Title: Henry Lawson Among Maoris

Author: William H. Pearson

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1968, Wellington

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Henry Lawson Among Maoris



But there is a polarity in Lawson's attitude to the bushmen, reflecting the difference in the mores, on the one hand, of the diggers and the nomadic workers, and on the other, of settled families on selections and in small bush townships. It is this difference, I imagine, that underlies the symbols, noted by page 23Cecil Mann and Dorothy Green, of the Tent and the Tree.36 There is in Lawson's stories of the nomadic labourers a bias towards comedy or optimism and genial irony or sentimentality about human nature, and in his stories of selectors and bush wives a bias towards pathos and a pessimistic or darkly sardonic view, not so much of human nature as of life.

To explore this polarity it is necessary to sketch something of Lawson's personality and of the more immediate agents that determined it. Various images of Lawson have been cultivated by interested parties, and each of them has some truth. For some years after his death the nationalists presented him almost as the Noble Bushman himself; Marxists have promoted him as the exponent of the most healthy Australian traditions, the champion of the underdog and fearless spokesman against tyranny and injustice; his mates insisted on 'the real Henry'-a gentle, sensitive man with brown, searching eyes. There is plenty of witness to his geniality and amicability, and there is some to his moroseness. An inquiry like this that keeps in mind his misunderstanding in Mangamaunu must look for weaknesses and limitations, and result in a view of his personality that is incomplete. But in the main it is not necessary to go beyond Lawson's own view of himself.

His autobiography is invaluable to an understanding of him, and the tone of self-pity in the last passage quoted is characteristic of it. Yet, at least in the main, and best-known, part of the autobiography the self-pity is not offensive, and that part is curiously (to use Cecil Mann's word) 'satisfying', probably because the pity extends to everyone who comes into it, even those who hurt him.37

From the 'Fragment of an Autobiography' it is plain that Lawson's childhood was a pretty miserable one. Even his birth was attended by mishap. I prefer to disregard the melodramatics of the account given no fewer than six times by his younger sister Gertrude O'Connor,38 not only because she wasn't there, but because her aunt Emma Brooks,* who was present within an hour of Lawson's birth, discounted Mrs O'Connor's 'very untruthfull rubbish.'39 But even without the sensational details it was a singularly unpropitious entry into the world. 'I saw him first an houre old or less a poor thin ill

* I use the spelling Mrs Brooks used signing a letter in 1924.

page 24baby … I did not expect him to live', Mrs Brooks wrote.40 One digger recalled the baby as 'the crossest child on the field[;] all the adjoining digger[s] had to shift their tents to get sleep at night'.41 Louisa Lawson's mother Harriet Albury took the baby home and reported him 'very sick'. When he was taken back to his parents he was, according to Emma Brooks, 'very ill and dreadfully neglected' till taken over by a neighbouring digger's wife.42

Lawson's childhood, as his 'Fragment of an Autobiography' describes it, was at times as lonely and loveless as would seem possible for a boy to bear. Such attention as he received from his mother, who intermittently neglected the home and the children for her intellectual pursuits, was inadequate. His father, sturdy and affectionate enough, was taciturn. He formed no friendships with other children or warm attachments to his brothers and sisters, except, as Prout claims, for his young sister Annette who died before she was nine months old.43 Lawson's own words are eloquent:

The strange child (for I was little more), who had been misunderstood, mocked, and tormented at school the few months he went there until it* was a very hell he seldom cared to look back to-until he'd say while yet a child himself that he 'thought boys were very brutal and heartless', whereat his ignorant elders would consider him, to be if not as mad as his schoolma[s]ter said he was, at least very 'queer' and idiotic.44

Home was no more than a relief from school:

and then the craving for love, affection, even consideration where the [re] was none, the worship sympathy, love, even worship, wasted in a quarter where there was usu none.45

Home life was unspeakably wretched…. I remember, as a child, slipping round in the dark behind the pig-stye, or anywhere, to cry my heart out, and Old Pedro, the dog would come round with sympathectic nose and tail, and I'd put my arms round his neck and bury my face in his rough hair, and have my cry out… Yes, Pipeclay was a miserable little hell to me to the bitter end, and a trip to Grannie's at Wallerawang, was the only glimpse of heaven my childhood ever knew…. But such a trip left me worse and more hopelessly in my own little hell afterwards.46

* it] the time written above, MS.

the] be MS.

