[Editor: This article about Australian poetry was published in Hermes: The Magazine of the University of Sydney (Sydney, NSW), 20 November 1894. The article is critical of Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Clarence Kendall, but praises the work of Henry Lawson.]
Poetry in Australia.
“My hope and heart is with thee.”
If you mention Australian poetry to the average man who has not been tainted by looking at Sladen’s anthologies, two names occur to his mind, and probably only two. He is right. Even the length of Convict Once will not save Brunton Stephens from oblivion, and yet Stephens has a fine humour. Unhappily, humour and an easy-flowing pen are not all that is required. Kendall and Gordon deserve to be remembered for one or two things they have written — Araluen, for example, and The Rhyme of Joyous Garde — but even they, our first authentic poets, are, in a sense, failures. Their lack of success is, in both cases, to be traced to the egotism, the eternal self-reference of the men. Kendall is weakly selfish, Gordon forcefully so. The former was a man of great but ever-decreasing possibilities, and, however much we may pity or sympathize with him, we cannot help acknowledging that it was through his own acts that the “ardent lights” grew pale and the “ancient fire” burnt out with such futile results; we must admit, as he himself was so ready to do, that it was through his own fault that he could say, in his latent volume:
“The perfect verses to the tune
Of woodland music set,
As beautiful as afternoon,
Remain unwritten yet.”
A poet must be fired with a great ideal if he is to produce great work, and Kendall’s ideal was the glorification of himself. It is a hard thing to say, but it is undoubtedly true. He weeps in the dark — would to heaven he had not been so ready to weep and whine! — because at the outset, in spite of his youthful self-confidence, he distrusts his own powers and fears that he is not fated to lead the muse of Australia down from the mountains. He wrote because he hoped for “the praise of after-time,” not because he was possessed by an irresistible impulse of deep emotion or passion. He was not driven on by pity, indignation or love. He was a lonely, introspective dreamer, ruined irretrievably by incessant self-analysis. He was inspired by a vision of himself crowned “monarch of song in the land,” and bowed down to by admiring thousands. It was a bad beginning, but it might have led to very fair results had it not been for his weak habit of constantly weeping over his sins, and flagellating himself till his poetry rained tears and his voice cracked with unavailing shrieks. Every tear helped to blur the picture he had conceived — the picture of Henry Clarence Kendall crowned with laurel, and delighting all hearers with the twang of his lyre. And so, wailing over his own short-comings, howling in his remorse like Irish wolves against the moon, he passed into
“The refuge of the weary,
The solace of the weak.”
Gordon’s remorse was no less keen, but he was stronger. His voice is not plaintive or maudlin. His eyes flashed fire as he steeplechased with wild force to his ruin. He had more courage than poor Kendall; but he was only a few degrees less self-analytical Possibly, during his latter years, he had no fixed ambition to sustain him. His verse is merely the frank, impulsive expression of his own thought and feeling. It is more spontaneous and virile, but less sweet and poetic than Kendall’s rhymes. He also lacked a great ideal.
Both these men have entered the dark arch of death. Who is there to take their places? Is there anyone who, with ability equal to or greater than theirs, is guided by a brighter star, inspired by nobler aspirations? There is. We have the man among us, and his name is Henry Lawson. Here at last is one who has within him the elements of greatness. He may not have the galloping rush that marks the most spirited of Gordon’s verses, nor the calm aesthetic meditation of Kendall’s melancholy songs, but he has what they had not — an intense power of sympathy that forces him to realise the struggling efforts of human nature upwards, the various hopes and fears of his fellow men. From the ranks of the workers his voice rises up, full of comfort and of hope. He knows what the poorer classes of our country have to fight with, for he too has had no thornless path of life to travel. The workers should hail him as their God-sent prophet, for he has worked with them, hoped with them, suffered with them. He has seen them at their best and at their worst, and in spite of their too frequent displays of bigotry, narrowness and coarseness, he is willing to celebrate their nobler qualities in living song, and to figure their just claims in letters of fire upon the heavens. Let them beware that they do not drive him from their camp. Let them take care lest they prove unworthy of their champion. There are signs in his work of a strong revulsion of feeling, a bitter awakening to sordid reality. Nothing can quench the love that inspires him, but the tendency of his poetry is changing. Let us turn to the verse of his earlier phase, and what do we find? Here is an ardent boy, full of enthusiasm and fire. He is inexperienced, and his views of life are illogical and fiercely revolutionary. He worships an abstraction which he knows by the name of THE PEOPLE. The sight of misery fills him with savage indignation. Poverty is a visible evil. Men starve, and look in vain for work. Yet there are some who enjoy riches and luxury. The impulsive spirit of the youth sees the main facts and leaps at once to what he regards as the immediate and obvious solution. Bloody Revolution will clear the stagnant air. Madness? Then youth is always mad. At least he is terribly in earnest:
Once I cried: “God Almighty! if thy might doth still endure,
Now show me in a vision, for the wrongs of Earth, a cure.”
