Reprint: Australian Poets

Sir Herbert Warren a few months ago delivered a lecture before the Royal Colonial Institute on overseas poetry. The full text appears in "United Empire" for July. Speaking of Australian poets, Sir Herbert says:

Australian poetry, like Canadian, has a history of about a century. Baron Field's "First Fruits of Australian Poetry" was printed in Sydney in 1810. But it really began in 1842, with the publication of the first volume of verse by Sir Henry Parkes, that great poetic Imperialist, the protagonist of Australian Federation. The first native-born Australian poet, Charles Harpur, wrote at any rate one really good poem, but one poem does not make a poet, though I think Charles Harpur was one. He,too, published first in the "forties." Then came the "Golden Age" of Australia. The rush to the diggings attracted poets and artists as well as soldiers of fortune. Among these were two at least of the famous pre-Raphaelite set, friends of D. G. Rossetti, Woolner the sculptor, and Lionel Michael; R. H. Horne, the friend of Keats and author of "Orion"; Henry Kingsley and Adam Lindsay Gordon. Woolmer and Horne soon went back, but Michael remained and became the "only begetter" of Henry Clarence Kendall, one of the sweetest of Australia's early singers.

If Kendall's pensive note was more poetic, Gordon, the gentleman-rider and pugilist, "caught on" far more, and he became, some say, the most characteristic and national poet of his adopted home; certainly the best-known poet in and out of Australia then, and possibly even now. Australia, like Attica, is the land of the horse, and Gordon's religion of sport, his dash of scholarship, often dear to the sporting man, his swinging metres, gave him vogue in the bush and the bar-room, and wherever the "Billy boiled" and its "cup that cheers but not inebriates," as well as other cups, also associated with poetry, were quaffed. "How We Beat the Favourite," the "Sick Stock Rider" - it is enough to mention their names. His poetry and his philosophy of life gave a ply to Australian literature which still persists, and he became the father of a whole line of Australian poets. The best known is, or was, the most popular of living-Australian poets, also a Scot - Andrew Barton Paterson. "The Man from Snowy River" and "Rio Grande's Last Race" are both "horsey" poems. They are quite excellent, but more interesting to me are his Bush Stories or Songs, which depict Australian life. "Clancy of the Overflow," "An Idyll of Dandaloo," "The Two Devines." I find them delightful campfire yarns, while "In the Driving Days" is at once delicious and touching. James Brunton Stephens, also Scotch in origin, John Farrell (Irish, via Buenos Ayres), Victor James Daley (Irish), who wrote Kendall's epitaph--I should like to give speciments of all, but time forbids, and I pass on to a younger generation and another strain. George Essex Evans, a Welshman, educated at Haverfordwest, who went out to Queensland in 1881, seems to me the most real and comprehensive Australian poet of his generation. I wonder he is not better known, that such a volume, for instance, as the "Secret Key" is not better known. He has many sides and themes, he understands what the mysterious realm of poetry is. He holds the "secret key" to it himself.

It was fortunate that his was the Ode chosen for Commonwealth Day. It is a Laureate piece, but the piece of a Laureate worthy to live. Especially did he respond as so many Australians did with both sword and song to the first real call of Empire that came to them in the South African struggle. That struggle need wake no bitter memories now. Even if it did, Essex Evans' poems are not of the kind to do so. "Eland's River," "The Lion's Whelps," "To the Irish Dead." As I have, often said, the poets are more prescient than the statesmen. Evans saw what was coming, and warned his country-men to prepare:

Prepare ere falls the hour of fate,
When death-shells rain their iron hate,
   And all in vain our love is poured;
For dark aslant the Northern Gate
   I see the shadow of the sword.
But the South African war is ancient history to many, and even Essex Evans, though he died only in 1909, a prophet though he was, is no longer a poet of Australia of to-day. Can I give you, in my brief time, any specimen of the poetry that really belongs to what the French call "the hour that is?" What is Australia like to-day in peace and in war, at home and in the field? What do her best leaders wish her to be and what is she? Let me take some very different utterances. One thing she certainly is - imperial. She went into this fight, heart and soul. She has achieved heroic and poetic deeds. Such was the victorious fight of the Sydney with the Emden. Such was the unvictorious but heroic and tragic landing at Gallipoli. Read it in the Thucydidean narrative of the English poet, Mr. Masefield. Read it in "The Landing in the Dawn - Anzac Day," by John Sandes, of the "Sydney Daily Telegraph." Her leaders, and her poets, sacred and secular, have given her their message.

What are Australia's most realistic spontaneous poems? Some little time ago, through the kindness of Messrs. Angus and Robertson, I was sent, as the most characteristic and up-to-date and realistic Australian poem, "The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke," by C. J. Dennis, pub. 1915. It has a preface by Mr. Henry Lawson, himself an excellent and notable Australian poet, and is very cleverly illustrated by Mr. Hal Gye. "Bloke" is given in the Oxford Dictionary as a slang substantive. Well, I knew Australia was a slangy country, and, like most lovers of poetry, I am rather fond of slang in its proper place. I must confess, however, I was a little startled by the Sentimental Bloke and his Songs. But when I really came to read it I found that, in whatever language it was written, it is real poetry, a charming old story, the old, old story, told in a new way.

John Sandes is an Oxford man, a pupil once of my own. So is Archibald Strong, a younger writer of real mark, an Elizabethan of to-day. I should like to speak to you of them, and also of Will Ogilvie, yet another of the "Centaur" poets of Australia. But time forbids.

First Published in The Argus, 21 September 1918
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 12, 2008 8:53 AM.

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