Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2020

Where Shadows Have Fallen, the descent of Henry Kendall, by Adrian Mitchell

Oh dear, poor Henry Kendall!

This is the summary of his life on the website of the Henry Kendall High School in Gosford NSW:

Henry Kendall High School is named after a well-respected poet who lived in Gosford for a period of time. Henry was born in the Ulladulla district and as a young man enjoyed writing poems and songs.

Although his work was published, he found it difficult to support himself and so he worked as a clerk and freelanced as a journalist.

In 1868 Henry married Charlotte. Their life together had many hardships. Their daughter, Araluen, died young and the distraught parents were too poor to afford a headstone for her grave. Henry wrote a poem in memory of Araluen.

Henry had reached a very low point in his life when he arrived in Gosford in 1872. He found the beautiful surroundings of Gosford, including the beaches and creeks; the bush, and the hills; and the good friends he made, helped restore his health and confidence.

While in Gosford, Henry wrote poems such as Narara Creek, Rover and Names upon a Stone among others. In 1875 he was appointed Clerk at Fagan’s timber yard and stone at Camden Haven, now known as Kendall. In the year that followed, his wife and two sons returned to live with him. With his family back together, Henry left Gosford with many fond memories.

He continued to write and publish his poems but in 1882 he fell dangerously ill with tuberculosis. He died aged 43 and was buried at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.

The Australian Poetry Library offers a similarly respectable version of his life where you can find 201 of his poems if you are so minded.  Try ‘Bellbirds’ the one that I read long ago in the Victorian Readers Sixth Book; it’s also in the Penguin Book of Australian Verse edited by Harry Heseltine (1972). Defining Kendall as a prolific writer of varying merit, Heseltine also includes ‘The Last of His Tribe‘ and the excruciating ‘Song of Ninian Melville’.  Also at the Australian Poetry Library site you can find Kendall’s Sydney Exhibition Cantata, for which he won a £100 prize; the poem for Araluen; and the rather moving ‘On a Baby Buried by the Hawkesbury’. 

But…

…this is the blurb from Adrian Mitchell’s lively new biography:

Henry Kendall was once regarded as Australia’s finest poet, compared favourably with Wordsworth. His poetry was romantic, sentimental in its celebration of the Australian bush he loved. But he was more Henry Lawson than John Keats: a self-pitying wife deserter, cadger and drunkard. And it ran in the family.

From 1859, Kendall published prolifically in newspapers and periodicals. But he struggled to support a wife and children through poems and articles, his first poetry book was a financial failure (though critically acclaimed) and his brother and sister contributed to his financial troubles.

Often in debt and on the precipice of bankruptcy, Kendall suffered from poverty, ill health and drunkenness. In 1870, he was charged with forging a cheque, and found not guilty on grounds of insanity; two years later, he spent time in an insane asylum. But from 1876, he began to rebuild his life and career, and in 1880 his collection Songs from the Mountain was an outstanding success.

In this intriguing work of literary investigation, celebrated author and historian Adrian Mitchell delves deep into Kendall’s storied life and uncovers a dark past that casts new shadows on his legacy. He discovers that this habitually self-effacing poet had good reason to keep himself and his family out of the limelight. This is the true story of Henry Kendall, his parents and his grandparents – and he had every reason to dread it being made public.

In many ways, Kendall’s life reads like a 19th century version of a soap opera with one unedifying crisis after another… Like many in colonial Australia, Kendall did have reason to fudge his family history, and it’s fascinating to read just how many versions of it there were.  The two main culprits were his mother whose imaginative reconstructions were second only to Mrs Hamilton-Grey (so-called), who published not one but three romantic biographies of his life, the last in in 1929. (She also left a bequest to build a memorial to him in the Sydney Botanic Gardens.) However, in 1938, the year after she died, Kendall’s son, Frederick published his own Henry Kendall, His Later Years, which he said was a refutation of her book Kendall Our God-made Chief.

She was not the only one wanting to possess his memory…supporting the romanticised idea of the poet: there are all kinds of memorialisations in NSW where you can even visit the so-called Henry Kendall Cottage in West Gosford — which was not actually his cottage at all.  It belonged to the Fagan family who (according to the website):

…made a significant contribution to the local area through their farming, citrus orchard, mail contracts, timber business, and breeding of cattle and champion race horses. They were one of the first to grow oranges in the Gosford area. Between 1873-1875 the Fagan family cared for and provided employment for the Australian poet Henry Kendall.

Indeed they did. But generous as they were, it would probably surprise them to find their pioneer cottage renamed as it has been!

The Fagans took Henry in and restored him to health after he was released from an asylum, where he had been committed in 1873, filthy, starving and having led the life of a Bohemian and to have plunged deeper and deeper into debauchery.  Estranged from his long-suffering wife and children, he was supposed to have taken up work as an editor in Grafton, but got drunk at Newcastle en route and the steamer sailed on without him.  With no money or possessions he set off back to Sydney on foot.

