Tag Archives: Henry Lawson

In Defence of the Bush

I’ve mentioned both Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, and shared some of their poetry. The two poets were friends and both contributed to the Sydney Bulletin. However, they took different stances on the outback–at least partly in fun, to stir up discussion on the topic. Lawson traveled in some of the same areas Paterson did, but wrote rather scathingly about it, in contrast to Paterson’s generally adoring outlook. Paterson penned the following to let Lawson know that he disagreed. In response to this “argument” between Paterson and Lawson, other poets of the day jumped into the versified “discussion.”

As a note to those who aren’t acquainted with some items of British or Australian slang: lemon-squash would be lemonade, a selector would be roughly the equivalent of a homesteader, and “push” was slang for “gang,” the Sydney Push being a notorious gang of the time. And for Americans, “defence” is the British spelling of “defense.”

In Defence of the Bush
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson

So you’re back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you’re cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn’t cool and shady — and there wasn’t whips of beer,
And the looney bullock snorted when you first came into view —
Well, you know it’s not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you’re better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.
Yet, perchance, if you should journey down the very track you went
In a month or two at furthest, you would wonder what it meant;
Where the sunbaked earth was gasping like a creature in itts pain
You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,
And the miles of thirsty gutters, blocked with sand and choked with mud,
You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood.
For the rain and drought and sunshine make no changes in the street,
In the sullen line of buildings and the ceaseless tramp of feet;
But the bush has moods and changes, as the seasons rise and fall,
And the men who know the bush-land — they are loyal through it all.

But you found the bush was dismal and a land of no delight —
Did you chance to hear a chorus in the shearers’ huts at night?
Did they “rise up William Riley” by the camp-fire’s cheery blaze?
Did they rise him as we rose him in the good old droving days?
And the women of the homesteads and the men you chanced to meet —
Were their faces sour and saddened like the “faces in the street”?
And the “shy selector children” — were they better now or worse
Than the little city urchins who would greet you with a curse?
Is not such a life much better than the squalid street and square
Where the fallen women flaunt it in the fierce electric glare,
Wher the sempstress plies her needle till her eyes are sore and red
In a filthy, dirty attic toiling on for daily bread?
Did you hear no sweeter voices in the music of the bush
Than the roar of trams and buses, and the war-whoop of “the push”?
Did the magpies rouse your slumbers with their carol sweet and strange?
Did you hear the silver chiming of the bell-birds on the range?
But, perchance, the wild birds’ music by your senses was despised,
For you say you’ll stay in townships till the bush is civilized.
Would you make it a tea-garden, and on Sundays have a band
Where the “blokes” might take their “donahs”, with a “public” close at hand?
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,
For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.

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Henry Lawson

Australia has always been a place where writers were valued, and where writers were often also quite adventurous. I’ve introduced you to Adam Lindsay Gordon, who preferred to be known as a daring horseman than as a poet (and he is indeed remembered for both) and A.B. “Banjo” Paterson, who celebrated life in the bush. Another of the important early writers in Australia was Henry Lawson.

Unlike Paterson and Gordon, Lawson was as famous for his short stories as for his poems. The son of Norwegian immigrants who came to Australia in 1855 during the gold rush, Lawson was born in 1867. His family might most generously be described as dysfunctional and generally in financial straits, his education was uneven and frequently interrupted, and a serious illness when he was 10 left him partially deaf. He was brilliant but usually lonely. Both because of the hardships he experienced as he grew up, and because of his experiences as an adult during a particularly horrific drought, Lawson’s works and his view of the outback tend not to be as upbeat as those of Paterson in particular.

Lawson was immensely popular in his day and is still considered one of Australia’s greatest writers. Reading poems and short stories aloud was a common entertainment in the mining camps, cattle camps, and small towns of the late 1800s, and Lawson’s works were among the most commonly read. The humorous short story “The Loaded Dog” was among the most popular then and today is considered an Australian classic.

While they disagreed in their estimation of the bush, and occasionally sparred in verse on the topic, Lawson shared with Paterson an admiration for the hard-working, give-it-a-go Australians who people their world. That admiration is reflected in the following poem, which also reminds us that Lawson was living during an era when Australia was still being opened up and settled.

An Australian Advertisement

WE WANT the man who will lead the van,
The man who will pioneer.
We have no use for the gentleman,
Or the cheating Cheap-Jack here;
We have no room for the men who shirk
The sweat of the brow. Condemn
The men who are frightened to look for work
And funk when it looks for them.

We’ll honour the man who can’t afford
To wait for a job that suits,
But sticks a swag on his shoulders broad
And his feet in blucher boots,
And tramps away o’er the ridges far
And over the burning sand
To look for work where the stations are
In the lonely Western land.

He’ll brave the drouth and he’ll brave the rain,
And fight his sorrows down,
And help to garden the inland plain
And build the inland town;
And he’ll be found in the coming years
With a heart as firm and stout,
An honoured man with the pioneers
Who lead the people out.

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Filed under Australia, History, Literature, Poetry