The following post is a reprint from June 4, 2010. It is worth another read, imho, and concerns two of Australia's greatest and popular poets. A lengthy article but one of general and historical interest...
The Bulletin Debate
The myth of “the bush” and Australian identity:
The image that the world has of Australia (which we also have of ourselves) is of open spaces, bush and wilderness, a resilient and resourceful people toiling under bright blue sunny skies. Each of us is either outwardly or inwardly Crocodile Dundee.
In reality Australia is the most urbanised country in the world, both as to the rate and level of urbanisation. Most of us live in the suburbs and work in the cities (although the level of city dwelling is increasing as State Government planning policies have encouraged residential dwelling in the city).
According to the 1861 census, more than 60% of the nation’s population were rural dwellers and lived outside the towns. By 1961, a century later, the proportion had fallen to 18%, with 82% of the population now living in the capital cities or other urban areas. Today, 89% of Australia’s population is urban.
This dualism of the cities and the areas outside the cities, generally referred to as “the bush”, and the effect on national identity, has persisted from the mid 19th century. The diggers on the goldfields were seen to be, and saw themselves, as stoic, enduring and resourceful, willing to endure hardship and struggle without complaint. In a hostile environment where the authorities were corrupt and the conditions were harsh, a digger could rely only on his mates. The legend of the bush and the Australian bushman was an extension of the goldfields digger. The same strength of character in difficult conditions was attributed to the bushman, the same mateship culture, resourcefulness and independence.
Australian nationalism and the search for identity promoted the Australian bushman image. The bush became a symbol for national life. By 1900 the bush was seen as the basis of Australian greatness and achievement, the Anzac soldier being a fusion of the bush characteristics and the military. The irony is that the much greater part of the population lived in the cities and urban areas and that the reality of bush life was often far removed from the romanticised images portrayed in art and writing.
Henry Lawson had been born on the goldfields in 1867, the son of a Norwegian seaman, Niels Larsen, who later changed his name to Peter Lawson. The family was poor and lived on a selection in the Mudgee district. Lawson’s childhood was not happy. He suffered from deafness and was often teased as a result. His parents separated when he was 16, following which he moved to Sydney with his mother who commenced publication of a feminist newspaper. Suffering from manic depression, Lawson sought refuge from his mood swings in alcohol. A marriage in 1896 produced 2 children but that marriage was also not a happy one. He separated from his wife in 1903. Periods of time in gaol for failing to support his family alternated with periods of time spent in institutions for alcoholism. He died in 1922.
Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson:
Paterson was born on a farm near Orange in 1864, the son of a Scottish father and Australian mother. At the age of 10 he was sent to a school in Sydney, becoming a solicitor in 1886. From 1885 he had been submitting material to The Bulletin under the name “The Banjo, the name of his favourite horse.
Paterson was a war correspondent during the Boer War and managed a property near Yass from 1908. He failed to become a war correspondent during WW1 and drove an ambulance instead. Returning to Australia in 1915, he was mobilised and saw active service, including being wounded. He died in 1941, aged 76.
The Bulletin was a weekly magazine published from 1880 to 2008, founded by journalists J F Archibald (founder of the Archibald Prize) and John Haynes. It was nationalist, anti-imperialist, republican and racist, its masthead bearing the words “Australia for the White Man” (the slogan remaining until the magazine was modernised upon its purchase by Sir Frank Packer in 1961). It was radical, xenophobic and blokey. From 1886 it published readers’ contributions, with the result that many later famous authors received their start by having poems and articles published in The Bulletin.
In its heyday The Bulletin was influential. It supported and promoted the bush legend self-image that Australians had of themselves Prior to Federation in 1900, Australia did not exist as a united entity, only as a collection of States. People gave their loyalties to their State and then to England and its monarch. The Bulletin promoted an Australian identity and character consistent with the bush myth, so much so that it became known as “the bushman’s Bible”.
Pictured: J F Archibald with Henry Lawson
The Bulletin Debate:
Both Lawson and Paterson were being regularly published in the Bulletin by 1892. They knew each other and were friends, despite different outlooks.
Each typified a different view of the bush: Paterson wrote its wildness, beauty, its characters and its instilling of strength and mateship; Lawson of its struggle and cruelty.
Between 1892 and 1893 they engaged in a literary debate on the virtues and merits, or otherwise, of the bush and the cities. The debate reinforced the significance of the bush as a significant part of an Australian national identity at a time but had the ultimate consequence of creating a rift between Paterson and Lawson as the debate became personal.
In 1939, 2 years before his death and 17 years after Lawson’s death, Paterson spoke of the debate:
"Henry Lawson was a man of remarkable insight in some things and of extraordinary simplicity in others. We were both looking for the same reef, if you get what I mean; but I had done my prospecting on horseback with my meals cooked for me, while Lawson has done his prospecting on foot and had had to cook for himself. Nobody realised this better than Lawson; and one day he suggested that we should write against each other, he putting the bush from his point of view, and I putting it from mine. "We ought to do pretty well out of it," he said. "We ought to be able to get in three or four sets of verses before they stop us." This suited me all right, for we were working on space, and the pay was very small ... so we slam-banged away at each other for weeks and weeks; not until they stopped us, but until we ran out of material ..."
The poems are too long to set out in their entirety in this article but I will provide links as to where they can be read. It is worth doing.
The initiating item in the debate was a poem by Lawson, Up the Country, in which he describes the bleak, barren and drought ridden countryside he experienced on a trip from the city, its struggling people and its cruel demands.
The first verse reads:
I am back from up the country -- very sorry that I went --
Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I'm glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country's rather more inviting round the coast.
Anyway, I'll stay at present at a boarding-house in town,
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.
