Charles Harpur

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Charles Harpur (23 January 1813 – 10 June 1868) was an Australian poet.

Early life[edit]

Harpur was born on 23 January 1813 at Windsor, New South Wales, the third child of Joseph Harpur — originally from Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, parish clerk and master of the Windsor district school — and Sarah, née Chidley (from Somerset; both had been transported.) Harpur received his elementary education in Windsor. This was probably largely supplemented by private study; he was an eager reader of William Shakespeare. Harpur followed various avocations in the bush and for some years in his twenties held a clerical position at the post office in Sydney.

The poet[edit]

Harpur's early poetic aspirations found an outlet in the form of numerous newspaper publications, through which his work became well known. He published his first poem The Wreck on 20 December 1833, in the Australian, at age 20. This was followed by hundreds of others over the next 35 years. He gathered cuttings of these individual works into scrapbooks and wrote them out in anthologies, which he tried to get published, but there were few publishers in Australia in the early 19th century, so his lack of success is unsurprising. In all he is credited with over 700 poems, which he continuously revised, so that in all some 2,200 versions are extant. In his verse he tried to capture the wild beauty of a country into which he had been one of the first Europeans born. Among his more striking works are The Nevers of Poetry—a series of pithy instructions on poetic craft, and The Creek of the Four Graves, describing the deaths of an aborigine and three settlers in a nighttime attack on their camp.

In Sydney, he met Henry Parkes, Daniel Deniehy, Robert Lowe and W. A. Duncan, who in 1845 published Harpur's first little volume, Thoughts, A Series of Sonnets, which has since become very rare. Harpur had left Sydney two years before and was farming with a brother on the Hunter River. In 1850, he married Mary Doyle and engaged in sheep farming for some years with varying success. In 1853, he published The Bushrangers: a Play in Five Acts, and other Poems.

In 1858, he was appointed gold commissioner at Araluen with a good salary. He held the position for eight years and also had a farm at Eurobodalla. Harpur found, however, that his duties prevented him from supervising the work on the farm and it became a bad investment.

Two verse pamphlets, A Poets Home and The Tower of a Dream, appeared in 1862 and 1865 respectively.

Demise[edit]

In 1866, Harpur's position was abolished at a time of retrenchment, and in March 1867 he had a great sorrow when his second son was killed by the accidental discharge of his own gun. Harpur never recovered from the blow. He contracted tuberculosis in the hard winter of 1867, and died on 10 June 1868. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. One of his daughters, writing many years later, mentioned that he had left his family an unencumbered farm and a well-furnished comfortable home.

Poetry evaluation[edit]

A collected edition of Harpur's poems was not published until 1883. The unknown editor stated that he had "had to supply those final revisions which the author had been obliged to leave unmade". This work does not appear to have been well done, and several already published poems which needed no revision were not included. The manuscripts of Harpur's poems are at the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and a portrait is in the council chamber at Windsor.

Harpur was the first Australian poet worthy of the name. He is little read today and the tendency has been to under-rate him in comparison with other writers of the nineteenth century. He may have been slightly influenced by William Wordsworth but he is not really a derivative poet, and his best work is excellent. He is represented in several Australian anthologies.

Family trivia[edit]

A brother, Joseph J. Harpur, a man of considerable ability, represented Patrick's Plains in the New South Wales legislative assembly for some years. He died on 2 May 1878.

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