Henry Lawson, “Our Poet Laureate”

Henry Lawson, “Our Poet Laureate”

On the morning of 2 September 1922, Henry Hertzberg Lawson died, aged 55 years, of cerebral haemorrhage in Abbotsford, at the home of his dear friend and housekeeper, Isabel Byers.

He was given a state funeral; the first person to be granted a NSW state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) on the grounds of having been a ‘distinguished citizen’). He was interred at Waverley Cemetery and is celebrated in the Botanic Gardens with a bronze statue. Money was raised through public donation to commission the statue by sculptor G.W. Lambert. He was also the subject of an Australian stamp in 1949 and was featured on the first (paper) Australian ten dollar note issued in 1966.

An account of Henry Lawson’s life was written on the day of his death by Arthur H. Adams, and was published in The Sun (Sydney) on the same day.  The following excerpts have been taken from that publication.

HENRY LAWSON, “Our Poet Laureate”

Henry Hertzberg Lawson, the unappointed poet-laureate of Australia, died this morning at Abbotsford, He had been in indifferent health for some considerable time, and recently a paralytic stroke left him considerably weakened and with nothing to do but wait for the end.

Alive, he was a figure inconspicuous and unnoticed in a world that cared little for poetry. He was a child with a singing soul in a world of business men. He was that intrusive, and therefore incomprehensible thing, a true poet. He went his ways, wrapped in his deafness and his dreams, along the lonely tracks outback, along the crowded Sydney streets lonelier to him amid the throng than the solemn immensities of the sun-burnt plain. His voice was low, his soul was sad, his fine and mournful eyes looked out with a child’s wistfulness at this strange world.Now that he has written “Finis” to his work in prose and poetry it is possible to estimate his claim on the nation’s remembrance. More than one critic has claimed for him the proud place of our greatest national poet. His works have attracted the attention of critics overseas, and have been translated into several European languages. Professor Saillens, of the University of Paris, claims for him “a genuine comprehension of what is deeply and eternally human.” He was, above all, an Interpreter of Australia. He was a poet who was in the best sense a realist. He was the most typical figure produced in Australian literature.

To those who love literature some of his songs are household words, and some of his characters are as alive as those of Dickens. The simplicity of his method needs no emphasis; but those who wish to recall what poignancy can be put into a little set of verses, telling a simple story, as old as civilisation, should read again “The Sliprails and the Spur”. And those who wish to glimpse the soul of the man should read the autography of his schoolboy days and life in the humpy at Pipeclay that he wrote in “The Lone Hand” in 1908.

It was in a tent on the goldfields near Grenfell that on June 17, 1867, a boy was born. He was named Henry Hertzberg Lawson. His father was a Norwegian sailor, whose name was Peter Hertzberg Larsen, and who left his ship at Melbourne, attracted by the gold rush. He wandered from one diggings to another, and married Louisa Albury, the daughter of a man from Kent who boasted of gypsy blood in his veins.

The bush educated this quiet and reflective lad during the first impressionable sixteen years of his life. The mining fields, the selection, the bush, the plains, the lushness and the drought of the new continent burnt into him their deep impress; and though in time he found the cities, his heart never strayed far from his mother, the bush. It may be said of him that he tramped the city streets carrying his bluey packed with vivid memories of the great Out Back.

With little education he came to Sydney; and the world, not knowing what to do with a genuine poet, decided to make a coachpainter of him. In 1833 he learnt this trade and, impelled by the need of expression within him, attended a night school and studied for an examination at the Sydney University. But the university, which in the future will doubtless study his works and use his collected poems as a text book of an important phase in the history of Australian poetry, had no niche for an uneducated coachpainter. He failed.

Made doubly sensitive by his deafness, this ambitious youth had no outlet for his ambition. He was attracted by what may be termed the academic Bolshevism of those days that was shaping the Labor Party into birth; and under the stress of his life-long sympathy with the under-dog he broke forth into verse, his “Song of the Republic” appearing in print when he was in the neighborhood of 20 years old.

He found himself a poet! His way was clear. He would sing Australia. Many a man will remember the shock, the sensation, caused by his “Faces in the Street.” A new poet, a mere boy, had broken into Australian literature. And seven years later he penned the remarkable poem, and the still more remarkable prophecy, “The Star of Australasia.”

The self-same spirit that drives the man to the depths of drink and crime
Will do the deeds in the heroes’ van that live till the end of time.
The living death in the lonely bush, the greed of the selfish town.
And even the greed of the outlawed push is chivalry — upside down.
‘Twill he while ever our blood is hot, while ever, the world goes wrong.
The nations rise in a war, to rot in a peace that lasts too long.
And southern Nation and southern State, aroused from their dream of ease
Must sign the Book of Eternal Fate their stormy histories.

This graphic picture of the future, when “the sons of Australia take to war as their fathers took to sport,” has it not been fulfilled by ANZAC and France and Palestine?

Bertha Lawson
Bertha Lawson

Always a rover, in succeeding years he wandered all over Australia and New Zealand, an unskilled labourer with a singing voice and a melancholy soul, singing the woes, the struggles, the mateship and the heroisms of the under-dog, outback or in the slums. During those wandering years he was, says his biography, “engaged in various occupations”. He painted the fence of the Wellington House of Parliament, taught Maori children at a Government school, worked at a sawmill, and was one of a telephone gang repairing lines through the bush. During a portion of1893 he wrote for the Sydney “Worker” and was its temporary editor.

He had married in 1896, and in 1900 he and his wife Bertha voyaged to London. The world’s metropolis did not need this authentic voice from Australia, and two years later he came home.

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