Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover"

Updated on May 31, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Cattle Drive

Source

Introduction and Text of "Ballad of the Drover"

Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover" narrates a melancholy story of a young cowboy/drover who succumbs in a flood as he is journeying to his beloved home from his difficult work.

Ballad of the Drover

Across the stony ridges,
Across the rolling plain,
Young Harry Dale, the drover,
Comes riding home again.
And well his stock-horse bears him,
And light of heart is he,
And stoutly his old packhorse
Is trotting by his knee.

Up Queensland way with cattle
He's traveled regions vast,
And many months have vanished
Since home-folks saw him last.
He hums a song of someone
He hopes to marry soon;
And hobble-chains and camp-ware
Keep jingling to the tune.

Beyond the hazy dado
Against the lower skies
And yon blue line of ranges
The station homestead lies.
And thitherward the drover
Jogs through the lazy noon,
While hobble-chains and camp-ware
Are jingling to a tune.

An hour has filled the heavens
With storm-clouds inky black;
At times the lightning trickles
Around the drover's track;
But Harry pushes onward,
His horses' strength he tries,
In hope to reach the river
Before the flood shall rise.

The thunder, pealing o'er him,
Goes rumbling down the plain;
And sweet on thirsty pastures
Beats fast the splashing rain;
Then every creek and gully
Sends forth its tribute flood
The river runs a banker,
All stained with yellow mud.

Now Harry speaks to Rover,
The best dog on the plains,
And to his hardy horses,
And strokes their shaggy manes:
"We've breasted bigger rivers
When Hoods were at their height,
Nor shall this gutter stop us
From getting home tonight!"

The thunder growls a warning,
The blue, forked lightning's gleam;
The drover turns his horses
To swim the fatal stream.
But, oh! the flood runs stronger
Than e'er it ran before;
The saddle-horse is failing,
And only half-way o'er!

When flashes next the lightning
The flood's grey breast is blank;
A cattle-dog and packhorse
Are struggling up the bank.
But in the lonely homestead
The girl shall wait in vain
He'll never pass the stations
In charge of stock again.

The faithful dog a moment
Lies panting on the bank,
Then plunges through the current
To where his master sank.
And round and round in circles
He fights with failing strength,
Till, gripped by wilder waters,
He fails and sinks at length.

Across the flooded lowlands
And slopes of sodden loam
The packhorse struggles bravely
To take dumb tidings home;
And mud-stained, wet, and weary,
He goes by rock and tree,
With clanging chains and tinware
All sounding eerily.

Musical Version of "Ballad of the Drover"

Commentary

The sound of camp gear clanging as the horses thunder along becomes a melancholy image that pulls together this ballad as it sadly concludes in heartache.

Stanzas 1-2: Journeying Home

Across the stony ridges,
Across the rolling plain,
Young Harry Dale, the drover,
Comes riding home again.
And well his stock-horse bears him,
And light of heart is he,
And stoutly his old packhorse
Is trotting by his knee.

Up Queensland way with cattle
He's traveled regions vast,
And many months have vanished
Since home-folks saw him last.
He hums a song of someone
He hopes to marry soon;
And hobble-chains and camp-ware
Keep jingling to the tune.

The narrator describes the young drover, Harry Dale, as light of heart because he is on his journey to his home. Accompanying Harry are his dog, Rover, his stock-horse, on which he rides, and his packhorse that "[i]s trotting by his knee."

Harry has been gone many months and has not seen his family for those many months. He has been driving cattle "[u]p Queensland way," and has travelled regions vast. As he rides, Harry muses on his fiancee and hums a song, indicating his happiness in anticipation of seeing her again. The narrator ends the second movement with what becomes something of a limited refrain: "And hobble-chains and camp-ware / Keep jingling to the tune." And indeed this line is repeated, but only in two other movements.

Stanzas 3-4: Riding at Noon

Beyond the hazy dado
Against the lower skies
And yon blue line of ranges
The station homestead lies.
And thitherward the drover
Jogs through the lazy noon,
While hobble-chains and camp-ware
Are jingling to a tune.

An hour has filled the heavens
With storm-clouds inky black;
At times the lightning trickles
Around the drover's track;
But Harry pushes onward,
His horses' strength he tries,
In hope to reach the river
Before the flood shall rise.

The rider continues toward his station homestead which lies just beyond a blue line of ranges. He rides now around noon time, and the narrator describes the view off in the distant as hazy and the noon as lazy. Again the narrator repeats his near refrain, "While hobble-chains and camp-ware / Are jingling to a tune." This line foreshadows the dark conclusion of his ballad. The weather turns threatening within an hour. Dark storm clouds filled the heavens. Lightning threatened the little party as they journey on. The drover believes he can "reach the river / Before the flood shall rise."

