Queensland Poetry: a brief introduction

First European Contacts

The first recorded European contact with what is now Queensland occurred in around March 1606, when the Dutch ship Duyfken, captained by Willem Jansz, explored the western side of Cape York Peninsula. European exploration of Australia was then limited to the coasts of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania until 1770, when James Cook, in his barque the Endeavour, explored the eastern coast of Australia and made a forced landfall near what is now Cooktown.

A settlement of British convicts was established at Sydney in 1788, and Matthew Flinders explored Moreton Bay in 1799, landing near Woody Point, Redcliffe. A convict colony for the worst offenders from Sydney was established at Redcliffe in 1824, and moved to Brisbane in 1825.  The aboriginal name for the place of settlement was ‘Mean-jin’. Queens Street, Brisbane, 1859

Free settlers were first allowed into the Brisbane region in 1838, and Queensland separated from New South Wales in 1859. By then, the European population of the newly founded colony had grown to 23,500.

First poets

According to literary historians, the first poem published after separation from NSW was an ode to the first governor of the colony, Sir George Bowen, by the Ipswich solicitor Charles Frederick Chubb.

By any literary terms it is an awful piece of work:

                     From ''Ode to Governor Bowen'

         This sunny land, which thou hast come to rule,

         Is but an infant in his swaddling bands,

         Pent up unkindly by the fostering hands

         Of dubious nurses, from an uncouth school…….

         Let private worth, allied to energy of mind,

         To thy good Government sure passport find;

         Then will our children, while all time shall stand,

         Cry, God bless thee Bowen!  Heaven bless Queensland![1

Sir George BowenCharles Chubb


But it was a beginning. It took another 10 years for the first book of verse to be published in the colony: ‘Poems and Songs’ by Thomas Beaton Christie, who published under the name ‘Ralph Delaney’. Such of his work as is available through anthologies shows more technical skill than Chubb and an admirable plainness of speech:

From ‘Men, be Workers’

Put no trust in politicians;

Have no faith in all their charms;

The surest means of independence;

Lie within your own right arms.’[2]

Chubb and Christie were both born in the United Kingdom, and foreign born poets dominated the Queensland literary landscape in its early years.  However, in 1870, the first book of verse by a Queensland born poet was published:  Sunbeams in Queensland by the Ipswich born school teacher George Vowles. His poem ‘A Queensland Ballad’ is interesting for its reversal of the conventional colonial theme of the convict far from home. In it an aborigine visits Scotland and returns to Australia and his traditional life:

             From 'A Queensland Ballad'.

Nor rested he till to his heart

            His lubra dear he prest-

‘No more,’ he said ‘will I depart

            From her whom I love best.’[3]

The first literary poets.

By 1883, the white population of Queensland had reached 250,000, largely as a result of the discovery of gold in Gympie. By George Essex Evansthat time, the first real wave of Queensland poetry was underway. The principal poets of the time, James Brunton Stephens, George Essex Evans, and Mary Hannay Foott are now chiefly remembered for their bush verse. But in fact their verse covered a wide field: political verse (most notably some early pro- federation poetry), satiric and comic verse, military verse, religious, memorial and love poetry, and the first examples of urban poetry. Take this, from Brunton Stephens:

From ‘From an Upper Verandah’

What happier haunt could the gods allot

For loftiest musing to sage or bard?-

Yet I would that this upper verandah did not

Look down on my beautiful Neighbour’s Back-yard! …

Let me gaze on the hills; let me think of the sea;

Of the dawn rosy-fingered - the night silver-starred:-

(What dear little feet must the Owner’s be

Of  those stockings that hang in my Neighbour’s Back-yard!)

City based poets.

A thread of bush based poetry continues in mainstream Queensland literature until the 1920s. But by the beginning of the 20th century, a stream of city based poets had developed including Mabel Forrest, Alfred Midgley and Emily Coungeau. Each of them lived for a while in the country, but took the perspective of a city dweller as either subject matter or the basis for comparison in their published work. These early poets begin to explore Queensland themes and places, but more often than not with a British frame of reference and vocabulary. Emily CoungeauEmily Coungeau, (who had the twin distinctions of living for a period at Bribie Island and owning one of Brisbane’s first coffee shops), wrote poems about Mt Tamborine, the Glasshouse Mountains, and Cleveland (where ‘meek kine[4], lowing, wander at their will’), but I find it difficult to recognize those places in her poems.  

