Charles Harpur Essay - Critical Essays

Harpur, Charles


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.”

Principal Works

“Rhymed Criticisms with Prose Notes” (poetry) n.d.

“The Importance of a Rhyme or A Story of the Old Dock-Yard” (short story) 1845

Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets (poetry) 1845

Songs of Australia—First Series (poetry) c. 1850

The Bushrangers; A Play in Five Acts, and Other Poems (poetry) 1853

A Poet's Home (poetry) 1862

The Tower of the Dream (poetry) 1865

Poems (poetry) 1883

Selected Poems of Charles Harpur (poetry) 1944

Rosa: Love Sonnets to Mary Doyle (poetry) 1948

Charles Harpur (poetry) 1973

The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur (poetry) 1984

Charles Harpur: Selected Poetry and Prose (poetry, prose) 1986


Judith Wright (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Wright, Judith. In Australian Writers and Their Work: Charles Harpur, pp. 5-32. Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Wright addresses Harpur's family background, early employment, and the unprofessional editing of a posthumous edition of his works. The essay concludes with an attempt to summarize the importance of Harpur's work in Australia's literary canon.]


Many poets have been born in unfortunate circumstances; some have lived and died unfortunate; but poets can usually trust to a posthumous future for justice. Few are as unlucky as Charles Harpur, Australia's first and least-regarded poet.


(The entire section is 10824 words.)

Brian Elliott (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Elliott, Brian. “The Eye of the Beholder.” In The Landscape of Australian Poetry, pp. 57-74. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Elliott establishes Harpur as an original, impressionist landscape poet whose works, although flawed, are perceptive and poignant.]

… The first poet who may be considered to belong firmly to the Australian repertory is Charles Harpur.1 That he was an original poet is fairly to be claimed, in spite of much in his work that appears acquiescent or imitative. An admirer of Wordsworth and of Shelley, he still adhered in many ways to the notions (and particularly the prosody) of an earlier...

(The entire section is 2856 words.)

Vijay C. Mishra (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Mishra, Vijay C. “Early Literary Responses to Charles Harpur.” Westerly no. 4 (December 1977): 88-93.

[In the following essay, Mishra surveys the early responses to Harpur's poetry, concluding that the lavish praise Harpur received comments more upon the reviewers than on the poet himself.]

There's a path to redemption—but that shall we miss, Till we seek it no more in the old warring manner

—Charles Harpur

‘… Australia has now produced a poet all her own, to atone for the indiscretions of poetasters among her adopted sons.’ So wrote Henry Parkes in his review of...

(The entire section is 3098 words.)

Noel Macainsh (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Macainsh, Noel. “Charles Harpur's ‘Midsummer Noon’—A Structuralist Approach.” Australian Literary Studies 8, no. 4 (October 1978): 439-45.

[In the following essay, Macainsh analyzes repetition, rhyme schemes, and allegory in Harpur's “Midsummer Noon” to emphasize its value as structurally sound poetry.]

Charles Harpur's poem “A Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest” is widely anthologised. The editor of The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, Professor Harry Heseltine, says of the poem that it arguably makes a ‘definitive contribution to the direction and pattern of our poetic history’.1 Nevertheless, and despite the...

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Vijay Mishra (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Mishra, Vijay. “Charles Harpur's Reputation 1853-1858: The Years of Controversy.” Australian Literary Studies 8, no. 4 (October 1978): 446-56.

[In the following essay, Mishra analyzes the changes in Harpur's literary reputation during a period of intense self-examination by the Australian literary community of the mid-nineteenth century.]

Between 1853 and 1858 there was a dramatic change in the literary reputation of Charles Harpur. Prior to 1853 Harpur had produced a volume of verse, Thoughts, A Series of Sonnets, and had been a regular contributor to various newspapers since 1833. There were, no doubt, minor disagreements as in the...

