Percy Stephensen’s First Installment of
‘The Foundations of Culture in Australia’ June 1935
GENIUS OF THE PLACE
Australia is a unique country. All countries are unique, but this one is particularly so. Visitors, such as D. H. Lawrence, have discerned a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself. The flora and fauna are primitive, and for the most part harmless to man, but to the visitor there is another element, of terror, in the Spirit of the Place. The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer. Against a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles, our six million white people, of immigrant stock, mainly from Europe, are becoming acclimatised in this environment new to them but geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years.
A new nation, a new human type, is being formed in Australia.
For the first hundred and fifty years of colonising, the immigrants have merely raped the land, or “settled” it, as we say, with unconscious irony in our choice of a word to describe the process of destroying its primitiveness. Now there are cities, half the people live in cities, huddled there, it may be, for mutual protection against the loneliness of the bush. Ships come and go, from Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. Ideas and people also come and go—we Australians ourselves come and go. All is in flux, a nation is being formed. Can it be a cultured nation?
Australia, throughout its brief whiteman’s history, has been primarily a colony of Britain, as Britain was once a colony of Rome, a place to be exploited commercially. For a hundred and fifty years all our vast production of gold, most of our wheat, wool, meat, and butter, have been sent “home” to Britain. In trade exchange we have received manufactured goods, and many loans. Britain, it may be, has had the best of the deal financially. We have sent our troops, too, to fight in British wars. We accept British exploitation of Australia as a natural fact, and scarcely protest. The price has been worth it, for has not Britain sent us, as makeweight and compensation for economic exploitation, the great heritage of her laws, her customs, her language and literature and philosophy, her culture?
Culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, begins not from the Aborigines, who have been suppressed and exterminated, but from British culture, brought hither by Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen throughout the Nineteenth Century. In a new and quite different environment from that of those damp British Islands we are here developing the culture which evolved there. We spring fully armed from the head of Jove, or fully cultured from the head of John Bull. Australian culture begins with a general background of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Byron, Charles Dickens; and more specifically with a background of Samuel Smiles, Mr. Gladstone and Queen Victoria. We inherit all that Britain has inherited, and from that point we go on—to what?
As the culture of every nation is an intellectual and emotional expression of the genius loci, our Australian culture will diverge from the purely local colour of the British Islands to the precise extent that our environment differs from that of Britain. A hemisphere separates us from “home”—we are Antipodeans; a gumtree is not a branch of an oak; our Australian culture will evolve distinctively.
WE ARE NOT AMERICANS
There is a parallel, but not a close similarity, between Australia and America. In both countries a continental wilderness, sparsely populated with Aborigines, has been subdued and colonised, within recent historical times, by invaders from overseas. Here the parallel ends. Both countries have been “pioneered,” but Australia is quite dissimilar from America in social and historical construction. Australia has no large minorities—of Negroes, Jews, Italians, mixed Europeans—no historical Spanish, French, or Puritan influences: all mighty facts in America. We are in extraction solidly and stolidly pure British of the nineteenth century, homogeneously British, ninety per cent British. The ten per cent minority comprises Germans and Danes, who become assimilated immediately, with a sprinkling of Latins and “sundries,” who become assimilated in one generation. The only big minority is our twenty-five per cent Irish, who (whether they admit it or not) come from one of the two major British Islands.
We have none of America’s historical background of Elizabethan piracy and buccaneering, Spanish conquistadores, black slavery, French revolutionary ferment and Rights of Man philosophy; no Pilgrim Fathers or Mormon sects or Civil War traditions of “liberty” and emancipation—no “history” of the obvious or picturesque kind. America, the great melting pot, is often as incomprehensible to us as it is to any other homogeneous people observing it from afar. It is nonsense to say that Australia is becoming “Americanised,” as despondent English people often do say, observing our departures from the parent type. Australia is merely becoming Australianised.
Our background, such as it is, is operating upon us subtly to produce a new variety of the human species.
RACE AND PLACE
What is a national culture? Is it not the expression, in thought-form or art-form, of the spirit of a Race and of a Place? The Ancient Greeks were few in number, not more all told than the number of people who nowadays live in North Sydney, but the Greeks evolved, from their environment and historical background, a culture which has remained for 2,000 years after they themselves became subjugated and dispersed. The political, economic, and social forms of a nation are temporary forms, expressions of the Zeitgeist, which changes with every decade, with every vagary of invention, epidemics, wars, migrations. Each decade of history is “modern” to itself, and every modernism passes with the inexorable march of time. Nothing is permanent in a nation except its culture—its ideas of permanence, which are expressed in art, literature, religion, philosophy; ideas which transcend modernism and ephemerality, ideas which survive political, social, and economic changes.
Race and Place are the two permanent elements in a culture, and Place, I think, is even more important than Race in giving that culture its direction. When Races migrate, taking their culture with them, to a new Place, the culture becomes modified. It is the spirit of a Place which ultimately gives any human culture its distinctiveness.
Consider the differences between Indian Art, Chinese Art, Persian Art, Egyptian Art, Dutch Art, Easter Island Art—expressions of places rather than of epochs. The main art tendency remained in each Place while peoples and epochs changed.
Consider, too, how literature expresses the spirit of Place and Race, and forms the concept of a nation. A simple example is the poetry of Robert Burns, which created Scotland or was created by Scotland—which? For present purposes it is enough to establish that the poetry of Burns is linked with the idea of Scotland. When Scotsmen emigrate to another Place, they take with them the Scots Place-poetry of Robert Burns. Literature, even more than graphic art, is profoundly national. As an idea, what would England be without the poetic concept recorded by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herrick, Dickens, and all the English writers from Beowulf to Rudyard Kipling? England lives as an idea, not mainly through the activities of her merchants and moneylenders and politicians and soldiers, though these also have played their part, but through the writings of her poets and men of letters!
So France, the idea of France, lives in Montaigne, Rabelais, Racine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Balzac, de Maupassant, and Baudelaire; and Germany lives in Goethe, Heine, Kant, Hegel and Richard Wagner; Russia lives in Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Maxim Gorki, et al., Scandinavia in Ibsen, Knut Hamsun . . . need I continue the examples? I do not wish to flog the obvious fact that a nation, or the idea of a nation, is inseparable from its literature. A nation, in fact, without a literature, is incomplete. Australia without a literature remains a colony, no nation.
A deeper question arises, perplexities confront me, when I attempt the next step in this logic. If art and literature are nationally created, and linked to a vicinity or a Place of Origin, can there be such a thing as universal art or universal literature?
The question is answered by making a distinction between Creation and Appreciation. Art and literature are at first nationally created, but become internationally appreciated. Culture spreads from nation to nation. Each nation contributes ideas to the culture of every other nation. Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dostoievsky each began to do their work as national writers, but now in appreciation they are universal, and belong to all nations.
Throughout all human history, cultures have developed in vicinities because there was not much communication between the isolated parts of the world. Since the invention of printing and the development of transport and means of communication, national cultures are overlapping, influencing one another, local distinctiveness is disappearing. The whole world is becoming one cultural unit, and tends to become one international economic unit. In the twentieth century nationalism is receding, the world is becoming one Place. What then becomes of any theory of nationalism in culture?
I hold to the thesis that cultures are created locally, and that every contribution to world culture (even in a future world-political-and-economic unit) must be distinct with the colour of its place of origin.
Ideas, like men and women, are formed locally, no matter how much they may travel. There is a universal concept of humanity and world culture, but it does not destroy individuality, either of persons or places or nations. Soviet Russia, urged by dreams of world-unification, has energetically encouraged and even revived the various nationalities and languages of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Why? Because the Soviet philosophers realise that the very idea of internationalism implies many separate nationalities—combined for economic and political purposes into economic and political unity, but remaining distinct in local customs, and cultures.
Thus, no matter how transport and communications may improve, local cultures must always remain. Art and literature will continue to be created locally, or nationally, even in the internationalised world. The charm of writing is to write of what one knows; the charm of reading is to read of what one does not know. For this reason cultures must remain local in creation and universal in appreciation.
COLONY OR NATION
What then of culture in Australia? Here is not a mere vicinity, but a whole continent, unique in its natural features, and unique in the fact of its continental homogeneity of race and language. Australia is the only continent on the earth inhabited by one race, under one government, speaking one language. The population at present is not much greater than was that of Britain in Shakespeare’s time, but by the end of the twentieth century we may expect that the population will expand to at least twenty millions, remaining of European parent-stock, but with locally-developed characteristics, and with a locally-created culture. Australia will then become indubitably recognised as a nation, and will lose all trace of colonial status.
As a colony, we exported raw material and imported manufactured goods and loans. The trade traffic was two-ways. We imported also the imponderables, culture, by a system of one-way traffic. As a nation we shall continue to import culture, but we shall export it also, as our contribution to world-ideas—there will then be a two-ways traffic in the imponderables.
At this present time (1935) we are no longer a colony pure and simple, nor yet are we a Nation fully-fledged. We are something betwixt and between a colony and a nation, something vaguely called a “Dominion,” or a “Commonwealth” with “Dominion status.” We are loosely tied to other Dominions in the British Empire by law, strongly tied by sentiment and an idea of mutual protection. Inasmuch as we are politically autonomous, we have entered into virtual alliances (political, military, commercial, and sentimental) with other Dominions or Colonies in the Empire, including Canada, the Irish Free State, South Africa, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Jamaica. Where it will all lead to we do not know; but the virtual alliance gives us a sense of security in international affairs for the time being. The political and legal ties that bind us to the other “Dominions” are loose enough, but the sentimental and financial tie is strong, particularly with the “Dominion” called Great Britain. And the cultural tie is strong.
