Reprint: Marcus Clarke

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The bibliography of Marcus Clarke, apart from his innumerable journalistic articles, is convincing proof that hard work may go with hard-living. Within 15 years, that is from the age of 20 to his death at 35 (fifty years ago to-morrow), he produced four novels, some thirty tales, a dozen comedies and burlesques, and many pamphlets, including the notorious one on "The Future Australian Race."' But for all this prolific output only one book lives, the novel he almost accidentally began and almost heedlessly completed, "For the Term of His Natural Life.'' The nature of his pamphleteering may be judged from the summing up of his "Future Australian Race": "The conclusion of all this, therefore, is that in another 100 years the average Australian will be a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship. His religion will be a form of Presbyterianism; his national policy a Democracy, tempered by the rate of exchange." Most of his prognostications are absurd; the only prophetic note for 1931 is in his Parthian shot- "a Democracy tempered by the rate of exchange." Among his bush sketches "Pretty Dick" holds a place in anthologies as his best, but the tendency to exaggeration, especially of pathos, mars most of them. His poetry has been condemned as album verses. His most poignant verses are indeed to be found in a poem under that heading:

   So some poor tavern haunter steeped in wine,
      With staggering footsteps through the streets returning,
   Seeing through gathering gloom a sweet light shine
      From household lamp in happy window burning,
   May pause an instant in the wind and rain
      To gaze on that sweet scene of love and duty,
   But turns into the wild, wet night again
      Lest his sad presence mar its holy beauty.

Two charges have been laid against Marcus Clarke. The first derives from his brilliant preface to Gordon's Poems, which some have alleged to be a hopeless misreading of the bush. "What," he asks, "is the dominant note of Australian scenery? That which is the dominant note of Edgar Allan Poe's poetry -- weird   melancholy. . . . The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle in their black gorges a story of sullen despair," and so on.

The late F. M. Robb, of Melbourne, editor of the Oxford Gordon, supports Marcus Clarke. "We have known sleepless men, not easily moved by fear, camped out at night on the slopes of its unpeopled mountains, waking their sleeping fellows to cry, 'For God's sake, speak to me,' so awful has the indescribable silence become that the desolation and mournfulness of it seem to have been concrete and living, and as if moving to smite and fell one with a blow."   "This," he adds, "is true and will remain true until our scenery has become humanised and made accessible and near and familiar as the akes and valleys and hills and meadows of the Old World have been made by the love and music and vision of generations of poets.'' In the other charge Marcus Clarke is taken to task for telling the story of Port Arthur in convict days in a great but un-Australian novel, which has done Australia much harm. "It depicts life in British prisons controlled by British officials, and has no more relation to ordinary colonial life than the diary of a governor of Dartmoor would have to the life of a Devonshire farmer." But surely only stupid people could gain a false impression of Australia at this time of day from Marcus Clarke's tremendous novel. If the convicts were not Australians, neither were the pioneers, and "Geoffrey Hamlyn" would be as little Australian as "For the Term of His Natural Life," which, at least, has added a phrase to our Australian vocabulary. It must be freely admitted that the novel has its grave defects. The brutalities and degradations are all founded on facts to be found in the convict annals of Tasmania, but the novelist who gathers them all together within the ambit of his single story strains to the breaking-point our sense of probability. The initial improbability lies in the series of events that lead up to the transportation of Devine or Dawes. "Nor was there any necessity for so desperate an expedient as a mutiny on the convict ship as planned by Sarah Purfoy, seeing she could have far more easily have freed her lover by having him as her assigned servant after the voyage. Nor are these the only flaws. The death of Mrs. Vicars and Sylvia's loss of memory are too "pat" for the creation of the false impression that Frere and not Dawes was the hero of the marooning episode after the seizure of the Osprey at Hell Gates. Sylvia's marriage with the stony-hearted Frere is also an artistic flaw of the most obvious kind. Dawes himself, whose sufferings accumulate relentlessly one on the other, as on Oedipus in Greek tragedy, is a shadowy figure. Besides, Marcus Clarke does not mitigate the atmosphere of gloom and brutality, as Shakespeare knew how to do, by making the gloom the more impressive for the gleams of contrast. Yet when all these defects are marshalled -- defects enough one might think to damn the book -- the merits of the novel are greater, and because of these it has prospered. It cannot rank among the great novels of the world because of the patent defects in its construction, but, as Green says, "it is one of the most powerfully written novels in English." Not only does Dawes become terrible in his sufferings, but some of the minor characters are intensely alive, and some of the incidents intensely dramatic. Sarah Purfoy is real flesh and blood. Gabbett's struggle during the mutiny with Frere, and afterwards with the sailors, is thrilling. No less so is the ruse by which Frere gains the captured pistol from Kavanagh in the Sydney barracks. The story itself moves on to its irresistible end with the murky velocity of Macbeth, leaving the normal world behind as it traverses the shades.

The late Lord Rosebery, who, during his brief visit to Australia in 1884, befriended the novelist's widow, wrote to Hamilton Mackinnon, the editor of the memorial volume, "Long ago I fell upon 'His Natural Life' by accident, and read it not once nor twice, but many times at different periods. Since then I have frequently given away copies to men whose opinions I valued, and have always received from them the same opinion as to the extraordinary value of the book. There can, indeed, I think, be no two opinions as to the horrible fascination of the book. . . . To me, I confess, it is the most terrible of all novels, more terrible than 'Oliver Twist ' or Victor Hugo's most startling effects, for the simple reason that it is more real. It has all the solemn ghastliness of truth." "I fancy," he added in a note to Mrs. Clarke, "that your husband's works are not sufficiently appreciated in Australia. ... I cannot but believe that the time will come when Australians will feel a melancholy pride in this true son of genius . . . and in England you may find that, like another power in letters, not dissimilar in genius -- I mean Emily Bronte -- he may have made up to him in posthumous honour what was lacking in his lifetime." Lord Rosebery's expectation has not been belied. The star of Marcus Clarke has risen from the mists that vexed it while he lived, to become one of the luminous fixed stars in our literary firmament.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 1 August 1931

Marcus Clarke was born in London in 1846 and died in Melbourne in 1881. 

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

Note: you can read a number of Clarke's works courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 15, 2011 9:56 AM.

Australian Literary Monuments #31 - Marcus Clarke was the previous entry in this blog.

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