Biography Charles Harpur

Charles Harpur

photo of Charles Harpur
  • Time Period1813 - 1868
  • Place
  • CountryAustralia

Poet Biography

Charles Harpur (1813–1868) is now recognised as the forefather of Australian poets. For nearly a century, his life and work remained largely inaccessible and underestimated. Recent scholarship has reassessed their intrinsic worth and increased his reputation. Modern critical opinion sees him as the most substantial of the colonial poets.

The National Library’s collection contains, on microfilm, 13 volumes of Harpur’s papers and literary manuscripts from 1836 to 1867. A copy of a rare volume of verse, A Poet’s Home (1862), survives, plus original proof sheets of the poem ‘A Storm in the Mountains’.

One of the first generation to be native-born, of emancipist parentage, Harpur believed in the virtuosity of the intellect over ingrained class prejudice. Henry Parkes paid him tribute, referring to Harpur, among others, as ‘my chief advisors in matters of intellectual resource and enquiry’ (Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, 1892).

Harpur was born at Windsor, New South Wales, on 23 January 1813. He discovered his calling in life as a boy, dreaming of becoming the ‘first high priest’ of muse, wandering through an arcadian playground of forests along the banks of the majestic Hawkesbury River. In later, less happy years, Charles wrote the nostalgic verse in ‘The Dream by the Fountain’ (1867):

His father, transported for complicity in a robbery in Ireland, was initially assigned to John Macarthur. He 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.

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 the city scene 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.

In 1859, John Robertson, then Minister for Lands, appointed Harpur at the age of 46 as a gold commissioner in the Araluen district and later transferred him to Nerrigunda near Eurobodalla, until the office was abolished in 1866. An original photograph of Harpur, taken at this time and dated 6 November 1859, is held in the collection.

Harpur tried in vain to have his position reinstated through letters to Henry Parkes, which are held in the Library. In 1867 ‘Euroma’, his south coast farm, was ruined by floods and his son Charles was killed in a shooting accident when only 13 years old. In the Library’s collection are also held Harpur’s personal letters to poet Henry Kendall written towards the end of his life. In one, Harpur grieves over the death of his son, disclosing to Henry a tombstone inscription. In another, he expresses vitriolic distaste for an editor, called Bennett, of a Sydney journal. Personal setbacks, combined with disappointment over a lack of recognition of his literary efforts, hastened his death by consumption on 9 June 1868, aged 55.

Over the course of his lifetime, the populace progressed from a struggling penal settlement of barely 30,000 in 1813 to an established colony of 1.5 million in 1868. By mid-century, a great mixture of settlers mingled in a new society made up of officials, exiles, upper classes, servile poor, emancipists brutalised by the system, adventurers, speculators and the lawless, all wanting to better themselves and dreaming of returning ‘home’.

This age was for action, exploration, practicality and material gain. It was not uncommon for the natural scenery of Australia to appear repulsive and strange to the eye of many newcomers. To the native-born or ‘currency lads’, this was the only home they knew. Those few with any intellectual or literary inclinations still observed the world through, and relied on, old country conventions to provide cultural inspiration and outlook. The colonial poet was derided and faced a difficult task to find an audience in the new country.

Political and social movements of the 1840s and 1850s gradually ushered in a new epoch for literature. The beginnings of an aesthetic reflecting the burgeoning life and public spirit of a new country appeared, replacing literature of the exile apparent in earlier times.

While not always succeeding in his craft, Harpur’s attempt to cast aside his inherited vision in itself represents a conspicuous contribution to the history of verse in Australia. He played a pivotal role preparing the groundwork to establish an authentic literature.

H.M. Green surmises that for ‘the first sixty years the colony’s poetic product was, except for Charles Harpur, almost negligible’ (Literary History of Australia, 1961). With little precedent to follow after 60 years of settlement, the Harpurian style conveyed an original, intense tone, enriched with a radiant vision for the new colony. He believed in the power of poetry to instruct the hearts and minds of fellow colonists on how to appreciate the Australian landscape.

Harpur saw poetry as one of the finer arts of man to symbolise our innermost moral being. ‘The World and the Soul’ (1847) is Harpur’s most acute effort to illustrate his philosophical beliefs. The poem considers the mystical unity of all life, creating evocative images of the spirit of man emerging from, and rejuvenated by, the ‘womb of nature’.

Enlightened contemporaries hoped the new society would breed equality and be free of old European injustices and class divisions. Peers spoke highly of Harpur. Henry Parkes hailed him as "Australia’s first-born to Urania’s lyre", as did the aesthete Daniel Deniehy when lecturing on Harpur’s poetry at Sydney College. G.B. Barton declared that ‘Harpur might justly claim the honour of having laid the foundation-stone of our national poetry’ (Poets and Prose Writers of NSW, 1866). Young Henry Kendall was a fervent admirer of Harpur. They had met in 1862 and continued corresponding until the end.

With little education, Harpur was largely self-taught and considerably well read. While he valued the heritage of English literature, he rejected inherited cultural imperialism, displaying candid disdain for prejudice and injustice. Conscious of American precedents, the republicanism and egalitarianism he prophesised was deep-rooted in his own struggle without money, education or privileged birth.

Taunting the collective moral consciousness, 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’s emphatic opinions were encountered 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.

Harpur was highly earnest, imaginative and compassionate but also wilful and impetuous. His temperament caused much chagrin 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.

With no stylistic exemplars to follow, he 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 lifelong adroit 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’.