Preface [to “The Poems of Joseph Furphy”, by Bernard O’Dowd]
As in hell, while “the heads” were devising the best method of introducing that spice of variety we used to call “sin” into the tame blessedness of Eden, and while the rank and file diabolic were engaged in a football match, others apart sat on a hill retired and discussed Hegel, Bergson, Calvin, Chuang Tsu and Robert Blatchford, and found no end in wandering mazes lost; so in Australia, while billies boil, and the wattle gold gets sicklied over with the anaemia of the drawing-room ballad-monger and the society woman’s wilting patronage, and the sentimental “bloke” takes his “tart” to the semi-finals of the football season or to the latest slip-slop of the “movies,” and the spotted Lily of Brogan’s Lane returns from the Salvation Refuge to “Little Lon,” and the swagman hopeless searches for the lost “Up the country,” and the shearer, in London-made boys’ stories anyway, “knocks down” his cheque at wayside shanties, and while the jaded earth seeks relief from the ennui of existence in the fairly hopeful-looking attempted suicide of a world-war by way of a three years’ tremendous antistrophe to the two thousand years’ strophe of Christianity, — even while these things have been and are, a few of us apart sit and seek to find some Ariadne clue and some Sesame word in order to stalk the Minotaur of the wandering mazes and to open the cavern where surely, in the process of time, Gold (if only fairy gold) has matured for us and our race.
Of these few in our land, “Tom Collins,” the author of the present book, was the fore-runner. In the quality of that remarkable book of his, “Such is Life,” published by the Bulletin when that journal was the clear clarion of all that Australia is to be, a book, which apart from the realism of a careful and restrained observer of bush-life and the bush itself, reveals critical and analytic powers of a high order and the culture of a real man throughout its rich bulk, one can see auspices of high accomplishment for future Australia, Lucians, Montaignes, Emersons, Borrows of her own, racy of her soil and conscious of her destiny. On “Such is Life” our author’s fame will, when tardily it comes, rest, but all who know and value that book and through it have got to love the man, will welcome the insight into phases of his character which the publication of the present volume will give. They will not find perhaps the Psalms, for instance, free from metrical and other more serious faults; they will, according to their lights, regret the occasional lapses into what in a less sincere soul would be unpardonable cynicism in the presence of what many hold as sacred things, and perhaps shiver as sheer prose intrudes into a line or a verse or a whole psalm. But with the sympathy which “Such is Life” has ineradicably generated in its readers, they at least will know what a pure genuine lover of man, essential democracy and Australia is wrapped in this rough clothing, and will thrill, as I do, at the idealism that the occasional cynicism and even superficial attitude disguise. For instance, with all its obvious faults, perhaps even of taste, “Brahm” appears to me to honour the paper that first published it and thereby Australian literature. It will, moreover, not take much critical acumen to trace, when one remembers how long ago most of his work was written, the paternity of more than one recent school of Australian literature to “Tom Collins.”
Joseph Furphy (“Tom Collins”) was born at Yering about 1843 of Methodist parents. They came from that part of Ireland which, in spite of the curse thereon for the awful crimes of King Conchobar against Deirdre and the Children of Usna, produces still so many remarkable men and women that Celts are fain to believe that even Cromwell and the Settlements could not quite have annihilated those Red Branch Knights and bards who with their Sunburst banners and magical songs followed Queen Mab to danger so many centuries ago. Both father and mother had a literary turn, the former taking some part, I understand, in helping Baron von Mueller in one of his books on the Flora of Australia. “Tom Collins’” father appears to have been somewhat strict with the callow philosopher, for he says that he was “carefully brought up under a small tree stripped of its twigs.” His mother, who is still living, and, at 98 years of age, still alert in mind, is, as one of my correspondents who knew her says, “one of those women whom their children call blessed.” Those who have read “Such is Life!” which is largely autobiographical, will remember that he held some official post in the country in New South Wales, and at one time with his brother, John Furphy, he owned implement works at Shepparton, Victoria. With his family he went to Western Australia a few years ago, and died there on the 13th September, 1913, at the age of 68. His widow lives at Claremont, Western Australia, and his two sons, Felix and Sam, have a foundry in Fremantle.
The Bulletin school of Australian literature, notably under the remarkably able headmastership of the lovable J. A. Archibald and the discerning and in his prime certainly not negligible rattan of A. G. Stephens, has in many departments of literature produced such splendid results that there is, apart from that of the earlier generation, scarcely any good Australian literature not of Bulletin origin, but in the whole Bulletin family there is no more sincere writer than “Tom Collins,” and in his particular corner of the library I do not think I am doing injustice to anyone in saying that on the whole our finest production of prose literature up to the present is “Such is Life!”
November 26th, 1916.
K. B. [Kate Baker] (editor), The Poems of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne: Lothian Book Publishing Co., 1916, pages 4-6