Barron Field by Thomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Few educated Australians could immediately speak with authority when prompted by the name Barron Field. This Colonial administrator and law maker was born into wealth and admitted to the bar in 1814. Although law was his career, his passion was literature. This was the time of the Romantic movement when Field found fellowship with Hunt, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Wordsworth. In May 1816, following appointment to a judicial position in NSW, his presence touched our shores. There he would deploy both law and poetry to advance an authoritarian penal colony (NSW) into an emergent liberal nation (Australia).

In chapters 2 & 3 of Ford and Clements’ book Barron Field is an examination of the main legal and poetic aspects of this transformation. These authors, in approaching their subject, take the inconvenient detour through verbal analysis? They regard the effort as worthwhile since, in their view, reading poems closely can provide an otherwise unavailable knowledge of the world in which the poet produced and distributed them. In Australian literature studies, poetry remains an elective supplement rather than a central resource. In chapters 5-9, they offer close readings of Field’s poems to examine how they refracted the forces and agendas at work.

Even today, few readers would regard poetry to be a powerfully authoritatively public discourse. Before 1819 (say), poetry was seen as the set of literary techniques, aesthetic operations and inventions. But with Romanticism “poetry became much more banal and quotidian at the same time as it more ambitiously sought to become nothing less than a self-conscious avant-garde laboratory of world shaping acts… a kind of public power difficult to imagine today” (12).

The authors maintain that without careful attention to Field’s poetry something essential about the foundations of Australian culture and society may continue to pass unrecognised, unmarked, and unchallenged. They detail the operations and ramifications of terra nullius because Field played a significant role in helping to impose it. “Only by attending to the details of those poems … can the interchange they established between legal and poetic powers and so between legal and poetic histories be properly articulated” (12 – 13).

Terra Nullius as a verbal fact is new but what it names is a much older set of colonial concepts and practices. While a prerogative right to levy taxes existed in the case of conquered territories no such right existed in colonies that had been peacefully settled. Field employed terra nullius as an instrument of law and bureaucratic administration to produce a new governmental situation. He used it to adjudicate and resolve all disputes, not merely those that existed between settlers and aborigines.

The position of poetry in 1819 is interesting. The authors maintain that Field’s claim to be the first Australian poet in the light of contradictory evidence implies that verse before Field was not really poetry. This is consistent with Wordsworth’s opinion which, however, allowed for a de-poeticization process. For Wordsworth “true poetry was created  by configuring words… into new patterns of meaning, rather than by the imitative reshuffling of a limited set of terms, themes, phrases, and ideas that had come pre-classified as poetic” (44). The authors argue that Field realigned colonial print culture with the system of values obtaining in Britain. There is a problem: reconciling Field’s ardent Wordsworthianism with the very non-Wordsworthian character of Field’s actual poems.

Ford and Clemens then proceed with an evaluation of selected poems with corresponding analysis. They focus in particular on ‘Kangaroo’. Their discussion is informative, wide-ranging and provides points of view that many readers would not have considered. Like much of the discussion in this book, the presentation is fresh and stimulating. Their views are original and creative.

Barron Field in New South Wales


by Thomas H. Ford and Justin Clemens


ISBN: 978 052287 878 3

$35.00; 225 pp

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