Saturday, September 22, 2007

Henry Lawson's "Faces in the Street" - setting a context

Rereading Neil's Friday poem post on Henry Lawson's Faces in the Street and especially the poem itself as well as my initial response, I have changed my mind on approach.

I said that I might disagree with Neil's interpretation. I am not sure that's true. Rather, I thought that I might try my hand at putting the poem in a broader context.

For the benefit of international readers, Henry Lawson is one of Australia's most famous writers. His poems and especially his short stories - I think that his short stories are far better than his poems - were staple fare for generations of Australians. His turbulent life including his battles with alcohol also helped, making him a figure of legend.

According to the entry by Brian Mathews in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Henry Lawson was born in 1867 at Grenfell in NSW, the son of Neils (Peter) Larsen and his wife Louisa.

Norwegian born, Larsen had jumped ship in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rushes. There he met and married Louisa Albury in 1866. Louisa was a remarkable women, one who occupies her own place in Australian history.

Henry was a frail, moody and somewhat introverted child, cut off from others, distressed by the growing troubles in his parent's marriage. Already slightly deaf, at fourteen he suffered a sharp deterioration in his hearing that left him further cut off from the world.

Henry's schooling was limited and interrupted. In 1880 he left school, working initially with his father on local contract building jobs. Then in 1883 he moved to Sydney to join his mother where he was apprenticed as a coach painter and studied at night towards his matriculation.

His troubles moved with him. He was no happier and failed his exams. However, he had also begun to write. His first poem was published in the Bulletin in October 1887.

Now I want to go back to Faces in the Street. This poem was published in July 1888. Henry was twenty one. I make this point because while I pointed out to Neil in my initial response that 1888 was still boom time, something that Neil himself recognised as his comment on my post makes clear, I myself misread the poem through a frame set by my knowledge of later developments.

This is in fact a somewhat raw young man's poem. I like it better for that reason. It is also a poem of revolution.

But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet

Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street —

The dreadful everlasting strife

For scarcely clothes and meat

In that pent track of living death — the city’s cruel street.

The nineteenth century was a time of great political and intellectual turmoil. This was the century that saw the emergence of the various socialist movements, the publication in 1848 of the Communist Manifesto, the foundation of the communist movement.

These ideas spread around the world, taking various forms in various countries, including the Australasian colonies.

There is not room here, nor do I have the knowledge, to trace all the details of this spread. Very broadly, within the British Empire (then the world's leading political and economic power) the outcomes were more pluralist, more gradualist, less ideological and hard edged than in continental Europe.

This may seem hard to believe if you read some of the writing of the time from the radical left on one side, the very conservative right on the other. Or if you look at the detail of the political and industrial strife of the 1890's. Yet, at least as I see it, in this varying mix of ideas and idealism there was a melding of thought in the Australasian colonies that formed one core component of Australian political and social thought during much of the twentieth century.

In Henry's case, his move to Sydney where his mother had purchased the Republican brought him in contact with his mother's radical friends and inspired him with radical and republican ideas. His first published poem was called A Song of the Republic. This was also the world of Dame Mary Gilmore who featured in Neil's previous poem.

Two years older than Henry, Mary Gilmore came from a very similar country, small farming, background. They became friends and indeed may have been unofficially engaged at one point.

I find it interesting that both became such iconic figures, even among those who disagreed with them in political terms. Henry Lawson himself was very lucky in his friends and supporters, including such unlikely figures as the governor of NSW Earl Beauchamp who helped pay for his trip to England.

In all, I am glad that Neil selected him for his Friday Poet. I wonder who he will select next?

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