HENRY HERTZBERG LAWSON, one of Australia’s most popular poets, was born at Grenfell, N.S.W., on June 17th, 1867. His early life was spent on the home farm, where he got his first taste of the bitter experiences which so often follow the footsteps of the man on the land. Hardships and pinchings were much more frequent than bumper harvests or big successes. Of luxury or pleasure Lawson knew little or nothing. He was forced to fight every inch of his way. “Cockie” farming is not the easiest of livelihoods. Only the true sons of toil who plod on through year after year of drought and failure, ever striving to hold the bit of a home together, make of it anything like a success. Of those early days Lawson does not say over much. He would rather forget them. Still it is possible to catch many a glimpse of the poet’s home-life from his work. His verses tell the story more forcefully than his tongue. Lawson’s strength lies not in autobiography. When he lifts the pen to picture either bush or city conditions he seldom errs. His experience of both is full and varied.
He “gets there” every time with words that ring true, because they are freighted with stern, hard facts.
Listen to him when he tells you “How the Land was Won,” and in the telling drops in a bit of autobiography—
No man knows this sort of life intuitively. He must live it. No one need ever doubt that Henry Lawson went right through the mill. For better or for worse he took the gruelling like a man.
Leaving the farm, Henry Lawson learnt carriage painting. What sort of a hand he was with the brush I cannot say. It is not often that the poetic temperament can be persuaded to successfully master the uninteresting trade accomplishments.
How and when he began to write, and with what measure of success his work was received by the editors to whom the first lines were sent is another matter on which I have no statement to make. Lawson will tell you all this himself one of these days. He has it written and ready. When the right day comes the manuscript will be carefully edited and be given to the world in book form.
During 1887 Lawson began his connection with the “Bulletin.” It was then that he found the audience he desired. Editor and readers alike were not slow to recognise the strength and ability of the new comer. Here was a man of merit to whom they might reasonably look for something above the average. And Australia did not look to Henry Lawson in vain, for during the winter of 1888 he gave us his true and powerful “Faces in the Street,” which will live for a long time among the very best things done by an Australian hand. If you have not read this poem do so at the earliest opportunity. It is a fine piece of work, full of literary ability and heart. Lawson, at twenty years of age, could see and feel. If there is any heart in you this great poem will find it.
These verses will give you some idea of the work which finds a place of honour in “In the Days when the World was wide,” the earliest of the volumes which carry Henry Lawson’s name. This book was published in 1896, by which time he had a big following, and was rapidly rising into favour. The title poem of the volume mentioned above, which is replete with forceful stanzas that are known throughout Australia, had placed Henry Lawson among the first of our poets. Here are a few verses of this great poem—
“Faces in the Street” Henry Lawson claims to be his masterpiece. Only very recently did he tell me that he was under twenty years of age when he wrote this, his best, poem. I distinctly remember him mentioning the name.
It was in 1896 that I first met Lawson. At this time he and Mr. Le Gay Brereton were engaged putting the finishing touches on “In the Days when the World was Wide,” which Messrs. Angus and Robertson then had in the press. They were working in a back store with galley and page proofs all over a long table, and seemed not to take matters very seriously. It was in that same old store room that Lawson wrote “To an Old Mate,” the introductory poem to his first volume.
This is Lawson all over.
He is so human. Indeed, he has too much heart. What Lawson suffers through that poetic temperament of his no one but himself can ever fully know. He sees and feels more keenly than you or I can ever hope to do, and through his eyes and his heart he has added materially to the literature of his native land.
There are many people who say they cannot see anything in Henry Lawson’s work. There are always people who find it so much easier to criticise than to praise. Anyone can criticise; very few know just how to express their approval of what they see or read.
Then there is a strong opposition among a certain class to anything Australian. “We live in Australia; give us something that does not smell of the bush,” is frequently heard. And this, too, from people who should know better. It is a good thing that Henry Lawson began his life in the bush. Had he spent his early days in the heart of any of our capitals, he might never have written a line worth reading. His work is a standing rebuke to those who see no good in their own country. Not even his worst enemy could ever say that Henry Lawson has gone back on Australia. He has placed the nation under an obligation which can never be fully paid. He is a man in a million, sent to speak to us of things that our own half-blind eyes fail to see. And how he has spoken! Ever since 1887, when he first got a footing in the “Bulletin,” he has written hard. Now and then he shoots wide of the target, but he generally “gets home” with a clinking “bully.” He many a time phrases a thing in rather an ugly way. That cannot be helped. Eyes are not all focussed alike. Nor are all hearts tuned to the same key. Henry Lawson is fearless and outspoken to a degree which many dislike. Yet it is a good thing that there are men of his stamp in the world. If there were not, many a wrong would go unrighted. In “The Writer’s Dream” (Verses Popular and Humorous) he says:—
And the men of the back country do stand by him. They are his audience and his friends at the same time. Henry Lawson, the man who “humped bluey” with them, is always sure of a warm reception. He is the bushman’s poet every time. The “back blocker” appreciates his work better than I do.
