The following is another talk I gave to the Melbourne Savage Club about a favourite author – this time not P.G. Wodehouse but another initialled writer from a century ago, the Australian poet C.J. Dennis, best known for his verse cycle, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke.
I have been struck by the Bloke, in a most peculiar (I think) and personal way. And that’s what this is about – my personal experience and, more generally, my speculations on the transformative power of poetry, literature and maybe of art in general.
There’s a fair amount of presumption in that statement, I think you would agree. But let me try to mitigate matters. The key word is “speculations”. I could have said “ruminations”, for that’s what they are. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to offer anything more solid than that. So this is not an academic analysis of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, nor is it an examination of the life and times of C.J. Dennis. It is about me and my relationship with The Bloke.
I am a man of words, not a man of letters. My whole life has been concerned with words, and it’s only now in the afternoon light, as Robert Menzies titled his first volume of reflections, that I have come to realise this. It’s strange, isn’t it, that you can spend so many years not really understanding what it is that you’re doing? Clarence Michael James Dennis was also a man of words, rather than letters – like me, a journalist, but one who did come to understand early in life that he had a power over symbols and spaces beyond simply reporting the triumphs and follies of human existence.
The man who became C.J. Dennis was born to Irish migrant parents on 7 September 1876 at Auburn in South Australia. His father was a publican; his mother died when he was 14. He began his journalistic life when still at primary school but family needs came first and he left school at 17 to be a clerk at a stock and station agency. The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that he was sacked for reading Rider Haggard during working hours.
He published his first verse at 19 and from then on words became his life, as a poet and as a journalist and publisher. It may not be a surprise to those of you who know journalists as a breed that Dennis indulged in “bouts of intemperance”, which did nothing for his already weak constitution. The fact is Dennis was an alcoholic.
In 1907, at age 31, Dennis left Adelaide for Melbourne and ended up living in the Dandenongs, the forested hills that were to be home for most of the remainder of his life. He wrote much of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke there.
The Bloke, as it’s colloquially known, was published in October 1915 [coinciding, half a world away, with the first appearance of Jeeves and the beginning of Wodehouse’s career in the theatre]. It was an immediate success, requiring three editions in 1915, nine in 1916, and three in 1917. It’s safe to say many hundreds of thousands of copies, if not millions, have been sold over the past century.
The book has a foreword by Henry Lawson and illustrations by Hal Gye, who was to collaborate on most of Dennis’s future works. Dennis, ever the journalist, provided a handy glossary to explain the slang. Thousands of copies of the pocket edition were sent to the AIF [Australian army] then at Gallipoli and in Egypt, and later on the Western Front. The work has been widely recited, produced as silent and sound films, a stage play, a musical and many recordings and radio and television programs.
The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke consists of 14 poems, telling the story of the larrikin Bill out of the mean streets of [the Melbourne inner suburb] Fitzroy . . . from a rough young man’s spring restlessness through his courtship of the lovely Doreen, marriage and family to reflective contentment in the autumn of his life. This simple tale is told in a way, and in vernacular language, that immediately struck a nerve in an Australia beset by war
The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes The Bloke as “a very human story . . . simply and humorously told in dialect verse which could be as easily spoken as read”. The biographer quotes Dennis as saying: “Slang is the illegitimate sister of poetry, and if an illegitimate relationship is the nearest I can get I am content.” He had “tried to tell a common but very beautiful story in coarse language, to prove – amongst other things – that life and love can be just as real and splendid to the common bloke as to the cultured”.
In my view Dennis has been under-rated, even somewhat dismissed, as simply a humorous writer, as if humour cannot be serious. It can be and often is. The Bloke is most certainly humorous – and funny, too – but quite serious in its intent. Dennis manages the difficult feat of expressing sentiment of the highest order in everyday language, without being mawkish . . . or simply wet. The Bloke is not soap opera.
I can tell you almost exactly to the minute when the force of Dennis’s intent struck me. It was a little after 8.40pm on 14 February 2013 – and the location was the dining room of the Savage Club. The occasion was the club’s annual Ladies Night. The date was coincidental but St Valentine’s Day gave us a ready-made theme for the evening . . . romance, and lots of it.
