Henry Lawson and The University [by John Le Gay Brereton, November 1922]

[Editor: This article about Henry Lawson, written by John Le Gay Brereton, was published in Hermes: The Magazine of the University of Sydney (Sydney, NSW), November 1922.]

Henry Lawson and The University.

The death of one of the most gifted of Australian prose writers, who was also the author of many verses which endear his memory to those who know and love Australia, gave some ignorant or foolish persons an occasion to sneer at the University, which, in their opinion, had treated Henry Lawson with undeserved neglect. It is said that Lawson made two unsuccessful attempts to enter the University, but failed. Poets and millionaires alike must follow the steep and thorny track of examination if they wish to prove themselves ready to proceed to a degree. If Lawson failed, there is no reason to regret it. If he had spent a few years up here, his work might have been better or worse; it would not have been what it is. Let us be thankful for what we have.

“Hermes” was praising the poet twenty-eight years ago, before his first book had been published. An article entitled “Poetry in Australia” appeared in the issue of 20 November, 1894. The writer first gave a brief and rather unsympathetic column upon Kendall and Gordon, and then looked for the most significant literary figure among his own contemporaries. “Is there anyone,” he asked, “who, with ability equal to or greater than theirs, is guided by a brighter star, inspired by nobler aspirations?” And his reply was: “We have the man among us, and his name is Henry Lawson. Here at last is one who has within him the elements of greatness.” An appreciative account of Lawson as a “God-sent prophet” of the workers, a poet whose “intense power of sympathy …. forces him to realise the struggling efforts of human nature upwards,” was followed by a review of his changing outlook, and the article closed on a note of mingled warning and prophecy:—

Let him cling to his faith. Let him steadily seek for good, not ignoring the evil in men, but recognising it as dirt which may be washed off. Let him view all things with the eyes of love. He is at the parting of the ways, and if he is true to himself, success is certain. But he must remember that his soul is not his own. We, too, have our share in it, and we shall, when the time of reckoning comes, demand a strict account. Genius is neither a plaything nor a minting-machine. But I know that the soul of the man is essentially unselfish, and with confidence I hail him as one whose name will wake feelings of love and reverence in thousands of hearts. And so for a moment I take leave of Henry Lawson.

The writer of that article had been eagerly following, since 1887, the career of the most Australian of Australian authors.

Lawson in the mid-nineties expressed a wish to see the students in their native haunts. I offered to take him to Reunion, or to introduce him to some of my friends, but he said he preferred to see the men in their everyday life and merely to watch and listen. So I took him to the bare old common-room at the end of the quad., where he sat on a comfortless seat before a vista of spittoons, and fixed his deep, pathetic, humorous eyes on a group of loudly-conversing young men. I really don’t know how much of the talk penetrated his deaf ears. He never made any particular comment on what he had seen and heard; but I felt that he had received consolation for his failure to become an undergraduate.

In 1898, while he was in New Zealand, there appeared in the “Bulletin” his verses entitled “The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics” — a resentful attack upon a type of academic pedantry.

You were quick to pick on a faulty line
That I strove to put my soul in:
Your eyes were keen for a “dash” of mine
In the place of a semi-colon —
And blind to the rest. And is it for such
As you I must brook restriction?
“I was taught too little?” I learnt too much
To care for a pedant’s diction.

* * * *

I leave you alone in your cultured halls
To drivel and croak and cavil:
Till your voice goes further than college walls,
Keep out of the tracks we travel!

I was moved to expostulation. He was generalising unfairly. Most university men were not of the type he despised. Straightway he wrote an apologetic letter, for he thought I had been hurt by his words, and he was always quick and generous in “mateship.” The verses, he said, were written when he was “hard-up and unknown” and was “struggling for some recognition.” A professor of one of the Australian universities, not ours, had published a “paltry-spirited and altogether unfair review” of “In the Days When the World was Wide,” the collection which appeared in 1896. Generalising once more, he asked me to “remember the University struck the first blow and it was a cowardly one.” The “Bulletin” itself, he added, had reminded him of his “lack of culture” till he was sick of it. He never regarded me as a University man, but as a mate, and the final words of his letter made a strange distinction between the man he knew and the man he imagined he had not met: — “Forget it, old man. If a hint of the connection between Jack Brereton, B.A., and you, Jack, had entered my hot head in time, those verses would never have been published.” That was like him. Hard-up as he was, he would have thrown money into the fire rather than risk causing a momentary annoyance to his friend.

His fling at pedantry did not mean that he was blind to the advantages of academic life. When his children were babies, he told me he intended that they should enjoy what he had missed, a University education.

J. Le Gay Brereton.

Hermes: The Magazine of the University of Sydney (Sydney, NSW), vol. 28 no. 3, November 1922, pp. 162-163

Editor’s notes:
brook = allow, stand, suffer, tolerate (e.g. “to brook no interference”)

cavil = to raise objections that are frivolous, inconsequential and trivial

expostulation = the act of expostulating, to expostulate: remonstrate; to argue or reason with someone, especially to talk them out of doing something or to rebuke them for something done

pathetic = something which evokes feelings of sadness or sorrow (can also refer to something which is considered inadequate, inferior, or beneath contempt)

pedant = a pedantic person, someone who is perceived to be overly concerned with minor details and technicalities (often with unimportant, insignificant, or rarely-needed details), or with formal rules and trivial points of learning (such as with grammar and vocabulary), or with displaying academic knowledge (often in a petty and unnecessary manner)

quad. = an abbreviation of “quadrangle”: a square or rectangular courtyard, bounded on all four sides by buildings (commonly associated with university campuses, but also found at other institutions, such as castles, colleges, and prisons)

spittoon = (also spelt “spitoon”; also known as a cuspidor) a receptacle for spitting into (commonly a metal or clay container, normally constructed with a funnel-shaped top; usually placed on the floor in public buildings, such as hotels or pubs; they were especially designed to be used by users of chewing and dipping tobacco)

straightway = (archaic) straight away, at once, immediately

vista = a view from a particular spot, especially a nice view from an elevated location; a distant view (especially as seen through or along an avenue, a row of trees, a row of buildings, or some other opening); a site enabling such a distant view; a vision, such as a mental view of the future or the past

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