Andrew Barton Paterson was born on 17 February 1864 at Narrambla, New South Wales, the eldest of seven children of a grazier, Andrew Bogle Paterson, and his wife Rose (née Barton). Paterson, whose childhood nickname was ‘Barty’, grew up on the family's stations at Buckinbah, near Orange, and later Illalong, in the Yass district. The family faced financial difficulties in the early 1870s, and Paterson's father was forced to sell up and work as a manager for other graziers; ‘squatters’ facing financial hardship was a theme that would recur later in Paterson's writing. Paterson's childhood was still relatively privileged, however. He learned to ride horses – an activity that remained a passion throughout Paterson's life – and hunt on the family's stations, and he received early schooling at a bush school and from a governess engaged by the family. From 1874, Paterson attended Sydney Grammar School, living during school terms with his grandmother Emily Mary Barton in Gladesville, Sydney. An accomplished poet herself, Emily Barton encouraged her grandson to read and write verse.
After finishing school, Paterson became an articled clerk at a Sydney law firm, and was admitted as a solicitor in 1886. Paterson practised as a solicitor until the early years of the twentieth century, by which time he had also developed a promising literary career. His earliest published work dates from 1885, when he submitted a poem criticising the British war in the Sudan (in which Australian troops were involved) to the Bulletin, a new literary journal with an Australian nationalist focus. Over the next decade the increasingly popular and influential Bulletin provided an important forum for the publication of Paterson's verse, which appeared under the pseudonym ‘The Banjo’, adopted from the name of one of his favourite horses.
Though he lived in Sydney for most of his adult life, Paterson retained a lifelong love of the bush, and his verse tended to romanticise rural Australia and the figure of the outback ‘Bushman’. He was influenced by the work of his friend John Farrell , whose comic ballads drawing on Australian vernacular idioms were also popular in the Bulletin. In its thematic emphasis on the courage and energy of Australian bushmen and their prowess at horsemanship, Paterson's poetry can also be compared to that of Adam Lindsay Gordon . Paterson's verse style was simpler than that of Gordon , however, and in his poetry the bushman was a similarly uncomplicated figure – tough, independent, masculine, resourceful – a kind of heroic underdog. Paterson's representation of the bushman as an iconic figure exemplifying what were seen as the ideal traits of Australian national character was enthusiastically received, though his rosy depictions of bush life were challenged by other writers. In the pages of the Bulletin through 1892 Paterson was involved in a more or less good-natured poetic ‘debate’ with his contemporary Henry Lawson , and other writers, over the relative merits of rural and city life, with ‘The Banjo’ defending life in the bush while Lawson focused on its hardships. In 1895, while on a trip to western Queensland, Paterson wrote the lyrics to what would become his best-known representation of the underdog bushman, Waltzing Matilda.
In October 1895, Sydney booksellers Angus and Robertson published a collection of Paterson's verse, drawn mainly from his contributions to the Bulletin, under the title The Man from Snowy River and other verses. The work was a huge success, selling more than 13,000 copies within two years of its publication, and ‘Banjo’ Paterson became a national celebrity. Over the next few years, Paterson travelled through the Northern Territory, writing about his experiences in verse and prose published in newspapers and literary journals. Paterson's growing reputation as a writer and sportsman also elevated his position in the Sydney social scene, and he enjoyed the company of the leading literary men of the day.
In 1899, Paterson was appointed as a special correspondent covering the Boer War for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Argus; he also assisted the Australian and British forces as an expert on horses for the cavalry divisions. Paterson, determined to pursue a career as a journalist, then visited China and England in 1901as a correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. On his return to Australia in 1902, Paterson published a second collection of poetry, Rio Grande's Last Race and Other Poems, which included a number of ballads based on his Boer War experiences. Paterson was appointed editor of the Sydney Evening News in 1903, though still endeavoured to pursue a range of literary activities. In 1905, Angus and Robertson published his edited collection Old Bush Songs, an anthology of colonial ballads and folksong that Paterson had begun compiling about 1895. The following year the same publishers issued his novel, An Outback Marriage, which had been serialised in newspapers in 1900.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Paterson travelled to England in the hope of obtaining an appointment as a war correspondent. Unsuccessful in this ambition, Paterson served on the western front as a volunteer ambulance driver, and was subsequently commissioned as an officer in the Australian Imperial Force, serving in the Middle East. During the war, a third collection of Paterson's verse, Saltbrush Bill, J.P., and Other Verses, was published by Angus and Robertson, along with a selection of his prose pieces, Three Elephant Power and Other Stories. In 1921, Paterson's three collections of verse were combined in The Collected Verse of A. B. Paterson, a work frequently republished through the twentieth century.
After the war, Paterson returned to journalism. He was editor of the Sydney Sportsman from 1921-1930, and contributed racing and sports reports to Smith's Weekly. Following his retirement from full-time journalism in 1930, Paterson continued to write, publishing a successful book of children's verse, The Animals Noah Forgot (1933), a semi-autobiographical book of journalistic reminiscences, Happy Dispatches (1934), and a second novel, The Shearer's Colt (1936). Paterson's contribution to literature was recognised with the award of a C.B.E. in 1939. He died in Sydney on 5 February 1941.Poetry Collections
- The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses Sydney Angus and Robertson 1895
- Rio Grande's Last Race and Other Verses Sydney Angus and Robertson 1902
- Saltbrush Bill, J.P., and Other Verses Sydney Angus and Robertson 1917
- The Collected Verse of A. B. Paterson Sydney Angus and Robertson 1921
- Terry Birtles Andrew Barton ('Banjo') Paterson, bush poet, lawyer and journalist Margin 2006 No. 68 pp. 21-39.
- Warren Fahey Banjo Paterson and the Old Bush Songs Old Bush Songs: The Centenary Edition of Banjo Paterson's Classic Collection Warren Fahey and Graeme Seal Sydney ABC Books 2005 pp. 1-32.
- Richard Hill Andrew Barton Paterson: His Fortunate Life Banjo Paterson: His Poetry and Prose Richard Hill St Leonards, NSW Allen and Unwin 1993 pp. 1-37.
- Mark Horgan and Michael Sharkey Vision Splendid or Sandy Blight? The Paterson-Lawson Debate The 1890s: Australian Literature and Literary Culture Ken Stewart St Lucia, Qld University of Queensland Press 1996 pp. 69-94.
- Matthew Richardson Once a Jolly Swagman: The Ballad of Waltzing Matilda Melbourne Melbourne University Press 2006
- Clement Semmler The Banjo of the Bush: The Life and Times of A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (2nd edn. St Lucia, Qld University of Queensland Press 1974
- Ken Stewart A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941) Australian Literature 1788-1914 (Dictionary of Literary Biography 230) Selina Samuels Detroit, Michigan Gale Research Co. 2001 pp. 285-300.