Reprint: Henry Lawson: Did Not Know the Bush: How He Acquired His Knowledge

The keynote in the admirable lecturette on Henry Lawson, which was delivered by Mr. F. Bennett, B.Sc, in connection with Australian Authors' Week, at the Old Normal School yesterday morning, was the poet's sympathy with the down-trodden.  

In all Henry Lawson's writings, both prose and poetry there is strong evidence that he sympathised with the workers; that he thought their cause was right, though he had no love for the professional agitator. A man is not often found who takes his politics from his mother-in-law, but those who knew Mrs. M'Namara, owner of a second-hand bookshop in Castlereagh-street, Sydney, and a most pronounced Labour symnathiser, will readily subscribe to the view that Henry Lawson fell under her spell. When one reads his "Faces in the Street" - which the lecturer described as the Australian "Song of the Shirt" - his mother-in-law's influence may be traced in his references to the "Red Revolution," but the poem, though presenting an exaggerated picture, is lifted to the sublime by the tender compassion and burning indignation, against oppression which throbs through every line.

Many people hold the belief that Lawson was a bush poet, but the lecturer disclosed that Lawson only made one trip to the outback, and that he had no real love for the country. That one trip was Lawson's sole claim to be the interpretor of the men of the "out-back." His observations on that one occasion furnished him with local colour, but most of his bush stories were collected from bushmen who came to Sydney on a periodical "spree." Comparing Lawson with "Banjo" Paterson, the lecturer pointed out that Paterson wrote from the point of view of the drover and of the squatter-men of some education and means -- to whom "the bush" was the gateway to a probable affluence; whereas Lawson pictured the svvagman, and a town swagman at that, a man with little education, no means, and no possibility of a future competence, however modest. Hence his outlook was a gloomy one, and this is illustrated in his description of the life of the far Western worker :-

In stifling noons when his back was wrung
By its load, and the air seemed dead,
And the water warmed in the bag that hung  
To his aching arm like lead,
Or in times of flood, when plains were seas, 
And the scrubs were cold and black,     
He ploughed in mud to his trembling knees,      
And paid for his sins out-back.

Mr. Bennett said that Lawson could attack great questions and wide issues. In "The Star of Australasia" Lawson was seen as no mere shallow writer of superficial jingle. He loved his fellow men and pitied their griefs, but he was not blind to their weaknesses, nor to his own. He yearned to help them, but could do no more than svmpithise, and this he showed in all his work.

Dr. T. W. Robinson presided over a large audience chiefly consisting of senior scholars of primary schools.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 19 October 1927

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

Note: I fear the "senior scholars of primary schools" would have learned far more about Mr. F. Bennett, B.Sc, and his politics, than about Henry Lawson from this lecture.  You will see that praise is given only when Lawson tackles "wider issues", which is really code for "things that matter", ie anything other than workers, swagmen and country people who are merely people "with little education, no means, and no possibility of a future competence."

Needless to say I'm not the only one who thought this.  Letters to the editor, regarding this view of Lawson, will follow over the next week or so.

The poetry which starts "In stifling noons..." is taken from the poem "Out Back", which you can find, along with the text of "The Star of Australasia", here.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 21, 2010 10:09 AM.

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