1. From Generation to
The affinities of the
early settlers with Australia were peculiarly trammelled by uncongenialities.
They easily appreciated the blue, sunny days of the Australian spring; the
yellow flame of the wattle and the clear torrent of a magpie's song stirred
their potentialities for reacting favourably to what was exotic yet conformist
to their ideas of beauty in nature. On the other hand, blankness greeted their
yearnings for snow-covered landscapes and the call of the skylark. What their
feelings must have been during December of blazing heat, pestering flies and
clogging dust can only be imagined. Most of them would have preferred the
bitterest weather in England, just as most Australians today would prefer
excessive heat to that bleakness.
The convict system, a condition of
early colonial development, so adulterated the aesthetic outlook of all
colonists as to render more distasteful than they would otherwise have been many
unorthodox manifestations of the environment. While such unobtrusive discoveries
as duckbill platypuses and quongdong trees could be tolerated as novelties under
any circumstances, the unavoidable gum tree and mallee, constituent of endless
areas of bush and scrub, received, besides the stigmas of monotony,
inhospitality and treachery, a darker spiritual aura, a resonant pathetic
The affinities of the pioneers with the bush were exceedingly
limited in any case, and, for the greater part, conditional on their hopes of
material success. Very many early pastoralists went outback to make their
fortunes as quickly as possible and forsook the scenes of their labours as soon
as they considered themselves sufficiently rewarded. Numbers of them returned
'home', while others, pending further pastoral pursuits conducted by overseers,
lived as cocks of colonial dunghills and with lavish resplendence on the best
sites in the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart. They had been
opportunists in their attitude to the bush; they had proved themselves practical
men: in the active tasks they had set themselves there was no room for the
growth of any but superficial affinities saturated with their practical egoism.
Even when, as after the enforcement of pastoral boundaries, pioneers
spent lifetimes in struggles and ruminations, the urgencies of colonization and
difficult living conditions prevented fully sympathetic awareness of environment
Although, with the passage of two and three generations,
Australia came to produce white men who loved the life of the bush; and although
some of these, well-educated and travelled, might perhaps live more happily
nowhere else, new circumstances arose to choke, at that stage, any speculative
tendencies which might have defined to some extent the path for a fresh culture.
By trebling, and doubling again, the population of the Australian
colonies; by introducing thousands of individuals from overseas, being overseas
conditioned, and by stimulating another more feverish phase of practical
activity: the goldrushes made the formulation of new cultural standards
impossible for another generation or so.
Next, the speeding up of
communication; the enormous growth of commerce and industry; the stupendous
strides of science in its application to everyday life: in short, all the
complexity of influences which have taken control of group and individual life
has opposed the flowering of a culture which must in many ways be primaeval. The
first law of security in modern life is synchronization with world-forces,
whether in the matter of balancing the budget and ordering the affairs of
families or nations.
Most Australians live in cities which have much in
common with European cities. Owing to the routine of life and the dissemination
of overseas ideas and habits, it is sometimes difficult for Australians to think
of themselves as such. Nevertheless, the British stock which settled here, no
matter whether in country or town, has undergone profound changes.
Acclimatization has been going on in subtle ways for several generations until
Australians are now a people with distinctive physical and temperamental
Pre-war national self-consciousness led to the
expression of superficial, larrikin sentiments, best summed up - in spite of
certain redeeming features in the writings of Lawson and Paterson - by the term
jingoism, and hardly intelligent rallying cries for a culture. Such a phenomenon
was comfortably directed during the war, in alliance with the jingoism of
Empire, and, for the most part, expired with face to the foe. That which remains
has no longer the centre of the stage.
Whether convicts or
freemen, most of our early settlers were misfits here. Whether they arrived by
choice or force of circumstance, they were pioneers, and, as such, were at
continual grips with unfamiliar circumstances. They could feel at home only in
so far as the new environment harmonized with their heredity and traditions.
British stock could find much less in common with Australia than with America,
where nature is much more in keeping with European preconceptions as to what it
should be. Such was the environment in Australia that spiritual affinity with it
could grow only after generations of radical adjustment-of mutations in habits
of thought, feeling, behaviour, and customand the shedding of habits which were
excrescences in this country. For, just as the country, in producing life, must
now do so to a large extent in accordance with the design of man, so man, to
live at all, must do so to a large extent in accord with the laws of natural
This is no less true of man's aesthetic than of his
practical life; and of basic importance to aesthetic life is the appreciation of
natural beauty at first hand.
Men, even if they wished to kill all the
native flora and fauna of this country and to substitute those of the Old World,
could not do so. In so far as Australians have changed natural conditions, the
result, for the greater part, even where most aesthetic, bears the stamp of
human volition. This means that if Australians are really to appreciate natural
beauty at first hand, they must seek to do so by turning to indigenous nature.
