Biography Henry Kendall

Henry Kendall

photo of Henry Kendall
  • Time Period1839 - 1882
  • Place
  • CountryAustralia

Poet Biography

Henry Clarence Kendall was the first Australian poet to draw his inspiration from the life, scenery and traditions of the country. In the beginnings of Australian poetry the names of two other men stand with his -- Adam Lindsay Gordon, of English parentage and education, and Charles Harpur, born in Australia a generation earlier than Kendall. Harpur's work, though lacking vitality, shows fitful gleams of poetic fire suggestive of greater achievement had the circumstances of his life been more favourable. Kendall, whose lot was scarcely more fortunate, is a true singer; his songs remain, and are likely long to remain, attractive to poetry lovers.

The poet's grandfather, Thomas Kendall, a Lincolnshire schoolmaster, met the Revd. Samuel Marsden when the latter was in England seeking assistants for his projected missionary work in New Zealand. Kendall offered his services to the Church Missionary Society of London and came out to Sydney in 1809. Five years later he was sent to the Bay of Islands as a lay missionary, holding also the first magistrate's commission issued for New Zealand. He soon made friends with the Maoris and learnt their language well enough to compile a primer in pidgin-Maori, `A Korao no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander's First Book', which George Howe printed for Marsden at Sydney in 1815. In 1820 Thomas Kendall went to England with some Maori chiefs, and while there helped Professor Lee, of Cambridge, to "fix" the Maori language -- the outcome of their work being Lee and Kendall's `Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand', published in the same year.

Returning to New Zealand, Kendall, in 1823, left the Missionary Society and went with his son Basil to Chile. In 1826 he came back to Australia, and for his good work as a missionary received from the New South Wales Government a grant of 1280 acres at Ulladulla, on the South Coast. There he entered the timber trade and became owner and master of a small vessel used in the business. About 1832 this vessel was wrecked near Sydney, and all on board, including the owner, were drowned.

Henry Kendall returned to Sydney in March, 1857, and at once obtained employment in the city and set about making a home for his mother and sisters. Mrs. Kendall, granddaughter of Leonard McNally, a Dublin notable of his day, was a clever, handsome woman with a strong constitution and a volatile temperament. Henry was always devoted to her, and considered that from her he inherited whatever talent he possessed. She helped in his education, and encouraged him to write verse.

The first verses of his known to have been printed were "O tell me, ye breezes" -- signed "H. Kendall" -- which appeared in `The Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal' in 1859. A number of other poems by Kendall appeared in the same magazine during 1860 and 1861. But in a letter written years afterwards to Mr. Sheridan Moore, Kendall says "My first essay in writing was sent to `The Southern Cross' at the time you were sub-editor. You, of course, lit your pipe with it. It was on the subject of the `Dunbar'. After a few more attempts in prose and verse -- attempts only remarkable for their being clever imitations -- I hit upon the right vein and wrote the Curlew Song. Then followed the crude, but sometimes happy verses which made up my first volume."

The verses on the wreck of the `Dunbar', written at the age of sixteen, were eventually printed in `The Empire' in 1860 as "The Merchant Ship". Henry Parkes, the editor of that newspaper, had already welcomed some of the boy's poems, and in `The Empire' of the 8th December, 1859, had noticed as just published a song -- "Silent Tears" -- the words of which were written by "a young native poet, Mr. H. Kendall, N.A.P." These initials, which puzzled Parkes, as well they might, meant no more than Native Australian Poet.

Kendall also sent some poems to `The Sydney Morning Herald'; there they attracted the attention of Henry Halloran, a civil servant and a voluminous amateur writer, who sought out the poet and tried to help him.

Kendall's mother brought him to Mr. Sheridan Moore, who had some reputation as a literary critic. He was greatly interested in the poems, and promised to try to raise money for their publication. Subscriptions were invited by advertisement in January, 1861, but came in so slowly that, after a year's delay, Kendall almost despaired of publication.

Meanwhile Moore had introduced Kendall to James Lionel Michael, through whom he came to know Nicol D. Stenhouse, Dr. Woolley, and others of the small group of literary men in Sydney. Michael, a London solicitor, had been a friend of some of the Pre-Raphaelite group of artists, and was much more interested in literature than in the law when the lure of gold brought him to Australia in 1853. Himself a well-read man and a writer of very fair verse, he recognized the decided promise of Kendall's work and gave him a place in his office. In spite of their disparity in years they became friends, and Kendall undoubtedly derived great benefit from Michael's influence and from the use of his library. When in 1861 Michael left Sydney for Grafton, Kendall either accompanied him or joined him soon afterwards. He did not, however, stay long at Grafton. He found employment at Dungog on the Williams River; afterwards went to Scone, where he worked for a month or two, and then made his way back to Sydney.

Restive over the long delay in publication, and anxious to get a critical estimate of his work, Kendall in January, 1862, made copies of some pieces and sent them to the `Cornhill Magazine' with a letter pleading for special consideration on account of the author's youth and the indifference of Australians to anything produced in their own country. Thackeray was editor of `Cornhill' up to April, 1862, but may not have seen this pathetic appeal from the other side of the world. At any rate, no notice of it was taken by `Cornhill', and in July of the same year Kendall sent a similar letter with copies of his verses to the `Athenaeum'. The editor printed the letter and some of the poems, with very kindly comments,in the issue of 27th September, 1862.

In October, 1862, before this powerful encouragement reached the young writer, `Poems and Songs' was published in Sydney by Mr. J. R. Clarke. `The Empire' published a favourable review. Further notice of his work appeared in the `Athenaeum' during the next four years, and in 1866 it was generously praised by Mr. G. B. Barton in his `Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales'.

