Australia’s founding poet
Adam Lindsay Gordon (19 October 1833 – 24 June 1870) lived a turbulent life that was reflected in the contrasts of his literary output. If his migration to Australia in 1853 was meant to provide escape from youthful vices, Gordon’s new surroundings only exacerbated his temperamental weaknesses like risk-taking and melancholy. Though deeply invested in horseracing and steeplechasing, Gordon possessed sufficient poetic talent to become a major writer, had he focused himself. Long after Gordon’s early death by suicide, admirers made pilgrimages to places associated with him, reflecting his extraordinary popularity. This adulation peaked in 1934 when a bust of Gordon was installed in Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for an Australian. However, his literary reputation has declined over time. Gordon’s most vital and popular works were his bush ballads, which stood out for their narrative drive and rhythmic vitality. But his more ambitious poems, heavily imitative of British Romantic and Victorian styles, were often marred by carelessness and lack of polish. Both his successes and failures as a poet mirrored the restless, unfulfilled arc of his life, reflecting the literary tastes and frontier spirit of his era.
Early Life and Family Background
Adam Lindsay Gordon was born on 19 October 1833 in Charlton Kings, Gloucestershire, England and not in the Azores as often cited [Source: Birth notice in the Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette 31 October 1833 “At Charlton Kings, near Cheltenham, the lady of A D Gordon Esq; formerly of the Bengal Army, a son.”]. He came from an upper class British family – his father Captain Adam Durnford Gordon was a retired military officer, while his mother Harriet Gordon was descended from Scottish aristocracy. Gordon was baptized in Charlton Kings, England where the family lived. Through his mother, he later inherited a significant fortune from the estate of his grandparents who had owned slaves in the West Indies.
Gordon attended elite boarding schools including Cheltenham College and the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. However, he was an undisciplined student and was asked to leave both schools. In 1853 at age 19, Gordon was sent by his father to Australia for a fresh start and worked as a mounted trooper and police officer.
Early Writing and Equestrian Pursuits
Gordon soon left the police force and focused on horse breaking and racing in South Australia, establishing himself as a daring horseman. He began writing poetry as early as 1854, inspired by the Australian landscape. In 1857 he met Reverend Julian Tenison Woods who encouraged his poetry.
In 1862 Gordon, described as “tall, very slight, very handsome, with curling dark chestnut hair, and used to dress in very horsey style” married Margaret Park, who was 17 years old. In 1864 his famous equestrian feat known as “Gordon’s Leap” over a fence and cliff edge cemented his legend as a rider. The same year, Inspired by six engravings after Noel Paton illustrating “The Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow”, Gordon wrote a poem “The Feud”, he privately published 30 copies printed at Mount Gambier which showed his promise as a writer.
Political Career and Literary Pursuits
Briefly in 1865-66, Gordon served as a member of the South Australian House of Assembly for the district of Victoria. After resigning from politics, he became increasingly invested in poetry, publishing “Ashtaroth” in 1867 and “Sea Spray and Smoke Drift” that same year.
In 1868 Gordon relocated to Victoria where he failed at several business ventures related to horses. His depression deepened after the death of his infant daughter in 1867 and deterioration of his eyesight. Nevertheless, Gordon had literary success, contributing verse to Australian periodicals.
Later Life and Death
In 1870 Gordon’s seminal work “Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes” was published. However, he struggled financially and felt despondent about his literary prospects. On the morning of 24 June 1870, he committed suicide in Brighton, Victoria at age 36.
Gordon was buried in Brighton Cemetery and a monument for him was erected there soon after by his friends. His legend continued to grow posthumously in Australia and overseas. Gordon came to be seen as the ‘national poet’ who pioneered a distinctly Australian style of bush ballads. Statues and memorials to him were constructed across Australia and England, cementing his literary legacy. In 1932 a statue of Gordon was unveiled at Parliament House in Melbourne and in 1934 he became the only Australian to be honoured with a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Themes and Literary Style
Gordon was influential in developing the bush ballad tradition in Australian poetry and was much admired by good friend Henry Kendall. His ballads focused on the lives of pastoral workers, horses, outlaws, and the frontier. He relied heavily on riding and bush life for imagery. Gordon rendered the Australian landscape through vivid descriptions.
The Feud (1864) Poetry
Ashtaroth (1867) Poetry
Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (1867) Poetry
Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes (1870) Poetry
His poems often dealt with themes of independence, isolation, mateship, and the struggles against nature’s hardships. Critics praised his rhythmic meter and use of colloquial language in crafting a uniquely Australian poetic style. Gordon’s tragic death contributed to his mythical status as a brilliant but doomed poetic genius.