If they do not, or if there is little beauty there to appreciate, their
aesthetic life must be impoverished.
There has, indeed, been enough
sincere appreciation of distinctive beauty in Australian nature to suggest that
those who see little are prejudiced. The mental and emotional training of such
people is invariably patterned on Old World cultural conventions. These
conventions are not necessarily standards of values from which there is no
appeal or to which there are no corollaries.
Norman Douglas, who has
spent most of a long life in clarifying for mankind a standard of values derived
from the Mediterranean, and who has never been to Australia, has written about
gum trees from a rigidly circumscribed Old World point of view.
You walk to this building along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty
years ago. Detesting as I do the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an
opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious
representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this
reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts has disfigured
the whole Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a
protection against malaria. Soon enough they will learn that, instead of
preventing the disease, it actually fosters it, by harbouring clouds of
mosquitoes in its scraggy so-called foliage. These abominations may look
better on their native heath: I sincerely hope they do. Judging by the Dead
Heart of Australia - book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall
never recover - I should say that a varnished hot-pole would be a godsend out
there. But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy. No plant
on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows
through the everlasting withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow;
it is like the sibilant chatterings of ghosts. Its oil is called 'medicinal'
only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber,
objectionable in form and hue-objectionable above all things in its perverse,
anti-human habits. What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp
edges of its leaves - as if these were not narrow enough already! - towards
the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of
shade to mankind? This piece of natural description is very
stimulating. While there are certain mis-statements due to ignorance, there is
sincerity in the whole: it is the outcry of a civilized European who feels his
sense of values to be outraged. Mr Douglas would be outraged at the thought of
himself taking an attitude of orthodox respectability; yet he does so here.
There is, indeed, truth in the passage, but not - as Mr Douglas has said in
parallel circumstances - the whole truth. It would be as easy to caricature an
oak and a weeping willow as loathsome examples of senility and obeseness: it is
a matter of point of view. Mr Douglas's caricature is, indeed, so excellent that
one recognizes the gum and could recognize no other tree in it. I am a devout
reader of his prolific writings, have enjoyed South Wind, Siren
Land, Old Calabria (whence this quotation comes), Alone,
Looking Back, and several other of his books; and cannot gainsay the
author's fundamental sanity and genius, yet there is one thing I know well which
Mr Douglas does not. I mean the gum tree in its infinite variety of species and
individuality. I have yet to witness a single withered, fire-scarred,
flood-marked example which does not look beautiful drenched in sun-glamour at
the end of day or sparkling with dew in the early morning. And there are massive
and magnificent trees which look beautiful at any time of the day or night. Mr
Douglas has not seen any, as I have done, grotesque and ugly, ghastly in glare
and mirage, insanely clutching and huddling under the stars, and horribly
tortured under the glimmer of a red moon; yet I am not alone in seeing a stark
and vivid beauty about them even then.
But I confess that this avenue of Policoro almost
reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans. Almost; since for
some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of
the soil) their foliage is here thickly tufted, it glows like burnished gold
in the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are
unique in Italy. Gazing upon them my heart softened, and I almost forgave them
their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect,
precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable
skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing but a scandal on
this side of the globe.
In spite of sternness, Mr Douglas
does relent for an instant, and catches a fleeting glimpse of beauty in the gum
trees: '...their foliage is here thickly tufted, it glows like burnished gold in
the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold.' Thank you, Mr Douglas,
for the mite! It symbolizes a first step. Before long, the strange, unorthodox
beauty of the Australian gum tree, and many other manifestations of beauty
peculiar to this country, will find a sure place in the standards of general
culture, which will be one stage nearer universality and so much the richer.
'Jindyworobak' is an
Aboriginal word meaning 'to annex, to join,' and I propose to coin it for a
particular use. The Jindyworobaks, I say, are those individuals who are
endeavouring to free Australian art from whatever alien influences trammel it,
that is, to bring it into proper contact with its material. They are the few who
seriously realize that an Australian culture depends on the fulfilment and
sublimation of certain definite conditions, namely:
1. A clear recognition of environmental values. The most important of these is the first.
Pseudo-Europeanism clogs the minds of most Australians, preventing a free
appreciation of nature. Their speech and thought idioms are European; they have
little direct thought-contact with nature. Although emotionally and spiritually
they should be, and, I believe, are more attuned to the distinctive bush, hill
and coastal places they visit than to the European parks and gardens around the
cities, their thought-idiom belongs to the latter not the former. Give them a
suitable thought-idiom for the former and they will be grateful. Their more
important emotional and spiritual potentialities will be given the conditions
for growth. The inhibited individuality of the race will be released. Australian
culture will exist.
2. The debunking of
3. An understanding of Australia's history and traditions,
primaeval, colonial, and modern.