Of course, we had to have something quintessentially Australian. We need Doreen, I said. This was an heroic declaration on my part, for the simple reason that I had only ever heard of Dennis’s heroine. I had looked at The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke at some stage in my life but had never actually read any of them.
One of the club’s regular poetry readers was asked to turn his renowned recitation style to Doreen. He declined on grounds that he didn’t have the voice – he couldn’t do the accent. I don’t know how this Australian thinks he’s different from the rest of us but his declaration called my bluff. So I volunteered. I would read Doreen, the fourth of the 14 Songs, in the accent that my birth and life have given me.
This was not a congenial task – for I don’t much like dialect writing. There’s a lot of it around – Robbie Burns for one, Americans including Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Many writers have found great humour (and ridicule) in setting sounds to paper. Mostly I find it distracting and forced – often unintelligible – and sometimes I think it must be not a little insulting to some readers, like the patter of comic wogs and Yorkshiremen.
Now, with my presumptuous posturing, I was caught: I had to put aside my prejudice. I had to perform. Very quickly, I discovered something intriguing. Clarence Michael James Dennis was a very clever man. He was not reproducing the broken English of the inarticulate yobbo.
Those little literary marks with which his verse is festooned are tricks. Daunting on the page, all the apostrophes, elisions and phonetic spellings melt away when you read this stuff aloud. The meaning shines through. The Bloke is an eloquent man
Try this: the first verse of the first song, where Spring has got to the Bloke. He’s feeling restless but doesn’t know why.
The world ’as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ’as smote me soul;
An’ all them joys o’ life I ’eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got
The pip wiv yernin’ fer – I dunno wot.
This is a typical rendering, without aitches and hard g endings, with peculiar spellings, the slang of the day (and of today, as in “dunno”) and the uneducated grammar of “them joys” which “is up the pole”.
But if I rewrite it into standard English, leaving the slang, what happens?
The world has got me snouted just a treat;
Cruel fortune’s dirty left has smote my soul;
And all those joys of life I held so sweet
Are up the pole.
For, as the poet says, my heart has got
The pip with yearning for – I don’t know what.
It’s not the same, is it? Somehow, the rhythm has been altered, and the last line is a disaster. “I don’t know what” is completely different from “I dunno wot” (even allowing for the fact that I’ve never routinely pronounced the “wh” sound in my life and I daresay most of you haven’t either).
Furthermore the eye rhyme of “got” and “wot” has disappeared. Rhyming is one of the many joys of Dennis’s work. As we get a little deeper into Doreen you’ll see “moon” and “choon”. Not the same if some idiot says “tune” and rewrites it so. Rhyming dictionaries please take note: there is more than “June” and “spoon” and “swoon” to rhyme with “moon”.
Read aloud, the as-written lines have a snap and a verve to them that I certainly didn’t expect from dialect writing. The verse flows along, like a cold beer on a hot day.
And so by the time I got up at the lectern to read the love-smitten Bloke’s story of a night out with Doreen – at, as I say, a few minutes after 8.40pm on St Valentine’s Day 2013 – I was already taken in by Dennis’s verse. What happened next I can hardly describe, even now – it was such a peculiar and extraordinary event.
I started out all right, reading but trying to act, put some feeling into it.
“I WISH’T yeh meant it, Bill.” Oh, ’ow me ’eart
Went out to ’er that ev’nin’ on the beach.
I knoo she weren’t no ordinary tart,
My little peach!
I tell yeh, square an’ all, me ’eart stood still
To ’ear ’er say, “I wish’t yeh meant it, Bill.”
There are 11 stanzas in Doreen and as I got towards the middle of them I felt a strange sensation building, something like what psychiatrists call dissociation. I’ve experienced that once, and it’s weird – like you’re out of your body looking at yourself. Frankly that’s not a sensation I wish to repeat and I didn’t that night – but the 100 or so people in front of me and the old dining room did fade into the background momentarily, and I was there on the beach with the Bloke as he lost his heart to Doreen.
