The Goulburn Evening Penny Post of 26 September 1922 reported a talk by poet Mary Gilmore at Goulburn High School. It was only a few weeks after the death of her friend Henry Lawson.
Last week, in an informal talk at the Goulburn High School, Mrs Mary Gilmore gave in outline an account of the late Henry Lawson, his work, his temperament, and some of his personal history, as well as an appreciation of his value as the outstanding figure in the history of Australian literature. Opening her remarks, Mrs. Gilmore said that, to begin with, she had known Henry Lawson ever since he was about twenty-one, that her mother and Henry’s mother, Louisa Lawson, had been friends, and that acquaintance ran through three generations of Lawson’s family. “It is not necessary,” said the speaker, “to refer to Lawson’s birthplace or to read or discuss his writings in the present talk, as all these things are given in the course of High School teaching. But something of the man, of his life as known to his friends, and of the causes which made him what he was are more necessary, and what I propose to give, for , indeed, much of this is still only passed mouth to mouth and will be lost if not collected or given now. When I first met Lawson he was a tall, thin, shy, sensitive lad, not yet done growing. In a photograph which I have of him this is shown very emphatically for the pictured Lawson has a definitely weak chin. Those who know the mature Lawson will remember that he had a big, deep, strong chin. He was like his mother in appearance; he was like her in temperament. Apart from his own mother, my mother and I were among the first to realise Lawson’s genius and his originality. He was without doubt the most original writer Australia has ever produced. His style was his own, his method was his own. From his mother he inherited much. He had her sense of drama, of humour, of the value of local colour, and the essential point of any story. But his power of expression went beyond hers; and his capacity for a suggested under-current of feeling went beyond hers afar as genius goes beyond intellectual talent. When I first knew Louisa Lawson, social conditions were not what they are now, and it is difficult to realise what she, in her fight for women, was up against. But as an instance I might mention that at that time any woman seen in, or seen going into, a restaurant in Sydney could be arrested by the police. And just as his mother had much to do with the early shaping of conditions in Australia socially, so had her son, and I shall never forget when, nearly thirty-five years ago, in a strike of that day the young Lawson ran all the way from a mass meeting at the old Exhibition building to where I lived and burst in with the cry -‘They are going to fire on my countrymen.’ It was have served out ball cartridges and are going to fire on my countrymen. It was then that Colonel Price had given his infamous order: “Fire low and lay ’em out !’ When I had quietened Lawson down I sent him to his mother and asked for a message to be sent to Sir Henry Parkes. And I like to think that it was partly due to Henry Lawson that the infamy of that day was not carried out. His influence in the early days of the rise of our social democracy has seldom been told. But it is a fact that his ‘Faces in the Street’ and his ‘Army of the Rear’ ran like a flame throughout the young State. He wrote in the early ‘Worker’ (my paper), and throughout his work runs the note of the seer and the prophet of national democracy. His temperament was subject to moods, like his mother’s, and among his best friends was the late Minister for Education, Mr. T. D. Mutch. Our office was for twenty years a sort of home to Lawson, and till latterly there was always someone there who looked after him, and to whom he looked in time of trouble. Mr. Mutch, when Henry would have a depressed mood on him, would give up all his Saturday afternoon to the poet, returning for him on Sundays, and together they would tramp the bush of Gordon, Middle Harbour etc., silent for hours and hours at a stretch. But in those seemingly sombre hours germinated and grew much which later blossomed in the best of Lawson’s later work. When Mr. Mutch left our office to go into Parliament, his trust as regards Henry fell on Mr J Noonan, our accountant. But others were faithful friends to to poet and none more so than Mr George Robertson (Angus and Robertson’s), Mr Phil Harris (“Aussie” Magazine), and Mr . J. G. Lockley (of the Lockley Library).” Mrs Gilmore speaking of Lawson in London as well as in Australia gave tribute to his work, quoting in reference to the former place Mr. Pinker (the well-known English publishing agent), the editor of “Blackwood’s Magazine” and Mr. Garnet, the critic (afterwards Sir Richard Garnet) all of whom had stressed to her the unique value of Lawson’s work. Mrs Gilmore spoke for nearly an hour and then ended by reading a letter which Lawson’s sister, Mrs Gertrude Lawson O’Connor, had published to the children of Australia (in “The Women’s Budget”) in memory of her gifted brother.
Lawson’s handwritten story of his famous poem “Faces in the Street” is here courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales. It reveals how, at the age of 21, he “struck the keynote or the key line” for the poem on Petersham Station in Sydney on a cold wet night.
The thirteen stanza poem begins thus.
You can read it in full here at The Australian Poetry Library (HT to the following institutions that support this important cultural resource).
This 1944 Autumn edition of Angry Penguins featured a painting of Sidney Nolan’s on the cover. (Image from ABC Radio National’s Bookshow where you can also find an audio download about the hoax poems included in the publication).
Angry Penguins was the creation of Max Harris and his editorial committee – John Reed, Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan. This edition featured the work of Ern Malley whose work had been introduced to Harris by his ‘sister’ Ethel. But things weren’t necessarily as they seemed.
Mr. Brian Elliott, lecturer in Australian literature at the Adelaide University, has challenged Mr. Max Harris to prove the existence of Ern Malley, a poet ‘discovered’ by Harris. (The Max Harris link is to the Professional Historians Association of South Australia)
The mystery of Ern Malley is causing concern in literary circles not only in Adelaide, but through out Australia. The reason is that the poems are good, whoever wrote them. Some of them were included in the anthology of Australian verse collected by the American poet, Harry Roskelenko, and published in New York by Henry Vinnal.
AN alleged life story of Malley, together with all his poems, appears in the latest issue of ‘Angry Penguins.’ published by Reed & Harris. ………… Harris says:— ‘Recently I was sent two poems from a Miss Ethel Malley, who wrote saying they were found among her brother’s possessions after his death on July 23, 1943. Someone suggested to her that they might be of value, and that she send them to me for an opinion. ‘At this stage I knew nothing about the author at all, but I was immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human ex perience.’ ………… Adelaide University students who have seen the original of this letter and the original poems say that if it is a hoax it is an elaborately prepared one, as these documents appear to be genuine.
The two cheerful and healthy-minded young graduates of the Sydney University who perpetrated the much-discussed “Ern Malley” hoax, and who thus blew to smithereens the irritating pretensions and incomprehensible philosophy of a school of so-called “modern poetry,” are deserving, perhaps, of some higher distinction than the bogus doctorate conferred upon them by “the Sydney University Oxometrical Society.” But the authors of the “Ern Malley” documents, who labored so hard to make his pretended “poems” the most arrant gibberish, and whose highest expectations must have been exceeded when a laboriously bad skit on bad verse was hailed as the work of “a giant of contemporary Australian poetry,” will not wear the trappings, if any, of “doctors of oxometry,” with an ill grace. The one thing that remains to be thought of, is the invention of a fitting academic award for the poetasters and other literary quidnuncs [a self-important newsmonger and gossip] who took the fictitious “Ern Malley” to their bosoms, swearing that he was a genius after their own hearts, and implying, in the usual way, that all who ventured to pronounce him childish and incomprehensible, would but betray their own pathetic lack of aesthetic taste and spiritual perception. A wooden spoon or a leather medal, might conceivably meet the case.