2. Environmental Values
distinctiveness of the Australian continent from other lands of the world is too
fundamental to vanish in the period of human history. The massive gum trees
along the banks of the Murray, the gums and the mallee and the tea-tree that
straggle about this vast continent; the empty spaces of our deserts; and the
atonal music of the magpie and the good-natured mockery of the kookaburra-these
are things that must remain. They belong to the indestructible spirit of the
place about which D. H. Lawrence has written in a superb piece of natural
description at the beginning of Kangaroo. But D. H. Lawrence realized
that spirit, however intensely, only in a small part: he did not feel at home in
the bush, although its power gripped him. There are thousands of Australians
today who, if they have not found eloquent tongue, feel, nevertheless, with
childlike devotion, the familiar beauty and utter loveliness of the outback
environment in many of its moods.
Our pioneers, or the majority of them,
were Englishmen who brought to this country the English manners and customs of
the moment of their migration. As long as they lived they were strangers in a
strange land. Many of them may have become more or less used to their new
environment, but they never could become one with it. The background of their
minds was made up of other associations. Yet they were isolated from the current
movements of fashion and culture in the old country: in this sense they slipped
behind the times. The English manners and customs which they inculcated into
their children were bound to be considerably out of date by the time those
children reached maturity. Thus the word 'colonial' was justified, in so far as
it signified rawness and lack of sophistication.
influences were continually coming in, these were neither sufficient nor strong
enough to compete with the isolation and environmental resistance, and could
work only superficially. Hence any genuine culture that might develop in
Australia, however it might be refreshed and inspired by English influences,
would have to represent the birth of a new soul. A fundamental break, that is,
with the spirit of English culture, is the prerequisite for the development of
an Australian culture. Without the fact of ultimate individuality, separate
identity, any general sense of culture in any country must be misty and anaemic.
However strong and innumerable, however desirable and inevitable, however
traditional our cultural ties with Europe may be, it is not in these ties that
we must as a people seek our individuality. Its quintessence must lie in the
realization of whatever things are distinctive in our environment and their
sublimation in art and idea, in culture.
Australian culture is at
present in a nebulous stage, because our writers have not come clearly to any
such realization. I do not wish to be misunderstood. Some of the greatest
Australian literature yet to be may have no local colour at all. Its settings
may be in China or Mars. Our best poetry must deal with universal themes; and
whether or not the Australian environment forms a background is a matter for
individual poets. But all this does not affect the essence of my argument. The
real test of a people's culture is the way in which they can express themselves
in relation to their environment, and the loftiness and universality of their
artistic conceptions raised on that basis. When, for example, someone begins a
novel and sets the scene in Australia, he cannot hope to produce great art
unless he has a true conception of environmental values. When our writers
understand these, they will look at most of what they have written to date and
say, 'That is the way not to write about Australia'.
The biggest curse
and handicap upon our literature is the incongruous use of metaphors, similes,
and adjectives. It is usual to find Australian writers describing the bush with
much the same terminology as English writers apply to a countryside of oaks and
elms and yews and weeping willows, and of skylarks, cuckoos, and nightingales.
We find that dewdrops are spoken of as jewels sparkling on the foliage of gum
trees. Jewels? Not amid the stark, contorted, shaggy informality of the
Australian bushland. Nothing could be more incongruous. Jewels? I see the
pageantry of the Old World, and of the march of history from the time when the
Norman ladies came to England to the present day, when glittering cosmopolitan
crowds mingle in the casinos of Monte Carlo and the ornate ballrooms of Venice;
I see the royal courts of England, and those of France and Spain now forgotten;
and I see, if you like, a vice-regal gathering or a theatrical party in Adelaide
- but I do not, cannot, see jewels metaphored off on gum trees, which are so far
removed from all the things with which jewels are traditionally associated. I
cannot deplore too vehemently the dangerous habit of using figures of speech
with regard to essentially Australian things which call up such a flood of Old
World associations as to gloze over all distinctiveness. It has been a piteous
custom to write of Australian things with the English idiom, an idiom which can
achieve exactness in England but not here.
We look to poetry for the
keenest perception and expression of aesthetic values; so that, if we want to
find how the Australian natural environment has been appreciated by the British
stock which has become acclimatized here, we cannot do better than to study the
appropriate section of its poetry. It soon becomes obvious that the very
achievements of English poetry have been the fetters of Australian. When will
our poets realize that by writing variations upon Australian themes in the wide
and established range of verse vocabulary which tradition has built up in
England, they are dodging the issue and compromising their intelligence?
