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Henry Lawson's "Ballad of the Drover" and Banjo Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow"

While cowboy poetry is a genuinely American genre, cowboys worldwide share the same traditions & values of living close to nature & to God.

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.

Reading of "Ballad of the Drover"

Musical Version of "Ballad of the Drover"

Commentary on Henry Lawson's "Ballad of the Drover"

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.

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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: "The thunder, pealing o'er him"

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.

"Cowboys"

Banjo Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow"

A city-dweller, painting a picture of dirt, noise, and hustling about in the city, imagines what his life would be like if he could trade places with a drover (cowboy) in the outback, where life would be grounded in nature with many pleasurable sights and sounds.

Banjo Patterson

Banjo Patterson

Introduction and Text of Banjo Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow"

The speaker in A. B. "Banjo" Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow" is a city-dweller, who thinks he would like to change his life and become a cowboy (drover) in the outback. The speaker was prompted to dramatize and romanticize that life after he met a chap named Clancy.

The poem features eight ballad-form quatrains, each with the basic end-rime scheme, ABCB. The second and third lines of each quatrain feature an internal rime, in addition to the end-rimes. The following uses the first stanza to exemplify the internal and end-rime schemes:

A . . . A letter . . . better
. . . . . B . . . . . . . . ago
C . . . C knew him . . . to him
. . . . . B . . . . . . . . overflow

The lines are long with a jaunty rhythm, making the poem ripe for turning into a song.

Clancy of the Overflow

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just "on spec", addressed as follows: "Clancy, of The Overflow".

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
"Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are."

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving "down the Cooper" where the western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".

Reading of Banjo Paterson’s "Clancy of the Overflow"

Commentary on Banjo Paterson's "Clancy of the Overflow"

People who reside in large cities from time to time muse on the idea of being or becoming a country dweller. Country folk do the same, but it seems less often than the city-dweller, who likes to romanticize the life of their rustic fellows.

First Stanza: A Letter to Clancy

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just "on spec", addressed as follows: "Clancy, of The Overflow".

The first quatrain remains very simple, offering a mere tease regarding the drama that will be unfolding. The speaker reports that he wrote a letter to Clancy with simple address, "Clancy, of the Overflow." The speaker had met Clancy while the latter was shearing sheep.

Second Stanza: Receives a Response

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
"Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are."

The speaker receives a response to his letter that revealed no one knew where Clancy was at present, although he had gone to Queensland droving. The speaker adds the colorful detail that the letter appeared to have been "written with thumb-nail dipped in tar."

Third Stanza: Wild Imaginings

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving "down the Cooper" where the western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

The speaker then begins his wild erratic fancy, envisioning Clancy driving his herd singing and enjoying kind of peaceful "pleasures" that city-dwellers, such as the speaker himself, never experience. The speaker is now off to musing on those supposed pleasures of living a rustic life.

Fourth Stanza: Natural Beauties

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

The speaker imagines Clancy with his friends who greet him with their kindly voices. He hears the murmur of the breezes. He sees a beautiful river and observes the splendor of the sunlit plain extending for miles. And, of course, Clancy enjoys seeing "the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars." All of these natural beauties elude the city-dweller.

Fifth Stanza: Bemoaning City Life

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.

The city-dwelling speaker then plainly bemoans his own lot as he sits in his dingy little office where only a sliver of sunlight is able to penetrate. The air is polluted and floats into the office through the window, "spread[ing] its foulness over all."

Sixth Stanza: Enduring City Noise

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

Instead of Clancy's pleasant sounds of lowing cattle, the poor speaker's ears are accosted by the metallic, screeching noise of "tramways and the buses." He also must endure hearing the foul language of children fighting in the streets.

And there is "the ceaseless tramp of feet." Hearing so many people rushing hither and yon also annoys the speaker as he continues to endure city life.

Seventh Stanza: Stuffed in a Small Place

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

So many people hurrying here and there, their "pallid faces haunt" the speaker. They seem to be stuffed into the small space of the city as they shoulder one another in the rush and nervous haste.

He decries that the fact that city dwellers in their hurry to get to work have not time for other endeavors. The speaker feels that such a rushing madness stunts the growth of the people who have no time for leisure; to them leisure would be considered a waste of time.

Eighth Stanza: The Grass Is Always Greener

And I somehow fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal -
But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of "The Overflow".

Finally, the speaker admits that he prefers to believe that he would like to change places with Clancy. The speaker would like to be out there herding those animals in the outback "where the seasons come and go."

He would like to let Clancy do his "cashbook" work, but he figures that job would probably not be well suited to the outback cowboy.

Harry Redford Cattle Drive in Queensland

Harry Redford Cattle Drive in Queensland

Toward an Australian National 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 or their opposition political party.

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 (drover) to die on his way back home.

Banjo Paterson’s "Clancy of the Overflow" has gained audiences worldwide. The theme of city vs country or urban vs bush life is as old as time. Humanity as it crowds into cities find advantages and disadvantaged to both lifestyles, the subject of better lifestyles continues to attract attention.

Both Henry Lawson and A. B. "Banjo" Paterson have created art that gives a flavor of their Australian location but still manages to focus on the heart of the issues they chose to address. They have left partisan bickering about victimhood behind and thus have created poems that the whole world can treasure.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the message of the poem "The Ballad of the Drover"?

Answer: Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover" tells a story about a young drover who dies in a flood as he is on his way home from his difficult work.

Question: What is the refrain of Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover"?

Answer: 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.

Question: How has this poem enriched and/or challenged our understanding of the voices and experiences which create an Australian identity?

Answer: 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 return 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 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 (drover) to die on his way back home.

Question: What kind of poem is Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover"?

Answer: Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover" is a narrative poem, specifically a ballad.

Question: What are "dumb tidings"?

Answer: "Dumb tidings" are the speechless items that will make it home carried by the packhorse from the drover's fateful journey.

Question: Why did Henry Lawson write this poem? Did he hear about it and decided to warn drovers?

Answer: Henry Lawson wrote "Ballad of the Drover" because he liked the ballad form and was interested in story-telling. It is not likely that he thought about warning drovers of anything. If he had wanted to warn drovers, he would have become an activist, not a poet/balladeer.

Question: Why is "hobble-chains" repeated in Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover"?

Answer: Anytime a word or phrase is repeated in a poem, the reader understands that the repetition is for emphasis.

Question: What are the different literary techniques used in this poem?

Answer: The poem is a ballad form employing the rime scheme for each stanza, ABCBDEFE. For the most part the poem remains fairly literal using only many different images to play out its meaning.

Question: Who survives the flooded river crossing in Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover"?

Answer: In Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover," only the packhorse makes it through the storm alive.

Question: What is the theme of Henry Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover??

Answer: The theme of Lawson's "The Ballad of the Drover" is the tragic demise of a young cowboy on his holiday journey home from his arduous work.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 16, 2015:

Thanks, John! One of my faves.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 16, 2015:

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.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 16, 2015:

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

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 16, 2015:

"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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