Why Australia’s First National Poet Gets Overlooked
Adam Lindsay Gordon holds a conflicted place in Australia’s literary history. He pioneered the bush ballad tradition and was even called the “national poet” after his death in 1870. Statues honoring Gordon were erected across the country, and in 1934 he became the only Australian poet memorialized in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
Yet today Gordon has largely faded from public consciousness and national commemoration compared to his contemporaries like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. The reasons behind this unsettled legacy are complex.
Gordon’s Family History Looms Large
While lionized in his time, one aspect of Gordon’s background has cast an uncomfortable shadow—his family’s ties to slavery.
Gordon’s mother, Harriet Gordon, descended from a wealthy Scottish family that owned plantations in the British West Indies, which were central to the transatlantic slave trade. The plantations relied heavily on enslaved African labor to produce sugar, tobacco and other crops that supported the British economy. Many Scottish families like the Gordons were invested in the West Indies plantation economy, either as owners or financers.
When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the government allocated £20 million in compensation to slave owners like the Gordons for the loss of what was considered legal property. The enslaved individuals received no reparations for their forced labor and abuse. Gordon’s family gained financially from this compensation, which contributed to their social standing and funded Gordon’s upbringing and education.
Today, this history provides insight into the injustices embedded in the colonial system and the long-term impacts of slavery. There is greater awareness now of the need to acknowledge these past wrongs and legacies. This wider examination of the British Empire’s involvement in slavery may contribute to Gordon’s more conflicted reputation from a modern perspective because a portion of this money passed to Adam Lindsay Gordon later in life. To modern sensibilities, commemorating a man who directly benefited from slavery’s cruel legacy sits uneasily. Gordon’s tarnished roots may contribute to his muted recognition currently.
Limitations and Imbalance in Gordon’s Poetry
Unlike Paterson and Lawson, who explored diverse themes, Gordon focused obsessively on horses, bushmen, outlaws, and pastoral frontier life. This narrower scope appealed to nostalgia for Australia’s pioneer era, but now seems limited.
Critics also highlight carelessness in Gordon’s work compared to Paterson’s mastery of rhyme and storytelling. Gordon’s melancholy tone has been viewed as somewhat repetitive and imbalanced. Even admirers conceded his inability to transcend Romantic and Victorian stylistic influences.
While Gordon’s ballads ignited the bush poetry tradition, his reluctance to expand subjects and techniques restricted his development. If not for his premature death, Gordon may have evolved into a more versatile writer.
A Troubled Life Cut Short
Gordon lived just 36 years, ending his own life with a gunshot after struggles with debt, depression, and fading literary prospects. This denial of Gordon’s full potential partly fuels his legend as Australia’s tragic poetic genius.
But conversely, the brevity and melancholia of Gordon’s biography have colored interpretations of his work, casting him as a doomed Byronic figure. This narrow mythologizing overlooks literary assessment on its own merits.
Gordon’s preference for solitude and lack of self-promotion also inhibited his renown. Contemporaries like Paterson and Lawson actively engaged in literary circles to advance their profiles and careers in a way Gordon avoided.
Lasting Impact Despite Unsettled Legacy
So the legacy of Adam Lindsay Gordon remains conflicted – foundational in Australian poetry yet increasingly overlooked; intensely celebrated in his age but now often forgotten.
Reasons are multifaceted – a product of changing social mores, artistic limitations, and his own tragically short life. But despite a controversial backstory and decline in popularity, Gordon’s pioneering influence as our first great bush balladeer endures as a central pillar of Australia’s literary origins.