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Published at 20
Partially deaf, painfully shy, with only three years of formal education and very little money to his name … Henry Lawson at age 20 had his fair share of setbacks.
Yet his talent was obvious, and on 1 October 1887, his first poem was published in the Bulletin, Australia’s most significant literary journal. The subject? A republican call to action that is still relevant and resonant today.
Lawson’s mother had immersed herself in the women’s movement, and she and her politically minded friends fuelled the young man’s socialist and republican dreams. In this poem, ‘A Song of the Republic’, Henry Lawson had found his voice.
Speaking of Lawson’s ‘poetic genius’, Bulletin editor J.F. Archibald introduced the young author to his readers with the publication of his second poem, ‘Golden Gully’, in December 1887. From this point, Lawson’s works appeared regularly in the Bulletin and Archibald would play an important part in the young author’s life, helping him to hone the easy, laconic style of his best stories.
Songs of the city
A rainy night at Petersham Station – this was the origin for one of Henry Lawson’s most celebrated works. ‘Faces in the Street’ was published in the Bulletin in July 1888 and focuses on the grim reality of urban working-class Australian life.
In his ‘fragment of autobiography’, Lawson discusses how he came up with the idea for the poem.
It was the faces of the poor and unemployed he encountered every day on the streets of Sydney that made such a sharp impression on Lawson, recently arrived from the bush and already disillusioned by city life. Sadly, during his own periods of unemployment, Lawson was able to draw only too well on personal experience.
In 1887, Louisa Lawson bought the Republican magazine, meaning her son gained another outlet for his work and an introduction to journalism that he was able to build on later, in 1891, with a job writing for the Brisbane Boomerang.
As his reputation as a writer grew, he became a regular contributor to several popular magazines and newspapers but slipped into depression when jobs dried up and he wasn’t writing, drinking heavily to suppress his insecurities.
Ballads of the bush
Lawson’s first published short story, ‘His Father’s Mate’, appeared in the Bulletin on 22 December 1888, greatly to the delight of a proud Nils Lawson, who died only a few days later. Set on the goldfields, it evokes a poignant picture of father and son that surely reflects some of Lawson’s own childhood experiences.
‘His Father’s Mate’ and ‘Faces in the Street’ both appeared in A Golden Shanty, an anthology of short stories and verse published by the Bulletin in 1890 that also included works by Victor Daley, Henry Kendall and A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson. The two pieces showcased Lawson’s dual interests of city and country.
In September 1892, J.F. Archibald sent Lawson off to Bourke, in far north-western NSW, so that he could report first-hand for the Bulletin on the lives of bushmen and country workers. Armed with $5 and a rail ticket, Lawson set out on one of the most important journeys of his life.
He picked up work in a shearing shed and swagged for six months. Lawson was profoundly moved by the hardship of rural life and the resilience of the people living in the drought-stricken outback. Some of his thoughts would appear in the 1892 poetic debate featured in the Bulletin, between Lawson, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and others, about the merits of country versus city life.
By the time he returned to Sydney in mid 1893, Lawson had a store of memories that provided him with a cast of characters and subject matter for many of his most celebrated works.
No church-bell rings them from the Track,
No pulpit lights their blindness –
‘Tis hardship, drought and homelessness
That teach those Bushmen kindness
(‘The Shearer’, 1901)
The young author - stories behind the stories
‘A Song of the Republic’ - the anxious first author
‘It was my first song and sincere – written by a bush boy … struggling on the edge of the unemployed gulf,’ wrote Lawson of his first published poem, ‘A Song of the Republic’. In his ‘fragment of autobiography’, Lawson describes how he came up with the idea for the poem and nervously submitted it then ‘got away around the corner’. It’s an appealingly honest depiction of any writer’s anxiety as Lawson writes of lying awake at night then checking the magazine at the newsagent regularly to see if he was successful. Finally, he screws up the courage to visit the Bulletin office, where he discovers the poem is being held back for inclusion in the magazine’s special ‘8 Hour Day’ edition, to be published on 1 October 1887.
‘Faces in the Street’ - the wrong beginning?
It was a strong first line to an unforgettable poem, but not everyone thought it was the right one. In 1917, that line became a bone of contention between Henry Lawson and publisher George Robertson, who requested Lawson amend it before it was republished in his Selected Verses (1913).
‘If you do this for me … I solemnly promise not to dodge you next time you come to town!’ wrote the publisher. The exchange of letters between the pair is an enticing insight into the publisher/author relationship.
'Faces in the Street’ - then and now
Another rainy night on Petersham platform …
This famous Lawson poem has strong connections to Petersham Railway Station in Sydney’s inner-west. A plaque on the platform commemorates the fact that it was while waiting for a train one rainy night in 1888 Lawson, then a young man of 21, struck the poem’s keynote stanza:
They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window sill is level with the faces in the street.
That one poem written 127 years ago addressed what Lawson saw as the lie about Australia being the lucky country, a home of plenty and classlessness. As these examples show, its influence has continued today through the power of that evocative title …
- The one-man play Faces in the Street: A Salute to Henry Lawson was written and performed in 2010 by playwright and actor Max Cullen and follows Henry Lawson through his life.
- The song ‘Faces in the Street’ was created by Australian band The Bushwackers in 1981, adapting Lawson’s words to write a Marxist anthem.
- The song ‘Faces in the Street’ was created by musician Hugh McDonald, formerly of Australian band Redgum, in 2008, putting a selection of Lawson’s words to music on The Lawson Album.
- The name ‘Faces in the Street’ was given to the Urban Mental Health and Wellbeing Institute formed in 2010 at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney.
City vs country: duelling with Banjo
I am back from up the country – very sorry that I went …
(‘Up the Country’, 1892)
It was a battle to behold, and the weapons were words. In 1892, the Bulletin hosted a poetic ‘debate’ between some of its most prominent voices about the merits of bush versus city lifestyles.
On one side was Mr Henry Lawson, on the other Mr A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson. Mr Lawson, born in the bush and now living in the city, was determined to highlight the bush’s harsh realities that he felt had been romanticised by Mr Paterson in his ‘utopian’ writings. He opened the debate with the poem ‘Up the Country’, and soon Mr Paterson responded…
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
(‘In Defence of the Bush’, 1892)
It was pleasant up the country, Mr. Banjo, 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’,
Tho’ you know the ‘squalid city’ needn’t keep you from the bush
(‘In Answer to “Banjo” and Otherwise’, later changed to ‘The City Bushman’, 1892)
The result was a fairly good-natured exchange of opinions, a poetic ‘state of origin’ between two of Australia’s best loved writers.