Friday, January 20, 2017

Saturday's Poem: Henry Lawson- Scots of the Riverina

Oh my ways are
strange ways and
new ways and old 
ways. And deep
ways and steep
ways and high
ways and low. I'm
at home and at ease
on a track that I
know not. And
restless and lost
on a road that I
Henry Lawson
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.

Henry Lawson (Freedom on the Wallaby)

"That he managed to dredge out of disadvantage, adversity and often appalling hardship so many magnificent stories is testimony to a toughness and determination that he is perhaps not often enough given credit for."
Brian Matthews on Henry Lawson

Scots of the Riverina
by Henry Lawson

The boy cleared out to the city from his home at harvest time --
They were Scots of the Riverina, and to run from home was a crime.
The old man burned his letters, the first and last he burned,
And he scratched his name from the Bible when the old wife's back was turned.

A year went past and another. There were calls from the firing-line;
They heard the boy had enlisted, but the old man made no sign.
His name must never be mentioned on the farm by Gundagai --
They were Scots of the Riverina with ever the kirk hard by.

The boy came home on his "final", and the township's bonfire burned.
His mother's arms were about him; but the old man's back was turned.
The daughters begged for pardon till the old man raised his hand --
A Scot of the Riverina who was hard to understand.
The boy was killed in Flanders, where the best and bravest die.
There were tears at the Grahame homestead and grief in Gundagai;
But the old man ploughed at daybreak and the old man ploughed till the mirk --
There were furrows of pain in the orchard while his housefolk went to the kirk.

The hurricane lamp in the rafters dimly and dimly burned;
And the old man died at the table when the old wife's back was turned.

Face down on his bare arms folded he sank with his wild grey hair
Outspread o'er the open Bible and a name re-written there.

Henry Lawson's poem tells the story of a young man who leaves the family farm in the Riverina country in outback Australia and moves to the city, with the result that his father disowns him. The young man enlists in the Australian army during WW1 and goes off to France, where he he is killed at Flanders.

Henry Lawson (1867-1922) is one of the best known Australian poets, bush balladeers and writers of the late 19th  and early 20th century. Lawson's first poem was published in 1887 and his first book in 1894.

Lawson was just 21 when his poem "Faces in the Street", was published in 1888. The poem was  a bitter denunciation of the injustices and poverty imposed on the poor and those made marginal. The poem exposed the lie that Australia is the land of plenty and a classless society. It became a revolutionary anthem and almost overnight Lawson became famous.

Many of his poems are bush ballads which have achieved the status of Australian folklore. In the late 19th and early 20th century Lawson was the most popular writer in Australia and considered the voice of ordinary Australians.

Lawson wrote about the hardships of Australian bush life, the social and political events of the times, the plight of the poor, the cause of an Australian republic, the strength of women and the larrikinism and humor of Australians.

Lawson's radicalism and his struggle with alcohol were factors that limited his employment opportunities. His career as a freelance writer was highly precarious and he eked out a marginal existence for much of his life. In 1890 he traveled to Albany in Western Australia (my home town) to pursue a career as a journalist, where he wrote for the Albany Observer and worked as laborer. He visited Albany again in 1896 on his honeymoon.

Of Albany Lawson wrote;

"It will never change much - it is a pretty town but vague. I like it all the better for that."

After he separated from his wife and children in 1903, Lawson struggled with alcohol and depression and lack of money. He lived his final years in poverty. He was frequently gaoled for failure to pay maintenance for his children and often wandered the streets of Sydney, frail and drunk. His final years were spent in and out of mental hospitals and prison. 

Despite his troubles, Lawson continued to write. He died in 1922 as a result of a brain hemorrhage. He was honored with a State funeral, the first Australian writer to receive the honor.

Lawson now features on the Australian $10 note.

The Australian singer-songwriter John Schuman and the Vagabond Crew have put Lawson's poem to music.

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