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The Wordsmith who Loved Horses

Updated on October 14, 2014

Just Your Average 'Aussie' Bard?

He was one of Australia's best-loved 'sons'...the only Australian poet to have a Tablet and a Bust placed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, London. As far from 'average' as you could imagine, especially if you read his poetry, and consider his passion for all things Australian.

Following publication of four books of poetry and countless newspaper articles and poems, his final book -

'Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes'

was published and actually placed in bookshops on the last day of his life.

He had no money to pay for its publication. He had no idea just how successful this book would be, probably because he was - 'his own harshest critic - quite regularly discarding entire poems at whim, when a single word exasperated him'.

One thing he DID have was his lucky shilling, first put in his pocket when he left England alone in 1852. What he also DID have were many debts and no foreseeable prospects to enable him to pay his way. Following too many financial disappointments and downturns and personal tragedies, his inability to pay for this particular book - his most triumphant success - would be the 'straw to break the camel's back'.

On a cold, windy day - 24th June, 1870 - he kissed his wife goodbye, walked down onto the beach at Brighton, Victoria - and died. By his own hand and his own rifle, he ended it all.

He was Adam Lindsay Gordon.

AUSTRALIAN by Choice (of his Father)

He was actually born in the Azores on the island of Madeira, coming to England with his family at age 7, and to Australia alone at 19. Perhaps not so surprising that he should be so poetic, given his genetic background - his Father's Scottish ancestry included Lord Byron in the Gordon clan.

Gordon was raised in an extremely strict environment - a house ruled strictly with military precision. His upbringing was dominated by stories of his Father's honourable and distinguished prowess as a Captain in the Cavalry in the provinces of India. The years that followed saw him at boarding schools, Military Academy, and Grammar School. Despite his intelligence and word-skills, he was never happy confined to a classroom. His was the world of horsemanship, excitement, adventure, rebellion and great courage.

When he had failed all of his Father's expectations of him, a letter was sent to the Governor of South Australia introducing him and passage was arranged for him to sail to Adelaide. It mattered little to his Father that Adam was in love with a girl who was as passionate about horses as he was; who encouraged his poetry by being a most willing and receptive 'audience' for him. It is believed he would have stayed, had she encouraged his wooing of her as fervently as his works - but this was not to be. Instead, deeply mortified and heart-broken, he wrote these lines in a last poem 'To My Sister', concerning his first love -

I loved a girl not long ago,

And, till my suit was told,

I thought her breast as fair as snow,

'Twas very near as cold ;

And yet I spoke with feelings more

Of recklessness than pain,

Those words I never spoke before,

Nor never shall again.

The Land Became him well

...and he embraced his new homeland totally.

Gordon's fascination with Australia's landscape, flora, fauna and weather made him quickly become disenchanted with city life and its 'social class' expectations - and consequently, his appointment as an officer with the South Australian Mounted Police soon paled, also. Regimentation and firm discipline did not fit well with his highly individual personality.

The wide open spaces; the endless blue skies and seas - these were his inspirations - mentally, physically and spiritually. Surrounded by these it is said he became a completely different person. Gone was the wild youth capable of fretful sulking and outrageous rebellion - in its place, a serious, thoughtful 'true gentleman' emerged. He was a literary genius, capable of recording all manner of sights, sounds and feelings - usually by pencil, whilst on horseback on his travels between stations. Firstly this was as a Mounted Police officer based in Mt. Gambier and surrounding areas in the South East of South Australia, and then, when his restless nature took over, as a horsebreaker wherever his services were needed.

H remained an adventurer, game for any challenge, and a rebel (in different, more acceptable and admirable ways) He was the classically 'tall, dark and handsome' man about town - and yet there was another side to him - shy, sensitive and with an inclination to moodiness and deep introspection.

A close friend fondly remembered him '...falling into musing fits when it became quite useless to draw him into conversation'.

And an admirer - an employee in a small country newspaper, recalled '...some days he would talk for a time with my then employers, but more often he had little or nothing to say. He would lose himself in a book for a space and then leave, absorbed in his own thoughts. But there was never any suggestion of posing. He was too much of a gentleman - too brainy a man - for anything of that sort.'