Is it sedition or blasphemy to the idea of the British Empire to suggest that each Dominion in this loose alliance will tend to become autonomous politically, commercially, and culturally? A military alliance between the various component “nations” of the Empire may perhaps survive long after the other ties have, in fact, been weakened—though this would be contrary to the lessons of history. Such a prognostication has nothing to do with aesthetics. What matters for present purposes is that Australia has nowadays an acknowledged right to become one of the nations of the world. Australian nationalism, with or without the idea of the British Empire, has a right to exist; and there can be no nation without a national place-idea; a national culture.
AN ENGLISHMAN’S VIEW
An Englishman resident in Australia, Professor G. H. Cowling, who is Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne, recently ventured from his own field to criticise Australian literature. In an article published in The Age newspaper of 16th February, 1935, the learned Professor made several statements expressing doubt concerning the possibilities of Australian literature. Catalogued, his more provocative remarks were as follows:
(1) “Australia is not yet in the centre of the globe, and it has no London.”
(2) “The rewards of literature in Australia are not good enough to make it attract the best minds.”
(3) “Book production (in Australia) is, on the average, poor.”
(4) “In spite of what the native-born say about gum trees, I cannot help feeling that our countryside is ‘thin’ and lacking in tradition.”
(5) “There are no ancient churches, castles, ruins—the memorials of generations departed. You need no Baedecker in Australia. From the point of view of literature this means that we can never hope to have a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas . . . nor a poetry which reflects past glories.”
(6) “‘What scope is there for Australian biography? Little, I should say.”
(7) “What scope is there for Australian books on travel? Little, I think.”
(8) “Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few . . . Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first-class novels.”
(9) “We might have one Australian Sinclair Lewis but not many more.”
(10) “Literary culture is not indigenous, like the gum tree, but is from a European source.”
A certain amount of indignant controversy followed the well-meaning Professor’s pessimistic analysis of the situation. Nobody thanked him, as he ought to have been thanked, for putting the Unteachable Englishman’s point of view so succinctly on record. There is as yet no chair of Australian Literature at Melbourne University, nor at any other Australian University, and the Professor is to that extent quite correct in saying that literary culture is not indigenous, but is from a European source. With his unteachability we cannot here argue; it is of the same brand as that which lost England the American colonies. Substitute the word “America” for the word “Australia” in each of Professor Cowling’s remarks, and you have the kind of “criticism” which Americans had to put up with from generations of learned Englishmen; even while American literature was developing so strongly that to-day—despite a lack of ancient churches, castles and ruins—American literature is at least as strong as contemporary English literature, and some think it is stronger.
The Empire is in greater danger from patronising Englishmen than from insurgent colonials. Professor Cowling’s critique is a wet blanket applied to the fire of Australian literary creativeness. It can be read in no other way than as an attempt to throw cold water on our nationalistic literary ardour. His attitude is precisely that of the Latinists who, perceiving Wycliffe and Chaucer writing books in the English vernacular, sniffed (no doubt) at the very idea of literature in English. Here we are on the threshold of Australian self-consciousness, at the point of developing Australian nationality, and with it Australian culture, we are in our Chaucerian phase, and this Professor cannot begin to perceive the excitement of it, overlooks his grand opportunity of studying and recording for posterity this birth-phase of a new literature in formation under his very nose—and directs our vision, if he could, towards old churches, castles, and ruins in Europe!
The academic mind, by timorous instinct, rarely concerns itself with the present or future; the past is safer.
Some day there will be learned Professors to write text-books on the developments of literature in Australia during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties. They will soak themselves in the period, and attempt to reconstruct it for their students. They will find Cowling’s article and quote it to show some of the difficulties which literature in Australian had to contend against at that time—the discouragements, the gratuitous insults of the learned, the Unteachability of the already-too-well-taught. They may go on to record that, as a result of Professor Cowling’s demonstration of hostility towards Australian culture, a Chair of Australian Literature was ultimately endowed at Melbourne University and at six other Australian Universities (including Canberra), to supplement the traditional teaching in English, French, German, and other European literatures; and that thus Professor Cowling’s excursus into journalism indirectly helped to establish Australian literature in a way which he did not intend.
Is this all too fanciful? I, at any rate, have to thank Professor Cowling for his venture into controversy. He provides me with a contemporary example to illustrate my present thesis. Instead of blaming him for blanketing the flame, I at least can thank him for inadvertently fanning it. His arguments are all cogent, from his point of view. From an Australian point of view they are, by provocation, equally cogent. I shall have occasion to refer to them, more than once, as my own argument here develops.
There are two elements in every nation’s culture—the imported and the indigenous. English literature, for instance, developed through centuries of contact with Latin and Greek, and with directly contemporaneous imported French and Italian and other “foreign” literatures. The effect upon Shakespeare of Plutarch’s Lives and of Petrarch’s sonnets is a sufficient reminder of the effect of imported culture on an Englishman. English literature, indeed, has been constantly enriched and replenished by European mainland contacts. For centuries in England it was the fashion to speak French at the court, to regard France as being the only “cultured” nation, and to be apologetic for local English uncouthness. Milton was a Latin clerk. Shelley and Byron went abroad naturally, as Norman Douglas and D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley go abroad in our own time, to be out of the wet and stifling, local and insular, atmosphere of England. Without foreign stimulus, English literature might well have remained on the level of Wycliffe or perhaps Bunyan. Who can estimate the tremendous influence upon English literature of Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais, or of Burton’s Arabian Nights?
The impact of foreign cultures upon a native culture is the greatest possible stimulus to literature. Think of the influence of that foreigner, Freud, upon English writers of to-day; or the influence of those foreigners, Ibsen and Nietzsche, upon the English writers of two or three decades ago! Think also of the tremendous impact upon English literature of the Hebrew Bible, which originated in the arid valleys of Palestine.Survey the whole field of English literature, survey the English language itself, and you will find it overwhelmingly rich in elements of foreign and imported cultures.
With such an example before us of the English plant fertilised by phosphates from all countries, we Australians can prepare to plant our own culture here. The imported phosphates will stimulate our native plant to grow; we cannot do without them; but it is the plant rather than the phosphates which concerns us most. The Professor of English who states that “literary culture is not indigenous, but is from a European source,” is a vendor of phosphates so lost in enthusiasm for his wares that he forgets the only real purpose of them here, which is to make our Australian plant grow.
Discarding a metaphor which might become misleading, I state plainly that English culture, imported here, is valueless to us as a mere exhibit. We admire the English, we love them frequently, we never fail to respect them, we are astonished by the spectacle of their culture, and by their castles, churches and ruins. We stand and gape in admiration. But there it does not end. Unless we can use imported English culture here as one element (concede it to be the most important element!) in building up our own indigenous culture, it is a meaningless spectacle to us.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The culture of a country is the essence of nationality, the permanent element in a nation. A nation is nothing but an extension of the individuals comprising it, generation after generation of them. When I am proud of my nationality, I am proud of myself. My personal shortcomings, of which I am only too painfully aware, are eliminated to some extent by my nationality, in which I may justly take pride—such is the reason for nations and nationalities, and also for tribes, mobs, and herds. In numbers there is a strength and permanence not found in individuals.
The nation as an extension of the ego, as a permanent idea which lives when the individual dies, is essential to an individual’s well-being. One’s nationality is something to boast of.
This does not mean, or should not mean, sabre-rattling, challenges to fight other nations to prove superiority, except in the case of Huns like Hitler, who are intrinsically lacking in culture, mentally equipped like a school bully. It is possible to be proud of one’s nationality without wishing to prove it by slaughter. In what, at present, can an Australian take pride? In our cricketers, merino sheep, soldiers, vast open spaces—and what then?
Until we have a culture, a quiet strength of intellectual achievement, we have really nothing except our soldiers to be proud of!
We cannot be proud of John Galsworthy, we have no right to be proud of him. He is English, they are proud of him. Galsworthy does not belong to us Australians, except in a way by proxy, an unsatisfying way; our chests cannot swell by proxy. We can no more be nationally proud of Galsworthy than we can be proud of Yeats and Synge. These British Islanders are fascinating exhibits to us, but they are foreigners, as foreign as Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. They are from overseas. The British Empire is much too large and scattered to have a Place Spirit, a unified culture. We Australians can only be proud of Gandhi and Synge (both British subjects) in a very general way, not in a personal or national way, as we might be proud of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, fond of them, with all their faults, which are our own.
I am not going to say at this stage that Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson are greater men than Gandhi and Synge and Galsworthy. It is not necessary here to make an absolute comparison of quality. I merely affirm that Paterson and Lawson are of geographic necessity more real to us Australians than Gandhi and Galsworthy and Synge; and I will concede that Gandhi is more real to Indians, Galsworthy to Englishmen, and Synge to Irishmen than any of them can ever become to Australians.
Every creative thinker contributes first to the culture of his own people, and secondly to the culture of the world. A writer or an artist needs the stimulus and the encouragement of his own people; without it he often becomes timorous or soured. Writers and artists and thinkers, no less than cricketers, need applause to be at their best. In a foreign country a writer must be imitative, cannot be his natural self, at ease, as he could be at home, amongst his own people. Thus culture arises nationally, and can arise in no other way.
This question of the localised development of cultures throughout the world is, for a civilised person, of a much greater importance than the domination of all the world by one part of it, which is the credo of imperialism.
Imperialism is international. This fact gives rise to paradoxes—as for example that an Australian loyalist, one who puts Australia’s development first in his thoughts, might find himself termed disloyal to the larger entity in which Australia is assumed to hold a place of secondary importance.
An Australian, under the system of imperialism, is expected to swallow the Englishman’s view of the Empire—i.e., that England (or its euphemism, Britain) is, and must remain for all time, paramount under the imperial system; and that it is disloyal, seditious, or possibly even irreverent to suggest that there could be any actual growth to adult national status of the Empire’s component local parts.
Such a frame of mind, while it does great credit to the political sagacity of those who, in “Britain’s” interests, foster it, is not conducive to the intellectual maturing of life in our Australian Commonwealth, which is my sole concern in this Essay. A thorny argument, we must nevertheless grasp it, or give up all pretensions to the development of a culture here. The subject is one which should be discussed without heat, hate, or bitterness; but it may not be discussed without candour.