Individuality can only discover itself where there is an independent spirit; and
the individuality of nearly every Australian poet so far has been
subservient-subservient to the spirit and idiom of English poetry.
are the first two stanzas of George Essex Evans's poem, 'On the Plains,' which
is dealing with an Australian scene; but there is not a hint of Australian
individuality in the whole fourteen lines, because they are simply webbed about
by the spider of northern verse idiom:
Half-lost in film of faintest lawn, 'Armour white,' 'frontier of the night,' and
'jewelled ground' are inexcusable.
A single star in armour white
Upon the dreamy heights of dawn
Guards the dim frontier of the night,
Till plumed ray
And golden spray
Have washed its trembling light
The sun has peeped above the blue;
His level lances as they
Have shot the dew-drops thro' and thro',
And dashed with rubies
all the grass,
And silver sound
Of horse-bells round
o'er the jewelled ground.
An English poet, A. E. Housman,
writes very beautifully and appropriately:
...when the light in lances but 'lances'
cannot be associated with the Australian landscape, which is primitive, and has
no European mediaeval associations. 'Spears' is obviously the right word.
Metrically, of course, it would require the revision of the whole line, and it
would not even occur to a writer whose mind is still subservient to the language
of the English countryside.
Across the mead was laid,
All our poets show this fault. Gordon
Hark! the bells of distant cattle It is all very well for
Australian children to be told Old World fairy tales-which demand more
make-believe from them than they do from English children-but our poets are
creating false associations when they try to fit fairies of the Midsummer
Night's Dream tradition into the mood of the bush. Picaninnies and Gumnut Babies
are at least more appropriate.
Waft across the range,
the golden-tufted wattle,
Music low and strange;
Like the marriage
peal of fairies
Comes the tinkling sound...
When will our writers achieve a sense of
the fitness of things? Kendall wrote:
On the tops of the hills, on the turreted cones, That is false to the very roots of its inspiration, and
therefore not poetry, but plain doggerel. The Australian hills were in Kendall's
mind, but they might as well have been the Alps surrounded on all sides by
civilizations centuries old. The atmosphere of the bush, the brooding solitude
of ages of time passing over the Sombre, stark beauty of twisted trees was
intrinsically lost on him. Kendall is practically valueless as an Australian
Chief temples of
The gale like a ghost in the middle watch moans,
and under . . .
It is so easy, considering the dearth of good Australian writing,
for a person who has any knowledge of the literature of England to think of the
bushland grass and trees as `jewelled' on a summer dawn; and it is easy, in the
same way, to think of the hills as appearing like the turrets of Norman castles
or being `crowned' with stars. This last image spoils these otherwise perfect
lines from Evans's `Australian Symphony':
The grey gums by the lonely creek, Such imagery
does not convey one atom of the individuality of the Australian landscape.
People of other countries can gain no real conception of this land by reading
The star-crowned height,
wind-swept plain, the dim blue peak,
The cold white light.
If we cannot apply typically Old World imagery to the
Australian landscape, what can we substitute? Obviously, only such imagery as is
truly Australian. This limits the fieldl Any writer's field at any time should
be defined and limited by his subject.
Here is a modern instance, taken
from Roderick Quinn, of the type of inaccuracy against which culture in this
country must fight:
Out in the dark where the night-winds hurry The word 'carpet' makes the bush seem like a drawing-room
or, at best, like Epping Forest or Sherwood. Inexpressibly beautiful as these
forests may be, it is an insult both to their own individuality and to that of
our own bush to write in that way.
And dead leaves carpet the
How much more vivid is it to read
such lines as these from Evans's 'On the Plains', from which I quoted earlierl
Although even here we note unsuitable exoticisms in such expressions as
'motley,' 'vanguard,' 'monarch,' and 'satrapies,' the fundamental impression is
one of inspired observation, in which the spirit of the place lives:
Afar I mark the emu's run; The last
stanza, of course, which begins with three splendid lines, degenerates into a
welter of incongruity. Evans and Gordon were equally unaware of any essential
distinction between the poetical language of Australian landscape and that of
England. Their best writing, like their worst, was spontaneous; accompanying
their spontaneity, they had no such adequate sense of selfcriticism as must be
the condition of sustained merit.
The bustard slow, in motley clad;
basking in his bath of sun,
The brown snake on the cattle-pad;
Of a dingo's back,
As he loit'ring slinks on my horse's
And now I watch, with slackened rein,
The scattered cattle,
As, slowly feeding home again,
The lazy vanguard
To the waters cool
Of the tree-fringed pool
distant creek when the moon is full.
Slip girth and let the old horse
The noon grows heavy on the air;
Kindle the tiny campfire's
And, 'neath the shade, as monarch there,
Take thou thine ease:
For hours like these
A king had bartered satrapies.
P. R. Stephensen has very broadly
delineated the development of Australian poetry in the following terms:
'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...' Stephensen should have said: '...to Lawson and Paterson, the
Australians, writing about Australia in a larrikin Australian way; and what we
now want is Australians writing about Australia in a literary Australian way.'
