Reprint: Essex Evans - Poet and Patriot by Firmin M'Kinnon

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Though Australia has produced no great poet, no lyric singer like Shelley or Swinburne, no poet philosopher such as Browning, and no sweet singer of simple lays who could rise to such stupendous heights as Wordsworth did in the 'Prelude" and other poems, yet, in comparison with its population, Australia has produced more poets than any nation in history. Of the 3000 books and booklets of poems that have been published within the last 50 years -- most of them within the last 25 years -- there may be only a few of outstanding merit. But that few will live because their authors have been the interpreters of the soul of virile young nationhood. Of such is George Essex Evans, who was born in London on June 18, 1863 -- 63 years ago yesterday.

Essex Evans was not a great poet. He was not one of Australia's best. He had not the lyrical sweetness of a Kendall; the flashing humour and passionate intensity of a Brunton Stephens, the fierce democratic picturesqueness of a Lawson or a Bernard O'Dowd. But he was a patriot in the fullest sense of the word, and it might be said of him as he himself said of Brunton Stephens:---

   "The gentle heart that hated wrong,
      The courage that all ills withstood,
   The seeing eye, the mighty song,
      That stirred us into nationhood."

George Essex Evans combined the best that is English and Welsh. His father, John Evans, a barrister and a politician, was also a poet, and his mother, one of the Bowens of Llwyngwair in Wales, was a highly cultured lady, a classical scholar, and a linguist. He was brought up in a home and atmosphere of culture, but unfortunately be was handicapped by deafness, a handicap that was almost a barrier in those days to success as a student. Essex Evans was but a child when his father died; and at 18 years of age, in company with a brother, Mr. J. B. O. Evans, and other members of the family, he came to Queensland. He and his brother engaged in farming operations at Allora, aud it was while he was there that he commenced to contribute verse to the "Queenslander." At that time one of the greatest influences in Australia in the development of Australian literature. Every keen newspaper man is always watching for any new literary comet that might float into his ken, and Reginald Spencer Browne, now Major-General Browne, was probably the first man to detect the merit of Evans's poetry and to give him encouragement. They became fast friends, a friendship that was intensified by the fact that both were athletic, both were lovers of good literature, and both were endowed with a sense of bantering humour. Like other poets in this sunny clime, Evans wrote because his very heart leaped into verse. At the same time it would be difficult to over-estimate Browne's influence on his young friend, on influence that lasted throughout the poet's life, because he encouraged him to write poetry when Evans would probably have preferred to talk of his prowess on the fields of sport or of his latest reading. Thus, from "Christophus" of the "Queenslander" he jumped into fame in 1891 -- 10 years after his arrival in Queensland -- with his first volume of poems, "The Repentance of Magdalene Despar and Other Verses," a little volume that revealed much imaginative and romantic poetic diction. Six years later he published his second volume, "Loraine and other Verses," and in 1906, three years before his death, his greatest book, "Secret Key and Other Verses," was issued, and indicated that if Evans had lived he might easily have attained a very high niche in the pantheon of Empire poetry.


Evans, like many other Australian poets, had to make money from his poetry. Unlike Gray, he could not afford to alter and to polish for eight years. From time to time one hears of people who "dash off" something in an evening. But no writer ever "dashed off" any poem of first rate rank, or anything else of high quality, for that matter. Shelley and Keats, Gray and Tennyson, all weighed and measured and altered and realtered; and even Macaulay scored and underscored his writings till it was difficult to read the final drafts. But most of our Australian poets have had to write "white-hot" for the morning newspaper. Thus, for instance, Evans wrote his well-known poem, "The Lion's Whelps," in the office of the old "Darling Downs Gazette" one night in December, 1899. The cabled story was coming through, telling how Methuen had failed at Magersfontein, and how the Black Watch and the Gordons had been slaughtered. Every one was despondent, for it had been a month of reverses. Next morning the paper contained the cable, but with it were the inspiring verses, commencing:  

   "There is scarlet on his forehead,
   There are scars across his face,"

and going on to tell how the lion's whelps were gathering, and answering the call,

   "From sunlit Sydney Harbour,
      And, ten thousand miles away,
   From the far Canadian forests to the
      Sounds of Milford Bay." 

One does not expect great poetry in such circumstances. But it served its purpose, that of cheering the despondent hearts of a nation.

One school of critics claim that patriotic poetry can never be real poetry. But such critics conveniently forget all about Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson, Kipling and Newbolt, and a hundred more. It is perfectly true that the only kind of patriotism that great poetry can care much about is a patriotism in the truest sense of the word, as distinguished from the narrow political sense. The statesmen die and are forgotten, but the poet never dies; and there is no measuring the degree in which poets like Brunton Stephens and Essex Evans have helped to mould the true patriotism of the Commonwealth, the really big Australianism that thinks in terms of a nation and of an Empire.

First published in The Queenslander, 3 July 1926

[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 September 23, 2011 6:51 AM.

Great Australian Authors #47 - George Essex Evans was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: The Walled Garden by Clem Lack is the next entry in this blog.

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