The city bushman’s apologist [14 February 1896]

[Editor: This review of In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses (by Henry Lawson, 1896) was published in Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic.), 14 February 1896.]

The city bushman’s apologist.*

A glance at Mr. Henry Lawson’s volume of verse just published, in very good style, by an Australian firm, reminds the reader that Byrne’s poetry owed its immediate success, in the early part of the present century, to his adaptation of what is known as the Bernian metre.† What the Italian did for the English poet, Rudyard Kippling, the Anglo-Indian, has done for Anglo-Australian versifiers, who have recently come to the front.

* * *

Mr. Lawson’s book under review is dedicated to J. F. Archibald, probably as a token of gratitude for pointing out to a smart contributor who knew, to “scan” and “rhyme” to take Kippling as a model and describe bush life and incidents purely Australian in Kipplingese. Mr. Lawson’s verses, it is announced in the brief preface, were first published in Archibald’s and other Australian weekly papers.

* * *

“The City Bushman” has a history. Some time ago Mr. Lawson described in very dark colours the hardships of Australian bush life under the heading “Up the Country.” He rejoiced and sang:—

I am back from up the country — very sorry that I went —
Seeking for the southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I’m glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country’s rather more inviting round the coast.
Anyway I’ll stay at present at a boarding-house in town,
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.

* * * * * * * * * *

I believe the southern poets’ dream will not be realized
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanized.
I intend to stay at present, as I said before, in town,
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.

“Banjo” Patterson replied with “In Defence of the Bush,” and now Mr. Lawson rejoins with “The City Bushman,” and twits the eulogist of the bush by asking him:—

Did you ever guard the cattle, when the night was inky-black
And it rained, and icy water trickled gently down your back
Till your saddle-weary backbone fell a-aching to the roots
And you almost felt the croaking of the bull-frog in your boots
Sit and shiver in the saddle, curse the restless stock and cough
Till a squatter’s irate dummy cantered up to warn you off?
Did you fight the drought and pleuro, when the ‘seasons’ were asleep —
Felling sheoaks all the morning for a flock of starving sheep;
Drinking mud instead of water — climbing trees and lopping boughs
For the broken-hearted bullocks and the dry and dusty cows?

* * *

Mr. Lawson is not an Australian patriot, or else he would not despise the bush. Indeed, were it not for the bush and bushmen, he would most likely not be able to stay very long at his town boarding house “drinking beer and lemon squashes” which seems to be the height of the author’s earthly ambition. Mr. Lawson hates the bush, and just as he is blind to the beauties and pleasures of a country life which have real and lasting charms for the frugal and prudent man, so he is prejudiced in favour of even the lowest existence in the slums, of which he evidently does not know anything, or else we would not be assured that

There are golden hearts in gutters, though their owners lack the fat,
And we’ll back a teamster’s offspring to outswear a city brat.

* * *

There is a large admixture of vulgarity and profanity, wrongheadedness, and false sentiment in Mr. Lawson’s clever verses, which, however, are sure to be read with avidity by young men who like their literature piping hot. The printers and bookbinders, it should be added, have executed their work remarkably well, and the volume, which we have received from the Sydney publishers, will bear favourable comparison with the best of Kegan Paul’s book work.

* * *

The large sale, unprecedented in the annals of colonial publishing, of Mr. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, is noted, as evidence of the popularity of recent Australian verse. More than 4500 copies have been sold in Australasia in less than four months. Paterson’s verses, it should be added, deal with the bush from the squatter’s point of view. Lawson’s from the swagman’s.


* In the Days when the World Was Wide and other verses, by Henry Lawson. Publishers: Angus and Robertson, Sydney; Young J. Pentland, London, 1896. Price 5s.

† Francesco Berni — 1490-1536 — was the creator of a new style of poetry, known as the Bernesco.

Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic.), 14 February 1896, p. 5

Editor’s notes:
This article was written about what came to be known as the “Bulletin Debate”, in which writers argued over the nature of the bush (i.e. life in country areas); it was a debate mainly conducted via the poetry of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson in the pages of The Bulletin magazine, although some other writers weighed in as well.

Speak Your Mind