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Monday musings on Australian literature: Looking back, looking forward

July 25, 2016

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!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2016 00:58

    His assessment of the conditions for culture and literature are pretty interesting. We had similar critiques in the US when it was still young. I think these days we can all pretty much agree that he was totally wrong but back then white Europe was the standard of comparison which is sad to think about how much we’ve lost because of that.

  2. July 26, 2016 14:35

    I find it fascinating to read material like this and ponder the cringeworthy remarks and omissions … and I wonder sometimes about how our era will be judged in years to come. (On marriage equality, for example, and constitutional recognition and the republic and so on).
    Poor old Adam Lindsay Gordon, I remember quite liking him when I was young (despite never having laid hands on a horse nor wanted to) but now the ‘manliness’ grates…

    • July 26, 2016 16:20

      Take all those points Lisa! Particularly re how WE will be seen 100 years from now, as you say. That’s when I wish I believed in eternal life (and it was in fact true!) As for Adam Lindsay Gordon, yes too. Wasn’t he The Sick Stockrider? It was all so romantic I suppose!

  3. July 26, 2016 17:43

    Interesting that the points which we see as making it difficult to define our nationhood, he sees as an impediment to great literature. The implication is that great Lit has to be about great Events. I looked up Stevens in the Oxford Companion – interesting that he could make a career out of poetry anthologies (maybe he had a private income).
    I thought I might have the same book, I buy cheap old Aust. books whether I intend reading them or not, but the best I could come up with was The Poetical Works of Adam Lindsay Gordon with an introduction by Marcus Clarke. I had to read ALG in school. Horsey poems were popular back then. I didn’t even hear of Kendall until a few years ago. But both were popular with Miles Franklin and Eve Langley for instance.

    • July 27, 2016 00:25

      Yes, Bill, I loved his discussion about the pre-requisites for great literature, though I think he was coming around to the idea that perhaps a great literature can come out of different sources. It’s interesting that not long after he wrote this, Australia did have a big event that brought the nation together, World War 1, and what came out of that “the ANZAC spirit” has, rightly or wrongly become a fundamental part of Australian culture that writers/artists either espouse or question.

  4. ian darling permalink
    July 26, 2016 18:57

    I suppose Steven’s references would have been Palgrave’s anthology and Quiller Couch’s Oxford Book Of English Verse. Orwell wrote of Quiller Couch that for the poetry written after the Romantics all semblance of literary taste seemed to desert him! That is a reminder that forming a canon is tricky business. Given the context it was just not possible for an anthologist to have any idea of Indigenous literatures. Certainly sounds like an interesting find.

  5. ian darling permalink
    July 26, 2016 19:00

    This sounds like a fascinating find. I think you have to make allowances for the anthologist’s context – his references would have been Palgrave and Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book Of English Verse and it would have been almost impossible for him to be aware at all of indigenous Australian literature.

    • ian darling permalink
      July 26, 2016 19:09

      I don’t know what happened there! My first go seemed to get lost…

      • July 27, 2016 00:34

        Thanks for your comments Ian, and you make a fair and valid point about his reference points as an anthologist.

        I think my main point about indigenous culture was simply that lack of awareness of the importance or relevance of indigenous culture in the development of “Australian” culture, of the fact that indigenous people were here, and that their culture had “myths” and ways of viewing the land that might inform the development of our literature. It has taken a long time for it to be even considered.

  6. July 26, 2016 21:03

    his commentary about the relationship between lack of seasonality and literature reminds me of a discussion I had with a work colleague once during a business trip to northern michigan. as we drove mile after mile of seeing little more than flat land,the odd red barn and trees we began pontificating on how this might affect creativity. How hard would it be we speculated, on being a writer in a landscape which seldom changes. Of course our conversation never reached the heights of Steven’s thoughts…..

    • July 26, 2016 22:58

      Ah, Karen, I can’t resist this, your comment gives me an opportunity to recommend one of my favourite authors to you. Stephen Daisley, is one such author who writes out of a sparse landscape and creates exquisite literature. Try Coming Rain (longlisted for the Miles Franklin and winner of the NZ Ockham), it is a brilliant rendition of beauty and brutality in the bush, or Traitor, which won the PM’s Award for Fiction. There are reviews of both on my blog, find Daisley in the Authors Category.

      • July 27, 2016 00:13

        Love that conversation you had Karen. There are quite a few Aussie authors who deal with our sparse, remote landscape. I would add to Lisa’s list, Patrick White’s Voss (exploration in remote outback Australia), Stephen Orr’s The hands (farm in a dry, bare place), Gerald Murnane’s The plains (a strange “other Australia”) are just three, and all are very different but all draw on Australia’s remote, bare landscape (which as, you note, the US also has in various states)

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