1 March 2024 Susannah

Banjo Paterson & Clancy of the Overflow

The Drover, by Walter Withers

A friend told me recently that her favourite poem in the world was Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow so I thought I’d feature that Australian masterpiece this month.

Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just “on spec”, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of The Overflow”.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)
Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all

And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.

And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal —
But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of “The Overflow”.

The poem was first published in The Bulletin in December 1889, under the name of ‘The Banjo’. It has remained one of his best-known works and is typical in its idealisation of the rural life. The ‘I’ of the poem is a city man who once met Clancy and, trapped in his stuffy office, envies Clancy the joys of a drover’s life.

It’s a simple poem of 8 stanzas, the language is straightforward and colloquial (such terms as “on spec”, for example), and the whole idea of the poem is of a romanticised rural landscape and lifestyle. It paints a strong picture of ‘mateship’, an idea so beloved of Australians, and it laments the passing of the old droving ways of life as society grows more urban. Paterson’s contemporary and rival, Henry Lawson, would not have approved – for Lawson, the country was not a romantic place at all, and city life was what he preferred.

The Overflow is a sheep and cattle property about 618 km northwest of Sydney. The Lachlan River is about 100km away, well within the distance that animals would have been taken for grazing.

The poem has become a part of Australian culture. In 1897 a man named Gerlad Clancy penned Clancy’s Reply, presenting a far from glowing picture of bush life. Clancy makes a cameo appearance in Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River (and also in the movie of that poem), it has been set to music several times, illustrated by artists, and journalist Richard Glover named his dog ‘Clancy’ in its honour. There has been an ABC documentary on ‘Who was Clancy of the Overflow?

There’s a lovely reading of the poem, with musical interludes, by Jack Thompson:

Is this very Australian poem a favourite of yours too? Let me know by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- The Drover, by Walter Withers, 1912, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13654132
Body image: The Bullletin 1889, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-488923924/view?partId=nla.obj-488931296#page/n19/mode/1up

Comments (13)

  1. Ada Cable-de Graaff

    Clancy is special to me as I could understand most of its meaning. I was going to high school and slowly learning English. There was nothing like ESL then, you sat in class copied from the blackboard, used a dictionary to translate words.
    Another poem I liked was Lochinvar came out of the West. We came from the North… the Netherlands in 1954.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      No, it wasn’t easy for ‘foreign’ kids then – they just had to learn the language fast in order to cope in the playground. I am glad Clancy was one of your first Aussie poems – hopefully the first of many. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Louise

    Serendipity – I have just come into possession of the complete works of both Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. I was just reading the poem when your email came through. I also learnt it at school in the bayside suburbs of Melbourne and still love it 50 yrs on. Thanks for the video clip. Jack read it so well and with a different arrangement to how I was taught to read it.

  3. Marjorie June

    I was very excited to hear all about ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ as it brought back many memories.
    In the early 1980’s I lived at Nymagee for a time with my two young daughters having escaped domestic violence in Canberra, leaving behind a beautiful home and garden. The girls and I loved living in the red dirt in a caravan on a friends property. We had many adventures and met lots of interesting characters. A far cry from life in Canberra. A place where we felt safe. One of the highlights was having lunch on the property “Overflow” as we had got to know the people living there. I don’t remember their names or finer details. I do remember being excited to be there hearing about the history. The poem had always been a favourite from childhood.
    Many thanks Susannah.

  4. Janet

    Thank you Susannah for revisiting this wonderful poem. I too first heard it at school many decades ago. The poem and Jack Thompson’s excellent performance has rekindled many fond memories for me. Bring back poetry in schools, I say.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, learning poetry by heart should be a compulsory part of every child’s education. Jack Thompson read it beautifully, didn’t he.

  5. Sue

    I learnt the poem by heart in Grade 4 at Wagga Wagga Demonstration School and 75 years later I’ve never forgotten the words and the sentiment which still comforts me.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I never came across the poem at school, as I grew up in NZ, but it does seem to have been a popular school choice. It’s such a fabulous poem and I’m glad I at last found it as an adult.

  6. John

    When I turned 9, the family finally bought a house. On the bathroom wall, next to the sink, was taped the poem “Clancy of the Overflow.” My sisters and I all memorised it. I imagine it might have been put there to indicate how long one should brush one’s teeth.

  7. Honey

    What a fabulous poem! Beautifully constructed and capturing its images so perfectly.

  8. Christine Stevenson

    As I read “Clancy” my beautiful mum’s voice reciting it came clearly through the words! What memories I have of all the well known Australian poems she knew and loved. We also had a well worn copy of “The Wide Brown Land” with all its poetic treasures.

    How sad it is that learning poetry is no longer part of the curriculum in our schools. Rhyme and rythm are great facilitators for storing information at any stage of life!

    Thank you for the information you added. Now I know how Clancy the dog got his name!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad it brought back lovely memories. I agree – it is really sad that students these days never seem to learn a poem off by heart. Poetry is so wonderful and should be enjoyed by young and old.

      • My favourite poem too, with two of the most beautiful lines ever written:

        And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
        And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

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