[Editor: Whilst not all of Hilton Barton’s conclusions may be agreed with, this is nonetheless a good article about Henry Lawson.]
A prose writer and poet of the people
At a recent meeting of the Henry Lawson Memorial and Literary Society, Footscray, the prize in an Essay Competition arranged by the society was awarded to Mr. Hilton E. Barton, 11 Lyons-street, Mudgee, N.S.W.
The prize money for the competition was given by Miss Fahey. This is the second occasion on which this lady has given a prize for essays appreciative of Henry Lawson’s literary work.
The winning essay in this competition is reprinted below:—
The work of Henry Lawson stands like a solid buttress in the sturdy wall of Australian literature—and the name of Henry Lawson never fails to engender deep wellings of emotion in the hearts of most Australian people. Yet how few have a clear and objective estimation of the work, the personality and the ideology of this outstanding literary phenomenon!
To some he is the Poet of the Bush and Mateship; to others the Australian “National” Poet; and to some disparaging splenetic depreciators he may be the “Poet of the Pubs” — conceptions that are begotten of a limited knowledge and a casual reading of the better known and more popular of Lawson’s poems. In short, the popular conception is of Lawson as a “Poet” worthy of a prominent place in the galaxy that includes Gordon, Kendall, Boake, Patterson, Daley, Ogilvie, and many other lights.
Argument as to which is the better “poet” is unlimited, both from technical and ideological viewpoints, and we Lawsonians, who are met with a charge of an alleged technical weakness in the verse of Henry Lawson, are quite satisfied to reply, “His technique is good enough for us — it is in the broad variety and deep human content of his verse that we hail him Master.”
Viewed comprehensively, and considering all aspects, Lawson leads the Australian poets — not in the abstract, idealist conception of so-called “pure” poetry, but in throbbing, pulsating human realism, and in variety.
The extremely broad field of literary endeavor covered by Lawson in “this modern bondage” of rhymed verse is sufficient explanation of occasional metrical and rhyming weaknesses, and is in itself a compliment to his technical ability. It can only be regarded as a distinct loss to Australian literature that Lawson did not fully avail himself of the greater freedom and scope of blank verse as a method of expression — the perspective seems almost unlimited.
But it is in the sphere of Prose that Henry Lawson stands unchallenged and supreme — as T. D. Hutch writes in his “Early Life of Henry Lawson,” “like a peak upon the undulating plain of Australian literature.” Lawson is a master of the short story in technique, in variety, in realistic detail and in deep human content, and has been ranked with the world’s greatest — with De Maupassant, with Kipling, with Bret Harte, with Gorki.
From a comprehensive and objective viewpoint, as both a poet and prose writer, Lawson stands supreme in Australian literature, and occupies a worthy and prominent place in world literature of all ages and all class ideologies — a master of expression in both verse and prose.
Any criticism or appreciation of Henry Lawson and his work cannot be disassociated from his working-class viewpoint and socialist ideology. The originals of the themes and characters of Lawson were scattered over much territory and many walks of life, but he was primarily a songster and storyteller of the working people who nurtured him and in whose great throbbing heart he is forever enshrined. From farm, factory, and shearing shed; from schoolroom, office and pub-bar; from mine fo’c’s’le, and contractors’ camps; from wherever the working painter contacted with his own class, the Lawson originals were garnered into their honorable niches in Australian literature.
But it was from the people of the “Lawson country” — the Mudgee district, where “Eurunderee lies like a gem in the Range,” that the greater number of Lawson’s characters were taken, and where there is scarcely a square mile of territory that has not contributed to Lawson’s themes in verse or prose — for instance, the
Miners of the Log Paddock, the Pipeclay, the Home Rule, Canadian Lead and Gulgong; the small farm selectors, the teamsters, station-hands, drovers and fencers; the ex-convicts and the townspeople of many occupations. These are the Lawson people and these are the human basis of the best of Lawsonian literature.
