The House Always Wins
The short narrative poem ‘Hard Luck’, Paterson utilizes a tragicomic tone to explore themes of misfortune and self-destruction through the experience of a down-on-his-luck betting tout.
We are immediately drawn into the tout’s woeful tale as he recounts how a streak of successfully picking winners earns him a small stake to wager himself. Despite his dire poverty, he risks it all, only to lose everything on an unsuccessful bet.
Paterson economically yet evocatively depicts the tout’s desperation through details like going days without eating. The tout’s fervent optimism in betting his last coin underscores a compulsion that seals his doom.
The vivid imagery of the bustling spectators heading home as darkness falls emphasizes the tout’s isolation and desolation. His rueful warning functions as a melancholy moral about the capriciousness of both luck and human nature.
Paterson concludes with ominous ambiguity, implying the ruined tout takes his own life by the empty boilers near the docks. The tragic outcome highlights society’s indifference to the impoverished man’s suffering.
With compassionate lyricism, the poem provides social commentary by connecting an individual’s misfortune to systemic inequity and the human tendency to abandon the weakest.
I left the course, and by my side
There walked a ruined tout—
A hungry creature, evil-eyed,
Who poured this story out.
“You see,” he said, “there came a swell
To Kensington today,
And, if I picked the winners well,
A crown at least he’d pay.
“I picked three winners straight, I did;
I filled his purse with pelf,
And then he gave me half-a-quid
To back one for myself.
“A half-a-quid to me he cast—
I wanted it indeed;
So help me Bob, for two days past
I haven’t had a feed.
“But still I thought my luck was in,
I couldn’t go astray—
I put it all on Little Min,
And lost it straightaway.
“I haven’t got a bite or bed,
I’m absolutely stuck;
So keep this lesson in your head:
Don’t over-trust your luck!”
The folks went homeward, near and far,
The tout, oh! where was he?
Ask where the empty boilers are
Beside the Circular Quay.