Reviewed by Ian Lipke
All those women, like so many restless houris, each demanding to possess his memory. All those equally wavering details, supporting a romanticised idea of the poet. The one thing that is securely on the record is the poetry itself, a poetry of light and shade, and uncertain ways. A poetry of the rainforests. A poetry of our place (203).
In this manner does Adrian Mitchell conclude his scholarly study of the life of the poet, Henry Kendall. The title of Mitchell’s book contains the enigmatic descriptor: The descent of Henry Kendall. Then, Francis Donohue, writing an acknowledgment of Kendall’s death, felt pressured (it seems) to comment, “It is pleasanter to review our poet’s works than his life” (cited in Mitchell, 1). Mitchell, writing for an audience that has never had a close association with Kendall, takes it on himself to be less circumspect than Donohue was prepared to be. “Candour was called for at this moment: posterity should know it all” (1).
My generation grew up with Henry Kendall’s poetry. We were enthralled by the liquid rhythm of Bellbirds; we thrilled to the easily recognised picture of September in Australia; we were saddened by The Last of his Tribe. We knew Kendall’s poetry but never the man. Mitchell has now closed this gap.
Adrian Mitchell is the right person to produce a book like this. Readers know it is an authoritative account because of Mitchell’s history and reputation. Formerly associated with the University of Sydney, Mitchell has published seven books. His ground-breaking Plein Airs and Graces attracted wide attention.
Although Mitchell is a well-known scholar, his current book is sure to attract the ire of critics with preconceived ideas. Kendall, in his day, was Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, our Number 1. Mitchell does not deny his subject’s achievements, or the quality of his work. He writes that in 1872 Kendall was articulating “his regret for a transcendence of vision now denied him because he had fallen by the way…[when] he momentarily achieved that dream state which he knew was the true source of poetry” (166). That he achieved this state while in the company of close friends made the moment and the poem more precious. On many occasions we read of Kendall walking the floor in the middle of the night composing fine verse.
Devotees of Kendall will not care for the evidence that the Kendall family ‘re-defined themselves’ or produced on several occasions a re-definition of their history. This is Mitchell’s circumspect way of saying that the family told porkies. Nor will Kendall devotees welcome the information that Henry Kendall beat his wife and abandoned her in straitened circumstances. Nor that he borrowed money and failed to pay it back and, most piteous of all, was an unrepentant drunkard. The book is about the person, not the poetry. It is a history of Henry Kendall’s descent into disgrace and eventual death. The book is also a chronicle of vultures seeking to pick the meat from Kendall’s living corpse, and then writing as legitimate research the rot that only a sliver can provide. The writings of a Mrs Hamilton-Grey are given the scorn they deserve.
Henry Kendall was a man of mountains and trees, of gullies and creeks, of blossoms and bees. He was often of a melancholy disposition. We read this in his poetry, but the gloom of the subject matter is lifted by the beauty of the verse. Mitchell’s book charts Kendall’s life and often becomes a study in gloom itself. Mitchell’s saving grace is his keeping score of the number of times we observe yet another Kendall re-definition.
Mitchell quite rightly sets his vitriol loose on the besoms he describes in our opening paragraph. Today we would call them groupies, and try to shrug off their foibles. But Mitchell does much more. He opens the curtains of history to throw light on a particular individual whose character is revealed as less than perfect.
I loved and hated this book. My preconceived ideas are weeping still.
By Adrian Mitchell
$29.95; 240 pp