Even in Lawson and Paterson we find certain English tricks of thought
and expression, incongruous in poetry of the Australian countryside. Thus Lawson
The cattle-tracks between the trees which simile robs the cattle tracks of any vigorous reality or faithful
idealism. But such infidelities are exceedingly rare in Lawson and Paterson. We
find many whole poems which contain not one unsuitable exoticism. Australians
should be prouder of these two writers than they apparently are. They are not
great writers; they are very limited in their powers, and too often sing-song
and jingoistic, melodramatic and sentimental; but, in their own way, they are
faithful to the spirit of the place. Such poems as 'Outback' and 'Clancy of the
Overflow' have a significance. Their significance lies in the purity and
forcefulness of the vision in them, however circumscribed this may be.
Were like long dusky aisles,
Significant as was the lesson taught by Lawson and Paterson, it has
borne very little fruit in those that followed after. Dorothea Mackellar's poem,
'My Country,' marks an advance; but we must conclude that luck played a part,
because elsewhere Dorothea Mackellar falls into the old, happy feeling,
deplorably uncritical flow of so-called inspiration. The happy flow of emotion
without a keen sense of values and unwavering honesty of criticism is quite
incapable of maintaining consistently such a standard of worth as Mackellar's
Doctor Johnson wrote: 'What we wish to do with ease we must
first learn to do with diligence.'
And there is a lesson in that for all
One of A. A. Bayldon's short poems, 'The Swamp,' has
caught as well as anything else I know something of the grotesque side of the
Australian place spirit:
Huddled round leering pools, the haggard trees This poem would be perfect were it not for the two epithets,
'elfin' and 'goblin'. The words 'cunning' and 'reeking' are the first
substitutes that occur to me. The poet at the time of writing, with a little
extra critical attention, might have thought of better. I may be thought to be
quibbling here, to be running a theory to death. Poetry, it is said, is among
the materials of poetry. But I maintain that poetic idiom with a Hans Andersen
flavour, while it may be suitable to Europe, is not suitable for an Australian
outback scene. Integrity! Integrity!
Await their doom, the
black ooze to their knees.
Sighing together, when, with elfin spite,
small breeze whispers of a world of light,
They strain crooked limbs
toward that bright blue plain
The dank sweat drips-a stifling hush again.
In goblin gloom maimed weaklings moaning fall
Into the pools ahunger
for them all.
I trust that it is now plain what I
mean by environmental values: the distinctive qualities of an environment which
cannot be satisfactorily expressed in the conventional terms that suit other
environments, scrupulous care being necessary for the indication of their primal
The whole of the English vocabulary is ours for appropriate
use, but we must discriminate. D. H. Lawrence came to Australia from the centres
of northern culture, but his description of the bush is appropriate. He was a
great writer and instinctively avoided incongruities. The huge electric moon he
saw above the bushland scene was the same he knew the world over, symbolical of
the old lesson that Art is international, universal, but its expressions
specialized and individual.
3. Debunking Nonsense
The reason why Australian
culture is not yet something unmistakably defined is that its individuality, its
permeating essence, has been smothered with exoticisms, which, unless most
carefully handled-and they have not been-are absolutely impossible of
permeation. Australian writers have too often imitated English writers, instead
of assimilating lessons from their styles and working out styles of their own on
the basis of inspiration of their own.
Good writers in Australia have been
very few, and great examples of indigenous literature are rare. Australian
literary criticism has been of little help.
H. M. Green's Outline of
Australian Literature is, disappointing - little more than a catalogue.
'Australia,' says Mr Green, 'belongs, by race, politics and language to a great
civilization that reaches back for thousands of years, and it is constantly
receiving an inflow, ideal as well as human, from the centre of that
civilization'. Again, he says, 'When we add that Australia has her own peculiar
characteristics and problems, we shall realize that her literature, a reflection
of her civilization, is likely to diverge in some, perhaps in important
respects, from the course taken by the parent literature'.
In these two
quotations we have distinctly shown to us the two forces which must be
synthesized into an Australian culture, the temperament of the land and that of
the people, in so far as it has its roots elsewhere, but the indication of the
necessary distinctiveness which must result from this synthesis is too cautious,
ridiculously cautious. Australian literature must, to develop, diverge in
important respects from the course taken by the parent literature.
