By Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson (1864-1941)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work
Matilda" is a ballad centering on a swagman, an itinerant laborer who walked
from one place to the next looking for temporary employment. He carried
a swag (rolled-up blanket or pack) containing his belongings--hence, the
term swagman. The laborer in the poem is a sheep shearer.
Barton (Banjo) Patterson wrote "Waltzing Matilda" in 1895 at Dagworth Homestead,
sixty-two miles northwest of the town of Winton in Queensland, Australia.
The homestead was the site of a sheep farm and a shearing operation.
.......Waltzing refers to the swagman's travels. In other words, he waltzes about seeking work. The second word, Matilda, is another name for a swag or pack that he carries around. It contains a blanket and other belongings.
Oh! there once was a swagman1 camped in the Billabong,2Notes
1...swagman: See Type of Work.
2...billabong: Dead end of a river branch; river branch formed when the water is high; stagnant pool; lagoon; water hole.
3...Coolabah tree: A type of Eucalyptus tree growing near rivers in Australia.
4...billy: Vessel such as a pot, bucket, or can with a handle. It is used for boiling water.
5...leading . . . bag: Holding the bag as if it is a woman whom the swagman is leading in a dance (waltz).
7...tucker bag: Bag for food; container for game.
.......The swagman is a free spirit. He travels from place to place to earn his livelihood rather than keeping regular hours in the workaday world. His independence represents the autarky on which Australians pride themselves.
Defiance of Authority
.......The swagman answers only to himself, not to government authority. When policemen appear and threaten to arrest him for stealing a sheep from the squatter (landowner with grazing sheep), the swagman drowns himself in a water hole rather than submit to arrest and punishment. His suicide represents the ultimate act of defiance against officialdom. Suicide is of course a conscious act of self-destruction and, therefore, contrary to the moral law. But in a work of fiction, writers often color it with heroism. It is the swagman's seeming heroism that captured the popular imagination of Australians, who made the ballad their unofficial national anthem. (The actual national anthem is "Advance Australia Fair.")
wrote the poem plainly and simply with a cadence that made it easy to set
to music and sing.
.......Every even line (2, 4, 6, etc.) rhymes with the sound of a long e.
.......Alliteration helps to accent the rhythm of the ballad. Following are examples of this figure of speech.
Oh! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong (line 1)Study Questions and Writing Topics