I seek here, and tentatively, to hypothecate the foundations of a mature national culture in our continent, knowing full well that none except Australians could be vitally interested in such a topic. I cannot accept the carefully-fostered legend that Australians are of the naturally uncouth, “rough Digger,” “Dad-and-Dave” or “Bloke” type. That is the “colonial” legend; and Australia is no longer merely a colony.
Our contribution to the world’s thought is the definition of ourselves: in literature, art, and all the civilised achievements. If we cannot define ourselves, culturally, our existence is of no more significance to the world than was that of the Marquesas islanders, lotus-eaters who have now become bastardised, christianised, and Europeanised almost out of existence.
A nation’s cultural self-definition provides it not only with an individuality, but also with a title to survive. Imperialist internationalism has a tendency to pour all nations into one mould: to make culture uniform and monotonous throughout the world.
To resist any such monotonising of culture here is the plain duty of an Australian patriot who considers that there is no place like home—and means Australia when he says that. If the advocacy of Australian patriotism is to be considered “disloyal” by some and “chauvinistic” by others, such epithets, it may be presumed, cancel one another.
As the Australian soldiers learned to say during the last European war, Ca ne fait rien. We have a job to do here: nation-building.
BIRTH OF A NEW IDEA
Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson may be regarded as typical pioneers of indigenous culture in Australia. Whatever their faults, their work has an outstanding quality of being drawn direct from Australian life, and not from a bookish or “literary” idea, in imitation of English poets. Lawson and Paterson were both Australian born, and wrote for Australian readers primarily. Their work is crude enough in parts; it is the raw material of an Australian culture, but it is of high national significance, as being truly indigenous. The poet Kendall, who immediately preceded them, was also Australian-born, but his mind had an “English” cast. His first poems were sent to England to be published; he wanted to please the English. Kendall wrote of Australia, but in a prim English way, not in a robust Australian way.
Adam Lindsay Gordon was English-born, an immigrant to Australia, and never saw Australia except through his English fox-hunting squire’s eyes. He is, therefore, acclaimed, in England, as the typical Australian poet. In Westminster Abbey his bust is placed with the absurd, indeed impertinent description, “Australia’s National Poet.”
From Gordon, the Englishman writing about Australia in an English way, to Kendall, the Australian writing about Australia in an English way; thence to Lawson and Paterson, the Australians writing about Australia in an Australian way, is the evolution of our indigenous culture. This evolution, in a general way, went on, in the works of Australian writers, or writers in Australia, throughout the whole of the nineteenth century, the process of Australian self-definition gradually becoming more clarified, until, with Paterson’s and Lawson’s work, it could be seen plainly that Australian literature proper was beginning to stand on its own feet.
To dissect these two elements, the indigenous and the imported, from Australian literature, is a fascinating task, worthy of a book in itself.
In the broadest sense, Australian literature comprises everything written in Australia, or about Australia, or by Australians—everything from Captain Cook’s log to D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo; but this definition would be very wide indeed. Visitors to Australia, in addition to Captain Cook, D. H. Lawrence, Adam Lindsay Gordon, and Professor Cowling, have been numerous and frequently very distinguished. Charles Darwin, Henry Kingsley, Orion Horne, Havelock Ellis are notable visiting Englishmen who have contributed to the literature of Australia in the widest sense of the term. Marcus Clarke is another visiting Englishmen. Can it be presumed that these visitors ever saw Australia through Australian eyes? I think not. They were Englishmen abroad, in foreign parts; England was home to them—Australia was merely an interesting. foreign colony. But to Lawson and Paterson Australia was home, the native land. They had no other native land.
Henry Lawson (or Larsen) was of Scandinavian extraction, and to such a man, born in Australia, the European tie is irrevocably severed. Such a man will fight passionately for his Australian nationality. He has no direct sentimental tie with England. Australia is his only motherland and home. Even though his ancestors, of a thousand years ago, may have raped, raided, plundered, colonised, and settled England, Ireland, and Scotland, and put the red-headed spirit of adventure into the British race—even though he be a direct descendant of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—he has no lively interest in his present-day collateral cousins, no vicarious “home” and “motherland” in the British Islands. Australia is home to him, the only motherland. If Australia is not a nation, then he belongs to no nation. This same feeling arises in the second and third generation of Australian-born, no matter what their ancestry, whether it be English, Irish, Scots, or Chinese. England is “home” to the first-generation English immigrants to Australia, and sometimes by legend to their children. But to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Australia is the only convincing homeland. The pretty legend that England is “home” to all Australians arises from a figure of speech, or a habit of speech rather than from any reality of thought.
In denying that England is, in contemporary reality, “home” to the Australian-born, I insist and reiterate that I am not arguing politics, imperial or otherwise. I am seeking a basis for indigenous culture in Australia, for a state of mind from which Australian culture can emerge. One of my model Australians, Banjo Paterson, is, I believe, a convinced imperialist in politics. There is no reason why a good Australian should not consider it expedient for Australia to remain forever in the political-economic-military alliance called the British Empire. England would not try to keep us in by force if we ever wished to secede. This question does not, at the moment, arise. The point is that, on the basis of nationality, of theoretical equality in nationhood with all the other nations of the earth, within or without the British Empire, we must find our own culture and define it; we cannot suck pap forever from the teats of London.
Throughout the nineteenth century in Australia, from the earliest writers, whether they were convict gentlemen or military gentlemen, or black sheep sent out to the colonies with a remittance, or merely colonial gentlemen dabbling in “letters,” there was a pronounced note in “Australian” literature of regret at the colonial lack of culture. These sentimental exiles, no less than Professor Cowling, regretted the lack of castles and ruins here, regretted that Australia was not like England. Their state of mind, nostalgia for the homeland, is common to all exiles. In Australia, owing frequently to the circumstances of the exile, nostalgia took an acute form.
The country of one’s birth is almost of necessity the country of one’s youth. The longing of an exile to return to his native land is only too frequently the longing of a middle-aged man to be young again. A migrant’s discontent with his new environment is often enough a discontent with middle-age. Beyond this there is a real link with one’s birthplace, a real aversion to unfamiliar new environments.
Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
This is my own, my native land?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand?
Probably not! As an Australian who spent eight years in England I know how powerful is the yearning to be home in the native land, which in my case meant the yearning to be in a country without any castles or ruins, to be at liberty in a country in which there were thousands of square miles of ground not staled by history and tradition. Because of this experience, I can sympathise with Englishmen in Australia who feel a pull in the reverse direction. Australia is different from England, of course it is different from England! It can never become like England; but does this difference imply an inferiority either way? A black swan is different from a white swan, a gum-tree is different from an oak, the differences are charming. There is a difference between a primitive country and a castellated country, a profound difference—but what an impertinence for a denizen of the castellated country to decry the other country when he is visiting it; what bad manners, what an example of castellated culture!
International bad manners are an inevitable concomitant of tourist travel. The tourist compares every country with his own, to the advantage of his own. Englishmen abroad are notorious for this trait; but Americans and Frenchmen are just as bad. American bad manners found a retort to English bad manners when Mark Twain guyed the castellated culture in his A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. It was heavy and clumsy humour; he should have written about his own country, about the Mississippi, which he knew. But, more recently still, the Americans have had to put up with polite cynicism, the assumption of an effortless superiority, from a horde of English visitors, such as G. K. Chesterton and St. John Irvine, who lectured them (for immense fees) on their “cultural” shortcomings; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that American writers, such as Dreiser, Cabell, Hergesheimer, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, and a host of others were doing work, man for man, as good as the best English contemporary work; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that the Grand Opera Houses in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston, are among the world’s best, and that music is patronised in the United States a thousand times more than in Britain, where there is not even one permanent opera, but only “seasons”; unaware of the fact, or ignoring the fact, that Manhattan Island contains more art treasures than any other similar area in the world, not excluding Rome, Paris, and London, that in science and industry the United States is second to none; that education and criticism are alive in America; that the Carnegie Corporation has provided twelve million dollars actually to establish libraries in Britain, after having established the best public libraries in the world throughout America!
What then becomes of the “effortless superiority” of the Englishman vis-à-vis the American? Is the Englishman not resting on his oars, on the great achievements of his forbears, rather than actively leading the modern world of thought and culture, science, art, and industry? I am not going to take sides in such a futile dispute. I merely point out that such international arguments do exist, and that there is invariably much to be said on both sides. It is natural enough to exalt one’s own country in such a dispute, because in exalting one’s country one exalts oneself. I could, without difficulty, devise arguments to show that life in Australia is preferable to life in England, for the general mass of the people, castles or no castles, but I forbear. In any dispute between Poland and Czecho-Slovakia I could arbitrate impartially, but in any dispute between Australia and England I confess to prejudice in favour of my own country.
The two elements in Australian culture, the imported and the indigenous elements, have existed side by side from the time when the first white child was born in Australia of immigrant parents and walked upon this soil as his native soil. As the white population has grown, from zero to six millions by the two methods of increase, immigration from abroad and birth here, so the two tendencies have developed side by side. They are differing elements, not hostile elements; they can develop harmoniously side by side. I would deplore the bad-mannered “Australianism” of anyone needlessly decrying English culture as much as I deplore Professor Cowling’s denigration of the local culture. Let nothing I say here be taken as hostile to English culture, on its own soil, or to the reasoned absorption of English culture, by us here, on our soil! I regard imported English culture as a fertiliser of our indigenous culture, but I will not have our indigenous culture swamped and choked with fertiliser, in such a way that it cannot grow at all.
I want to find the differences, however subtle, between the two cultures; to see what we can learn from England and from every other country overseas; what we can learn, and digest and apply here. I do not care to be a spectator, or a passive admirer, of English or any other literature from a distance. I want these literatures absorbed into our own, to stimulate, not to kill, our own.
