July — 1888
|THEY lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown;
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street —
Drifting past, drifting past,
To the beat of weary feet —
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.
And cause I have to sorrow, in a land so young and fair,
In hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky
The human river dwindles when ’Tis past the hour of eight,
And then the only faces till the sun is sinking down
And when the hours on lagging feet have slowly dragged away,
And now all blurred and smirched with vice the day’s sad pages end,
But, ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes,
I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
I left the dreadful corner where the steps are never still,
Once I cried: ‘Oh, God Almighty! if Thy might doth still endure,
Then, like a swollen river that has broken bank and wall,
And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
Tom Roberts “Coogee 1888”: a sunnier vision of Sydney
Despite what we are told, every morning and night in 2007 Surry Hills I see people living — and sleeping — in the street. There are those who never go near Centrelink for one reason or another. There are armies of underemployed. There are those on the other hand, top managers, who are obscenely well paid. We have no reason to feel smug.
Yes, of course this is not 1888. Lawson is describing a time when the labour movement was in its infancy. Today there are those only too happy to write that labour movement off as having reached senescence or irrelevance and the words “trade union” are by some spoken only with a cultivated sneer. I do not rejoice in that.
In what can only be described as a “work in progress” on Wikipedia is this account of the times that produced “Faces in the Street”:
1880 – 1890
An investment boom in Australia in this decade saw increased economic expansion despite the fact that the investments were providing less of a return per dollar spent on investment. This can be attributed to foreign funds becoming more available to Australia. This influx of capital led to Australians experiencing the highest per capita incomes in the world during the late nineteenth century. However, by the end of the decade 1880-1890, overseas investors became more concerned with the difference between expected returns and actual returns on Australian investment and withdrew further funding. Consequently Australia saw the start of a severe depression starting in 1890. Australian economic historian Noel Butlin would later argue that the history of Australian settlement has been one of growth financed by foreign capital, punctuated by depression caused by balance of payments crises after a collapse in commodity prices and exacerbated by the imprudent use of capital.
In many ways people are better off now. It is also a much bigger, much less isolated, much more various society today. But we have to laugh when we are told we’ve never had it so good. I live below the poverty line myself; did you know that? So do many others around me. The spiritual descendants of those Lawson attacks — the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone — may be seen in any Question Time in the House today, don’t you think? Except today they also advertise their wares lavishly on bus stops and on television, at our expense. It has to be said, of course, that the economy is better understood and better managed today — and this applies to current and prospective governments at Federal level at least — than it was then. (I speak only of Australia.)
Poetry can be decidedly opinionated and unpleasant. The English Romantic poet P B Shelley showed this at considerably less length and with more skill and more vitriol in his “England in 1819”. Mind you, I really don’t put much store by “Red Revolution”. We have seen too much of that dream gone bad…
John Howard and The Team want us to embrace our Australian identity and tradition. Oh I do, John, I do…
Thanks again Whitewolf.
Jim Belshaw has again done a follow-up. Thanks Jim. As I remark there: 1) poetically I do not rate this poem all that well, though I once chose to learn it off by heart for a poetry recitation competition when I was 14; 2) I was struck by its having been written in a boom period, two years before the depression of the 1890s. Parallels with today should be made cautiously, of course, but that does give it a certain resonance today.