Henry Lawson...myth and reality

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David Campbell
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Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by David Campbell » Fri May 13, 2016 12:59 pm

It’s interesting that Henry Lawson (1867-1922) is often held up as the iconic Australian bush poet, a man who lived a tough life in the outback and wrote about its harshness with the benefit of daily experience. He certainly had a hard life and produced some wonderful poems, but he was most definitely no “bushie”. (To really see a poet who lived a rough rural life read the story of John Shaw Neilson.) In truth, apart from stints in London and New Zealand, and short stays in Brisbane (a journalism job that only lasted months) and WA (to search for gold), Lawson spent most of his adult life in Sydney trying to earn his living as a writer, an aim that was greatly compromised by his addiction to that most pernicious of drugs, alcohol. Much of his best work was done after a relatively brief journey through western NSW in 1892. And there is a considerable body of opinion that suggests his reputation should rest much more on his short stories than his poetry. Here are some relevant extracts from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (information echoed in other online sources), beginning in late 1891, after his brief sojourn in Brisbane:

“Once again he found himself in Sydney dividing his time between odd jobs, writing and occasional carousing with friends, chief among whom at this time was E. J. Brady. Whether it was a matter of luck or temperament, Lawson seemed unable to attain equilibrium or direction in his writing or his lifestyle. His promising early poems had been followed by a rush of versifying on a wide range of topics, contemporary and reminiscent; and his first published story, 'His Father's Mate' (Bulletin, December 1888), though uneven and sentimental, had given glimpses of his extraordinary ability as a writer of short stories. By 1892 a number of sketches together with the magnificent 'The Drover's Wife' had fully borne out the initial promise. Yet Lawson seemed in a rut: failing to concentrate his energies and gifts much beyond what was required for subsistence, spending more and more time in favourite bars around Sydney. Recognizing something of Lawson's inner faltering, J. F. Archibald suggested he take a trip inland at the Bulletin's expense. With £5 and a rail ticket to Bourke, he set out in September 1892 on what was to be one of the most important journeys of his life.

Much of what Lawson saw in the drought-blasted west of New South Wales during succeeding months appalled him. 'You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here', he wrote to his aunt, 'men tramp and beg and live like dogs'. Nevertheless, the experience at Bourke itself and in surrounding districts through which he carried his swag absolutely overwhelmed him. By the time he returned to civilization, he was armed with memories and experiences—some of them comic but many shattering—that would furnish his writing for years. 'The Bush Undertaker', 'The Union Buries its Dead' and some of the finest of the Mitchell sketches were among the work he produced soon after his return. Short Stories in Prose and Verse, the selection of his work produced by Louisa on the Dawn press in 1894, brought together some of these stories albeit in unprepossessing form and flawed by misprints. But While the Billy Boils (1896) was Lawson's first major short-story collection. It remains one of the great classics of Australian literature.”


Ten years later, in 1902, after returning from London:

“From that time Lawson's personal and creative life entered upon a ghastly decline. A reconciliation with Bertha soon after their return was short lived. In December 1902 he attempted suicide. In April next year Bertha sought and obtained a decree for judicial separation. He wrote a great deal despite his often squalid circumstances but his work alternated between desperate revivals of old themes and inspirations and equally desperate and unsuccessful attempts to break new ground. Maudlin sentimentality and melodrama, often incipient even in some earlier work, invaded both his prose and poetry. Among later books were The Skyline Riders and other Verses (1910); My Army, o my Army! and other Songs (1915); and Triangles of Life and other stories (1913). He was frequently gaoled for failure to pay maintenance for his children and, after 1907, was several times in a mental hospital. Though cared for by the loyal Mrs Byers, he became a frail, haunted and pathetic figure well known on the streets of Sydney; in his writing, images of ghostliness proliferated and increasingly a sense of insubstantiality blurred action and characters. Loyal friends arranged spells at Mallacoota, Victoria, (with Brady) in 1910 and at Leeton in 1916. But his state of mind, physical condition and alcoholism continued to worsen. The Commonwealth Literary Fund granted him £1 a week pension from May 1920. He died of cerebral haemorrhage at Abbotsford on 2 September 1922.

