E. J. Brady’s verses: “The Ways of Many Waters” [29 April 1899]

[Editor: A critical review of E. J. Brady’s book The Ways of Many Waters, in the “Books and Bookmen” column, published in The Catholic Press, 29 April 1899.]

E. J. Brady’s Verses.

“The Ways of Many Waters.”

Our own verse writes have sung of the stern life under the shadow of Australian gums, some have given us the picture of our city streets; one, again, has wandered by the sea shore listening to the sad complaining of the unresting breakers, gathering in wild nights of storm the fierce sounds of majestic powers at strife, and on sweeter days by the mountain creeks has made sweet lyrics and subtle harmonies of the fair waters; and another has wandered the woods of Old Romance, where the knightly crest is bent beneath the trees to catch the far off echoes of the herald’s call; but none before Mr. E. J. Brady essayed to sing the life of those who have to do with ships and the great waters.

The subject not being local — the life of a sailor being pretty well the same the world over — Mr. E. J. Brady, although not in competition with Australian singers, perforce must meet on the field of merit the song makers of the olden lands, who from long forgotten times have found the mariner a brave theme for a couplet. In a case of this kind it is out of the question to seek Mr. Brady’s merits purely relative to our own literary circle; indeed, it is never wise to confine comparison in narrow ways; sufficient is it to know our literature is young and therefore not to be harshly judged, without considering it unnecessary to look about us to see how we are standing with our neighbours.

Doubtless the face of a belle seems surpassingly fair when it is unchallenged in her own mirror, but on entering a great ballroom her charms may be considerably dimmed by the lustre of the greater beauties that fore-gather there. To prevent vexation we should watch our literature closely, and compare it whenever we can with contemporaneous writers in other lands.

* * *

Mr. Brady’s verse at once gives you an idea that he has great facility of rhyming without any strong individual power of expression, and that he is in debt to a large sum to Rudyard Kipling. Then you discover that his knowledge of the life of a mariner at sea is superficial and groovy, lacking subtlety as well as the striking vigor of naked and unexpected truths. And in conclusion you find that what Mr. Brady does not know about the life of a lumper is not worth hearing. Here we find his strength, and at the same time his weakness. We will quote to example:—

“You can handle casks o’tallow; you can handle hides an’ horn;
You can carry frozen mutton, you can lumber sacks o’corn;
But the queerest kind o’ cargo that you’ve got to haul an’ pull,
Is Australia’s “staple product” — is her God abandoned wool.
For it’s greasy an’ it’s stinkin’, an’ them awkward, ugly bales
Must be jammed as close as herrings in a ship afore she sails,
So you yakker, yakker, yakker,
For the drop o’ beer an’ bacca,
For to earn your bloomin’ clobber an’ the bit o’ tuck you eat,
When you’re layin’ on the screw,
With the boss a-cursin’ you,
An’ the sweat runs like a river, an’ you’re chokin’ with the heat.”

* * *

In the above extract we are convinced of two things: that Mr. Brady knows the lumper, and has watched him long enough at work to know a bale of wool sometimes takes half-a-day of “layin’ on the screw” to get into place; and that for reasons of his own he uses a Kipplingesque form to express himself. The chorus is enough to prove that. The way of it, the lilt of it, but not the strength of it. Obviously it is a tag to the verse out of imitation, conscious or unconscious. Else why should it be there?

As one reads the remainder of the verses, and finds in other pages more light on the life of the lumper — good vigorous etchings sometimes — more and more he becomes convinced that Mr. Brady has insight and grip but lacks an individual style. That and the other choruses are the weakest and worst parts of the poems — the most careless will notice this — yet Mr. Brady allowed them to remain in all the glory of italic pride. With Kipling the chorus is a crown to the verse —

“For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, ’an anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!”

This chorus to “Tommy” epitomises the ballad, but alas Mr. Brady’s choruses never do that, and instead of being crowns to the verses they are weeds that trip their feet.

* * *

In “Hide’s and Tallow” we find Mr. Brady in his best vein — again he deals with the travail of the lumper — and find no words but gentle for the verse. He is, perhaps, nearer to himself in this than any other piece in the book, and so, as is natural in the case of a man with a lyrical ear and an observing eye, paints his picture in a far stronger, and far superior manner, than when he has the echo of other rhymes to guide him to his goal. Judging him on this we would prophesy that later on, dealing with the same phase of life, the author would do really good work; but taking the volume synthetically we must confess that in our opinion Mr. Brady has left Australian literature as he found it.

As fugitive work his verses were pleasing; collected in a volume and given seriously to the world they may not hope to compare with the volumes that even the minor poets of England and America are producing so profusely. Then when we make a clear cut comparison with Kipling — whose line they are undoubtedly following —we find out how immeasurably they are below the best ballad work of our day.

In some cases Mr. Brady could with advantage condense a verse into a single line and give you the same truth and expression. They seem a little padded out, and want revision with a stern, judicial, radical pen.

* * *

In giving Mr. Brady his place among our recent Australian poets, we would say that he deserved better than Patterson and Dyson, though on a lower dais than Victor Daley. But our older bards — Kendall, Gordon and Charles Harpur — still remain our brightest stars, and although Mr. Brady is following the latest models and fashion in ballad writing, we doubt if fashion always leads to fame, and at the same time would impress upon our bards that they are wandering away from the superlative paths that led the dead singers to immortality.

The present craze for slang and jingle looks very shabby before the aforetime ideals of beauty and thought. As a soft farewell to Mr. Brady we will quote a few verses from “The Ways of Many Waters,” a dream which found as much favor in our sight as his waterside taverns seem to do in the eyes of his heroes:—

’Tis a lordly, long convention
Forgathering day by day,
From the Mayflower bravely beating
Her passage to Cape Cod Bay,
From the trim old wooden traders,
Who smuggled their silks and lace,
To the steel-built Cunard packet
With her record-making pace.

They sleep in the deep, dark places,
The fleets of the days gone by;
But oft when the flaked sea-fires
To the churning screw-beats fly;
At the sound of a faint, sad music,
The lilt of an old-time tune,
They rise from their grave of waters
To ride ’neath the quiet moon:

The ships of the Dreamers gather —
They gather at dead of night
Till the face of the deep, dark places
With their crowding sail grows white;
And then, in a grand procession,
Away to the West they sail,
With a long oared galley leading
And a liner at the tail.

The Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW), 29 April 1899, p. 5

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

Speak Your Mind