Clarence James Dennis

1876 - 1938    |    VIC, SA   |    Journalist, writer and poet

Clarence Dennis spent most of his professional life in Victoria where he created The Sentimental Bloke, who first appeared in The Bulletin in 1909. Dennis was a prolific writer of both verse and prose, contributing more than 3000 items over 16 years to a daily column in the Melbourne Herald as well as creating Ben Bowyang in Letters from the Bush and other feature series. But his verse novel, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, with its vernacular celebration of Bill and Doreen's everyday love story, was his most enduring success, selling more than 60,000 copies within a year of its first publication in 1915.

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Clarence James Dennis

Australia: 1915. This is a year they will commemorate, not celebrate. Even a century later it will still be recalled as a critical turning point for a young nation.

Now imagine this. You’ve gathered the entire population together for a group portrait. Just under five million of them. There’s not a great deal to smile about. Towns around the country have been emptied and left silent as a generation of young men are shipped to foreign beaches to serve as cannon and machine gun fodder for the old Empire in the first industrial-scale war of the new century.

Still, could everyone move a little to the left? That’s it. Now, no-one move ...

And the man holding the brush, the man commissioned to capture this moment, to paint this portrait of a gawky, self conscious adolescent nation still figuring out its place in the world?

It would have to be C.J.Dennis.

Clarence Michael James Dennis, journalist, columnist, satirist and a poet once described as Australia’s version of Robert Burns, was a slight man who would suffer from asthma in his later years. But his strength lay in an observational eye and an ear for the idioms and characteristics of the Australian conversation.

“Slang is the illegitimate sister of poetry,” he would say years later. “… if an illegitimate relationship is the nearest I can get I am content.”

Dennis, the first of three sons to an Irish hotelier and his much younger second wife, was born in 1876 in Auburn, South Australia. He seemed destined to spend his life among words and writing. At 17, he was fired from his first job after leaving school – he’d taken up a position as a clerk for a stock and wool buying agency in Adelaide – because he had his nose buried in a book by the English author Rider Haggard.

He published his first work of verse at the age of 19 in a small country newspaper and went on to earn a meagre living as a freelance journalist. By his late 20s he had been published regularly in The Bulletin, his talent for poetry and ability to capture the sounds and characteristics of the developing Australian vernacular captivating the magazine founded by the nation’s most influential editor of the era, J.F. Archibald.

He became a feature writer for The Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne and when war was declared in 1914, took up a role in the office of the Navy before becoming secretary to the federal Attorney General.

And then along came 1915. When his acclaimed verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, was published in September, Europe had already been counting its dead for more than a year. Six months earlier the Anzac tradition had begun with the ill-fated landing of troops on the beaches of Gallipoli on the Turkish coast. The BHP steelworks had opened in June in Newcastle. Billy Hughes was about to become the nation’s seventh Prime Minister. And as Dennis’s book appeared on shelves around the country, the first of the famous Snowball marches were about to begin, with 26 men leaving Gilgandra in New South Wales, stopping in at each town along the way to draw recruits with the shout of “Cooee”. More than 250 would arrive in Sydney a month later.

Many of the poems that comprise The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke had been published in The Bulletin over the previous six years. But the book, a love story that tells the tale of Bill (The Bloke), his great love Doreen and his mate, Ginger Mick, was a triumph of timing and an instant bestseller. It would be reprinted six times over the following month and within a year sell more than 60,000 copies, a phenomenal achievement for the time. A pocket edition was published for troops in the trenches and several film versions would follow.

Here, in one book, was a combined sketch and life portrait, told in humorous verse, of what it was to think, talk and act in the emerging Australian urban working class of the time. Here were words and phrases like “bonzer” (great), “crook” (ill or sick), “cobber” (friend) and “yakker” (hard work), many of them still alive almost a century later.

Henry Lawson, himself no slouch as a story teller, wrote in the preface of the book, “The Sentimental Bloke, while running through The Bulletin, brightened up many dark days for me. He is more perfect than any alleged ‘larrikin’ or Bottle-O character I have ever attempted to sketch … take the first poem for instance … How many men, in how many different parts of the world – and of how many different languages – have had the same feeling – the longing for something better – to be something better?”

Despite the book’s international success, Dennis, who married Olive Harriet in 1917, soon returned to journalism to earn a living. From the early 1920s he contributed to a daily column for The Herald in Melbourne in a corner of the leader page. Much of his work was based on news of the day. Here he is on the League of Nations and its long-running argument over the definition of the word “aggressor”:

Words! Words! It’s all a war of words.
Until, uncomprehended,
We someday wake, poor human herds;
To find all troubles mended.

Dennis died in hospital in Melbourne on 22 June 1938 of cardio-respiratory failure after years of battling asthma. His death attracted international headlines, with the Australian Prime Minister of the time, Joe Lyons, observing: “In many respects he will, I firmly believe, become the Australian Robert Burns. Only when all his poems are – as I think they should be – collected in one volume, will it be realised what a versatile and prolific writer he was.”

Prolific he certainly was. At last count Dennis had left behind more than 40,000 original pieces of work. Enough, surely, to paint a detailed portrait of an emerging nation.

Gary Linnell is a broadcaster on 2UE in Sydney. His previous roles include Director of News at Fairfax, Editor-in-Chief of The Bulletin, Editor of The Daily Telegraph and Director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine television network.