C. J. Dennis has the distinction of being one of the few in Australia (or anywhere else) who has made a living by writing poetry. "The Sentimental Bloke" went into five editions in three months. In less than 18 months it sold 66,145 copies.
How this and other successful books of verse by the same author came to be written, and something of the man who wrote them, are described in 'The Making of A Sentimental Bloke," by Alec. H Chisholm (Georgian House, Melbourne, 10/6). Strangely enough Dennis, "the laureate of the larrikin," was a country-bred boy. He was brought up very strictly by two maiden aunts in Laura, South Australia. Mr. Chisholm suggests that the contrast between his up-bringing and his subsequent literary output is not without its psychological significance. However, at 17 he was standing on his own feet and discovering values for himself. He became junior clerk to a solicitor, was for a time on the staff of the "Critic," a social weekly and then at the age of 29 founded an illustrated journal, "The Gadfly" -- devoted to cheerfully malicious comment on the Australian scene at large, and in particular to light satirical verse by its editor, C. J. Dennis."
Financial difficulties ended that venture, but not before it had given him an avenue to express his undoubted talent for verse-writing. In 1908 an artist friend, Hal Waugh, established him at Toolangi, 40 miles east of Melbourne, and here he lived for the remaining 30 years of his life. A few years later he met Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Roberts, who introduced him to a fraternity of writers and artists whom they entertained at their home at Sassafras. He had already published his "Backblock Ballads" (1913) and a few verses that were the forerunners of "The Sentimental Bloke." But the publication of that book in 1915 gave him immediate security and confidence for the future. His subsequent output, "Ginger Mick," "The Glugs of Gosh," "Doreen," and other books contributed to his popularity.
C. J. Dennis's own contacts with the types of people in his books was perhaps more slight than his skill in delineating them would suggest. Mr. Chisholm suggests that he drew some inspiration from Louis Stone's novel of larrikin life, "Jonah" (1911). Stone is quoted as having said: "That man Dennis is a scoundrel. He has taken his ideas from my book. I should like to meet him and tell him what I think of him!"
Nevertheless, Dennis's characters were original creations, and whatever literary derivations he might have made from Stone's book or elsewhere cannot detract from his own achievement. In addition, he gave permanence to the type of larrikin slang current at the time. In later years he married and lived in his quiet hills home at Toolangi, where the spirit of the bush-bred boy found peace and happiness. These years produced his final volume, "'The Singing Garden" (1935).
"Dennis," writes Mr. Chisholm, "developed a sustained and sustaining interest in the sunlit world about him... Wild birds were not subjects for study, but 'mates' and, in some instances, 'personalities.' Two especially solemn-looking kookaburras became known as Bernard O'Dowd and Archie Strong, after a couple of eminent literary figures in Melbourne." Here, because Dennis was unable to visit Melbourne himself, Masefield went to see him. Of Dennis at the time of his death, Masefield said: "A charming fellow and a delightful host...Poetry with such a universal appeal, reaching all classes of readers, must have great merits."
While one wonders what is his appeal to the present generation, it is interesting to note that one of the latest additions to the Australian Pocket Library was "The Songs of A Sentimental Bloke," with the original illustrations by Hal Gye.
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]