"The Sentimental Bloke": An Appreciation of C.J. Dennis

In the year of its publication in book form - after it had appeared in THE BULLETIN - The Sentimental Bloke sold 67,000 copies. In 1925 the total was 113,000. It is still selling.

While C.J. Dennis was piling up sales as Bradman piles up runs, the work of an English poet was cutting similarly astronomical capers. Englishmen at home or in the trenches were read:-

If I should die think only this of me,
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Dennis (in The Moods of Ginger Mick) put it:-
There's a good green land awaitin' you when you come 'ome again
To swing a pick at Ballarat or ride Yarrowie Plain.
The streets is gay wiv dafferdils - but, haggard in the sun,
A wounded soljer passes; an' we know ole days is done.
Fer somew'ere down inside us, lad, is somethin' you put there
The day yeh swung a dirty left, fer us, at Sari Bair.

Both Rupert Brooke and C. J. Dennis swept into immense popularity on a wave of war-sentiment; both, therefore, said something which at that time people were asking urgently to hear; and fundamentally, as the above quotations indicate, they had the same thing to say. In a time of flux they stressed the permanence of human values; when reality meant chaos for the individual they offered the consolation and the escape of the common dream. Both in a later age seem sentimentalists, but it should be remembered in their favor that their time demanded a measure of sentimentality from them.

Brooke's poetry, as all true poetry does, offers the core of thought with the decoration intrinsic and incidental; Dennis - and this is where they part company - is mainly decoration. The slang, the humor were a smoke-screen covering a limited range of thought. But he goes into the richest, if not the "grandest" company - that of Chaucer, Burns and the Masefield of "The Widow in the Bye Street." Through THE BULLETIN rhymes that were afterwards published as Backblock Ballads, Dennis first became known as a balladist, but in spite of this, and although he had learned his trade from Dyson and Goodge and the rest, he is not of that company. As Burns did with the Scots ballads, he read them, absorbed them, and then transmuted them. It seems to be true that Australian poetry has had to evolve of itself without direct assistance from the English tradition, and if this is so then Dennis is a link between the balladists and the sophisticated poets of to-day. He is probably "important" in that sense; but he is certainly important as the man who expressed the emotions of thousands of Australians.

When Burns tried to break away from his métier and write more sophisticated verse, he was a failure. The jargon of Gray flowed falsely from his pen. Dennis, not as rich as Burns in his popular verse, was very much more successful than Burns when he broke from the territory of the vernacular. The Glugs of Gosh, though never popular, was excellent satire. With all its wit, satire and fantasy it is as fresh to-day as when he wrote it. Sym in his condemnation of hate, fear, swank, hypocrisy and wowserism, lacks the immediate appeal of The Bloke, but is every bit as much an Australian.

Dennis borrowed unmistakably from Lewis Carroll here: -

Step not jauntily, not too grave
Till the lip of the languorous sea you greet;
Wait till the wash of the thirteenth wave
Tumbles a jellyfish at your feet.
Not too hopefully, not forlorn,
Whisper a word of your earnest quest;
Shed not a tear if he turns in scorn
And sneers in your face like a fish possessed.
But there is his own, more Australian sense of humor in: -
And his parents' claims were a deal denied
By a maiden aunt on his mother's side,
A tall Glug lady of fifty-two,
With a slight moustache of an auburn hue.

His satire has lost neither bite nor topicality: -
In Gosh, sad Gosh, where the Lord Swank lives,
He holds high rank and be has much pelf;
And all the well-paid posts he gives
Unto his fawning relatives
As foolish as himself.

There is sting, too, in the quatrain: -
I'll make of you a Glug of rank
With something handy in the bank,
And fixed opinions, which, you know,
With fixed deposits always go.

Justifiably in war-time, Dennis flattered his public in The Sentimental Bloke. In The Glugs he gently corrected himself: -
The Glugs followed fashion and Sym was a craze,
They sued him for words, which they greeted with tears,
For the way with a Glug is to tickle his ears.

In the "Rhymes of Sym," with which the book closes, he states in one stanza the philosophy which is the raison d'être of all his books: The Bloke, Ginger Mick, Rose of Spadgers, Jim of the Hills, Digger Smith and even the birds in The Singing Garden all proclaim:-
We strive together in life's crowded mart,
Keen-eyed, with clutching hands to overreach.
We scheme, we lie, we play the selfish part,
Masking our lust for gain with gentle speech;
And masking, too - O pity ignorance! -
Our very selves behind a careless glance.

With that as the mainspring of his writing, Dennis had the choice of satirising the bad or portraying the good. He chose the latter course:-
Said he: "Whenever the fields are green,
Lie still, where the wild rose fashions a screen,
While the brown thrush calls to his love-wise mate.
And know what they profit who trade with Hate."
Said he: "Whenever the great skies spread
In the beckoning vastness overhead,
A tent for the blue wren building a nest,
Then down in the heart of you learn what's best."

Had Dennis continued as a satirist his unquestionable gifts in that direction would have won him fame. Choosing to go "down in the heart," he won both fame and affection, and his brilliance in that chosen genre entitles him to the respect of the severest of his critics. The Sentimental Bloke is full of emotional truth, told with humor that relieves it of sentimentality. The story is universal. There are lines that have become proverbs: "The commin end of most of us is - Tart"; "Livin' and lovin' - so life mooches on." If they, through too-frequent quotation, have become platitudinous - they were never "original," but Dennis did say them in a new way - there is widom and humor in the less-read Doreen or in Rose of Spadgers:-
It starts this mornin'. I wake up with a tooth
That's squirmin' like a basketful uv snakes.
Per'aps I groan a bit, to tell the truth;
An' then she wakes,
An' arsts me wot I'm makin' faces for.
I glare at 'er, an' nurse me achin' jor.

Throughout Dennis's verse - and his output was large - there are flashes of real poetry among the sentiment, quiet humour and worldly wisdom that are its chief characteristics:-
Go as he guides you over the marsh,
Treading with care on the slithery stones,
Heedless of night winds moaning and harsh
That sieze you and freeze you and search for your bones.

But as a lover of human nature he wrote better verse than as a lover of nature. BULLETIN readers will have a particularly soft spot for "Den", for it was in these pages that he first dipped his lid to Australia; but there is no need for sentiment to keep his memory alive. His verse, unique in Australian literature, will do that for itself.

First published in the Bulletin, 6 July 1938
Note: C.J. Dennis died on 22 June, 1938.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 4, 2008 6:00 AM.

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2008 IMAC Dublin Literary Award Shortlist is the next entry in this blog.

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