What Bret Harts did for the Californian mining districts; what Gorki did for the Russian masses; what Burns did for Ayr and its people, Lawson has done for the Mudgee district parochially, for the people of Australia as a nation, and for the people of the world internationally . . .
“Oh, they were lion-hearted
Who gave our country birth!
Oh, they were of the stoutest sons
From all the lands on earth!
Here, the German vignerons; the Italian watchmaker; the Irish, Scottish and English farmers; the gold-diggers of many nationalities; the Norwegian father of Henry Lawson; and the gypsy tradition in his mother’s family — all played their part in building within the youthful mind of Lawson that working-class internationalist outlook, that broad humanitarian sympathy, that sense of oneness with the underdog, which places Henry Lawson foremost amongst the story- tellers and songsters of the common people.
Lawson, in prose and verse, expressed the spirit of a Federated Australia and the rise of Australia to nationhood—but his dominant Australian sentiment is not the miserable Chauvinistic jingoism of rabid Nationalism. It is the culture of a young, progressive and democratic people. A pioneer and stalwart of the Labor and Socialist movement, Henry Lawson’s outlook was fundamentally Socialist and Internationalist, dominated by a just pride in his own people, his own country and its democratic institutions. He well might have said, “The world is my country, but liberty-loving Australia is my inspiration.”
In the general context of his work he was a realist. From realities he drew his characters and his themes and his work is therefore an inspired realism, tinged with the sweetness of his beloved Kendall—a caustic criticism of cant, hypocrisy and humbug. equalled only by Burns—and a pathos tinged with humor predominantly his own.
An infinite sadness permeates the work of Lawson — the sadness of a deep-thinking, sensitive man, tormented by the spectre of poverty from his earliest days; a sadness that is a reflex of the struggles and misery of drought-stricken farmers; the unemployed tramping the cold streets; the workers in the factory sweat-shops — all of which he personally experienced and which brought forth as a protest that fiery paean of revolution, “The Faces in the Street.”
“And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse.
But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street —
The dreadful, everlasting strife
For scarcely clothes and meat
In that pent track of living death — the city’s cruel street.”
Certain conservative critics, fostered in an atmosphere of wealth and easy living, have attempted to deny Lawson his predominant place in Australian literature under the plea that he was tinged with Socialism and his outlook morbid and “all wrong” — an ideological reaction from their own social and economic viewpoint.
Lawson might well have sung with Burns —
“Waefu’ want and hunger fley me,
Glowrin’ by the hallan en’;
and the broad masses of the laboring people, from whom the spectre of in security or outright poverty is never absent, claim Lawson enthusiastically as their own.
In enduring verse and prose he voiced their miseries, their hopes, their joys, their aspirations, their struggles for a better life. From his earliest days at Eurunderee to his last moments at Abbotsford, he was solid in the fight for human progress and advancement, and the Trades Unionists heard reassuringly in his latter years —
“—I’ve been union twenty years
And I’m too old to rat.”
From time to time attempts have been made in the conservative papers and elsewhere to “whitewash” Henry Lawson, to “respectablise” him; to make him acceptable to conservative opinion — but all to no purpose — Lawson died as he lived — a Son of the People, a Socialist and a rebel against hide-bound tradition, hypocrisy and exploitation. . . .
“So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in a rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault was ours
If blood should stain the wattle.”
It has been said that Lawson owes much to his editors, and it might justly be replied — “His editors owe much to Henry Lawson.”
In a pedantic desire for improved technique, no doubt with the best of intentions, and probably with the poet’s grudging consent, much revision and alteration of Lawson’s work, from time to time, has been carried out by editors and publishers. In many instances the technical improvement is doubtful and in others definitely damaging. For example, the original text of “Andy’s gone with cattle, first stanza, read—
“Our Andy’s gone to battle now
’Gainst Drought, the red marauder;
Our Andy’s gone with cattle now
Across the Queensland border.”
