Charles Harpur was born and bred on Australian soil, and though the conditions of life in the then infant colony were such that he suffered from a lack of scholarly training, of stimulating companionship, and of worthy and intelligent criticism—which prevented his genius from accomplishing all that it might have done under more favourable circumstances—these disadvantages will not hide from the attentive reader his genuine gifts of imagination, of power over rhyme and rhythm, and of flow of lyric song. He was born at Windsor, a country town on the Hawksbury River, in the colony of New South Wales, in 1817. His father, Joseph Harpur, was the master of the Government District school; and though this enabled him to acquire a better education, perhaps, than was then generally attainable by the majority of the native born, yet he maybe held to have been, in the widest sense of the term, a self-taught man. To the remarkable moral and intellectual qualities of both his parents Charles Harpur has always acknowledged his deep indebtedness, but the worldly position of his father was such that the boy was early thrown upon his own resources for a livelihood.
He was never out of his native country, and his “aptest years,” as he says—the greater part of his mature life, in fact—were passed in the solitudes of the bush. The lessons thus taught by Nature are easily traceable in his writings, and were as easily discernible in his character. He had a pure faith and trust in God, superior to all creeds and dogmas, an exalted ideal of liberty, and was a hopeful believer in humanity and the future of the race. He was by turns woodcutter, hunter, and explorer; and for some years in early manhood he held an appointment as accountant in the Post-office in Sydney, devoting his leisure to literary pursuits. The principal advantage to himself accruing from his attempt at city life, however, was the acquaintance he made with the few literary men of that day, and the sympathy and encouragement he received from them was very grateful to him.
In 1843 Charles Harpur left Sydney, and went to reside on the Hunter River, where he lived for a few years with his elder brother, Joseph J. Harpur (afterwards well known as a writer for the colonial newspaper press), engaged in farming pursuits.
In 1850 Mr. Harpur married Mary, the eldest daughter of Mr. E. Doyle, of Eulengo, Jerry’s Plains, by whom he had five children. The marriage was productive of much happiness, even through subsequent seasons of poverty, failure, and sickness. For a year or two after his marriage Mr. Harpur worked a small sheep-station for himself; but as this did not prove as profitable as he desired, he, in 1858, took the appointment of Gold Commissioner at Araluen, which was offered to him by Sir John Robertson. He sold off his station and stock at a sacrifice, and retained this appointment for eight years, having in the meantime established a farm at Eurobodalla. The farm turned out a bad speculation for he was necessarily too much away from it to admit of economical management, and it thus absorbed all his savings fruitlessly; so that when, in 1866, he lost his appointment by reason of the abolishment of the office, he was but ill-prepared to cope with this reverse of fortune, and begin the world again. The great sorrow of the poet’s life came on him shortly after, in the loss of his second son, a lad of great Promise, who was killed by the accidental discharge of his own gun, in March, 1867. Mr. Harpur never recovered from the shock of this sad event; and the great floods and long wet winter of 1867, disastrous to his farming operations, assisted in bringing on a long and fatal illness. He died on the 10th of June, 1868, his keen intellect and strong religious faith serving him to the end. Mrs. Harpur is still living, and has assisted in giving her late husband’s most cherished lifework to the world.
Though Charles Harpur worked with characteristic vigour, he was influenced by no sordid craving for wealth; his sole ambition was to become a poet worthy of the land he loved—to be the “bard of his country.” And if the choice he often had to make between the course which would tend towards this long-cherished aim and that which might have brought him more worldly advantage left him poor at last, let it not be supposed that his lot was without many and rich compensations, for the Poet’s mind is ever open to natural sources of happiness. His friendships were many and warm, his family affections strong; and he had an ever-ready solace in the works of his best-loved poets—Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Shelley.
One result of Mr. Harpur’s financial ill-success was that during his lifetime no full edition of his works was ever published ; but a collection of his sonnets was brought out somewhere about the year 1840. Some of his shorter pieces have also been printed from time to time, in newspapers and elsewhere. The best of these are here republished, in many cases with last corrections by the author’s own hand. In the case of others, and especially of his latest, and on the whole finest work, the editor has had, with diffidence, to supply those final revisions which the author had been obliged to leave unmade.
The want of success here referred to is not to be taken as evidence of total failure. No true man can shrink from the responsibility of doing the best that in him lies for the world in which he lives, and it would, indeed, be a narrow reading of the best to bind it down to mere material advancement. Every thought that helps to lift us above the dull cares of earth must be treasured jealously. Man does not live by bread alone. Wheat and wool and copper and gold, are not the only possessions worth striving for. We need constantly to remember that the fine imagination of the poet is a gift to be cherished with reverential tenderness. In this new land we have our literature yet to build up, and if haste or ignorance or apathy should lead us to neglect the pioneers of our Australian writers, we are doing not the best, but the worst for the real progress of our country.