Henry Lawson dead. Poet of the people passes [7 September 1922]

Henry Lawson dead.

Poet of the people passes.

On Saturday morning, at Abbotsford, Sydney, Henry Lawson, the most outstanding personality among Australia’s men of letters and a democrat of the first rank, passed into the Great Beyond.

Lawson had been in indifferent health for some time. On Friday afternoon, while talking with a neighbor, he had a seizure, and, assisted to his room, he said: “Draw the curtain; the day is done.” These were his last coherent words. Relapsing into delirium, he died the following day.

By the death of Lawson Australia loses one of her most gifted and lovable sons and democracy one of its finest and bravest champions.

Born on the Grenfell diggings, New South Wales, and starting life firstly among miners and later as a coach painter in Sydney, Lawson grew to early manhood as a worker with a worker’s outlook on life, and right through his career, though fame offered him her garlands and the sweet music of praise rang often in his ears, the red blood of his plebeian origin flowed swiftly and proudly through his veins, and showed itself in many of his best literary efforts.

Lawson’s entry into the world of letters coincided with Australian democracy’s attempts to make itself articulate a generation ago. Scope for his budding talent was found in the pages of the Sydney “Bulletin,” then an iconoclastic organ in its attitude towards the social shams and effete conventions of the day, in the Brisbane “Boomerang,” an old-time champion of progress, and in both the Queensland and New South Wales “Workers.” In these organs anything that appeared over the name of Henry Lawson soon began to attract widespread attention. And this was only natural. For the pen that Henry Lawson wielded was of the magic sort that needed no interpreter to make its meaning clear, that captivated by its direct appeal the heart of lettered and unlettered alike. Simplicity was its keynote and pointedness of diction its charm. And the magic
in Henry Lawson’s pen was due to the fact that he combined with his gift of genius a deep understanding of the people to whom by all the ties of affinity he was attached, and a rare capacity to voice their hopes, their sorrows, and their aspirations in words that at once awakened responsive echoes in the hearts of even the humblest.

Henry Lawson had his ups and downs, economically and industrially in life. He died a poor man, though, judged by the popularity of his books, a comfortable existence should have been his. But through all his trials and tribulations he remained, as he began, one of the people, their champion, sympathiser, and friend.

Henry Lawson’s first appearance in Queensland journalism was on the “Boomerang,” long defunct. In one of its earliest issues, perhaps its first, appeared his “Camberoora Star,” a dramatic piece relating the big fight put up by a valiant “rag” standing up for democracy against the powers that be; and later, among other pieces in the same organ, was published the popular “Trooper Campbell.”

His first contribution to the Queensland “Worker” was printed on May 16, 1891, in the twenty-fourth issue of this paper. It was entitled “Freedom on the Wallaby,” and, though written before Lawson had passed his 25th milestone on the road of life, was typical of himself all through the piece — breezy, catchy, and rebellious against enthroned wrong. It is reprinted below just as it appeared over 31 years ago.

The remains of the deceased poet were interred on Monday in the Waverley Cemetery, when such homage as a State funeral could pay to his memory was accorded him. Immense crowds thronged St. Andrew’s Cathedral, where a short service was held, leading Federal and State parliamentarians and numbers of other men prominent in public and literary life being present. The streets of the city and suburbs were lined with a large concourse of people along the route of the funeral, the universal respect and sorrow shown providing a magnificent tribute to the dead man’s popularity and genius.

One pathetic feature at the Cathedral prior to the ceremony was a large squad of barefooted newsboys, who marched into the Cathedral bearing their simple tokens of tribute to the man who always loved the street arabs of Sydney.

At all the schools along the line of march the children were marshalled outside the schools to watch the passing of the poet whose words they have repeated day by day in school primers.

Freedom on the Wallaby.

Australia’s a big country,
An’ Freedom’s humping bluey,
And Freedom’s on the wallaby;
Oh don’t you hear ’er cooey?
She’s just begun to boomerang.
She’ll knock the tyrants silly,
She’s going to light another fire
And boil another billy.

Our fathers toiled for bitter bread
While loafers thrived beside ’em,
But food to eat and clothes to wear,
Their native land denied ’em.
An’ so they left that native land,
In spite of their devotion,
An’ so they come, or if they stole,
Were sent across the ocean.

Then Freedom couldn’t stand the glare
Of Royalty’s regalia.
She left the loafers where they were
An’ come out to Australia.
But now across the mighty main
The chains have come ter bind her,
She little thought to see again
The wrongs she left behind her.

Our parents toiled to make a home,
Hard grubbin’ ’twas and clearin’,
They wasn’t crowded much with lords
When they was pioneerin’.
But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promise.
Old Greed must crook ’is dirty hand
An’ come ter take it from us.

So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sling
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.

Henry Lawson.
Brisbane, May, 1891.

The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), Thursday 7 September 1922, page 4 [the poem “Freedom on the Wallaby” was included as an addendum to the article]

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