Reprint: Henry Kendall: Our Early Landscape Painter by Nettie Palmer

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It is on record that once, when in England, William Morris Hughes was asked what the Australian climate was like. "First tell me," he rapped out, "what the climate of Europe is like!" Put the Australian landscape in place of its climate, or beside it, and you have the case for a poet or artist who has to deal with its extraordinary varied problems. What is the Australian landscape? Is it that of Tambo or Ballarat or the Blue Mountains or Broome? As well ask if the European landscape is that of Brittany or Spain! When a poet, therefore, is known as an interpreter of our landscape, we may well ask, "Which landscape?'" and be glad to hear that he has confined his aims, to the treatment of one region. That is task enough and to spare. Henry Kendall was the first and most eager of our definite landscape painters in words, and it is important to remember, as Mr. A. G. Stephens points out in a recent critical review of this poet's work, that what he absorbed was "the natural spirit of the southeast coast of Australia, between the mountains and the sea." Kendall knew that country in New South Wales especially, but all his descriptive work would be at home in the same kind of seaboard country in Southern Queensland -- what is known as the South Coast and the North Coast. (This naming seems to me unfortunate as it is in New South Wales, too.)   When I told people that I lived on the North Coast in Queensland, they began looking at the map near Cape York!  At the same time it is droll to hear Queenslanders speaking of the "Northern Rivers," just south of the Queensland border).

Kendall's Bush.

For the moment I do not intend to look at Kendall primarily as a poet, quoting his work that was highest as poetry. What I want to follow is his skill in rendering a landscape that was his to interpret for the first time. Before him, Harpur had done some astonishing and vigorous work, but the field was hardly touched by him. Enter Kendall, born at Ulladulla, in the timbered ridges, a dozen miles from the sea; he was taken later to the watered district of the Orara and the Clarence Rivers. He knew the harshness of the timber-getters' lives and the realities of sheep farming; but the whole scene was for him impregnated with beauty. His first boyish poems evoked a scene that was full of waterfalls, fern gullies, birdsong, and brilliance, brilliance without harshness. This is from "Morning in the Bush":

   Amongst the gnarly apple-trees, a gorgeous tribe of parrots came
   And, screaming, leapt from bough to bough like living jets of crimson flame;
   And, where the hillside-growing gums their web-like foliage upward threw,
   Old Nature rang with echoes from the loud-voiced mountain cockatoo;
   And a thousand nameless twittering things, between the rustling sapling sprays,
   Went flashing through the fragrant leaves, and dancing like to fabled fays.

So Kendall wrote in his youth, full of zest and enthusiasm and a straightness of purpose. It is pleasant, too, to see the length of those lines, which happened to suit the purpose of this poem. He had evidently never heard of payment by the line, a habit which causes so many verse-makers to split each line down the middle, so as to make it two! Just try splitting the lines in this poem, and printing each one as two, and see how the whole verse thuds and thumps along. In quoting these particularly vibrant lines I have hardly suggested the most characteristic Kendall, the Kendall who wrote in lyrical metres of bellbirds and mountain dells, and who used the sweetest and most liquid of the native names to make refrains for his songs. I use the expression "mountain dells," not that it is the best for our landscape, since the word "gully," with its association of depth and contrast, has replaced it in Australia; I use it because Kendall used words like "grove" and "glen," and "dell" so often. His tools, after all, were those of another country. The marvel was that with them he shaped a landscape that we can all recognise. I am not sure that Kendall even used the word "bush" as we do when we say "the bush." Yet it is an old enough word. You'll perhaps remember that it was used by no less a talker than Mrs. Nickleby herself when she once became reminiscent about one of her early admirers: "And he went to Australia and got lost in a bush with some sheep. I don't know how they got there. . .-"So Dickens knew of "the bush" since he allows his Mrs. Malaprop-Nickleby to trip over it. But if Kendall does not master the use of indigenous words and terms so as to drench them with poetry and draw them into his singing lines, he has, after all, mastered the landscape itself:

   And lucid colours born of woodland light,
   And shining places where the sea-streams lie.

Those lines he wrote, in a famous sonnet of despair, using them to name the themes that he had once hoped to render. But the lines are more than names, they are a poem in themselves; such a poem, to be impressive, need not be long.

    In small proportions we just beauties see.

Our Own Poet.  

Poetry does two things for us. It brings beauty to us from everywhere, from Xanadu, Cathay, Avalon, from the skies: it also brings us to beauty, showing us what is in the life around us. Just now I was reading another sonnet of Kendall's, and its simple words seemed as if spoken by some one with a poet's heart, beating anywhere, let us say, between Noosa and the Tweed. Here it is:--

   Sometimes, we feel so spent for want of rest,
   We have no thought beyond. I know, to-day,
   When tired of bitter lips, and dull delay,
   With faithless words, I cast mine eyes upon
   The shadows of a distant mountain-crest
   And said: That hill must hide within its breast
   Some secret glen, secluded from the sun . . .
   O mother Nature! Would that I could run
   Into thy arms, and, like a wearied guest,
   Half blind with lamps and sick of feasting, lay
   An aching head on thee. . . . Then, down the streams
   The moon might swim, and I should feel her grace
   While soft winds blew the sorrows from my face,
   So quiet in the fellowship of dreams.

There are indeed such secret glens in our coastal ranges for those who will take time to seek them out. Their lovers will say their names over, beginning, maybe, with Bon Accord Falls, that place of superb contrasts -- dizzy heights, and finest ferny detail; delicate birdsong, and the soaring of a wedge-tail eagle over the gorge. But each of us can find different names for the secret glens, or remember others that are nameless. In doing this we have touched the very sources of Kendall's poetry.

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 13 October 1928

[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 27, 2012 7:15 AM.

Combined Reviews: All That I Am by Anna Funder was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: A Thought of Henry Kendall (Died August 1, 1882) by Henry Halloran is the next entry in this blog.

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