Q&A with Paul Eggert and Chris Vening, editors of The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle

Chris Vening is an independent researcher in Australian colonial culture and a major contributor to the Charles Harpur Critical Archive.

Paul Eggert FAHA is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Chicago and the University of New South Wales. He is a scholarly editor, book historian and editorial theorist.


Tell us a bit about how your interest in the poetry and life of Charles Harpur began. 

Paul Eggert (PE): I became immersed in colonial and later prose, poetry and plays when serving as general editor of the Academy Editions of Australian Literature project. This project encompassed ten fat volumes published by the University of Queensland Press from 1996 to 2007. We had hoped to include Harpur’s poetry but the problems involved in capturing and documenting it all were monumental and had to wait. As a preliminary step in 2019, we were able to encompass online the 2,700 versions of his 700 poems in the Charles Harpur Critical Archive (CHCA: charles-harpur.org). The editorial work of digesting the meanings of what has been documented (together with its seemingly endless textual variation) was required, we soon saw, before we could get on with an edition of the poetry and of the letters that we had discovered along the way. Only thus would there be a reliable biographical backbone on which to plot not just Harpur’s life in detail but his poetry and prose as it emerged and was revised, year by year, from the 1830s when he began to write until his death in 1868. 

Chris Vening (CV):  My interest came via the CHCA and Trove. Some years back I joined the people who trawl through the pages of the newspapers digitised on the National Library’s Trove website, correcting the often-garbled machine-readable text that makes it possible to search millions of pages. I was drawn to the colonial newspaper verse – not just the greats like Harpur and Kendall, but also the oddities and eccentrics, and Trove has a wealth of them, usually hiding behind pseudonyms. I wrote papers on a couple of the more obscure ones; Paul saw these and invited me to help out with CHCA. We live a few doors apart in Canberra, so liaison was no problem day to day, though most of our work – including with Desmond Schmidt in Brisbane – was via email, which as it turned out was a boon during COVID. I started by helping with transcription of the letters and chasing biographical material, mainly at the Mitchell Library and NSW State Archives. My main interest was in Harpur’s life and the colonial cultural context, so the next step was to build the Harpur biographical timeline on CHCA, which is annotated with hundreds of live links to newspapers, manuscripts and websites like the Australian Dictionary of Biography. From there it was a short step to the much more extensive footnotes needed for The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle and the forthcoming Supplementary Letters.     

The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle is the first collection of Harpur’s letters to be published, including correspondence from his peers. What do the letters from Harpur’s contemporaries contribute to this portrait of the poet’s life? 

PE: There has been only one biography of Harpur, by J. Normington Rawling in 1962. Much editorial and then online archival work of the last 60 years has gradually opened up his manifold contributions, both poetic and political, to colonial culture, especially of the 1830s to the 1860s. The moment to reassess the long-held celebratory view that he was the most important nature poet of the period has arrived. The letters show a much more various and intriguing figure than had been guessed, often revealed at his best in correspondence with fellow colonial poets, Henry Kendall first among them. Harpur was also a deeply committed practitioner-poet, endlessly revising his poems as they proceeded to publication in various forms in colonial newspapers (at least 900 appearances) and towards their anticipated collection in book form, one that would never come during his lifetime. The posthumously-edited collection of 1883 called Poems, which abridged and altered the texts of his poems at will to suit emerging tastes – a process captured in detail in the edition of The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle – is a fascinating indicator of how distinctive and potentially disturbing Harpur’s style and thinking actually were. 

CV: Much of the correspondence between Harpur and Kendall deals with technical verse-making, with Kendall’s labours to publish Harpur in Sydney, and with his admiration (or otherwise) for English contemporaries like Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne. Kendall was an unqualified admirer of Harpur, describing the older man as the national poet to the rising generation and often expressing his belief in Harpur’s greatness. But in Kendall’s comments and responses we read Harpur’s own doubts and fears about his future reputation, his “keen discontent” with his isolation – personal and cultural – in the goldfields, his contempt for the newspapers and newspaper people he relied on to publish his verse, his resentment of injury by those he considered his intellectual inferiors, and the growing frustration and melancholy that would affect his last years.  

From Harpur’s widow Mary, whose letters describe her struggles to realise his ambition to publish his verse, we glimpse the poet’s anger and frustration at the marring of his work by careless printers (“I have so often seen poor Chas stamping mad at such calamities”) and, even worse, with those like newspaper editor W.A. Duncan who dared interfere with a Harpur poem – a fate which, ironically, would befall his own posthumous Poems of 1883. From Mary, too, we get hints of Harpur’s hopes of lasting recognition (he “knew not all and expected too much”), as well as his private opinion (never articulated in his own letters) that Kendall was not the “great poet” he would come to be considered in Kendall’s own lifetime. Henry Parkes reveals his doubts about Harpur’s character earlier in their friendship than we might expect; Joseph Jehoshaphat Harpur, despite their estrangement, emphasises his brother’s generous disposition (his “faults were faults of temper”); while Harpur’s daughter Mary Araluen defends her father from the charge of intemperance, and describes his long-lasting admiration and affection for his wife. 

In the book, you describe Harpur as “witheringly satirical” and “always witty”. Are there any particular poems or letter excerpts that, to your mind, best embody these traits? 

PE: “The ‘Nevers’ of Poetry” is the outstanding example, one of many poems. It grew and grew as the years went by and as Harpur settled scores with his political and other opponents. Newspaper poetry was the principal vehicle for poetry in the colonial period when local book publication had otherwise to be paid for in advance. Such poems sat cheek-by-jowl with news reports on the very figures Harpur was attacking. Readers held poetry in high cultural esteem, so this phenomenon gave poetry a special edge and advantage. Harpur could wield the knife of satire to great effect even though most readers today think of him on the basis of his anthology appearances as solely a nature poet. 

