CJ Dennis (1876-1938) was born in rural South Australia to Irish Catholic parents. His father was a publican in the Clare Valley north east of Adelaide. His mother died when he was young and he was brought up by aunts. He had various jobs in pubs and newspapers until late in 1907 he moved to Victoria, to Toolangi in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne where he camped, lived with friends and later, married, built a house.
“The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke [his second book of verse] was published in October 1915; twelve of the fourteen poems had appeared in the Bulletin since 1909. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916, and three in 1917″ (ADB) These of course were War years and many of the copies were sold to men serving overseas who knew Dennis from his famous anthem, The Austral-aise.
Fellers of Australier,
Blokes an’ coves an’ coots,
Shift yer — carcases,
Move yer — boots
Gird yer — loins up,
Get yer — gun,
Set the — enermy
An’ watch the — run
I would say most Australians know The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by reputation anyway, except it’s hard to know what ‘most Australians’ know these days, bugger all probably. The most famous section, The Play, begins –
“Wot’s in a name?” she sez . . . An’ then she sighs
An’ clasps ‘er little ‘ands, an’ rolls ‘er eyes.
“A rose,” she sez, “be any other name
Would smell the same.”
Recognize it? Of course you do. The setting for this cycle of poems, and therefore presumably the language, is from the backstreets of inner Melbourne, not Dennis’s native territory. Whether, as an outsider, he captures it perfectly I of course can’t tell. But he certainly captures the way we (used to) like to think ‘we’ spoke. Well, except for the upper classes, who spoke like a cross between the Queen and BBC radio announcers.
The story begins with The Kid (Bill, or as his future mother in law calls him, to his disgust, Willy) down in the dumps, willing to give up both the push (his gang) and drinking if he could only get a girl. “if this dilly feelin’ doesn’t stop/I’ll lose me block an’ stoush some flamin’ cop!”
He sees around the place a better class of girl than he’s used to, and finally scores an introduction
‘Twas on a Saturdee, in Colluns Street,
An’ – quite by accident, o’course – we meet.
Me pal ‘e trots up an’ does the toff –
‘E allus was a bloke for showin’ off.
“This ‘ere’s Doreen,” ‘e sez. “This ‘ere’s the Kid.”
I dips me lid.
and he’s a new man. “‘Er name’s Doreen . . . An’ me – that thort I knoo/The ways uv tarts, an’ all that smoogin’ game!/An’ so I ort; fer ain’t I known a few?/Yet some’ow . . . I dunno. It ain’t the same.”
Time passes. “So goes each day, like some celeschil mill,/E’er since I met that shyin’ little peach.” At the beach he declares himself. “I wish’t yeh meant it, Bill.” But this is the real thing.
That bosker feelin’ that come o’er a bloke,
An’ makes ‘im melt;
Makes ‘im all hot to maul ‘er, an’ to shove
‘Is arms about ‘er . . . Bli’me? but it’s love!
They go to see The Play. But then, is she interested in someone else? A coot in a stror ‘at? But no. He’s done her wrong. “She sung a song; an’ orl them bitter things/That chewin’ over lovers’ quarrels brings/Guv place to thorts of of sorrer an’ remorse.” And so he gets taken to meet her Mar. On the way home reality bites (but only for a moment) “An’ as I’m moochin’ ‘omeward frum the car/A sudden notion stops me wiv a jar -/Wot if Doreen, I thinks, should grow to be,/A fat ole weepin’ willer like ‘er Mar!”
We make our way through the wedding; getting looked after after coming home drunk; a visit from an Uncle who offers them the opportunity to become farmers (orchardists); and finally, a kid.
But in that stillness, as the day grows dim,
‘An I am sittin’ there wiv ‘er an’ ‘im –
My wife, my son! an’ strength in me to strive,
I only know – it’s good to be alive!
I have, from my father’s collection, the book with the cover above and thought for one moment he may have left me a first edition. But no, it’s a second edition, also 1915, inscribed by the author “CJ Dennis March 23/16”. A card has been pasted into the flyleaf to “Mr Holloway” thanking him for a gift. Not my grandfather who was then still at school but maybe my great grandfather, Edwin Holloway (1851-1923).
For the original editions Henry Lawson was induced to write a Foreword. ‘My young friend Dennis has honoured me with a request to write a preface to his book… The “Sentimental Bloke“, while running through the Bulletin, brightened up many dark days for me. He is more perfect than any alleged “larrikin” or Bottle-O character I ever attempted to sketch …’. I also have a much later edition (1992) with an Introduction by Barry Humphries who laments the loss of the Melbourne of his youth, before the homogenizing effect of ‘skylineitis’.
The illustrations, including the cover, are by cartoonist Hal Gye (1887-1967). Throughout The Sentimental Bloke the characters are rendered as naked (sexless) cherubs, shades of Norman Lindsay! But I couldn’t find any examples online to reproduce here.
I also had recourse to Alec H Chisholm’s The Making of a Sentimental Bloke (1946) a first (and no doubt only) edition hardback with dust jacket intact that I got some years ago in a job lot at $2 a pop. Dennis’ “larrikin” poetry was a bit of a shock to the locals of Auburn and Gladstone in rural SA who knew him as a small, quiet boy often over-dressed in eton collars and so on by his maiden aunts.
On leaving home he never really settled down and by the time he was 40 and this book came out he had been living in poverty for some years, with the assistance of friends. Within a year or so The Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick which followed it had sold over 100,000 copies. Dennis became if not famous, then well known in England, Canada and the US, and spent the rest of his life in relative prosperity, with increasingly conservative opinions to match.
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1915. 130pp including Glossary
Alec H Chisholm, The Making of a Sentimental Bloke, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946. 138pp.
see also Whispering Gums’ reviews of –
Philip Butterss, An unsentimental bloke: The life and work of C. J. Dennis (here)
CJ Dennis, The Moods of Ginger Mick (here)
Brona’s tribute to her uncle and his favourite poet, CJ Dennis, (here)