Founders of Our Literature: Henry Kendall

He was the poet of the mountains and tall timber, and time has acclaimed him our greatest. Others have sung of burning plains under a fierce sun, But Henry Clarence Kendall preferred the grandeur of the big hills or the mystery of unfooted dells.

And no wonder! He was born among them at Ulladulla, N.S.W. on April 8, 1841, along with his twin brother, Basil. He was rocked in a cradle made from the trunk of a fallen forest giant, and his first consciousness was of high hills and trees.

And in later life he drifted back to the big timber as all who love it must, and he was with it when his last illness developed, and he went away to die.

Tragedy seems to be the lot of all poets. Kendall knew it early in life when his father, a delicate, sensitive soul, closed his eyes for the last time. Basil Kendall began with a goodly heritage at Ulladulla, N.S.W., but he lost that when his poet son was only four and went to the Clarence River district to eke out a small living. Henry was 10 when his father died.

The widow and family of two sons and three daughters moved to Illawarra and in this beautiful district the young poet found Nature in her most inspiring mood.

Cabin Boy in Whaler

At 14 we find Henry Kendall the cabin boy on a whaler belonging to one of his uncles. In this vessel he lived for two years in Antarctic waters was glad to return. His was not the robust type which seeks physical adventure. Rather was he fitted for explorations of the mind, and these he pursued.

He found work of various kinds in Sydney, and was clerk to James Lionel Michael, a solicitor of Grafton, himself a man of letters. All the time Kendall read and wrote.

His shyness was a torture to him. Once his employer called on him to deliver a lecture in a Grafton hall. When the time arrived young Henry bolted and Michael had to deliver it himself.

Kendall did not last long at the law. He worked his way back to Sydney, where some of his poems had been appearing. Sir Henry Parkes, then editing the Empire, took an interest in him, and later found him work in the Survey Office and the Colonial Secretary's Department.

He wearied again, and set out in 1869 for Melbourne, where he hoped to live by his pen. Here he remained some time. He was the friend of Gordon and Marcus Clarke.

Tragedy pursued him again. His daughter, Araluen, died. Heartbroken, he moved back to Sydney, and a clerkship in a timber company. Then he was sent out to the big timber by the same firm. Possibly the most contented years of his life were spent in the North Coast timber area, for he was back to his beloved forest once more.

Then came another Government position as forests inspector, and it was while filling it that he caught a cold which turned to tuberculosis.

Born April 18, 1841; died August 1, 1882. Only 41! But if his life was short his work is immortal.

Poetry of Effort

Australia has not had much opportunity to breed great poets. Our pioneer stock was mostly drawn from the venturesome and hardy, who were poets in deeds and not in words. For that reason much of our poetry has been of the strenuous kind, or from men who were nurtured in rough surroundings. Gordon, the horseman; Lawson, the swagman; Paterson, the horse lover; Ogilvie, the jackeroo -- these men wrote the poetry of the out-of-doors, which to the poetaster overseas with his centuries of civilization, is hard to understand.

Kendall was the first to apply finer instincts to a rough land in the making, and he found a quiet beauty where others had only seen adventure. For this reason he is very dear to us. Whoever may come after him will never depose him as our first great poet.

Consider the titles of his published collections: Poems and Songs, Leaves from Australian Forests, and Songs from the Mountains. How truly he was wrapped up in the hills and forests!

The poet of the great plains of the interior has still to arise, and we will find him yet just as we found the laureate of the mountains in Kendall.

First published in The Herald, 26 May 1934
Henry Kendall webpage
Henry Kendall photo

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on August 29, 2007 7:07 AM.

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