We meet here to offer a tribute of gratitude and affection to the life and work of one of our most dearly loved Australians. Academic practitioners of letters concern themselves with the appraisal of Henry Lawson. It has been their preoccupation through the years to measure him by standard yardsticks and to lean heavily on sticks wielded by men overseas who have known literature, but sometimes have not known Australia.
That is to have only half the numbers on the slate, for it has been demonstrated that a writer here can attain to accepted or current standards in his work without contributing a tittle to Australian literature.
The ablest, the most percipient of Lawson’s critics has said: ‘His prose is that of a writer who represents a continent.’ By that Lawson has earned the right to the silver trumpets of oratory. The orators and silver trumpets will come with time. To-day I attempt nothing beyond a humble personal tribute to Henry Lawson in relation to Australia—a homely and happy privilege. No Australian who has wrestled with the ardors and subtleties of resolving this continent in terms of literature will discount Henry Lawson. Few have equalled him: none has yet excelled him. His achievement remains unique.
This monument, on this lovely site, as well as the other memorial at Eurunderee, and the one at Mudgee, are part of the recognition which time is bringing to Henry Lawson. Such monuments, alas, too often are a saving of face by the living in regard to the neglected dead. We cannot gloze the fact of an element of that in such monuments to Henry Lawson; but with his divine understanding of human frailty, his gentle sympathy for its short-comings, he would have understood. He would graciously accept our offerings. His spirit would have kindly humor for those imaginary half-crowns contributed by old mates who never saw him. He would chuckle sardonically about them as a touching, if grotesque, outcropping of that mateship which was the Lawson philosophy, and which has become one of this Commonwealth’s worthiest traditions.
First among Lawson’s achievements was this embodying of the tradition of mateship. Secondly, he was one of the most powerful of that band which in the ‘nineties helped Australians to a realisation of their country. He quickened their instinctive reaction towards it. To remain unrooted in the soil of one’s permanent residence is to be for ever a prey to nostalgia—a drug so potent, that uncontrolled it can enervate purpose and defer destiny.
The literary artist is an illuminator. Henry Lawson lighted lamps for us in a vast and lonely habitat. I want you to comeback to the ‘nineties to recall what Lawson meant to the adolescents of that day.
At concerts and other gatherings, now superannuated by the radio, youthful reciters used to let off steam and thrill to such a stanza as:
England’s sun was slowly setting o’er the hilltops far away,
Filling all the land with beauty at the close of one sad day.
Lawson retracted that nostalgic vision and the nostalgia too, perhaps, but at least he brought it home. He recalled the far-flung homesickness of the generations which had remained exiled. He made them see Australia’s sunsets. ‘One day old Trooper Campbell rode out to Blackman’s run, his cap peak and his sabre were gleaming in the sun.’ It may have been ‘the sad heart-breaking sunset to the new chum worst of all,’ or the sunset of the tramp who:
As a bullock drags in the sandy ruts he followed the dreary track
With never a thought but to reach the huts when the sun went down out back.
Lawson felt and emphasised drought and hardship, loneliness and failure.
Desolation where the crow is! Desolation where the eagle flies
Paddocks were the luny bullock starts and stares with reddened eyes.
But adolescence revels in tragedy so long as it is vicarious. Literature translates tragedy into pathos and a channel for emotion. Youth must have nourishment for its emotions and channels for all its glorious capacity for passion and pain and joy and sentimentality.
So with Lawson:
We wondered who would win her as she said her sweet goodbyes
But she died at one-and-twenty and was buried on the rise.
We were thrilled and gooey over the fate of Harry Dale, and ‘Someone’s heart still bleeds in sorrow for the drover who sleeps amid the reeds’.
It was rapture, it was ecstasy in the grand new discovery of our own sun to see it setting red and real and near at hand among our own trees on the ridge behind the stockyard, or to run to the top of the ridge to see it retreating over the blue-green ranges, where the mokepokes would soon be calling in the misty moonlight. Henry Lawson gave us this kingdom for our own, wove it so that we could feel it around us with the comfort of a blanket on fire-warmed nights. The warmth and tenderness of his writing made it vital so that he helped to give us a cosy mother country.
Noble though that other Motherland had been, and remains Lawson himself has paid the English tradition a poet’s homage in ‘England Yet!’—noble though that Motherland remains, nevertheless in Lawson’s illuminating communication Australia emerged as something nearer and more personal in the way of parent earth.
