An absence of eloqence? Australian speech in the 1890s

18 Feb

Once again I’ve been reading Don Watson’s exquisite diatribe, Death Sentence (2003). It’s an important book. It rails against the mangling of language by big companies - and even worse, the adoption of their managerial verbiage by politicians and public servants. It’s also a rollicking book. “This is a clag sandwich with the lot”, he writes after citing a particularly mealy example of corporate-speak. I laughed out loud at that one. 

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Now that I’ve been reading back over reportage of the Maritime Strike of 1890 for my chapter in Crucial Moments, however, I’ve found myself questioning some of the historical arguments Watson makes. Australians were never bred to be eloquent, he says. Across our history since 1788, we’ve been taught not to enjoy the sounds of our own voices, to avoid flights of sentimentality, to shy away from verbal extravagance. At the turn of the twentieth century in particular, no animating ideals appeared on which to base a sense of Australian nationhood: ‘none at least that were articulated’.

Even a quick glance at the speeches of trade unionists during the Maritime Strike, or the histories of it written by Labor leaders over the following years, suggests that this was not always the case. Here is the New South Wales Labor leader George Black, for example, writing in 1915:

‘The magnificent loyalty of the strikers… and the splendid self-denial of their martyred wives, were equal in heroism to the undying deeds which are blazoned in the glowing pages of history’. 

And what about William Guthrie Spence, a union leader and Labor MP?:

‘The trades unionist workers – men and women – are the true heroes and heroines of the world. Their names are unrecorded in history, but their work lives after them and has given colour and force to a Movement which cannot die, but is becoming more powerful and better understood as time goes on. After all, names matter not; it is deeds that count’.

What, too, about the manifesto issued by Queensland’s Maritime Council in August 1890, calling on unionists to support a group of marine officers on strike: ‘The same spirit of union courses through their veins which thrills in ours’? 

Historian John Hirst writes about the sentimental language accompanying the ideal of federation in late 1890s Australia. We hear a lot about the pared-back prose of bush poets in this era, he says. But most Australians did not take the work of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson all that seriously at the time. They saw it as light and ephemeral verse, lacking ‘the nobility, the profundity, and moral elevation thought proper to poetry’. Real poetry was of the kind William Gay wrote, so high-faluted it is liable to induce altitude sickness in those unaccustomed to the style:

‘From all division let our land be free / For God has made her one: complete she lies / Within the unbroken circle of the skies…

O let us rise, united, penitent / And be one people – mighty, serving God!’

So it seems that the absence of a rhetorical tradition in Australia is actually a matter of historical forgetting: more of a lack of eloquence in subsequent historians and publicists, perhaps, than at that formative time.

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