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



It is sometimes difficult in Lawson's verse to know exactly what he means. The attractions of posture and cliché, the compulsion of regular prominent beat in his rhythms, the need to find a rhyme and so to provide a phrase to fill the line out obscure the initial poetic impulse. In 'The Writer's Dream' Lawson is drawn into many irrelevancies, but the initial impulse is a rejection of a hope that proved false and a reassertion of a habitual view of experience.

Charles Oscar Palmer said that the poem 'tells [Lawson's] tale' in Mangamaunu,25 and one may note that in the manuscript the quotation marks enclosing the poet's thoughts are page 151dropped in the last stanza, where it is Lawson himself speaking. But even without this evidence, certain internal references clearly locate the poem in Mangamaunu. There is the inaccurate version in stanza III of the history of the Kaikoura Maoris and the reference to 'the author' who had written the 'ancient lore' of Maoris.26 In stanza II the greenness and the comparative distinctness of the seasons suggest New Zealand, and the mountains, the ocean, and the sea-caves are appropriate to the Kaikoura Coast, and the inaccessibility by rail or steamship appropriate to Mangamaunu. There is in stanza I an echo of his dissatisfaction with Australia and his hope of finding a more congenial life in New Zealand.

One can accept Lawson's connection of his writer's realism ('the truths he told') with the austerity of his past life ('for his life was hard and grim'), but it was naive to imagine that a more contented life should result in a change in literary method. There is an implied equation of realism with harshness. The choice the writer sees is a false one, between bitterness or cynicism and sentimentality, between on the one hand 'jarring note', 'bitter word', 'the heart of the cynic' and on the other, 'love and laughter and kindly fun', 'chast'ning tears' for bereavement, 'sighs' for sorrows, 'kindly smile' and 'glee'. It reflects something of Lawson's oscillation, in his attitudes to bushmen, between sentimentality and hostility. The writer's newly adopted aim, as Lawson describes it, is that of a sentimental popular entertainer. There would be little wonder that he lost faith in it if one could trust Lawson's description of it. For it must be recognised that this description is written in the light of disillusion. The 'Native School' sketches as Lawson described them in letters to Hugh MacCallum and Angus and Robertson do not seem nearly as objectionable as Lawson in 'The Writer's Dream' makes them out to be. One may suspect from these letters and the stray digressions on Mangamaunu in his later writing, that there were elements of condescension or patronage in his benevolence, but this is not a weakness apparent to the disillusioned Lawson or his writer. The weakness as he sees it is that he had been telling well-meant lies.

When he itemises the factors that destroyed the writer's benevolence Lawson obscures the issue, since he avoids mention of the troubles that actually confronted him in Mangamaunu or interprets them, very generally, in terms of his page 152experience of Australian rural communities. It would be true that some of the Mangamaunu Maoris could scarcely sign their names-but many of them could, and did, write. There might be sardonic irony intended in applying 'Fashion' to Maoris, but 'mortgaged pride' is certainly not applicable since, possessing no saleable land as security, Maoris were unable to obtain credit. The cliquishness and bickering, the 'Local spirit' and the hatred for the stranger, the ungenerous tongues, the 'ignorant whisper of "axe to grind!"' are the features of New Pipeclay in the 'Fragment of an Autobiography' and of 'The Little World Left Behind'. They are the ills that faced the Advanced Idealist and the girl teacher called Pigeon Toes. The spite of the crowd for 'the man whom fate has placed in the head-race first' is the lot of 'The Man Ahead'; the situation of the good man reviled and persecuted is that of 'The Crucifixion'. Again, in stanza II, while it would be applicable to Lawson's experience in Mangamaunu as Bertha remembered it, to speak of borrowing and cheating 'while the stranger's "green" ', it would be a strange comment on the kainga to say that money and dress were all that counted. The bullying crawler and the crawling bully and the self-assertion of the 'ignorant', are features of competitive small-town politics rather than of Mangamaunu where the right to authority was commonly recognised as hereditary and according to seniority and education. It appears that Lawson was predisposed to see in Mangamaunu the 'localism' and the 'ignorance' to which he had been so hurtfully exposed as a boy in New Pipeclay. One recalls his remark in 1910 that after a while in Mangamaunu he noticed 'all the different charactiristics to be found in a white bush School'.27 In generalising his writer's predicament as the situation of any, good or enlightened individual persecuted by a small vindictive community he has side-stepped the writer's real literary predicament.