The rich implications of what Lawson and his colleagues articulated remain with cumulative results. Lawson invested the intangibles of atmosphere with reality.
Young imaginations dote on slogans and phrases—slang is mostly the gift of the young to the language. There was magic in finding our own idiom in print. There it was, dressed in the authority of book covers which before had sheltered only forests and woods, brooks and meadows. Like Henry Lawson in ‘The Old Bark School’, we too had undergone expatriate information:
And Ireland—that was known from the coast-line to Athlone
But little of the land that gave us birth…
Due to Lawson and his colleagues, now enjoying their literary rights were the gums, the bush, the creek: gully and spur and sideling: the paddock, the stockyard, the sliprails. We were on the track, and burning off down in the gully; hobble chains and campware were jingling to a tune.
The lingo of everyday was endearingly setting-out familiar properties—a heady feast that could not be spoiled by any spectres at the board. The spectres were conquered by this releasing expression. School girls and boys in the bush copied into exercise books the Lawson poems that came their way and chanted and droned them by heart. We didn’t elide and suppress the rhymed words as if they were illegitimate children to be shamefully denied. We stressed them and revelled in them honestly and got the full worth of them as one of the most seductive and arduously cultivated of linguistic devices.
When I was in my tens and teens, Henry Lawson was a hero glamorous with success. He had all of sympathy, all of glory that youthful adoration could bestow. In that wonderland that was opening to us we were unaware of the struggles of literary geniuses. We could judge only by the literary product, and that enchanted us.
We were sure that if we could see Henry Lawson he would understand our every delight, our every aspiration, our every growing pain of discontent. He was a superman—the perfect big brother of our dreams.
With this conception of Henry Lawson it was inevitable that I should reach him with my literary growing pains. The result is part of the Lawson legend. With your indulgence I should like to add my recollection of Henry Lawson in the flesh.
What is so rare to critical, exacting, over-sensitive youth, he fulfilled my expectations of him, and more. I remember my first sight of him. He was beautifully dressed. His linen was irreproachable. He was tall and slim, with exceptional physical beauty. The beauty of his eyes is also part of his legend. His manner—it had that sensitive warmth, that winning gentleness, that understanding—well, Lawson was as Lawson wrote. You had not to work up to friendliness with him: he was spontaneously a mate. He called on me, alone, he said, with a humorous smile skimming across his features, to find out what sort of an animal I was—whether a mate or a mere miss. He would come next day to take me to his wife.
The Lawsons were then living in a most delightful cottage with its garden paths embowered in shrubs. Mrs. Lawson was equally up to expectation in her friendliness, her youthfulness, her beauty.
Henry Lawson was then at the height of his powers. He was preparing for the inevitable hegira to London. This lent additional romance to his doings. He was rising to increasing renown and surely it must be accompanied by prosperity.
He went to London.
I came down from the bush and saw him again on his return.
I recall the last time I saw him. He and his family were waving good-bye to me from the wharf as I boarded a ferry. No family group could have excelled it in charm: the beauty of the parents
was repeated in the two children. No other portrait of Henry Lawson has for me ever overlaid my own. Nothing blurs it nor detracts from it. It was etched indelibly by the clear-cutting mind of youth.
I never saw Henry Lawson again. I too left Australia. When I returned, the earth that Australian earth cleansed of history by an oblivion of fallowhood, lay kind upon him who had helped to give it national significance.
I had no more than settled in the house after the bustle of arrival before my mother said, ‘You must see where they have laid your friend, Henry Lawson. I’ll take you to-morrow.’
No one can estimate what Henry Lawson may mean to the future of this country: what will be the fate of small national groups in the post-war order no prophet can say. But having succeeded in our military struggle, if we shall be able to retain here in this isolated paradise of the Pacific our continuing Australian identity, then Lawson’s fame will be sure with the years. Our indebtedness to him will increase because he has rendered this continent. He has helped to make Australia ours in a way that no system of land exploitation nor even droughts and floods and pests can take it from us a great gift from a greatly gifted man
This address was delivered at the Lawson statue, Outer Domain, Sydney, on September 5, 1942, at the annual ceremony arranged by the Fellowship of Australian Writers, in commemoration of Lawson.