Sunday Poetry – Henry Lawson


It’s been very hot the last few days so I felt I needed an Australian poem that would reflect how harsh an Australian summer can be. I always find it useful when I’m feeling miserable & hot to read about the summers of 100 years ago when people coped without all our modern conveniences. It doesn’t make me feel any cooler but it makes me grateful that I live now rather than then.

Henry Lawson (photo from here) had a sad life marred by mental illness & alcoholism but he was a witness to the lives of the people living in the bush, the outback. His stories & poetry bring those people to life. This poem is called Outback.

The old year went and the new returned in the withering weeks of drought
The cheque was spent that the shearer earned and the sheds were all cut out
The publican’s words were short and few and the publican’s looks were black
And the time had come as the shearer knew to carry his swag outback.

For time means tucker and tramp you must where scrubs and plains are wide
With seldom a track a man could trust or a mountain peak to guide
All day long in the dust and heat when summer is on the track
With empty stomach and blistered feet they carried their swags outback.

He tramped away from the shanty tree when the days were long and hot
With never a soul to know or care if he died on the track or not
The poor in the city have friends in woe no matter how much they lack
But only God and the swagman knows how a poor man fairs outback.

He begged his way to the parched Parroo and the Warrago tracks once more
And lived like a dog like as swagmen do till the Western Stations shore
But men were many and sheds were full for work in the town was slack
And the traveler never got his hands in wool though he tramped for a year Outback.
In stifling noons when his back was wrung but it’s load and the air seemed dead
And the water warmed in the bag that hung to his aching arm like lead
Or in times of flood when plains were seas and the scrubs were cold and black
He ploughed in mud to his trembling knees and paid for his sins Outback.

Dirty and careless and old he wore as his lamp of hope grew dim
He tramped for years till the swag he wore seemed part of himself to him
As a bullock drags in sandy ruts he followed the dreary track
With never a thought but to reach the huts when the sun went down Outback.

It chanced one day when the North wind blew in his face like a furnace breath
He left the track for a tank he knew – t’was a shorter cut to death
For the bed of the tank was hard and dry and crossed with many a crack
And oh its a terrible thing to die of thirst in the scrub outback.

A drover came but the fringe of the Law was Eastwood many a mile
He never reported a thing he saw for it was not worth his while.
The Tanks are full and the grass is high in the Mulga off the track
Where the bleaching bones of a white man lie by his mouldering swag Outback

2 thoughts on “Sunday Poetry – Henry Lawson

  1. Difficult to believe now but my Dad was sent by his father to Mudgee, NSW in 1926 at the age of 16. Initially, he worked as a gardener but as the Depression deepened, he became a Jackaroo. A few years ago a cousin, who lives in Bathurst, and I retraced his travels which we got from his old photo,album. He didn’t speak much about his 4/5 years when he was back in England but Henry Lawson perfectly evokes the isolation and loneliness. One story I remember was when he swam a river with his dog and his horse and got riverblindness for two days. Have to say he returned to the UK and lived a successful life. Many thanks for sharing this poem.


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