There has been too much of this pro-English pandering. Not that anyone -
especially Mr Green - means to pander. But it has been in our bones too long and
it comes out where we might least expect it. The Outline is useful as a
catalogue of (for the most part) feeble Australian writers, but there its value
ends. There is no spark in the middle of it. Mr Green speaks of the need for
criticism in Australian literature, yet the shaft of his criticism is so mild as
to be of little use. It dodges the issue. The question is: What is wrong with
our Australian literature? The answer is: Our writers have not looked at
Australia with any honest perception of its values. They have taken the easy
course, followed the line of least resistance; they have simply appropriated
English methods of expression without attempting to hammer out a really suitable
idiom of their own. A scientific attack seems necessary for the first stage in
view of the facts; spontaneity can then be of the right sort.
civilized culture (the two terms are not synonymous) and every literature
contains within itself countless exotic elements which have been assimilated and
permeated and coloured by the individuality of the particular culture. But that
individuality is the all-important thing. It is the distinctiveness, the
essence, the sine qua non of the culture.
Yet, in a valiant
editorial which, however, misses most points, Mr P. R. Stephensen says:
We admire the English, we love them frequently, we never fail to respect
them, we are astonished by their spectacle of culture, and by their castles,
churches, and ruins... But... unless we can use imported English culture here
as one element (concede it to be the most important element) in building up
our indigenous culture, it is a meaningless nothing to us. I cannot
concede, as Mr Stephensen does, that imported English culture is the most
important element in Australian culture, even if it does at present,
unfortunately, occupy the front of the scene. The most important thing in any
man, surely, is that spark of individualism which is the man himself and
distinguishes him from other men. He has a body like other men, but it is the
individuality of the man which transcends the body and gives his presence
significance. The same with a nation. The same with a nation's culture. However
indispensable imported elements of culture may be to a people, before there can
be said to be an indigenous culture among them there must be self-awareness, a
form of egoism, perhaps, but certainly a genuine feeling of the nation's
Ours is a country of endless contrasts, of beauty and
terror, of fertile lands and empty deserts. It is a country of moods, of
everchanging, incalculable moods. But always the land's individuality, the
spirit of the place (which Stephensen learnt vaguely without analyzing), is
there, speaking through the medium of the mood, for those who have eyes to see
and ears to hear.
The growth of spiritual affinity of the people with
the country has been slow and difficult and, up to the present, very imperfect.
But the time has come when, to use Professor Hancock's metaphor, the roots have
gone down deep into the soil; and when the imperfections must be obvious to
anyone who makes the effort to think intelligently-and can be remedied.
On February 16th, 1935,
the Age published the blind criticism by Professor Cowling, which drew
forth the brave but scarcely less blind retaliation of Mr Stephensen.
'Australia,' said Cowling, 'is not yet in the centre of the map and has
no London' - both of which contentions are true and do not matter a bit.
Australian individuality lies in other things, and certainly not in merely
conforming to a type of Old World civilization. 'There are no ancient churches,
castles, ruins-,' the Professor continues, `the memorials of generations
departed. From the point of view of literature this means that we can never hope
to have a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas...' The Professor was right again: we do not
want a Scott, a Balzac, a Dumas. Novelists of their calibre we want and will
have; but the inspiration of Australian novelists must be different. It is in
such a distinction as this, fully extended over the whole field of Australian
literature, that the power and uniqueness of our creations must rest; it is in
the development of individuality that the future holds promise.
not, as the Professor indicates, traditions of monarchies peculiar to Australia,
of baronial castles, of civil and international wars dating back for centuries,
of tourneys, and of daffodil days and Philomela nights. But we have other
traditions worth having, such as no other country possesses, and these are the
things which are valuable to us culturally. The history of Australia abounds in
a wealth of dramatic material, ready to be shaped by the careful literary
artist, and waiting to be coloured by the play of his imagination. Nor is our
history confined to the days since the first white settlement was made here. It
goes back to the voyages of Captain Cook, and further still to those of the
earliest navigator who set out from Europe in search of the great South Land. In
another sense, Australian tradition goes back to the -untry of native legends;
of the tjurunga, the boomerang and the spear; of the bark gunyah and the nomad
Aboriginal. The first white settlers found Australia like this, and their
experience and observations are part of our heritage. Finally, the period
between 1788 and the present day afford an inexhaustible fund of tradition,
vivid and human, to do with wheat farmers, squatters, drovers; with whaling and
mining; with convictism and bushranging; with the extension of roads, telegraphs
and railway; with the foundation and growth of capital cities and thousands of
country towns; and so on. Life here has been lived fully, and the human heart
has experienced intensely.
Cowling's reaction to gum trees is the same
as Douglas's. The distinctiveness of these trees clashes with his preconceived
notions as to what trees should be.
