Today in Literary History – February 5, 1941 – “Banjo” Paterson, author of “Waltzing Matilda,” dies

Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, the popular Australian “bush poet,” died on February 5, 1941 at the age of seventy-four.

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He wrote the poem “Waltzing Matilda” in 1895 and set it to the tune of an old folk song that a family friend played for him on the zither. The song is now considered by many people as Australia’s unofficial national anthem.

Another narrative poem “The Man From Snowy River,” first published in 1890, has also been hugely popular in Australia and has been turned into movies and television series. It’s also commemorated on the Australian $10 bill featuring Banjo Paterson.

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Both poems, and many others by Paterson, are set in “the bush,” the Australian outback, and celebrate macho exploits and rugged individualism. Like his contemporary American cowboy mythologisers Paterson’s heroes are all white men and his horses tend to be stronger characters than women or aboriginal Australians.

Paterson himself grew up in the outback but he lived mostly an urban life. He trained as a lawyer and was a working journalist. He served in the Australian Army during World War I, rising to the rank of major.

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He also had a lifelong love of horses and was an accomplished rider. His earliest poems were published anonymously under the name “The Banjo,” a name he took from that of his favourite horse.

The Australian poet Les Murray has said that Paterson “carries us into a legendary Australia he did much to create, a country in part bygone, in part fictional, in part still there.”

Paterson is often compared with Rudyard Kipling in his promotion of nationalist ideals and romantic notions of heroism. In fact, the two men met once and got along famously.

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