Themes of Poetry
The first writings to appear in English in Australia in the late eighteenth century were straightforward narrative or official accounts of colonial and convict life. Early writers based their verse and prose on their own experiences. Stories of vastness, convicts, bushrangers, colonists, the perils of exploration and experiences with the Aborigines were common themes. Poetry of this period tended to be influenced by the balladic tradition or the English Romantic movement.
The dominance of the Australian bush, with its vastness, harshness and mystery, has featured prominently in Australian literature since the first Europeans attempted to survive in what they saw as an alien environment. The feelings of space, timelessness and endurance that the land itself has fostered have been constant features of Australian literature in the prose and poetry of all periods.
Mostly poets, have idealised the landscape and often used European-style allusions in their work. Hugh McCrae, at the beginning of the twentieth century peopled the landscape with creatures - nymphs and satyrs - of classical origin. Henry Kendall perceived the bush in a gentler way, discovering 'channels of coolness' with 'dripping rocks and leafy pools'.
Because much of the population in the first 70 years of European settlement in Australia was either convict or of convict parentage, the penal system featured prominently in Australian literature from its early days. These works emphasise the brutality, horror and injustice of the transportation system and establish a tendency to depict the convicts more as unfortunate wretches rather than the hardened criminals which many of them were.
The myths and realities of the convict experience have appeared in official descriptions and reports, historical analyses of Australian society and numerous works of fiction. The brutality and corruption of the penal system and its horrific effects were detailed by authors who were able to observe it first-hand.
Another institution which featured in early writing and was often romanticised, was that of bushranging. The bushrangers were, in many cases, mythologised and depicted as representatives of freedom opposing the oppressive regime of the police and the colonial government.
Pioneering and life in the outback also continued to be popular subjects for literature and poetry. The emphasis is usually on the frustrations and loneliness of outback life but many writers also incorporate into their works the beauty of the countryside and the feeling of family or dynasty that pioneering settlers felt. Various elements of rural life can be seen in the verse of Henry Lawson and 'Banjo' Paterson.
In 1823, Australian-born William Charles Wentworth, one of the first Europeans to find a way over the Blue Mountains, won a Cambridge University prize for his ode, Australasia. In it he dealt with the Australian scenery in heroic terms, with great optimism for the country as a land of opportunity, "a new Britannia in another world", and he portrayed the Aborigines in noble terms as "lords of their domain", free and unshackled wanderers and "pure native sons of savage liberty". Authors were mainly overseas born and it was not until the 1840s that native-born writers began to emerge in any number.