A POETRY COMPETITION
The two different cultures, English and Australian, found an early definition and contrast in the celebrated Prize Poem for the Chancellor’s Medal at Cambridge University in the year 1823. The subject of the poem was prescribed as Australasia. There were twenty-five competitors for the prize, which was won by W. Mackworth Praed, an Englishman who had never left England. The second prize was awarded by the judges to William Charles Wentworth, an Australian born and bred. Wentworth had been born in New South Wales in 1791, son of d’Arcy Wentworth, surgeon and police magistrate of the colony.
Young William Charles Wentworth was one of the very first Australian-born whitemen. At the age of seven he went to England for a few years, to school, and then returned to his native land. At the age of twenty-one he crossed the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Lawson, opening the way to the western plains. Three years later he went to England, and matriculated at Cambridge, thus becoming eligible to enter for the Chancellor’s Prize Poem. As soon as he arrived in England, he published A Statistical, Historical, and Political Description of the Colony of New South Wales, which we are told “did much to dispel the gross ignorance that had prevailed up to that time in the mother country concerning Australia.” Wentworth, in brief, knew what he was writing about in his poem submitted for the contest. He knew a great deal more about the subject than did any of the other competitors—or the judges!
It is interesting to compare the two poems, Praed’s and Wentworth’s, to try, if possible, to understand on what principles the judges awarded a preference to Praed. The judges, we may assume, were English professors, with prejudices, if any, similar to those of Professor Cowling.
We need not here consider whether or not Wentworth’s second-prize poem was inferior in the qualities of “pure” poetry to Praed’s winning effort, though many would perhaps still consider it so and agree with the Cambridge judges.
Both poems were written in stilted couplets, in the highfalutin style of the period, the verses decked with classical allusions. Praed’s winning poem runs smoothly and sweetly, and tells us precisely nothing about Australasia. Wentworth’s poem is in parts impassioned and fiery, full of exact knowledge about Australasia. Praed is genteel and refined, Wentworth is shouting and vigorous. Praed’s poem is purely “literary” and bookish; Wentworth’s poem is from life direct. I should like to illustrate my arguments by quoting both works in full, but must be content here with extracts from each.
I quote the poems substantially because they illustrate, in a condensed manner, the fact that Australia is antipodean to England, and vice versa, in literary concepts: a fact which should be obvious to anyone with a sense of intellectual geography. Praed’s poem is a contribution to English literature. Wentworth’s poem was one of the first contributions to Australian literature.
CONVICTS AND SINNERS
Praed’s poem, characteristically English from the very beginning, opens with a description of a convict ship leaving England, while a busy seaman coils rope on the deck, carolling a song, and laughing lightly. Below deck are the unfortunate convicts:
Children of wrath and wretchedness, who grieve
Not for the country, but the crimes they leave . . .
There the gaunt robber, stern in sin and shame,
Shows his dull features and his iron frame;
And tender pilferers creep in silence by,
With quivering lip, hushed brow, and vacant eye . . .
A mixed lot, old and young, male and female, all longing to strike the fetters off, and bidding—
the last and long adieu
To the white cliffs which vanish from their view.
These miserable creatures, as England recedes, are already overcome with nostalgia of the exile. They go “tottering forth”—
to find, across the wave,
A short, sad sojourn and a foreign grave.
A stripling amongst them clasps his young hands, and looks “with marvel” on his galling chain. His soul dreams of the days when he tended his father’s plough:
Oh, yes! to-day his soul hath backward been
To many a tender face and beauteous scene;
The verdant valley and the dark brown hill,
The small fair garden, and its tinkling rill,
His grandame’s tale, believed at midnight hour,
His sister singing in her myrtle bower . . .
And also he dreams of the girl he left behind him, as all correctly sentimental exiles do in such circumstances. He wonders whether there will be a new life for him in the foreign land to which, under duress, he is going—
In some far distant clime
Where lives no witness of his early crime,
Benignant penitence may haply muse
On purer pleasures, and on brighter views . . .
The poet then proceeds to rhapsodise on the charms of Australasia, as he imagines them, from having read, one presumes, some accounts of Pacific voyages. He thinks of Australasia as a collection of islands, arcadian in atmosphere, with green turf and pleasant glades wherein Dryads and Naiads might dance:
Beautiful land! Within whose quiet shore
Lost spirits may forget the stain they bore.
But one thing is lacking in this idyllic Australasia: the Christian religion unfortunately has not yet reached the savage natives:
Alas! Religion from thy placid isles
Veils the warm splendour of her heavenly smiles,
And the wrapt gazer on the beauteous plan
Finds nothing dark except the soul of man.
The unredeemed savages in their darkness are presumed by the poet to be incapable of appreciating the beauties of their environment:
But where thy smile, Religion, hath not shone,
The chain is riven, and the charm is gone,
And, unawakened by thy wondrous spell,
The Feelings slumber in their silent cell.
In proof and illustration of this theological contention, the poet next recounts, as an example of the horrors of Australasian mental darkness, the death of a New Zealand chieftain, alone and unattended, because the customs of his savage tribe forbid attendance upon a dying person. Nevertheless, shuddering friends stand near, and the frantic Maori widow—
Binds her black hair, and stains her eyelids fringe
With the jet lustre of the emu’s tinge (sic)
and then, after staining her eyelids with the feathers of a black emu, she commits suttee in the manner of widows in India,—
And long acacias shed their shadows grey
Bloomless and leafless o’er the buried clay.
Worse things happen in New Zealand than emus and suttee and bloomless and leafless acacias! The poet next describes a fight between tribes of cannibals, who subsequently gorge on corpses:
And, last of all, the revel in the wood,
The feast of death, the banqueting of blood.
Cease, cease the tale—and let the ocean’s roll
Shut the dark horror from thy wildered soul.
The obvious remedy for this dreadful state of affairs in pagan Australasia is to send Christian missionaries there, as the poet proceeds to explain:
And are there none to succour? none to speed
A fairer feeling and a holier creed?
The death of Cook and La Perouse amongst these savages will surely, Praed thinks, be not in vain:
O’er the wide waters of the bounding main
The Book of Life shall win its way again,
And in the regions by their fate endeared
The Cross be lifted, and the altar reared.
In fancy the poet sees a missionary coming to Australasia, bringing Religion (or should we not nowadays say Culture?) with him:
Upon the shore, through many a billow driven,
He kneels at last, the messenger of heaven.
The messenger of Heaven duly converts the Australasian heathens, shows them, with his superior knowledge, the advantages of becoming enlightened and cultured like himself and other Englishmen. It is a great day, indeed, for the Australasians when the missionary converts them wholesale to his point of view:
In speechless awe the wonder-stricken throng
Check their rude feasting and their barbarous song . . .
and gather round to listen to the Message from Overseas.
The first-prize poem ends on this note, with a brief envoi from the poet, an insincere sigh for the Arcadian peace of Australasia as a retreat from the anxieties and vexations of life.
Reading and re-reading this early classic work by an Englishman upon our Antipodean theme, I am more and more convinced that it provides an extraordinary demonstration of the key-attitude of Englishmen towards Australia. The poem tells us nothing actual about Australia, but much about an Englishman’s attitude towards Australia, which is regarded as the land of convicts and savages, the former homesick for their native land, the other waiting to be enlightened by English missionaries of culture. This poem by Praed contains the germs of all the English literature written about Australia during the nineteenth century, and even down to our present day.
THE AUSTRAL MUSE
William Charles Wentworth’s poem, on the other hand, contains the germs of our indigenous Australian literature. It begins passionately with what must have seemed astounding to Englishmen at that time, and would even be astounding to some Englishmen to-day—a cry actually of nostalgia for Australia, uttered by an Australian in England, in the very halls of culture, at Cambridge!
Land of my birth! Tho’ now, alas! no more,
Musing I wander on thy sea girt shore . . .
Where Sydney’s infant turrets proudly rise,
The newborn glory of the southern skies:
Dear Australasia, can I e’er forget
Thee, Mother Earth? Ah no, my heart e’en yet
With filial fondness loves to call to view
Scenes which, though oft remembered, still are new . . .
The spacious harbour, with its hundred coves
And fairy islets—seats of savage loves . . .
And shall I now, by Cam’s old classic stream
Forbear to sing, and THOU proposed the theme?
Thy native bard, though on a foreign strand,
Shall I be mute and see a stranger’s hand
Attune the lyre? . . .
The audacity of this opening must have appalled the judges, with its reference to England as a “foreign” country. No doubt poor Wentworth, in exile at the grey English University, felt that he ought to shock them a little, stir up their insular complacency, shout at them that Australia was not what they thought it was, that the new continent was a vast literary theme, not merely a subject for a pretty exercise in versing. It was not his fault if they failed to understand him, at that time, and preferred Mr. Praed’s cold prettiness and religiosity to Mr. Wentworth’s surely incomprehensible Australian patriotism.
“Proud Queen of Isles!” he hailed Australia, sitting “vast, alone” upon the ocean, with the “Polynesian brood” of islands dispersed around her like the cygnets of a swan—
While every surge that doth thy bosom lave,
Salutes thee, Empress of the Southern Wave.
His poem tells how De Quiros, “first of Europe’s roving train,” came to Australia, and astonished the natives with his giant ship looming shoreward, “portentful of impending fate.” He tells how the natives, “with frequent spear,” caused the Spaniards to retrace a “sullen course” to their ship. Next comes a long and delightful eulogy of the Aborigines:
Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift-footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty . . .
Say—whence your ancient lineage, what your name,
And from what shores your rough forefathers came? . . .
Let Learning’s sons who would this secret scan,
Unlock its mystic casket if they can . . .