The wet sands glistened, an’ the gleamin’ moon
Shone yeller on the sea, all streakin’ down.
A band was playin’ some soft, dreamy choon;
An’ up the town
We ’eard the distant tram-cars whir an’ clash.
An’ there I told ’er ’ow I’d done me dash.
The whole experience is a blur but I remember being conscious of a deep silence and a stillness as I reached the last verse.
“I wish’t yeh meant it,” I can ’ear ’er yet,
My bit o’ fluff! The moon was shinin’ bright,
Turnin’ the waves all yeller where it set –
A bonzer night!
The sparklin’ sea all sorter gold an’ green;
An’ on the pier the band – O, ’Ell!…Doreen
And so, with the Bloke’s anguished cry, I came out of acting mode and back to my senses. But I was excited beyond my belief. I was completely floored. I suppose real actors get that feeling frequently, when they’ve actually taken on the character, rather than simply speaking the words.
Only a couple of weeks later, on 4 March 2013, the rest of my life became problematic. I was given the brilliant news that I was harbouring a nasty in the depths of my body. There followed months of radiotherapy, chemo and surgery. Everyone who has been through the cancer mill has a story, but I’m not about to tell you mine.
Except for this. Early in October 2013, after having been told I was clear, my cancer showed up elsewhere and I needed further treatment – more chemo and another operation. In the week before the chemo started, I was invited to another Melbourne club to witness the induction of a close mate to the club and to propose a vote of thanks to the club on behalf of the guests.
Now, when you go to this particular establishment, the right thing to do is join in the spirit of the place, which is convivial and full of song. I thought I should offer them something other than the usual platitudes. Singing is de rigueur but, while I like to sing, I really can’t (my key is bloody flat major) – so I offered them a poem. What else could it be but something out of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke?
It couldn’t be Doreen, though . . . not appropriate . . . and I looked at various other Songs, including No.10, Hitched . . . not appropriate either, but just for fun here’s some of it anyway. The poem depicts a condition that all of us mere males have gone through from time to time, especially at the altar getting married, and it illustrates, perfectly I think, Dennis’s ability to get the sentiment right, to be humorous (which is to say light-hearted) and funny all at once . . . and to render both the tone and the language felicitously in print. It’s even more amazing when you consider Dennis, although 39 in 1915, was not to face the pilot cove for his own hitching for two more years:
“An’— wilt — yeh — take — this — woman — fer — to — be—
Yer — weddid — wife?” . . . O, strike me! Will I wot?
TAKE ’er? Doreen? ’E stan’s there ARSTIN’ me!
As if ’e thort per’aps I’d rather not!
TAKE ’er? ’E seemed to think ’er kind was got
Like cigarette-cards, fer the arstin’. Still,
I does me stunt in this ’ere hitchin’ rot,
An’ speaks me piece: “Righto!” I sez, “I will.”
“I will,” I sez. An’ tho’ a joyful shout
Come from me bustin’ ’eart — I know it did —
Me voice got sorter mangled comin’ out,
An’ makes me whisper like a frightened kid.
“I will,” I squeaks. An’ I’d ’a’ give a quid
To ’ad it on the quite, wivout this fuss,
An’ orl the starin’ crowd that Mar ’ad bid
To see this solim hitchin’ up of us.
This is great but not the stuff to give the troops as a vote of thanks. The poem had to be somewhat philosophical, I felt, especially in my mental state at the time, which was tense and apprehensive – as you might understand.
So I gave them the 14th and last Song, the Mooch o’ Life. The Bloke is sitting in his afternoon light, counting his blessings. It’s positive, it’s grateful, it’s optimistic . . . it’s not in any way regretful . . . and it hit me just where I could feel it.
Well I nearly made it. I got to this:
An’ ev’ry song I ’ear the thrushes sing
That everlastin’ message seems to bring;
An’ ev’ry wind that whispers in the trees
Gives me the tip there ain’t no joys like these:
Livin’ an’ loving wand’rin’ on yeh way;
Reapin’ the ’arvest of a kind deed done;
An’ watching in the sundown of yer day,
Yerself again, grown nobler in yer son.