Stanzas 5-6: A Fast Rain

The thunder, pealing o'er him,
Goes rumbling down the plain;
And sweet on thirsty pastures
Beats fast the splashing rain;
Then every creek and gully
Sends forth its tribute flood
The river runs a banker,
All stained with yellow mud.

Now Harry speaks to Rover,
The best dog on the plains,
And to his hardy horses,
And strokes their shaggy manes:
"We've breasted bigger rivers
When Hoods were at their height,
Nor shall this gutter stop us
From getting home tonight!"

The storm quickly turns deadly with thunder pealing "o'er him," as it waters the "thirsty pastures." But the rain is coming very fast, the creeks begin to rise, and "the river runs a banker / All stained with yellow mud." Harry addresses his dog, Rover, and his hardy horses, telling them confidently that they have weathered bigger storms than these. Nothing will stop them from getting home tonight!

Stanzas 7-8: Thunder and Lightning

The thunder growls a warning,
The blue, forked lightning's gleam;
The drover turns his horses
To swim the fatal stream.
But, oh! the flood runs stronger
Than e'er it ran before;
The saddle-horse is failing,
And only half-way o'er!

When flashes next the lightning
The flood's grey breast is blank;
A cattle-dog and packhorse
Are struggling up the bank.
But in the lonely homestead
The girl shall wait in vain
He'll never pass the stations
In charge of stock again.

With the thunder clapping all around and the lightning threatening the little party, they enter the river, but this flood is stronger than any they had thus far experienced, and they begin to sink before half way across the river. By the time the lightning bursts again, Rover and the packhorse are struggling to get out of the river, and poor Harry has drowned, along with his stock-horse.

Stanzas 9-10: A Faithful Dog

The faithful dog a moment
Lies panting on the bank,
Then plunges through the current
To where his master sank.
And round and round in circles
He fights with failing strength,
Till, gripped by wilder waters,
He fails and sinks at length.

Across the flooded lowlands
And slopes of sodden loam
The packhorse struggles bravely
To take dumb tidings home;
And mud-stained, wet, and weary,
He goes by rock and tree,
With clanging chains and tinware
All sounding eerily.

Rover, being a faithful dog, returns to the middle of river to try to save Harry, but the strength of the water is just too much for the poor dog; he becomes the rivers third victim.

Only the packhorse makes it through the storm alive, and the narrator leaves his listeners with a melancholy image of the poor horse as he "take[s] dumb tidings home." Harry's poor family will be greeted by "a mud-stained, wet, and weary packhorse, and clanging chains and tinware / All sounding eerily." The refrain of the clanging utensils concludes the tragic tale.

What Is the Australian Identity?

The notion that a nation can have an identity is absurd, and the question of such an identity likely arises from the current emphasis on identity politics/political correctness, which has pushed aside genuine literary studies. Instead of focusing on a literary work’s development, its engagement with humanity in its quest for truth, beauty, and love, or its returning to the human heart/mind its experiences, the identity crazed bowdlerizers seek to demonstrate which identity group is being oppressed, exploited, or marginalized by the patriarchy.

A literary work’s first job is to enlighten the reader by its delicate use of literary devices in order to create a parallel world from the material of the real world. It seeks to share genuine experiences heartfelt by the creative writer in order to connect humanity, not divide it. The sad, wide-spread intrusion of identity studies has diminished literary studies, making it no more than a pit of anguish wherein victims decry their lot as they search for ways to torment their supposed tormenters.

Looking for an Australian identity, the searchers often land upon the notion of diversity of “the bush” vs “urban life.” Notice how unoriginal such divisions are! That same old dichotomy has existed ever since the first city was formed. The British Romantics chose to glorify bucolic life, which would correlate with “the bush life” in Australia. So much for an Australian identity.

Regarding Henry Lawson’s take on “the bush life,” opposing the notion of romanticizing such as life, Lawson allows his speaker in "Ballad of the Drover" to demonstrate how that life can be quite treacherous, as he allows his cowboy (drove) to die on his way back home.

Modern Interest in Cowboys

"Cowboys" are the staple in stories involving the "Old West" in the United States. Everyone knows that "cowboys have something to do with "cows." And "cowgirls" condescendingly have something to with "cowboys.' But is there really a demographic today known a "cowboys"? What would a google search turn up?

"Cowboys"

What does a cowboy do?

See results

Questions & Answers

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks, John! One of my faves.

  • Jodah profile image

    John Hansen 

    4 years ago from Queensland Australia

    Along with A.B. Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson is one of my favourite Australian writers. "Ballad of the Drover" is one of his best poems though very sad. Your commentary and breakdown of the poem is very good. Thank you for sharing this Maya.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 years ago from U.S.A.

    Love your angels, Pat. Welcome them with open heart and mind and soul. Praying for you a lovely day. Blessings!

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 

    4 years ago from North Central Florida

    "The refrain of the clanging utensils concludes the tragic tale."

    no doubt far too many tales of settling unsettled areas came to such an end.

    Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

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