[Editor: This article by P. I. O’Leary was published in The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 30 May 1929.]
Henry Lawson: The historian in him
“Australia,” wrote the late Bertram Stevens, “may have many other good writers, but never another like Henry Lawson.” That is, I think, a true statement. The only writer who may be compared to Lawson is Mary Gilmore, and that in certain phases of her poetry. Her work in prose is not comparable to Lawson’s at all in point of similarity. The external conditions of Australian life which played their important part in the development of Lawson’s work have entirely changed since the late ’eighties and the ’nineties. The sundowners of his day, largely, have all walked down a longer “lead” than the track between station and station. Here and there a specimen lingers, a passing relic of a type of mendicant wanderer who will not appear again, though the tramp is a type who will not disappear. For, such is the spirit of man, wanderers there will always be. The very technique of “going on tramp” has changed. The old traditions that clung about the vagrom wanderer of the days of Lawson, Mitchell and Steelman have passed with the “blades” and the pack-horse. There will never be another Lawson as there will never be another Dickens.
The changing years.
Lawson was unique. The period during which he wrote was unique, and the memories and atmosphere of that period become faint and dim as the mists of the years gather about them. But that period was very real and very important in the growth and development of Australian life, thought, and sentiment. It is true — pathetically and criminally true, and never more true than in the present hour of widespread want and stress — that similar conditions exist as those that drove Lawson to sing, or rather to keen, in that most moving of all his moving poems, “Faces in the Street,” the lines:
And cause have I to sorrow in a land so young and fair,
To see upon those faces stamped the marks of Want and Care.
But the times have changed, and even the distress and need of the present “hard times” differ in some way from the poverty that existed two score years and thereabouts ago as a result of the evil folly of the “boom” days. There is deep poverty in this land of plenty to-day. There was deep poverty when Lawson wrote “The Army of the Rear,” but the circumstances that induce this poverty have changed. The bush of Lawson’s day, seen through the personality of the folk who lived in it and loved it, has, then, taken on an air of difference from the bush of to-day. The radio, the motor car, and other appurtenances of to-day’s civilisation have wrought a change.
A true recorder.
Lawson harked back, with a glance longing and romantic, to the decades immediately preceding his own. He saw glamour in “The Roaring Days” and romance in “The Days When the World Was Wide.” He was not the first, he will not be the last, to declare with feeling that “’Twas a better land to live in in the days o’ long ago…” a conviction that I do not share. But he was the most persuasive and impressive of those who have thus written, and the very simplicity and artlessness with which he has recorded his belief adds to the beauty of that record and to its sincerity. And just as Lawson was the wisest, the most imaginative, the most convincing, and the most sympathetic of those who wrote of the gold-digging days and the days of Cobb and Co., so he was also the most genuine and remarkable of those who wrote of his own day. His work is often too grey in tone and too charged with regret. He was too given to hearing “the still, sad music of humanity.” But Lawson had curious insight, and he had humour. He knew the men and women and times of which he wrote. He had lived the life of those men and women; understood them, sorrowed, if he too infrequently joyed, with them. He is their true imaginative recorder and interpreter.
Dickens and Lawson.
Lawson’s literary painting of types of Australian life, character and atmosphere may not give the whole picture. He put in, as I say, too many greys. Dickens’ works may not present the whole picture of the England of his day, of the character of its people as a whole, of its national life broadly. But Dickens of England, Lawson of Australia, each gives a truer picture than all the formal and “accurate” works of the deliberate writers of history. Lawson has left in his writings an imaginative history of the Australia he knew. As I say, it may have something wanting. There is this to fill in and that to describe. But we feel through his characters some lasting quality of the old pioneering spirit, we get a lingering impression of the Australian’s kindliness, his a little too casual and happy-go-lucky acceptance of events, and his intense spirit of mateship, exemplified as naturally on the black-soil plains as at Pozieres.
