If you are an Australian, particularly one of a certain age, chances are you studied some C.J. Dennis at school, most likely “The play” from his best-known book The songs of a sentimental bloke. I did, and then, not having read him for decades, I reviewed for this blog his second major book, The moods of Ginger Mick, when it was republished by Sydney University Press. I surprised myself by enjoying it more than I expected. And therein lies the rub. In many ways Dennis is dated. The language of his “larrikins” is unfamiliar to us now, and his people seem to belong to a different place and time. Yet he captivated me. I was therefore interested to read Phillip Butterss’ biography, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C.J. Dennis, when Wakefield Press offered it to me.
Butterss’ title sounds a bit cutesy, but it was, we must assume, carefully chosen because it conveys Butterss’ main thesis which is that, contrary to popular opinion, C.J. Dennis was not his character. First, though, a little about the man. Described by The Bulletin in 1913 as Australia’s “unofficial laureate”, Clarence Michael James (or Clarrie) Dennis was born in Auburn, South Australia, in 1876. His father was a hotelkeeper, so much of Dennis’ youth was spent in pubs. He showed interest in writing and the arts in his childhood, and his first poem was published in the Critic when he was 21 years old. From then until his death in 1938 at the age of 61 he wrote constantly, producing a large body of work, of which his published books are just a small component. But, my aim here is not, of course, to recount Dennis’ life, for that would be stealing Butterss’ thunder. Far better that you read the book.
I enjoyed the book, though Butterss doesn’t have the flair of, say, Hazel Rowley whose Franklin and Eleanor I’ve reviewed. By this I mean the book doesn’t have the sort of narrative voice and thrust that we see in “literary non-fiction”. Rather, its style is traditional, plain academic reportage. It doesn’t therefore drive the reader on, but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating read for the picture it provides of Dennis, for its analysis of his work, and for its exploration of wider themes to do with Australian culture and society and the role of the artist.
Like most biographies, the book has a chronological structure, with the chapters falling rather naturally into neat chunks of his life. I particularly liked the chapters “The Laureate of the Larrikin” and “The Laureate of the Anzac” which follow, respectively, the chapters on the writing and publication of his two most famous books, The songs of a sentimental bloke and The moods of Ginger Mick. Butterss’ analyses of how these books both reflect and explain the ethos of their times is thoughtful. He writes that “the Bloke” (published in 1915)
brings into the city and the twentieth century much of the ethos of the nineteenth-century bush legend, values such as egalitarianism, mateship and anti-authoritarianism. But if he represented a metamorphosis for the noble bushman, the transformation was not only of type and location. There was a shift in tone too. The Bloke was not a mythologised hero like the Man from Snowy River; he was an object of gentle humour. (p. 37)
Butterss goes on to explain that the Bloke also represents quite a “make-over” for the larrikin who, in colonial Australia, had been “street thugs”. He argues that this make-over, the way Dennis’ book “holds together incongruous elements”, “allowed it to smooth over deep faultlines and tensions in Australian culture”. He’s reminding us, I believe, that for all our claims of mateship and egalitarianism, we know it has never been quite so rosy in practice.
More poignant is the chapter “Ruin and Reburnishing 1920-1924” in which Butterss discusses changing “fashion” in literature – from “larrikin poetry” to “the more personal and intimate free verse of modernism”, and from poetry to novels. Dennis struggles from this point on to retain his popularity and standing – and it’s sad to see, because the effect is financial and emotional, which results in his returning to heavy drinking. He was one of Australia’s early celebrities, and Butterss shows what this meant – the positives such as recognition and money, and the negatives such as the difficulty of repeating the feat and unexpected things like being impersonated. Dennis was not the strongest of men, and many times in his life he fell on the support of others – including businessman Garry Roberts in his early years, publisher George Robertson (of Angus & Robertson), and his wife Biddy. He did not always treat them well in return.
There is another thread that runs through the book, and that is Dennis’ politics, which changed from a leftist-socialist orientation in his youth to a more conservative one after his success. I had not known about this aspect of Dennis’ life and I enjoyed reading examples of his early political writings in which he railed against free trade that closed factories, industries that chopped down gorgeous gums (“the mighty kings”), and politicians who turned their backs on working people. He might have become more conservative as he aged, but he continued to astutely comment on society and culture. His last poem satirises the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Commission) push to standardise Australian voices. Here are a few lines:
I have long sought the reason why all men should be as peas
In speech, in thought, in action, e’en in strife.
Uniformity around them
Serves further to confound them,
Since it washes all the colour out of life.
An unsentimental bloke concludes with two chapters that discuss Dennis’ reputation and legacy. Butterss writes that although Dennis, sales-wise, is “far-and-away the most popular of all Australian poets”, his place in Australia’s literary canon has been “marginal”. He quotes one David Carter who wrote in an essay in Southerly in 1997 that “the right kind of failure”, as exemplified by Christopher Brennan’s symbolist poetry, is often regarded more positively by critics than “the wrong kind of success”. In other words, if your poetry is accessible it is not regarded as good. TS Eliot, he writes, defended Rudyard Kipling saying “that people … are contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort”. Hmmm … I suspect this is still so today – and it may explain why many people prefer not to read poetry at all. It’s safer that way. Meanwhile, it is somehow gratifying that two of Australia’s most significant and enduring literary-cultural icons – Paterson’s Man from Snowy River and Dennis’ Sentimental Bloke – come from poetry. I thank Butterss for fleshing out the story behind the man behind one of these!
An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis
Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2014
(Review copy supplied by Wakefield Press)