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  ― v ―

Introductory

IN collating these stories and literary sketches from the files of The Bulletin, the aim has been to make an interesting book. It has not been attempted to choose the best examples of literary style. Judged by a high canon, our most talented story-writers are still only clever students of the art of writing. A mere two or three have been able to earn a living by the profession of literature, and even these have been obliged to make the perilous compromise with journalism. So the stories and sketches which follow are usually the literary dreams of men of action, or the literary realisation of things seen by wanderers. Usually they are objective, episodic, detached—branches torn from the Tree of Life, trimmed and dressed with whatever skill the writers possess (which often is not inconsiderable). In most of them still throbs the keen vitality of the parent stem: many are absolute transcripts of the Fact, copied as faithfully as the resources of language will permit. Hence many of them, remaining level with Nature, remain on the lower plane of Art—which at its highest is not imitative, but creative,—making anew the whole world in terms of its subject. What is desiderated is that these isolated impressions should be fused in consciousness, and re-visualised, re-presented with their universal reference made clear—yes! with the despised Moral, but with a moral which shines forth as an essence, is not stated as an after-thought. In other words, the branch should be shown growing upon the Tree, not severed from it: the Part should imply the Whole, and in a sense contain it, defying mathematics. Every story of a man or woman should be a microcosm of humanity; every vision of Nature should hold an imagination of the Universe. These be counsels of perfection which it is easier to teach than to practise, though many writers in other lands have practised them. So we take the good the gods provide, and are properly grateful, while striving for better and best.

Further, in this book it has not been attempted to choose examples of work characteristically Australian. The literary work which is Australian in spirit, as well as in scene or incident, is only beginning to be written. The formal establishment of the Commonwealth has not yet crystallised the floating elements of natural life. Australia is still a suburb of Cosmopolis, where


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men from many lands perpetuate in a new environment the ideas and habits acquired far away. Our children bow instinctively to the fetishes of their fathers, for the heredity of centuries is not eliminated in a generation, or in half-a-dozen generations. Only here and there we receive hints and portents of the Future. Australian Nationality to-day is like an alchemist's crucible just before the gold-birth, with red fumes rising, and strange odours, and a dazzling gleam caught by moments through the bubble and seethe. Yet, without a deliberate choice, a few examples of Australian work—of work which could not have been conceived or written anywhere but in Australia—have naturally included themselves in the following pages. These are often sad or tragic: because, first, the fierce intensity of Tragedy makes more poignant, profounder literature than Comedy can make; because, second, our pioneering stage of civilisation is necessarily a stage of hard struggle, often of individual defeat, and the shadow of Tragedy lowers heavily over men who are fighting in a doubtful battle. Yet there are not wanting adumbrations of the Beauty of Australia—glimpses of the secret enchantment in which this strange, feline land—half-fierce, half caressing—holds those who have listened to the gum-trees' whispered spells or drunk the magic philter of landscapes flooded with Nature's opiate-tints.

Verlaine's cult of Faded Things, extolling the hinted hue before the gross colour, finds a natural home in Australia,—in many aspects a Land of Faded Things—of delicate purples, delicious greys, and dull, dreamy olives and ochres. Yet we have been content to let strangers foist upon us the English ideals of glaring green or staring red and orange; we have permitted them to denounce our grave harmonies of rock and vegetation, with shadow laid on tender shadow, light on dusky light. This, though the chief English art-magazine passes by all the English emeralds and flaunting autumn tints to bind itself in dull Australian green! This, though intelligent Englishmen themselves revolt against their tradition of crude colouring, and declare, like returning Morley Roberts, that “there was one thing that struck me in England as very strange, not to say painful, and that was the vivid colour of the pastures. We are quite proud of our perpetual verdure: but, to tell the truth, the tint of the grass after the soberer dull greys and greens and browns of Australia was extremely unpleasant to my eye. I thought the colour glaring, not to say inartistic; it certainly was not unnatural, and yet it struck me as being as nearly that as if someone had deliberately painted the fields. It took me months to get reconciled to it.”

And the typical English beauty often looks as painted as the fields, with her coarse contrast of carmine and white; yet we permit Englishmen to come here and decry the divine pallor of Australians ruddied like a capricious coral!


