Reprint: Australia in London

It has been suggested that a shop should be established in London for the sale of books by Australian authors. The idea is opportune, and worthy of every support. The time has come for Australia to demonstrate to readers abroad that she has evolved a distinctive national literature. From the earliest days of settlement in this land there were some who sought to give written expression to their thoughts and experiences. At first these were necessarily of British birth, and for the most part they lacked the prescient imagination which might have foreseen the great Australia destined to be. The first of the native-born to achieve note was William Charles Wentworth. He won his garland in England by carrying off second prize for the Chancellor's poetical composition at Cambridge. His subject was "Australasia," and the future great constitution-framer, glimpsed with prophetic vision "A new Britannia in another world." The first absolutely Australian poet was Charles Harpur, born in Windsor, 1817. He possessed the divine instinct, but his work was unequal, and often trivial. He was the forerunner and exemplar of Henry Kendall, who "sat at his feet for long years," and in touching stanzas voiced his gratitude:

   Where Harpur lies the rainy streams,
      And wet hill-heads, with hollows weeping,
   Are swift with wind, and white with gleams,  
      And hoarse with sounds of storms unsleeping. . . .

   But now he sleeps, the tired bard,
      The deepest sleep; and lo, I proffer
   These tender leaves of my regard,

      With hands that falter as they offer.  

Kendall himself had a true lyrical gift, and was particularly adept in symbolising the varying aspects of nature in storm or shine. He had a strenuous and chequered life, suffering "the lot austere which waits upon the man of letters here," and this cast a gloom of depression and sadness over much of his output. Yet he bequeathed many sweet and graceful ballads, while his poem on the opening of the International Exhibition of 1870, with which he won the prize offered by the proprietors of this journal, and which first appeared in these columns, rises to epic grandeur. Largely contemporary with Kendall was Adam Lindsay Gordon. He remains the best known of that generation. For one who reads and treasures the alliterative lyrics of Kendall, several recite with enthusiasm Gordon's galloping "How We Beat the Favourite." To many Australians Gordon is the laureate. But he was of English birth and upbringing, and much of his work, capable and attractive though it be, is rather that of an Englishman domiciled, or exiled, in Australia, than of one who is Australian in every fibre. Marcus Clarke, too, made his mark with one im- mortal work, "For the Term of His Natural Life." Allowing for the exigencies of fiction, in which shadows are deepened, and incidents which in actuality were spread over several fields are concentrated into one, the book is of permanent value as giving a vivid and gripping picture of a condition of things happily long passed away. "Old Boomerang," also (the late J. R. Houlding) in the "Australian Adventures of Christopher Cockle," gave an amusing, yet withal graphic, description of the social life of the roaring "fifties," which should be saved from its threatened oblivion.

In more recent years a new and talented school has arisen which has frankly shaken off the British tradition, and looks at Australian subjects from purely Australian view-points. It shadows forth the "sun-lit plains extended," the rugged dividing ranges, the rushing rivers, the glorious exhilarating air of this vast land. Its favour- ite characters are not the lofty ones, but the strong brave pioneers who hewed their way through dense scrub, cleared the ground for smiling crops, drained swamps, sank shafts, won gold, fought fire and drought and flood, or drove great herds of cattle over a thousand miles and more of almost unexplored territory. A high place must be given to Henry Lawson, whose work is especially representative of this new generation. A. B. Paterson ("Banjo") is a worthy coadjutor, and has a lightness of touch which is complementary to the deeper tone discernible even in the humorous essays of Lawson. T. A. Browne ("Rolf Boldrewood") is likewise worthy of recognition. His novels, founded mainly on incidents of which he had personal knowledge, chronicle phases of Australian development which will never be exactly reproduced. "Robbery Under Arms" is already a classic. Arthur B. Davis ("Steele Rudd") has made thousands smile by his deft description of "Old Dad" and his numerous progeny and retinue, as they struggled to make a living on their successive selections, with interpolated experiences in city life. Both in prose and verse are many worthy of applause whose enumeration space forbids. Without prejudice to those of equal claims may be mentioned Victor Daly, E. J. Brady, the singer of the joys and sorrows of the hardy mariners of our seas, Brunton Stephens, whose "Convict Once" made him famous; George Essex Evans, of "The Secret Key," and the admirable publications in both prose and verse of Ethel Turner, Dorothea Mackellar, Ada Cambridge, Jennings Carmichael, Will Ogilvie, and John le Gay Brereton, not forgetting John Farrell, whose "How He Died" will find a place in every Australian anthology. Special commendation is due to C. J. Dennis, a master of every form of metrical technique, who has created those two impressive and unconventional characters, "The Sentimental Bloke" and "Ginger Mick." We Australians know these writers, who have laid the foundations of our literature; but to the people of Great Britain they are largely unknown. It is our duty to introduce them to readers abroad. That the British public is not insular in its preferences is shown by the remarkable vogue of American fiction, and there is every probability that a demand for Australian literature may also be created. The shop must be established. Whether it is to be at the cost of Government, or of private enterprise, whether alone or as a department of some well established business, has to be decided. But two things are indispensable: it must be staffed with intelligent Australian salesmen, and must carry full lines and advertising material. It will then develop into a meeting place for British and Australians alike, and many who know nothing of Australia will feel the lure of this great land, and through reading our books be inspired to come and dwell amongst us, and become Australians also.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1920 (editorial)

[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 January 29, 2010 8:53 AM.

100 Australian Poems 8.0: "How McDougal Topped the Score" by Thomas E. Spencer was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Those Names by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson is the next entry in this blog.

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