By Lindsay H H Smelt
The following article appeared in the March 2019 edition of the Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee’s newsletter ‘The Wayfarer’.
It is an interesting question for historians and admirers of Adam Lindsay Gordon – to what extent were the crises, triumphs and tragedies of Lindsay Gordon’s life cast in dye before the upstart young poet even reached the shores of Australia?
Thankfully we can glean some flickers of insight into the teenage Lindsay through the letters he wrote to his childhood pal Charley Walker. Walker is closely intertwined with Lindsay’s story. He and his father, Charley Walker senior, shared Lindsay’s passion for horses and the steeplechase. Charley would ultimately marry Sally Bridges, the sister of Gordon’s famous unfulfilled true love, Jane Bridges. Gordon left a lasting impression on his pal. Walker called his son Lindsay.
The second letter in the collection ‘Letters to Charley Walker’ includes some clear signs of the future Lindsay Gordon, the man and the poet. The letter contains elements common to many of the collection’s letters – some bawdy banter on drinking sessions and girls, a little poetry and raging arguments with his father, whom he would mockingly call ‘the Honourable Captain Gordon’.
The letter opens with some discussion of girls. Both young lads were obsessed with the Bridges’ girls. Concerningly, Mr Bridges had heard about the lads “serenading the Lion so uncourteously and the other inns in the neighbourhood”. Perhaps of even more concern was that Lindsay’s valentine to Jane had upset Sally. As he explained to Charley:
I hope Sally won’t be crabbed [grumpy] at my valentine. I’m sorry I sent it, but I couldn’t help our quarrel. You told me, she wouldn’t stand my writing to Jane, but if I’d believed you I should have done the same, for as you’ve already found out Jane’ems was my favourite all along.”
Lindsay would always return to Jane in his letters home to Charley. Jane is widely thought to be the girl described in Gordon’s poem To my sister, a farewell poem written to Lindsay’s sister Ignez. The poem was written just days before his departure for Australia.
And yet I may at times recall
Her memory with a sigh;
At times for me the tears may fall
And dim her sparkling eye.
But absent friends are soon forgot,
And in a year or less
‘Twill doubtless be another’s lot
Those very lips to press!
To my sister is more than just a farewell to Jane and to England. It is also a dramatic farewell to hope, youth and optimism. His opening stanza includes “My hopes are gone, my time is spent”. He is not yet 20 years.
where there’s little left to hope,
There’s little left to dread!
Oh, time glides ever quickly by!
Destroying all that’s dear;
On earth there’s little worth a sigh,
And nothing worth a tear!
The poem to Ignez describes a lonely visit he took to the grave of his sister Ada, who tragically died of tuberculous at age 15. A weighty couplet towards the end notes:
I seem to have a load to bear,
A heavy, choking grief;
His famous poem Ye Wearie Wayfarer would pick up on this theme with the line “Our burdens are heavy, our natures weak”. Lindsay would carry this heavy load with him down the halls of Parliament House in Adelaide, across the lovely white beaches of Robe and in his overnight saddle bag through western Victoria.
Let’s return now to the letter to young Charley. The letter includes a witty poem of farewell, composed ahead of confirmation of Lindsay’sh journey to Australia. It opens with:
Now farewell, but let me warn you, ere [before] I’ve said my last
You may laugh at all things earthly, while your pluck is stout and true;
Put no faith in aught [anything at all] you meet with, friends or lovers new or old
Never trust the gamest racehorse that was ever reared or foaled.
The poem’s shopping list of advice reminds the reader of sections of Ye Wearie Wayfarer. Where Ye Wearie Wayfarer focused on bushman’s advice (advising on things such as tobacco and woollen socks), the young Lindsay’s poem is concerned with higher ideas:
Fame is folly, honour madness, love delusion, friendship sham;
Pleasure paves the way for sadness, none of these are worth a d—n.
The cynicism is matched with a courageous, devil-may-care attitude. He tells Charley:
When I ride at Cheltenham I’ll win or break my neck, I’m determined; by Jove what a finale that would be to my riding, fighting, love-making, debt-contracting, et hoc genus omne [and everything else of this kind], larks.
Lindsay would go on towin and break his neck! Courage, riding, boxing, financial crises and volatile romances would all feature strongly in the life of Lindsay Gordon. He concludes the letter by saying:
I’m a bright article and no mistake, quite an uncommon genius, in brief a star, but a wandering one. What’s that in the bible about wandering stars, I remember it somewhere, I think it’s in St. Jude.
The youthful bravado is entertaining. But it is also somewhat troubling. As the editor of the letters kindly points out in the footnote, the reference Lindsay was searching for in the Book of Jude is rather bleak: “Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.”
The letter and poems composed before Lindsay’s adventures in Australia clearly show inclinations toward dark thoughts, a bleak outlook on life and an obsession with death. It is likely that he inherited some of this outlook from his mother, who endured a lifetime of mental health struggles. But he also recognised within himself some uncommon genius, some real talent. This is best shown in his wonderful poetry and in his moments of courage. This is the Adam Lindsay Gordon we love.
Copyright remains with the author, Lindsay Smelt.
To see the full edition of The Wayfarer visit the Adam Lindsay Gordon Commemorative Committee’s website.