Thursday, 6 June 2013

POET OF THE MONTH #6: Henry Lawson



Now up and down the sidling brown
  The great black crows are flyin',
And down the below the spur, I know,
  Another milker's dyin';
The crops have withered from the ground,
  The tank's clay bed is glarin',
But from my heart no tear nor sound,
  For I have got past carin'––
    Past worryin' or carin'––
    Past feelin' aught or carin';
    But from my heart no tear nor sound,
    For I have got past carin'.

Through Death and Trouble, turn about,
  Through hopeless desolation,
Through flood and fever, fire and drought,
  And slavery and starvation;
Through childbirth, sickness, hurt, and blight,
  And nervousness an' scarin',
Through bein' left alone at night,
  I've come to be past carin'.
    Past botherin' or carin',
    Past feelin' and past carin';
    Through city cheats and neighbours' spite,
    I've come to be past carin'.

Our first child took, in days like these,
  A cruel week in dyin',
All day upon her father's knees,
  Or on my poor breast lyin';
The tears we shed –– the prayers we said
  Were awful, wild –– despairin'!
I've pulled three through and buried two
  Since then –– and I'm past carin'.
    I've grown to be past carin',
    Past lookin' up or carin';
    I've pulled three through and buried two
    Since then, and I'm past carin'.

'Twas ten years first, then came the worst,
  All for a barren clearin'.
I thought, I thought my heart would burst
  When first my man went shearin';
He's drovin' in the great North-west,
  I don't know how he's farin';
And I, the one that loved him best,
  Have grown to be past carin'.
    I've grown to be past carin',
    Past wantin' and past wearin':
    The girl that waited long ago
    Has lived to be past carin'.

My eyes are dry, I cannot cry,
  I've got no heart for breakin',
But where it was, in days gone by,
  A dull and empty achin'.
My last boy ran away from me ––
  I know my temper's wearin' ––
But now I only wish to be
  Beyond all signs of carin'.
    Past wearyin' or carin',
    Past feelin' and despairin';
    And now I only wish to be
    Beyond all signs of carin'.

(c. May 1899)

The Poet:  The astonishing fact about Australian bush poet, short story writer and journalist Henry Lawson is not that he was able to write so much but that he was able to get any writing done at all.  His life was one of almost unrelieved hardship, much of it self-inflicted due to his chronic alcoholism and his inability to reconcile what was a genuinely artistic nature with the personal discipline required to make a steady living from his work.

Lawson was born in the western New South Wales town of Grenfell on 17 June 1867, the son of a thirty-two year old Norwegian-born sailor turned 'selector' (farmer) named Niels Hertzburg Larsen and his eighteen year old wife Louisa (née Albury).  Lawson was a sickly, introspective, hyper-sensitive child who grew up hating farm life and feeling haunted by the gradual deterioration of his parents' marriage, a process not aided by his father's frequent absences from the family home while he searched in vain for gold in the mining towns of eastern Australia.  He did not attend school until the age of nine – thanks to his strong-willed mother and her efforts to have a 'slab and bark' school opened in the nearby town of Eurunderee –– and was already partially deaf by the age of fourteen thanks to an untreated ear infection which had gradually been allowed to worsen over time.  His deafness further isolated him, reinforcing the belief, which remained with him for the rest of his life, that he was doomed to be eternally misunderstood, undervalued and ridiculed by his fellow human beings.  Despite this, he formed a bond of sorts with his teacher, who encouraged him in his ambition to one day become a writer

Lawson's schooling, what little of it he received, ended in 1880 when he began to work full-time with his father as a contract builder in and around the town of Mudgee and then in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  In the meantime his parents separated, Louisa abandoning their never prosperous selection to take Lawson's younger sister and brother to live in Sydney, where she rented a small house on Phillip Street and eventually became a published poet and co-founder of The Republican, one of the city's many anti-monarchist newspaper.  Louisa wanted her eldest son to join her in the city and in 1883 Lawson complied, finding himself a job as an apprentice coach painter in a Sydney carriage factory while he spent his evenings at night school in the hope of one day attending university.  He failed the university entrance exam twice and spent the next few years continuing to work in carriage factories and sometimes as a house painter, where, in his words, he 'fretted, chafed, and nearly worried my soul-case out about "wasted time".'

By 1887, following a frustrating stay at the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne which failed to cure his deafness, Lawson turned, as his mother now had, to writing to earn himself a living.  His first published poem, A Song of the Republic, appeared in the nationally distributed news magazine The Bulletin in October of that year.  Several pieces of journalism also appeared under his name in Louisa's newspaper but it would be the poems and short stories that began to appear regularly in The Bulletin –– including important early poems like The Faces in the Street and Andy's Gone With Cattle, stories like His Father's Mate and his later masterpiece The Drover's Wife –– that would establish his reputation as Australia's premier 'bush poet' and the rival of the magazine's other great star, the very differently constructed AB 'Banjo' Paterson.  Paterson wrote about an idealized Australian 'outback' where women were mostly invisible and men were either lovable larrikins or brave, resilient stockmen striving to impose their will on an untamed and unforgiving country.  Lawson, on the other hand, was more interested in showing his readers the romanticized world of Paterson's 'bush' as it really was –– a dangerous, hostile, poverty-stricken, often oppressively lonely place for those, especially women, whose economic circumstances obliged them to make their homes in it. 