And lo! with shops all shuttered, I beheld a city’s street,
And in the waning distance heard the tramp of many feet,
Coming near, coming near,
To a drum’s dull distant beat,
And soon I saw the army that was marching down the street.
And, like a swollen river that has bursted bank and wall,
The human, flood came pouring with the red flags over all!
And kindled eyes all blazing bright with revolution’s heat!
And flashing swords reflecting rigid faces in the street,
Pouring on, pouring on,
To a drum’s loud threatening beat,
And the war-hymns and the cheering of the people in the street.
He does not publish such powerful, ringing verses now, because his mind is in a state of transition. He used to shout loud announcements of the distant but approaching tramp of “red revolution’s feet,” and longed to carry a scarlet rag on a pole and lead an army of THE PEOPLE against the hirelings of tyranny. Probably deeper experience has taught him that THE PEOPLE were only “such stuff as dreams are made of.” His ideal has been shattered, and he hardly knows what to believe in, or where to place his trust. But them are signs that he is beginning to see that his mistake lay in his exclusiveness. He is beginning to take a more concrete view of things. He seems at length to realize the fact of universal brotherhood, and looks forward to the time that must come at last,
“When the people work together, and there ain’t no fore-’n’-aft.”
Let him cling to his faith. Let him steadily seek for good, not ignoring the evil in men, but recognising it as dirt which may be washed off. Let him view all things with the eyes of love. He is at the parting of the ways, and if he is true to himself success is certain. But he must remember that his soul is not his own. We, too, have our share in it, and we shall, when the time of reckoning comes, demand strict account. Genius is neither a plaything nor a minting machine. But I know that the soul of the man is essentially unselfish, and with confidence I hail him as one whose name will wake feelings of love and reverence in thousands of hearts. And so for a moment I take leave of Henry Lawson.
Hermes: The Magazine of the University of Sydney (Sydney, NSW), vol. 10 no. 6, 20 November 1894, pp. 4-5
ain’t = (vernacular) a contraction of: am not; are not, aren’t; has not, hasn’t; have not, haven’t; is not, isn’t
Brunton Stephens = James Brunton Stephens (1835-1902), author and poet; born in Scotland, he came to Australia in 1866, died in Highgate Hill (Brisbane) in 1902
doth = (archaic) does
figure = (archaic) prominent representation; display; show
flagellating = the present tense of flagellate: to whip, beat, flog, or scourge oneself or someone else (the term “self-flagellation” specifically refers to the solo activity); a whipping for purposes of religious discipline; a whipping for the sexual gratification of a masochist (which may be carried out by a sadist or a sadomasochist)
fore-’n’-aft = fore and aft; at the front (fore) and at the rear (aft), commonly used regarding the front (bow) and rear (stern) of sail boats or ships; forwards and backwards; end to end
Gordon = Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870) a poet who spent most of his working and literary life in Australia; he was born in Charlton Kings (Gloucestershire, England), and migrated to Adelaide (South Australia) in 1853, at the age of 20; he worked as a mounted policeman, a horse-breaker, a Member of Parliament (in SA), and as a sheep farmer; he became a popular poet, due to such writings as “The Sick Stockrider” (1870)
Kendall = Henry Kendall (1839-1882), an Australian poet
lo = (archaic) look, observe, see; an interjection used to call attention to something (especially as used in the phrase “lo and behold”)
lyre = a stringed musical instrument, similar to a small harp, although with a U-shaped frame with strings attached to a crossbar (especially known for its use in ancient Greece)
minting machine = a machine for minting coins (i.e. a machine used for the stamping of small metal discs, using coin die, to create new coins); as a metaphor, a “minting machine” is someone or something which can be used to make a lot of money
Sladen = Douglas Sladen (1856-1947), English author and poet (born in England, lived in Australia 1879-1884, then returned to England, where he edited several anthologies of Australian poetry)
thy = (archaic) your