by Mark Gwynn
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away.
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
(opening lines of ‘The Man from Snowy River’, 1890)
Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s poems and his use of the Australian vernacular have endeared him to generations of Australians. In the Australian National Dictionary (a dictionary of Australian English using quotations to provide evidence of how words are used over time) Paterson is quoted 78 times. His poems provide valuable evidence of 19th and early 20th century Australian English—particularly the language of the Australian bush. In this blog I will look closely at some of the Australianisms found in ‘The Man from Snowy River’.
Banjo Paterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’ lays claim to being Australia’s most famous poem. First published in The Bulletin in 1890, the poem recounts the quest to capture an escaped colt—a colt of immense value—who has joined a mob of wild bush horses. Expert riders from near and far have gathered to join in the pursuit of the colt in mountainous terrain. One unlikely looking rider is a man who ‘hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side, Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough’. It is this rider who single-handedly brings the colt and wild horses back, after a heroic ride.
Many of the Australian terms in the ‘Man from Snowy River’ refer to the activities of the bushmen (first recorded 1825) who worked on extensive sheep or cattle raising establishments known as stations (first recorded 1843). A bushman is a man skilled in travelling through bush country. Paterson’s bushmen were experienced in working with large numbers of stock:
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand,
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.
Droving (first recorded 1871) is the act of driving or moving a herd or flock over a great distance. This experience serves the bushmen well in their pursuit of ‘the colt from old Regret’.
The colt had joined a herd of ‘wild bush horses‘ (first recorded 1831). In trying to catch the colt the pursuers use their skills and experience as drovers and bushmen:
So Clancy rode to wheel them – he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stockhorse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With the stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
In the language of droving the term wheel (first recorded 1872) means ‘to cause a stampeding mob (first recorded 1828) of cattle or sheep to change direction’. The wing (first recorded in this poem) is the flank of a travelling mob of livestock, and the stockwhip (first recorded 1839) is the tool of choice for handling cattle. But in the end the skills of Paterson’s bushmen are defeated by the terrain, and the pursuit comes down to one horse and rider:
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least-
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
The Timor pony (first recorded 1828) is a small stocky horse of a breed transported from Timor. It is with a sturdy horse bred from this stock that the man from Snowy River succeeds while his fellow bushmen are left on the ‘mountain’s summit’ to watch in awe as man and horse plunge down the steep descent after the mob.
On his lone descent the man from Snowy River makes his way through terrain dominated by ‘stringybarks and saplings’. Stringybark (first recorded 1799) is the name given to various eucalypts with thick, rough, long-fibred bark. It is one example of the Australian flora that features prominently in ‘The Man from Snowy River’. The poem is set in the Australian high country where ‘mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide’. Mountain ash (first recorded 1829) is the name given to a number of trees, usually of the genus Eucalyptus. Kurrajong (first recorded 1801) refers to several trees of the genus Brachychiton, sometimes called bottle trees, that yield a useful fibre. The word kurrajong comes from the Aboriginal language Dharuk and means ‘fishing line’. These lines were often made from the fibrous bark of such trees. Another plant found in the poem is wild hop (first recorded 1854), a term for a number of plants resembling the northern hemisphere hop (Humulus).
In the final lines of the poem:
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockman tell the story of his ride.
Australia is still telling the story of the famous ride. ‘The Man from Snowy River’ has been adapted for film (1920 and 1982), television series (1993-1996), and a stage musical (2002). The text of the poem has been microprinted on the Australian ten-dollar note. In the forthcoming edition of the Australian National Dictionary we will be adding the catchphrase there’s movement at the station (first recorded 1918) from the opening line of the poem. It is now used allusively to refer to a significant change in circumstances, such as a change in the personnel of a workplace. Paterson’s poem has indeed made a lasting impression on Australian English.
See the full text of the poem here: ‘The Man from Snowy River’.