The real reason for the
lack of good Australian novels is not, of course, paucity of historical
material. It is the bewilderment of European culture in an enigmatical
environment, the failure of writers to perceive a different, yet perfectly
reasonable, standard of values. The finest novels we possess owe their best
effects to just such a new perception. The outstanding ones so far are, indeed,
depressing in their general atmosphere; but this is, in large part, because the
nature of the human themes involved in them have been-owing to historical
circumstances derived mainly from Old World civilization - such as to demand
that treatment. For the Term o f His Natural Life and The Fortunes o f
Richard Mahony are cases in point. The place spirit could not be so powerful
in these books were it not that their authors were strongly conscious of
Australia's primaevalism. In the first the appreciation is a gloomy one,
primarily because of the gloom of convictism, the theme; in the second the
atmosphere is depressing because the mind of the misfit Irishman, Mahony, is the
dominant theme. The authors have dealt with the Australian environment in the
only appropriate ways under the circumstances; but it is grossly erroneous to
assume, as some do, that the whole truth is defined by correctness of view of
specific types. Particular effects, both in For the Term of His Natural
Life and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, provide ample illustration
of the possibilities for splendid literary expression of the happy and the
beautiful in the Australian environment. Brian Penton's Landtakers is
another example of a great Australian novel, the general conception of which is
depressing and which yet contains vivid perceptions of loveliness in the
environment. There is, for instance, the description of the valley which Derek
Cabel selected for his station, on the day when he first set eyes on it.
To come fully into its own the Australian novel must vindicate itself on
the happy as well as on the pessimistic side. There is endless scope for the
accomplishment of this task.
Despite the fact that there have been
hundreds of Australian novels published, those that are worth-while may be
counted practically on one hand. Add to those mentioned above A House is Built,
by the Misses Barnard and Eldershaw, and you have perhaps the four best
Australian novels to date.
A House is Built may be a little too
reminiscent of The Forsyte Saga, so that its original value suffers in
imitation; but there is much more to it than that. The imitation is superficial:
the individuality and power of the book is everywhere in evidence. The period
with which it deals lives as we read. The description of Sydney, as seen by
James Hyde on the day when he made known his intentions of settling there,
breathes the authentic atmosphere of the early settlement - or, obviously, as
nearly authentic as painstaking research and inspired intuition could make it.
Because the great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers of some very
well respected Australian families sported the broad arrow. [Editor's note: "the
broad arrow" is a reference to those who were convicts]
It would be a
public spirited action worthy of high respect if some Australian with a convict
skeleton in his cupboard would unlock it, publishing a faithful history of that
The action would be one worthy of more than a knighthood,
because it would go far towards debunking the craven and idiotic inferiority
complex of many Australians where the plain facts of history are concerned.
What are the plain facts of our history?
Certainly they are not
merely that Captain Cook found in New South Wales 'some of the finest meadows in
the world', that brave and free pioneers brooked lifetimes of hardship to wrest
sustenance from the hostile interior; and that from such heroic beginnings our
country has advanced to magnificent adulthood.
Such an account is so
damnably false that no plea of brevity or generality can justify it.
That the authorities behind the Sydney celebrations bandied a great lie
is clear for all who have the strength to resist hypnotism to see. Five capital
cities of Australia and the country around there owe important degrees of their
early development to convict slavery; no state-not even bragging South
Australia-can say that convictism left it entirely unaffected.
chapter of Australia's story tells of courage, endurance and triumph; but it
tells also of failure, of misery, degradation and bestiality, of situations and
incidents innumerable, which can be adequately described only by the full range
of synonyms for these unwholesome words.
That chapter being of the past
the sense of its tragedy only, not its tragedy, remains. There is no need to
dwell even upon this; it is reasonable to show that there was, indeed, much in
the penal system which was just and endurable, but blatantly and altogether to
ignore the fact of convictism in what was supposed to be a comprehensive
programme of national commemoration is barefacedly false, so essential and vivid
a person is Sticker Convict in the story of Australia.
4. The Culture of the
Of Australia's traditions i have already
said something in general; and, as these and the facts of her history may
readily be studied by the student, in books and archives, I need say little
There is, however, one factor of the past which is too little
understood and which must be of primary importance to the proper evolution of
our culture; and to this we should give much thought. It is the culture of the
Aboriginals. They are now a forgotten people. One by one the tribes have
vanished from their hunting grounds. No longer do the tribes go out in the dark
before the dawn to stalk the kangaroos; no longer do they fish, with their
spears or nets, in the rivers or billabongs or at the edge of the sea. They no
longer hold their sacred cor- roborees under the twisted fire-reflecting
branches of massive gum trees or among the stunted mallee. The blacks that
remain are a degenerate, puppet people, mere parodies of what their race once
With the extension of white settlement, the blacks who lived
practically undisturbed under their old conditions are confined to a few main
areas, not very amenable to white penetration, in the centre and northern parts
of the continent. In such regions as Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land, and that
stretching from the Cambridge Gulf to King George Sound, there are many
thousands of Aboriginals. But the vast majority of tribes, those whose hunting
grounds consisted of the most fertile country in Australia, have vanished. These
were the finest tribes physically; but they have none or few pure-blooded
descendants. The most immediately pressing problem of Aboriginal welfare
concerns the thousands of half-castes and others who live in continual contact
with white settlements.
