Charles Harpur was born at Windsor, New South Wales, on 23 January 1813, the son of emancipated convicts. His father Joseph Harpur was a schoolmaster and clerk at Windsor, who encouraged his children's education, and Charles Harpur would later describe his youthful study of Shakespeare, claiming that his own decision to become a poet was made in his early teens.
The loss of family property as a consequence of drought in the late 1820s saw Harpur travel to the Hunter Valley in search of employment, and by 1833 he had moved to Sydney, where he worked at a series of odd jobs. While in Sydney, Harpur began contributing poems to local newspapers and periodicals. For the rest of his life Harpur remained a prolific contributor of poetry, journalism, and criticism to the colonial press.
In the early 1840s Harpur returned to the Hunter Valley, where he continued to subsist on haphazard employment. At Jerry's Plains in 1843 he met Mary Doyle, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and after a long courtship the two were married in July 1850. After abandoning plans to become a teacher, Harpur spent most of the 1850s as a grazier on property owned by his father-in-law. In 1853, Harpur published his most significant collection of poetry, The Bushrangers, a play in five acts, and other poems. The play, a tragedy in blank verse, was the first by an Australian-born writer to be printed in the country, though its literary merits are generally considered superior to its dramatic qualities.
In 1859, Harpur was appointed assistant gold commissioner at the goldfields in southern New South Wales, and spent the next seven years acting in that capacity. After his appointment expired in 1866, Harpur retired to his farm on the Tuross River, but met with a series of misfortunes; one of his sons died in an accident and the farm was devastated by flooding. Harpur himself became ill with tuberculosis, and died on 8 June 1868.
Harpur was the first Australian writer to attempt to deal seriously with local realities, producing tragedies and epics on Australian subjects at a time when it was generally assumed that Australian material was unsuitable for work in the higher literary genres. Yet he was also one of the most accomplished of those writing comic and satirical poems on political and other local events. At almost the opposite pole from Harpur's often savage satires are his love poems, especially the series of sonnets initially addressed to ‘Rosa’ (in reality Mary Doyle). Like English writers of the period, Harpur also produced long historical and philosophical poems based on biblical and classical subjects, such as his The Witch of Hebron and The Tower of the Dream.Selected Poetry Collections
- The Bushrangers, a play in five acts, and other poems Sydney W. R. Piddington 1853
- The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur Elizabeth Perkins Sydney Angus and Robertson 1984
- Michael Ackland That Shining Band: A Study of Australian Colonial Verse Tradition St. Lucia, Qld. University of Queensland Press 1994
- J. Normington-Rawling Charles Harpur: An Australian Sydney Angus and Robertson 1962
- Elizabeth Webby Colonial writers and readers Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature Melbourne Cambridge University Press 2000 pp. 50-73.
- Judith Wright Charles Harpur Melbourne Landsdowne Press 1963