I can tell you a queer incident that will go to show the feeling which exists in the minds of some of the men who follow his work very closely. Lawson was taking a “refresher” or two on North Sydney one night, and got his tongue loosened. More than likely he started, as he often does when he gets a little “jolly,” to roll off “The Ballad of the Rouseabout,” or something of the kind, which one of his audience recognised.
“Where did you learn that?” the listener asked.
“I wrote it,” was the reply.
“A nice chance you’ve got of writing anything like that. That’s Lawson’s.”
“I’m Lawson — Henry Lawson.”
“You lie! Lawson’s a ——” and with this the men came to blows, the poet defending his own name, and his admirer hitting out in defence of the writer he admired.
Being a poet, then, is not all joy, especially when one has to do battle for his own name.
Reverting to the ballad quoted above, I find a passage which holds a lot of truth. Poets, Australian poets in particular, have a way of making their creations tell rather much of their own history. Henry Lawson is no exception to the rule. Of course, it may just happen that there is not the slightest connection between the writer and his rouseabout.
You would like to know how Henry Lawson works? Very fast. He is one of the quickest writers in Australia, and one of the surest. There is no fiddling with every second or third line. Once he sits down to write, his thoughts fly too fast for his pen. There is no striving for rhymes. He finishes verse after verse in one writing. Once he makes a beginning, he invariably goes through to the end.
On one occasion I asked Lawson to write me an ode to an old gum tree. He said he would. Several days after he came to me saying, “I can do that poem for you now, and I’ll call it ‘The Stringy-Bark Tree.’ ” “Right, Henry,” I replied, “start now.” Getting pencil and paper he made himself an impromptu desk in the yard at Angus & Robertson’s, and wrote the following verses, which were first published in “The Amateur Gardener”:—
It is not one man in a million who can see as much in the old stringybarks which Lawson has turned to such good account. Many of us rather discount the value of these trees. Gums are too common for us. Or is it that we have little or no poetry in our “mind’s eye?”
On another occasion to test his memory I asked him to give me a duplicate copy of a fairly long thing I had purchased for publication in the “Amateur Gardener.” At first he said he could not possibly do what I asked. “Where did you lose it?” he asked. “You know how much I liked that poem. You are always losing something.”
Thinking for a minute, he asked me two questions. They were—“Can you give me the first line?” and “Have you got half-a-dollar?” Answering both questions in the affirmative, a bargain was struck, and Henry went to work. It was not long before he had re-written, word for word, the whole poem. “Now,” said he, as he pocketed the half-crown with a smile, “you just be more careful in future, or I’ll raise my fees.”
Henry Lawson’s work is no trouble to him. It is all inspiration. When he burns the “midnight” oil it is to unburden his mind of something that has been haunting him for days.
Directly after the last verse, you have two examples of Henry Lawson’s handwriting. The bolder hand was done in 1905, and the smaller writing during 1909.
Speaking about estimating the value of a poet’s work (and it is on this point that I wish to say something to those who criticise Henry Lawson), Frederick Harrison says:—In our estimate of poetry we must avoid the reckoning up of blunders such as examiners score with blue pencil and use to subtract marks. . . . We have to take into account the sum of truly fine things, the permanent harvest of beauty, power, and insight contained in them, of a kind which is independent of place, time, and fashion. And in weighing it in this measure we have to admit that uniform grace and polish do not constitute in themselves a claim to the highest rank of poetry. . . . In the Day of Judgment, they tell us, gross offences may be forgiven for the sake of transcendent merits, which will outweigh a long life of decorous virtue such as needs no expiation.
If the critics will bear these facts in mind they will do better work. Some of them may even be inclined to forget that they are judges of poetry.
But what does it matter whether a man here and there thinks that Henry Lawson, or any other writer, is past his prime? The final court of appeal after all is the “man in the street,” or the man in the bush. What he fancies he will have. Your recommendations or mine he takes but little notice of. It is enough for him to know that his favourite wrote the poem he is doing his best to commit to memory. Against this sort of thing criticisms do not count.
Lawson’s fame is firmly rooted. His popularity must increase. To-day he belongs to Australia. Some day he will be known the whole world round. His work is too human to be soon forgotten. He has written whole-souledly of things which men and women know to be true. He has given us quite a big sheaf, in which there are many ears full of golden grain. He has pictured the hard working men and women as few other pens have ever done. But unfortunately Australia does not appreciate him as she ought. You can help to remedy this. Let this small volume, and this hastily written and very imperfect introduction, set you thinking how best you can help to bring Henry Lawson into his own. He deserves the best we can give him. His work is a national one. He has done it well. The more I read of him, the more I like him. His follies and his failings notwithstanding, I think Henry Lawson’s books of poems should be in every home in the Commonwealth. Men and women who wish to know what is still happening in their own land will find much that is strong, and not a little that is wonderfully sweet in its weakness, in the verses which have placed Henry Lawson at the head of our truly Australian Poets.
A verse or two from “The Last Review” and I have finished:—
In closing, let me make one last appeal. Read your Lawson. If you do not like the sordid and the ugly, turn to the humorous things, and the clean things, of which there are many in the volumes published. You will never regret the time you spend in company with this versatile and powerful Australian.