Jason R. Rudy, “On Literary Melbourne: Poetry in the Colony, ca. 1854″


Few in the mid-nineteenth century would have imagined the British colonies in Australia as spaces for poetic composition, and yet reproducing culture abroad was crucial to the British colonial project. This essay explores some of the challenges faced by poets in colonial Melbourne, a city at first more interested in gold digging than literary composition.

In the early 1850s, when gold was discovered outside Melbourne, the city was not yet two decades old. By 1873 Anthony Trollope would call Melbourne “the undoubted capital, not only of Victoria but of all Australia,” and would marvel at its rapid ascent: “I believe that no city has ever attained so great a size with such rapidity” (1.383). As the colony of Victoria grew from a population of 76,000 in 1850 to 537,000 in 1860 (Mortimer 376), the London press followed its progress with interest. According to the 1856 Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, Melbourne had been “simply a provincial city” until the discovery of gold “agitated the whole civilised world,” transforming the city “as if by the wand of a magician, into one of the most bustling emporiums in the world” (“Australian Sketches” 79). An 1858 contributor to the Dublin University Magazine concurs, writing of how the “gold-fever led to the growth of Melbourne so marvellously that in two years it sprang from the rank of a third-class English town to that of a first-rate English city” (“Homes of the South” 301). The historian John Hirst suggests the gold rush brought to the fore qualities with which the colonial Australians liked to identify: “new opportunities, sudden wealth, and a hearty egalitarianism” (143). But the colony in fact was largely unprepared for such an influx of immigrants, resulting in what Macmillan’s Magazine would later call “a society . . . completely unhinged by the rapidity of its growth” (Mortimer 376).

In what follows, I use the English poet and literary critic Richard Henry Horne (later Richard Hengist Horne) to explore the challenges of establishing literary culture in the young Victorian colony. Though Horne has been largely overlooked by literary history, he aspired more than most to creating a genuine literary scene in Melbourne. He arrived there in 1852 and published his initial response to the colony in Charles Dickens’s Household Words in June 1853, complaining bitterly of the horrible conditions in which he found himself: “Luxury . . . has no place here; even comfort . . . is impossible.” Horne seems especially dismayed that Melbourne lacked the distinctions among social classes that so marked British culture of his day: “there is a mixture of the highly educated with the totally uneducated, the refined with the semi-brutal (many a convict with his bull-dog being among us), all dressing roughly, and faring precisely alike” (“Canvass Town” 366).

Gold had altered the nature of British emigration more than governmental policy ever could have. Until the early 1850s, the Australian colonies were “socially engineered,” such that the government facilitated the emigration of educated working-class men and women (Richards 165). Even after gold opened the floodgates of immigration, Melbourne maintained higher literacy rates than those found in other British colonies, or in London itself: 89 percent of the European men living in Victoria and 78 percent of women were to some extent literate in 1861 (Serle 371). This is especially impressive when one considers the raw numbers: for example, Victoria’s population more than doubled from 95,000 to 200,000 between 31 December 1851 and 31 December 1852 (“Minute” 4).

Both in Melbourne and back in Great Britain, critics voiced concern for the place of culture within the rapidly expanding city. “To bring about the future greatness which we have predicted for the colony, as the centre of a wealthy and powerful Anglo-Saxon empire in the Pacific, whose population are governed by British laws, and are in the enjoyment of British institutions,” writes Blackwood’s in 1854, “it is most important that the British element should be as largely as possible infused amongst them. Society in Australia calls especially for the presence of an educated middle class, capable of ameliorating, by its example, the rudeness of character and manners which may be expected from amongst her successful gold-diggers, bush-farmers, and traders” (“Coming Fortunes” 287). In keeping with such aspirations, ground was broken in July 1854 for both a university and a public library, ambitious projects that would become the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria.

Melbourne Public Library

Figure 1: The Public Library, Melbourne (1854)

Sir Charles Hotham, governor of the colony, proclaimed at the ground-breaking ceremony that “he could conceive no institution more necessary, constituted as society was here, and taken in connection with the University, than the Library they were about to establish. . . . There was nothing more calculated to promote morality than sound knowledge and knowledge could not be better acquired than in a public library” (“University” 4). In 1856, after the opening of the library, a writer for the Argus marveled that “any well-conducted person has now nothing to do but to walk up stairs and take down the books he wants, conditionally only on his replacing them unharmed when he has done with them. No place that we have ever visited in Melbourne has so impressed us with a sense of the advance of civilisation in Victoria as the Public Library” (“Melbourne” 4).