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Englishmen have been permitted even to denounce the gum-tree, the most picturesque tree that grows, always at ease and unconventional. To see the many-bosomed gum-tree moving in a breeze (that gum-tree shaped like a soaring parachute made of a score of minor parachutes which lift and strain as if eager to be off and up); to watch the shifting interspaces of sky when amber days or purple nights play hide-and-seek among the wayward branches, and to listen to the birdlike murmur of the leaves, almost a twittering;—this is to receive an æsthetic education. Yet Englishmen persist in bringing hither their dense, sombre trees which defy even an Australian sun-ray, which almost disdain to ruffle in an Australian breeze—trees with the heavy magnificence of an English dinner, and often as dull;—and they call upon us to admire these unnatural exotics! Englishman Marcus Clarke has even called our gum-tree “melancholy,” our forests “funereal.” He knew nothing of this country beyond Victoria and Tasmania, but he multiplied a Wimmera station by the literary imagination and called the product Australia—actually winning quasi-Austialian praise for the misrepresentation!

The grotesque English prejudice against things Australian, founded on no better reason than that they are unlike English things, still remains to vitiate the local sense of local beauty; but every year is teaching us wisdom. We have learnt to laugh at the ridiculous and reiterated fiction that our flowers have no scent and our birds no song. Why, the whole Bush is scented; in no land is there a greater wealth of aromatic perfume from tree and shrub and blossom—making the daisied meadows of England, as honest Henry Kingsley suggests, tame and suburban by comparison. And when you go up beyond the tropic-line, and walk out of your tent at dawn, the air in many places is literally weighed down with the fragrance of a hundred brilliant flowers. What would they not give in England for ten acres of wattle-blossom on Wimbledon Common? and how many nightingales would they exchange for a flight of crimson lories at sunset?—a shower of flaming rubies. Did Marcus Clarke never hear the fluting of an Australian magpie?—so mellow, so round, so sweet. If the little brown English birds sing better than our vari-plumaged parrakeets, is not the strife at least equal? Does not fine colour yield as much pleasure to the artist eye as fine song to the artist ear? When will Englifed city critics realise that Australia is a country which extends through forty degrees of latitude and thirty-five of longitude, and comprehends all climates, all scenery—snow-capped mountain and torrid desert, placid lake and winding river, torrent and brook, charm as well as grandeur, garden and homely field as well as barren solitude?

It is heredity and custom which again betray us. The rose is a beautiful flower, but the most beautiful only because thousands of years of care and


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cultivation have been lavished to bring it to perfection, because thousands of lovers have breathed its perfume, thousands of poets have apostrophised its exquisite form. Give the same care and cultivation to a hundred modest bush flowers, draw them from obscurity as the rose has been drawn from the parent wilderness, let them be worshipped and adored through centuries of sentiment—and we have here the rivals of the rose herself. Cluster the associations of the oak and yew around the yarran or the cedar (all the cedars of Lebanon were not more stately than those of the Herberton scrub), and the oak and yew will shrink, not indeed into insignificance, but into their proper proportion as regarded from Australia. In a word, let us look at our country and its fauna and flora, its trees and streams and mountains, through clear Australian eyes, not through bias-bleared English spectacles; and there is no more beautiful country in the world.

It will be the fault of the writers, not of the land, if Australian literature does not by-and-by become memorable. In the field of the short sketch or story, for example,—the field which includes this book,—what country can offer to writers better material than Australia? We are not yet snug in cities and hamlets, moulded by routine, regimented to a pattern. Every man who roams the Australian wilderness is a potential knight of Romance; every man who grapples with the Australian desert for a livelihood might sing a Homeric chant of victory, or listen, baffled and beaten, to an æschylean dirge of defeat. The marvels of the adventurous are our daily common-places. The drama of the conflict between Man and Destiny is played here in a scenic setting whose novelty is full of vital suggestion for the literary artist. In the twilit labour of the timber-getter in a Richmond scrub; in the spectacle of the Westralian prospector tramping across his mirage-haunted waste; in the tropic glimpse of the Thursday Island pearling fleet, manned by men of a dozen turbulent races,—the luggers floating so calmly above a search so furious;—here, and in a hundred places besides, there is wealth of novel inspiration for the writers who will live Australia's life and utter her message. And when those writers come, let us tell them that we will never rest contented until Australian authors reach the highest standards set in literature, in order that we may set the standards higher and preach discontent anew.

A. G. STEPHENS.

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