Always a Dreamer - ...as well as a Man of Action

Gordon was renowned for 'doing the most daring and seemingly foolhardy things when taking an ordinary ride' - like this little-known witnessing of one event -

'He was riding Cadger, one of his favourite steeplechasers. He was sitting loosely, and his head was bent down as if in deep thought. Suddenly he straightened himself up and looked round. Then as suddenly he turned Cadger's head. The horse shot up the embankment and was over the four-rail fence in a twinkling. He drew his horse together, cantered a short distance, and then made for the bottom of the paddock which abutted on the town. ....Bending forward, so much so that he appeared to be peering between Cadger's ears, he raced him at the gate. A second more and Cadger rose at it like a deer, to land safely on the road beyond. Gordon steadied his horse without looking to right or left, and then jogged along as he had done before shooting into the paddock.'

Taking a Flying Leap

...of faith?


The most famous of his jumps took place at the Blue Lake at Mt. Gambier at a time when he was a member of the Mounted Police; witnessed by a close friend and fellow police officer. He and a group of other horsemen were returning from a hunting outing, and on their return journey, as they came alongside the Blue Lake, one of the party said to Gordon'We have followed wherever you have led.'

Gordon is said to have looked about him, and said, 'Then follow me now' - and proceeded to make his famous leap.

Gordon's Leap, as it came to be known - was over a 4 foot high fence onto a narrow ledge about 10 feet long and barely wide enough for a horse to stand on, with a sheer drop about 200 feet into the unknown depths of the Blue Lake below. It took another unbelievable jump to land back onto the roadway again. Today an obelisk stands above the spot to record the achievement.

It is believed the only reason this seemingly impossible feat was successfully accomplished was due to Gordon's superb training of his horses - to be able to jump not only straight ahead to simply clear an obstacle, but also at all angles and over the most amazing heights.

A friend, Henry Stockdale - remembered Gordon like this -

It's the Law of Gravity

...all that rises must soon fall.


And so it was with his Life. An inheritance from his Mother's death enabled him to buy property, but his generosity and carelessness with money saw him 'broke' some 10 years later.

He was nursed back to health, following a bad fall from a racehorse, by Maggie Park, the young lady who would become his wife and the mother of his dearly beloved daughter, Annie. Although not a poetry devotee, Maggie was a fine horsewoman who shared Gordon's boundless love of horses, and fearlessly spurned the side-saddle used by most women of the day.

Gordon had many physical falls in his career as Australia's Champion Amateur Steeplechase jockey. A remarkable achievement for a man 6'3" (or 190.5cm) tall - AND who suffered short-sightedness (as expressed in his own words) 'everything beyond the horse's ears was mist and blur'. You find yourself wondering what came first. Was it a genetic disability? Or an unfortunate outcome of the many injuries he received?

So many ups and downs in his life - from riches to rags and back to riches again - seemingly a repetitive cycle for almost all of his life, even maybe leading to his famous words in his epic poem -

'Ye Wearie Wayfarer'

Question not, but live and labour

Till yon goal be won,

Helping every feeble neighbour,

Seeking help from none;

Life is mostly Froth and Bubble,

Two things stand like stone,

Kindness in another's trouble,

Courage in your own.

The beautiful and majestic 'Yallum Park'
The beautiful and majestic 'Yallum Park'

Sometimes the Valleys are Just Too Deep

...and the mountains too high


His moodiness deepened into recurring fits of depression following his tragic year of 1868, when he suffered another serious racing accident; the loss by fire of livery stables he owned; the death of his adored daughter Annie at just 11 months of age within a month; and his wife Maggie moving to Robe to live alone for a period of time. The grief of their baby girl's loss was too much for either of them.

In an attempt to regain himself, Gordon spent some time at the famous home and property 'Yallum Park', owned by his good friend, the successful politician John Riddoch, who recalled:

'when he (Gordon) wrote 'The Sick Stockrider'...he climbed up a gum tree at my house, as he often did when he wanted to be quiet - and composed it there! He generally went out after breakfast when he had a poetical fit, and evolved his verses.'

'The Sick Stock-rider'

... excerpts

Hold hard, Ned! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.

Old man, you've had your work cut out to guide

Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle whey I sway'd,

All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.

