It is Australia’s most famous bush ballad, evoking images, scenes and themes which have cemented in the country’s national tapestry, but is ‘The Man’ really a man, or do the subtle descriptions of Paterson’s piece point to something else entirely?
‘The Man from Snowy River’ by Banjo Paterson is a bush ballad, revolving around action and legend. Vast imagery is incorporated throughout the poem, with reference made to various familiar Australian scenes, locations and even plant species. Some examples of this being mountains, steep inclines, brumbies, plains, wombats, the Snowy River itself, Kosciusko, bushmen, homesteads, Karrajong, Stringy Barks and Mountain Ash (native trees), stock whips, valleys and spills (Lee 1999, 193-195). The use of these words and the images that they conjure, assist with establishing the rugged setting of the story. Extensive assonance is also incorporated to assist with the flow and rhyme of the poem, and the rhythmic placement of more un-stressed syllables make the poem sound almost musical, or, like the galloping of the horses within its plot (LCS31 2012, 25). The tone of the poem is exciting, and is designed to build tension throughout, culminating in a climatic conclusion which solidifies the image which is best known in Australian folk-law; the one of the Australian bushman hero.
But there is more to this legendary poem than a legendary story. The poem, lacking in any feminine quality, focuses on the bushman’s love affair with his environment, a more common characteristic of bush ballads. The harsh and unforgiving Australian bush is the lady.
It is important to note that ‘The Man from Snowy River’ is a poem with 2 heroes, being Clancy of the Overflow and ‘The Man’ himself (LCS31 2012, 14). Clancy of the Overflow is already somewhat an Australian legend, given that he is referred to in name, and presented as the best and most capable rider, respected by his fellow bushmen. He is the toughened, evolved British type. He is the coming man; a national type which was quite favoured at the time, and may have even materialised; the strong, bronzed, well built bushman who stands at one with his environment. In lines 17 and 21 of the poem, ‘The Man’ on the other hand, is described as:
“A stripling on a small and weedy beast’
“Hard and rough and wirey – just the sort that won’t say die”
It could be interpreted that ‘The Man’ in many respects is a metaphor for one who has evolved with their environment, unlike Clancy (The Coming Man) who has adapted to suit the environment. There were many unknowns which surrounded this question of evolution and the Australian environment. From a Darwinist point of view, the Australian environment was one which would alter a person, as Darwin believed it had done with The Aboriginals, his belief being that they would eventually die out (LCS31 2012, 12). If one pays attention to the character of ‘The Man’ in the story, it is noted that he is not so much a man at all as a kind of mergence between man and horse. In fact, if one pays close attention to the poem, it is at some points difficult to distinguish who Paterson is actually referring to, the man or the horse. It could be considered that ‘The Man’ is a kind of centaur who has evolved with the Australian environment, which is why he is able to undertake such a seemingly impossible task (LCS31 2012, 56). This leaves the reader to ponder questions about the Australian type, and what it means for Australian National Identity.
LCS31 Australian Literature and History Study Guide 2012, Griffith University, Nathan.
Lee, Christopher, Turning the Century, Writing of the 1890’s (Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1999).