The outstanding fact in connection with Mr. C. J. Dennis is that over two hundred thousand copies of his books of verse have been sold since October,1915, in Australia alone. Such a success would be notable anywhere; in Australia, with its small population, it is an astonishing phenomenon.
Poems which can appeal so promptly to so large an audience could not be expected to be of the highest order. Their success is due in part to the vernacular in which they are written, which is an Australianised cockney dialect; to their humor; and to the broad human interest which is secured by displaying the larrikin in his sentimental moods and making him appear a decent chap with aspirations towards higher things. There are experts in larrikinism who say that there never was no sich person as the Sentimental Bloke and never could be. They are no doubt correct; but the author was quite justified in personifying the crude sentimentality which is always to be found in the lowest strata of society, and making that personage the mouthpiece of the views of his class.
One does not need to test the value of Dennis's creations by their absolute fidelity to the larrikin class. They are fictional characters without subtlety or depth, but with sufficient of raw human nature to make them lifelike, and the author has put into their mouths expressions which are characteristic of the hunter and the phllosophy of partly educated Australians who, professionally, approximate to the coster tribe.
The art of C. J. Dennis in ringing the changes upon the limited vocabulary of his characters and getting his effects natura1ly is conspicuous when one surveys the whole of his dialect verse to date. In "The Sentimental Bloke" the youth and Doreen go to the theatre where "Romeo and Juliet" is being played. The Bloke described the tragedy as it appeared to him and reaches the climax rapidly:-
Then things gits mixed a treat an' starts to whirl.
Then Juli-et wakes up an' sees 'im there,
That is a fair specimen of Australian humor in the violence of its contrast between, the intense emotion of Shakespeare's tragic lovers, and the coarse and grotesque imagery in which it is explained. Australian humor is akin to that of America, which depends upon violence in exaggeration. Dennis, however, has not been influenced by Mark Twain or Josh Billings; he has obtained his material from his own countrymen. Unfortunately its range is limited; but his representation of it is none the less faithful on that account.
"Ginger Mick" carried the "Bloke" standpoint to the business of the great War and its effect upon the larrikin class in its relatlons with the rest of society. It expressed some plain truths very forcibly, and in a way which would carry them further and more effectively than a thousand loading articles. "Doreen" was an extension of the married life of the Bloke.
In "Digger Smith" he has introduced them again as minor figures in a series of poems relating mainly to the returned soldier Smith. The essence of the book is that our soldiers have rendered a service to Australia that should never be forgotten, and should be paid for in full. Digger Smith speaks for many soldiers when he says to the home-staying one:
"You coots at 'ome 'as small ideer
"We want the land we battled for
Like "Ginger Mick" this new book "Digger Smith" will be popular with the soldiers, for it voices their claim upon the practical remembrance of the people. As a matter of fact, Dennis secured the soldier's vote with "The Sentimental Bloke." One who did his bit at Gallipoli wrote that an early copy of the book had been received by a mate of his, who had lent it to every other member of the company. Then requests for the loan of the book came from other companies, and the owner broke it up into sections and passed them round. They continued on their beneficent journey until they fell to pieces.
The man who has attained this remarkable popularity in so short a time had been writing for many years before the Bloke was born. He is a South Australian by birth, having arrived in this world of sentiment and selfishness on 7th September, 1876, at the village of Auburn in the wheat country. His father had been a master mariner, who, after leaving the sea turned to hotel keeping. He had a sense of humor and a point blank manner, characteristics which are reproduced in his son. Dennis went to the Christian Brothers' School in Adelaide, and his earliest printed verses appeared in the Adelaide "Evening Journal." Soon afterwards the "Critic" accepted his contributions and he wrote for it regularly, eventually becoming editor. That high dignity was attained in 1904. Two years afterwards he established "The Gadfly," a little weekly which is still remembered for its cleverness. Dennis secured a capable staff, Beaumont Smith was one of them, but he failed to secure the financial genius necessary to make a clever paper or any other kind of journal pay.
After two years hard work on "The Gadfly" Dennis moved to Victoria, and settled at Toolangi, near Melbourne. In the meantime he had contributed to "The Bulletin" many of the verses which afterward appeared in "Backblock Ballads" and his rollicking "Australaise" as become widely popular.
Dennis came to Sydney to write for "The Call," a daily paper issued by the Labor Party during the Federal Elections of 1913. He had begun "The Sentimental Bloke" in "The Bulletin"; and a few of the poems were printed in his first book. He soon found that they had become widely known and much recited, and was told that "more of the same" would be welcome. The rest of the series was completed after the war began, and in the hands of Angus and Robertson the book was made a record breaker. It owed a good deal to the excellent style in which it was produced, and to the illustrations by Hal Gye.
The War and the publishers helped to make Dennis. He has shown in "Blackblock Ballads" and "The Glugs of Gosh" that he can write humorously and well without depending upon slang and bad English for his effects. He is not imaginative, but is undoubtedly a shrewd observer, and there are other sections of life besides the reformed larrikin class which would suit his pen. A sense of humor, combined with fluency and adroitness in the handling of metres equip him for higher flights than any he has taken yet. It is to be hoped that he will attempt them, and resist the temptation to continue any further the history of the Bloke and his family.
The Lone Hand December 2 1918, p572-3
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002|