There follows an apt and exact description of the natives, in their hunting, their corroborees, their fights:
Such, mountain sons of freedom, your delight,
Such your rude sport by day, your mirth by night,
Nor would you these few savage joys forego
For all the comforts all the arts bestow.
and after a charming picture of a tribe nestling naked in a cave to shelter from a thunderstorm, the poet says that Diogenes himself would have thrown away his cloak and tub to join them; an extraordinary prognosis of gymnosophy, which must have seemed the maddest blasphemy to the judges after they had read Praed’s description of Savage unbliss.
Wentworth next refers to Cook and La Perouse, not merely perfunctorily, as Praed had referred to them, but in some close detail:
Illustrious Cook! Columbus of our shore,
To whom was left this unknown world t’ explore!
Its untraced bounds on faith l chart to mark
And leave a light where all before was dark . . .
And thou, famed Gallic captain, La Perouse! . . .
Whereas Praed had described La Perouse as an “adventurous Frank” upholding the Sign of his Saviour in pagan parts of the earth, engaged in a “gracious plan” and a “pious toil,” as one whose death was mourned by the Muse, Wentworth honours the Frenchman’s memory with a suggestion that he and his crew, stranded on a desert island, drew lots and ate one another,—
Till of thy ghastly band the most unblest
Survived—sad sepulchre of all the rest!
Such an idea in poetry, at that time, shows to what an extent Wentworth’s Muse was uncloistered, unacademic, a creature of realistic trend, the Muse who had accompanied Wentworth and his two companions among the chasms and gorges of the Blue Mountains, where, perhaps, the food question had threatened to become acute!—a Muse not theoretical and “pretty,” not sentimental and piously “cultured”—the Muse of a man of action!
Next comes a picture of Sydney Harbour and Sydney town, growing apace in the thirty-five years since Phillip’s fleet came to anchor there:
Lo! thickly planted o’er the glassy bay,
Where Sydney loves her beauties to survey,
And every morn delighted sees the gleam
Of some fresh pennant dancing in her stream,
A masty forest, stranger vessels moor
Charged with the fruits of every foreign shore;
While, landward the thronged quay, the creaking crane,
The noisy workmen, and the loaded wain,
The lengthened street, wide square, and columned front
Of stately mansions, and the gushing font,
The solemn church, the busy market throng,
And idle loungers sauntering slow among . . .
This picture of urban life changes next to a pastoral of peaceful colonial settlement:
. . . frequent stand
The cheerful villas ’midst their well-cropped land;
Here lowing kine, there bounding coursers graze,
Here waves the corn, and there the woody maze;
Here the tall peach puts forth its pinky bloom,
And there the orange scatters its perfume,
While as the merry boatmen row along
The woods are quickened with their lusty song . . .
From Parramatta to Hawkesbury and Richmond and Windsor, says the poet, not noticing the incongruity of the two Thameside names—
Thence far along Nepean’s pebbled way,
To those rich pastures where the wild herds stray,
The crowded farm-house lines the winding stream
On either side . . .
It is delightful to imagine the effect of this upon the judges, assuming always that they were quite unteachable English professors, somewhat ignorant, in the manner of professors, of contemporary events. Praed’s poem would please them, because it would express their own preconceived idea of Australasia the wilderness; but what would they make of Wentworth’s description of the urbanisation of the wilderness? Would they believe him? Have Englishmen of the insular kind ever believed that Australia is urbanised, or can become urbanised? It is hard to part with an illusion. Even in 1935 Professor Cowling can sigh that “Australia has no London.”
Wentworth next comes to a subject dear and familiar to him—the Blue Mountains:
Hail, mighty ridge! that from thy azure brow
Survey’st these fertile plains . . .
Vast Austral Giant of these rugged steeps
Within whose secret cells rich glitt’ring heaps
Thick-piled are doomed to sleep, till some one spy
The hidden key that opes thy treasury;
How mute, how desolate thy stunted woods,
How dread thy chasms, where many an eagle broods . . .
This is the very exciting stuff of real experience, and any reader but the English professors would have felt the ascending excitement of the poet’s recollection:
How dark thy caves, how lone thy torrents roar,
As down thy cliffs precipitate they pour,
Broke on our hearts, at first with venturous tread,
We dared to rouse thee from thy mountain bed!
I should like to print the whole poem here, and probably shall reprint it in some form as soon as possible, though, indeed, it is well enough known to scholars, if not to Australians in general.
From the wide sweep of the Bathurst Plains, where—
The ripened harvest bends its heavy blade,
And flocks and herds in thousands strewed around
A wake the woodlands with their joyous sound,
the poet turns with sadness to ask why the Australasian muse is silent:
Thy blue-eyed daughters, with the flaxen hair
And taper ankle, do they bloom less fair
Than those of Europe? Do thy primal groves
Ne’er warble forth their feathered inmates’ loves?
To ask such questions is to answer them, and Wentworth looks at the only blot on the landscape, convictism, which restrains Australasians from bursting into song:
’Tis slavery’s badge, the felon’s shame
That stills thy voice and clouds thy opening fame . . .
Land of my hope! soon may this early blot
Amid thy growing honours be forgot;
Soon may a freeman’s soul, a freeman’s blade
Nerve every arm, and gleam through every glade—
No more the outcast convict’s clanking chains
Deform thy wilds and stigmatise thy plains . . .
I find such lines as these full of power, even to-day, when convictism is still obtruding into our literature. To the English professors, identified with the nation who sent the convicts and floggers here, Wentworth’s resentment must have appeared unseemly. This is only another example of differences in the point of view.
A PATRIOTIC PROPHECY
Wentworth’s poem concludes with prophecies and hopes for the future of Australasia, a patriot’s prophecies and hopes, the intensely significant visions of an idealist.
He hopes that Australasians will never take part in wars of foreign conquest:
Of foreign rule ne’er may the ceaseless thirst
Pollute thy sons, and render thee accurst
Amid the nations . . .
. . . from thy peaceful plains
May Glory’s star ne’er charm thy restless swains;
Ne’er may the hope of plunder lure to roam
One Australasian from his happy home . . .
At a time when Europe was full of alarms, in the period when Napoleon had assumed the role of military terrorist which Hitler and Mussolini would assume to-day, Wentworth desired that his native land should learn from Europe mainly what to avoid:
Yet ne’er, my country, roll thy battle-car
With deadly axle through the ranks of war . . .
ne’er may crouch before
Invading legions sallying from thy shore,
A distant people, that shall not on thee
Have first disgorged his hostile chivalry.
In other words, Wentworth’s foreign policy for Australia, enunciated in the year 1823, was: Fight no enemies except those which may have the temerity to come here looking for fight!
The poet wishes Australasians to engage in all the arts of peace:
Be theirs the task to lay with lusty blow
The ancient giants of the forest low,
With frequent fires the cumbered plain to clear,
To tame the steed, and yoke the stubborn steer,
With cautious plough to rip the virgin earth
And watch her firstborn harvest from its birth . . .
Such be the labours of thy peaceful swains,
Thus may they till, and thus enrich thy plains;
Thus the full flow of population’s tide
lts swelling waters pour on every side . . .
So, Australasia, may thy exiled band
Spread their young myriads o’er thy lonely land
Till village spires and crowded cities rise
In thick succession to the traveller’s eyes.
He wishes Australasians also to encourage Science, Learning, Philosophy, a study of the Classics, and, of course, Poetry. He invokes the Goddess (who dwells, he informs us, on the Warragamba Mountains) to inspire some kindling soul—
To wake to life my country’s unknown lyre
That from creation’s date has slumb’ring lain . . .
He invokes this Goddess to grant that an Austral Milton, an Austral Shakespeare, an Austral Pindar might arise.
And then comes the stanza, every word of which is significant and stimulating to Australians, and probably somewhat provocative and annoying to Englishmen, the stanza which surely lost Wentworth the first prize, if he had been otherwise a close runner-up to Praed, the stanza which has led me here to quote both poems at such length, in order that I may quote it, the stanza which for breathtaking colonial impudence was the dizzy limit in 1823, and is still in 1935, with its assumption that the British Islands might some day decline in power, an astounding prophecy or hope of what might then be the future of Australia as a great and responsible nation—
And, oh, Britannia! shouldst thou cease to ride
Despotic Empress of old Ocean’s tide—
Should thy tamed lion—spent his former might—
No longer roar, the terror of the fight;
Should e’er arrive that dark, disastrous hour,
When, bowed by luxury, thou yield’st to power;
When thou, no longer freest of the free
To some proud victor bend’st the vanquished knee;
May all thy glories in another sphere
Relume, and shine more brightly still than here;
May this, thy last-born infant then arise,
To glad thy heart, and greet thy parent eyes;
And Australasia float, with flag unfurled,
A new Britannia in another world!
Wentworth, in the concluding stanza of his poem, had the audacity to suggest, in effect, that culture and power in the British Islands might some day decline. That would, indeed, be a “dark, disastrous hour,” but might it not happen, nevertheless? Dean Inge has been saying for years that England would be happier as a second-class power, without a colonial empire; as a kingdom, say, about the size of Holland or Denmark, with a population reduced to about ten or twelve million people, economically self-contained. There is quite a strong school of thought in England in support of this view that England is overpopulated, and, in fact, with five million adults chronically unemployed, the population is slowly declining. Britain no longer has the biggest navy, the biggest merchant marine, the biggest industrial equipment. Britain’s strength to-day is mainly as a financial clearing-house, rather than as a world-leader in industry and trade. The Dominions, including Australia, are becoming industrially self-contained. Per contra, far-sighted statesmen in Britain intend to make Britain self-contained in the matter of foodstuffs, as far as possible. The imperial system of even a decade ago is undergoing a profound change. The Labour Party in Britain is opposed to imperialism, and may at any time take charge of the government. Nothing is gained by refusing to look at these facts.
It is quite possible that, in the year A.D. 2000, Britain’s population may have declined to twenty millions and Australia’s population may have risen to twenty millions.