Success did not solve the problem of Lawson's difficult, self-destructive nature or make him any more adept at handling money or responsibility than he had previously been.  Drinking more and more heavily, he seemed, by 1892, to be content to repeat and even parody himself –– a career-threatening tendency that his friend JF Archibald, the owner of The Bulletin (and patron of Australia's most famous prize for portraiture), sought to cure him of by buying him a £5 railway ticket to the remote New South Wales town of Bourke, then in the grip of a savage, economy-crippling drought.  Archibald's gamble paid off.  What Lawson witnessed in Bourke and the surrounding districts over the next few months provided much of the material for what's now regarded as some of his best and most characteristic work, much of it, including what were to become the iconic stories The Bush Undertaker and The Union Buries Its Dead, reprinted in his first book, While The Billy Boils, a collection published by the Sydney firm of Angus and Robertson in 1896.  However, Lawson's return to the city saw him immediately re-adopt his former, self-destructive habits, causing him to abandon the city again in 1894 for what he hoped would be a cleaner, soberer life in rural New Zealand.  Unfortunately, his return to Australia, in July 1894, saw him once again hitting the bottle heavily in the company of new 'literary' friends like poet Victor Daley and scholar J Le Gay Brereton.   

On 15 April 1896 Lawson married Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, daughter of Sydney socialist bookseller Bertha Bredt.  He was eleven years older than his bride and by now a confirmed alcoholic, but this did not prevent him fathering two children by Bertha or dragging his young family to the goldfields of Western Australia and then to an isolated Maori community in New Zealand where he worked briefly, and again unsuccessfully, as a teacher.  The imminent birth of the couple's second child saw them back in Sydney by November 1897, where an increasingly restless Lawson soon decided he would only find the fame, recognition and financial stability he craved by moving to London.  For the next three years, while he continued to write and publish further collections of poetry and stories, he curbed his drinking and lobbied friends and supporters for the money required to finance his journey.  On 20 April 1900, all four members of the Lawson family set sail for the English capital and the promise of what they no doubt desperately needed to believe would be a better, more secure life.

While Lawson did achieve a small amount of success in England –– gaining a prestigious agent in JB Pinker (who already represented Henry James, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells among other notable clients), the support of influential literary critic Edward Garnett, publication of two short story collections by the prestigious British firm of Blackwoods –– his stay there was neither a happy nor a finanically rewarding one.  Bertha suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to Bethlem Royal Hospital for three months in early 1901, while his long-cherished dream of finding a more appreciative audience for his work in 'the old country' soon proved to be as groundless as every other ill-conceived pipedream he'd blithely staked his family's future happiness upon.  Oppressed by the climate and the necessity of churning out copy to help pay his ever-mounting bills, he sent Bertha back to Australia in April 1902 and rejoined her there four months later.  The marriage was by now in serious trouble and they separated shortly after his return –– a circumstance which, along with his continued heavy drinking, resulted in a failed suicide attempt on Sydney's Manly Beach in December 1902.

Drawing of LAWSON by his friend HAL GYE
The final twenty years of Lawson's life were certainly his saddest.  Legally separated from his wife, a hopeless drunk who often lived in conditions of great poverty and squalor, his work began to decline in quality, quantity and popularity, forcing him to rely more and more on the charity of friends –– including that of his former rival Banjo Paterson –– merely in order to survive.  He served several sentences in Sydney's Darlinghurst Gaol for failing to pay Bertha the child support she was entitled to and was hospitalized in 1907 following the first of what became many mental breakdowns, each of which was progressively more debilitating than the last.  He became obsessed with ghosts and began, in the eyes of many of his friends, to resemble a ghost himself – a gaunt, emaciated figure who haunted the city's bars like the spirit of an already forgotten time in his nation's brief but turbulent history.  He was granted a £1 per week pension by the trustees of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1920 but the money did him little good.  He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in 1922 and, though he recovered sufficiently to leave hospital and continue writing, died in a cottage in the Sydney suburb of Abbotsford a few months later while working on a new short story, watched over by his faithful housekeeper Isabel Byers who, along with many of his friends, had tried in vain to keep him off the bottle.  The Commonwealth Government granted him the honour of a state funeral in recognition of the significant contribution he and his work had made to the establishment of what it deemed to be a truly 'Australian' literature.

Fortunately, Lawson's legacy did not die with him.  His poems and stories enjoyed something of a revival following his death and he's now considered the preeminent writer of Australia's (exclusively white) Colonial past, his best work seeming to embody not only the spirit but also the physical and emotional barrenness of those rugged, far-off days.  As Brian Matthews so perceptively wrote of him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography:  'Though not a symbolist writer, Lawson had the capacity to endow accurately observed documentary detail with a significance beyond its physical reality: the drover's wife burning the snake (The Drover's Wife); the black goanna dying "in violent convulsions on the ground" (The Bush Undertaker); the "hard dry Darling River clods" clattering on to the coffin of the unknown drover (The Union Buries Its Dead) are seemingly artless yet powerful Lawsonian moments which, in context, transform simple surface realism into intimations about the mysteries, the desperations and the tragedies of ordinary and anonymous lives.

Click HERE to visit THE HENRY LAWSON MEMORIAL AND LITERARY SOCIETY, an organization founded in 1923 by 'a committee of like-minded individuals who share an interest in the life of Henry Lawson and Australian Literature.You can also click HERE to learn more about THE HENRY LAWSON FESTIVAL held each June in the town of Grenfell, the poet's birthplace in western New South Wales.  Those interested in reading and downloading eBook versions of LAWSON's work, including all his best known poems and stories, can do so for free at Project Gutenberg Australia.

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