Reprint: Australian Literature

Recently the Melbourne publishing house of Lothian, Limited, offered a prize for the best critical study of Australian literature since the beginning of the century. It was won by Mrs. Nettie Palmer, whose essay has now been printed under the title of "Modern Australian Literature." The term modern is, of course, relative. All Australian literature is technically modern, even the compositions of the illustrious Judge Barron Field and the candid Mr. Barrington. But Mrs. Palmer uses it to define the scope of her inquiry, which covers the period since Federation. There are a few inaccuracies in points of detail. Wrong dates, for example, are assigned to the volumes of plays by the late Adrian Consett Stephen and Mr. Arthur H. Adams. But these do not detract from the value of a comprehensive, discriminating, and sympathetic appreciation of our literary output during the twentieth century. "Concerning matters of taste, there can be no disputation," and, no doubt, many readers will disagree with not a few of her estimates. To some writers she would seem to do more than justice; to others, less. Of Mr. Bernard O'Dowd's "The Bush" we are told that, "taken in its breadth and its great depth, this is a poem so notable that it is hard to look for its fellows in English since 1900." This is a large statement. Notable the poem certainly is, but one would have said that in respect of the qualities predicated, Mr. Thomas Hardy's "Dynasts" ranks higher. Again, there are some rather curious omissions. Dr. L. H. Allen is mentioned only for his "Billy Bubbles," and Mr. J. H. M. Abbott, who has to his credit several capital novels of the old regime, only for his sketches of the South African War. And in the biographical and historical sections, surely Professor G. C. Henderson's "Life of Sir George Grey," and Professor G. Arnold Woods' "Discovery of Australia" deserve a place.

Mrs. Palmer's study makes one realise how greatly our literature has widened in range and increased in volume since the beginning of the century; and it is in the field of poetry that the development has been most striking. Our poetry has emancipated itself from old conventions, and freed itself from the fetters of parochialism in an amazing fashion. Australian poetry has passed through several phases. Originally it was imitative. Our singers saw their own land almost through alien eyes, and modelled themselves more or less successfully on English masters. Even in Kendall, the greatest, there are many echoes. Then they learned to look inward for inspiration, and there arose the "bush-school," racy of the soil, careless of form, rather self-conscious in their determinatlon to be Australian. The Pegasus they bestrode was a stockhorse; their muse the robust divinity who presided over the racecourse, the drovers' camp, and the shearing shed. It is the custom now to sneer at these bush balladlsts, and certainly their work had not that universality of appeal which is the touchstone of the truest poetry. But they served their purpose. They infused Australian poetry with fresh vigour and vitality. They marked an inevitable stage in our poetic growth, and they prepared the way for a new generation with a different impulse. Are we evolving a distinctively Australian literature? With all deference to those who contend that we are, the tendency seems, in poetry at any rate, to be in the opposite direction. Individual writers may seek to interpret the spirit of their land. Mr. Bernard O'Dowd may unfold to us the mystery and magic of the bush; Miss Dorothea Mackellar may address her passionate invocations to her country and draw unforgettable pictures of its beauties. But can it be said that our contemporary poetry as a whole has characteristics which distinguish it as Australian? Much of the most significant work that is being produced has no necessary relation to Australia at all. Many of our best writers know no country. One might search the poetry of Mr. Hugh McCrae, Mr. David McKee Wright, or Professor C J. Brennan - to take three instances at random - in vain for anything of which one could say: "This could only have been written by an Australian."

In her essay Mrs. Palmer observes that our literature "has had to struggle with a stubborn soil." This is a familiar complaint, and it is voiced again by Mr. Hector Dinning in a recent number of the "London Mercury." Mr. Dinning repeats the usual lament. He deplores the lack of encouragement given to local literature by Press and publishers. Chesterton, St John Ervine, and Belloc would starve here - as journalists. Australians show but a scanty appreciation for the work of their fellow-countrymen, save in its more mediocre forms. A taste for the homegrown article should be inculcated, and much in a similar strain. Yet Mr. Dinning himself supplies the explanation of the state of affairs which arouses his ire. Australia has a population of less than six millions. The class which, in older countries, provides an audience for the best in literature, art, and the drama is here so small that it can hardly be said to exist. The average man, whether in Australia or England, is frankly a Philistine. He "knows what he likes," and though his likes may make the elect shudder, he is quite unconcerned. He will read "The Sentimental Bloke" or the novels of Nat Gould with gusto, but the most polished essay, the most poignant lyric will leave him cold. He prefers a less rarified atmosphere. As population grows, the number of persons interested in the first rate will increase; while it remains small, literature will be at a disadvantage. The establishment of an Australian Academy of Letters has been advocated. It might help towards the improvement of standards, but the influence it could exert would be limited. The elevation of popular taste is a slow business, and literature is unresponsive to artificial stimuli. The ages of patronage in literature have never been the greatest. 

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 July 1924 (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 February 5, 2010 8:11 AM.

100 Australian Poems 9.0: "The Wail of the Waiter (A Tavern Catch)" by Marcus Clarke was the previous entry in this blog.

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