The Philosophy of Henry Lawson. By Vance Marshall
THE PHILOSOPHY OF HENRY LAWSON
For the moment I am again gazing out across a weather-beaten sill into the fresh warmth of coming spring. The shabby gateway, I see it yet—the pebbled track leading to the veranda steps—the perkily wistful face of the shaggy dog ever anxiously on pathway watch.
I listen in the stillness. I hear the strained, up-grade, jerky coughing of North Shore train— the baby animal calls of the tousled toddlers playing on the street side—and, above all, the harsh, condemnatory ring in a voice that is heard no more. Unwittingly I had twanged to its fullest an unexpected chord in the breast of Henry Lawson.
We had talked of the publication, "Might is Right," whose author, "Ragnar Redbeard," in support of his condemnation of present-day ethics, had induced a quotation from Lawson's "Days When the World Was Wide":
"We fight like women, and feel as such; the thoughts of our hearts we guard; Where scarcely the scorn of a god could touch, the sneer of the sneak hits hard; The treacherous tongue and cowardly pen, the weapons of curs, decide—They faced each other and fought like men, in the days when the world was wide.""I remember him," Lawson had said;
"'Ragnar Redbeard' —Arthur Desmond his real name—a strange, determined man— perhaps the most desperately determined of the Old Brigade of the nineties." He paused as his mind reverted back, and then mused on about the virile radicalism and political associates of long ago, as he was often wont to do with me. Joe Cook, George Black, William Arthur Holman, Harry Holland, William Morris Hughes, found mention amongst a host of others—firebrands of firebrands, according to his recollection.
"Your milk and water rebels of today are not in it with those early Laborites," he summarised half tauntingly, "neither as regards mentality, daring, nor action." I was pleased to listen, for Henry Lawson, when warmed to a subject, was a good conversationalist, interesting and analytical. My retort was more designed to lead him further into a reminiscent vein.
"But how many stood the acid test of time? Why the bulk of those men are now out-Heroding Herod in so far as rank conservatism is concerned— denouncing more vociferously than all others the very gospel they then preached. Look how many of them have changed!"
I had turned my gaze from the outer morning towards him and had carelessly flung the shaft in the loud-pitched voice his deafness demanded. It struck more deeply than I had wished. Within a flash, Henry Lawson had risen to the full of his tall height beside the deal board table. The simple stretcher upon which he had slept was still unarranged. The grey streaked hair lay unkempt across his forehead, the open neck of his matutinal attire showed barely a sinuous neck and chest. The wondrous wealth of expression in that keen face, the mystifying depths of those piercing eyes, the man's whole vigorous attitude and appearance, intensified the emphasis of his utterance.
"Changed, no! Men—thinking men—don't ever change well-conceived ideas, no matter how they may back and fill in the struggle for existence or aggrandizement, wealth or power. Once a man reasons out that things are wrong with a system and prove it conclusively to his own satisfaction, how can he, with the same mental capacity and the same set of facts before him, ever reverse such conclusions? He can't, he can't!—unless his brain becomes defective." He tossed his head back and spoke on, again the youthful enthusiast of days long dead.
"Poverty, grinding poverty, starvation—not only for food but for learning, too—it must teach any man with a brain above that of an animal that the conditions under which we live do not give to men and women the best that life has to offer. Men do not throw their deep-set convictions over-board — they could not do so. They only seem to realize the hopelessness of striving for any collective betterment, to awake to the brevity of life and the impossibility of securing any marked good for all in the brief span allotted to us—and so they are lured to strive for individual success.
"The fires were burning low, and he was fumbling awkwardly for his chair."
I don't blame my comrades of long ago, no matter what road they have taken. Some utilized their ability to secure place and power and passing greatness; some, have stuck to the old creed through weal and woe, and yet have maintained for themselves the smug respectability demanded by next-door neighbors; and some I greet daily selling shoelaces and studs on the street corners; and yet I know that brought together on common ground, those of us who have soared highest and those of us who have slipped dispiritedly behind would still think as one and again see visions of the day when accumulated wealth will no longer constitute the hallmark of success."
Henry Lawson had heavily reseated himself, and his greying head sought a resting place in the hands that had known every class of toil.
"And you yourself, where do you stand?"
Curiosity had made me relentless. The tired head was raised slowly, and the reply to my query was indirect."Thirty years ago, flaming with revolt, I wrote 'The Faces in the Street.' To-day I see those same faces in the street, on the ferry—everywhere; faces seared with age where youth should yet be; old faces lined and grooved with care and trouble—furrowed tragedy that no passing cheerfulness can obliterate; and, because of those faces, my old heart still flames with the burning injustice of it all."
I went my way and with me the vibrant fervor of Henry Lawson's declaration of faith. Somehow it wakened me to a fuller appreciation of the consistency of the man who, enthused by boyish emotion, could pen "The Faces in the Street," and even as the shadows of age beckoned towards him, create for it a sister song:
My army, O my army! The time I dreamed of comes!
I want to see your colors; I long to hear your drums!
I heard them in my boyhood when all men's hearts seemed cold;
I heard them through the years of life—and now I'm growing old!
My army, O my army! The signs are manifold!
* * * * *
My legions ne'er were listed, they had no need to be;
My army ne'er was trained to arms—'twas trained to misery;
It took long years to mould it, but war could never drown.
The shuffling of my army's feet at drill in Hunger Town—
A little child was murdered, and so Tyranny went down.
My army kept no order, my army kept no time;
My army dug no trenches, yet died in dust and slime;
Its troops were fiercely ignorant, as to the manner born;
Its clothes were rags and tatters—patched rags, the patches torn—
Ah, me! it wore a uniform that I have often worn.
The faces of my army were ghastly as the dead;
My army's cause was Hunger, my army's cry was "Bread!"
It called on God and Mary and Christ of Nazareth;
It cried to kings and courtesans that fainted at its breath—
Its women beat their poor, flat breasts where babes had starved to death.
* * * * *
My army. O my army— I hear the sound of drums
Above the roar of battle—and, lo, my army comes!
Nor creed of man may stay it—nor war, nor nations' law—
Ho, fan of God that blows the chaff!
Ho, flames amid the straw!
The world shall burn in hells it made to keep the poor in awe.
By Vance Marshall.
Queensland Worker, 1 February 1923