Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson

Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson

I’ve been proof-reading essays recently for both my student daughters. Geology daughter has me full bottle on tectonic plate movements in the Timor Sea while Psych daughter has been raiding my bookshelves for her final Australian Lit. unit. Her most recent essay was on the ‘debate’, or duel by poetry, in the pages of The Bulletin in 1892-3 between its two most important young contributors Henry Lawson, then aged 25, and Banjo Paterson, 3 years older.

The debate, which Lawson suggested to Paterson they might string out over a few issues to supplement his income, was ostensibly over Lawson’s Realist versus Paterson’s Romantic view of Bush life, but Libby, my daughter, argues that the real force behind the debate was class difference, that Paterson sided with the squatters and Lawson with the workers:

While on its surface about the relative merits of the City and the Bush, the debate is actually an illustration of the clash between upper and lower class perspectives. In the lead up to Federation, Australia was developing its social and political identity. Events such as the great drought, the depression and the Queensland shearers strike were heavily influential in the formation of social and political tensions. As a result, the identifying image of the Australian Bushman, which featured heavily in the literature of the time, and particularly in The Bulletin, began to take on different meanings according to class perspective.

Both authors experienced the bush in their youth but moved to Sydney while still young. Lawson was the son of a struggling bushman with a small holding near Bathurst. After his parent’s marriage dissolved he moved to Sydney with his mother, Louisa, where due to his limited education he struggled to earn a living. Paterson, the son of a wealthy pastoralist, was sent to Sydney Grammar School and subsequently qualified as a solicitor. The opposing class views of the authors is clear in their writing with Paterson idealising Bush life and Lawson focusing on the difficult circumstances of ordinary working people.

Lawson begins the debate with Borderland (later retitled Up the Country), detailing the differences between the idealistic poetry of the time and the realities of bush life. He proclaims his disappointment that he could not find “the Southern poets’ land” and later claims that the only way this idealised land could exist was if “the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised”. Paterson replies contemptuously with In Defence of the Bush, parodying a sympathetic response to Lawson’s disappointment. He describes the changing of the seasons with reverence and implies that it is Lawson’s lack of toughness that disqualifies him from understanding these changes and that he could never be a real bushman “who is loyal through it all”. He contrasts the pristine bush with the “squalid” city with its street urchins and immoral women. Paterson uses the Bush versus the City as a metaphor for his social belief; that the ideal bushman accepts his place in the social order with grace, and is morally upstanding while the City promotes moral corruption, particularly in women.

The second poems from both authors are more aggressive but also show an element of self-consciousness. Lawson’s reply is heavily laden with his social/political views. He scorns Paterson’s ‘patriotic’ idealist images as “British workman nonsense” (Lawson, ‘In answer to Banjo, and otherwise’ ) highlighting the ridiculousness of Paterson’s idealised seasons in the face of ongoing drought. He further demonstrates that Paterson’s re-created bushman both suffers the corruption of power inequality and is analogous to the city workers. He suggests that not only is idealism an unattainable “Eldorado” but that writing of the unattainable may “raise a just rebellion in the over written west”. He further aligns Paterson himself with the falseness of idealism, pointing out that Paterson’s experience of the bush is “travelled like a gent” and “it’s doubtful that you ever saw a season in the west”. Referring to Paterson’s position as a well-connected city solicitor, he claims “the city seems to suit you while you rave about the bush”. The earnest, gritty reality of this poem and in particular his response to Paterson’s attacks on the morality of inner-city women, give the feeling that he is appealing personally to the readers in an attempt to validate their reality.

Patterson’s final response addresses the authors who have joined the fray on Lawson’s side. He opens with a comic attack on their negativity and the weakness of their writing, claiming they should “take something for their livers and be cheerful for a change” (Paterson, ‘In answer to Various Bards’) For himself, he could “never see the bushman through an atmosphere of gloom”, and falls back on his idealist values of strength and morality,”‘there is no denying that the bushman’s life is rough but a man can easy stand it if he’s made of sterling stuff”. He implies that if they need comfort and dislike the bush, Lawson and others might as well go back to England. This argument does not directly address any of Lawson’s points but rather appears to be a self-conscious and defensive attempt to undermine Lawson and win back the readers. The attempt to twist Lawson’s meanings to suit his point rather than argue in kind gives Patterson’s writing a sulky or petulant feel.

The conclusions on both sides, while ostensibly conciliatory, give clear summaries of the two opposing views. Lawson suggests their argument is not in keeping with “the spirit of the times” and suggests they “go together droving and returning if we live, try to understand each other while we liquor up the div”. The idea of two men of opposing class views uniting in understanding and celebration parallels his belief in the empowerment of people through action in unity. Paterson however argues for retaining the status quo, “there are some that like the city and there are some that like the bush” and that “we’ll work our own salvation with the stoutest hearts we may”.

Interestingly, it was only after this debate that Lawson packed his swag and spent 6 months working in shearing sheds around Bourke, probably the first time he had ever been west of Bathurst.






Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, 1943. (My Review)

5 thoughts on “Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson

  1. Lovely critique of the “stoush” Bill. I’ve read bits about it at times, but haven’t invested much effort to reading the whole series. What you say makes sense to me, but I still do enjoy Paterson’s verse (as I believe he called it).


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