So Life Mooches On by F.W. Boreham

The erection, at his birthplace in South Australia, of a monument to the memory of C.J. Dennis will awaken a sympathetic vibration in the hearts of that vast multitude of appreciative admirers whose ears are pleasantly haunted by his lilting melodies. Himself a pendulum, swinging incessantly betwixt a smile and a tear, he carries us all with him into whichever realm he plunges.

It is in line with the imposing traditions of the older lands that the literary annals of Australia should be adorned by a magnetic figure whose dazzling brilliance, human tenderness and exuberant humour are thrown into relief frailties that evoke alike our pity and our affection.

A dozen years have now passed since he slipped away from us. How, one wonders, is his unique craftsmanship standing the test of time? His was an extraordinary career: and, as a consequence, he struck a note that was distinctively and exclusively his own. The "Sentimental Bloke" was modelled on nothing, and nothing could possibly be modelled on it.

When the poet died, at the age of 62, Mr. J. A. Lyons, then Prime Minister, referred to him as the Robert Burns of Australia, whilst, long before that time, some of the most eminent critics had saluted him as a master of his craft.


The sheets of his masterpiece were scarcely off the press when Mr. H. G. Wells wrote the publishers a letter of enthusiastic congratulation. That most, fastidious judge, Mr. E.V. Lucas confessed that he was a little bewildered at finding Australian slang set to music with such superb skill; but he added that the general effect was so moving as to be positively embarrassing; and, since he hated to seen with moist eyes, he declined to hear the stanzas recited. John Masefield, the King's Laureate, greeted Dennis as a true poet, and, during his vislt to Australia, spent some delightful hours as his guest.

Born at a typical up-country inn at Auburn, in South Australia, and moving, whilst still very young, to another inn at Laura, Dennis early acquired the art of expressing vigorous thought in tuneful verse. Possessing a delicate ear for music and a discrimating eye for beauty, he developed an uncanny appreciation of the value and sweetness of words. Like Robert Service, his Canadian contemporary, with whom he had much in common, he was deeply indebted to the maiden aunts who listened with encouraging pride to his prentice ventures in poetry.

Passing from beneath their doting authority, Dennis spent his mature youth and early manhood in drifting from place to place and from occupation to occupation, groping with blind hands for the glittering but elusive destiny that seemed to lure him on.

Barman, solicitor's clerk, journalist, and what not, he was everything by turns and nothing long. An excellent mixer, singing a good song, enjoying a tempting meal and loving a hearty jest, he never lacked companions.

It was during these years of gipsying that he acquired habits that he afterwards deplored, and that eventually brought him, sad and sorry, to the mountain home of Mr. and Mrs. J.G. Roberts, of Kallista, whose hospitality restored his self-respect, captured his heart and gave to the world a poet of renown. Mr. and Mrs. Roberts did for C.J. Dennis what a generation earlier, Mr. and Mrs. Meynell had done for Francis Thompson.

His work deserves to live. In "dipping his lid" to C.J. Dennis by contributing a foreword to the "Sentimental Bloke," Henry Lawson strikes a note of warning. The book, he says, is very brilliant. Let the reader beware, however, lest its brilliance - brilliance of conception, brilliance of humor and brilliance of pathos - should blind him to something still deeper.

What is that deeper something? At first blush there would seem to be no parallel between Dennis and Dante. The "Sentimental Bloke" does not belong to the same world as the Divine Comedy. Yet Ruskin sums up the Divine Comedy as Dante's love-poem to Beatrice; a song of praise for her watch over his soul. "She saves him from destruction," Ruskin continues. "He is eternally going astray in despair. She comes to his help, and throughout the ascents of Paradise, leads him from star to star." The words exactly describe Dennis's poem. The love of Doreen saved Bill from his baser self, lifted his life to a loftier plane and made a new man of him.

The poems opens dismally. Belonging to the lowest stratum of Melbourne life, Bill has spent most of his time in drinking, gambling and fighting among the purlieus of Little Bourke and Little Streets. He is, however, sick to death of the whole thing.

But why has he so suddenly come to loathe the life that he had so recently loved? Obviously, something must have caused this recoil. It has. On a perfect spring morning he has seen Doreen. At first she will have nothing to do with him. He speaks; but, with a toss of her pretty head and a swish of her skirt, she passes on her queenly way, leaving Bill writhing in the very dust. Yet he loves her all the more for her refusal to make herself cheap.

On this slender but exquisitely human foundation, Dennis rears his philosophy of life. Bill has to choose between his old ways and Doreen.

Fer 'er sweet sake I've gone and chucked it all clean;
   The pubs and schools, an' all that leery game
Fer when a bloke 'as come to know Doreen,
   It ain't the same.
There's 'igher things, she sez, for blokes to do;
An' I am 'arf believin' that it's true.

Just once, two months after their wedding, Bill meets some of his old cronies, slips back into his former courses and turns his steps homeward in the early morning in a condition in which he is ashamed to present himself to Doreen. She puts him to bed, and, a few hours later, tiptoes into the room with tears in her eyes and, in her hands, a basin of beef-tea -

Beef tea! She treats me like a hinvaleed!
Me! that 'as caused 'er lovin' 'eart to bleed.
   It 'urts me worse than maggin' fer a week!
'Er! 'oo 'ad right to turn dead sour on me,
Fergives like that, an' feeds me wiv beef tea . . .
      I tries to speak;
An' then -- I ain't ashamed o' wot I did --
I 'ides me face . . . an' blubbers like a kid.
In his brief, but excellent biography of Dennis, Mr. A.H. Chisholm tells us that this episode is really autobiographical, being based on the welcome extended to Dennis by Mrs. Roberts after one of his unhappy lapses. Like Dante, Dennis chants the victory of Love Triumphant. These are the last lines of the book:-
An' I am rich, becos me eyes 'ave seen
The lovelight in the eyes of my Doreen;
   An' I am blest, becos me feet 'ave trod
   A land 'oo's fields reflect the smile o' God.
Sittin' at ev'nin' in this sunset-land,
Wiv 'Er in all the World to 'old me 'and,
   A son, to bear me name when I am gone....
   Livin' an' lovin'--so life mooches on.
C.J. Dennis has rested for twelve years in his grave at Box Hill, but Australia can ill afford to let him die.

First published in The Age, 9 December 1950

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 18, 2008 8:53 AM.

Peter Carey Watch #5 was the previous entry in this blog.

2008 NSW Premier's Literary Award Shortlists is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en