And then I stumbled, close to breaking down as I thought of the unknown I was heading into and what I might be leaving behind. I kept it together though. Just. It wasn’t until some weeks later when I was deep into my chemo that I hit the wall.
I had been invited me to perform something at a little social arts event. I should have known better, in the state I was in by then, to try to do The Mooch o’ Life but I did, and the inevitable happened. I went to water (not for the first time, nor the last, in that period).
Even now I can hardly think of the poem and the personal events that surrounded my public performances of it without an emotional surge. Why should that be? I suppose in part I was feeling sorry for myself. Not only that . . . I’ve been a sucker all my life for mushy movies and I always cry at weddings and funerals. But that doesn’t explain my reaction in full, because The Bloke is not at all mushy, and it certainly doesn’t explain my pre-diagnosis experience with the darling Doreen.
And so we return to where I started. I have been struck by The Bloke, in a most peculiar and personal way. It has led me to speculate on the transformative power of poetry, literature and maybe of art in general, and it does have some kind of transformative power for me. I don’t know whether it has inspired me, or comforted me, or done anything other than to bring forth a momentary emotional reaction. I certainly don’t claim The Bloke has performed some kind of miracle, either physical or mental.
But it has done what poetry is supposed to do . . . speak to the reader’s very being. Through all those months of treatment when my mind was everywhere else but on the doings of the Sentimental Bloke, the empathy with the Songs that I found on St Valentine’s Day seems to have stayed with me so that, when I could contain my feelings no longer, it burst forth to help me get through my crisis and to reinforce life in the face of the fact of my, and everybody’s, mortality.
I’m sure most, if not all, people can tell similar stories . . . and better stories . . . stories not just of rescue and survival but of inspiration and great humanity. Many will be stories of interaction with art, whether high or low or the many grades in between. This seems to be a given in all human cultures.
A lecturer in my brief encounter with a university education once said to me: “Art doesn’t have to have a reason.” I was very young at the time (and so was he) but the idea has never left me. In one sense, he meant that art doesn’t have to be didactic. It might teach you something but it doesn’t necessarily start out to do so. But I came to the conclusion over time that he was wrong in the broader sense – art without a reason, or even just “reason”, is scribbling. It’s the scratchings of a monkey, the naivety of a child, the randomness of the cosmos.
And so art carries the power of the intellect. An artist’s visions, great and small, of the world as it is and as it might be are communicated to his or her fellow human beings, and for better or worse that always produces change of some kind.
These are deep waters (again), and I can guess C.J. Dennis would never have thought that, a century after publication, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke would have inspired such reflections – especially from a fellow journalist, also prone to bouts of intemperance.
And that’s what I’d like to leave you with: Dennis, the journalist. After The Bloke, he published a sequel, The Moods of Ginger Mick, about the Bloke’s Best Man who went off to Gallipoli never to return, and followed that with several other books of poetry, not necessarily in dialect mode. But by 1922, he found he couldn’t live on the income from his books and went to work for the Melbourne Herald (a great newspaper long gone and still mourned by all who knew it).
Dennis contributed more than 3000 times to a daily column during the next 16 years, which is to say he wrote poetry to order and to deadline. The Australian Dictionary of Biography observes, rather snootily I think: “The need to write topical verse within a limited timespan affected the quality of his work and the output of other material.”
I’m here to tell you that writing anything to order and to deadline can be hard yakka, and writing a regular column, especially daily, is a death-defying experience. Doing it in verse [as did the early Wodehouse] requires nerve and skill, both as a poet and a journalist. So what if Dennis slipped up some times? Yah boo to the ADB.
C.J. Dennis died on 22 June 1938, aged a touch shy of 62. His grave bears an extract from his poem The Singing Garden:
Now is the healing, quiet hour that fills
This gay, green world with peace and grateful rest.
But I think I prefer the last verse from The Mooch O’ Life as a fitting benediction to my story:
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.