By the late 1860s, Melbourne would have within its bounds a circle of writers—including Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Henry Kendall—eventually recognized as some of Australia’s founding literary figures. But such a wealth of poets seemed very far from Melbourne in 1854. “Poetry and Australia,” notes Judith Wright in her 1965 study of Australian poetry, “seemed an impossible juxtaposition” (11). One did not sail to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century to pursue a poetic career. Horne, on arriving in Melbourne, went so far as publicly to distance himself from his identity as a poet, writing in a letter to the Argus, “I never thought of coming out to Australia as a man of letters, but as one possessing active energies and a very varied experience. I did not wish to exercise any abstract thinking, nor to write either poetry or prose, but to do something.” Horne conveniently fails to mention that he was already writing and publishing both poetry and prose for journals in England—and publishing re-prints of his earlier poetry in Melbourne newspapers, including the Argus itself; he insists instead that “[t]his Colony does not desire literature, or the fine arts at present, and I do not desire to contribute to them” (“Public Works” 5).

But a literary culture was nonetheless emerging in Melbourne, as Horne no doubt knew. If anything, Horne was playing coy with his readers, hoping to be drawn out as a sort of colonial literary celebrity. His letter to the Argus responded to an essay published three days prior that, in describing the roads and mining communities in and around Sawpit Gully, a region to the northeast of Melbourne, mentions Horne and bemoans his fellow colonialists’ lack of appreciation for the English poet:

Having heard that the author of “Orion” had been appointed to the command, I had the curiosity to inquire of one of the men whether it was the poet Horne that I saw close at hand. . . . “It is Mr. Horne,” was the brief rejoinder, “but he is no poet that I am aware of.” I thought the reply an appropriate one. It was the accidental echo of the Colony of Victoria. Victoria knows that she has had for the past six months a great man within her border, one of the triumvirate of living English bards. Yet she has made no sign that she is cognizant of his existence, much less that she is sensible and appreciator [sic] of his genius.

The Argus contributor goes on to wish Horne well in making his fortune digging gold, but only so that he might return with speed to England, “the land where thy noble epic”—Orion, published in 1843—“was read with swelling heart and deep emotion, where thou may’st receive the grateful incense so honorably thy due, where thou may’st consort with kindred spirits, here, alas! existing not” (“The Roads” 4).

Horne had in fact begun a campaign to publish an Australian edition of Orion early in 1853, just a few months after his arrival. He published an excerpt from his epic in the Argus in late January, calling it “The Lights of the World” and subtitled “Public Benefactors and Their Treatment.” The lines suggest an indictment of colonial literary culture, even as Horne was ostensibly attempting to build it sui generis (all the while insisting that he had no desire to be a colonial poet):

The wisdom of mankind creeps slowly on,
Subject to every doubt that can retard,
Or fling it back upon an earlier time,
So timid are man’s footsteps in the dark,
But blindest those who have no inward light.
One mind, perchance, in every age contains
The sum of all before, and much to come;
Much that’s far distant still; but that full mind,
Companioned oft by others of like scope,
Belief, and tendency, and anxious will,
A circle small transpierces and illumes:
Expanding soon, its subtle radiance
Falls blunted from the mass of flesh and bone,
The man who for his race might supersede
The work of ages, dies worn out—not used.
Yet lives he not in vain; for if his soul
Hath entered others, though imperfectly,
The circle widens as the world spins round,—
His soul works on, while he sleeps ’neath the grass. (5)

Horne undoubtedly wishes to imagine himself one of the lights of the world, a mind that might understand history and human nature—and anticipate “much that’s far distant still.” Unappreciated and—at the time of its publication, at least—largely unrecognized in the Melbourne colony for his contributions as a “public benefactor,” he resigns himself to dying “worn out—not used,” and yet still having an effect on the world he’s left behind.

When the Australian edition of Orion finally came out, in October 1854, Horne introduced it as “the first Poetic Work ever published in this Gold-trading Colony” (iii). Orion may well have been the first volume of poetry published in Melbourne; both Barron Field’s 1819 First Fruits of Australian Poetry (the first published in Australia) and Fidelia Hill’s 1840 Poems and Recollections of the Past (the first published by a woman in Australia) came out in Sydney. Horne muses on the strangeness of Orion’s publication in the colony: “I little imagined on leaving England,” he writes in the preface, “that the next edition of ‘Orion’ as an ‘experiment upon the mind of a nation’ (in embryo, though this nation is) would be called for in Melbourne” (xvi). Horne quotes here from his own prefatory note to the original 1843 Orion, in which he had imagined his poem as not “a mere echo or reflection of the Past” (n.p.), but a vital, living work, with the power to influence the spirit of the age. How curious, Horne suggests in his 1854 edition, to think of his poem now influencing the development of a colony so distant from the land of its original composition.