What then? Both countries would have the same size population, but Australia would be immensely richer in natural resources. England would still be richer in castles and traditions, but what of that? Castles and traditions do not make a literature, or Egypt and Palestine would be the most literary countries in the world to-day. Literature is concerned with living realities, with the present and future rather than with the past. Literature and culture blossom at their best during a period of national expansion, as in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, or again in England during the reign of Queen Victoria—two distinctly expanding periods. Literature and culture do not flourish during a period of national decline, except the literature of decadence.
Nothing less than a new and exclusive industrial invention, comparable with the steam engine, or the discovery of a new world to pre-empt and conquer, could maintain Britain’s expansion, or her population at forty-five millions. There is no sign, as yet, of this new invention or discovery.
Well, then! Is Wentworth’s dream so impossible, that Australia might become A New Britannia in Another World?
DECLINE AND FALL
The history of all empires and cultures has been a history of rise, zenith, decline, fall. The changes occur slowly, in centuries rather than in decades. Australia’s effective history of colonial growth occurred during the nineteenth century, while Britain, at “home,” was expanding industrially. Two parallel and complementary expansions occurred—ours pastoral, theirs industrial. In the twentieth century Britain has entered a phase of comparative industrial decline. Must Australia, too, decline? If not, our basic ideas must begin to diverge from those of Britain.
If we are to continue to expand nationally, we shall need a different set of ideas from those current in Britain during a probable period of twentieth century decline or national restriction.
Our literature, our culture, should normally, during the twentieth century, which is our second century, be a literature and culture of national expansion. English literature and culture might, during the same period, be a literature and culture of decline and “decadence.” I take as an example the cynicism of Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, and the eroticism of D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These books are both works of “decadence,” of English social decadence. (I use the term decadence in the sense of ultra-sophistication, and not in any simple “moral” sense.) Both these products of modern English culture are formally banned in Australia, on the silly “moral” ground, and not for the more exact reason that they represent a culture in decline, which in such a tendency is against the grain of our potentially-expansionist Australian culture. There is no need for the silly “moral” censorship; I think these books of the English decadence could never have profoundly moved Australians. We are much more likely to be moved and influenced by an American book, such as Anthony Adverse, with its great sweep of new historical colour, romance, and action, than by Huxley or Lawrence, with their codes of intrinsic English despair. As for Michael Arlen, Ethel Mannin, Evelyn Waugh, Beverley Nichols, what do we care about their picture of England going downhill? It can move us only vaguely, as a spectacle seen from afar.
During the nineteenth century, while English culture was, like English industry, still expanding, we, also expanding as a people, could look more eagerly to England for cultural guidance that we can in this twentieth century. We were more in harmony with England then; we were dominated by English culture to a greater extent than we shall be henceforth.
WHERE ARE THE ANTIPODES?
The effect of English culture upon Australian culture during the nineteenth century is well worth attempting to trace. I showed, in the quotations from Praed and Wentworth respectively, in their poems on Australasia, that there were two contrasting views of this country as a theme for literature—the Englishman’s and the Australian’s. The Englishman regarded Australia as a barbarous, uncultured, convict settlement and colony. The Australian regarded Australia as home, native soil, a potentially great nation.
From Praed to Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, A. L. Gordon, Kendall, Price Warung, and other melancholics is one line of succession in Australian literature, based on the idea of Australia as a permanent colony.
From Wentworth to Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Tom Collins (in Such is Life), young Miles Franklin (in My Brilliant Career), Steele Rudd (in On Our Selection), and the whole of The Bulletin school under Archibald in the ’eighties and ’nineties, is the other line of succession; optimistic and humorous about Australia, based on the idea of Australia as a Nation which led to Federation of the Commonwealth in 1900.
Developments of Australian culture during the twentieth century have been rather more complex, and will be dealt with in a subsequent section of this essay. At the present it is sufficient to indicate these two nineteenth-century streams in Australian literature and idea, the imported and the indigenous cultures existing side by side. The two tendencies still exist, and will continue to exist in our culture as long as there are immigrants from overseas and native-born living side by side in the country, and both writing about it.
This is the place for another reminder that differences do not necessarily imply antagonisms. In the relationships between Australians and Englishmen, whether in Australia or in England, there is a good deal of cousinly chaff. “Spawn of convicts!” is the Englishman’s none-too-polite but not necessarily unforgivable epithet of cousinly abuse of the Antipodean. “Newchum!” or “Pommy!” retorts the Australian. These pleasant exercises in vulgar banter mark a difference in point of view, but not necessarily a profound antagonism.
Yet the difference is there, the difference in point of view, and it finds its expression in serious literature.
No critique of Australian literature, or of the foundations of a national culture, can overlook the differerences and distinctions between the two contrasting Antipodean points of view. To the Australian, it is London of course which is in the Antipodes—this suggestion an Englishman tends to repudiate with scorn.
It will be as well to note, also that in literature no hard-and-fast or absolute criterion can be found in the mere fact of birthplace. In general, the Australian-born are Australian-minded, and the English-born are English-minded; but there are many exceptions to the rule. Kendall, the Australian native, was as melancholy and English-minded as anyone English-born, in his attitude towards Australia. Louis Stone, an Englishman, in his study of Sydney larrikins in Jonah, showed himself to have almost instinctive Australian literary sympathies. The British genius for colonisation consists in a quick adaptability to a new environment. Hundreds of thousands of Englishmen and other Europeans have become good Australians within a very short while after landing on these shores. These notable exceptions do not destroy the general rule, which is that immigrants tend to take a different view of Australia from that taken by the Australian-born.
Immigrants come to Australia with a preconceived idea, which they cannot easily lose. They look for those features in Australian life which will support their preconceived notion. The Australian-born, on the other hand, come into the country at least without preconceived ideas about it.
FLOGGING THE LAGS
Convictism, in Australian literature, has been mainly the prerogative of English-minded writers. “Yah, convict!” has been a form of retort to “Pommy!” In literature this emphasis upon convictism as the essential fact in our history has been an Englishman’s emphasis, an Englishman’s statement of a preconceived hypothesis of Australia. We saw, in Praed’s poem, a statement of this Englishman’s hypothesis of Australia:
Beautiful land! Within whose quiet shore
Lost spirits may forget the stain they bore—
and in Wentworth’s poem, a quite different view and a statement of the Australian’s hypothesis:
Land of my hope! soon may this early blot
Amid thy growing honours be forgot . . .
It remained for writers such as Marcus Clarke, Rolf Boldrewood, and Price Warung to see to it that the “stain” was not forgotten. Convictism and criminality (bushranging) became a dominant motif in the literature of Australia, not because in fact it was the dominant motif of Australian history, or of Australian life, but because the immigrant writers, with their preconceived hypothesis, thought that it ought to have been dominant.
It is remarkable, too, that the prime works of convictism and criminality in Australia, For the Term of His Natural Life and Robbery Under Arms, should be the acknowledged “classics” of Australian literature amongst English readers in England, almost to this day. The Englishman who stays at home does not easily lose his preconceived, or traditional, idea of Australia as a convict colony. Anything which demonstrates to a man what he already knows is likely to be considered profound. It fortifies a man in his own wisdom. New truths, new areas of knowledge, are perceived more slowly. A mental effort, to clear the old illusion out of the mind, is almost beyond the capacity of the average man, particularly the average reader of fiction. If Australia is, indeed, not merely a convict colony, but a new Nation, a new fact in human experience, the average English reader will be called upon to make a mental effort to grasp that new fact, a mental effort which may be beyond him. He will have a tendency to prefer the old, familiar, conventional and traditional view.
Thus, the Cambridge professors gave Praed’s fantasy the prize over Wentworth’s realism, and thus the English reading public have since preferred Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood to Lawson, Paterson, and Steele Rudd.
The theme of convictism and flogging is one which would naturally appeal to English people, for the convicts and floggers who came here were English, and the penal settlement here was a direct part of the English penal system. “Botany Bay” was like Dartmoor, a bleak and inaccessible English prison. More convicts were imprisoned and flogged in England at Newgate and Dartmoor and Ipswich and Maidstone gaols than ever were transported to Australia. Convicts indeed are imprisoned and flogged in English gaols to this day. Soldiers were flogged in the English armies under Wellington in France and under Clive in India. Sailors were flogged in the English navy under Nelson and Blake. Captain Cook and Lieutenant Bligh, and all the other English sea-dogs, flogged their English sailors, or had them flogged, most vilely. The barbarities of the convict system, the floggings and cruelties, were the barbarities of the English nation at that time, the persecutors and the persecuted alike were English, not Australian. In the saner atmosphere of Australia, and in the wave of humanitarianism which spread throughout the world in the nineteenth century, these barbarities and seventies came to be modified and to cease.
I am not one to advocate the falsification of history, or the sentimental glossing of harsh facts. But history does not consist of harsh facts only. If it did, English history would be a monstrous tale.
While the oft described horrors of the convict system were proceeding sadistically in Australia, what was happening in England? The gaols there remained full of criminals; Australia merely took off a surplusage. In the textile factories of England, children of eleven and twelve years of age were working at the looms for periods of from twelve to eighteen hours a day! These child slaves were beaten and preached at and sent straight from work on shift to a bed still warm from the previous child-slave occupant. In the mines of England, women and children, stripped to the waist, were pulling skips of coal along underground tunnels so narrow that the human beasts of burden had to crawl on all fours in an absolute darkness. In the cities, small children of nine or ten years of age, frequently orphans, were apprenticed to chimney sweeps, and were used as human brooms, made to climb up narrow, stifling, sooty chimneys in factories and the houses of the rich. It was in English ships that cargoes of Negro slaves were being carried to America, to be sold in the markets there, starved and beaten and in chains.
So horrible were these cruelties of Eighteenth-century England that at last a giant protest of outraged humanitarianism went up, led by Lord Shaftesbury, and after a time the worst horrors abated. But flogging in the English army and navy persisted, and flogging and sadism in the English prisons persisted, long after these horrors had been ended in Australia.