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Gertrude O'Connor recalled: 'At times the whole responsibility of farm and family would fall upon his young shoulders when mother would develop one of those strange fits of abstraction in which she would seem to vegetate for days, taking heed of nothing and eating nothing.'47 It is one of these moods of Louisa's that Lawson uses in his story 'A Child in the Dark', described by Mrs O'Connor, perhaps with some exaggeration, as 'a wonderfully realistic picture of his home life upon the farm'.48 Lawson was pushing a plough before he was ten.49 His younger brother Peter remembered him as 'impatient, irritable, irrascible, impossible-pitching his mother's writing material into a shaft in her absense', and again as 'quick tempered, hasty and not always kind in judgment'.50 Of the Lone Hand version of the 'Fragment of an Autobiography' Gertrude said it could not be improved on, but Peter dismissed it as 'his reprisals against the maternal taunts'.51 Emma Brooks, the member of the family who knew him best, said, 'He was not a bad-tempered man but very irritable & dissatisfyed'.52

He was further isolated by his partial deafness which began when he was nine. When he left school and was painting schools with his father he continued to fear the schoolboys 'and avoided them on every possible occassion.'53 Emma Brooks described him as 'very bushey and bashful'.54 Lawson recalled that as a youth he was 'bushy, shy, different from other boys', and in the Sydney railway-carriage workshops his mother sent him to, he was the victim of gang torment.55 Writing his later autobiography he shed 'a hot burst of tears' for the 'delicate, shabby, soul-starved and totally uneducated Bush Boy of eighteen or nineteen, drought born and drought bred, who lived and suffered as I has discribed in a previous section of this series, and slaved in a factory amongst Sydney larikins …'.56

It is not surprising that he grew up with a deep sense of iso lation, even of desolation. The desolation he objectified in his 'western' landscapes. The isolation was artistically less tractable. In a sense, he never felt that he belonged.

In a letter to Ernest Watt, a soldier friend recovering from wounds in an English hospital, Lawson confessed this in a tone that veers between seriousness and playfulness:

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Now I'll tell you this, Benno, old chap, and you can tell the nurse if you like: married or single "happy home" or notthere's such a thing as home home sickness as well as the foriegn kind or brand; and when the hero-welcome-or prodigal-son welcome-it doesn't matter which-is over, you'll feel in you[r] bowels that aweful, sinking, worldemptiness which is infinitely worse than any home-sickness abroad, because it is born of [the] hoary Grand-father of all disallusions-(or imagined disallusions-its all the same-its all hallucinations*) and is, or will seem to be the End-the Limit. Its [a] mighty, omnipotent Rea[c]tion, of course - the same as on the first night in a Promised Land, like this; after a long voyage or a long trip, but to know that before hand doesn't help it. It comes sudden and unexpected like a bullet in a hail of shrapnel or anywhere. I've felt that kind of home-sickness for the last place I came from, or for anywhere, and so, I suppose have most of the other oldsters here. Then, for a space, you'd be ready to hug the first stray Turk you came across and drop a tear over his shoulder for the sake of the good old-(they'll seem old then) the good old times you had with him…. Perhaps, after all the chaps are happiest who went home in Gallipoli for the last time and are burried side by side with their brave and dearly beloved enemies. Allah is great-and Christ was very weary, and must have suffered both kinds of homesickness more than once. I suppose Allah got the hump often enough too.57

The passage is notable for a number of points. It shows the relation, in Lawson's philosophy, between the consolation of human affection and despair; the Promised Land is a let-down; even the chaos of Gallipoli can seem 'home' to a soldier who has known it and left it, and the only release from this kind of home-sickness is death, presumably the last (and first) 'home'. But even more notably, Lawson saw no point in distinguishing between real and imagined disillusions, saw both as hallucination, disillusion as only another illusion.

His first more prolonged experience of affectionate human contact was when he left Sydney in 1888 to work with his father. Frank Sargeson has commented on the depth of Lawson's feeling for his father, and James Vance Marshall tells of

* hallucinations] hallicalusions MS.

