Curtis Robbins


I am simply amazed at the plethora of oversights, misundertandings, misinformation, miscegenations, and mischaracterization of Australian writer Henry Lawson in most of the biographies. There seem to be very little understanding about the deafness factor. Everyone knew of his deafness but no one understood the power that enamored Henry Lawson as a deaf writer. Yet, those biographers simply cannot be blamed. Most of them are primarily concerned with Lawson’s literary achievements – and dwelling on his shortcomings. Those biographies were mere chronological narratives of how Lawson reached the pinnacle by explaining his difficult life compounded in extreme poverty, dysfunctional family life, limited education, mateships, alcoholism, marital problems, social miscast, and his urge for accompaniment – all that summarily explains his literary achievements. In fact, a writer of disability issues in Melbourne, Australia, Michael Uniacke (2013) wrote a truly significant paper, Deafness of Henry Hawson [sic], that finally brought Lawson’s deafness to light based on his reviews of those biographies which also included a passage from Lawson’s brief autobiography about his own deafness. Lawson’s troubled life is centered around his deafness – even his alcoholism. Even every aspect of his writing evolves around his deafness. Almost all of the biographers have skipped, hopped, and jumped away from the needles and pins that have identified Lawson’s afflictions in very peculiar and sardonic ways. Unlike the others, Uniacke has raised questions about Lawson’s deafness that have yet to be answered.

Critically speaking, Lawson’s work was not the capstone of literary achievement, but the relentless caprices of the literary critics had taken considerable toll on Lawson’s desire to pursue his work optimally. In fact, there were serious repercussions with his counterpart, Banjo Paterson, a hearing poet who was a successful lawyer. The co-founder and editor, AJ Archibald, permitted his two prized poets to versify their notes about Australian Bush as a publicity stint for the Bulletin which initially a friendly agreement between them. It was a battle between a romantic and a realist. Somehow, the poetic embattlement went over the boundaries. It deeply affected Lawson because Paterson’s work became more popular because Paterson’s ballads appeased the "hearing" people more so than Lawson’s poems appeasing the public at large. Quintessentially, he lost a popularity contest, which was, by and large, a battle between a deaf poet and a hearing one. In the last twenty years of his life, he has not written serious significant works with same verve and energy since the controversial literary battle. Although Lawson has written many more poems and short stories, none had the same literary impact. He spent most of his time putting together collections from more successful early works – just to earn some money.

There is a passage in one of the most significant Henry Lawson biographies by Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson: a Life, which quoted Lawson’s Fragment of Autobiography, stating that in 1888 he was at the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution in Sydney doing a paint job when his received a telegram that his father died on New Year’s Eve. Regardless of the stories circumventing what had happened, I could only surmise that in this significantly small window of time is when Lawson has worked at the school where he might have learned out of curiosity and perhaps understood his deafness more than anyone could imagine. From my perspective as a deaf person, I – and for that matter, most deaf people – would want to learn more about themselves and their own deafness. Lawson was no exception – to be sure!

In the last six years, since I retired as an adjunct associate professor, I spent most of my time reading about Henry Lawson and analyzed his writings. In doing so, I sought every characteristic word that emulates or reflects on deafness as well as phrases that deaf people would generally state. To date, I was able to find approximately 27 out of a total of 788 poems with characteristic descriptors. Also, out of 160 plus short stories written, twenty stories have such words or phrases. Lawson anecdotically illustrated in those few verses and stories characterizing deafness in various situations, which are so timeless and universal. In fact, he did use it to describe himself occasionally. Most significantly, however, Lawson has never written anything about a deaf character in any of his poems or stories. I could only surmise that he – just as he could not finish his own autobiography – he could not introspect enough to morph his own deafness in a poem or even in a story for that matter.

I have selected a number of poetic situations to illustrate how Lawson used those descriptors. Due to limited space, all specific stanzas were taken from the respective selected poems. The first two samples here are questions that a typical deaf person would ask. It is interesting to note how Lawson utilizes them in the poems

Do You Think That I Do Not Know? (1910)

They say that I never have written of love,
As a writer of songs should do;
They say that I never could touch the strings
With a touch that is firm and true;
They say I know nothing of women and men
In the fields where Love's roses grow,
And they say I must write with a halting pen
Do you think that I do not know?

Here Lawson is reflecting on how people think of him as a deaf person and a writer at that! He’s trying to show that he fully cognizant of what is going on. He was merely showing his feelings for this young woman. I could only surmise they may have been laughing at him – and Lawson was taking his stand.

By the same token, Lawson throws another question a typical deaf person would ask – especially when he doesn’t understand what someone is saying and would ask him to write what he said to avoid any misunderstandings.

Will Yer Write it Down for Me? (1902)

'Don't mind me; I've got 'em. You know!
                         What's yer name, bloke! Don't yer see?
'Who's the bloke what wrote the po'try?
                         Will yer write it down fer me?'