Contrary to general conception, the passing of
the Aboriginals meant the passing of a culture that was age-old. Mr T. G.
Strehlow, who is, perhaps, more qualified to speak with authority on the Central
Australian blacks than is any other man, once informed me that the legends of
the Luritcha, Aranda and other tribes are essentially similar to those of
ancient Greece. I have read many such legends as set down by scholars, some of
them in manuscript by Mr Strehlow himself, and they certainly prove the
fertility of the Aboriginal mind in imagination and poetry based on the
realities and mysteries of environment.
Here are a few lines of
Aboriginal song, as translated by E. R. T. Gribble, which have more of the
spirit of the enlightened poetry written in Akhnaton's court than anything else
The bird with the pretty skin flies round and goes down, down. The laws, the customs and the
art of the Australian Aboriginals went to make a culture which was closely bound
in every way with their environment. In spite of the complexities of their
totemic, tribal and intertribal systems, their outlook on life was basically
simple, and, in the finest flowerings of their arts of poetry, drama and
painting, they showed themselves masters in sublimating with pristine directness
and unselfconsciousness the highlights of their primaeval life. Sympathetic
students will find in such flowerings intense and universal qualities of tender
loveliness, vivid beauty, stirring and noble daring, moving pathos and stark
tragedy. Aboriginal art, though primitive, was many-sided, and there seems to
have been no limit to the fundamental human qualities which it could express.
whale, the whale, goes deep down, and throws up the waterspout.
mountain far-away looks like smoke, far-away.
Although such a culture has itself, for the most part, died with the
tribes, something of its spirit has been preserved. Sincere students are
continually investigating, and, with painstaking care, are recording and
co-ordinating the results. This synthesizing of sporadic observation and
ideational research is, unfortunately, now that the best of the culture is dead,
the only way of attempting appreciation of it. The fact that the blacks had no
written language apart from a few picture signs means that by far the greater
part of their culture is forever lost to our appreciation. But an assimilation
of much of the spirit of it and the natural identifying of that spirit with many
of our own experiences, in cultural expression, is essential to the honest
development of Australian culture.
When I see wommeras, spears,
bullroarers, boomerangs, dillybags, message sticks, tjurungas and wax figures in
the Aboriginal sections of our museums, and when I read scientific treatises and
pioneer reminiscences dealing with Aboriginal occultism, funeral rites,
initiation ceremonies and so on; I am strongly conscious, often unhappily so, of
much in our colonial tradition. As a people it is our duty to be familiar with
these things. In them must spread the roots of our culture. Our culture must
make artistic realizations of these things and the spirit permeating and
engendered by them acceptable to the world.
must lead us to serious consideration concerning the Aboriginal question of the
past and present and practical action of more than one kind concerning that of
the present. The stage has been reached when, after a vigorous era of
colonization, Australians should take stock of past and present and so give
effective thought to the future.
Our traditions are twofold.
Inextricably woven with the transplanted European culture are our experiences of
the Australian environment. How far we and this environment have changed and
reacted through contact, we owe to self-honesty to understand, and such an
understanding can arise properly only through cultural expression. But to ensure
imaginative truth our writers and painters must become hard-working students of
Aboriginal culture, something initially far-removed from the engaging and
controlling factors of modern European life.
From Aboriginal art and
song we must learn much of our new technique; from Aboriginal legend, sublimated
through our thought, we must achieve something of a pristine outlook on life.
Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, and thousands of
towns stand, where a century and a half ago, was virgin bush. Roads, railways,
and telegraph lines link one part of Australia to another, homesteads, ploughed
fields or fields of waving wheat and blocks of vineyards have appeared
everywhere since 1788. Even the greatest rivers have been transformed by locks;
and large dams and immense reservoirs have been constructed, while swamps and
lagoon-lands have been reclaimed.
In so far as the white man has set his
seal upon it, Australia is European. From grazing sheep and cattle, from
rabbits, foxes, and prickly pears to aeroplanes, wireless, cricket matches,
talking pictures and beer, Australia bears our seal. Yet we are influenced by
her environment more powerfully than we know. Let us be honest about it.
Reginald Charles (Rex) Ingamells (1913-1955), a teacher by profession,
was the founder and main promoter of the Jindyworobak movement. A poet himself,
he was responsible for the publication of the Jindyworobak Anthology
which appeared annually from 1938 to 1953, and included a wide range of poetry.
He wrote a historical account of the Jindyworobak movement in Jindyworobak
Review 1938-1948. "Conditional Culture", was published as a pamphlet by F.
W. Preece in Adelaide in 1938, with a commentary by Ian Tilbrook.