Monday musings on Australian literature: Looking back, looking forward
As some of you know, I have been involved recently in looking after my aunt’s estate. This weekend, my cousin and I checked out, again, the bookcase that contained old books, books that had belonged to my grandparents. One of the books that came to my attention was The golden treasury of Australian verse (e-version). It was given to my grandmother in 1914 before she was married, but it was, in fact, the 1912 revised edition of the 1909 edition, which came from An anthology of Australian verse first published in 1906. Got that?
I’m not, in this post, going to review the poetry, interesting though that is. Rather, I want to share ideas from the introduction written by Bertram Stevens. He was born in outback Australia, in Inverell, New South Wales, in 1872. His mum came from Queanbeyan, which is the city adjoining my own. The Australian dictionary of biography, to which I’ve linked his name, says:
A proficient, lucid critic, Stevens was pre-eminently a cultural catalyst and pioneer who perceived needs and lacunae. His An Anthology of Australian Verse (1906), although uneven, was the first seriously edited collection of its kind; improved as The Golden Treasury of Australian Verse (1909), it became a standard text.
It’s his perceptions on Australian literature that I want to share here, but first, a disclaimer. Like most people of his time, he saw Australia – and therefore Australian culture – as starting with white settlement. That’s just how it was then, so please read his comments in that context.
He starts by describing Australia because, he says, “the literature of a country is, in certain respects, a reflex of its character”. I found his framing of Australia’s development and how it played out in our literature fascinating. He said (and I’m going dot point them for ease) that Australia:
- encompasses “all climates, from tropical to frigid” but that it is more liable to long droughts. He suggests that “the absence of those broad, outward signs of the changing seasons which mark the pageant of the year in the old world is probably a greater disadvantage than we are apt to suspect”
- has few of “the conditions” that are found “in older communities where great literature arose”. Our early history, he says, has “no glamour of old Romance … no shading off from the actual into a dim region of myth and fable”. Instead, Australia’s “beginnings are clearly defined and of an eminently prosaic character”. By this he means that the early settlers were engaged in the struggle to survive, to establish industries, after which came “the gold period” with further expansion of industries. The implications of all this, he argues, is that “business and politics have afforded ready roads to success, and have absorbed the energies of the best intellects”. Moreover, “there has been no leisured class of cultured people to provide the atmosphere in which literature is best developed as an art”. Australians had consequently been happy “to look to the mother country” for its “artistic standards”.
- has had “no great crisis … to fuse our common sympathies and create a national sentiment”
These are all interesting points, though he doesn’t expand on them with significant evidence. A little further on he suggests that the “large stream of immigration” during the gold period (1860s-1880s) had a major impact on the development of the colonies, not just in terms of industry/economics but wider culture as well. I was pleased to see a recognition of the importance of immigration to the development of culture!
He gives a brief history of writing and publishing in Australia, discussing the early poets, from the late 1700s to the early 1800s, but argues that Australia’s first genuine, albeit, crude poetry appeared in 1845 “in the form of a small volume of sonnets by Charles Harper”. Harpur was followed by poets like Henry Kendall (about whom I’ve written, briefly, before, and who attracted praise from English critics) and the problematical Adam Lindsay Gordon, about whom he writes:
his work cannot be considered as peculiarly Australian in character; but much of it is concerned with the horse, and all of it is a-throb with the manly, reckless personality of the writer. Horses and horse-racing are especially interesting to Australians, the Swinburnian rush of Gordon’s ballads charms their ear, and in many respects he embodies their ideal of a man. There are few Australians who do not know some of his poems, even if they know no others, and his influence upon subsequent writers has been very great.
You may remember a previous Monday Musings in which Gordon’s influence was discussed, again in not very flattering light. (I must admit, however, that I am one of those Australians who knows some of his poems!). Kendall died in 1882, having achieved some success, but, writes Stevens,
He lived at a time when Australians had not learned to think it possible that any good thing in art could come out of Australia, and were too fully occupied with things of the market-place to concern themselves much about literature.
Stevens also discusses the role of early – mid-nineteenth century – magazines and newspapers in promoting Australian literature, like Victoria’s The Argus and The Australasian, but argues (and few would disagree with him) that it was The Bulletin, established in 1880, which had the biggest influence on the development of Australian literature:
Its racy, irreverent tone and its humour are characteristically Australian, and through its columns the first realistic Australian verse of any importance, the writings of Henry Lawson and A. B. Paterson, became widely known.
Their work started to make an impression on the reading public by the mid 1890s, and Stevens concludes his introduction with
Australia has now come of age, and is becoming conscious of its strength and its possibilities. Its writers to-day are, as a rule, self-reliant and hopeful. They have faith in their own country; they write of it as they see it, and of their work and their joys and fears, in simple, direct language. It may be that none of it is poetry in the grand manner, and that some of it is lacking in technical finish; but it is a vivid and faithful portrayal of Australia, and its ruggedness is in character.
There’s still some cultural cringe here but, nonetheless, I enjoyed reading his assessment of the first century or so of Australian literature – and may come back to it and his anthology in another week when I’m less tired!