Thursday, October 20, 2022



The Flame War Between Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson

This is a reduced version of an article that has been previously posted in Bytes, which can be read in full at:

The Australian image:

Australian nationalism and the search for identity promoted the Australian bushman image. The bush became a symbol for national life. By 1900 the bush was seen as the basis of Australian greatness and achievement, the Anzac soldier being a fusion of the bush characteristics and the military. The irony is that the much greater part of the population lived in the cities and urban areas and that the reality of bush life was often far removed from the romanticised images portrayed in art and writing.

Henry Lawson:

Henry Lawson had been born on the goldfields in 1867, the son of a Norwegian seaman, Niels Larsen, who later changed his name to Peter Lawson. The family was poor and lived on a selection in the Mudgee district. Lawson’s childhood was not happy. He suffered from deafness and was often teased as a result. His parents separated when he was 16, following which he moved to Sydney with his mother who commenced publication of a feminist newspaper. Suffering from manic depression, Lawson sought refuge from his mood swings in alcohol. A marriage in 1896 produced 2 children but that marriage was also not a happy one. He separated from his wife in 1903. Periods of time in gaol for failing to support his family alternated with periods of time spent in institutions for alcoholism. He died in 1922.

Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson:

Paterson was born on a farm near Orange in 1864, the son of a Scottish father and Australian mother. At the age of 10 he was sent to a school in Sydney, becoming a solicitor in 1886. From 1885 he had been submitting material to The Bulletin under the name “The Banjo, the name of his favourite horse.

Paterson was a war correspondent during the Boer War and managed a property near Yass from 1908. He failed to become a war correspondent during WW1 and drove an ambulance instead. Returning to Australia in 1915, he was mobilised and saw active service, including being wounded. He died in 1941, aged 76.

The Bulletin:

The Bulletin was a weekly magazine published from 1880 to 2008, founded by journalists J F Archibald (founder of the Archibald Prize) and John Haynes. It was nationalist, anti-imperialist, republican and racist, its masthead bearing the words “Australia for the White Man” (the slogan remaining until the magazine was modernised upon its purchase by Sir Frank Packer in 1961). It was radical, xenophobic and blokey. From 1886 it published readers’ contributions, with the result that many later famous authors received their start by having poems and articles published in The Bulletin.

In its heyday The Bulletin was influential. It supported and promoted the bush legend self-image that Australians had of themselves

J F Archibald with Henry Lawson

The Bulletin Debate:

Both Lawson and Paterson were being regularly published in the Bulletin by 1892. They knew each other and were friends, despite different outlooks.

Each typified a different view of the bush: Paterson wrote its wildness, beauty, its characters and its instilling of strength and mateship; Lawson of its struggle and cruelty.

They began portraying their different views of the bush and the outback in a poetic debate in the columns of the Bulletin, a debate which began lightly but ended their friendship.

The initiating item in the debate was a poem by Lawson, Up the Country, in which he describes the bleak, barren and drought ridden countryside he experienced on a trip from the city, its struggling people and its cruel demands.

The first verse reads:

I am back from up the country -- very sorry that I went --
Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I'm glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country's rather more inviting round the coast.
Anyway, I'll stay at present at a boarding-house in town,
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes, taking baths and cooling down.

He concludes that
“…the Southern poets' dream will not be realised
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised.”

Paterson responded 2 weeks later with In Defence of the Bush, which opens with:

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 whips of beer,
And the looney bullock snorted when you first came into view —
Well, you know it's not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you're better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.

Paterson then describes the bush in a romanticised manner: its lushness and beauty when the rains come in a month or two; the friendships in the shearers’ sheds; the mateship of the men of the bush and the jollity around the campfire at night, all to be compared with the squalid and hostile city and its inhabitants.

His final advice to Lawson is:

You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the "push",
For the bush will never suit you, and you'll never suit the bush.

Lawson’s reply was published 2 weeks later, The City Bushman, in which he accuses Paterson of travelling in the bush a a city person, with all the city comforts and conveniences:

It was pleasant up the country, City Bushman, where you went,
For you sought the greener patches and you travelled like a gent;

Lawson accuses Paterson of romanticising the bush at the expense of its harsh realities: the backbreaking toil, the interest rates of the banks, the working for absentee landlords; the droughts and floods that ruin the farmers and their families. He speaks of “the drover who is driven and the shearer who is shorn” and says that the camaraderie of the campfire means little when the rain soaks both you and your supplies, when you have to toil for the station owner for provisions instead of money and where the “the drovers and the shearers and the bushmen and the rest” are nowhere near as well off as the poets who write about their idealised existence.

He concludes:
But you'll find it very jolly with the cuff-and-collar push,
And the city seems to suit you, while you rave about the bush.

Two months later, in October 1982, Paterson replied to Lawson and his other critics in An Answer to Various Bards. Read it at:

He commented that the townies should stay in town or move to England and leave the bush to those who were tougher and stronger.

The references in the poem to beer, pubs and bars are part of Paterson’s personal jibes at Lawson and his alcoholism. The debate had become caustic and personal, with Paterson early on attacking the man rather than the argument.

As often happens in joking between friends, a line can be crossed, as happened here. The debate ended the friendship.


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