Dec 162022
Henry Kendall – Australian poet

Henry Kendall was one of Australia’s greatest poets during the year 1839 – 1882. This is a selection of his finest verse, plus an additional section on his life, works and reputation.

HENRY KENDAL WAS born near Ulladulla, New South Wales, on 18 April 1839. His father was Basil Kendall and his mother was Melinda McNally. He had a twin brother named Basil Edward Kendall.

Henry Kendal’s birth was registered as Thomas Henry Kendall, but he never appears to have  used his first name. Another name, Clarence, was added in adult life, but his three volumes of verse were all published under the name of “Henry Kendall”.

Around 1849 the family moved to the Clarence district, but his father died two years later and his widow took the children to a farm near Woollongong. When Henry Kendall was 15 he went to sea with one of his uncles and was away for about two years. It was probably a trying experience for a lad of Kendall’s temperament and physique. Returning to Sydney when 17 years old he found his mother keeping a boarding-school, it was necessary that he should do something to earn a living, and he became a shop-assistant.

He had begun to write verses and this brought him in contact with two well-known verse writers of the day, Joseph Sheridan Moore and James Lionel Michael. Michael, who was a solicitor, took Kendall into his office and gave him the run of his library. He removed to Grafton in 1861 and Kendall was again employed by him for about six months during the following year. It was

fortunate that Kendall should have been associated with a man of culture and refinement just as he was coming to manhood.

Kendall made another friend in Henry Parkes, who was editing The Empire from 1850 to 1857 and published a few of his youthful verses. In 1862 he sent some poems to the London Athenaeum which printed three of them and gave the author kindly praise. In the same year his first volume, Poems and Songs, was published at Sydney. It was well received and eventually the whole edition of 500 copies was sold.

Representations were made to the government, and in 1863 a position was found for the poet in the lands department. He was transferred to the colonial secretary’s department in 1864 and appears to have discharged his duties in a conscientious way; his hours were not long and he had some leisure for literature. His salary, originally £150 a year, became increased to £250 and he was able to make a home for his mother and sisters. But though money went farther in those days, his salary was not sufficient to enable him to save anything.

In 1868 he married Charlotte Rutter, the daughter of a Sydney physician, and in the following year resigned from his position in the government service and went to Melbourne, which had become a larger city than Sydney and more of a literary centre. Kendall’s decision to give up his position must at the time have seemed very unwise. But he had become financially embarrassed before his marriage on account of the extravagance of his family, and his wife found it impossible to live with his mother who had joined the young couple. The elder Mrs Kendall was in fact practically a dipsomaniac, and the poet felt that the only chance of happiness for himself and his wife was to make a fresh start in another city.

He was well received by his fellow writers, George Gordon McCrae, Marcus Clarke, Gordon and others, but Kendall had none of the qualities of a successful journalist, though some of his work was accepted by the press and George Robertson published his second volume, Leaves from Australian Forests, soon after his arrival. The press notices were favourable, one reviewer in his enthusiasm going so far as to say that “Swinburne, Arnold and Morris are indulgently treated if we allow them an equal measure of poetic feeling with Kendall”, but comparatively few copies were sold and the publisher made a loss.

The poet found that he could not make a living by literature and, probably by the good offices of George Gordon McCrae, a temporary position was found for him in the government statist’s office. Kendall, however, had no head for figures. He did his best but found his tasks hopeless. One day McCrae was called out into the passage to see Kendall, an agitated, trembling figure who told him he must go, he could not stand it any longer.

Kendall had indeed lost heart; he drifted into drinking and Alexander Sutherland in his essay draws a lurid picture of the depths into which the poet had fallen. It is true that he had the authority of Kendall’s poem “On a Street”, but years afterwards George Gordon McCrae said that Kendall “made the worst of everything including himself”. McCrae had no doubt about Kendall having at times given way to excessive drinking, but stated positively that he had never actually seen him the worse for drink. McCrae was a good friend to Kendall and he had many other friends in spite of his retiring and sensitive nature.

But his friends could not save him from himself, and his two years in Melbourne were among the most miserable of his life. A pathetic letter is still in existence, in which Kendall tells McCrae that he could not go to Gordon’s funeral because he was penniless. In 1871 Kendall and his wife returned to Sydney and led an aimless and unhappy existence for some time. In 1873 Kendall was invited to stay with the Fagan brothers, timber merchants near Gosford, and was afterwards given a position in the business of one of the brothers, Michael Fagan, at Camden Haven. There he stayed six years and found again his self respect. Writing in October 1880 to George Gordon McCrae he said, referring to his employer, “I want you to know the bearer. He is the man who led me out of Gethsemane and set me in the sunshine”.

In 1880 he published his third volumeSongs from the Mountains. The volume contained a satirical poem on a politician of the day and had to be withdrawn under threat of a libel action. The original edition is now very rare, but the volume, reissued with another poem substituted, sold well and the poet made a profit of about £80 from it.

In 1881 his old friend Sir Henry Parkes had him appointed inspector of state forests at a salary of £500 a year. But his health, never strong, broke down, he caught a severe chill, developed consumption, and died at Sydney on 1 August 1882. He was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Kendall’s sensitive and retiring nature has been mentioned and he did not shine in conversation even in congenial company. The strain of melancholy in much of his work was in the man. But he had the gift of making worthy friends all his life. After his death a subscription of £1200 was made for his widow and family, and positions were found for the three sons. His widow survived him for more than 40 years, and during the last few years of her life received a Commonwealth literary pension. In person Kendall was slight and rather short in stature. His portrait does not appear to have been painted in his lifetime; a posthumous one by Tom Roberts is at the national library, Canberra.

Dictionary of Australian Biography, Angus and Robertson, 1949

Kendall’s works include:

  • n.d.   At Long Bay
  • n.d.   The Glen of the White Man’s Grave
  • 1862  Poems and Songs
  • 1866  The Bronze Trumpet: a Satirical Poem
  • 1869  Leaves from Australian Forests
  • 1870  Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes
  • 1880  Songs from the Mountains
  • 1881  Orara, a Tale

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