Punctuation as in the MS.

page 27Lawson being visibly moved at the memory of his father's death thirty years afterwards. P. J. Lawson claimed that Lawson had quarrelled with his father shortly before he died, and Lawson in later life used to dream of reconciliation with him.58 His 'Fragment of an Autobiography' effectively stops at his father's death. While working with Peter Lawson at Mount Victoria, Lawson discovered the cameraderie of the pub. Bertha recalled:

He told me that he had never had a drink until he was doing contract work with his father, and met some wild young spirits from the bush-workmates on his painting jobs. He found friendship and companionship in their recreations. He forgot the secretiveness and nervous diffident shyness that so oppressed him, forgot that he was deaf or tired or lonely or defeated. He felt confident and exhilarated, able to do anything, and to face the world.59

The comradeship, so unfamiliar, must have been as exciting as the drink; it is easy to understand why he found it so hard to give up the pub. He said: 'there was between us that sympathy which in our times and conditions is the strongest and perhaps the truest of all human qualities, the sympathy of drink. We were drinking mates together'.60 The mateship and union solidarity he found on the Darling in 1892-3 were an extension or confirmation of his first revelation of cameraderie; but more than this, he was participating in national events and felt the excitement of identification with a communal spirit and purpose. For artistic confidence he needed, and often drew on, a consciousness of spokesmanship and of having a distinct and sympathetic readership, 'the chaps who barracked for me … the men who had faith in me! … the men who believe in me'.61 There is in the Mutch papers a letter from a union secretary asking Lawson's permission to use lines from his verse on the tombstone erected for a shearer killed in one of the strikes of the 1890s, and on it Lawson wrote that this request made him 'prouder than anything'. In his latter years, the consciousness of being out of harmony with contemporary Australian aspirations is one of the sources of his sense of defeat, his self-engrossment, and self-pity.

But it must be recognised that Lawson was a bushman not by choice but by birth, and he was always a reluctant one. He remained true to his vow never to go on the swag again, and page 28if he inveighed against the 'towneys' of Sydney he was content to live most of his last twenty years among them. He came to the bushmen's cameraderie comparatively late in life, when he was twenty, and to the men of 'the west' when he was twentyfive; and his advocacy of their code is correspondingly superficial and sentimental. It was not so deeply assimilated as to eliminate the moodiness and the deep suspicion of others in which Eurunderee had trained him. His more memorable stories of the nomadic labourers are comic; his serious and pathetic stories are concerned not with mates but with the courage or persistence, in the face of hardship, of those who are stuck in the bush and not likely to get out of it.

It was not only the younger generation of his middle and later years that he was out of sympathy with. John Le Gay Brereton remembered a remark Lawson made in 1894:

'Now listen', he said. 'I know what I'm talking about. I couldn't say it in public because my living depends partly on what I'm writing for the Worker: but you can take it from me, Jack, the Australian worker is a brute and nothing else.'62

He was unfair to himself because he had, in the previous year and in the Worker, written contemptuously of workers, both urban and rural. And in 1894, again in the Worker, he attacked the very sentiment of which he was to become the chief apostle:

That egotistic word 'mateship'—which was born of New Australian imagination, and gushed about to a sickening extent—implied a state of things which never existed any more than the glorious old unionism which was going to bear us on to freedom on one wave. The one was too glorious, and the other too angelic to exist amongst mortals. We mus[t] look at the nasty side of the truth, as well as the other, conceited side.63

Lawson was aware that the bushmen in his writing were idealised In his 'Fragment of an Autobiography' this passage is cancelled and stetted: '(My diggers are idealised or drawn from a few better class diggers as [the shearers cancelled] my Bushmen are sketched from better class Bushmen)'.64 It is true that in a letter to George Robertson in 1917, he remembered 'the splendid type of shearer with which I was in contact in page 29Bourke in those days'.65 But nearer in time to his Bourke trip he wrote:

The average Australian bushman is too selfish, narrowminded, and fond of the booze to liberate his country. The average shearer thinks that he is the only wronged individual, and that the squatter is the only tyrant on the face of the earth. Also, the shearer is too often a god-almighty in his own estimation; and it would be good for him to know that Australia might worry along if there wasn't a sheep in all the land.66

The poetical bushman does not exist; the majority of the men out-back now are from the cities. The real native out back bushman is narrow-minded, densely ignorant, invul nerably thick-headed. How could he be otherwise?67

His own cult of the bushman's code was a rather shallow overlay on the bitterness of his childhood in New Pipeclay and his self-conscious youth in Sydney: 'It was torture through the invulnerable ignorance and mad unreasoning and absolutely unnecessary selfishness of others …'.68 He refers to those who remained on the abandoned goldfields as 'the most unspeakably dreary narrow and paltry minded of all communities'.69 He remembered 'the usual narrow-minded, senseless and purposeless little local fueds and quarrels'.70 Such petty quarrelling is what he meant by 'localism'; and 'ignorance'a word he uses repeatedly-seems to mean lack of appreciation of another point of view, inconsiderateness, selfishness, intoler ance. One imagines it was a word Lawson's mother might have used in the stinging taunts P. J. Lawson spoke of.

