Nathanael O’Reilly Reviews The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and Searching for The Man From Snowy River

1 September 2013

While Text has recently republished The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, they are not the only publisher drawing attention to Australian classics. Arcadia, the general books’ imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing, has recently produced W.F. Refshauge’s Searching for The Man From Snowy River, which addresses another of Australia’s most famous poems, A.B. (Banjo) Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River.’ Refshauge’s book is not a work of literary criticism, seeking to provide a new and deeper understanding of Paterson’s poem. Rather, Refshauge attempts to ascertain whether or not Paterson’s iconic character was modelled on a real life man from Snowy River, whom Refshauge refers to as ‘The Man.’ As Refshauge notes, a number of men have either claimed to be the real Man from Snowy River, or had claims made on their behalf.

Refshauge states criteria that he claims candidates to be The Man must meet, and then proceeds to apply the criteria to a number of candidates in an attempt to locate a legitimate model for Paterson’s poem. Refshauge structures his book in three parts: ‘The Question,’ ‘The Man’ and ‘The Chase.’ Part One focuses on Paterson’s poem, Paterson’s biography, and horses. Part Two addresses the character of The Man and examines a number of possible candidates. Part Three is dedicated to ascertaining in detail whether Refshauge’s prime candidate, Charles McKeahnie, could really be The Man.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Poem,’ Refshauge compares the 1890 version of ‘The Man from Snowy River,’ published in The Bulletin, with the 1895 version of the poem, published in Paterson’s first collection, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses. Refshauge reprints the 1890 version, which he considers ‘a better guide to … [Paterson’s] thinking’ than the 1895 version (4), noting the 1895 changes in the margin. Rather that providing an analysis of the poem’s meaning, Refshauge extracts details from the poem that he then uses as the criteria in his attempt to assess likely candidates for The Man. Since the poem provides few details regarding The Man, the criteria Refshauge creates are quite scant: first, The Man must be a ‘stripling’ (a male between seventeen and twenty-one); second, The Man must hail from the Snowy River region; third, The Man must be an outstanding horseman; and fourth, Paterson must have known about The Man and his exploits before composing the poem.

Despite devoting almost two hundred pages to his search for The Man, Refshauge often drops hints suggesting he is aware of the futility of his task. For example, Refshauge notes that Paterson ‘never gave or even implied a name for The Man’ (78), and quotes Paterson as writing on several occasions that The Man was a product of his imagination (80, 81, 83). Nevertheless, he persists in trying to locate a man who served as a model; he justifies his search with the flimsy premise that Paterson did not deny outright that The Man existed. The major problem with Refshauge’s book is that he fails to explain why it matters whether or not Paterson used a real man as the model for the underdog hero of his poem, or how the discovery of such a man would alter readers’ interpretation of the poem. The entire premise of the book is rather curious, and Refshauge does not explain why finding The Man is important to anyone. Moreover, Refshauge seems aware of the flaws in his approach, describing Paterson as ‘a myth-maker not an historian’ (xiv), admitting that the poem is ‘an imaginative piece of verse, not a sober report for the archives’ (3), and acknowledging that ‘we can speculate all we like about whether there was a Man from Snowy River, but that won’t achieve anything’ (77). Nevertheless, he proceeds to use details drawn from Paterson’s poem as if they are facts, ignoring the likelihood that all of the details in the poem are either fictitious, exaggerations or slight alterations of reality.

To Refshauge’s credit, he has researched his topic thoroughly and drawn upon over 350 sources, including personal archives, newspaper articles, official records, unpublished manuscripts, academic articles and monographs. He carefully applies his criteria to a mass of information from a wide variety of sources, and systematically dismisses unsatisfactory claims and evidence, despite an obvious desire to find The Man. However, at least fifteen of Refshauge’s secondary sources are self-published books of dubious credibility, and he uses a number of oral histories, despite admitting, ‘the stuff from which oral history is made may have only a limited relationship to reality’ (87). The book is well-produced and attractive, containing thirty images, including photographs of a number of the men said to be The Man, maps of the Snowy River region, and reproductions of letters. Refshauge writes in a clear, direct style, but often uses the second person and first person plural voices, creating a tone that is too informal for a serious study.

Refshauge is a retired sheep farmer with degrees in Philosophy and Demography, but he is not a literary critic, which is evident from his approach to Paterson’s poem. He states that he aims to ‘wring’ from old stories ‘whatever truth they may contain’ (xiii) and discover ‘whatever there is to know about Paterson’s intentions’ (xiv). However, if Refshauge were familiar with contemporary approaches to literary criticism, and especially if he had read Wimsatt and Beardsley’s seminal essay, ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (and I am almost certain he has not), he probably would not spend so much time in fruitless pursuit of ‘truth’ and ‘intentions.’

In his introduction, Refshauge claims, ‘reading this book will change the way you see and understand the poem’ (xiii). I have taught the poem numerous times, had countless discussions about it with students, and read many students essays about it; in short, I know the poem well. However, reading Refshauge’s book has not altered my understanding of the poem. Refshauge does not provide any literary analysis, and thus does not provide new insights into the poem’s meaning. To be fair, Refshauge’s work provides much interesting historical and cultural information that serves to contextualise the poem and provide a deeper understanding of the time and place in which the poem is set, but contextualisation is not close reading or insightful analysis. Searching for The Man From Snowy River will appeal to readers interested in popular history, the late colonial period, horses and horsemanship, Paterson’s early years, and the Snowy River region. However, readers hoping for a sophisticated analysis of Paterson’s poetics will have to search elsewhere.


Ian F. McLaren, ‘Dennis, Clarence Michael James (1876–1938)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 10 August 2013.

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Nathanael O'Reilly

About Nathanael O'Reilly

Nathanael O’Reilly was born and raised in Australia. He has travelled on five continents and spent extended periods in England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and the United States, where he currently resides. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in nine countries, including Antipodes, Australian Love Poems, Cordite, FourW, Glasgow Review of Books, LiNQ, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Snorkel, Tincture, Transnational Literature and Verity La. O’Reilly is the recipient of an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. He is the author of Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), Distance (Picaro Press, 2014; Ginninderra Press, 2015) and the chapbooks Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016), Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010). He was the writer-in-residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in May 2017.


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