Early Australian Literature #
Many Colonial writers feel rejected for three reasons; the personal – they don’t fit in, the environmental – a harsh climate, and the professional; “How can you love people who don’t want to read your books?” The true writer demands more than an audience; they want an educated audience, a shared background of mind – an audience that responds, that engages.
Our first native born of pure convict stock was Charles Harpur. His father, Joseph Harpur, an Irishman was indicted in London for highway robbery, reprieved and transported, landing in Sydney in November 1800, assigned to John Macarthur.
His mother, Sarah Chidley at 13 was convicted of a minor offence in 1805 and arrived in Sydney in 1806, also assigned to John and Elizabeth Macarthur.
Charles was born in 1813. By this time his father had gained advancement as Schoolmaster at Windsor, so his children gained an education having access to a number of libraries, including Samuel Marsden’s, known as the “flogging parson”.
Harpur’s early poetry, inspired by the Australian muse evoked the actual beauty of a little town, planned by Governor Macquarie on the cultivated countryside of the river:
For I felt thee- ev’n then, wildly, wondrously musing
Of glory and grace by old Hawkesbury’s side.
Later he picturises the majesty of the Blue Mountain in his signature poem The Creek of the Four Graves, a dated and set piece of the massacre by aborigines. A settler, looking for wider pastures for his expanding flocks and herds, takes four of his men along. Camping out, just before dawn, he hears an imminent attack from the indigenous people. He manages to get one shot away before managing a desperate escape. His men are not so lucky and the creek acquires the name of Four Graves.
The only evidence of questioning the rightness or wrongness of the events, is a vital verse contrasting the violence and the calm beauty of the setting Judith Wright claims editors elided.
For see, the bright beholding Moon, and all
The radiant Host of Heaven, evince no touch
Of sympathy with man’s wild violence –
Only evince in their calm course, their part
In that original unity of love
Under God’s hand, in the beginning chimed
The Sabbath concord of the Universe,
Exactly who transgressed, causing this breakdown in the harmony of the universe.
Romantics like Wordsworth claims man is a reflection of nature, however Coleridge disputes this by writing:
O Lady, we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live…
Written in a stilted Miltonian, descriptive and narrative style, stale and rhetorical, depicting Australian scenes, using old expressions more suited to England. Instead of Edenic possibilities, the poem emphasises the impediments facing the expansionist settlers.
Harpur was renown for his powers of observation, the accuracy of his eye and the truth of his descriptions. What moved him most are the mountains, the clouds and the play of light.
Wrightmaintains Harpur remains unrecognised because of his convict origins, his radical stances and the lack of feeling for national feeling for native Australian writing. Harpur was a thinking poet rather than a lyric. He became a political advocate, not for the “have nots versus the haves”, but a reasoned passionate and even religious conviction based on a world that allowed equality to all men, not a material right; a spiritual duty.
Wright claims Harpur was robbed of his proper due and place in Australian Literature. He was the fountainhead of opposing but mingling themes and preoccupations of Australian writers: exile from European consciousness and readaptation and of hope, the Utopian but recurrent hope of human brotherhood in the far end of the world:
My country, though rude yet and wild be thy nature,
This alone our proud love should beget and command.
There’s room in thy broad breast for Manhood’s full stature…
Much of Australia’s literature has been relentlessly negative. World War I was a disillusionment for all colonial outposts, including Australians. It took about fifty years for recovery.
Henry Handel Richardson– The Fortunes of Richard Mahony - Australia Felix helped to put Australia on the literary map.
Neither a promoter of an alien British culture, nor a promoter of Australianess, rather an observer of what happened to human beings when they crossed the seas from Europe to the ancient barbaric continent - Australia. In turn what they did to the land, how they robbed it with their greed, their unholy hunger and how the terrible revenge the ancient continent extracted from them for their folly. How does a cultivated person with special sensibilities, born or adopted into a New World society and then in revulsion from that embrace the civilisation of the old world?
D.H, Lawrence commented similarily on a “happy-go-lucky, don’t worry, we’re in Australia”, the country where there seemed to be “no inside life of any sort, just a lapse and drift”. Australia, a land of pleasure and hedonism.
Craig McGregor was another one who wrote about the great Australian
stupor; satirising the modern Australian man’s conformity to a
stereotype; that of a vapid predictable routine and sterile existence.
He unthinkingly or blindly conforms to a life devoid of meaning.
Subsiding from spiritual transcendence we soon degenerate to the sterile, mundane and moral aridity of modern man’s values and aspirations. Instead of yearning for moral enlightenment or heavenly paradise, we attempt to create it here through rampant materialism and indulgent hedonism.
One obvious dichotomy between writer and reader is the melancholy, even despairing view contrasted by the reader’s cheerful acceptance of the place, blowflies, dullness and all. Gloom and outright hostility induced by Australia has been an enduring theme from Gordon, Clarke, Kendall, Harpur, Boake, Lawson, Baynton, Brennan, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert, Patrick White. In some the love-hate relationship seesaws, in some there is a fear and distrust of the land itself, in others a love betrayed by crass Australians. D.H. Lawrence found a lack of declarations of love that flaws Australian Literature; towards each other and of the country.
A.G. Stevens, an editor of the Bulletin blamed Henry Lawson’s lack of love on his Englishness, “he was one of us but not of us”.
Much the same was said of Joseph Furphy; “he was with us, but he was not one of us”.
Stevens further says of Lawson’s Faces in the Street: Sydney in the 1890’s was for the average young man, a jolly town, with ample material for a cheerful life – work enough and wages enough, and freedom and sport enough. I have never seen a crowd so happy, so carefree, so full of high spirits as a gathering of young men at the Domain Baths on a Sunday morning. He felt Lawson was sadly excluded by his temperament and his hearing infirmity; he sat and brooded and wrote Faces in the Street. Lawson’s self epitaph was “Starved by cheap imported rubbish”.
Of Henry Handel Richardson’s Ultima Thule The Sydney Mail, recognised the almost unanimous praise that English authoritative critics heaped on this great Australian novel, but added anyone who takes up this book expecting to read anything typically Australian will be grievously disappointed. The unrelieved gloom permeated by blank despair does not reflect the happiness and humour beneath our sun.
Ron Saw writing about Manning Clark in 1979, uses almost the same expressions about “merchants of doom” taking Clark to task for saying that in the second half of the 1970’s (Post Whitlam) “a great sadness spread over a land nature seemed to have designed for gaiety and delight”.
Martin Boyd was another expatriate to suffer rejection. Despite achieving great success in England, few Australians took any notice of his writing in 25 years. Boyd’s books are not gloomy, but they are not at ease with Australia.
Robbery under Arms by Bolderwood is is not highly rated even though it represents a lightness and freshness often found missing in other works. It like Banjo Paterson’s poetry captures Blake’s aphorism, “Energy is Eternal Light”.
By the 1960’s a renaissance or cultural re-awakening emerged with a sharing of response, magazines with high circulations began to open dialogue and we began to escape English domination.