Tuesday poem: ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson

January 23, 2012

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
   Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
   Just “on spec”, addressed as follows: “Clancy, of The Overflow”.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
   (And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
   “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
   Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
   For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
   In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
  And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
    Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
   Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
   Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
   Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
  As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
   For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,
   Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal —
   But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.

'...that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' (?) The sun seems to be located near Broome.

Yes, I’m going into fervent Australian mode as Thursday 26th January is Australia Day, or as some like to call it, Dags with Flags Day. Anyone who dabbles in this blog will now that criticism of aspects of Oz society is rampant to a positively un-Australian degree, so this classic 1889 verse from Banjo Paterson may raise me back to the golden realm of unadulterated, frolicking patriotism. (My shallow cynicism is in fact a cover for an embarrassingly gushy love for this country, but let’s pretend I’m not feeling that at all, shall we? Love is so much harder to write about than anything else, and I wouldn’t want to fall short.)

Actually, I love this poem too, particularly the ‘thumb-nail dipped in tar’. The longing for the pure realm of the bush that this poem exemplifies is something that still marks Australian poetry. Ask anyone where the best-known Australian poet lives today, and they’ll point to Bunyah and Les Murray, not to Sydney and…anyone in Sydney.

The suspicion of the urban environment, even in one of the most urbanised of economies, also lives on, I think. Real men are out there somewhere, with the kelpies and the sheep, in the ‘virginal’ bush, roaming as free as the public domain status of this poem. (Just don’t mention the previous ownership…I don’t mean the poem.)

A word about flags. The Australian flag is definitely seen much more than it was when I was a child. Not on public buildings so much; I remember having to recite something like ‘I love God and my country/ I will honour the flag/ and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the law’ at primary school. Boys actually saluted the flag during this, while girls preened and made scones. But today we do see more private display of the Australian flag. Is this:
(a) because we ape America in everything, even flag-waving, although it’s a different flag?;
(b) people have more money, because of our flogging huge amounts of iron ore and uranium (and other good stuff) overseas?; or
(c) flags are cheaper now, and we receive millions of plastic ones back from the countries we sell huge amounts of iron ore and uranium (and other good stuff) to, in an equitable and sensible exchange?
I really don’t know, but I find these public displays of private flags very strange indeed. I worry about how their display might be related to charming bumper stickers such as ‘I Grew Here You Flew Here’, and ruder variations thereof. Not that you see many of them in Canberra: you’re more likely to read ‘Refugees Welcome’ in the ACT. But as I hear constantly, Canberra is not Australia.

Enough. Screed is bordering on The Burning Slough of Rant.

If the cloying smell of cattle or the sticky feeling of the wool emanating from this piece is disturbing you (or perhaps the premature reek of a million sausages on a million barbies is getting up your nose?) please head over to the Tuesday Poem Site, where the vowels may be a little rounder and the patriotism seems slightly more occluded, at least from a distance. (Until the next rugby thing, anyway.)

21 Responses to “Tuesday poem: ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson”

  1. Helen Lowe said

    I love lines like “making hurry down the street.” An oldie but a goodie. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth said

    Ah, the celebration of the rural always makes the heart sing, whether you live in cities or country, alike, I think. I know this is true for me! Wonderful stuff!!

  3. pscottier said

    It is a great poem, especially if you spend Too Much Time in front of a computer! Glad you enjoyed it Helen and Elizabeth.

  4. A. J. said

    I love the pace of it. But I always did have a thing for the Aussie ballady stuff.
    ps – I’d go for “A” Such shows of flag-waving (or in NZ rugby watching) always make a me a little nervous 😉

  5. pscottier said

    I suppose it makes me a little less nervous when it’s at an actual sporting event, rather than people wearing flags as items of clothing on the street. (I particularly like the super-hero cloak look.)

  6. chicken(legs) said


  7. chicken(legs) said

    Poems are the best

  8. pscottier said

    Indeed poems are the best. Not sure about the duh there!

  9. Brettles02 said

    But I don’t know where he are…..love ot

  10. B Smith said

    Hey,droving?,there is a large mob of cattle”droving”currently in Condobolin,NSW area,walking from QLD,heading for VIC,check ABC Landline,……it brings a smile,the gutter children fighting,1889,still in my street most afternoons,2014,(the kids with money are inside I guess with their electronic toys.)I am proud to be an Australian,albeit the mix of several nationalities,I happen to like my flag as an Australian and will wave it when I wish to…..no USA blood in my lines,as far as I know..

    • pscottier said

      Thanks for dropping by. Of course you are free to wave the flag where and when you please.

      As I am free to feel uneasy about certain aspects of patriotism.

      Certainly, the poem still has so much to say all these years later.

  11. Do looooove this poem. As a poem of its Australian time, although (as today) probably more Aussies lived in the cities than the bush, it captures the essences of bush vs city life behind the mere words. And it is Banjo’s brilliance with “mere” words that plucks the heartstrings of Aussies who have smelt wet eucalyptus, or seen “the sunlit plains extended, and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.” Indeed to experience the stark beauty of the “bush” is to understand the love affair some of us have with this continent.

    Anyway…in my opinion, Banjo and Henry are requisite subjects in Australian schools. And I do my bit! (P.S. Kids love the Wallis and Matilda musical version.)

    Love your insightful blog comments as well.

  12. MargfromTassie said

    The best line ever, in a poem :-

    ” And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.”

  13. Sean said

    Love “Banjo” Patersons works. Apparently he based the poem on an actual person called Thomas Gerald Clancy who was an overseer on the Overflow sheep station and later a drover. Tom knew Banjo because the latter drew up and witnessed Clancy’s will. Tom Clancy was a bit of a poet himself, not of the same calibre as A.B. Paterson but decent enough none the less. Clancy wrote a reply to Paterson’s poem which you can read below.


    T.G. Clancy (1897)

    ’Neath the star-spangled dome
    Of my Austral home,
    When watching by the camp fire’s ruddy glow,
    Oft in the flickering blaze
    Is presented to my gaze
    The sun-drenched kindly faces
    Of the men of Overflow.

    Now, though years have passed forever
    Since I used, with best endeavour
    Clip the fleeces of the jumbucks
    Down the Lachlan years ago,
    Still in memory linger traces
    Of many cheerful faces,
    And the well-remembered visage
    Of the Bulletin’s ‘Banjo’.

    Tired of life upon the stations,
    With their wretched, scanty rations,
    I took a sudden notion
    That a droving I would go;
    Then a roving fancy took me,
    Which has never since forsook me,
    And decided me to travel,
    And leave the Overflow.

    So with maiden ewes from Tubbo,
    I passed en route to Dubbo,
    And across the Lig’num country
    ‘where the Barwon waters flow;
    Thence onward o’er the Narran,
    By scrubby belts of Yarran,
    To where the landscape changes
    And the cotton bushes grow.

    And my path I’ve often wended
    Over drought-scourged plains extended,
    where phantom lakes and forests
    Forever come and go;
    And the stock in hundreds dying,
    Along the road are lying,
    To count among the ‘pleasures’
    That townsfolk never know.

    Over arid plains extended
    My route has often tended,
    Droving cattle to the Darling,
    Or along the Warrego;
    Oft with nightly rest impeded,
    when the cattle had stampeded,
    Save I sworn that droving pleasures
    For the future I’d forego.

    So of drinking liquid mire
    I eventually did tire,
    And gave droving up forever
    As a life that was too slow.
    Now, gold digging, in a measure,
    Affords much greater pleasure
    To your obedient servant,
    ‘Clancy of the Overflow’.

    • pscottier said

      Thanks, Sean. Like you, I do prefer the Paterson poem, but this is an interesting addition.

      • Larry Cutler said

        Banjo Patterson is no Henry Lawson. Lawson should have been left on the ten-dollar note, but I think he was too Bolshie for the more conservative decision makers who favoured Patterson’s safe “easy-listening” style and choice of subject.
        Patterson, like so many town-bound writers, had an overly romantic notion of the bush and those who had to endure it rather than luxuriate in it. It’s a very urban, middle-class view of the Australian Legend. Patterson would have never written anything with the same grit or pathos as Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife”.
        I believe Tom Clancy got it right, and he should know, not a town-based journalist-cum-writer hankering for an imagined paradise of freedom somewhere out west. Country people know the harsh truth.
        There’s more than a grain of truth to the assertion that recruitment rates from the bush during the First World War were so high because so many men wanted to escape the harshness and tedium of life in the bush. Few would leave an idyllic life in a paradise of freedom and natural abundance to die in a trench on the other side of the world..
        By all means, take pride in one’s country and its achievements, but leave the over-romanticised imagery to Disneyland and others wanting to exploit wishful thinking, and short and selective memories. I enjoy Patterson too, but in the same way as I enjoy confectionery: a pleasant diversion, not the basis of a healthy diet.

      • pscottier said

        Thank you for that, Larry. While it is true about an overly romantic view of the country, Paterson had a sharp vision of urban life. We probably all have an idea of a better life, somewhere else.

        Interestingly, this is by far the most visited post on this blog. Paterson still attracts so much attention.

  14. […] Reader Tim Anderson, who lives in Cowra, southeastern Australia sent some lovely parrot photos (he adds that there’s a poem about his region by Banjo Patterson). […]

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