“England!” says the legendary old Australian lady who won Tattersall’s sweep. “No, I don’t want to take a trip to England. That’s where the convicts come from!” She expressed, at any rate, an Australian point of view which the litterateurs of convictism have had a tendency to overlook. Australia quickly abolished convictism, an imported English institution: that is a national achievement to be proud of.
I have spoken to an old man who had joined in the gold rush from Sydney to Bathurst and thence to Araluen in the 1850’s. I asked him about the convicts and bushrangers of the early days.
“Convicts?” he said. “Bushrangers? I never saw any. There were a few Old Lags and criminals and rough characters on the diggings, but they did not amount to much. There’s worse characters about nowadays, or just as bad. The diggers were a decent, law-abiding and hardworking lot.”
I asked him if he had ever read Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood. “Those writers!” he said. “They only make up a tale to astonish the public, that’s all. There are just as many convicts and criminals about now. Read the newspapers! Also just as many thieves. Bushrangers were only thieves—nothing to get excited about. The police caught them, just the same as now.”
I could not make the old man budge from this point of view, which to me at that time was novel.
“Why make a song about flogging and convicts?” he said. “It is silly to write a book about that. The early days were great fun, not all horrors.” And he repeated that the diggers, pioneers, and early colonists were for the most part decent, hardworking people, who knew how to enjoy life, and lived well on the fat of the land.
I had the curiosity to check up from the statistics of transportation the old man’s point of view that convicts were a minority. It appears that, in the year 1855, when transportation had virtually ceased, the population of Australia was 800,000. Altogether, from the first convict ship to the last, not more than 150,000 convicts had been transported here. A large number of the convicts may be presumed to have died without issue (the percentage of females among them being very small), or to have returned, upon expiry of their sentences, to the Land of the Free from which they came. Effectively, by the year 1855, the proportion of convicts in the population could not have been much higher than one person in twenty, even if all the surviving convicts had been released from prison.
Then came the tremendous influx of immigrants, free persons, seeking gold, which raised the population to a million-and-a-half by 1865, to two millions by 1880, and to over three millions by 1900. What had happened to the convict proportion of one in twenty in the year 1855? It must have dwindled to not more than one per cent by 1880, and to zero by the year 1900. To-day the population of Australia exceeds six millions, very few of them, indeed, descended from the dolorous English convicts, poor miserable creatures that these were to inspire such a doleful quantum of literature.
On these lines of thought there is no need to falsify history or whitewash Australia’s “shameful” convict past. The falsification of history has arisen from a wrong emphasis by the convict school of writers, who seek an obvious drama in the historical crudities, and cannot see the subtler facets of our growth to nationhood, cannot see, as material for literature, the pioneering and nation-building feats of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, the free people.
“There are just as many convicts and criminals now as in the early days,” insisted my old pioneer friend, and I take his word for it. The American colonies received immeasurably more convicts from England than ever were sent to Australia, and they have lived down the “stigma”—probably because, about the time that Australia was “discovered,” the American colonists declared their independence of English rule, and a fortiari, of the Englishman’s interpretation of their history!
It would not have been necessary for me to make this excursus into convictism as a literary theme if the subject had been allowed to die with Marcus Clarke, Boldrewood, and Price Warung. But it has not been allowed to die. Their books have become “classics,” and their theme is being repeated, down to the present day, by journalists such as J. H. M. Abbott and B. Penton. Landtakers, an historical novel by Penton, which wallows in the sensationalism of convictism and flogging, has been published in Sydney by The Bulletin as recently as 1934, and subsequently became a newspaper reviewer’s “Book-of-the-Month” boosted in Britain by the book critic of The Daily Mail, a journal of the moron millions published under the motto of “For King & Country.” Thus, the legend of convictism and flogging is perpetuated both in Australia and in Britain down to the present day; while a finer, less sensational, less journalistic, Australian literature still has to make its way in both countries.
“ARCHIBALD, CERTAINLY NOT!”
“The Bulletin,” in the ’eighties and ’nineties, provided a rallying point for Australian literary nationalism. J. F. Archibald gathered under his banner a representative collection of rebels against imported culture, and began to encourage the local article. The Bulletin under Archibald did not encourage fine literature in Australia; it encouraged crude literature. The note was defiance, an aggressive Australian nationalism, an attitude which led in politics to federation of the Commonwealth, the growth of the Labour Party, and a protective tariff for Australian manufacturers.
Viewed in historical retrospect, I think that Archibald’s Bulletin has had a dubious effect on Australian literature, and on culture in Australia. It has presented a larrikin view of Australian life. It has made the larrikin idea paramount, as in an earlier phase convictism was paramount. The larrikin and the convict are not representative citizens, though they are dramatic citizens. Convicts and larrikins in Australian literature have been what redskins and cowboys were to American literature—a fiction travesty of the representative life.
The Bulletin was rude, it was slangy, it was smart, it was naughty (in a ’ninetyish way), it was vigorous and robust, it was, in a larrikin or urchin sense, “Australian,” and it had a tremendous effect, I think on the whole a bad effect, on Australian literary and cultural development. Henry Lawson, for example, had in him the materials for great Australian novels, indigenous novels; but Archibald wanted short stories and sketches and poems for his paper, so Lawson became a writer of fragments, suitable for newspaper rather than for book-publication, and the great works, the sustained works, the ample and leisured works which Lawson might have written, and which Australia required of him, remained unwritten.
Archibald’s cult was the terse. Make it short! Make it snappy, make it crisp, boil it down to a paragraph! Such was Archibald’s advice to writers. As a result, The Bulletin and “Bulletinese” (which is a clipped kind of slangy jargon), diverted Australian literature into the channels of dialect, and laid on local colour, not with a brush, but with a trowel.
Archibald was an Irishman by temperament, an Irish-Australian by birth. It is said that he came of mixed extraction, including French, Scottish, and Jewish strains; but his father was Irish, and, anyway, Archibald had no English in him, and no inherited or acquired love for England. He had no mother country except Australia to call “home,” no vicarious patriotism for England. The Bulletin, under his editorship for twenty years from circa 1880 to 1900, was aggressively anti-English and pro-Australian. It opposed the Boer War, or, more precisely, was pro-Boer in its view of that conflict. This provides a keynote to its general attitude towards England and the Empire. The Bulletin, under Archibald, was pro-colonial, and, therefore, anti-English. It was also radical and rough. It provided an Irishman, in fact, numerous Irishmen and Irish-Australians, with a grand opportunity to express themselves.
The Irish element in Australia, comprising twenty-five per cent of the population, never loved England, nor had any reason to love England. They provided the basis, if not for an indigenous Australian culture, at least for the weakening of English influences here. It was Peter Lalor, an Irishman, who raised the Flag of Stars at Eureka Stockade, and proclaimed the first Australian Republic. Irishmen are a splendid lighting element in any country, but they suffer when in exile, no less than Englishmen, from an acute and sentimental nostalgia for their homeland. Irishmen of the first, and even of the second migrant generation, are more concerned with Erin than they need be when they become Australian citizens. But to be anti-English is not in itself enough to make one a good Australian.
The word “larrikin” is said to be of Irish origin; it conveys the same meaning as “playboy,” in J. M. Synge’s drama, The Playboy of the Western World. Archibald was the larrikin, or the Irish playboy of the Australian world. The Bulletin was a lark played by a literary larrikin (I cannot avoid the alliteration, for the phrase expresses just what I mean to say). The BuIlet-een (as it used to be called) thumbed its nose at England and at respectability. It was irreverent and cheeky, as “quick on the uptake” as any street urchin, smart and pert and vulgar, and rude. Because it proclaimed itself pro-Australian it attracted Australian native genius towards itself. And because Archibald himself was a journalist and a literary larrikin of genius, Australian literature and culture became cast, for a time, at a formative time, in The Bulleteen’s mould.
The big men of The Bully (to use another slang abbreviation of its title) were Archibald, Edmond, Macleod, and Hopkins—an Irishman (paramount), a rebel from Glasgae, a staider Scotsman, and an American—strange combination! As a supernumerary, A. G. Stephens, Celtic-Australian literary critic of genius, the greatest and almost the only Australian critic, established the “Red Page” literary column, and performed one of the most truly distinctive feats in Australian literary history by publishing Tom Collins’ Such is Life in book form, before he left The Bulletin—in a huff, as a result of some minor dispute, or merely from incompatibility of temperament. But he had shown, in his Red Page, what literary criticism really could he in Australia. May the saints reward him, for Australia didn’t. He struggled in penury for thirty years after leaving The Bully, and never got the audience he deserved.
One of the biggest elements in The Bulletin’s success was its pictures. Archibald imported to Australia the first half-tone process engraving plant. It can be imagined what this meant, as all newspaper illustrations before this event had been by the slow method of hand-engraving on steel or wood. It meant that The Bulletin could “say it with pictures”—its jokes, its gags, its political cartoons became world-famous. Hopkins, Phil May, Norman Lindsay, D. H. Souter, and, later, David Low, were redoubtable caricaturists, cartoonists, joke-illustrators—a whole school of Bulletin black-and-white artists was evolved, the best of its kind in the world.
What an instrument of power to ridicule, satirise, and give cheek was placed in Archibald’s hands! Besides using the new method of zinc-block pictures, he could cast his net all over Australia and the Pacific Islands, to draw in literary men of genius and talent such as Louis Becke, Price Warung, E. J. Brady, Randolph Bedford, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd—and ten thousand paragraphists and poets from every shearing-shed, drovers’ camp, and human outpost in the continent. Thus, an indigenous Australian literature was brought to growth—and trained in flippancy, vulgarity, smartness, terseness, and irreverence; taught to express itself in a slick vernacular, an idiom presumed by the editors of The Bulletin to be typically Australian, which was no more typically Australian than the argot of Paris urchins is typically French.
