C.J. Dennis – Songs of a Sentimental Bloke

C.J. Dennis c. 1910. Image source: State Library of New South Wales

by Mark Gwynn

Today marks the 136-year anniversary of the birth of Australian poet C.J. Dennis (7 September 1876–22 June 1938). Along with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, Dennis was instrumental in popularising the Australian vernacular through fiction. Unlike Paterson and Lawson’s preoccupation with the Bush, Dennis is best remembered for his tales of the urban environment. C.J. Dennis’s most popular work The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was first published in 1915. A hundred thousand copies were sold in its first four years, including a pocket ‘trench’ edition designed to be sent to Australian diggers fighting in the First World War. Dennis’s story would later be adapted into multiple film versions, a musical, a television program, and a ballet.

Bill (Arthur Tauchert) and Doreen (Lottie Lyell) from the 1919 film The Sentimental Bloke directed by Raymond Longford.

The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke tells the story of the larrikin bloke Bill’s courtship of Doreen and eventual marriage. In this period the word larrikin had chiefly negative connotations and usually referred to a young urban thug or hooligan­—often one who was part of a gang or push as they were called in this period. The first section of this work reveals that Bill is fed up with the life of a larrikin and ready for change—it also presents us with the colourful language that occurs throughout:

Somethin’ or someone—I don’t rightly know;
But, seems to me, I’m kind er lookin’ for
A tart I knoo a ‘undred years ago,
Or, maybe, more.
Wot’s this I’ve ‘eard them call that thing?…Geewhizz!
Me ideel bit o’ skirt!  That’s wot it is!

Me ideel tart!… An’, bli’me, look at me!
Jist take a squiz at this, an’ tell me can
Some square an’ honist tom take this to be
‘Er own true man?
Aw, Gawd!  I’d be as true to ‘er, I would
As straight an’ stiddy as…Ar, wot’s the good?

Me, that ‘as done me stretch fer stoushin’ Johns,
An’ spen’s me leisure gittin’ on the shick,
An’ ‘arf me nights down there, in Little Lon.,
Wiv Ginger Mick,
Jist ‘eadin’ ’em, an’ doing in me gilt.
Tough luck!  I s’pose it’s ‘ow a man is built.

It would be easy to see these passages as representative of the vernacular from this period, but we must take into account the artifice of versification and conventions surrounding the reproduction of working-class speech. Apart from the prosody and rhyme we also see the convention of ‘h’ dropping to represent uneducated speech. The style of verse is also reminiscent of some music hall representations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of a number of stories and poems published in The Bulletin—sections of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke were originally published in The Bulletin between 1909 and 1915. These observations aside, what we have here is a poetic language that uses the vocabulary of the late 19th and early 20th century urban working class—a number of terms shared with the London working class but others specific to the argot of the Australian metropolis. It is these latter terms that interest lexicographers of Australian English.

This pie chart shows the percentage of quotations by source for the year 1915. The second largest segment (in green) shows the percentage from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Click on the chart to see more. (Digital tool developed at the ANDC by Tim Sherratt)

The Australian National Dictionary uses quotations from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke to illustrate and provide evidence for 30 Australian words. Of these quotations, six represent the first written evidence for a particular term, showing the significance of Dennis’s use of a vernacular that had rarely if ever been reproduced in print. In the three stanzas above there are eight Australian words: heading ’em (to play two-up), John (policeman), shick (alcoholic drink), bit of skirt (a woman, esp. a young woman regarded sexually), squiz (a look), stoushin (fighting), tart (a girlfriend or sweetheart, implying admiration), and tom (a sweetheart). Some of these words are used elsewhere but were prominent or first recorded in Australian sources.

Throughout The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke we find Australianisms in nearly every stanza: bonzer (great, excellent), chiv (the face), cobber (a friend), crook (ill), furphy (a rumour, a lie), to poke mullock (to tease or deride), head over turkey (head over heels), and yakker (hard work) to name but a few. The frequency of slang in The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and its possible unfamiliarity to the reader prompted the inclusion of a 14–page glossary in the first edition. The percentage of quotations from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke used in The Australian National Dictionary for the year 1915 can be seen in the pie chart above. It demonstrates the importance of this work in providing historical evidence for Australian English. See below for an online edition of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke including the glossary.

The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke online (Project Gutenberg Australia)

4 thoughts on “C.J. Dennis – Songs of a Sentimental Bloke

  1. Tom as well as tart meant ‘prostitute’ elsewhere, so this must be a specifically Australian semantic shift, pretty intelligible considering it would be a common occupation of female transportees.

    • Thanks for your comment John. From the evidence it looks like tom in the neutral sense is only found in Oz and NZ – so it seems likely that a shift has occurred here. The first evidence for tart as a girlfriend or sweetheart comes from Hotten’s slang dictionary of 1864 where it speaks of its use in the London lower orders. It is then primarily Oz and NZ evidence with the exception of a Liverpudlian use ‘the tart’,’a tart’ meaning the wife or girlfriend (this is recorded by George Orwell in his Collected Essays 1931). The prostitute or immoral woman sense is earlier.

  2. Reminds me irresistibly of The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum (San Francisco: Paul Elder & Co., 1901), by Wallace Irwin, which has a very similar feel:

    Then shall I shine and be the great main squeeze,
    The warm gazook, the only on the bunch,
    The Oklahoma wonder, the whole cheese,
    The baby with the Honolulu hunch–
    That will bring Mame to time–I should say yes!
    Ain’t my dough good as Murphy’s? Well, I guess!

    It would be interesting to do a cross-cultural study of early-twentieth-century poetic slumming of this type (using the term “slumming” with no invidious intent, obviously, but simply as a quick way to describe the use of low-class jargon in high-class literary form).

    • Thanks for this comment. Your reference to Irwin reminds me of how important humour was to poets of this period. It would be interesting to explore the influence of nonsense poetry on ‘slumming’ as well.

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