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Vergil in the Antipodes: the Classical Tradition and Colonial Australian Literature

Sarah Midford

La Trobe University, Melbourne

When Captain Cook claimed terra Australis for the British Empire in 1770, the continent was understood to be an empty land, devoid of history, culture, and civilization. In place of built environments and written histories, or what was thought of as recognisable cultural and historical heritage, the new settlers emphasized Australia’s great potential: Australia was a sleeping continent brought to life by European settlement (Yarrington, 1879). The idea that Australia would eventually succeed Britain and Rome as the next great empire was popular in the mid-nineteenth-century, and this paper argues that the classical tradition was used in early colonial literature to present Australia’s great potential. To demonstrate this contention, the paper elucidates references in early colonial literature to Vergil’s Georgics and the Aeneid, which cast Australia as an infant empire and highlighted its future potential.      

Australian writers used the widely understood language of the classics to define a distinctive national character, one steeped in the Western tradition dating back to antiquity; consequently, classical allusions permeated Australian national symbols from their earliest construction (Atkinson, 1997; Griffiths, 1996; Macintyre, 1987). For example, New South Wales, Australia’s first colony, was strongly associated with Etruria and the Etruscan people, and the first seal of New South Wales included words from Vergil’s Georgicssic fortis Etruria crevit (Verg. G., 2.534)—to promote the notion that the colony’s prosperity would come from farming and associated industries.

Drawing on Chris Healy’s (1997) contention that there is a link between Aeneas and the discovery of the Australian continent, this paper examines two case studies to demonstrate the employment of the classical tradition in early colonial literature. The first is the work of Michael Massey Robinson, the freed convict appointed New South Wales Poet Laureate in 1810. In Robinson’s poems, British descendants of Aeneas discover Australia (for example, Robinson, 1811). Robert Dixon and Jeanette Hoorn (2013) argue that, in fabricating this lineage, Robinson establishes a long and ancient history for the newly settled land. The paper extends Dixon and Hoorn’s argument, using a second case study to establish that colonial Australian literature claimed more extensive lineage from ancient Rome. This case study looks at the work of the classicist and botanist William Woolls, who connects the Vergilian pastoral ideal to the beauty and functionality of the Australian landscape. Woolls’ Australian landscape recalls Vergil’s Italian landscapes and casts the Australian people as heirs to the classical tradition. By connecting the idealized landscapes of ancient Greece and Rome to the beauty and functionality of the Australian landscape, Woolls characterizes those who work the Australian land as noble equivalents of those who did the same in ancient literature (Woolls, 1838). Although investigation into the use of pastoral and georgic has been undertaken in Britain (Feingold, 1978) and America (Gentilcore, 1995), there is almost no scholarship on its use in colonial Australia. This paper seeks to address this gap in the scholarship.    

The two case studies illustrate that Robinson and Woolls crafted a link between Vergil’s Italy and New South Wales in order to promote the colony’s potential. In particular, this paper establishes that it was by emphasizing Australia’s connections to the ancient world, its ancient ancestral lineage and its agricultural merits, that the great potential of the young civilization could be celebrated, and the need for ancient ruins obviated. By linking Australia’s European settlement to the foundation of Rome, colonial Australia was characterized as being at the beginning of a very long history that, based on historical precedent, would eventually result in a great and esteemed empire.

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Global Classical Traditions

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