Charles Harpur Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Charles Harpur 1813-1868

Australian poet, essayist, and short story writer.

Described as an original and distinctive poet of ideas, Harpur is considered one of the best and most prolific of Australia's colonial writers. His poetry, which includes “The Creek of the Four Graves” and “A Storm in the Mountains,” displays Harpur's astute observational skills, knowledge of local history and evolving culture, and sense of moral responsibility. Although criticized at times for his awkward, even clumsy poetic structures, particularly in his landscape narratives, Harpur is recognized by Judith Wright as “the first to assert the independence, the special-ness, of the Australian ….”

Biographical Information

Harpur was born on January 23, 1813, in Windsor, New South Wales. His parents, Joseph and Sarah (Chidley), had been sent to Australia as convicts from Ireland and England. Harpur's father took on positions as chief constable, town clerk, farmer, and schoolmaster to care for his growing family. Young Charles attended his father's school, but little else is known about his education. Harpur's biographer, J. Normington-Rawling, records that Harpur read extensively, probably borrowing books from the private collection of Samuel Marsden, his father's patron. Harpur began to write at the age of eleven or twelve and many scholars believe that by 1826 he was publishing verses in a local newspaper, the Sydney Gazette. Harpur's life changed dramatically in 1829 when his family and friends faced a harsh depression, leaving his father without funds and unable to care for his children. Harpur, out of necessity, left his family to work on the Hunter River as a woodcutter and hunter. Harpur's determination to be content with a limited income while studying, meditating, and writing is implied in his poem, “To the Spirit of Poesy.” By the age of twenty, Harpur was writing steadily and publishing poems, political essays, and letters in colonial newspapers. While living in Sydney, he unsuccessfully drafted a play and attempted acting, with both endeavors garnering ridicule in the Sydney Monitor. Harpur also mixed with political radicals and reformers in Sydney and held a number of jobs, including teaching, farming, and clerical work. Harpur considered this the loneliest episode of his life, although he also believed it made him a better poet. In 1843 Harpur met Mary Doyle, whose parents were initially opposed to their daughter's relationship with a man of such little means, the son of convict parents. After seven years of courtship and much effort to persuade her father, however, Harpur and Doyle were married in 1850. Meanwhile, Harpur was busily writing his “Rosa Sonnets,” and in 1845 his first volume of poems, Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets, was published. Later, Harpur acquired the position of Gold Commissioner on the southern goldfields, allowing him to provide comfortably for his family of five children. In 1866 Harpur faced a two-fold blow: he lost this government position and severe floods destroyed his farm. But the worst was yet to come. His second son, Charles, was killed in a hunting accident. Harpur's poems during this period reflect his deep sadness and sense of loss, his disappointment at the criticism leveled at his works—which, critics claim, was due in part to his social background—and his struggle with tuberculosis. Harpur died on June 9, 1868.

Major Works

Critics have outlined four major periods in Harpur's life which distinctly affected his writing: his early years, known as the Windsor or Hawkesbury period, 1813-30; the Sydney period, 1830-39, in which Harpur experienced some measure of success as well as the first real criticism of his work; the Hunter River period, 1839-59, a time in which his first collection of poems was published; and the Euroma period, 1859-68, which left the poet disillusioned, disappointed, and struggling to support his family. In his early poetry and prose, Harpur emerged as a landscape poet, a painter in words with a style that was both original and distinctly Australian. Harpur's best-known poem, “Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest,” reflects the influence of Wordsworth, but also the independent, inventive spirit that would characterize most of his works. Harpur struggled throughout his career to define a singularly Australian style, and he took considerable pride in his self-appointed role as “Australia's First Poet.” The subject of his nature poetry—mountains, trees, clouds, an endless sky, and bright starlight—carry a sense of the enormity and depth of Australia itself, as seen in Songs of Australia—First Series, published in 1850. Harpur's time in Sydney also left deep impressions, as he felt overlooked and unappreciated by those in established literary circles. His feelings are expressed in such poems as “The Sorrows of Chatterton” and “Genius Lost.” Harpur's best poetic work, The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems, was published in 1853 and included a longer version of “The Creek of the Four Graves.” This narrative poem displays Harpur's ability to treat historical events movingly, as he describes a clash between colonial settlers and Australian Aborigines. Some of Harpur's poetry, like “The Creek,” contains religious elements, contrasting God's benevolence and forgiveness with man's sinful inclinations. Critics note Harpur's technique of moving from general to specific—as in “The Coastal View” and “A Storm in the Mountains”—and point out that it mirrors the methods of scientific discovery during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Harpur's Euroma period saw the publication of A Poet's Home in 1862, The Tower of the Dream in 1865, and the writing of “The Witch of Hebron,” considered by many to be Harpur's best blank verse work. “The Witch of Hebron” recounts the transmigration of a soul through five different lives as punishment for prideful sin and is indicative of Harpur's belief in the persistence of the soul beyond death. Written during a time in which he felt an extreme sense of neglect and abandonment, the poem encompasses the themes of love, hate, good and evil, space and time, and poverty and luxury.

Critical Reception

Judith Wright asserts that a fair and accurate assessment of Harpur's works cannot be based solely upon Poems, the collection of his works published in 1883 after his death. This collection, edited by H. M. Martin with a forward by Harpur's wife Mary, contains serious omissions and excisions that, according to Wright, are essential to the understanding of many of Harpur's poems. Wright compares Poems with early manuscripts now housed at the Mitchell Library in Sydney to shed light on the purpose and import of Harpur's works. She notes competent narrative, excellent landscape descriptions, and originality in Harpur's published verse, but emphasizes that a true characterization of the depth of his subject matter can only be discerned when passages from these manuscripts are restored. This evaluation echoes Harpur's initial reception by his colonial contemporaries, who, while noting semantic errors, hailed Harpur's The Bushrangers; a Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems as poetry of the very highest order. Later critics would not be so kind, however, describing Harpur's writing as awkward, clumsy at times, and even of “earnest ineptitude.” Elizabeth Perkins discusses Harpur's emphasis on self-consciousness and the need to instruct, with too much effort in conveying his new Australia within established poetic terms and diction rather than truly and freely expressing himself. Adrian Mitchell and others have focused on Harpur's propensity to revise his poetry, with sometimes unsuccessful or confusing results. Critics also lament the lack of a common foundation for analysis, with many of Harpur's poems existing in several different revisions and no clear means of determining dates of completion. However, most scholars agree with Leonie Kramer's statement that, despite his technical imperfections, Harpur “knew what poetry is, and how poets learn their craft; he appointed himself good masters, and taught himself what to accept and adopt and how to present his individual perceptions, while drawing on the tradition he made his own.”