Reprint: Readers and Writers by Nettie Palmer

It seems to have escaped the notice of publishers that in the last two years a new reading public has been created, surely a public with very definite tastes. The antebellum critics used to complain that nearly all novels were written for women. Women alone had time to read fiction extensively, therefore they set the standards and forced the writer to adopt their point of view.

Novelists like Mr. Arnold Bennett and Mr. Wells, even if they did not write entirely about women, wrote of women's interests, and when men of such literary distinction adjusted the scope of their work to the public demand, what could be expected of the regular caterers for the circulating libraries.

It is an undoubted fact that the most popular writers in recent years have been women, and that those whose outlook was masculine and who concerned themselves with the problems of a man's world have found it hard to get a hearing. Mr. Joseph Conrad is probably the most distinguished writer of English fiction to-day; yet, though he is possessed of an attractive style and personality, it is only lately that he has gained any general recognition. Indeed, it was only the publication of "Chance," a book that sparkled with epigrams upon women, that secured him his very mild popularity. Hitherto he had written of the terror and beauty of the sea, of matters of courage and physical endurance, of problems of masculine honour - and apparently the ordinary reader was not interested inthese things.

But a new reading public has been created, an entirely masculine, one. The men in camp and in the trenches form a public quite different from that of the circulating libraries, and we know that their appetite for books is very hearty. Men read now who had little time for reading in their lives before, and gift books are extensively bought for them, especially for Christmas mails. Yet it seems probable that the literary taste of those soldiers in the trenches is quite different from that of their mothers and sisters, and that the writer for men is sure of an audience at last.

One would have thought that some publisher with enterprise and imagination would have taken advantage of the new conditions, but on looking through the Christmas catalogues one does not find any great change. An estalished writer still turns out an annual novel, and there are innumerable books for boys and girls. As far as Australian work is concerned, the dearth of books for men is particularly striking, and surely disappointing, both to our soldiers in the field and to those who send them books. Even publishers, however, may be said to have their lucid intervals, one of which occurred when it was decided to publish, and in every way to spread, the work of Mr. C. J. Dennis. His success of last year has been followed by another, and nobody could call the second book a mere echo of the first. "The Moods of Ginger Mick" might well have been a writer's first - work, for it reads with all the bloom still on it; full of gusto and enthusiasm for its subject. It is obviously, however, the work of a writer who does not rush into book covers, but who throws away probably more work than he completes. In this way Mr. Ezra Pound's literary debut was made 10 years ago. His book of poems in free rhythm was prefaced by an announcement that he had written and burnt three hundred sonnets. One would like to guess that Mr. Dennis had made quite a gallery of studies of Ginger Mick before giving us his portrait.

For it is a portrait we are shown, not a fancy sketch. On the other hand, the figure of Trent may be called a fancy sketch, and one fancies Mr. Dennis would not have presented it without a subconscious realisation of a public other than the one that first gave him his reputation. Ginger Mick from Eastern Market was real to Mr. Dennis, at least in some of his moods. Take the poem "War," the finest in the book, surely a masterly study in hesitation, worked out in the most happy Dennis verse, the cold, straight iambics that he rhymes so unobtrusively and well. Ginger Mick has heard of the war, and is very much annoyed by it; that is the situation. He is annoyed because the idea of the war interferes with his satisfaction in his trade and daily life. He is haunted by the war, asks his friend to give him "the strength of it," and is still more annoyed the more he understands about it. It is like watching a bird fascinated by a snake, but Ginger Mick is a bird who retains most of his will-power, and the poem ends as it began with a repudiation of the war so far as it concerns Ginger Mick, who still shouts, "Rabbee! Wile Rabbee!" The point, which was, of course, implicit in this poem, is that the next begins by informing you that Ginger Mick actually has "mizzled to the war." Mr. Dennis is at his best in such circum stances as these, where his theme is a kind of irony with glimpses of beauly half showing through. The beauty in "War" is implicit and pervasive, far more telling than the decoration flung by handfuls into "A Letter to the Front," about "ole sweet melerdies" and "bird-tork in the gums."

The same kind of power is shown in that ghoulish, ingenious piece, "Rabbits," which is unfortunately marred by a last verse that could only have been meant for the gallery. Ginger Mick is in the trenches on Gallipoli, and feels horribly like a rabbit in a warren. In view of his past life as a rabbit-hawker it is as if he had gone to the next world and suffered retribution in one of the Lower Circles. He thought he had left rabbits behind in Australia, and now it seems to him

"A narsty trick
To shove 'im like a bunny down a 'ole."
In this light way, with an imagination all the more powerful for being fantastic, we are made to feel trench warfare at its dullest and weariest. It is in the restrained humour of a piece like this that Mr. Dennis's creative faculties find their fullest scope.

He is not so happy in the poems that rely less on restraint and irony than on lyrical force. A lyric, after all, is essentially short, a "swallow-flight of song," and a long poem in a lyrical measure will not, all things being equal, succeed so well as a long poem in a quiet metre. This is a generalisation, and has exceptions; but on the statistics kept by the Muse of Poetry it is shown to be ultimately true. Mr. Dennis's poems are, of course, all long, as poems go, for each one contains a good deal of story and drama, affecting more than one person or one mood. There is a promised unity of mood, certainly, in Ginger Mick's rhapsody about being made "Lance Corperil," comparable for its ecstasy with Christina Rossetti's "My heart is like a singing-bird."

Ginger Mick, however, cannot stop with saving how happy he feels, for he must give you a series of camp pictures, all very good of their kind, but not fit to be packed into a passionate lyric. Further, when he has told you how happy he feels he breaks off to tell you how sad he feels too, and the poem is plainly meditative, contemplative, except for its misleading, dancing metre. This is to say that Mr. Dennis sometimes tries to do too much, to blow from all quarters at once, like the four winds in Virgil. Like all artists he is at his best when he knows his limitations and uses them.

Mr. Will Ogilvie's new book, "The Australian and Other Verses," is less important, for though his technical skill is consider able, most of the freshness has gone out, of his work. It was the spontaneity of his early verses that gave them their undeniable charm. He came to the bush with the fresh eyes of a romantic young Scotchman, and, finding a life that pleased him, he wrote about it with the verve and gaiety of a man who was a dashing horseman as well as a poet. But literature depends on something more than high spirits and a capacity for rhyme. Mr. Ogilvie's emotions and style are alike too facile, and it is to be feared that he has already given us his finest-work. His talent was not quite rich enough to meet all the demands his early popularity made upon it, and even the best of these later verses are merely the shadow of past accomplishments.

First published in The Argus, 11 November 1916
{Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]
The full text of Dennis's The Moods of Ginger Mick is available here.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 19, 2008 8:59 AM.

Combined Reviews: The Zookeeper's War by Steven Conte was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: The Feast of Life by Louis Esson 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