CV: The editor of the posthumous Poems deliberately avoided Harpur’s satirical and comedic material – whether from the loss of topicality or the risk of offending the still-powerful is not clear. For this we go to manuscripts and newspapers. “The Temple of Infamy” (whose designated ID in the CHCA is  h580c) was Harpur’s Dunciad, “the first step”, he called it, “in an attempt to expose, and root up if possible, the ‘thousand and one’ Infamies that are everywhere depraving the morals and debasing the intellects of the rising generation of this Colonial Public.” His anonymous “Squatter Songs” in Duncan’s newspaper are full of indignation beneath the ironic humour – for example “The Beautiful Squatter” (h560a). His diatribes against W.C. Wentworth in verse (like h713c) and prose; his letters of outraged indignation against critics like Hastings Elwin (Letters 10 and 11 in The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle); his bitter recriminations against editor Samuel Bennett (Letter 126) who had brushed aside Harpur’s offer to contribute articles, all gave play to his sardonic wit, whether impelled by rage or humour or both. As an example, read this passage from Letter 37 to The Empire of 1853, blasting the nominee NSW Legislative Council and proposing various tests Governor FitzRoy might apply in selecting his nominees to it: 

But the final test … is a much mightier thing, I can tell you, than it looks to be, and is by no means to be sneezed at. In short, it is a thumping great nose! a round, robustious, broad-backed, elephantine, Wellingtonian, dodolike upper mandible! Be this your test, Sir Charles. Pack our Nominee Chamber with noses of such amplitude, and consequently of such a roaring sternutational power, that one-and-twenty of them, well provided with Prince’s mixture, might even discharge (if need were) on the anniversary of a coronation, or what not, a very satisfactory and right royal salute, to the public saving of much excellent gunpowder. Yes, Sir Charles, stick to this nose test. It will not only give us the shadow, but something of the substance, such as it is, of a genuine House of Lords. For a nose of the size and fashion here meant, when surmounted with a forehead so far recedent as to be incapable of the corrective of deep thinking, is indicative of intense sensualism, selfishness extreme, and a brute obstinacy; and constitutes (thus surmounted) the upper facial type of the great mass of the British aristocracy. And if it be right for us to copy this same aristocracy in its legislative functions, it can hardly be wrong, even for the look of the thing, to copy it also as far as we can in this, the most marked, of its featural idiosyncracies. 

What insights into 19th century Australian society and literature have you gleaned from Harpur’s letters and/or poetry? 

PE: Our work on the letters gave colonial culture a density and presence neither of us had experienced in quite this way before. Its idealism, especially of the 1840s and early 1850s, comes fully into focus in The Letters edition as the forms that representative government would take were battled out in the public arena. The idealism needs further study as it acts as a counterweight to accounts that stress the (undeniable) violence towards Aboriginal peoples on the shifting colonial frontier. How did idealists such as Harpur ride the seeming contradiction? The Letters edition makes its contribution to that urgently needed debate.  

The other principal insight for me was recognising the contemporaneity of colonial culture, its surprising up-to-dateness with what was happening in the literary world centred in London. Focussing on the letters of a single poet and those of his circle has brought alive, by forcing us to understand, the relevant facts of book history that allowed this to happen.  

Harpur was the son of two former convicts who went on to become pillars of their local community. How did his family background inform his writing and political views? 

PE: Harpur grew up in a family where his ex-convict father was also the local school teacher at Windsor, NSW, where his brother would also become a poet, even if only a minor one, and where Harpur himself seems to have had access to some good private library, perhaps that of the Reverend Samuel Marsden. Cheap reprinted literature was also readily available in the colony, and Harpur took full advantage of it, even though a poor man for most of his life. Of Emancipist (ex-convict) stock, Harpur was the natural enemy of the Exclusivists who separated themselves from those with the convict taint. Harpur took particular delight in skewering the pretensions of the large landholding squatters as well as his political opponents, especially in the 1850s.  

CV: Harpur was indeed a “natural enemy of the Exclusivists”, and delighted in skewering the pretensions of the great squatter landholders and politicians. That said, his convict connections don’t figure prominently in his verse or letters. He opposed the re-introduction of transportation, but so did most other progressives of the day. His obituary lines for his emancipist father (h297c) make only brief and discreet reference (“I stand in thought beside my Father’s Grave: / The grave of one who, in his old age, died / Too late, perhaps, since he endured so much / Of corporal anguish, sweating bloody sweat…”); and even his play The Bushrangers makes very slight reference to convict origins of the protagonists. Harpur’s consciousness of a convict heritage was overlaid by a passionate belief in the destiny of his generation of Australians to create a new society – egalitarian, democratic – out of the stuff of the old, and this informed his radicalism of the 1840s–1850s. 

What other resources would you recommend for readers interested in learning more about early colonial literary culture in Australia? 

Online resources: 

The Charles Harpur Critical Archive. ed. Paul Eggert (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2019): online archival resource at charles-harpur.org 

AustLit database: online bibliographical resource at austlit.edu.au 

Trove: online colonial-era newspapers in facsimile and transcription: trove.nla.gov.au 

J. Normington-Rawling. Charles Harpur: An Australian (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962) (the only biography of Harpur). 

Literary-historical works: 

Jennifer Alison, Doing Something for Australia: George Robertson and the Early Years of Angus & Robertson, Publishers 1888–1900 (Melbourne: BSANZ, 2009)  

Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London: Anthem, 2012)  

The Cambridge History of the Australian Novel, ed. David Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023) 

The Cambridge History of Australian Poetry, ed. Philip Mead and Ann Vickery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2024 


The Letters of Charles Harpur and his Circle is available now. Order your copy here.