Lawson was something of a legendary figure in his lifetime. Not surprisingly, as dignitaries and others gathered for his state funeral on 4 September, that legend was already beginning to flourish in various exotic ways. The result was that some of his achievements were inflated—he became known, for example, as a great poet—and others obscured. Lawson's reputation must rest on his stories and on a relatively small group of them: While the Billy Boils, the Joe Wilson quartet of linked, longer stories and certain others lying outside these (among them, 'The Loaded Dog', 'Telling Mrs Baker' and 'The Geological Spieler'). In these he shows himself not only a master of short fiction but also a writer of peculiarly modern tendency. The prose is spare, cut to the bone, the plot is either slight or non-existent. Skilfully modulated reticence makes even the barest and shortest sketches seem excitingly full of possibility, alive with options and potential insights. A stunning example is 'On the Edge of a Plain' but almost any Mitchell sketch from While the Billy Boils exemplifies these qualities.”


And finally, as a sort of summary:

“The decline of his creative ability, as it were before his very eyes, in the years from about 1902 onwards (though the malaise is traceable earlier than that in, for example, On the Track and Over the Sliprails) was one of the great tragedies of Lawson's troubled life. Too much evidence exists to show with what deep and continued seriousness he aspired to be a memorable writer for his artistic decline to be regarded in any less important light. To this disaster were added personal crosses—deafness, a marital failure that deeply grieved him—which even a stronger temperament would have found hard to withstand. That he managed to dredge out of disadvantage, adversity and often appalling hardship so many magnificent stories is testimony to a toughness and determination that he is perhaps not often enough given credit for.”

David

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Stephen Whiteside
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Fri May 13, 2016 1:17 pm

Good points, David.

His childhood could largely be said to have been spent in "the bush", couldn't it? I remember reading about "The Old Bark School" that his father had a hand in bringing into fruition. Also, I seem to remember he spent some time working in the bush - or perhaps the city fringe - with his dad as a young man.

The evidence would seem to suggest that short stories were his preferred form. A lot of his poetry is pretty rough around the edges. He does not seem to have the technical facility of Paterson or Dennis, and probably only wrote verse because everybody else was, and it was so popular.

I know George Robertson was keen for him to write a novel, and the collection of short stories published as "Joe Wilson and his Mates" (or something similar) was the closest he ever got to doing, but over the years they have tended to be published out of order, which detracts from their overall sense of cohesion. He is a beautiful writer of short stories, though, and was quite radical for his day inasmuch as many of his stories contained very little in the way of plot. He was inclined to describe them as "sketches" rather than stories.

It is easy to dismiss him as a drunk, but he was incredibly productive for somebody supposedly dominated by alcohol. It is probably true that the alcohol only really started to get the better of him in the last couple of decades of his life. There were almost certainly periods in his life when he wrote all through the night while everybody else was sleeping. He was tremendously hard working and ambitious as a young man, and had genuine ambitions to stride the world stage - hence the trip to London. Yes, I am sure we only ever saw a fraction of his true potential.
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Neville Briggs » Fri May 13, 2016 2:43 pm

Thanks for putting that up David. It is something worth reading.

I guess that goes to show that Henry Lawson was a member of that tumultuous and inconsistent species called the human race.

For me one of the highlights of Lawson's poetry is Up the Country ( his honest no romance view of the bush ).
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by David Campbell » Fri May 13, 2016 4:33 pm

Yes, Stephen, the family spent some of his childhood years chasing gold around Mudgee, and in 1873 they took up a selection at a place called Pipeclay Creek, where he began school. He did some work with his father (a building contractor) as a teenager, but in 1883 his parents separated and Henry moved to Sydney with his mother, so from age 16 onwards he was mostly Sydney-based, and it was the 1892 trek that formed the basis for most of his writing about “the bush”. He did have periods of abstinence, but inevitably fell off the wagon, and, despite the prolific output, we can only wonder what he might have produced had he remained sober.

In terms of versatility and natural ability as a poet I’d rate Dennis ahead of Paterson and Lawson. You’ve only got to look at the range of his work…The Sentimental Bloke, The Moods of Ginger Mick, The Glugs of Gosh, his children’s poems, and all those topical pieces for the Herald…to see that he leaves the other two splashing in his wake.

Neville, Lawson’s great strength, particularly in the stories, was his ability to counter Paterson’s relatively romantic view of rural life with a hefty dose of reality.

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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Maureen K Clifford » Fri May 13, 2016 5:51 pm

His unhappy marriage and loss of contact with his kids may well have turned him to drink.

In 1896, he married Bertha Bredt Jr., daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha. However after the marriage ended Lawson was deeply depressed and perpetually poor, reduced to begging at Circular Quay. He lacked money due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers. His ex-wife repeatedly reported him for non-payment of child maintenance, resulting in gaol terms. He was gaoled at Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of alimony, and recorded his experience in the haunting poem "One Hundred and Three."

