Henry Lawson

by Kerry White

Nearly four decades after the events at Eureka Stockade, Henry Lawson marked the death of the battle's leader, Peter Lalor, with an anti-establishment piece of verse, 'Eureka!'. In this and other poems such as his first, 'The Republic', 'The Fight of Eureka Stockade' and 'Freedom of the Wallaby', Lawson may well have been trying to light the fire of Australian nationalism and a move to independence with our own flag, The Southern Cross.  

To many, the Eureka rebellion of the 3rd of December 1854 is a defining moment in Australian history. It is not surprising that the legendary Australian poet, Henry Lawson (1867-1922), wrote about an event of such national trauma - as many others have in the years since - more than 100 works according to one source (Austlit website). He wrote 'Eureka!' (Lee 25) in 1889, to mark Eureka hero Peter Lalor's death, and also penned 'The Fight of Eureka Stockade' (Cronin 115) the following year. Both could be described as anti-establishment, as were many others of his poems such as the first published verse, 'The Republican' (Cronin 39), and 'Freedom on the Wallaby' (Cronin 146) about the Barcaldine (Qld) shearers' strike. As we shall see below, Lawson was trying to light the fire of Australian nationalism and a move to independence with our own flag, The Southern Cross.

At the Victorian mining site of Eureka, Lalor led miners in battle against government troops over the cost of licences and other issues. Thirty-four miners and six troops died at Eureka Stockade, in what is seen by some as a battle for the 'concept of fair play and equal opportunity' (Heritage website). Some get more passionate: the National republicans describe it as a 'patriotic struggle bathed in Australian blood' (alphalink website). The miners also carried a blue and white Southern Cross flag which has become an important anti-establishment symbol. Lalor, who lost an arm, and the other survivors were acquitted. He went on to become a Member of the Legislative Council and was its Speaker when he died in 1889.

Henry Lawson was born 13 years after Eureka in 1867 in a tent on the Grenfell (NSW) goldfields, his father a former Norse sailor and his mother from a Kentish gypsy family, according to Wright (viii) in a foreword to a Lawson anthology. He goes on to say that 'at 21, Lawson was probably the most remarkable writer of verse in Australia' (ix). He traveled widely across Australia and visited New Zealand and England. When he died in 1922, he was eulogised far and wide, even by Prime Minister William Hughes: 'He was the poet of Australia, the minstrel of the people' (Cronin ii). Introductory author Brian Kiernan wrote (Cronin ii): 'It was not so much that a legend was being laid to rest as being sanctified, set free from mere mortality.' Not bad for a man (Lawson) who drank too much; another famous Australian, Norman Lindsay, said Lawson had 'thrown himself away on life's rubbish tip' (Manning 133). There is a suggestion that Lawson's father may have been at Eureka (Phillips 79) in an interpretation of the line: I hear the broken English in the mouth of at least one (rebel) (21), since his father would have had a Nordic accent.

Though 'Eureka!' would be difficult to sing, it is a ballad of heptametrical couplets in irregular-length verses of 10, 10, 18, 14, 8, 10, 10, and four lines. There is some striking imagery and symbolism, though strangely a sword Lalor carried is not referred to. According to Stewart (xiv):

... it was Henry Lawson who in the whole field of Australian balladry, came closest to writing ballad poetry, as distinct from the ballad pure and simple. Most of Henry Lawson's verse is not ballad but a kind of vers de societe, a melancholy rhyming on themes of politics or sociology... often marred by sentimental and improbable anecdotes.

Lawson makes substantial use of metonymy and metaphor, for example: the big camp (2), referring to the hereafter; golden strife (11) about the gold miners' fight; and flames write Revenge (50) across the sky. He uses 'blood' frequently, perhaps to stir the reader's passion against authorities: the digger's blood was slow to boil (38); the night coolness cannot cool the blood (48) ... the digger's blood is up! (52); and blood-stained clay (64). He refers to the immigrants from every state and nation (22), Scottish, Irish and, by way of author (Bret) Harte (26), and his novel M'liss* (28), the United States: the men from all the nations in the New World and the Old (29). He has empathy for the deaths of both diggers and troopers: For many a someone's darling lies all cold and pallid there (68); but it is mostly about Lalor: And many a grey old digger sighs to hear that Lalor's dead (8). Then the last line, in the light of later events such as the Great War**, suggests foreboding: In the roll-up of Australians on some dark days yet to come.'... or is he foreseeing an uprising against the establishment to fight for independence?

