocking the mystery of this strange landscape. Generations of Australians have grown to cherish what is commonly called ‘the bush’.

Through his lifelong  contributions and dedication to his art, Charles Harpur consummated his poetic mission, attaining a symbolic place in Australian literary history. Today, the boy ‘musing of glory and grace by old Hawkesbury’s side’ is acknowledged—as he had hoped in childhood dreams 180 years ago—as the ‘First Muse of Australia’.

Standing before his grave is a moving experience. This man was born into a con vict colony of convict parents, who had been given a new start by Governor Macquarie’s enlightened policy.
He lived to see his beloved Australia opened up by exploration and transformed by the gold rushes.

In a harsh environment, his was the voice of a gentle bush poet. As the Herald remarked at his death, all his expression was’ marked with a brave and persistent hope, with courage and a capacity for endurance.
The Canberra Times
14 May 1977, page 13

To read the complete article from the Canberra Times click here.

Charles Harpur Remembered

Some of the more personal memories that we have of Charles Harpur come from the writings of one of his daughters Mary Araluen Harpur.

An article  CHARLES HARPUR – First Australian-born Poet: A Daughter’s Memories appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald  on 24 August, 1929.To read Araluen’s recount of the death of her brother Charlie click here.

Mary Araluen’s recount of her brother Charlies’ death by accidental shooting, and the profound effect that this death had on her father is retold in an article in the Canberra Times, 9 December, 1989.

As befits a poet of Harpur’s stature, he is also remembered in a number of poems. One well known poem is by the poet Henry Kendall.  Harpur’s last years were brightened by the devoted friendship of Kendall, a  poet from a younger generation. In Harpur’s verse Kendall believed he found the first authentic voice of a new land, and one which uttered ‘the whole truth … before the World in all its unclouded simplicity.‘ Unerringly and unselfishly Kendall recognised the older man’s poetic strengths, the striking originality of his achievement, and his future place as the founding figure of Australian verse.

The friendship between the tow poets has extra significance to the Moruya area as Kendall was a visitor to Kiora, one of the district’s original homesteads.

The first five stanzas of the poem are below.


Where Harpur lies, the rainy streams,
And wet hill-heads and hollows weeping,
Are swift with wind, and white with gleams,
And hoarse with sounds of storms unsleeping.

Fit grave it is for one whose song
Was tuned by tones he caught from torrents,
And filled with mountain-breaths, and strong
Wild notes of falling forest-currents.

So let him sleep ! the rugged hymns
And broken lights of woods above him !
And let me sing how Sorrow dims
The eyes of those that used to love him.

As April in the wilted wold
Turns faded eyes on splendours waning,
What time the latter leaves are old,
And ruin strikes the strays remaining.

So we that knew this singer dead,
Whose hands attuned the Harp Australian,
May set the face and bow the head,
And mourn his fate and fortunes alien

Henry Kendall

The Sydney Morning Herald
Tuesday 7 July 1868, page 5

To read the full poem click here.

Another poem featured in the Town and Country Journal of 19 August, 1882.

in memorium
In Memorium
Town and Country Journal
19 August, 1882

Finally this is an image of the graves of both Charles Harpur and his son Charlie. Both graves are on Harpur’s Hill, behind Nerrigundah.

Canberra Times
Canberra Times

3 responses to “Trove Thursday – Charles Harpur – Currency Lad and Colonial Poet”

  1. ken browning Avatar
    ken browning

    charles harpur was my great uncle and his love for things and indeed love itself is in my genetic footprint

    1. Leoni Neil Avatar
      Leoni Neil

      Hi Ken, Charles was my g.g.g uncle. Would love to compare notes if you are keen,

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