Murray’s wholesale rejection of Modernism may seem to mark him as simply an isolated provincial conservative swimming against the tide of the times. But there was more substance to his response than that. For a poet to repudiate newfangled foreign fashions and stand up instead for a home-grown tradition that celebrated the life of the mounted frontiersman (or his outlaw cousin the bushranger) was, in its Australian context, a clear political statement. Since the 1890s, the lone horseman in the bush had been used, in agitation for union of the six British colonies in an Australian federation, as an icon of national identity. “The narrow ways of English folk/Are not for such as we;/They bear the long-accustomed yoke/Of staid conservancy,” wrote A.B.(“Banjo”) Paterson, much-loved poet of the bush. “We must saddle up and ride/Towards the blue hill’s breast:/And we must travel far and fast/Across their rugged maze.” In truth, even in Paterson’s time there was more than a little idealization in the picture of Australians as restless frontier spirits: by 1900 a majority were settled in towns and cities (compared with 40 percent in the United States). But in pitting the ballad tradition against the Modernists, Murray was calling on Australian poetry to follow its own native course and foster its own native values, including an optimistic expansiveness that turned its back on both the “narrow ways” of the old Mother Country and the cramped despair of the Modernists, and a no-nonsense egalitarianism, suspicious of all pretensions, including intellectual pretensions. (Of the three rallying cries of modern democratic revolutions, equality has always had more resonance in Australia than liberty.)
more from J.M. Coetzee at the NYRB here.