[Editor: An article published in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 3, 8 March 1918.]
Aussie verse and verse-writers.
A short biographical sketch of a popular Australian author, with selections from his work will appear on this page each issue.
II. — Henry Lawson.
Henry Lawson is one of the most prolific and widely-read of our versifiers. He was born at Grenfell, N.S.W., and is 51 years of age. His father was a Norwegian and his mother an Australian. His principal volumes are: “Short Stories in Prose and Verse,” “In the Days When the World Was Wide,” “Verses Popular and Humorous,” “Children of the Bush,” “When I was King, and Other Verses,” “The Rising of the Court,” “The Sky-line Riders and Other Verses.”
Lawson knows the Bush thoroughly. He has lived its life. He has enjoyed its freedom and beauty and spirit of independence and hospitality, and suffered its hardships and solitude and difficulties and dangers. And he writes of them in good, vigorous, sympathetic verse that pulsates with the Spirit of the Bush. He portrays the life and characteristics of the people of the Backblocks better than any writer that Australia has produced. The squatter, the cocky, the jackeroo, the swaggie, the rouseabout, the shearer, the drover, the ne’er-do-well, the womenfolk, the shanty-keeper and his hangers-on and victims, the bullocky, the rabbiter, and all the other classes that go to make up that strange and heterogeneous population of our vast Bush are faithfully word-sketched and live their interesting lives in the pages of his books.
I would like to be able to give you quotations from some of this Bush verse, but the Army does not include a library in the list of things that a soldier may carry with him in the Field, and my memory doesn’t hold it now. I wish I could give you an extract from the character-study of the lonely, patient, toiling Bush wife in “Past Carin’.” However ———
Youthful Henry left the Bush and came to the City, and we learn that
Where the nearest suburb and the City proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street.
Coming fresh from the vast, free, healthful, leisurely Bush, the sight of the workers hurrying day after day to their employment in the uninspiring office and shop and factory appalled the impressionable, sympathetic nature of the unsophisticated dreamer from the Backblocks. Hence —
In pain I look for traces of the fresh and fair and sweet
In the sallow, sunken faces that are drifting through the street.
Starting from the
Hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky,
he describes in “The Faces in the Street” the people he sees pass his window throughout the day and far into the night, when
Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street.
He rails against the life of monotony and toil that most of the owners of these Faces in the Street are forced to live, and is filled with grief when he pictures how
The City’s dust and heat grinds the owners of the faces in the street.
But later in life Henry visited Europe, and then he wrote no more of the “wan and weary faces” of the Australian workers. He saw worse.
Lawson rings truer when he writes of Bush life. In “Out Back” he describes sympathetically the life of the peripatetic swagman:
For time means tucker, and tramp you must, where the scrub and plains are wide,
With seldom a track that a man can trust, or a mountain peak to guide.
In “The Star of Australia,” published a good many years before the war, Lawson proved himself to be a true prophet, and one would think that he is describing to-day what is happening, rather than forecasting what was to happen years after he wrote:
I tell you the Star of the South shall rise — in the lurid clouds of war,
There comes a point that we will not yield, no matter if right or wrong,
And men will fight on the battle-field while passion and pride are strong —
So long as he will not kiss the rod, and his stubborn spirit sours,
And the scorn of Nature and curse of God are heavy on peace like ours.
* * *
There are boys out there by the western creeks, who hurry away from school
To climb the sides of the breezy peaks or dive in the shaded pool,
Who’ll stick to their guns when the mountains quake to the tread of a mighty war,
And fight for Right or a Grand Mistake as men never fought before.
* * *
There are boys to-day in the city slum and the home of wealth and pride
Who’ll have one home when the storm is come, and fight for it side by side,
Who’ll hold the cliffs ’gainst the armoured hells that batter a coastal town,
Or grimly die in a hail of shells when the walls come crashing down.
* * *
They’ll fight for honour and fight for love, and a few will fight for gold,
For the devil below and for God above, as our fathers fought of old;
And some half blind with exultant tears, and some stiff-lipped, stern-eyed,
For the pride of a thousand after-years and the old eternal pride.
* * *
The South will wake to a mighty change ere a hundred years are done
With arsenals west of the mountain range and every spur its gun.
And many a rickety “son of a gun” on the tides of the future tossed,
Will tell how battles were really won that History says were lost,
Will trace the field with his pipe, and shirk the facts that are hard to explain,
As grey old mates of the diggings work the old ground over again —
How this was our centre, and this a redoubt, and that was a scrub in the rear,
“And this was the point where the guards held out, and the enemy’s lines were here.”
And these stanzas from “The Sliprails and the Spur” will have a strong appeal for many a farmer soldier in the A.I.F.:
A hand upon the horse’s mane,
And one foot in the stirrup set,
And, stooping back to kiss again,
With “Good-bye, Mary! don’t you fret!
“When I come back” — he laughed for her —
“We do not know how soon ’twill be;
“I’ll whistle as I round the spur —
“You let the sliprails down for me.”
* * *
And often at the set of sun,
In winter bleak and summer brown,
She’d steal across the little run,
And shyly let the sliprails down.
And listen there when darkness shut
The nearer spur in silence deep;
And when they called her from the hut
Steal home and cry herself to sleep.
One of the most notable of Lawson’s more recent books is a collection of verse on prison life, in which he states the case for the under-dog in good, vigorous, generous-hearted verse.
The war seemed to rejuvenate “Old Harry,” and I’ve seen some very fine war-verse by him in The Bulletin. But I haven’t the space to quote from it here.
Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 3, 8 March 1918, page 17
peripatetic = pedestrian, walking; traveling from place to place; meandering, wandering; itinerant, vagrant; may also refer to a follower of Aristotle, or an adherent of Aristotelianism (as Aristotle, the philosopher and teacher of ancient Greece, is said to have taught whilst pacing about)