Friday, March 27, 2015

A Rage for Verse: The Case for Charles Walker as the Author of the First Volume of Verse Published in Western Australia (1856)

by John Kinsella

In doing research for the Western Australian Poetry Anthology (Fremantle Press, 2015) that Tracy and I are editing, I have come across some bizarre and quite sad material. John Hay’s 1981 essay ‘Literature and Society’ from A New History of Western Australia (ed. C. T. Stannage, 1981, UWAP, Perth) draws heavily on Beverley Smith’s UWA thesis on early Western Australian writing written in the early '60s, and makes interesting if very brief points of reference worth following up. This is one that interested me in particular because as I have written elsewhere, Henry Clay’s Two and Two: a Story of the Australian Forest by H. E. C., with Minor Poems of Colonial Interest, is often considered the first volume of poetry by a single author published in the colony (Perth, 1873).

Yet as Hay notes, ‘In February [?] 1856, the convict Charles Walker seems to have published a small volume entitled Lyrical Poems, the first book of verse to be published in Perth. No copies are extant.’ (p. 607) One might guess that the claim (not Hay’s claim but asserted in various places) for Clay’s being the first book of its type published in Perth is due to the ‘No copies extant.’ There is no evidence outside newspaper advertisements that Walker’s book existed at all. Naturally, this has got me intrigued, especially as, through drawing on colonial and later sources, I have made the same claim for Clay’s book myself.

So what do we know of Walker? Almost nothing. In the Western Australian newspaper The Inquirer and Commercial News (1855-1901), Walker published almost weekly advertisements from 19th December 1855 through to late March 1856, relating to a work entitled Lyrical Poems. The advertisements up until that of 6th February 1856 are worded

‘Lyrical and Other Poems’, By Charles Walker. Persons requiring a copy will please to forward their wishes to the author, at Mr G Marfleet’s, Perth; which will meet with due attention.’ 

Then they change to this:

‘Just Published LYRICAL POEMS by Charles Walker Copies can be had at the Stores of Mr G. Marfleet, Perth. PRICE — Half-a-crown.’

So, we might assume the book was printed and published, and might we conjecture that it was done through Marfleet’s booksellers? In itself, it’s thin evidence, though it would be strange to pay for advertising so consistently if there was nothing intended and ultimately nothing to show.

But it gets stranger. Searching the newspapers of the period, there is no evidence of Walker publishing poems in them — the usual method of dissemination of the time. Being a colonial poet prior to the boom of ‘Manly poetry’ (as A. G. Stephens, editor of the Bulletin would call the outburst of goldfields versifying that began in the 1890s, starring poets such as ‘Crosscut’, ‘Bluebush’, and ‘Dryblower’) was no easy thing outside whimsical versifying, either praising or mocking (complaining of) colonial life and administration. As Hay quotes Henry Clay writing in his introduction to Immortelles (serialised then published in 1890),

‘The pioneers of local literature in a small community should prepare to encounter special difficulties and a probable harvest of loss. Without assumption, they should have sufficient self-reliance to hold their ground against the saucy badinage of amused spectators and the practical indifference of friends.’ (p. 608)

Or is there perhaps evidence of Walker publishing in the papers? Well, there’s one poem in the same paper where he promoted his book. It’s a poem with a twist — a threat poem, an investigative poem, a sleuthing poem. As a mirror of the convict system that saw him (as we will discover) working under the ‘care’ of Mr G. Marfleet, presumably as a Ticket-of-Leave man. This poem-advertisement is nothing less than a hunting poem. But it carries above it an epigrammatic (separate) advertisement giving his reasons, and what he wants in transparent prose (is the poem transparent in its call?). This is what we read:

WHEREAS a manuscript book, containing about one hundred pages, was taken away from me about eighteen months ago, and, from circumstances which have come to my knowledge, believing it to be in the possession of some person well acquainted with its contents, I hereby offer a reward of Two Pounds for the recovery of the same. CHARLES WALKER. Perth, April 24, 1856.’
WHEREAS a man, some five feet ten,  
(No matter whether Charles or Ben)
Has took it in his empty head,
The equal empty tale to spread,
That all the dreamings of my muse
Are of the ladies’ charms profuse,
But scarcely ever condescend
His vocal talent to commend;
He wonders why his foolish tales
So little on your mind prevails :
And why the slander he has sown—
I find it has been all his own —
Has never been received as truth,
By any mind of common growth.
This is to let that tall chap know.
That he may find a ‘bar’ or so,
To mar the quiet of his path,
Should he presume to tempt my wrath.
(APA citation — Advertising. (1856, April 30). The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA: 1855-1901), p. 2. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from

What is plain from this is that either this manuscript is a new work, or maybe it’s the old work and it never actually appeared. Conjecture. Who is to know? Is the offender Mr G. Marfleet, or is even supposing so a smear? A little more evidence comes our way shortly. But in the meantime, the poem itself is telling — clearly his verses (likely of Lyrical Poems given the lack of newspaper and journal evidence of other publication — though some may yet surface) had attracted negative attention. The slighting of his work as effeminate had brought the phallic response — ‘he may find a “bar” or so,/ To mar the quiet of his path.’

There is bitterness and zeal in this poem. I hesitate to call it doggerel because it is too convinced, too passionate, too driven. Its awkward syntax and odd parsing don’t invalidate its desperate anger. Politeness is only formal — this is a poetry wanting to burst out of its constraints. A ‘self-promoter’, that ludicrous accusation pointed at the poet who feels passionate about being heard, about speaking out...? As he accuses, the offender is all bluster and ‘talent’ and no substance because it is ‘he’ that is the fraud. But sadly, Walker undoes it all with the threat — a moment of vulnerability, weakness, and brutality. But really, it’s about his own feeling of inadequacy more than any other, any ‘five feet ten’ swell, be he Charles or Ben or whatever. I think Charles Walker was the most modern of colonial poets.

