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Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833 – 1870)

Adam Lindsay Gordon was born on 19 October 1833 at Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores archipelago. His parents were members of the same distinguished Scottish family; his father, Adam Durnford Gordon, was a retired British army officer who had served in the Bengal cavalry, and his mother, Harriet Elizabeth Gordon, the daughter of a British governor in the West Indies.

The family returned to the United Kingdom about 1840, and Adam Lindsay was educated at prestigious schools including the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. In his teenage years, Gordon learned to ride horses, and horseracing and steeplechase riding became for him a life-long passion. At the same time, Gordon also became involved in the racing scene's hard-drinking and gambling lifestyle, which eventually culminated in his removal from the Royal Military Academy.

Through the influence of his father, Gordon secured a position in the South Australian Mounted Police, arriving in the colony in November 1853. He resigned from the police in 1855, and spent several years working as a horse-breaker and steeplechase rider in rural South Australia. The death of Gordon's mother in 1859 brought an inheritance that allowed him to buy property, and in October 1862 he married Margaret Park, a native of Glasgow. Gordon's first published poem, The Feud, appeared in the Mount Gambier newspaper Border Watch in August 1864.

In 1865, Gordon was elected to a seat in the South Australian parliament, and for the next two years combined a political career with horseracing and writing poetry. In November 1866, Gordon resigned from parliament to become a grazier in Bunbury, Western Australia; this enterprise proved unsuccessful however, and he returned to South Australia a few months later. In 1867, Gordon published two volumes of poetry, Ashtaroth: A Dramatic Lyric and Sea Spray and Smoke Drift, neither of which was a commercial success.

By the end of 1867, Gordon had relocated to Ballarat, Victoria, where he rented a livery stable and joined the Light Horse brigade. In March 1868, Gordon was bed-ridden for weeks after suffering the worst of his many serious riding accidents, and his misery was compounded by the death of his only child in April. His stables having failed, Gordon left Ballarat and spent time racing in various parts of Victoria, and publishing his poems in newspapers and periodicals.

While his feats of horsemanship were becoming legendary and he was feted in the colonial press, numerous riding injuries had taken a physical toll on Gordon, which combined with a series of personal and financial misfortunes, the latest of which was disappointment over a claim to some family property in Scotland. On 24 June 1870, just after the publication of his most famous verse collection Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, Adam Lindsay Gordon committed suicide.

After his death, Gordon's reputation as a poet continued to grow, and in the early twentieth century he was widely regarded as Australia's ‘national poet’. While Gordon wrote in a range of poetic forms, he is best remembered for his ballads, which often used horse riding – whether on the racetrack or in the Australian bush – as their main narrative action. Gordon's ballads achieved lasting popularity and had a strong influence on the poets who wrote in the bush ballad tradition of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Poetry Collections
  • Sea Spray and Smoke Drift Melbourne George Robertson 1867
  • Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes Melbourne Clarson, Massina and Co., 1870
  • The Poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon London Constable 1912
Suggested Further Reading
  • Michael Ackland Gordon, Adam Lindsay Australian Literature 1788-1914 Selina Samuels Detroit, Michigan Gale Research Company 2001 pp. 152-54
  • Brian Elliot Adam Lindsay Gordon Melbourne Sun Books 1973
  • Geoffrey Hutton Adam Lindsay Gordon: The Man and the Myth Melbourne Melbourne University Press 1996
  • Ian F. McLaren Adam Lindsay Gordon: A Comprehensive Bibliography Melbourne University of Melboourne Library 1986
  • Elizabeth Webby The Grave in the Bush Tilting at Matilda: Literature, Aborigines, Women and the Church in Contemporary Australia Dennis Haskell Fremantle Fremantle Press 1994 pp. 30-38