- - - - - - - -

'Twas merry, 'mid the blackwoods, when we spied the station roofs,

To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,

With a running fire of stockwhips and a fiery run of hoofs'

Oh! the hardest day was never then too hard...

- - - - - - - - - - -

I've had my share of pastime, and I've done my share of toil,

And life is short - the longest life a span;

I care not now to tarry for the corn or for the oil,

Or for the wine that maketh glad the heart of man.

For good undone and gifts misspent and resolutions vain,

'Tis somewhat late to trouble. This I know -

I should live the same life over, if I had to live again'

And the chances are I go where most men go.

- - - - - - - - - -

The Wreck of the ADMELLA - ...another sacrifice to the Sea

"The Admella" Shaw, James (1815 - 1881), 1858 - oil on canvas; Courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia
"The Admella" Shaw, James (1815 - 1881), 1858 - oil on canvas; Courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia

In 1859, the SS Admella ran aground on a reef near Carpenter's Rocks, some 26 kilometres south of Mt. Gambier in South Australia.

This poignant quote tells a small part of the story -

The wreck of the SS Admella in the early hours of August 6th 1859 was only the beginning of a horrific week for survivors who remained on board, in sight of land, while authorities struggled to rescue them from the stricken steamer. The loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure, makes the wreck one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history.

Although other wrecks lead to greater loss of life, the wreck of the Admella is known as the most famous of the wrecks that occurred along the south east coast of South Australia (now known as the Limestone Coast) and the west coast of Victoria (Shipwreck Coast). There are many reasons for this.

A design fault in its iron hull caused the ship to break into three after only 15 minutes, leaving passengers and crew clinging to the wreckage with minimal water and food.

Early attempts to reach land were fruitless; people were swept out to sea or drowned in the boiling surf.

Most of the 24 survivors hung onto the wreck for seven nights and eight days while being constantly battered by raging surf and bitter cold - it was August and the depths of winter.

Read it all here - The 'Admella' story - and its impact on Adam Lindsay Gordon.

Bad News Travels Fast, they say - ...and this news was breath-taking, to say the least

A Wild Ride to Spread the News
A Wild Ride to Spread the News

Adam Lindsay Gordon's poem 'From the Wreck' is the poetic story of the 26 kilometre ride from a farm near Carpenters Rocks where the SS Admella had foundered, to raise the alarm in Mt. Gambier. There are several opinions as to the identity of this determined and courageous equestrian - an experienced horseman named Peter Black; a lighthouse keeper named Germain; or was it, as some believe, Gordon himself!

Although the passionate attention to detail and seemingly intimate knowledge of this frantic ride, left many with the impression it was, in fact, Gordon himself - and understandable as this is, given his reputation as such a daring and dedicated horseman, and a strong humanitarian - I sadly believe the dates of his time in this area don't back-up this theory.

Read some excerpts from this emotional poem, and you, too, are likely to wonder:

From The Wreck

"Turn out, boys!" -- "What's up with our super. to-night?

The man's mad -- Two hours to daybreak I'd swear --

Stark mad -- why, there isn't a glimmer of light."

"Take Bolingbroke, Alec, give Jack the young mare;

Look sharp. A large vessel lies jamm'd on the reef,...

- - - - -

................. The mare -- could she stay?

She was bred very nearly as clean as Eclipse;

She led, and as oft as he came to her side,

She took the bit free and untiring as yet;

Her neck was arched double, her nostrils were wide,

And the tips of her tapering ears nearly met --

"You're lighter than I am," said Alec at last;

"The horse is dead beat and the mare isn't blown.

She must be a good one -- ride on and ride fast,

You know your way now." So I rode on alone.

And many on board still, and some wash'd on shore.

Ride straight with the news -- they may send some relief

From the township; and we -- we can do little more.

- - - - -

I pull'd her together, I press'd her, and she

Shot down the decline to the Company's yard,

And on by the paddocks, yet under my knee

I could feel her heart thumping the saddle-flaps hard.

