reputed to be a handsome young man, very popular with the ladies, an
outstanding tennis player, a fairly good boxer and rifle-shot. "He danced
beautifully," his admiring sister said. He fell in love with a girl from
the well-to-do society in which he and his grandmother moved, but that
engagement ended shortly; he spent too much time with his polo pony, Pegasus,
and did not pay enough attention to the girl. That became an often repeated
complaint in Paterson's life.
When he was 21 he
began writing verses, published by the Sydney Bulletin. He signed them "by
The Banjo." His pseudonym had nothing to do with a musical instrument. The
Banjo was a family-owned racehorse whom he had ridden in picnic races in the
country. (In their ceaseless assaults on the English language Australians came
to call a frying pan a banjo, and the horse's name derived from that.) Paterson
seemed reluctant to let anyone know that he—gentleman rider, member of the
Sydney Hunt Club, occupant of a cramped office in the law firm Street and
Paterson—was The Banjo.
editor of the Bulletin, J.F. Archibald, was a nationalist, determined to create
Australian literature whether anyone wanted it or not. Until he appeared,
writers in Australia generally thought of England as home, wrote for English
readers and neglected the life around them. Archibald published Paterson's
first poem without ever meeting him. He wrote Paterson, asking him to call.
"I climbed a
grimy flight of stairs until I stood before a door marked 'Mr. Archibald,
Editor,' " Paterson later said. "On the door was pinned a spirited
drawing of a gentleman with a dagger through him, and on the drawing was
written: 'Archie, this is what will happen to you if you don't use my drawing
about the policeman!' It cheered me up a lot."
At their meeting
Archibald said, "Do you know anything about the bush?" Paterson told
him he had been reared there. "All right," Archibald said. "Have a
go at the bush. Have a go at anything that strikes you."
with a poem about a bush fire. It was formless and undistinguished, but
Archibald published it. Next came a curious soliloquy called A Dream of the
Melbourne Cup. A tough horse player stuffs himself with indigestible food and
liquor to produce a nightmare in which he will dream the name of the winner of
the cup. At that time the cup had been in existence for 25 years.
was published three weeks before the 1886 race. There were 28 entries, and he
worked the names of five horses into the poem—but not Arsenal, who won. The
dream race begins:
And the hoof-strokes roar like a mighty drum
Beat by a hand unsteady;
Trident, a Sydney
entry, comes down the straight head-to-head with another horse. The sleeper
remembers: he had bet on Trident! With odds of a million-to-five he'd won a
million! But when he tries to collect, the bookie fades away and he wakes with
scribbled on the margin: "Doggerel. Fun in the idea." Modern readers
may agree, for Paterson could write some perfunctory lines, such as