Poetry was a much more mainstream discipline then, than it is now. The credits for Mabel Forrest’s first collection: Alpha Centauri (1909) acknowledge the publication of her poetry in the ‘Australasian’, the ‘Bulletin’, the London ‘Spectator’, the Sydney ‘Sunday Times’, ‘The Woman’s Budget’, and‘Life’. These were all popular, mass circulation, magazines. She won prizes for original poetry at the Maryborough and Toowoomba eisteddfods.  Her poetry shows a good deal of literary skill, but essentially none of this early poetry is self consciously ‘literary’. It is aimed at an ordinary reader of ordinary education.

Compulsory education had been introduced to Queensland in 1875, but not fully implemented until 1900. The first university in the State, the University of Queensland, was not established until 1911.

As educational standards began to rise, and experiments in modernism began in England and the United States, more sophisticated poetry began to be written in Queensland.   

The beginnings of modernism and a literary establishment

The first Queensland verse that might be described as experimental in nature was not published until 1919, when Peter Austen, a returned serviceman who later converted to Islam, published ‘The Young Gods’.  ‘I dreamed last night’ has echoes of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ though I doubt that Austen had read Owen’s work:

             From 'I dreamed last night'

I dreamed last night that I was dead,

And with bowed head

Heard furtive furry things, that slobbered in the dark,

Whisp’ring together,

With strange half-human faces,

Twisted in strange grimaces,

Huddled together…..[5]

Through the 20s, we see the beginnings of what might be called a literary establishment in Queensland. The Queensland AuthorsQueensland Authors and Artists Association, Mabel Forrest foreground. and Artists Association (later the Fellowship of Australian Writers) was formed in 1921, and its inaugural president, Prof JJ Stable, co-edited the first anthology of Queensland Verse[6] which was released to coincide with the centenary of European settlement, in 1924. In 1925, Colin Bingham, who later became literary editor of the Brisbane ‘Telegraph’ released his first book of verse: ‘Marcinelle’ which among other things contained an ode to Brisbane’s centenary:

From ‘The Brisbane Centenary’.

A broad and thriving City, born in pain,

Lifts to the sky its building tops agleam

With health compelling sunlight. From the main

Unceasingly the ships of Commerce steam. [7]

Ugh. Martin Haley said of this book:

Though of your merit none shall make harangue,

‘Twas something to have squawked when no bird sang.

However, it was the beginning of a movement that attempted to come to grips with the modern post-war world.  Bingham’s next book, the originally titled A Book of Verse (1929), which the author dedicated to his friend Edgar Holt, contains two or 3 pieces in free verse. Edgar Holt's ‘Lilacs out of the Dead Land’ (1932) is the first avowedly modernist book of poetry published by a Queensland poet. The title acknowledges T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the poems have elements that show the influence of Prufrock.  The influence of modernism continued throughout the 30s, with the work of Brian Vrepont, and into the 40s, through the poems of James Picot, who perished while a prisoner of war in Burma.

Catholic Poets, Meanjin

Meanwhile, the leading force for traditional verse in Queensland was James Devaney, who arrived in Queensland in 1922. His work, most notably Earth Kindred (1930) and Where the Wind Goes (1939) shows the kind of affinity with the land  that prefigures the work of the Jindyworobak school of poetry in the 1940s.

Apart from the tensions between the modern and traditional, there were elements of a sectarian divide in Queensland poetry in this period. Paul Grano, who arrived in Queensland in 1932, founded the Catholic Poetry society in 1936, and edited The Southwellian (1938) and an anthology of Catholic verse, Witness to the Stars (1945). However there was not by any means a complete sectarian divide: James Picot (an Anglican, who studied for a while at St Francis’ seminary), and Brian Vrepont (of no fixed religion)  were both members of the Catholic Poetry Society, and Paul Grano spent enough time with the Queensland Authors and Artists Association to have this dig at its president:

From  ‘On Madam President of a Literary Society’ 

When Madam’s in the chair she talks,

come wind or rain;

when Madam’s in the chair she talks,

and then she talks again. [8]

Grano was one of a group of four poets who instituted Australia’s foremost literary journal, Meanjin (originally known as Meanjin Papers) in Brisbane in the early 1940s.

