The Sentimental Bloke, CJ Dennis

Brona’s Books: August is Poetry Month

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)
and
Brona’s tribute to her uncle and his favourite poet, CJ Dennis, (here)

23 thoughts on “The Sentimental Bloke, CJ Dennis

  1. Oh Bill, I enjoyed this post, particularly the comment that “it’s hard to know what ‘most Australians’ know these days, bugger all probably”. Such a cynic!

    I don’t know about you, but we did “The play” at school, though, to use Austral-aise, I’m – if I can remember what year!

    One of my dearest work colleagues – a man over a decade older than I – had on his noticeboard near his desk the final lines, I think, from The sentimental bloke:
    “Sittin’ at ev’nin’ in this sunset-land,
    Wiv ‘Er in all the World to ‘old me ‘and,
    A son, to bear me name when I am gone….
    Livin’ an’ lovin’—so life mooches on.”

    I do like that last line in particular. Such is the power of poetry!

    Oh, and thanks for the links.

    Like

    • Aren’t you an old sentimentalist!

      I’m glad you liked it. I’m glad I remembered that you said you’d written a couple of Dennis posts early on. We did a play in year 10, though not on stage, Julius Caesar. I haven’t had much exposure to Shakespeare since, though Romeo + Juliet is in my best movies.

      I’m not sure I ever really thought of the Bloke as poetry, though it is of course. The commentary I’ve been reading refers to Dennis’ work as ballads, as was much early Australian poetry, a form which seems to resonate with ordinary people. One critic said that Brennan was regarded as a real poet precisely because no one liked or understood him.

      Like

      • I am a bit, actually – got it from my Dad and his mum!

        Oh we didn’t perform “The play” just studied it at school. But when I was in Year 9 (or Third Form as we called it then), my English Teacher was also the Drama Teacher and we performed Henry V. I was one of the silly soldiers, Pistol if I recollect.

        Haha re Brennan. You probably know that Banjo was self-deprecating about his efforts describing it as Verse not Poetry. I, however, don’t think we should get too hung up on definitions.

        Like

      • No. Except that around the turn of the C20th ‘verse’ was used as filler in newspapers and magazines and was no more poetry than the drawings which filled the same purpose were ‘art’.

        Like

  2. What a wonderful post! I did my thesis on CJ Dennis which was subsequently published in ‘Antipodes’. I confess that, prior to that undertaking, I did not have a great appreciation but, like most things, the more you learn, the more you appreciate.
    What a treat to have that copy inscribed by the author.

    Like

  3. Most Australians… bugger all, definitely right. 5 years after you he was not mentioned unless we read him in one of the various primary school readers. It is an engaging review, thanks,

    Like

    • I remember having to learn “Hey ho, hey ho, the circus is coming to town”. But I don’t remember when.
      I wonder if the man in charge of Victoria’s primary school curriculum during the mid 1980s made any effort to re-include Dennis.

      Like

  4. Ahhh, you’ve made me all sentimental too Bill.
    Like Sue, I had someone who loved that last line or stanza. I wrote a post in memorial to my uncle back in 2013 and used that poem.
    If you don’t mind I will link this post to it, so anyone who stumbles onto it can read a little back story about Dennis.

    What a treasure to find. I’m swooning on behalf of my uncle Bryan! Makes me wonder what else will turn up as you go through the boxes/shelves of your dad’s books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What happened was I decided to write a post for your Poetry Month and so I went around my shelves and pulled every book of poetry – far more than I knew I had – partly from dad’s collection and partly from job lots of Australiana from second hand stores. Finding that old Sentimental Bloke was a complete surprise, I thought I knew my older books. Now I’m going to have to look more closely at my father’s and grandfathers’ books which look so impressive on the higher shelves. As for the 15 unopened boxes, I packed them when mum moved to a retirement village so I’m pretty sure (which is different from certain) that they are all war stories.

      I saw a lot of resonance between Dennis’ work and Alan Wearne’s, so if I get time later this month I might do a post on him too.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. He sounds like an Australian version of Zora Neale Hurston, who also wrote in dialect, which drove some folks nuts, and then lived in poverty until she died and was buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until Alice Walker wrote an article about Hurston and went looking for her grave to add a marker that Hurston regained popularity and now has all of her work in print and is the subject of much scholarship.

    What exactly made Dennis popular again?

    Like

    • At the turn of the C20th Australia, mainly through the Bulletin magazine, developed a school of what might be called ‘people’s poetry’ which proved enduringly popular. This involved at first bush ballads, but then developed as urban and topical and quite often humorous.
      Like many others at this time, Dennis got his start in the Bulletin and it was the popularity of The Sentimental Bloke in the Bulletin that led to it being published.
      What made it popular? Well, it was a fine and sustained technical performance, which isn’t always recognised; it’s both humorous and sentimental; and it glorifies the common man (I think also that teachers found CJ Dennis an easy way to introduce children to poetry – which unfortunately by the 1960s led to a lot of us learning doggerel and being put off for life)

      Like

      • Contemporary poetry is often just awful. I’ve noticed that when I go to poetry readings, the author has a long anecdote about how the poem they are about to read came about, which helps the poem make sense. You read it on its own, though, and a lot of poetry is garbage. There was a man in Detroit who started the Broadside Press, which was definitely a people’s poetry. Broadsides were about the size a working person would want, and at the right price, too. I’ve heard stories about how it was common to see people on the line in Detroit auto factories with books of poetry shoved in their back pockets. The people writing poetry today in the same mindset are Dave Newman and Jim Daniels, both factory-types.

        Like

      • This is not really anything to do with CJ Dennis, but one connection to think about is poetry and pop songs. Pop songs today largely fill the space that poetry filled 100-150 years ago. They express the same sort of sentiments, they are of course widely known, and especially young people, know them off by heart.

        Like

  6. I hadn’t heard of CJ Dennis but I enjoyed this post – especially your discussion of the physical book itself. I haven’t inherited many books from family but I buy most of my books second hand and love seeing the inscriptions, newspaper cuttings, things used as old bookmarks etc – it is always good to see that a book has been read and enjoyed before me.

    Like

    • I can only imagine his popularity outside of Australia was brief (and a lot of his sales in England may well have been to homesick Australian soldiers). I love old books and often by old hardbacks just for their appearance. I have a beautiful Australian Girl’s Annual inscribed “To Mavis from your sister Dorothy, 1925” which I got for a few dollars and will give to my granddaughter Mavis on her next birthday. Sadly, most of my local secondhand shops have closed and I’m restricted to charity shops (down the back behind the clothes) and the two or three stores an hour away in Fremantle.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s