The reader who considers the matter can readily see how greatly Lawson was influenced by Dickens and Bret Harte. These writers appealed to him. To the sympathy for the under-dog in their works he was very susceptible. They did not affect his simple style. That was as native to him as his community of feeling with such folk as the bushmen of “the West,” who rode into Talbragar when Jack Denver died. But his outlook on things was in some way conditioned by his reading of the English writer and the American writer; the latter, who, in his turn, as he generously acknowledged, was profoundly stirred to creative effort by the creator of Dick Swiveller. The capacity of those writers to feel was his in a very special way, though he felt the pathetic more than the pleasant. However, one needs only to set his stories beside those of “Steele Rudd,” whom he has influenced, to realise how much more humorous and “actual” his work is than the almost uproarious work of that writer. Bertram Stevens wrote of Lawson excellently. “He had,” said that writer, “the power to see … as well as the impetus to write. He has presented the Bush and its people in literature that will live, presented them honestly, and showed the hardship, the cruelty and the desolation of the Outback country, as well as its romance, and the kindliness, dry humour, reckless courage and the splendid endurance of the bush folk. He is sincere in all that he writes, and has the faculty of stating the essential things, which are not necessarily the picturesque.” That is sound criticism. It is just that honesty of presentation that makes Lawson’s work so truly a picture of his period.
History in a real sense.
And that brings me to my point. While we do not ask a poet or a story-teller to write history for us (much of history is “story-telling” in the sense that the child understands that term) — though we do not ask this, yet the historian of a later day “reconstructing” a period is greatly aided by the imaginative help of the novelist. The Australian historian has a deep and full-volumed reservoir of information in the stories and poems of Henry Lawson. The rise of political Labour, the atmosphere of the little bush town, the social and pressing rigours of the ’nineties, the tenderness of comradeship, the warm generosity of Australian men and women, the trials and sorrows he has written down, sometimes bitterly, sometimes with that quiet humour of his — this great Australian who was son of Peter Larsen, the Norwegian sailor who left his ship in Melbourne.
— P. I. O’L.
The Advocate (Melbourne, Vic.), 30 May 1929, p. 5
appurtenances = instruments; apparatus; accessory objects; items which are a subordinate part of, or adjunct to, a greater item
artlessness = the state of being artless: honest, innocent, naive, sincere, without deception, without design, without guile, without a hidden agenda
Bertram Stevens = (1872-1922) an Australian anthologist, editor, journalist, art critic, and literary critic
blades = (in the context of shearing) shearing blades (also known as “shearing clippers” or “shears”), used to remove, or shear, the wool, or fleece, from sheep; the old-style shearing blades were joined together at the bottom of the implement (distinct from scissors, which are joined approximately in the middle), with wide and very sharp blades (although manual shearing blades are still used in modern times, most new-style shears are electric)
See: “Blade shearing”, Wikipedia
Bret Harte = (1836-1902) an American author and poet
Cobb and Co. = an Australian transportation company, well-known in the late 19th century and early 20th century, which operated various lines of stagecoaches, especially to outlying areas (including to the goldfields); it was established in 1853 by four Americans, including Freeman Cobb
Dickens = Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870), English author, well known for his novels and short stories of the Victorian era
Dick Swiveller = a character who appears in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), a novel by Charles Dickens
going on tramp = living the life of a swagman, tramping from job to job; “going on the tramp” is similar to “going on the wallaby track”
Jack Denver = a character who appeared in the works of Henry Lawson, in the poem “Ben Duggan” and the story “Roll Up at Talbragar”
keen = to cry or wail in anguish, grief, or sorrow, especially over the death of someone, and especially to do so in a loud and prolonged manner; to lament or mourn in a heartfelt and/or loud manner; to make an eerie or wailing cry or sound
mendicant = beggar; characteristic of or relating to begging (may also refer to a religious person, such as a monk, who historically did not own personal property, or who lived on alms)
Mitchell and Steelman = characters which appear in the stories of Henry Lawson
o’ = a vernacular abbreviation of the word “of”
Outback = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback” (variations: out back, outback, out-back, Out Back, Outback)
pathetic = something which evokes feelings of sadness or sorrow (can also refer to something which is considered inadequate, inferior, or beneath contempt)
Pozieres = a village in France, around which a major battle (the Battle of Pozières) was fought during July 1916 to September 1916, as part of the First World War, with Australian and British soldiers fighting against the Germans
station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings
Steele Rudd = pseudonym of Arthur Hoey Davis (1868-1935), Australian author
sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or station late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that he could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange; can also refer to a swagman (in general terms, without the negative connotations regarding one who avoids work)
Talbragar = a locality situated north of Dubbo (NSW)
’twas = (archaic) a contraction of “it was”
vagrom = (archaic) vagrant: someone who has no fixed abode and no proper employment, with no visible or lawful means of support (the imputation being that the vagrant begs and/or steals in order to survive), subsequently being someone who frequently moves from place to place, especially someone who is considered to be wandering about in an idle manner; can also be referred to as a bum, drifter, hobo, tramp, or vagabond