The writer might have been wise after brooding for three nights during a south-east gale to reconsider his initial attitudes in his 'chapters', but it was an evasion to dismiss them as 'Dream-land' and 'fairy tale'. One imagines that, even in the light of his unpleasant experiences, the material was salvageable, that the genial tolerance Lawson was prepared to exercise towards Mitchell and Steelman would have been sufficient to produce rewritten sketches deepened by comedy or irony or page 153even pathos. His bitterness is blind to the partial truth that the sketches must have contained; and his equation of 'the truths he told' in his earlier writing with cynicism betrays either a misunderstanding of the word or a very morose view of truth. His reaction to his disenchantment is to assert a view no less sentimental than the one he has rejected, to take up a posture more dramatic but no less false than the Arthur Iles 'study' of the Two Daughters of Maoriland. Stanzas IX and X make a series of declamations irrelevant not only to Lawson's experience in Mangamaunu but to his total experience as a writer in Australia and New Zealand at this time. It is little more than histrionics to link the poet with the anarchist, the 'strong man' and the young rebel, an incompatible trio, who, however, have it in common they all at one time or anotherin 'The Dying Anarchist', 'Cromwell', 'The Man Ahead', and the Advanced Idealist-had served as personae for the artistically intractable element in Lawson's personality. It is posture to suggest that sentimentality in writing is the unenvied prerogative of those who have not known 'Want' or 'Care'-as if Mere Jacob had not known them-or that 'Want' and 'Care' are prerequisites to truthful writing.

In his catalogue of the forces hostile to truth Lawson pays off a few old scores, irrelevant to the situation of his writer. The 'cultured fools' of the last stanza-John Le Gay Brereton, for example, who had criticised his verse-he had answered in 'The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics'. The writer addresses an unidentified 'You' who starves the writer and buys his pen. Lawson, it is true, resented the low rates of payment of the Bulletin for work he sometimes sat up all night writing and rewriting,28 but the Bulletin had published much of his work written in 'cynical' strain from 'the truth of the writer's heart'. There is no evidence that any editor tried to 'buy his pen' by commissioning sentimental sketches of Mangamaunu, or, low rates of payment apart, that any editor had tried to 'drive him with want and fear'. What the writer-or Lawson-is doing is setting up a suitably hostile environment in which he can put up his fists-a conspiracy of editors, 'cultured fools', carping critics ('the few that fume and fret') and pampered sentimental writers. He has extended the malevolence from Mangamaunu to 'the world' which he can blame for his bitterness. It was a strategy by which the writer in page 154Lawson rescued himself from the false position of despair that his writer had reached in stanza VIII, when he vowed to write no more: that Lawson recognised the falsity of the position is in the words, 'for his heart was in Dream-land yet'. He rescued himself too from the position that the writer disowns in stanza XIII, the pose of a 'martyred god'. To the writer it is a restorative of artistic confidence to cut a figure as the fighter for truth who strikes at 'the things that mar the world'; but, in the movement of the poem it is, for Lawson, only a step in the strategy, which is to remind himself of the sources of his strength as a writer. That he has misapplied the word 'cynical' is clear from his profession of faith in the last three stanzas. He has recognised that his inspiration is dependent on the culture he knows-the code of Bill and Jim and the 'white' men of the 'barren lands'. But the 'Truth' that he wrote from this recognition was 'A Daughter of Maoriland'. 'The truth of the writer's heart' was limited by the compass of the bushman's code and the sore spots of Lawson's personality.

The artistic crisis that came out of Lawson's experience of Mangamaunu was a withdrawal. He had taken up the challenge of interpreting a different culture, but he retreated into bitterness when the values of his own culture were offended. But the crisis was also a reassertion of the values from which he had hitherto drawn artistic strength; a recognition of the limitations in time and place in which his talents could operate. It preceded a deeper exploration of the area of experience he knew. Within four years three volumes containing some of his most memorable prose had been published, mostly set in Australia: On the Track, Over the Sliprails, and Joe Wilson and his Mates. One must agree with T. Inglis Moore that the first two volumes are not consistently of high quality,29 but among those stories published later than mid-September 1897, they contain 'No Place for a Woman', 'They Wait on the Wharf in Black' and four Mitchell and Steelman stories. It is impossible to be certain what proportion of these three volumes was written after the crisis but it is probable that it included the Joe Wilson stories and some at least of On the Track and Over the Sliprails.

The retreat from the difficulties of the new material of Mangamaunu foreshadowed Lawson's failure to complete the page 155Joe Wilson stories, or to be ultimately satisfying in those that he did finish. It was for Lawson, as he felt his 'Native School' sketches to have been, a new departure to write so closely to his inner experience, but the theme of marital strain required a more objective view of himself and his own contribution to the tension than Lawson had the gift for. The tension is not so much brought out and resolved as by-passed (however convincingly) by the happy ending that follows Joe's gift of the double buggy, and the happy ending is thrown into doubt by the author's reference in his post-script to Joe's subsequent 'deep trouble'. Lawson's retreat after the crisis at Mangamaunu foreshadowed too the imaginative fixation (in his personal disorientation after his separation in 1903 and when his bush material had pretty well run out) that retarded him in adapting his vision (as he did after 1912 in a number of stories set in Sydney) to the industrial, urban Australia whose life could not be interpreted in terms of the cult of the bush.