He concludes with the same verse with slightly changed lines that
“…the Southern poets' dream will not be realised
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised.”
Paterson responded 2 weeks later with In Defence of the Bush, which opens with:
So you're back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you're cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn't cool and shady — and there wasn't whips of beer,
And the looney bullock snorted when you first came into view —
Well, you know it's not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you're better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.
Paterson then describes the bush in a romanticised manner: its lushness and beauty when the rains come in a month or two; the friendships in the shearers’ sheds; the mateship of the men of the bush and the jollity around the campfire at night, all to be compared with the squalid and hostile city and its inhabitants.
His final advice to Lawson is:
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the "push",
For the bush will never suit you, and you'll never suit the bush.
Lawson’s reply was published 2 weeks later, The City Bushman, in which he accuses Paterson of travelling in the bush a a city person, with all the city comforts and conveniences:
It was pleasant up the country, City Bushman, where you went,
For you sought the greener patches and you travelled like a gent;
Lawson accuses Paterson of romanticising the bush at the expense of its harsh realities: the backbreaking toil, the interest rates of the banks, the working for absentee landlords; the droughts and floods that ruin the farmers and their families. He speaks of “the drover who is driven and the shearer who is shorn” and says that the camaraderie of the campfire means little when the rain soaks both you and your supplies, when you have to toil for the station owner for provisions instead of money and where the “the drovers and the shearers and the bushmen and the rest” are nowhere near as well off as the poets who write about their idealised existence.
But you'll find it very jolly with the cuff-and-collar push,
And the city seems to suit you, while you rave about the bush.
Other writers joined in the debate, mostly on the side of Lawson, and were published in The Bulletin’s pages.
Two months later, in October 1982, Paterson replied to Lawson and his other critics in An Answer to Various Bards. His opening words are:
Well, I've waited mighty patient while they all came rolling in,
Mister Lawson, Mister Dyson, and the others of their kin,
With their dreadful, dismal stories of the Overlander's camp,
How his fire is always smoky, and his boots are always damp;
And they paint it so terrific it would fill one's soul with gloom --
But you know they're fond of writing about "corpses" and "the tomb".
According to Paterson, there is no denying that the bush has its hard realities, struggles and cruelties, but that the bushman meets those trials and overcomes. The bushman is not suited to the city:
And, of course, there's no denying that the bushman's life is rough,
But a man can easy stand it if he's built of sterling stuff;
Though it's seldom that the drover gets a bed of eiderdown,
Yet the man who's born a bushman, he gets mighty sick of town,
Let us herd into the cities, let us crush and crowd and push
Till we lose the love of roving, and we learn to hate the bush;
And we'll turn our aspirations to a city life and beer,
And we'll slip across to England -- it's a nicer place than here;
For there's not much risk of hardship where all comforts are in store,
And the theatres are in plenty, and the pubs are more and more.
But that ends it, Mr Lawson, and it's time to say good-bye,
So we must agree to differ in all friendship, you and I.
Yes, we'll work our own salvation with the stoutest hearts we may,
And if fortune only favours we will take the road some day,
And go droving down the river 'neath the sunshine and the stars,
And then return to Sydney and vermilionize the bars.
The references in the poem to beer, pubs and bars are part of Paterson’s personal jibes at Lawson and his alcoholism.
The debate had become caustic and personal, with Paterson early on attacking the man rather than the argument.
Paterson further criticised Lawson as being “fond of writing about ‘corpses’ and ‘the tomb’. Paterson is reputed to have written this because he had seen a poem by Lawson called The Poet of the Tomb on Lawson’s desk. In An Answer to Various Bards Paterson refers to various deaths that Lawson had written about in his poems and suggests that Lawson and his supporters “should take something for their livers, and be cheerful for a change”. Instead of being full of doom and gloom they should try to focus on other than the tomb.
According to Paterson:
…no doubt, the bush is wretched if you judge it by the groan
Of the sad and soulful poet with a graveyard of his own.
One week later Lawson responded with The Poets of the Tomb, the poem for which Paterson had seen the title on Lawson’s desk.
Lawson responded to Paterson:
The world has had enough of bards who wish that they were dead,
'Tis time the people passed a law to knock 'em on the head,
For 'twould be lovely if their friends could grant the rest they crave --
Those bards of `tears' and `vanished hopes', those poets of the grave.
They say that life's an awful thing, and full of care and gloom,
They talk of peace and restfulness connected with the tomb.
He continues that whereas some people help the world and try to improve the lot of themselves and others, the poets of the tomb and of the grave are concerned only with how they will be remembered and what monuments will be erected for them.
According to Lawson:
'Twixt mother's arms and coffin-gear a man has work to do!
And if he does his very best he mostly worries through,
And while there is a wrong to right, and while the world goes round,
An honest man alive is worth a million underground.
And yet, as long as sheoaks sigh and wattle-blossoms bloom,
The world shall hear the drivel of the poets of the tomb.
This poem marks the end of the verse debate and is said to have also marked the end of the friendship between Lawson and Paterson. Lawson is said to have become upset at the outcome of the debate and by it becoming personal. Using £5 and a rail ticket provided by Archibald, Lawson headed to Bourke where he “painted, picked up in a shearing shed and swagged it for six months...’ as he wrote to his aunt.
In an ultimate irony, it is believed that part of Lawson’s reason for going to Bourke was to see for himself life in “the bush” and to experience the countryside and the people he had been writing about.
According to Robyn Burrows, the author of Henry Lawson: A Stranger on the Darling, a book about Lawson’s Bourke period:
It is doubtful if, at that time [the time of the Bulletin Debate], he had been further west than Bathurst and he had no real concept, except what he had been told by others, of the real outback.