Friday Australian poem #7: Henry Lawson

21 Sep

0207198578 Faces in the Street

July — 1888

Henry Lawson

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,
To see upon those faces stamped the marks of Want and Care;
I look in vain for traces of the fresh and fair and sweet
In sallow, sunken faces that are drifting through the street —
    Drifting on, drifting on,
    To the scrape of restless feet;
I can sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.

In hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky
The wan and weary faces first begin to trickle by,
Increasing as the moments hurry on with morning feet,
Till like a pallid river flow the faces in the street —
    Flowing in, flowing in,
    To the beat of hurried feet —
Ah! I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street.

The human river dwindles when ’Tis past the hour of eight,
Its waves go flowing faster in the fear of being late;
But slowly drag the moments, whilst beneath the dust and heat
The city grinds the owners of the faces in the street —
    Grinding body, grinding soul,
    Yielding scarce enough to eat —
Oh! I sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street.

And then the only faces till the sun is sinking down
Are those of outside toilers and the idlers of the town,
Save here and there a face that seems a stranger in the street,
Tells of the city’s unemployed upon his weary beat —
    Drifting round, drifting round,
    To the tread of listless feet —
Ah! My heart aches for the owner of that sad face in the street.

And when the hours on lagging feet have slowly dragged away,
And sickly yellow gaslights rise to mock the going day,
Then flowing past my window like a tide in its retreat,
Again I see the pallid stream of faces in the street —
    Ebbing out, ebbing out,
    To the drag of tired feet,
While my heart is aching dumbly for the faces in the street.

And now all blurred and smirched with vice the day’s sad pages end,
For while the short ‘large hours’ toward the longer ‘small hours’ trend,
With smiles that mock the wearer, and with words that half entreat,
Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street —
    Sinking down, sinking down,
    Battered wreck by tempests beat —
A dreadful, thankless trade is hers, that Woman of the Street.

But, ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes,
For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums,
Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet,
And ghostly faces shall be seen unfit for any street —
    Rotting out, rotting out,
    For the lack of air and meat —
In dens of vice and horror that are hidden from the street.

I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?
Ah! Mammon’s slaves, your knees shall knock, your hearts in terror beat,
When God demands a reason for the sorrows of the street,
    The wrong things and the bad things
    And the sad things that we meet
In the filthy lane and alley, and the cruel, heartless street.

I left the dreadful corner where the steps are never still,
And sought another window overlooking gorge and hill;
But when the night came dreary with the driving rain and sleet,
They haunted me — the shadows of those faces in the street,
    Flitting by, flitting by,
    Flitting by with noiseless feet,
And with cheeks but little paler than the real ones in the street.

Once I cried: ‘Oh, God Almighty! if Thy might doth still endure,
Now show me in a vision for the wrongs of Earth a cure.’
And, lo! with shops all shuttered I beheld a city’s street,
And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet,
    Coming near, coming near,
    To a drum’s dull distant beat,
And soon I saw the army that was marching down the street.

Then, like a swollen river that has broken bank and wall,
The human flood came pouring with the red flags over all,
And kindled eyes all blazing bright with revolution’s heat,
And flashing swords reflecting rigid faces in the street.
    Pouring on, pouring on,
    To a drum’s loud threatening beat,
And the war-hymns and the cheering of the people in the street.

And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse,
But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street —
    The dreadful everlasting strife
    For scarcely clothes and meat
In that pent track of living death — the city’s cruel street.


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.

NOTE Saturday

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.

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1 Comment

Posted by on September 21, 2007 in Aussie interest, OzLit, poets and poetry


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One response to “Friday Australian poem #7: Henry Lawson

  1. Jim Belshaw

    September 22, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Hi Neil

    I realised later that you must have picked up the dates. I have now added a further piece. I was going to do this via another piece of family history, this time from the 1880s, but decided to leave this as a later stand-alone piece in part because of the length.

    As i said at the end of my latest piece, I am wondering who you are going to pick up next. You are becoming a one man literary revival!

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