5 Dec 2012

The People's Poet

Lawson has lived the life that he sings, and seen the places of which he writes; there is not one word in all his work which is not instantly recognised by his readers as honest Australian. The drover, the stockman, the shearer, the rider on the skyline, the girl waiting at the sliprails, the big bush funeral, the coach with flashing lamps passing at night along the ranges, the man to whom home is a bitter memory and his future a long despair; the troops marching to the beat of the drum, the coasting vessel struggling through blinding gales, the great grey plain, the wilderness of the Never Never—in long procession the pictures pass,and every picture is a true one because Henry Lawson has been there to see with his eyes and heart.

David McKee Wright in the Preface to Henry Lawson's Selected Poems (Sydney, 1918)

Those of you who follow my Australianised poetry rotation will notice that I've made an alteration for AO6.  I had hoped to find a copy of Mulga Bill's Bicycle and Other Banjo Paterson Classics illustrated by Bruce Whatley, which is out of print.  It turns out that it is impossible to procure.

As a consequence, I've decided to leave the Banjo for secondary school, and to spend a term with his equally iconic coeval or contemporary, Henry Lawson.  Nowadays, Patterson is probably the better known of the two, although at the time they both had excellent reputations as writers.  Whereas Patterson wrote about the Australian bush as a highly romanticised bucolic paradise, Lawson's bush was harsh, bleak and lonely, but both identified a real Australia, and both contributed significantly to Australia's growing sense of a National Identity. 

Lawson remains one of Australia's most highly regarded writers, and his picture was on the original blue ten dollar note.We read his legendary short story, The Drover's Wife in AO4, but it is fitting to read a term of his poetry and prose here in AO6.

Here's a Lawson poem that we won't be studying, but it amuses me all the same!

Australian Bards And Bush Reviewers

Henry Lawson In The Days When The World Was Wide 1900

While you use your best endeavour to immortalise in verse
The gambling and the drink which are your country's greatest curse,
While you glorify the bully and take the spieler's part --
You're a clever southern writer, scarce inferior to Bret Harte.

If you sing of waving grasses when the plains are dry as bricks,
And discover shining rivers where there's only mud and sticks;
If you picture `mighty forests' where the mulga spoils the view --
You're superior to Kendall, and ahead of Gordon too.

If you swear there's not a country like the land that gave you birth,
And its sons are just the noblest and most glorious chaps on earth;
If in every girl a Venus your poetic eye discerns,
You are gracefully referred to as the `young Australian Burns'.

But if you should find that bushmen -- spite of all the poets say --
Are just common brother-sinners, and you're quite as good as they --
You're a drunkard, and a liar, and a cynic, and a sneak,
Your grammar's simply awful and your intellect is weak.

We'll be using this book of Lawson's work illustrated by Dee Huxley.  It's actually in print (wow!), and is brought alive with Huxley's delightful black and white drawings and full page paintings. All the best known and favourite stories and poems of Henry Lawson are included including The Loaded Dog, The Drover's Wife, Andy's Gone with Cattle, and The Fire at Ross's Farm.

We'll also be using an out of 'print' CD, called The Loaded Dog and More Classic Favourites read by the inimitable Colin Friels.  The collection includes That There Dog of Mine, The Ironbark Chip, The Loaded Dog, Mitchell: A Character Sketch, and The Union Buries its Dead, and it is well worth looking out for. Friels has a great voice - strong and distinctly Australian, without becoming a parody of Australiana. He articulates well, and I find him a pleasure to listen to. My only criticism of this audiobook and indeed on the Huxley book comes from the author himself, Henry Lawson. When I read these stories aloud, I do some judicious editing to remove the profanities and blasphemies, thereby making the classic Aussie stories acceptable for a juvenile audience. Colin doesn't do this, and I find the use of God's name unacceptable.   This is one of the reasons that I've saved Lawson's work until AO6.

We'll study the Banjo and Lawson again in our schooling - possibly together to explore the Bulletin Debate in detail -  but I am looking forward to Jemimah's introduction to his work next year.  Hopefully some of you might join us.


  1. As you know, one of my faves! Slim Dusty set quite a few of Lawson's poems to music (and others). Hearing them sung in my youth helped with memorisation. Some of Henry's are very meloncholy .Leonard Teale had a great voice for poetry as well.

  2. My favourite Lawson set to music is Andy's Gone with Cattle from the ABC Sing song book from our youth. No doubt you know the one I mean, Ruby. I searched for it on YouTube, but couldn't find it. :(

  3. My favourite. My criticism of the Banjo would echo Lawson: He romanticised the bush. And I love the *debate poems* lol. From both parties. He catches an Australia that I don't think anyone has done better & was quite visionary in some of what he foresaw as Australia's future. An interesting man. And the Loaded Dog still makes me Laugh out loud.

  4. Yes, I remember "Andy's Gone with Cattle!"
    I know and agree that Banjo was a romantic but there is something special about that rollicking, too-good/ridiculous-to-be-true, type poetry. Such a pleasure to listen to!

  5. For those, like me, trawling Jeanne's posts years later.....
    Colin Friels' recording of the Loaded Dog and other stories is available for download (at a price!) on Audible.com.au. :)


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