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Leonie Kramer (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Kramer, Leonie. “Imitation and Originality in Australian Colonial Poetry: The Case of Charles Harpur.” Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 116-32.

[In the following essay, Kramer highlights word choice and construction in Harpur's poetry to address early influences on his work. Kramer also analyzes the poet's later attempts to merge the form of his Continental “mentors” with an original Australian style.]

‘Australian poetry’, writes Vivian Smith, ‘starts with the indelible stamp of the cultivated amateur’.1 It also starts with a mixed inheritance, with established modes of poetic address (particularly odes and elegies) and their...

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Michael Ackland (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Ackland, Michael. “God's Sublime Order in Harpur's ‘The Creek of the Four Graves.’” Australian Literary Studies 11, no. 3 (May 1984): 355-70.

[In the following essay, Ackland compares Harpur's treatment of the union of man, nature, and God in “The Creek of the Four Graves” with that of poet John Milton.]

‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ has long been a rallying-point for the defence of Charles Harpur's poetic standing. Published separately in 1845 and reissued in the 1853 collection entitled The Bushrangers: A Play in Five Acts and Other Poems, it was singled out for special praise by the Maitland Mercury, while Daniel Deniehy...

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Elizabeth Perkins (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Perkins, Elizabeth. Introduction to The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur, pp. xi-xliii. London: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Perkins details Harpur's education, family circumstances, and controversial episodes in the poet's youth. Perkins then balances an explanation of Harpur's weaknesses as a lyricist with his originality, spirit, and narrative skill.]


Sir Henry Parkes's autobiographical Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History, published in 1892 when Parkes was seventy-seven, begins with an account of the political movement of the forties and fifties which eventually brought...

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M. Ackland (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Ackland, M. “Innocence at Risk: Charles Harpur's Adaptation of a Romantic Archetype to the Australian Landscape.” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 70 (November 1988): 239-59.

[In the following essay, Ackland demonstrates Harpur's linking of the possibility of redemption for man with the relatively untouched Australian landscape.]

Charles Harpur, it is now agreed, is a poet of ideas, but the precise nature of his thought remains largely unexplored. Repeatedly his works express faith in a suffusing Divinity, and the related recognition that trust in a Providential presence demands a corresponding advocacy of ‘the...

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Adrian Mitchell (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Adrian. “Writing up a Storm: Natural Strife and Charles Harpur.” Southerly 53, no. 2 (1993): 90-113.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1992, Mitchell considers the reasons and methods for reading Australian colonial poetry and focuses on Harpur's efforts to combine new experiences and expressions of thought with a sense of the familiar.]

Australian colonial poetry is considered, if it is considered at all, more with sorrow than delight. The colonial writer lived with the inevitability of failure, one recent commentator tells us, leaning over the counter of the post-colonial theory store.1 Others concede that...

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Uli Krahn (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Krahn, Uli. “‘How Nourishing Is Nature’: Imaginary Possession of Landscape in Harpur and Skrzynecki.” Southerly 60, no. 3 (Winter 2000): 29-38.

[In the following essay, Krahn explores the techniques that Harpur and Peter Skrzynecki employ to express ownership of the culture and landscape of Australia.]

Notions of place have been central in the cultural self-definition of settler colonies like Australia, since difference in place is the most visible marker distinguishing the colony from the imperial motherland.1 In Australian literary discourses, place is very much tied up with landscape, presumably as difference in landscape foregrounds the...

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Further Reading


Jordens, Ann-Mari. “Harpur and Kendall.” In The Stenhouse Circle: Literary Life in Mid-Nineteenth Century Sydney, pp. 83-106. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979.

Tracks the literary careers of Henry Kendall and Harpur, acknowledging the support of patron Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse.

Normington-Rawling, J. Charles Harpur, an Australian. Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1962, 334p.

In-depth narrative of Harpur's childhood, early influences, marriage, work, and ambitions.


Ackland, Michael. “Charles Harpur's Republicanism.”...

(The entire section is 570 words.)