Henry Kendall’s Twofold Life: Sin, Shame and the Experience of Colonial Poetry


In an essay entitled 'Old Manuscripts', published in the Freeman sJournal in 1877, Henry Kendall offers one of colonial literature's most emblematic indictments of the conditions impeding its development: 'We are not in a country, like England, mossed with beautiful traditions; we are in a new land that has all its traditions to form, excepting those which have been steeped in the colours of sin and shame'. The phrase 'sin and shame', as we will see in a moment, echoes throughout Kendall's work. In this passage, however, it is quickly followed by an analysis of colonial Philistinism that pushes it into the background and directs our attention to what Simon During has called the absence of 'literary subjectivity' in colonial Australia (6). It is this absence that begins to explain the plight of the colonial poet: 'We are in the midst of a novel society whose characteristics have never been mirrored in prose and verse, because it is too restless to sit for a portrait', the passage continues: 'Hustle and bustle must exist in a country where there is so much to gain by commercial and manual industry; and hence, our people are too mobile for the purposes of Art'. The lamentable result of this situation, one with which Kendall's own fortunes were directly bound, was that colonial society had little demand for 'literature of a high and exacting character' (Poetry, Prose and Selected Correspondence 184-85). In the general absence of colonial literature, the only traditions evident to Kendall were deeply compromised. There is more than a hint of the poet's civilising mission in all of this. The opposition between traditions 'steeped in the colours of sin and shame' and a 'literature of a high and exacting character' suggests a broader narrative, according to which the idealism of the literary might lift colonial experience above its sullied origins, if only the colonies could find the time to cultivate it.

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Published 1 October 2010 in Volume 25 No. 3. Subjects: Alcoholism & alcoholics, Mental depression, Henry Kendall.

Cite as: McCann, Andrew. ‘Henry Kendall’s Twofold Life: Sin, Shame and the Experience of Colonial Poetry.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 25, no. 3, 2010, doi: 10.20314/als.15feb24fec.