A year later he might have been trying to stir the sentiment to action again when he wrote 'The Fight at Eureka Stockade' (ref para. 2), referring to our rulers... with a merciless hand/ (13) ... Still tyranny followed! No wonder the blood of the Irishman boiled (40), and Twas under the 'Banner of Britain' came the bullet that ended his life (52). In his earlier 'Republic' (ref para. 2) he had urged Sons of the South, awake! arise! (1) and a call to arms, ...swell to an army vast (22) ... And free from the wrongs.../ The land that belongs to you (23-4). In the 'Wallaby' (ref para. 2), Australia will knock the tyrants silly (6)... We'll make the tyrants feel the sting/ O' those that they would throttle (37-8), and the stirring final line: If blood should stain the wattle. There are many other examples such as these in the 'frankly revolutionary' (Phillips 80) Lawson's work. Phillips sees:

A subconscious longing for the release of tensions through violence. It is an unexpected trait to find this pacific individual who shrank from involvement in a fist-fight and whose work so frequently celebrates the virtues of compassion, sensitivity and tenderness.

Whatever the academic view of Lawson - and it is mixed - he was a poet of the people, writing it as he saw it, from the heart and mind, sober or drunk. And he was anti-establishment, wanting to see an independent Australia ruled by Australians. Clark (30) quotes a source as saying Lawson wanted Australian children to 'develop a spirit totally at variance with the wishes of Australian groveldom... he wanted them to learn to love the blue flag with the white cross... the Southern Cross.' Wright declares (viii-ix): 'He was the voice of a new movement; the ringing, surging rebellion of his song echoed the unrest of the eighties and nineties...'

One wonders how Lawson would feel about today's Australia: still living with drought, country towns struggling; no republic and a flag combining a Union Jack and a Southern Cross; the Queen's representative still 'ruling'; but a nation of relative wealth, equality and opportunity - not in vain those diggers died... the triumph of the diggers cause (75), as he wrote in 'Eureka!'. No doubt he would still be giving 'the establishment' a difficult time.

* Harte, Brett. 'M'liss'. 1860.
**As it happens, Peter Lalor's grandson, Captain J. P. Lalor, was killed at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915 [Bean C.E.W., 'The Story of Anzac', Vol. 1 (9th Edition). Sydney. Angus & Robertson 1939. ]

http://alphalink.com.au/eureka/roots1.htm. Eureka Stockade - Birth of the National Idea. Accessed 16 August 2004.
http://www.austlit.edu.au.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/run?ex=GuidedSearch&type=simple&generalSearchString=eureka&searchWhere=subject. Australian Literature Gateway. Accessed 24 August 2004.
Clark, Manning. 'In Search of Henry Lawson'. South Melbourne. The Macmillan Company of Australia 1979.
Cronin, Leonard, ed. 'Henry Lawson: A Camp-Fire Yarn - Complete Works 1885-1900'. Sydney. Lansdowne 1984.
http://www.heritage.gov.au/protect-places/scr4_05_02.htm. Protecting Heritage Places. Accessed 24 August 2004.
Lee, Christopher, ed. 'Turning the Century - Writing of the 1890s'. St Lucia, Qld. University of Queensland Press 1999.
Phillips, A. A. 'Henry Lawson'. New York. Twayne Publishers 1970.
Stewart, Douglas, and Keesing, Nancy, eds. 'Australian Classics - Australian Bush Ballads'. Hawthorn, Vic. Lloyd O'Neill Pty Ltd 1955.
Wright, David McKee. ed. 'Poetical Works of Henry Lawson'. Sydney. Angus & Robertson Ltd. 1968.

© Kerry White, April 2005
University of Southern Queensland www.usq.edu.au

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy