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Harpur, Charles (1813–1868)

by J. Normington-Rawling

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Charles Harpur (1813-1868), by unknown photographer, 1860s

Charles Harpur (1813-1868), by unknown photographer, 1860s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23436164

Charles Harpur (1813-1868), poet and critic, was born on 23 January 1813, at Windsor on the Hawkesbury, the third child and second son of Joseph Harpur, government schoolmaster and parish clerk, and his wife Sarah, née Chidley. Both parents had been transported; his father, a native of Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, arrived in Sydney Cove in 1800 and his mother, from Somerset, in 1806.

The patronage of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, John Macarthur, Samuel Marsden and the Thomas Hassall family benefited Joseph Harpur materially and in social status, so that a prosperous home and its leisure, access to private libraries, and his father's encouragement enabled Charles to acquire an education beyond what would otherwise have been his lot. Later he described how eagerly and painstakingly he studied Shakespeare in his youth, and his large vocabulary, his vast fund of literary allusions and detailed knowledge of the English poets bear testimony to his wide reading.

About 1828 his father lost the land that had been granted him and, until he died in 1842, had to live on his pension of £50 a year. The family scattered, Charles and his eldest brother, Joseph Jehoshaphat, going to the Hunter River. Charles was back in Sydney by 1833. He had early seen his calling as that of Australia's first poet and thenceforth his lack of interest in the mundane matter of making a living is matched by our lack of knowledge of how he lived: various jobs till 1836, letter-sorter from 1836 to 1839, possibly some newspaper work till he returned to the Hunter about 1841, first to Singleton and then to Jerry's Plains. For the next ten years he had no regular job. At one stage he acted as proxy for his brother as postmaster for no more than 10s. a week, and possibly he worked on William Augustine Duncan's Weekly Register during stays in Sydney in 1844-46. He later scorned the suggestion that he should seek his fortune on the goldfields.

In Jerry's Plains in 1843 he met Mary Doyle, eldest daughter of a prosperous farmer, who on 2 July 1850 became his wife. The courtship was long because her family was opposed to a match with one who had no prospects of gaining and apparently no desire to seek material advancement. He sought employment as a teacher under the National Board of Education, set up in 1848, but was reluctant to fulfil the necessary condition of attending its model school for a month. He agreed to do so, however, when the Muswellbrook Presbyterian school, where he taught for less than a year after his marriage, passed from the control of the denominational to the national board. But in Sydney, where he met Daniel Deniehy and other literary men, he changed his mind, or had it changed for him as other arrangements were made in Jerry's Plains. For the next seven years Harpur was sheep-farming on Doyle's Creek, apparently with Doyle backing.

In 1859 John Robertson, minister of lands, appointed Harpur an assistant gold commissioner on the southern goldfields, where he was efficient and just, popular and successful; his appointment was ended on 30 June 1866. The accidental death of his second son, Charles Chidley, in March 1867 was a shattering blow that joined with others: disappointed political and literary hopes, losses sustained from the 1867 floods and a long sickness that proved mortal. He died of 'induration of the lungs' early in the wintry morning of 10 June 1868. He left a widow, who survived him by some thirty years, and two sons and two daughters. There are descendants of one son and one daughter.

During four decades Harpur's contributions to the periodical press were undoubtedly more numerous than those of any other Australian writer. These were either literary: verse and criticism; or political: republican, against transportation, for self-government and adult franchise, for opening up of the land. His writings were given these directions very early, for even in the 1820s other Australian youths, Currency Lads, had literary as well as political ambitions for their country. Among these were Charles Tompson, Joseph Harpur, John Walker Fulton and Horatio Wills. William Charles Wentworth was their hero. Horatio Wills's paper, the Currency Lad, published Harpur's early verse.

Harpur's writings may be divided into five groups: first, juvenilia and early lyrical verse, among them 'The Bird of Paradise' and 'Memory's Genesis', and the first drama by an Australian, 'The Tragedy of Donohoe'; second, lyrical verse rising from a surer foundation and including his best work, written between 1843 and the mid-1850s, such as 'The Dream by the Fountain', 'Glen of the White Man's Grave', 'Sonnets to Rosa', 'Creek of the Four Graves', 'A Poet's Home', 'A Basket of Summer Fruit', 'Midsummer Noon in the Australian Forest'; third, political and satirical verse of the 1840s and 1850s, aimed at the politicians and the 'squattocracy', for example, `The Temple of Infamy'; fourth, prose writings of political and literary criticism, discussions of problems of the day, notes on the subjects of his verse—most of all this, written also in the 1840s and 1850s, remains unpublished; fifth, the refurbishing of old work and attempts at more ambitious writings, such as 'Tower of the Dream' and 'The Witch of Hebron'.

Harpur associated with, and his work was admired by, literary men of the day: Duncan, Nicol Stenhouse, Henry Halloran, Henry Parkes, W. G. Pennington, James Norton, Dr John Le Gay Brereton, D. H. Deniehy and Henry Kendall. The last two were ardent admirers, though there were less panegyrical critics. After a period of belittlement some modern critics have come to claim a higher place in our estimation for a poet who, in the words of Henry Mackenzie Green, was 'the first to break through the tough crust of a crude materialistic age and compel the attention of at least a few to the fact of poetry's emergence in this new country' and who, as Judith Wright sees him, 'remains the most significant, because the most many-sided and thoughtful, of our nineteenth-century poets, until Brennan began writing at the end of the century'.

Besides being a poet, Harpur saw his role as that of a patriot, not a chauvinist, whose task it was to help make his country worthy of esteem, and to lead and to warn and to strike at wickedness in high places and in low, and like some Hebrew prophet to thunder judgment. While, he said, nothing could shake his belief in God, he rejected all Christian sects, Unitarianism coming nearest to his conception of religion. But his standards were high, his standards for individual righteousness and for collective and governmental morality. He could not keep silent, whether it were friend or foe who offended. There was much to thunder about in mid-century Sydney and much to sadden a sensitive poet with the outlook of a seer and prophet.

There are some twenty-five manuscript volumes in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. In his lifetime were published: Thoughts: A Series of Sonnets (Sydney, 1845), Songs of Australia (broadsheet, Sydney, c.1851), The Bushrangers, a Play in Five Acts and Other Poems (Sydney, 1853), A Poet's Home (Sydney, 1862), A Rhyme (Sydney, c.1864), and The Tower of the Dream (Sydney, 1865).

The posthumous volume, Poems, published in 1883, though a monument to the devotion of the poet's widow who was responsible for the publication, is of little value, as its editor, H. M. Martin of South Australia, omitted poems, 'amended', cut and distorted others, transposed lines and generally misrepresented Harpur's work.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Miles, The Poets and the Poetry of the Century, vol 4 (Lond, 1898)
  • J. Normington-Rawling, Charles Harpur, an Australian (Syd, 1962)
  • J. Wright, Charles Harpur (Melb, 1963)
  • A. Sutherland, ‘The Pioneers of Australian Literature’, Report of the Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 1892, pp 812-21
  • C. W. Salier, ‘The Life and Writings of Charles Harpur’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 32, part 2, 1946, pp 89-105
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1878, 24 Aug 1929.

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Citation details

J. Normington-Rawling, 'Harpur, Charles (1813–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harpur-charles-2158/text2759, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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