But our poet sadly didn’t have to pay to promote his work or threaten others for taking his creativity and manuscript away. On the 6th August, 1856 — such a short time later — he is discussed as ‘news’, in the ‘Local and Domestic Intelligence’ columns of the paper. We read, with shock:

A few days since a reconvicted man committed suicide in the establishment by cutting his throat with a razor. His name was Charles Walker, formerly in the employ of Mr Marfleet of this town, from whose service he absconded a few months ago. It was for this offence and for being out of his district without a pass that he was returned to the Establishment for twelve months. While in the employ of Mr Marfleet his general character was good, but his manner was flighty, and there was no doubt a tendency to insanity. He was a somewhat conspicuous character in consequence of his rage for verse making, which found vent in the advertising columns of this journal, and in a small volume entitled ‘Lyrical Poems,’ published some six months since.

The account of this tragedy appears to give us a third-party confirmation of the existence of a book of poetry written by Charles Walker — ‘Lyrical Poems’. It doesn’t confirm the book was printed in Perth, but it would seem likely given Walker’s convict status, and what we might assume were limited means. But then, he could pay for the advertisements, and he did offer a (sizeable) two-pound reward.

Did his book sell well enough at half-a-crown to yield him a windfall? Did being ‘the first’ add a mystique and appeal to the collection or was he crushed by his critics before he began?

The conservatism of reading environments as well as the tendency to self-help (see Hay regarding the later Mechanics Institutes) publications — how to be a more effective settler — probably counted against this convict. John Boyle O’Reilly was said to have scratched poems on prison walls wherever he was incarcerated (see H. Drake-Brockman in The West Australian, 19th July, 1952:

‘Perhaps at Fremantle gaol some poem may still lurk under whitewash. O’Reilly wrote poems with nails on his prison walls in Ireland and England. After his escape, he declared that he would like to revisit old cells and find his scratchings. This never happened.’)

and Henry Clay would battle on against the negative attitudes regardless, but outside newspaper opinion versifying, print-poetry was thin-on if existent at all.

Charles Walker’s ‘rage for verse making’ fits. His self-inflicted death (if that’s actually what it was) and the reference to his employer the bookseller (or storekeeper) who clearly reported him for going AWOL, fit the profile. What became of his missing verses, his published book? Creativity in the colony was impractical in so many ways. My great-great-grandfather was a labourer, a farmer, and later a school teacher — the first full-time schoolteacher in the first Catholic school in the Vasse (Busselton). No doubt he ranged from the practical to the creative — he certainly propelled himself forward and self-taught himself to another ‘level’ of colonial society, no easy thing for a just-post-famine migrant with a huge family. Charles Walker’s poetry was a direct conduit between his inner self and reality as he perceived it. We see that in his one remaining poem, his self-promoting advertising verse-threat.

There’s no biographical data readily available on Charles Walker outside what I’ve presented here. He was a ‘reoffender’. The establishment took him back. Convict Establishment — Fremantle Prison — consumed those used to create it. This self-eating in the new Eden was the paradox of the colonial, but of the State in all its manifestations. It needs what it can destroy. Charles Walker wanted to be heard — was desperate to be heard — and he was punished for it. Was he paranoid, did he carry out his verse threats, was he hard done-by?

There’s a history and embodiment of poetry in this, and none would know this better than the indigenous singers, story-tellers and poets of early colonisation in Western Australia, and what has followed. We have reports of the threats of Yagan and what colonists did to him, but nothing of the poetry of his people, of himself. In Jack Davis: A Life Story (Keith Chesson, Dent, 1988, Melbourne) we read, ‘Yagan had made every effort to bring some sense to the worsening situation. In March 1833 he had arranged corroborees to bring about a cultural exchange with the settlers.’ (p193) Of course, Yagan’s head was cut off and smoked. This is the brutality at the foundation of the Swan River Colony. Convicts were controversially brought into the colony in 1850 (until 1866) and the cruelty and degradation meted out to them are never to be forgotten, and come as a direct extension of the treatment of Yagan and his people. Charles Walker wrote in this ecology, and wrote out of it. Isolated, keen to speak out, he advertised his condition as celebration but with passion. He raged until the very end. We can get this much from what we have.

Without going into the content of the paper the same day Charles Walker published his reward and poem-advertisement, take one item in the same column:

‘POWDER MAGAZINE. PERSONS having Powder deposited in the Magazine at Fremantle are requested, in demanding the same from the Commissariat, to state, — The marks on the package  The size, whether whole, half or quarter barrels  The contents, giving the description as well as the quantity of powder. And no demand will be noticed unless this notice is complied with. The Magazine will be open for the delivery of powder between one and two p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Commissariat, Fremantle, April, 26, 1855.’

This is the material of the frontier.

Whether or not Walker’s poems were over-delicate and fey versifying as we might assume it had been said, he certainly had decided on a verse that was confronting, aggressive and of the place and conditions he was part of. His violent death was of this, too. The poetry and his condition of being, his manifestation within the colonial body-without-organs, within the city of Perth, and the gaol itself, as a form of textual projection. As Derrida gesticulated (waving his arms), ‘Everything is a text; this is a text’... and so we have the first book of Western Australian poetry by a single author. The advertisements, the poem advertisement, the plea and accusation and the mediating figure of the ‘book-seller’, the report of his death... accusations of loss of control to the (illogical?) forces of poetry... this is a full book. It is there for us to read. You don’t judge a book by the number of pages it has, or even by its format. It is text, poetry is text, and it is here with us now. It is the truth of the lyrical urge. It is Lyrical Poems by Charles Walker, 1856.

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