In “Winnowed Verse, “ this has been revised thus:—
“Our Andy’s gone with cattle now —
Our hearts, are out of order—
With Drought he’s gone to battle now
Across the Queensland border.”
The technical improvement here is negligible, if any, and the substituted line, “Our hearts are out of order “ reaches a depth of bathos sufficient to place any poet in a similar state of cardiac maladjustment.
The manuscript of “Eurunderee,” one of the author’s best descriptive poems, contained several stanzas which were more reminiscent than descriptive and technically weak with faulty rhyme and uneven rhythm.
The elimination of these stanzas definitely improved the technique, leaving the poem almost purely descriptive and a beautiful example of a word picture. One would wish, however, that the best of these stanzas had been retained as a powerful expression of deep human sentiment and reverence for John Tierney . . .
“There was one who first taught me my future to rule,
In the dear old bark humpy where I went to school;
And the kind-hearted master I’ll never forget
(Nor the brogue of Old Erin, that clings to me yet);
But his hair must be frosty, and wrinkled his brow,
If he teaches the school at Eurunderee now.”
Any appreciation of Henry Lawson would be incomplete without reference to his deep, sensitive, dreaming nature and temperament — the typical “introvert” of the German psychologists — the thinker, the philosopher, the book-man — a type ill-adapted for monotonous labor, for the economic struggle for existence and for the dollar hunt.
Hostile critics have charged him with physical laziness and drunkenness. To this we reply, “one cannot burn the candle at both ends,” and energy consumed in an over-active brain is not available for physical activity — in fact, Lawson presented many neurotic symptoms, was temperamentally unfitted for monotonous toil and his fondness for alcohol was undoubtedly due to misdirected and unscientific attempts to deaden his neuroses—an aberration common to Kendall, Gordon and Burns.
Whilst environment, social condition and reflex actions to external stimulants, undoubtedly determine the general functioning and ideology of any man, the internal and subjective influences must be correctly estimated. Lawson was definitely in the category of the abnormal —
“I am haunted no more by the question that haunted my brain:
Are you sane of a people gone mad? — or mad in a world that is sane?”
and exemplifies the axiom that genius is often allied with neurosis.
His periods of deep melancholy can he ascribed to this cause: as also those marked retrogressional tendencies which produced those many beautifully tender reminiscent themes which enrich his work. This tendency to dream of the past was often very realistically and forcefully expressed, as in the first chapter of Lawson’s autobiography, which opens in “Franca’s Paddock,” Eurunderee —
“I had a dreamy recollection of the place as a hut; some of my people said it was a tent on a good frame . . .
“There was a tree in front of the tent — or hut . . .
“We were back at Pipeclay again . . . The tent and the tree were gone . . . But the tent and the tree still stand in a sort of strange unearthly half-light — sadder than any twilight I know of, ever so far away back there at the other end of the past.”
Yet Lawson was no bondsman to morbid introspection — nor was he mentally enslaved to the hidebound traditions of the past. His spirit was the spirit of progress and revolt —
“Let your feet never lag as you march ’neath the flag.
’Neath the old rebel flag in the rear.”
and his beacon light was the classless Socialist society of the future —
“But the curse o’ class distinction from our shoulders shall be hurled
An’ the influence of woman revolutionise.the world: . . .
An’ there won’t be any friction ’twixt the classes fore-’n’-aft.
We’ll be brothers, fore-’n’-aft!
Yes, an’ sisters, fore-’n’-aft!
When the people work together, and there ain’t no fore-’n’-aft.”
Henry Lawson is gone, but his memory stands supreme in the hearts of his countrymen; and he is forever linked with Burns as the two greatest poets of the people, and with Gorki as the two best loved storytellers of the toiling masses.
The Wodonga and Towong Sentinel (Wodonga, Vic.), Friday 27 January 1939, page 4