Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 21-32
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From Wilderness to Landscape:
Charles Harpur's Dialogue with Wordsworth and Antipodean Nature
READ "WORDSWORTH FOR HIS SIMPLE POWER, / NOT FOR HIS NAMBY-PAMBY-NESS." 1 This caution was offered by the largely self-educated poet Charles Harpur (1813-1868). 2 The son of convict parents and a vocal opponent of all "Monarchy Men and Empire-worshippers," 3 he called for increased access to the land and to positions of influence for the native-born white population, as well as for an independent national literature. Aspiring to be the first authentic singer of the Australian colonies, he searched for empowering models, working his way through the greats of English prosody from Chaucer to Shelley. 4 Milton appealed strongly to Harpur, who was an avowed republican in every fibre of his being, as did Percy Bysshe's allegiance to intellectual ideals and "the Social True" (PW, p. 823). But it was Wordsworth who exercised most sway over his poetic apprenticeship. Contemporaries were quick to notice this influence—and to disparage it. G. B. Barton in his pioneering study The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales (1866) depicted Harpur as a man who never developed fully his gift for landscape painting, but strove instead after "subtlety of thought" and "to emulate the lofty flights of Wordsworth," so that he "grasped at objects placed beyond his reach by nature" while neglecting "those which might have been attained with ease." 5 Subsequent commentary echoed this notion of Wordsworth's impeding effect, as in H. M. Green's monumental History of Australian Literature (1962), where it is asserted that Harpur had worn "thinner here and there" the "veil that reading, tradition, custom, habit of mind had hung between the new country and its white inhabitants," but that "his eye might have been truer and his language more appropriate if he had done his wandering without a Wordsworth in his pocket, or if he had put life first and books second." 6 This verdict, however, is far from incontestable, and in what follows I wish to clarify the precise nature of Harpur's debt to Wordsworth, especially as [End Page 21] it bears on the relation of thought to landscape depiction in his work, and to show how the Australian, not content with simple emulation, extended Wordsworth's concerns in conformity with his own radical program. 7
Given his background, Harpur's response to the Romantic poet was at once predictable and refreshingly independent. He knew that Wordsworth, by the 1840s, had become the defender of that Old World caste whose representatives held sway in the antipodes, and he passed severe strictures on the Englishman's conservative stance:
Lofty and strenuous of sentiment,
But narrow and partial in its scope and bent,
And thence the bigot of a local set
Of habitudes, meshed round him like a net.
Hence too his intellect, though large it be
By nature, hath one prime deficiency—
Of moral difference that broad view which leads
The steps of Thought beyond the snares of creeds
And circles of opinion, whether they
Be of the Old Time or of yesterday.
Hence too his narrow bias, I suspect,
Even in Poesy to attempt a sect.
("Wordsworth," PW, p. 817) 8
Poetically, the later Wordsworth belonged to that group, designated by Harpur as "veritably vulgar," which "is abject enough to begod a lord or king," 9 unlike the earlier author of works like Lyrical Ballads, "Peter Bell," and "The White Doe," whom he was willing to champion in the pages of a colonial press opposed to the opinions of the aging English ideologue.
Scorning Wordsworth's final avatar as Victorian sage and poet laureate, Harpur seized on the notorious levelling tendency of his earlier verse. He praised the Englishman's appreciation of nature, his capacity to invoke the impressions of childhood, and his celebration of the commonplace:
How much, O Wordsworth! in this world how much
Has thy surpassing love made rich for me,
Of what was once unprized. A nameless...