At this time, Lawson became withdrawn, alcoholic, and unable to carry on the usual routine of life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwk-5z1GsOY

Mrs Byers (nee Ward) who was his landlady was an excellent poet herself and although of modest education, had been writing vivid poetry since her teens in a similar style to Lawson's. Long separated from her husband and elderly, Mrs Bryers was, at the time she met Lawson, a woman of independent means looking forward to retirement. Bryers regarded Lawson as Australia's greatest living poet, and hoped to sustain him well enough to keep him writing. She negotiated on his behalf with publishers, helped to arrange contact with his children, contacted friends and supporters to help him financially, and assisted and nursed him through his mental and alcohol problems. She wrote countless letters on his behalf and knocked on any doors that could provide Henry with financial assistance or a publishing deal.

It was in Mrs Isabella Bryers' home that Henry Lawson died, of cerebral haemorrhage, in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922.
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Shelley » Fri May 13, 2016 6:47 pm

Thanks David and all responders - it certainly is interesting to review Henry Lawson's life in light of the times he lived in and the work he produced. One wonders if his life might have taken a different turn, had his early romance with (Dame) Mary Gilmore prospered!

In regard to the Great Bulletin Debate (which began with Lawson's Up the Country), I found the following information, including what Banjo Paterson wrote about the supposed "war of words" between himself and Lawson ...

On 9 July 1892, Lawson published a poem in The Bulletin entitled "Up The Country". In this poem (beginning with the verse "I am back from up the country—very sorry that I went,—"), Lawson attacked the typical "romanticised" view of bush life.

On 23 July 1892, Paterson published his reply to Lawson's poem, titled "In Defense of the Bush". Whilst Lawson had accused writers such as Paterson of being "City Bushmen", Paterson countered by claiming that Lawson's view of the bushlife was full of doom and gloom. He appropriately finished his poem with the line "For the bush will never suit you, and you'll never suit the bush." Other Australian writers, such as Edward Dyson, also later contributed to the debate.

In 1939, Banjo Paterson recalled his thoughts about the Bulletin debate:

Henry Lawson was a man of remarkable insight in some things and of extraordinary simplicity in others. We were both looking for the same reef, if you get what I mean; but I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me, while Lawson has done his prospecting on foot and had had to cook for himself. Nobody realized this better than Lawson; and one day he suggested that we should write against each other, he putting the bush from his point of view, and I putting it from mine.

"We ought to do pretty well out of it," he said. "We ought to be able to get in three or four sets of verses before they stop us."

This suited me all right, for we were working on space, and the pay was very small ... so we slam-banged away at each other for weeks and weeks; not until they stopped us, but until we ran out of material.
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Vic Jefferies » Sat May 14, 2016 9:19 am

Professor Colin Roderick has written and edited a number of books concerning the life of Lawson and his work and I thoroughly recommend them to anyone interested in researching or learning about Henry.

Mental illness played a large part in Henry's life, his mother Louisa died in a mental asylum, his wife Bertha suffered severely while they were in England and behaved very badly when aboard the ship bringing her back to Australia and Henry suffered as well.

His profound deafness certainly affected his life style and is said to have resulted in him becoming extremely withdrawn and possibly contributing to his drinking problem.

A complex man who never the less is without doubt one of our greatest poets and authors.

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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Stephen Whiteside » Sat May 14, 2016 11:04 am

Yes, I read "The Grey Dreamer" by Denton Prout. That's a great book, too.
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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Terry » Sat May 14, 2016 1:49 pm

I suppose one thing Henry did have, was that his poetry reached out and touched the man in the street,
and there were a lot more of them than there were critics.

And it still does to some extent today.

That said, I still enjoyed reading the comments made on his life - you can always glean little snippets you hadn't known before.

Terry

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Re: Henry Lawson...myth and reality

Post by Heather » Sat May 14, 2016 5:14 pm

Colin Roderick's biography Henry Lawson, is well worth reading. It is comprehensive, but is a bit of a slog to get through. I think it's a good idea to read about the life of any poet if you want to understand their poetry. I read a book about Henry Kendall years ago and it explained quite a few of his poems to me. Another poet dogged by mental illness and family tragedy.

Henry's mental illness and the booze dogged him most of his life. From memory, his suicide attempt was not long after the death of Hannah (surname escapes me - I'll look it up). She was probably the love of his life - not Mary Gilmore.

Henry doesn't always get his meter right and he uses half rhymes, but the thing i like about his poetry over Paterson, is that i "feel" it and "believe" it. Henry had the soul of a poet.

I recently read a book about Mary Gilmore and her sojurn to South America. It was a time of poverty and struggle for her. Can't say I've ever read a poem of hers that i like!

Heather :)

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