World War II and after

The war years coincided with a real flourishing of the Queensland poetry scene. In addition to James Devaney, Paul Grano and Brian Vrepont, Martin Haley, E.M England, Emily BulcockFrank C. Francis, Joseph O’Dwyer, Victor Kennedy, Peter Miles, Paula Fitzgerald,Soldiers marching through Queen Street, Brisbane, 1944 Garry Lyle and Llywelyn Lucas all published good quality volumes of literary verse during this period.

A good deal of popular verse was also published, much of it inspired by the arrival of American troops. For example, the Brisbane schoolteacher Samuel Buckby published a poem about the ubiquitous American graffito 'Foo was here':  

From Foo’

‘You see it chalked upon the walls,

And note it crayoned on the street;

You spy it as its smudgy scrawls

Most likely mar your fav’rite seat.

“Foo has been here,” or “This is Foo,”

Or simply “Foo” disturbs your eye;

It often spoils your better view;

‘Tis often low, ‘tis sometimes high.[9]

By 1944, Judith Wright had relocated to Brisbane, and in 1943, Laurence Collinson and Barrie Reid had founded the Brisbane based cultural journal Barjai which ran for an unprecedented 23 issues.

The group of authors who had flourished in the war years continued, for the most part, to be published into the 50’s. However, during this period their influence began to wane and a new and somewhat smaller generation of poets began to take over. These new poets are probably the first generation whom we can expect to have a lasting reputation.

Among the first (and, to my way of thinking, the best) of them, Gwen Harwood, wrote almost all of the best of her poetry after she moved away from Queensland in the mid 1940s. However, although her work is both personal and intellectual, until the very end of her career Queensland experiences and places formed an important basis for her work:

From ‘A simple story’

I  swept off like Miss Virtue

     down dusty Roma Street,

and heard the goods train whistle

     WHO? WHOOOOOO? in aching heat.

Val Vallis published his first (and now much neglected) volume of verse in 1947, and John Blight published all his significant work while he lived in Queensland. Thea Astley, David Rowbotham, John Manifold, Don Maynard, Rodney Hall and a young David Malouf were all in print by the time of the publication of the Queensland Centenary Anthology in 1959. By that time, Kath Walker was five years away from publishing (with encouragement from James Devaney) the first book of poetry by an Aboriginal author, We are Going (1964) and Bruce Dawe and Roger McDonald were close to moving to Queensland. Thomas Shapcott’s first book appeared in 1961.

By the time Queensland had existed for 100 years as a separate colony and state, more than 250 books of poetry had been published by Queensland poets. Only a small percentage of the poems published in that first 100 years can be read today as first class literature, but that is true of all poems published anywhere and at any time.

The poems do, however, provide an authentic picture of what people who lived in Queensland in those early days thought and felt. The poems are sometimes moving, sometimes funny, sometimes pompous and sometimes clumsy. Sometimes they show beliefs we no longer share, but some of the poems could have been written yesterday.

Only one or two of the poets made any kind of a living from poetry or literature. For the most part they had day jobs and scribbled away at their desks at night or on weekends. However, as we try to understand what it is like to live in Queensland today, I for one am grateful for what they have given us.   

[1]Chubb, CF ‘An Ode to Sir George Ferguson Bowen’  in Stable, JJ and Kirwood, AEM A Book of Queensland Verse, Brisbane, Queensland Book Depot, 1924, pp3-4.  For a discussion of the contemporary reception of this poem, see Annand, P, ‘Chubb’s Ode’ in Makar, Vol 7, No 4, pp12-13.

[2]Christie, TB, (Ralph Delaney), Men be Workers in Byrnes, R.S., and Vallis, V. (eds), The Queensland Centenary Anthology, London, Longman, Green and Co Ltd, 1959, p13.

[3]Vowles, G,  A Queensland Ballad in Byrnes, R.S., and Vallis, V. (eds), The Queensland Centenary Anthology, London, Longman, Green and Co Ltd, 1959, at p16.

[4]  cows

[5]Austen, P, The Young Gods, Sydney, Tyrrell’s Limited, 1919, 34.

[6]Stable, JJ and Kirwood, AEM, A Book of Queensland Verse, Brisbane, Queensland Book Depot, 1924.

[7]Bingham, C Marcinelle and Other Verses, Brisbane, Carter-Watson Co. Ltd, n.d. (1925), pp26-27.

[8]Grano, PL, Poet’s Holiday Brisbane, Shipping Newspapers, 1941, p7.

[9]Buckby, S, They Shall not Pass and other Poems, Brisbane, W.R. Smith & Patterson, 1943, at 119.   ] 

Poems by Theme