Sunday, 3 May 2015

Passing through history briefly- Early Australian Poets

Passing through history briefly- Early Australian Poets
From left: A.J "Banjo" Paterson , Henry Lawson, C.J Dennis and Dorothea McKellar

We take communication for granted these days, with mass media and the speed of information thanks to modern technology. A little over a hundred years ago things were a lot more restrictive.
With  no television or film as an entertainment medium, the telephone , radio and recorded music being in their infancy (I must side track a little bit here to note, that despite these limitations Australia still managed to have a bona fide global singing superstar in Dame Nellie Melba) and not readily accessible, the great communicator of the day was the written word. Newspapers, magazines and periodicals were immensely popular and because of this it was also the time of some of our greatest writers and poets.
Writers such as CJ Dennis sold 65.000 copies of his classic The Songs OF The Sentimental Bloke in 1916. If you adjust that figure for today’s population it translates to sales that would outsell the latest releases by Mathew Reilly, Bryce Courtney and Di Morressey combined.
We can take a bit of local pride in this work because the majority of it was written at Kallista in Dandenong Ranges where he stayed with friends.
The bulk of the book was originally printed (12 of 14 Chapters) in The Bulletin several years earlier as a serial. Though he sold many books Dennis found he had to still supplement his income by writing for the now defunct Herald something he did for sixteen years, he is buried in Box Hill Cemetery where his grave is still visited regularly.
The Bulletin (in which CJ Dennis first found fame,) with several other weekly journals were responsible for much of the great artistic output in the late 19th Century that is still greatly admired today. When it opened its pages to contributions from the general public in 1886 it was inundated with writings and illustrations from now legendary names such as illustrators Norman and Lionel Lindsay, the great caricaturists Will Dyson and David Low, and writers Miles Franklin, Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson amongst others.
The Bulletin was popular because it gave it readers an Australian point of view,
Where as the newspapers of the time had a tendency to take their Editorial model from Home – as in England.
One of its originators is still causing controversy a hundred years later. JF Archibald who the greatest Australian portrait competition was bequeathed by and named after: The Archibald Prize.
The Bulletin went on to become Australia’s longest running magazine until it ceased publication in 2008 a victim of the “News Now” generation and the internet. An interesting footnote about the Bulletin that from its first edition right up to 1961 it always carried the banner “For the White Australian” something that would never be tolerated in this day and age.
The Bulletin took great delight in printing tales of the bush and of course the two greatest identities of this genre were Henry Lawson and Andrew Barton  “Banjo” Paterson.
Both were as different as chalk and cheese in the personal lives and how they wrote about their subject.
Banjo Paterson was born in Orange NSW where he enjoyed a bush boyhood and a structured family life.. When his family moved to Yass, on the main track between Melbourne and Sydney he experienced the long Bullock teams , the Cobb & Co. and the gold escorts. At picnic race meetings and polo matches he saw the skilled riders from the Murrumbidgee and the Snowy Mountains country who would put on exhibitions further feed his love of horses, horsemanship and adventure. Which he later wrote of in his bush ballads
Henry Lawson on the other hand came from a broken home and due to illness and an infection was deaf from the age of fourteen. Though his formal education suffered greatly growing up he strived to put himself through night school whilst working for his father.
Both writers took advantage of the Bulletins new editorial policy and contributed pieces that were well received. Both took different views of the bush. Though Lawson wrote some humorous pieces like The Loaded Dog, others like his classic poem Andy’s Gone a Droving and the brilliant short story the Drovers Wife tell of hardship and struggle and loss. The Drovers wife tells the story of a wife protects her children while they sleep from a dangerous snake that has slipped in the shack where they live. It goes on to recount moments in her life, how her husband has to spend months away droving to make ends meet because their once prosperous farm has been decimated by the drought. It tells of her resilience and toughness of spirit and that it was not only the men who were hard but the women and children as well. The story is considered to be one of the greatest short stories ever written.
Lawson’s work was a foil to Paterson’s work that romanticised the Bushmen, the drovers and their lifestyle. The classic Man from Snowy River is an epic poem that paints a picture of skill and daring and is so distinctly Australian it almost makes a Skippy sound when you read it. His poem Clancy of the Overflow is a beautifully metered poem that speaks of Clancy the drover (a recurring character in Paterson’s works) Paterson who lived in the city as a Solicitor tells how he longs to be back in the bush and envies Clancy’s free lifestyle and responsibility only to himself, his horse and the job he has to do at the moment.
Paterson went on to be a journalist, war correspondent and soldier during his latter years as well as being welcomed into high society, but never losing his love of adventure.
Lawson however, though hugely respected had troubles all his life with alcohol and depression, he forever had money problems and died a pauper. Despite his later years being non productive due to illness his star still shone brightly and for this recognition the NSW government gave him a State funeral and it was attended by thousands including the Premier and the Prime Minister.
Growing up during this period was a third generation Australian from a privileged background who was deeply influenced by these and other writers.
Though Dorothea MacKellar was well traveled and spoke several languages at an early age, in a bout of home sickness whilst in London at the tender age of nineteen she wrote the classic poem My Country. You know the one that has the lines: I love a sun burnt country. A land of sweeping plains.
Yeah, that one.
In a time when most still regarded England as home Dorothea was pining for what she was missing half a world away. I believe that is while it is still so well known because the sentiment expressed in it is so sincere. Like most of our pioneer poets and writers Dorothea is remembered by some form of tribute, in her case a very popular national poetry competition for schools.
Both Paterson and Lawson have appeared on our bank notes and stamps and like CJ Dennis have had their most famous writings made in films of plays.
With the popularity of Rap and its general acceptance as a style of expressive literature, there have been calls for it to replace Shakespeare in certain English literature classes due to its relevance to the youth of today. It might be more culturally significant to go back and explore some Australian classics with their well written timeless verse and prose and get a better understanding of how we developed as a nation and the spirit that drove us on to become the much envied country we are today.
This article barely scratches a thin layer of the surface of the achievements and tragedies of the great artists mentioned and has been very broad in its retelling of their lives, stories and histories due to lack of space and the large subject matter.
The turn of the last century was a golden age for Australian writing and illustration and so many have been passed over.
I just wanted to share what inspired and has interested me and I strongly advise all who read this to get on the internet or better still go to the library , grab a book and read about these amazing people and their wonderful body of work, much which is still a thrill to read in these days of a more modern language.

originally published in the Boronia and Basin Community News  April 2013 issue

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