Reprint: Henry Kendall by G.B.

On August 1 will occur the 40th anniversary of the death of Henry Kendall. Though not our first native born poet - at least one, Charles Harpur, preceded him - Kendall was the first of our long line of singers whose inspiration is the charm of nature. His paternal grandfather came to New South Wales as a lay missionary in 1809, and in 1814 went in that capacity to New Zealand. After a few years' service among the Maoris he resigned from missionary work and went to South America, to which place he was accompanied by his son Basil - the father of Henry. In 1826 they returned to Australia, and the older Kendall received as a reward for his missionary labours, a grant of 1,200 acres of land in the Ulladulla district, towards the south coast of New South Wales. On part of this estate Henry Kendall was born in 1841. Five years after the poet's birth the family went to live in the Clarence River district. Here, in an isolated home, Henry received from his father his early education. The future poet was only 11 years of age when his father died of consumption, and the family of five children was scattered. Henry and another brother were sent to the home of a relative near their birthplace, where Henry had "fellowship with gorge and glen," the lasting impression of which is shown in much of his poetry. At the age of 13 he was given a place as cabin boy in a small brig owned by one of his uncles. He, however, had not the venturesome spirit of his father, who during his brief stay in South America saw service in the Brazilian Navy in a struggle against Portugal to which Brazil up to this time was subject. During his two years of seafaring Kendall visited among other paces the Marquesas and Japan, but he hated the life and was glad to escape from it. For a while he held a position in a Sydney drapery establishment, and later became clerk in the office of James Lionel Michael, the poet who was a solicitor. Michael was a most kindly employer and showed the young clerk the use of his library and encouraged him in his literary work.

When Kendall was 21 his first volume of verse was published. A little later he was appointed to the New South Wales Lands Department at a salary of £150 per annum, his qualification, according to the official notice of his appointment, being "his literary promise " A couple of years later he was transferred to the Colonial Secretary's office at an increased salary. In 1869 he resigned his Government appointment, intending to devote himself wholly to literary work. He came to live in Melbourne, where he worked at different tasks. At one time he was employed in the office of the Government Statist, but, probably "haunted by the sound of waterfalls two hundred miles away," he deserted the position after three days. About this time his second book, "Leaves from an Australian Forest," was printed, but it commanded only a poor sale. Kendall's couple of years in Melbourne was a period of sorrow and poverty. He gave way to drink, a tendency to which he may have inherited from both parents. For this sin he did ample penance in several poems, particularly in one in which he describes "the dreadful portion of a drunkard's home." To add to his sorrows he lost his young daughter. In 1871 he returned to Sydney, but trouble still dogged his footsteps, and he had to be placed in an asylum - the shadow of 1872, as he speaks of it. He soon recovered his mental balance and engaged in literary work for a little while. Then he accepted a position as accountant in a timber business at a place called Camden Haven, where, with his family, he spent some of the best years of his life. In 1870 Kendall won a prize of £100 for a poem on the Sydney International Exhibition, and a year later his third book, "Songs from the Mountains," was published under a subscription arrangement which guaranteed it's financial success. In 1881 Sir Henry Parkes - ever one of his good friends - created for him the position of Inspector of State forests, but he had held it only a few months when he was afflicted with consumption, from which he died in 1882, at the age of 41. Kendall had no ethical message for his time, the only person he seems to have wished to reform was himself. He was essentially a lyric poet, and wrote with exquisite beauty of the charm of mossy springs and streams and waterfalls - "songs interwoven of lights and of laughters." In one of his poems he says that he longs to steal the beauty of the brook, and put it in his song, and he went as near accomplishing this impossible task as any poet, and in the well known lines on the Bellbirds he seems to have succeeded in capturing some of the wild singers' notes for his poem. He also had the happy gift of being able to paint a scene in a phrase or two. He pictures autumn as a gipsy standing in the gardens splashed from heel to thigh, and winter as a woodman who comes "to lop the leaves in wind and rain," and elsewhere as a departing wearisome guest. Spring is blue-eyed and million-coloured; summer has "large, luxurious eyes," and dances "a shining singer through the tasselled corn," and the wild oak is a wan Tithonus of the wood "aghast at Immortality in chains." In Kendall's poetry there are "notes that unto other lyrics belong, "and there is no doubt that he was influenced by Wordsworth and Tennyson. In one of the prefatory sonnets, in his second book, he excuses the "stray echoes" in these words -

Lo, when a stranger in soft Syrian glooms
   Shot through with sunset, treads the cedar dells,
   And hears the breezy ring of elfin bells
Far down be where the white-haired cataract booms,
   He, faint with sweetness caught from forest smells,
Bears thence, unwitting, plunder of perfumes.
Mountains, whether seen in their mightiness with "the royal robes of morning" on their heads, or with broken lights upon their gorges and streams, were always an inspiration to Kendall, and the address "To a Mountain," which prefaced his second book, is one of the finest pieces of blank verse written in Australia. Though he also sings of "the grand hosanna of the sea," he has but little affection for it, perhaps the result of the two unhappy years he spent on his uncle's brig. In his journalistic days Kendall wrote some humorous verse, and though he did not care for horse racing, he also wrote "How the Melbourne Cup was Won," but he was much more in his element when singing of the running of a mountain stream among shadowy boulder-strewn ways. In the memorial lines on Adam Lindsay Gordon he speaks of his fellow-poet's work as having "the deep autumnal, half-prophetic tone of forest winds in March." The same may be said of Kendall's own poetry. Through the best of it is a note of disappointment and regret. He was a man of a somewhat melancholy mood, and this has been accenuated by his early sorrows and the tribulation of his later years. "Some men grow strong with trouble," but it was not so with Kendall, and even in the poems, written in his happiest times, there are sounds of "strong authentic sorrow."

Kendall frequently speaks in his writings of the austere lot that fell to the men of letters of his day, but he seems to have forgotten some of the favours he received. At 21, on the ground of literary promise, he was appointed to a Government clerk ship, and when then promise showed sign of fulfilment he was transferred to a better position, and in after years a special post was created for him by the Government of the day. In the present age the creation of Government posts for favoured individuals is not altogether unheard of, but they are not usually for literary men. His early books were not commercial successes, but better writers had known similar experiences. However, probably no poet whose work has not mean financial gain has found much comfort in the reflection that "Paradise Lost" brought its author only £5. Kendall had, at any rate, the satisfaction of knowing that his poetry was appreciated by all the literary people of Australia - a reward that some of his followers have been denied. Undoubtedly, Kendall suffered a bitter Gethsemane, due to causes quite beyond his control. His inherited weakness brought on him penalties of destitution and suffering, and increased his other unfortunate inheritance of a tempermental melancholy, and it is doubtful if success as a poet would have saved him from the sorrow which was his lot during much of his life.

First published in The Argus, 29 July 1922

Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.

[You can read the rest of the poem quoted here.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 3, 2008 8:40 AM.

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