Reprint: Australian Poets: Voices from the Past by D. J. Quinn

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The recent correspondence in the "Herald," on the subject of the late Chris Brennan's poems sent me rummaging among old Press cuttings for a copy of an article, entitled "Poets and Poetry in New South Wales," which I compiled for the "Sydney Mail" 27 years ago. The article took its origin in what seemed to me a surprising piece of news I had stumbled upon, namely, that the output of verse in Australia exceeded per head of population that of any other country; and I felt that a public largely indifferent to the claims of poetry might still be interested to learn something about the diligent band of versifiers who had earned for us such a measure of pre-emience in this department of letters.

Reading that article now in the light of history, one gets the impression that those were halcyon days for poets, whether major or minor. "Banjo" Patterson, with 40,000 volumes sold, and Henry Lawson, with 17,000, loomed large in the public eye. Ogilvie (then absent from Australia) had several thousands to his credit. It was comparatively easy to get good verse printed and paid for, and publishers were almost benevolent in their regard for budding authors. Publishers to-day, alas! frown daily at the very mention of the word poetry.


Not that everything was couleur de rose 27 years ago.

   Whose picnics on Parnassus,
   Need not look for cakes and ale.

Our poets for the most part were ill-requited in the matter of rewards. One or two felt rather bitter about this neglect. Roderic Quinn, one of our sweetest singers, was not disposed to quarrel with the public on that account. "There has been a large amount of grumble," he said, "over the fact that Australian poets have not had adequate rewards, but with our small, almost stagnant, population, how can we hope for anything better? The circumstance that we are not a 'home' people is also bad for the poets. The sunlight, the beaches, the surf, and the harbour draw us out of doors, and we 'live' poetry instead of reading it." It was his opinion that Sydney Harbour, artistically and poetically, exercised a more potent influence over the people than any number of books or poems.

Discussing public taste in poetry, J. le Gay Brereton thought that here, as probably in all English-speaking countries, there was it distinct preference for what was melodramatic rather than for what was poetic. He had no quarrel with the bush or the horse poem. One could have good ballad or bush poetry of a definite Australian nature, but he should be sorry to see poetry limited to those subjects. In his opinion, a great deal of the stuff accepted as Australian poetry was not poetry at all. "The Australian," he said, "has an ear which catches up a swinging measure; give him that and a topic which he enjoys and he is liable to be deceived into thinking that the result is not only poetry, but even good poetry."


Chris Brennan, who was considered our leading exponent of poetry, properly so-called, "knew nothing of the public." His appeal was to a small cultured circle. "Who are the public" he parried when I ventured to ask if poems printed in the conventional manner with titles, capitals, and punctuation marks, would not be more likely to attract readers. "Poetry requires that the reader should be in training for it-keyed to it. For that reason, probably, people read prose; it is so much easier and human nature has a loveable tendency to slackness."

Mr. Brennan readily satisfied my curiosity on other points. He was an entertaining talker.

"I'm afraid I am very unpatriotic." he said. "I've written nothing about the horse or the swagsman. As far as 'national' traits go, I might have made my verses in China.

"I know nothing of 'poetic pains.' Writing poetry is a job like any other. One of the essentials to writing real poetry is to put in three or four hours at the desk every day. The popular idea about dashing off a poem in a fine frenzy is but an amusing piece of credulousness on the part of the public. Poets themselves have encouraged this idea ever since they began to write. They are beginning to see, however, that 'inspiration' is not enough, that a good deal of thought and self criticism is also required.

"Some people say I have not the afflatus, that I have made myself write poetry. I am prepared to agree with that to a certain extent. Poetry and criticism are two ways of getting a lot of fun out of life. Any man with a certain amount of literary ability may now and then produce a set of polished verses which it might be difficult to distinguish from real poetry.

In New South Wales we have produced a certain amount of poetry. There are achievements in verse to the credit of Kendall and Daley, and in this particular sphere good work is being done at the present time by Mr. Roderic Quinn and Mr. Brereton.

The great poet has not arrived yet, but Australia will welcome him-when he is dead, probably.

The ideal Australian poet will be a man of genius, possessing abundant wealth, with strict guardians to regulate his mode of living, and occasionally to lock him in a room supplied with writing materials."


Of the fourteen writers featured in my "Sydney Mall" article (which ran to three pages), Patterson, Roderic Quinn, John Sandes, E. J. Brady, Colonel Kenneth Mackay, Hugh McCrae, and Miss Ethel Turner (Mrs. Curlewis) are still with us; the others, Henry Lawson, Brennan, Brereton, Arthur Adams, P. E. Quinn, T. W. Heney, and Miss Agnes Storrle (Mrs. Kettlewell) have joined the great fraternity of poets in the shades.

Mr. Patterson, who had just retired from the daily grind of a city newspaper office to his native bush, asked to be excused from inclusion in a "personal detail" article. "I have a great objection to the personal element being dragged into literature," he wrote. "The best poetry as a rule was written by men who were bad characters, and I do not think it concerns the public at all how or why a man writes." On the principle that the play of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark would be no play at all, I had to make shift without any help from the most popular of our bards.

Henry Lawson was the most elusive man I ever tried to catch up with. I had followed his trail for a couple of weeks when a note left at one of his haunts brought to the "Herald" letter-box "An Answer," written in pencil on the back of an advertisement form. "Dear Quinn," it ran, '"I could meet you and tell you the same old piffle (rot), or you could write an interview without meeting me at all. But if I told you the truth the paper would not dare print it if you dared to write it. I'll tell you something worth while later on."   Encouraged by this "answer," I redoubled my exertions to get into personal touch. When at last I did run him to ground he could do no more than sing me snatches of song and shuffle his feet to a dancing measure. With his pinched features and tall spare frame, he seemed to me a tragic figure. There was a time when the author of "In the Days When the World Was Wide" had the world at his feet. But Fortune is a fickle jade, and much prefers a lover to a master.


Overshadowed by his younger brother Roderic, P. E. Quinn was content to play the role of critic rather than of poet. It was his belief that the days of the poets were numbered. "The race" he said "is losing its singing power not that it lacks the qualifications of art and expression, but because the impulses that made great poetry are not to be looked for now." To his mind science was taking the place of poetry in satisfying the imaginative needs of man. The poet had no special message now. As Macaulay predicted poetry was declining with the advance of civilisation. A world movement in the direction of humanitarianism was manifesting itself and its needs would be satisfied by legislation. Poetry might retain its place among the arts, and that which was transcript of the emotions of the romantic period in the life of individuals might always be appreciated, but as the expression of the spirit of the age poetry would lose its significance. Of course, no one could foresee what tricks fortune might play upon us. Here in Australia we might experience some national crisis or discipline which would act as an incentive to national poetry. Nobody could tell.

Roderic Quinn did not share his brother's outlook. Despite Macaulay's dictum, despite the fact that we had weighed the sun and discovered a new planet, he was confident that world interest in poetical productions would remain as steadfast as ever. The more science discovered the broader would be the base whereon man would build his temple of imagination.

Whether Roderic will outshine his brother P.E. as a seer only time will show. What appears to be unquestionable at the moment is that poetry readers are dwindling in number. Publishers go as far as to say that "Poetry is dead."

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1936

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

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 23, 2012 11:08 PM.

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