State Library of NSW presents Libby Hathorn’s Poets of Australia: Henry Lawson


[music] Have you seen the bush by moonlight,
from the train go running by? Blackened log and stump and sapling,
ghostly trees all dead and dry; Here a patch of glassy water;
there a glimpse of mystic sky? Have you heard the still voice calling –
yet so warm and yet so cold: “I’m the Mother-Bush that bore you!
Come to me when you are old”? Hi I’m Libby Hathorn, Australian writer and
poet, and I’m really pleased to present to you the much-loved bush poet and
short story writer, Henry Lawson. More than 140 years since his birth Henry’s
work is still widely read and loved. [music] I’m here at the State Library of NSW today
where there are many, many treasures. Books of course, but way more than books. There are fabulous pieces stored carefully under lock and key that help remind us
our precious Australian poets of the past. We have manuscripts and letters written in
the handwriting of those poets – no computers then – Photos, paintings, locks of hair! And
more awesome stuff to help bring them to life. Like Henry’s hat, his walking stick,
his pen, his pipe and other strange and even grisly things. Henry was born in a tent at
Grenfell in NSW in 1867. His father, Peter, came from Norway
following the call of the goldfields. Tents, huts, lean-tos, slab huts, the
Lawson family lived in them all. I was lucky enough to visit the place where
Henry’s father built their house at Eurunderee near Mudgee. It was their best house yet and
it’s on the road now called Henry Lawson Drive. Henry’s mother, Louisa, was a great storyteller
and the shy Henry was always close to her. She was energetic, and as well as running
a post office from the family home and working on their selection – or farm – she fought
to build the small school that Henry went to. In the Gulgong Museum just outside Mudgee
you can see a school much like the one Henry would have attended and
a toilet like the one Henry used – it was called a Thunderbox.
Hmm, I wonder why. It was built of bark and poles,
and the floor was full of holes. Where each leak in rainy weather
made a pool; And the walls were mostly cracks
lined with calico and sacks – There was little need for windows
in the school. One night he had a terrible earache and woke to find that the world had changed for
him. Henry was left partially deaf. At school he didn’t have many friends
to start with and this only made it worse. [music] LuckIly for Henry, he moved to a school in
Mudgee where his English teacher encouraged him to write poetry and a whole
new world opened up. But his schooling was short and after only
three or four years he was out building houses with his Dad. And he was only 14! In 1883 Henry was 17 when he came to Sydney. His mother had moved with his brother and
sister and Henry got work as a coach painter. He tried studying for the school-
leaving exam at night and failed, but that didn’t stop him writing. His mother Louisa was a well-known women’s
activist who ran her own newspaper The Republican. Henry wrote for it using the pen name ‘Archie
Lawson’ while gaining a name for himself as ‘Henry Lawson’ with poems like
Faces in the Street and The Roaring Days. Oh who would paint a goldfield
And limn the picture right As we’ve often seen them
In early morning’s light? The yellow mounds of mullock
With spots of red and white The scattered quartz that glistens
like diamonds in light. At 28, Henry married Bertha Bredt
and they had two children. But he proved to be an unreliable
husband and father because of an addiction to alcohol. [music] Meanwhile, Henry’s collections –
“While the Billy Boils” and “In the Days when the World was Wide and
other Verses” made him increasingly popular. [music] Our Andy’s gone to battle now
‘Gainst Drought, the red marauder; Our Andy’s gone with cattle now
Across the Queensland border. He’s left us in dejection now;
Our thoughts with him are roving. It’s dull on this selection now,
Since Andy went a-droving. [music and sound effects] Back then poets were celebrities and Henry
had a famous but friendly word battle with another celebrated poet, Banjo Paterson,
of Waltzing Matilda fame. – city versus country. 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 plenty beer. It was pleasant up the country,
City Bushman, where you went, For you sought the greener patches
and you travelled like a gent; And you curse the trams and buses
and the turmoil and the push, Though you know the squalid city
needn’t keep you from the bush; [music] Do you want to see the hand that wrote that
poem? Well, it’s here in the Library. [sound effects] Hmmm, the hand! And it’s not just his poetry and his hand
that are still with us. There’s a bronze statue of Henry Lawson,
with a swaggie and a dog, in the Domain – just over the road from here. And you can see his face on old 10-dollar
notes and postage stamps! You can even see that Henry Lawson
was recognised and even celebrated as a star in his lifetime. But it was a short hard life and at one
time Henry owed so much money he ended up in Darlinghurst gaol. He called it Starvinghurst because they
didn’t feed the prisoners enough. It must have been torture for the man! They
wouldn’t let Henry write in gaol, except for letters like this heart-rending one. “Dear Bland Holt, I am in very deep trouble
and beg of you to help me once again. “You will never regret the amount
is only six pounds, 12, for my …” Henry Lawson also wrote stories and poems for a Sydney magazine called The Bulletin
and he was given an assignment where he willingly ‘humped the bluey’ walking hundreds of miles
through the Australian bush sleeping by the road. Henry was devastated by the drought-stricken
areas he walked through, and the poverty and the suffering
he saw. But he also had an eye for beauty. Some of his finest short stories and
poems were written after his long trek. By hut, homestead and
shearing shed. By railroad, coach and track- By lonely graves where rest the dead,
Up country and Out-back: To where beneath the clustered stars
The dreamy plains expand – My home lies wide a thousand miles
In the Never-Never land. Henry Lawson had a troubled life: by the
end of it he had left his family and had no money because of
the bad deals with publishers. But through all this he kept his
sense of humour. [music] You may be a man of sorrow,
and on speaking terms with Care, But as yet you’re unacquainted
with the Demon of Despair; For I rather think that nothing heaps
the trouble on your mind Like the knowledge that your trousers badly
need a patch behind. [music and sound effects] Henry moved from house to house because of
trouble with the rent and would sometimes even spend the night in a cave in Flat Rock
Gully near Naremburn Falls, listening to the water cascading
on the rocks. [sound effects] Another of the treasures kept right here at the
State Library is something you might find unusual. It’s Henry’s death mask. Strange, but
when famous people died a mould of their face was made so that their
face they would be remembered forever. When Henry died he was given a state funeral,
an honour usually reserved for governors. [music] I’m sure he would’ve been surprised
and moved by this. These photos show a fine face: curious,
humorous, sad and thoughtful, all the things that are the poet
Henry Lawson. [music] “In the cutting or the tunnel,
out of sight of stock or shed, Did you hear the grey Bush calling
from the pine-ridge overhead: “You have seen the seas and cities
– all is cold to you, or dead – All seems done and all seems told,
but the grey-light turns to gold! I’m the Mother-Bush that loves you
– come to me now you are old”? [music] I hoped you enjoyed hearing the poems and
seeing the treasures here at the NSW State Library. Join me soon for more Australian
poets.

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