Meanwhile in August, 1863, Kendall was, through Parkes' influence, appointed to a clerkship in the Surveyor-General's Department at one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and three years later was transferred to the Colonial Secretary's Office at two hundred pounds a year. During this period he read extensively, and wrote much verse. By 1867 he had so far overcome his natural shyness that he undertook to deliver a series of lectures at the Sydney School of Arts. One of these, on "Love, Courtship and Marriage", precipitated him into experience of all three; for he walked home after the lecture with Miss Charlotte Rutter, daughter of a Government medical officer, straightway fell in love, and, after a brief courtship, they were married in the following year.

The year 1868 was a memorable one for Kendall in other ways. In April, James Lionel Michael was found dead in the Clarence River, and in June, Charles Harpur died at Euroma. Kendall had a great admiration for Harpur's poems and wrote to him in the spirit of a disciple. They corresponded for some years, but did not meet until a few months before the elder poet's death. Kendall describes Harpur as then "a noble ruin -- scorched and wasted by the fire of sorrow."

In 1868, also, a prize was offered in Melbourne for the best Australian poem, the judge being Richard Hengist Horne, author of `Orion'. Kendall sent in three poems and Horne awarded the prize to "A Death in the Bush". In an article printed in Melbourne and Sydney newspapers he declared that the author was a true poet, and that had there been three prizes, the second and third would have gone to Kendall's other poems -- "The Glen of Arrawatta" and "Dungog".

The result of winning this prize was that Kendall decided to abandon routine work and try to earn his living as a writer. He resigned his position in the Colonial Secretary's Office on the 31st March, 1869, and shortly afterwards left for Melbourne, where his wife and daughter soon joined him. Melbourne was then a centre of greater literary activity than Sydney. Neither then, however, nor for a long time to come, was any number of people in Australia sufficiently interested in local literature (apart from journalism) to warrant the most gifted writer in depending upon his pen for support. Still, Kendall managed to persuade Mr. George Robertson, the principal Australian bookseller of those days, to undertake the risk of his second book of poems -- `Leaves from Australian Forests' -- which was published towards the end of 1869. But though the volume showed a great advance in quality upon its predecessor, it was a commercial failure, and the publisher lost ninety pounds over it.

In Melbourne, Kendall wrote prose, as well as satirical and serious verse, for most of the papers. The payment was small; in fact, only a few newspapers then paid anything for verse. He made a little money by writing the words for a cantata, "Euterpe", sung at the opening of the Melbourne Town Hall in 1870. At the office of `The Colonial Monthly', edited by Marcus Clarke, he met the best of the Melbourne literati, and, though his reserved manner did not encourage intimacy, one of them -- George Gordon McCrae -- became a close and true friend. Lindsay Gordon, too, admired Kendall's poems, and learned to respect a man whose disposition was in some ways like his own. `Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes' appeared in June, 1870, and Kendall received an advance copy and wrote a laudatory review for `The Australasian'. He and Gordon spent some hours on the day of publication, discussing the book and poetry in general. Both were depressed by the apparent futility of literary effort in Australia, where nearly everyone was making haste to be rich. Next morning Gordon shot himself -- tired of life at thirty-seven! Kendall knew how Harpur's last long illness had been saddened by the knowledge that the public was utterly indifferent to his poems; he had seen the wreck of the once brilliant Deniehy; and now the noble-hearted Gordon had given up the struggle.

To these depressing influences, and the hardships occasioned by a meagre and uncertain income, was added a new grief -- the loss of his first-born, Araluen, whose memory he enshrined years afterwards in a poem of pathetic tenderness. He returned to Sydney early in 1871, broken in health and spirit. The next two years were a time of tribulation, during which, as he said later on, he passed into the shadow, and emerged only through the devotion of his wife and the help of the brothers Fagan, timber merchants, of Brisbane Water. Kendall was the Fagans' guest at Narrara Creek, near Gosford, and afterwards filled a clerical position in the business which one of the brothers established at Camden Haven. There he spent seven tranquil years with his wife and family, and wrote the best of his poems. In some of these he said all that need be said against himself, for he was always frankly critical of his conduct and work.

In his later years Kendall tasted some of the sweets of success. He wrote the words of the opening Cantata sung at the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879, and won a prize of one hundred pounds offered by `The Sydney Morning Herald' for a poem on the Exhibition. His third collection -- `Songs from the Mountains' -- was published in Sydney in 1880, and realized a substantial profit. In 1881 Sir Henry Parkes made a position for him, an Inspectorship of State Forests at five hundred pounds a year. Kendall's experience in the timber business well fitted him for this, though his health was not equal to the exposure attendant on the work. He moved to Cundletown, on the Manning River, before receiving the appointment, and from that centre rode out on long tours of inspection. During one of these he caught a chill; his lungs were affected, and rapid consumption followed. He went to Sydney for treatment and was joined by his wife at Mr. Fagan's house in Redfern, where he died in her arms on the 1st August, 1882. He was buried at Waverley, overlooking the sea.

Kendall, it should be remembered, did not prepare a collected edition of his poems, and it will be noticed that in the present volume some lines and passages appear more than once. The student and lover of Kendall will be interested to see how these lines and passages were taken from his own previous work and turned to better account in later poems, and to note the gradual improvement of his style. In his last book, `Songs from the Mountains', there are fewer echoes; the touch is surer, and the imaginative level at his highest. The shining wonder is that, under the conditions of Australian life between 1860 and 1880, he should have written so much that is so good.

As our first sweet singer of "native woodnotes wild", Kendall has an enduring place in the regard of all Australians; and his best work is known and admired wherever English poetry is read.