Yet a mile and another, and now we were near

The goal, and the fields and the farms flitted past;

And 'twixt the two fences I turned with a cheer,

For a green grass-fed mare 'twas a far thing and fast;

And labourers, roused by her galloping hoofs,

Saw bare-headed rider and foam-sheeted steed;

And shone the white walls and the slate-coloured roofs

Of the township. I steadied her then -- I had need --

Where stood the old chapel (where stands the new church --

Since chapels to churches have changed in that town).

A short, sidelong stagger, a long, forward lurch,

A slight, choking sob, and the mare had gone down.

I slipp'd off the bridle, I slacken'd the girth,

I ran on and left her and told them my news;

I saw her soon afterwards. What was she worth?

How much for her hide? She had never worn shoes.

You would almost the think the phrase 'run into the ground' (meaning being treated or managed so badly as to cause ruination) was invented to describe this gallant mare and her epic effort. Whatever the actuality - of horse or rider - these stirring words provide a superb description of a tragic event.



The Marine Hotel - ...in Brighton, Victoria, Australia

Gordon's favoured 'watering hole' (or drinking place) during his time while residing at Brighton. This is the horse's Hitching post outside The Marine Hotel that he regularly used and the inscription reads -

"Adam Lindsay Gordon

Poet and Horseman

Tethered his horse to this hitching post

When in residence in Brighton 1869 - 1870

"A shining soul with syllables of fire

who sang the first great songs

these lands can claim" (Kendall)

Preserved and dedicated to his memory by

The United Licensed Victuallers Association

20th October 1945

The Only Aussie Poet - ...with a Bust in Westminster Abbey, London

On the Bust itself:

ADAM LINDSAY GORDON

NATIONAL POET OF AUSTRALIA

BORN 1833 - DIED 1870

The Inscription underneath:

" 'The Memorial Bust of Gordon, by Lady Hilton-Young, erected in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, and unveiled by H.R.H. The Duke of York, on May 11th, 1934.' Exhibited in the Royal Academy, 1934."

Here's A Thought

I think history shows that far too many of the creative geniuses of this world lived relatively short and often unhappy lives - and yet produced masterpieces of all varieties, that have continued to evoke amazing emotional reactions throughout the ages.

I'm Not Alone

...in my appreciation of Adam Lindsay Gordon


The famous composer, Edward Elgar formed part of his song cycle Sea Pictures from one of Gordon's poems, The Swimmer, and also set to music another poem - A Song of Autumn.

In 1970, Gordon was honoured with his portrait on an Australia Post postage stamp.

Gordon's property and home (1862-1866) is preserved as an incredible museum, filled with countless items of early volumes of his work, actual daily personal effects used - and of course, quite a collection of his saddlery and horse-riding equipment - memorabilia seen nowhere else. The cottage was named Dingley Dell, and a special part of the experience of reliving his life and times, is being told fascinating, previously unknown details by the knowledgeable and entertaining 'custodian'.

For instance, the explanation of the deep gouges on the wall under the windowsill of one room - caused by the stirrup of his saddle being constantly slung over the sill, for ease of vaulting over it to enter and leave the room. As the horse was tethered next to the window, it would have the added benefit of speeding up the saddling chore next day.

Can't Go - ...without just one more look

...at that wonderful face, and that jawline...and those compelling eyes.

Why Don't You?

... make a 'cuppa', settle down, get comfy...

and click on one or two of these -

Selected Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon

A Few Good Men - Australian Bush Balladeers

- this is one of my Ezine articles from last year. I am proud to say I have recently been awarded Diamond author status.

Life is Mostly Froth and Bubble

In the poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon - 'Ye Wearie Wayfarer' - the last line suggests the need for courage in times of trouble. I don't know that he actually anticipated someone interpreting this to mean that bravado could come from a bottle. But certainly, in this rare situation, endurance was definitely enhanced by the 'spiritual' powers of my 'potion'.

And then there's my website story about him -

The Poetic Horseman

Just Another Aussie Bard - ...but is he the most handsome of them all?

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      scss 5 years ago

      Beautiful lens about Adam Lindsay Gordon - big thumbs up from me for all that great work!

      Helene Malmsio

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      nifwlseirff 4 years ago

      Definitely handsome, talented and unlucky! How such a short-sighted rider could guide his horse around a steeplechase course, I have no idea!

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