The situation of the noble soul, sensitive and generous, misunderstood by a crass populace, recurs in his writing. It is abstracted in his description of London as 'a great city … of ignorant selfishness, cultured or brutish, and of noble and heroic endeavours frowned down or callously neglected …'.71 It occurs in 'To the Advanced Idealist' where democracy spurns the Idealist's 'Eyes of Truth' and his exhortations to "Trust each other!' and accuses him of 'Axe to grind'.72 It occurs in 'Pigeon Toes' where the girl teacher in the bush school is also accused of having an axe to grind, and, as Lawson the boy had been in New Pipeclay, is called 'mad'. Dreariness and petty squabbling are the features of 'The Little World Left Behind' in which the only resident admired is the page 30leather-faced woman who 'looked her narrow, ignorant world in the face'.73

In a late poem he faces the contradiction in his attitude to bushmen, but the resolution is sentimental. In 'The Local Spirit', the 'local spirit' is equated with the 'envious tongue' that murders 'local truth', with 'paltry private interests / And local mean ambitions' to which 'General Good' is 'sacrificed'; it kills 'manhood'.

But, though they may be very few,
And poor as autumn stubble.
The local friends are leal and true
Whenever one's in trouble.
They make a man hold up his head
And face the world and dare it!
And that's—when all is done and said—
The other Local Spirit.74

Lawson did not explore conflict between an individual and a community, though the situation occurs occasionally in his writing, with the author championing one side or the other. For example the situation of the Advanced Idealist is identical with that of the Dying Anarchist, in which Lawson sides with the community. The anarchist finds his soul by recognising that in hating the world he is to blame for his loss of faith:

I lost faith in human nature! … Even when people were kind to me, and the world seemed treating me well, I grew suspicious. 'Axes to grind—axes to grind!' I cried, even when there were no axes to grind…. Ah, my brothers, [t]rust each other! Trust each other! Be true if you can—but trust each other! Have faith to the end.75

That this passage has autobiographical reference is indicated by the anarchist's memory of his servitude at Grinder Brothers, the fictional name Lawson used for the Hudson Bros, railwaycarriage workshops. But more often Lawson's sympathy is with the individual at odds with society. There is a small number of poems, most of them unpublished, in which there is relation between an exceptionally just or gifted man and an unindividuated crowd. What varies is whether the exceptional man's goodness or leadership is recognised by the crowd. 'The Good Samaritan' is

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A man whose kinsmen never yet Appreciated him.76

In 'Cromwell' the English populace revile their leader when he is dead and go whoring after the Stuarts. In 'The Crucifixion' Christ is the Good Leader spurned and persecuted.77 'The Universal Brothers' is a variation of the Ugly Duckling myth: three unvalued geniuses reach belated recognition, the fool of the family as an inventor, the coward as a military hero, and the school dunce as a great poet.78 The leadership of 'The Man Ahead' is recognised but his followers are an ungrateful and disloyal herd, too ready to listen to doubters, who need authoritarian control:

Choke the cowards! and choke 'em quick For
the sake of the man to be next ahead.79

Only in 'The Drunken Leader' do the followers recognise the leader's charisma but they are no less herd-like in their reverently tending him through his drunken sleep, apparently unable to lead themselves until he recovers.80

Beneath the professed cult of the itinerant bushman's code, there is in Lawson the permanent outlook of the boy who suffered for sixteen years in New Pipeclay, who pitied himself and came to pity others who had suffered or stood up to the hardships of the bush or the ostracisms of its settlements. This aspect in him was in artistic control and is the impulse of some of his best prose. But one part of his personality that he never came to terms with in his writing is the relation of the outcast boy to society. The boy who had at times been neglected, undervalued, overworked, and mocked, continued to assert himself in Lawson's mind in self-comforting poses of genius rejected or of leadership, messianic or dictatorial. It is a part of Lawson that fortunately affects only some of his verse, and hardly at all affects his prose, which he himself valued more highly than his verse.81 But it was present, if then only latent, in the man who came to Mangamaunu in 1897.

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