Lawson always liked to find ways to get into any controversy. Prior to this poem, he already had this sort of poetic battle. Although it was supposed to be an amicable one, the battle ruffled a lot of feathers. Lawson didn’t forget. There was a tussle with a labor union that caused some problems. One newspaper made some contrary statements with a poem. Lawson’s paper, in support of the union, had the opposing views and his poem was intended to rebuke the other – also by a hearing poet. The conflict was not much different from what Lawson went through already.

A Poet on the Central (1892)

Armed with pen and paper,
                  and a table and a chair,
Sat the bard with inky fingers,
                  clutching wildly at his hair,
And he called the muse to aid him,
                  the muse was deaf and dumb;
So, he yanked her by the tresses when
                  he saw she wouldn’t come.

This political poem was a recently found and published in a recent Henry Lawson biography, A Stranger on the Darling (1996), a study of Lawson’s six-month stay in the city of Bourke which is situated on the Darling River in 1892. As noted, essentially Lawson had a tiff with the other poet. The poem was written with some sarcasm and contempt for Lawson to spite back at him. The muse mentioned in this stanza here refers to that poet.

Here are two poems that describe ordinary people who are ignorant and belligerent. Bertha, Lawson’s wife, was by trade a nurse. In those early days, doctors and nurses were treated like as though they were the gods and had answers to everything: body, mind, and soul. It was quite clear that Bertha never quite understood her famous husband. On the other hand, she expected him to have enough sense to provide for the family. Every penny he earned went to drink, unfortunately. Bertha’s nagging was loud and abrasive which rattled him enough to desert them. According to Uniake, in many accounts "Henry did not like people shouting at him". This poem, however, may have been an afterthought since his marriage was never dissolved.

Divorced (1906)

If she laughs too suddenly, talks too fast,
     We are deaf as well as blind
‘Twas only the ghosts of the girlish days
      When she married the man behind.

Here is a poem describing the dark streets of Sydney. It can almost make the reader smell onerous smells and see the grimy, crowded sights of naked homes and makeshift workplaces. Yet, to Henry, it’s a soulful moment he cherished.

In the Street (1894)

When the foremost in his greed
Presses heavy on the last –
In the brutal spirit rising from
                  the grave-yard of the past –
Where the poor are trodden down
And the rich are deaf and blind

This does sound more like the battle between the bourgeoisie and the Labor unions as well as with the poor and desolate. Lawson had a tendency to join sociopolitical groups – as a way of earning his living writing those poems for the labor journals. This is just one of the many political poems he has written.

Here are two poems that describe a situation in a very peculiar way – perhaps rather convoluted or confabulatory:

O’Hara, J.P. (1894)

They hish’d and they whishted,
and turned themselves round,
And got themselves off
like two cats on wet ground;
Agreeing to be, on their honor as men,
A deaf-dumb-and-blind institute just then.

This poem was part of the collection in Lawson’s book, Verses Popular and Humorous (1900). It is a humorous description of a powerful Justice of Peace. First of all, this stanza confirms my hypothesis that he has had some exposure working at the Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institution in Sydney. Only one of the biographers has acknowledged that!! At any rate, Lawson must have remembered a scene or situation that fits a pattern of the men hassling each other. Still, it doesn’t seem fit the scheme of things to postulate the behavior of men with an institution (or school). Perhaps, he witnessed a strange commotion between deaf children that seem to fit the description of an amicable tussle between those men.

And finally, the second Boer War (1899-1902) and World War I (1914-18) were affecting Australia and she needed to be prepared. Lawson knew he couldn’t join the Army – too old and deaf. But, for the spirit of his country, readiness was important. He wrote this political poem to encourage young men enlist:

Every Man Should Have a Rifle (1907)

So I sit and write and ponder, while the house is deaf and dumb,
Seeing visions "over yonder" of the war I know must come.

How is a house deaf and dumb? All the while there may be a war in the making, he who holds a rifle – and holds a pen with all his heart and soul to versify Australia’s national might.

There are many more revealing poems and short stories that have such embellishing anecdotes to show how much Henry Lawson knew and understood about the different disabilities and social problems as well. They are just as timeless and universal. This man deserves a great honor for bringing out the realities of those afflictions. In every step of the way, Lawson was very observant and had a keen ability to absorb details. Henry Lawson, in his mind, in his heart, and in his soul, was not deaf. He was, indeed, a great storyteller – from Australia.

As a deaf poet myself, who kind of fell into an "Alice-in-Wonderland" abyss, where so many leitmotifs – big and small – started to bombard me. Equivocally, Henry Lawson’s life history is so enormous as much as his literary work. It simply doesn’t seem so real, but the paradoxes that occurred along the way with many conflicts merely contradicting the logic of what makes this deaf man so great.


Curtis Robbins is a graduate of Gallaudet University, and a retired adjunct professor, who taught – among other things – ASL and Deaf Culture for over 40 years prior to his retirement in 2007. Robbins has contributed poems in four anthologies: No Walls of Stone (1982), The Deaf Way II Anthology (2002), Deaf American Poetry (2009) and Deaf Lit Extravaganza (2013). Other poems by Robbins can be found online, in Deaf and non-Deaf publications, and in textbooks on Deaf Culture.