Thus Archibald’s Bulletin, if it provided an antidote to imported culture of the “haw-haw” kind, did little more for the real development of Australian culture than to substitute larrikinism for convictism, as a theme, or more precisely, as an attitude, in the Australian idea. What The Bulletin has become since Archibald’s day, what the Red Page became under Cecil Mann and John Dailey, what the whole paper became under S. H. Prior, need not detain us long, for The Bulletin of to-day is not paramount in Australian culture. The one-time radical ragamuffin became respectable and conservative in its political attitude, and became jingo-imperialistic during the War. It proved itself politically at variance with the mass of the Australian people by plumping for conscription in the two referenda which were defeated by popular vote, including the votes of the troops at the Front. Nowadays The Bulletin is violently and hysterically anti-radical and anti-labour in politics, with a tendency to a Fascist outlook. The merry larrikin rudeness of its youth has decayed into the crusted spleen of senility. A flippancy that sat comically upon the features of the bright youngster has become grotesque in the face of the conservative old man. A slang idiom that was interesting at least by its novelty has nowadays become stereotyped and merely tiresome. Slang to be vivid must be used as the Americans use it, continually created anew. The incongruity of all this stereotyped flippancy with The Bulletin’s present-day conservative line in politics sets up a contradiction which could be resolved only by dropping either the flippancy or the conservative line. As for the criticism on the present-day Red Page, its writers know better how to sneer than to criticise. English, no less than Australian, authors are lectured in the manner of the “Answers to Correspondents” column, as though they were tyros composing paragraphs written by campfires on the back of jam-tin labels to submit to an editorial omniscience. The attitude is very much like that of the small-town Tasmanian editor who, during the Russo-Japanese War of the ‘nineties, began his leading article with the portentous words: “We warn the Czar . . .” It may be presumed that overseas authors of to-day are not profoundly dismayed by The Bulletin’s rebukes and sneers, if they ever read them. If Australian authors, nearer at hand, have sometimes been discouraged by these rebukes and sneers, our literature has, to that extent, been kept back. Australian literature and culture, if it is ever to become more mature than it was in the ’nineties, will need to be emancipated from the tutelage of the Archibald tradition in these days of its atrophy.
PAINTING THE PLACE
Art, in Australia, provides a truer gauge of national growth in culture than does literature. Convictism and larrikinism never intruded into oil-painting, or, at least, into landscape-painting; and neither did journalism, to any serious extent. The half-tone process of reproduction, even to this day, cannot reproduce colour satisfactorily or cheaply in newspapers. The colour-artist in Australia has had to work to please the taste of individual patrons of art, and has not had to subordinate decoration and design to “meaning,” as his brothers of the pen, whether in literature or in black-and-white drawing, had to do.
The foremost black-and-white artist, Norman Lindsay, developed his slickness, speed, sense of humour and sense of human caricature, it may be presumed, under journalistic influence—under the influence of the half-tone process, and, later, of the etching-press. Even his best work is not entirely free from caricature and “cartooning.” Norman Lindsay is in a class apart, and will be considered as such at a later stage in this tractate. He is not a representative “Australian” artist. Hilder, Heysen, and Gruner I take to be the leading examples of distinctively Australian achievement in art.
Landscape artists, whether they liked it or not, have had to face Australia, examine it carefully, and create, or recreate, the land as art. They came by intuition and of necessity close to the Spirit of the Place, whatever it is, as they submitted themselves, with easel, colour, and brushes, to necessary vigils on lonely hillsides, observing the unorthodox contours of the land, and the light quality of an atmosphere not previously painted or described in text-books. Landscape painting in oils, by its meditative and quiet technique, is a mystical process, an intuitive process of mind. If there is any such thing as the Spirit of a Place, the landscape artist will be likely to find it first, and to show others what it is.
Thus the birth of a distinctively Australian culture has been heralded more precisely by our great landscape painters than by our writers, because landscape painting has been subjected to fewer disturbing and extraneous influences than any other form of aesthetic expression in Australia. The work of Gruner, Hilder, Heysen, Streeton and others is a new contribution, an Australian contribution, to the art of the world. Whether it is recognised as such by overseas critics at the moment does not matter. The work is there, and the distinctiveness is there. Art-criticism and art-recognition in London (or Paris) is very much allied in practice to art-marketing and the artistic struggle for existence. Among so many “schools” of modern and modernistic theory, mainly concerned with the log-rolling of cliques, and among so many dealers concerned mainly with marketing Old Masters to the New Rich, it may well be that Australian art will have a long time to wait for recognition outside Australia. Some day, by a swing of the pendulum away from Epstein, towards restfulness and the exotic but quiet beauty of Gruner, it may become a Vogue to have gum trees and sunlit Murrumbidgee valleys on the walls of Mayfair and Manhattan fiats. That day has not yet arrived, and could only arrive if a group of art-dealers first secured a “corner” in Gruner pictures before launching a campaign of theory to prove that he was Corot redivivus, but more charming, more strange, more incomprehensible except to the initiated.
While appreciation of an artist by his contemporaries remains a matter of whim, or of “wangling,” or both, the Australian landscape painters need not seek world-recognition, for they will not get it. They are forced to establish themselves here; to please their own people first—a stroke of luck for the development of Australian culture.
Art depends more directly upon individual patronage than does literature, which depends upon mass-patronage. An artist sells his original, his unique object of merchandise, almost directly to the buyer whose walls it will adorn. The landscape artists in Australia have been fortunate in finding patrons, picture-buyers, amongst Australian people of wealth. I do not say “people of taste”—the artists themselves provided the taste; their patrons merely bought the works, and thus almost unknowingly encouraged the development of culture here. Perhaps they bought mainly for “furnishing value,” perhaps the dealers here, working a “wangle” in their own way, urged upon patrons that the pictures were a commercial investment; perhaps, even, the buyers were actually pleased by the landscapes—anything is possible in a “new” country, and to a new bourgeoisie . . . but whatever the reason, the fact remains that pictures have actually been bought here, that an Australian school of painting has thus been established, and that this school of painting is something new and delightful in the world’s art—certain at some time to be lauded as such; something quite as distinctive as Japanese art, or Persian art, which have had their vogues in world-appreciation.
The development of art in Australia (I confine the discussion for purposes of the thesis to landscape art) has been subject to the same influencing factors as the development of literature. The factors are:
(1) A preconceived or European hypothesis, brought hither by immigrants.
(2) A continued contact with Europe, by the export of artists and the import of European works of art and criticism.
(3) The growth of indigenous art, despite the repressive influence of the two former factors, by means of local criticism and a local marketing technique.
Landscape art in Australia, in colour-painting at least, had no journalistic side-track to explore, no bumptious proclamation of “Australian” aggressiveness to pervert its intention, or to force it into crude and larrikin channels. Art, in the violent atmosphere of Australian democracy-with-growing-pains, miraculously found a means of remaining aloof and dignified. The painters who have hypothecated Australian landscape have been able to do their work without vulgar brawling, without the discouragements of the criticism-which-sneers, and actually with the encouragements of a market and an adequate réclame.
The preconceived or European hypothesis of Australian landscape is seen clearly in the work of Conrad Martens, who came to Australia, in 1835, at the age of 35 years, and painted here until he died in 1878. It may fairly be said that he never saw Australia except through a European’s eyes. His landscape drawings are astonishingly “European.” They portray a land where (as Adam Lindsay Gordon said) “flowers are scentless, and songless bright birds.” Conrad Martens’ colour is murky, his trees droop and spread like English trees; he painted our paddocks as if they were meadows; over his eyes there must have been a European film. His pictures of Australia are as unreal as was Praed’s poem. They are of tremendous significance as showing pictorially what Australia must have seemed like to the first immigrants here, and probably still appears to the first vision of immigrants.
But nowadays we can show the immigrant another interpretation of Australia, an indigenous interpretation, not murky. In the bright yellows and blues of Streeton the murk was cleared away; in the brightness and lyrical colour of Hilder and Heysen a new world is revealed; while in the subtler purples and delicate tints of Gruner all the first garishness of Streeton has vanished, to the picture of a land that is loved, a unique land interpreted by an artist of subtle and delicate mind.
Gruner’s pictures provide an Australian’s hypothesis of Australia. He can show Australians themselves, no less than immigrants, how Australia shall be viewed henceforth. Gruner’s lucent but faint Australian purple and his dry-refracting Australian subtle blue is as distinctive an example of artistic creativeness as was Turner’s misty London blue or flaming Venice sunset red. Gruner, the greatest Australian landscape painter, has shown in his work how the Spirit of a Place creates and is created by the artist. He sees Australia lyrically, the only true realism is his—that which constructs a country as a vision to be attained, as a country that is loved. In proof of this love, there are his pictures, a reality: Australia become real in its own culture and by its own aesthetic. Once you have seen a painting by Gruner, you can never again believe that the Australian landscape is drab or colourless. Here is the ultimate expression of confidence in Australia—the ability and the will to depict it as beautiful and as a desirable land in which to live.
That landscape art should have arrived, from Conrad Martens, through Streeton, to Hilder, Heysen, and Gruner, is a proof that indigenous Australian culture is possible, that the Spirit of the Place will find its own expression, and that that expression will be not only distinctive, but may be beautiful and sophisticated. Gruner is a sophisticated painter. He has travelled to Europe, and absorbed what he needed of European traditions in painting; but no more than he needed. This should be the keynote of our developing culture.
Art in Australia, like literature, has been subject to loss by the export of talent. We have exported quite a number of artists, and there have been Australian R.A.’s. We have imported artists and teachers of art, and works of foreign artists, but not to the extent that we have imported literature, and teachers of literature, from abroad. If we are respectful of foreign criticism of our art, we have nevertheless (thanks to S. Ure Smith, Gayfield Shaw, and a gallant band of dealers here), developed critical standards of our own, which have encouraged the best in indigenous art. As a result, Australian art, instead of being merely imitative of, or repressed by, overseas standards, has arrived at standards of its own.