Larrikin poet's Sentimental 'slanguage'


C. J. DennisC. J. Dennis, who would have been 133 about a week ago, once wrote that, as a small boy, he had 'a devout and urgent desire to become a larrikin'. This might have been because his four maiden aunts dressed him in starched suits, Eton collars, a cap, patent leather shoes and brown gloves in which he carried a cane.

And his name was Clarence — all in all, the perfect recipe for small boy torture in a remote country town. As soon as he could, Dennis dropped the 'Clarence' and became known universally as Den.

As he grew up, Dennis drifted unsuccessfully through a range of jobs including working in his father's Laura pub, the Beetaloo. Spilt beer and smashed glasses convinced everyone that he was not cut out by nature to be a barman.

In the new century, after some editorial ventures in Adelaide, he finished up in Toolangi, north east of Melbourne, depressed and broke.

It was during this time that he brought the Sentimental Bloke into existence and, in line with Dennis's own low spirits, the Bloke comes on the scene not triumphantly but in a state of puzzled gloom.

The world 'as got me snouted jist a treat;
Cruel forchin's dirty left 'as smote me soul;

'An all them joys o' life I 'eld so sweet
Is up the pole.

What he can't understand is why he feels so down. But gradually it dawns on him that it's spring time and he hasn't got a girl.

It seems to me I'm kind er lookin' for
A tart I knoo a hundred years ago,
Or maybe more.
Wot's this I've 'eard 'em call that thing? ... Geewhizz
Me ideel bit o' skirt! That's wot it is!

The street lore offers a way out of his confusion:

Aw, spare me days,
If this 'ere silly feelin' doesn't stop
I'll lose me block and stoush some flamin' cop!

But he does meet her — his ideal bit o' skirt. 'Er name's Doreen ...'

Head over heels in love the Bloke abandons his rough mates, the booze and the life of the streets only to find himself in — of all places — a theatre, sitting in velvet seats to see a play! Love conquers all.

The Sentimental Bloke is a wonderful example of just how good Dennis was at writing verse in 'slanguage' as he put it, chronicling the ordinary man's experience of those times in the language of everyday: the gang warfare on Melbourne's back streets, the life of the markets and barrowmen, the coming of war.

Dennis was well read in and a great lover of the works of Shakespeare. He made a study of how Shakespeare and his contemporaries used slang and was astounded to find that much of the language of the streets of Melbourne had its origins in the lanes and markets of Elizabethan London.

The Bloke's moods mirror many of those found in Shakespeare's sonnets. Shakespeare's forlorn and depressed 29th sonnet, 'When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes/I all alone beweep my outcast state', has its exact counterpart in Dennis's 'An' 'ere's me, 'ere,/Jist moochin' round like some pore, barmy coot/Of 'ope and joy an' forchin destichoot.'

One of Shakespeare's lyrics on the coming of Spring salutes 'lady-smocks all silver-white'. Dennis has his 'Spring Song' too — 'The young green leaves is shootin' in the trees/The air is like a long cool swig o' beer' — and, like Shakespeare's ladies, Dennis's 'smilin' tarts walk up and down all dressed/In clobber white'. There are many similar parallels.

So when the Sentimental Bloke is dragged off to the theatre by Doreen, it is to a Shakespearean play — about feuds, street fighting, love and honour. As the bloke puts it: 'Doreen and me, we bin to see a show/The swell two-dollar touch/The drarmer's writ be Shakespeare, years ago/About a barmy goat called Romeo.'

This is C. J. Dennis at his brilliant best, bringing together the character of the street-fighting Bloke and Dennis's own fascination with Shakespeare, slang and larrikinism. When Romeo fights Tybalt, the Bloke, sitting in the velvet theatre seats alongside Doreen, can't contain himself. It's the world he knows:

Quite natchril, Romeo gits wet as 'ell.
'It's me or you!' 'e 'owls, an' wiv a yell,
Plunks Tyball through the gizzard wiv 'is sword.
'Ow I ongcored!
'Put in the boot!' I sez. 'Put in the boot!'
''Ush!' sez Doreen. 'Shame!' sez some silly coot.

The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was published by Angus and Robertson with an introduction by Henry Lawson on 16 October 1915. By 31 March 1917 it had sold 66,148 copies. It's still going, deservedly so, because, like Lawson himself, Dennis opens a window on one part of our Australian culture and the forces, traditions, speech and images that have helped to forge it.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: brian matthews, C. J. Dennis, 133rd birthday, The Senimental Bloke



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Existing comments

Lovely, Brian. And do you know who is today's Bloke? Fr Bob Maguire.
Frank | 16 September 2009

Thank you Brian. I was introduced to 'The Bloke' by my Science teacher in 1948 in a lesson at a small country High School in Northern NSW. Ex-RAAF navigator, brilliant teacher, who adorned his lessons with quotes from Australian prose and poetry.

On this occasion, seeing his class of 10 was distracted by the arrival of spring, he quoted the "Spring Song", took us outside and proceeded to teach us about the 'birds and the bees'.
Since then I have lovingly preserved all his published material, including "A Book for Kids" and copy four poems from "Songs of a Sentimental Bloke" sent to all those serving on the Western Front in 1917.

Thank goodness the attitude of the Australian larrikin, aka 'Ginger Mick', is being praised.
John | 16 September 2009

We celebrate family birthdays - dead and alive- so C J Dennis being remembered for his 133rd sounds reasonable.This piece made me turn to my own valued copy which my husband bought from the Camberwell Antique Market in 1986. It's given to 'Loris' from her mother, with many happy returns for the day - 15/2/1916, and has the forward by Henry Lawson. Tucked into it, is a postcard, depicting Dennis's study at Toolangi.

I must have visited Toolangi in 1989, because I had written on the back that Dennis's copyright had only run out the year before,so they had not yet printed his original drawings on cards. My father used to quote him at the dinner table (why the dinner table?). Thank you for celebrating the Larrikin, and for all your writing.
Eleanor Massey | 18 September 2009


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