The Australian Pastoral

The pastoral is a literary genre with several defining features, including bucolic depictions of shepherds, the idea of a ‘Golden Age’,  the notion of a simple life in nature, and an implicit criticism of city life, among others. It is generally acknowledged that there is no single definition of what a pastoral is[1], though Paul Alpers has argued that it is best articulated when the ‘representative anecdote’ that defines it is the narrative of herdsmen and their lives (as opposed to the landscape, or an idealised vision of nature). [2]

Given this, I actually think it is a useful genre to apply to Australian bush poetry, such as that perpetrated by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. If you replace the herdsman with a stockman, you pretty much have it! The disdain for city life over the ‘honesty’ of the bush, the nobility of the simple life of the stockman, and the vision of some sort of mytho-historical Golden Age in Australia’s past are all features of these bush ballads.

We have already looked at this issue from a different angle, in the post about Clancy of the Overflow, and whether or not he was a real person. By positioning that poem (and others like it) in the pastoral vein I am basically declaring that the whole world of the outback bush poem exists not in the realm of history, but of myth.

Virgil’s Eclogues are widely regarded as early examples of the pastoralist mode. In Eclogue I, we open with two shepherds conversing; one is lamenting the fact that he has been exiled from his homeland. Ivor Indyk has brought this two-thousand-year-old Latin poem into a contemporary context by drawing a comparison between the exiled shepherd and the fate of Australia’s dispossessed first people, arguing that: ‘Australian pastoral is haunted by a similar sense of violation, caused by an upheaval of no lesser magnitude – that of the displacement of an indigenous population by the settlers of a colonizing power.’ [3]

Now this is interesting, because I have come across a couple of authors recently who claim that the hyper-masculinity of the bushman’s code is symptomatic of a denial of the truth of Aboriginal dispossession.[4] Nanette Mantle argues that it is ‘one of the functions of myth … to survive and surmount unpalatable realities’[5]. In the pervasive myth of the Australian stockman, we could read the horse as a symbol of the transplanted British colonisers themselves.

Karen Welberry has postulated that in Australian literature the horse, and particularly the brumby, is central to mediating anxieties of belonging. She cites the example of Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, where the ‘silver horses signally became more ‘native’/suited to life in the high country than legitimately native animals and/or indigenous trackers employed to hunt them down.’ [6]

I wonder if this is why the image of the stockman, despite the fact that at one time there must have been a considerable number of Aboriginal stockmen, is pervasively white? The horse as a symbol of Britain’s domination of Aboriginal land would certainly explain why the horse seems so central to a particular ‘type’ of (white, Anglo) Australiana. In addition to this figurative function, the horse also played a very literal role in dispossessing Aboriginal people of their land, through the physical advantage it gave to colonists and early settlers.

For this reason, the Australian pastoral has an uneasy afterlife, with an echo felt every time we claim a unique relationship to the horse as Australians.



[1] Alpers, Paul J. What Is Pastoral?. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 8.

[2] ibid, p.22; p.26; p.28 

[3] Indyk, Ivor. “Pastoral and Priority: the Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral.” New Literary History vol. 24 no. 4 (1993): 838.

[4] Welberry, Karen. Wild Horses and Wild Mountains in the Australian Cultural Imaginary, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature no. 3 (2005); Mantle, Nanette. Horse & Rider in Australian legend. (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004)

[5] Mantle, Nanette. Horse & Rider in Australian legend. (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2004): 3.

[6] Welberry, Karen. Wild Horses and Wild Mountains in the Australian Cultural Imaginary, PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature no. 3, (2005): 25.


2 thoughts on “The Australian Pastoral

  1. Pingback: The True History of the Stockman: cattlemen, horses, and Aboriginal disposession in Australia | horsesfordiscourses

  2. Pingback: Horses and the Heidelberg School – horsesfordiscourses

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