Most people think of him as Australia's national poet, and as a prose writer of extraordinary strength and insight. But bushmen will always know Henry Lawson as one of themselves.
Doubts have often been cast on his claim to be a bushman, but no real bushman ever contested it, and with reason. The poet and archpriest of mateship in this country could have been nothing else. Mateship was born in the back country of Australia, it has lived there ever since, and it will only die when the outback ceases to exist. If it is found in the cities it has been brought there by bushmen.
And if it continues to live in the cities it is because those who brought it there are still bushmen as Lawson was. Henry loved the bush and the people in it. He knew the value of a good mate in areas where population is scarce. His ideal of mateship was something passing the love of women.
Since no man can serve two masters or two ideals, Henry Lawson's married life was not successful, but he died rich in mates, who subsequently wrote his life as they knew it. The book, "Henry Lawson by His Mates" is the monument to his ideal.
Tall, slender, sensitive and desperately shy -- these words describe him adequately enough. His real name was Larsen, but Australian usage turned it to Lawson. His early life was hard. He was born on the diggings, his boyhood was spent at drudgery on a selection, although he was not physically strong. He was house-painter and school-master before the pen claimed him wholly.
His mates were Lawson's greatest asset. Once, on his first trip to New Zealand, he was penniless and sleeping out. A man who admired his works heard of it and housed and fed him. In his later and more difficult days, his mates shepherded him, kept him out of the way of temptation, took him back to the bush and helped him to bodily and mental health. Whatever he sowed in mateship brought him rich returns.
Lawson went twice to New Zealand, once by himself and once with his wife. On the first occasion he joined for a time the Pahiatua Herald, and was sent to report the opening of a brewery. His report did not come to hand for days, and when it did it read as follows - "The Mangatainoka Brewery was opened one day this year. It was a gigantic success and ended in oblivion."
On the second occasion he and his wife taught in a Maori school.
With his wife he also spent some time in Western Australia and England. In the latter place he probably missed his mates. He always came back to Sydney. According to his wife, the mate that Henry Lawson loved best was Victor Daley, his brother poet.
Lawson was a true founder of Australian literature. He brought into it anew and original note. He transferred to paper the cheery casualness of the Outbacker. His style was casual, easy and unaffected. He write from his heart with the fluency of natural genius. A different upbringing would have given us a different Lawson, and one that we might not have loved so well.
He was always poor. The path of literature in this young, developing country has always been hard to those who follow it. Possibly it was this lack of money that caused his domestic unhappiness. In her memoir of him his wife writes thus:- "I often think that had it not been that I was faced with such a hard financial struggle for the children, there might have been a hope of happiness and reunion."
Among the mates who wrote of him was his wife. She told only of the happy days in which they were true mates. When they returned from England after a venture which had failed, she writes that they went to live at manly. "And there we stayed for many months, and the little one that we lost was born and the sad time came of our parting. For sorrow had come to us and difficulties. But when the shadow of that parting was over, and the sadness and bitterness had all gone, Harry understood, and we were friends. And he loved the children dearly and was very proud of them."
Perhaps it was that Lawson, if he lost a wife, found a mate.
As a country we owe Lawson much, and it is something to our credit that we are attempting to pay it. He has his statue in Sydney, and, until the bronze of Gordon went up in Melbourne, it was the only statue in Australia to a writer. The Lawson Society keeps his memory and works green. His work grows in esteem.
He belongs to us. He has been translated and published abroad, but his best appreciation is here, where he is Australia's mate.
First published in The Herald, 9 June 1934