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Multiple photos of a seated Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson: poet of the people

A writer wrote of the hearts of men, and he followed their tracks afar; for his was a spirit that forced his pen to write of the things that are.

‘Tell it like it is,’ we say today. Henry Lawson claimed that style as his own 118 years ago in his 1897 poem The Writer’s Dream. For a decade before the poem was published, Lawson had already established himself as the voice of ordinary Australians. With his keen, sensitive eye and dry, honest tone, he wrote of the hardships of life in the Australian bush, the plight of the poor in the city, the fight for a republic, the strength and bravery of women, the mateship and larrikinism of men, all ‘for the sake of the truth’. Telling it like it was.

Henry Lawson (1867–1922) was born in a tent in Grenfell, on the New South Wales goldfields, and had a tough childhood, moving around with his family while his father pursued gold, and helping his mother run the family selection in his father’s absence. Shy and partially deaf, Lawson had only three years of formal education and yet, encouraged by his mother, with whom he moved to Sydney following the end of his parents’ marriage, he began writing poetry and short stories.

Lawson’s first poem, A Song of the Republic, was published in Sydney’s influential Bulletin magazine in 1887, followed by his first short story, His Father’s Mate, a year after. Lawson’s first book, Short Stories in Prose & Verse, was published in 1894. Over the following years, Henry Lawson’s literary reputation grew as he contributed to several Australian magazines and newspapers, had successful works published such as While the Billy Boils and Joe Wilson and His Mates, and helped to form a sense of the nation’s identity through his city and country stories, characters and ideals.

But Lawson had a weakness for alcohol that, combined with a constant need for money, would darken his creative days. While he married and had two children, travelling to London to build his readership, Lawson returned to Australia a battered spirit. His last years were spent in and out of jail and sanatoriums as he continued to battle the alcoholism and depression that had marred his life, yet throughout that time he continued writing.

After he died in 1922 following a brain haemorrhage, Henry Lawson was honoured with the first state funeral for a writer in Australia. Mourners from all walks of life attended the ceremony, a physical reflection of the scope of Lawson’s subject matter and appeal.

Henry Lawson’s unforgettable works are still read and discussed by many; his insightful words still quoted. The power of his pen continues.

Item 122g: Henry Lawson, 1915 / photographer William Johnson

This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Curtis & Massey-Greene Families in recognition of "Faces In The Street" - St Vincent's Urban Mental Health Research Institute