As it happens, long steady walking through the great swathes of trees was one of the best things Kendall could have done, for that is now known to settle nerves, and quieten disturbed thoughts. On the other hand, his feet would have been sore, his boots rather the worse for wear, and given the long distances with few villages or settlements, he was bound to have been hungry as well as tired.  Thirsty too.  In that part of the country he would have encountered timber cutters’ camps from time to time, and those of shingle splitters; doubtless he was invited to share their campfire when he came across them, that is, if he could overcome his instinctive shyness.  (p.152)

But even the story of how Kendall the tramp came to meet with the Fagans isn’t clear.  Nor is it clear how they recognised Australia’s leading poet down on his luck, when newspapers didn’t feature photographs at that time. However it came about, there is something Biblical about their kindness.  Mitchell alludes to Matthew 25:35:

However it happened, he arrived at the head of Brisbane Water and the Fagans gathered him up and took him home.  He was enhungered, and they gave him meat; he was thirsty, and they more than likely gave him tea.  He was a stranger, and they took him in. (p.153)

It was not to last.  Nothing good seemed to last for Kendall.  He died, reconciled with his wife at least, in 1882.

As Mitchell points out, the wording of the epitaph on Kendall’s ostentation memorial at Bronte, is hardly appropriate, given Kendall’s alcoholism:

Awake him not! Surely he takes his fill
Of deep and liquid rest, forgetful of all ill.

The polished grandeur, says Mitchell, was all about stroking the self-esteem of the public.  It’s a far cry from his description of his father’s neglected grave in the distant forest.  It’s not a fitting memorial for a man who preferred a solitary life and the simplicity of the bush.

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Where Shadows Have Fallen, the descent of Henry Kendall
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781743057483, pbk., 228 pages including extensive Notes and an Index.
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Fishpond, Where Shadows Have Fallen: The descent of Henry Kendall, direct from Wakefield Press or your local indie bookshop.

 


Responses

  1. How interesting. Thank you for this insightful glimpse into Henry Kendall‘s life and the heads up for Mitchell’s book. Like many Australians I may have been aware of one or two of his poems from school but feel he is overlooked by many today.

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    • Hello Penelope, thank you for your comment.
      Yes, I felt the same: his name was vaguely familiar to me from my school days, but I knew nothing about him. He had a terrible life really, a lot of it self-inflicted but really, my guess is that introverted poetic types don’t have it much easier today unless they have good support coming from somewhere. How awful it must have been to fall in love and marry and have endless children when you could only support them by doing dreary clerical jobs, copying out stuff in copperplate all day long. No wonder he went off the track, leaving his poor wife to cope as best she could. Our society is no better than his was, in terms of making it possible for people with highly specialised interests to follow their ambitions.

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      • That situation is doubtless worsened by the increase in cost of humanities courses Lisa! I had the privilege of knowing one scholar whose great passion in life was studying the inscriptions on ancient Roman graves & monuments – he was appalled that students were no longer routinely studying Latin at school. I thought he was marvellous!

        Poor old Henry Kendall. The village of Kendall in north coast NSW – a delightful town – is named after him.

        My mother used to recite the first verse of his poem about bell-birds to us on car trips through Kurrajong Heights up to Bilpin – I wonder if anyone else here used to wind the car windows down to listen to the birds at Bell Bird corner there!

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        • Honestly, I despair about the spending choices this government has made. If we have to go into debt, and we do, why can’t we make sensible choices that are good for society in the long term?!

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          • Eg. Good quality, well designed public housing; pay the unemployed sufficient to live off at least decently – I could go on and on, I’ll spare you & everyone else – Jacqui Lambie’s speech about some of the changes to university is worth Googling (& on her twitter feed) – I could weep with frustration, Lisa!

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            • I haven’t forgiven Jackie Lambie for her sellout on Medevac…

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        • Yes! We had family in the Gosford area and, like you, always rolled down the windows when we went to visit. Probably why I remember the poem so clearly.

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          • What a great connection to share!
            For me, bell birds remind me of a day’s walk with the Bayside Bushwalking club, in Sherbrooke Forest outside of Melbourne.

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  2. So sad for poor Henry. Being shy would have made it very hard for him in an uber masculine culture like Australia. Not much has changed when it supporting those who don’t fit in easily and for those who are creative very difficult. Should be an interesting biography.

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    • Yes, I think so. And getting satisfying employment was hard for him because he was undereducated. The facts aren’t clear because his mother was always reinventing the truth, but he certainly didn’t have the kind of education that led to good work opportunities though his friends and supporters (who included Henry Parkes) did what they could for him.

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