On receiving Horne’s book, the Argus noted that it “is very well got up. . . . It’s success will be as gratifying as its very appearance is a matter of interest.” The volume, the newspaper concluded, is “a very creditable specimen of colonial typography” (“Domestic Intelligence” 5). Lack of further comment by the Argus may indicate that the volume was not especially influential in the young colony. But Horne was not one to rest. In early 1855 he helped to establish the Garrick Club, an amateur theater company whose first performance, according to the Argus, “would have been favorably received in any town in the mother country . . . and some of the leading characters would put many professionals of long standing to the blush” (“Geelong” 6). In a manuscript from this period, Horne insists that the “attempt to found a Guild of Literature and Art in Victoria . . . is not premature.” Gesturing most likely to the newly constructed public library, he continues, “[t]he tide of books has now set in; before another year has passed, not only the majority of the best works of ancient genius and learning will be found in the city, but most of the standard work of European literature” (Papers 421). Over the next two decades, Horne would go on to publish a handful of mildly well-received volumes, including an epic drama, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer (1864), and a poem on the opening of the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, The South-Sea Sisters, A Lyric Masque. When Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited Melbourne in 1867, Horne composed an “odaic cantata” to mark the occasion:

Son of our Queen!
Our hearts’ belov’d—our ever heart-true Queen—
We recognise in thee
The seaboard branch of that dear island Tree,
Sacred to Science—Art—and Liberty—
Queen and Queen Consort! Chronicled must be
Thy Royal Mother’s Throne—
Like a pure star that shines alone—
The most beneficent reign
In Britain’s history. (9-18)

With such productions in his oeuvre, biographer Ann Blainey calls Horne “Melbourne’s official literary spokesman” for this period: “the unofficial Laureate of Victoria” (233, 231).

Melbourne, it turns out, indeed wanted its poets, much as it wanted “culture” more broadly understood; in the early 1850s it lacked only the institutions to support such a culture. When the contributor for Blackwood’s noted in 1854 the importance of “the British element” in “bring[ing] about the future greatness” of the Australian colony, few could doubt literature was at least part of what he had in mind. According to the historian James Belich, British colonies in the nineteenth century worked explicitly to accomplish what the author for Blackwood’s was calling for, practicing an art of “cloning” that actively recreated British legal, political, and cultural institutions in colonial spaces. This work of cloning was essential, Belich argues, for encouraging emigration in the first place: a colony such as Melbourne could be, in effect, a mini-England, a familiar and welcoming space, but with more opportunities than were to be found in England itself (168). But reproducing culture abroad was also necessary if emigrants were to stay in such far-off spaces: necessary to make those distant colonies feel enough like home to warrant permanent settlement.

Richard Hengist Horne eventually left Australia, returning to England in 1869 aboard the Lady Jocelyn in mild defeat. A fellow passenger, writing in a newspaper published aboard the ship, tellingly praised him first as “the friend and associate of many of the master minds in the literature of the present age—of Leigh Hunt, Thackeray, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Dickens, Browning, and Tennyson,” and only then, and with the whiff of faint praise, as “author of several works bearing the impress of originality and great literary ability” (“Orion” 65). Though Horne failed to establish himself as a great poet of the Melbourne colony, seventeen years after his arrival on “the most inhospitable shore on the face of the civilised globe” (“Canvass Town” 367), he left behind a city in which poetry no longer seemed quite so outlandish: a city with a monumental public library, a university, and a culture—as Prince Alfred put it on his visit—that “cl[u]ng with affection to England and English institutions” (“Duke of Edinburgh” 5). Indeed, the very same issue of the Argus that announced Horne’s departure for England also reported the first meeting of the Yorick Club, “which is composed of gentlemen connected with literary, scientific, and artistic pursuits.” According to the Argus, the organization numbered “upwards of 100 members” (“Social” 1). When the English actor Charles Mathews visited Melbourne the following year, he was welcomed by the Yorick Club at a dinner of nearly seventy. “From the moment I set foot on shore,” he told the assembled members, “I seemed to be instantly recognised as readily as if I had been in Liverpool or Manchester.” Impressed with the culture of a colonial city only thirty-five years old, Matthews—then sixty two—mused, “When Melbourne gets to be my age, think what it will be then. (Laughter and cheers.) That will be something worth witnessing” (“Mr. Charles Mathews” 149).

Jason R. Rudy is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Electric Meters: Victorian Physiological Poetics (Ohio, 2009), and co-editor of a special issue of Victorian Literature and Culture on “Victorian Cosmopolitanisms” (Fall 2010). His current project, Nostalgia at Sea, concerns the poetry of nineteenth-century British emigrants to Australia, South Africa, and Canada.


Rudy, Jason R. “On Literary Melbourne: Poetry in the Colony, ca. 1854.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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