“The Man from Snowy River” is a poem by Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson. It was first published in The Bulletin, an Australian news magazine, on 26 April 1890, and was published by Angus & Robertson in October 1895, with other poems by Paterson, in The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses.
The poem tells the story of a horseback pursuit to recapture the colt of a prizewinning racehorse that escaped from its paddock and is living with the Brumbies (wild horses) of the mountain ranges. Eventually, the Brumbies descend a seemingly impassably steep slope, at which point the assembled riders give up the pursuit, except the young protagonist, who spurs his “pony” (small horse) down the “terrible descent” and catches the mob.
Two characters mentioned in the early part of the poem are featured in previous Paterson poems; “Clancy of the Overflow” and Harrison from “Old Pardon, Son of Reprieve”.
There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.
There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup,
The old man with his hair as white as snow;
But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up-
He would go wherever horse and man could go.
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand,
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.
And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.
But so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, “That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop-lad, you’d better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.”
So he waited sad and wistful – only Clancy stood his friend –
“I think we ought to let him come,” he said;
“I warrant he’ll be with us when he’s wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.”
“He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.”
So he went – they found the horses by the big mimosa clump –
They raced away towards the mountain’s brow,
And the old man gave his orders, “Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.”
So Clancy rode to wheel them – he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stockhorse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden dash,
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.
Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their sway,
Were mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, “We may bid the mob good day,
No man can hold them down the other side.”
When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy took a pull,
It well might make the boldest hold their breath,
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.
He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timbers in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.
He was right among the horses as they climbed the further hill
And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely, he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.
Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.
And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound in their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.
And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.
Setting of the poem
It is recorded in the selected works of “Banjo” Paterson that the location of the ride fictionalised in the poem was in the region of today’s Burrinjuck Dam, north-west of Canberra in Australian Capital Territory. Paterson had helped round up Brumbies as a child and later owned property in this region.
The Snowy River, from where “the Man” comes, has its headwaters in the Snowy Mountains, the highest section of the Great Dividing Range near the easternmost part of the border between New South Wales and Victoria. The ride does not take place in the Snowy River region because, within the poem, Clancy describes to the other men the country from where “the man from Snowy River” comes.
Corryong, a small town on the western side of the range, claims stockman Jack Riley (1841–1914) as the inspiration for the character, and like many other towns in the region uses the image of the character as part of the marketing to tourists. Riley was a hermit stockman employed by John Pearce of Greg Station at Corryong to run cattle at “Tom Groggin” 60 km upriver from Khancoban, New South Wales. Paterson is said (by Corryong legend) to have met Riley on at least two occasions.
The inspiration for “The Man” was claimed by Banjo himself to be not one person but a number of people, one of which was Owen Cummins. Cummins was born in Dargo and was well known for being a great horseman. He worked around the area before making his way up to Wave Hill, Northern Territory, where a monument has been erected to reflect his role in inspiring the poem.
There is a possibility that another exceptional and fearless rider, Charlie McKeahnie, might have been the inspiration for the poem. In 1885, when McKeahnie was only 17 years of age, he performed a dangerous riding feat in the Snowy River region. Historian Neville Locker supports this theory, adding that a prior poem had been written about McKeahnie by bush poet Barcroft Boake and that the story had been recounted by a Mrs Hassle to a crowd that included Paterson. Locker also offers as evidence a letter by McKeahnie’s sister that discusses the ride and Paterson’s hearing of the ride. McKeahnie was killed in a riding accident near Bredbo in 1895 and is buried in the Old Adaminaby cemetery, on the shores of Lake Eucumbene.
Other historians point to the claims of Jim Troy, who died aged 33. Troy was related by marriage to Thomas McNamara, said to be “Clancy”, subject of another famous Paterson poem, Clancy of the Overflow. “Clancy” also had a second claim to absolute knowledge of the “man” having been included in the Snowy River poem as “no better horseman ever held the reins”. McNamara gave an interview to the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper in 1938 in which he recalled the actual details of that terrific chase in the hills beside Wagga Wagga.
Another possibility is J.R. Battye from Walgett. In a report, in the papers in 1877 and likely seen by Paterson, Battye while Brumby shooting spurs his horse on when it slips its bridle and, powerless over the animal’s actions trusts it to follow the wild ones, which it does, catching them after several miles through country thickly timbered and full of holes.
Historical context of the poem
The poem was written at a time in the 1880s and 1890s when Australia was developing a distinct identity as a nation. Though Australia was still a set of independent colonies under the final authority of Britain, and had not yet trod the path of nationhood, there was a distinct feeling that Australians needed to be united and become as one. Australians from all walks of life, be they from the country or the city (Clancy of the Overflow), looked to the bush for their mythology and heroic characters. They saw in the Man from Snowy River a hero whose bravery, adaptability and risk-taking could epitomise a new nation in the south. This new nation emerged as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
Currency commemoration and tribute
A. B. “Banjo” Paterson and “The Man From Snowy River” poem are commemorated on the Australian 10 dollar note. The full text of the poem is printed several times in microprint as one of the note’s security devices.
Recordings of the poem
In 1972, Slim Dusty recorded the poem with new music, to call attention to the “old bush ballads”.
Leonard Teale narrated the poem, which was recorded on audiotape Steve Bisley narrated the poem, in his role as Banjo Paterson, during the re-enactment of the poem in the 2002 musical theatre production The Man from Snowy River: Arena Spectacular.
Jack Thompson has released recordings of a number of Banjo Paterson poems including “The Man from Snowy River” and “Clancy of the Overflow” on the album The Bush Poems of A.B. (Banjo) Paterson.
The Australian folk band Wallis and Matilda set the poem to music on their album Pioneers.
The Concert Band of the 2nd Military District (Australia) made a recording with the poem narrated by Tim Elliott, accompanied by an arrangement of the music from the 1982 film. (Reference YPRX2097)
Adaptations of the poem
Three films, a television series and an arena spectacular musical have been based on the poem.
- The Man from Snowy River (1920 film) – a silent black & white film starring Cyril Mackay as “Jim Conroy” (the Man) and Stella Southern as “Kitty Carewe”
- The Man from Snowy River (1982 film) – film starring Tom Burlinson as “Jim Craig” (the Man) and Sigrid Thornton as “Jessica Harrison”
- The Man from Snowy River II – the 1988 sequel to the 1982 film (US title: Return to Snowy River / UK title: The Untamed) starring Tom Burlinson as “Jim Craig” (the Man) and Sigrid Thornton as “Jessica Harrison”
- The Man from Snowy River (TV series) – (set 25 years after the famous ride) starring Andrew Clarke as “Matt McGregor” (the Man)
- The Man from Snowy River: Arena Spectacular starring Martin Crewes as “Jim Ryan” (the Man) and Georgie Parker as “Kate Conroy”
- The Man from Snowy River (Graphic Novel), Illustrated by Elijah S. Loving