deceased jockey illustration

Only a Jockey by Banjo Paterson

The Tragedy of a young Jockey’s Death

Banjo Paterson’s melancholic poem ‘Only a Jockey’ reflects on the death of a young jockey in a tragic riding accident. Through a critical social commentary, Paterson explores themes of inequality, morality and the treatment of underprivileged youths.

The poem opens bluntly with a news excerpt about the death of 14-year-old rider Richard Bennison after falling from the horse William Tell. Paterson immediately establishes the setting of the dangerous early morning trackwork where racehorses are put through their paces.

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses by Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson - Book Cover

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses

by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Vivid imagery depicts the horses “reefing and pulling” as the “jockey-boys” cling on, emphasizing the perilous conditions. The ominous foreshadowing of the death plays out in the stallion fiercely bucking the boy to his death.

Paterson’s social commentary emerges as he criticizes the apparent indifference towards the boy’s fate. There is urgency to stop the runaway horse, yet callousness towards the injured boy, merely referred to as a “poor little fool.” The boy is conspicuously nameless, reflecting his insignificance in the eyes of society.

The poem condemns those in power – parsons, priests, humanitarians – for failing to provide education or moral guidance to underclass youths like the jockey. Despite pretensions of Christian charity, they effectively abandoned this “ignorant, heathenish” boy to die in “his ignorant sin.”

Paterson sees hypocrisy in sending missionaries overseas while neglecting to care for disadvantaged children at home. His provocative questions “What did you do for him?” and “What did he get from our famed Christianity?” force readers to confront our own moral culpability.

The poem warns against judging someone’s worth by their social status, lineage or even character. Paterson argues all human souls have moral value and deserve spiritual nurturing. The poem concludes by urging society not to thoughtlessly cast off underprivileged youths, but show compassion through practical action. Though written over a century ago, Paterson’s message maintains strong social relevance today.

Only a Jockey

`Richard Bennison, a jockey, aged 14, while riding William Tell in his training, was thrown and killed. The horse is luckily uninjured.'
-- Melbourne Wire.

Out in the grey cheerless chill of the morning light,
Out on the track where the night shades still lurk;
Ere the first gleam of the sungod’s returning light,
Round come the race-horses early at work.

Reefing and pulling and racing so readily,
Close sit the jockey-boys holding them hard,
`Steady the stallion there — canter him steadily,
Don’t let him gallop so much as a yard.’

Fiercely he fights while the others run wide of him,
Reefs at the bit that would hold him in thrall,
Plunges and bucks till the boy that’s astride of him
Goes to the ground with a terrible fall.

`Stop him there! Block him there! Drive him in carefully,
Lead him about till he’s quiet and cool.
Sound as a bell! though he’s blown himself fearfully,
Now let us pick up this poor little fool.

`Stunned? Oh, by Jove, I’m afraid it’s a case with him;
Ride for the doctor! keep bathing his head!
Send for a cart to go down to our place with him’ —
No use! One long sigh and the little chap’s dead.

Only a jockey-boy, foul-mouthed and bad you see,
Ignorant, heathenish, gone to his rest.
Parson or Presbyter, Pharisee, Sadducee,
What did you do for him? — bad was the best.

Negroes and foreigners, all have a claim on you;
Yearly you send your well-advertised hoard,
But the poor jockey-boy — shame on you, shame on you,
`Feed ye, my little ones’ — what said the Lord?

Him ye held less than the outer barbarian,
Left him to die in his ignorant sin;
Have you no principles, humanitarian?
Have you no precept — `go gather them in?’

Knew he God’s name? In his brutal profanity,
That name was an oath — out of many but one —
What did he get from our famed Christianity?
Where has his soul — if he had any — gone?

Fourteen years old, and what was he taught of it?
What did he know of God’s infinite grace?
Draw the dark curtain of shame o’er the thought of it,
Draw the shroud over the jockey-boy’s face.

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