George Essex Evans (1863-1909)
When George Essex Evans died, in 1909, the Prime Minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, said "Australia will mourn the loss of her national poet". Why does no one out side Evans' home town of Toowoomba remember him now?
Evans was born in London in 1863. Both his parents were Welsh. His father was a wealthy lawyer who had served in the British Parliament. However, he died while Evans was still a baby, and Evans was raised in Wales, and in the island of Jersey.
At the age of 18, he migrated, with his siblings, to Queensland. He lived for a while at Allora, on the Darling Downs, and then worked variously in the Gulf country, Brisbane, and Gympie, before settling in Toowoomba, where for the majority of his working life, he worked as the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages. He died of the complications of gall stone surgery, in Toowoomba at the age of 46.
From about 1883, his poems began to appear under the name "Christophus" in the Queenslander and The Brisbane Courier, and from the 1890's, after the publication of his first book, The Repentance of Magdalen Despar, in magazines and newspapers with a mass circulation, most notably, The Bulletin, The Boomerang, The Argus and The Australasian. He edited the journal The Antipodean in conjunction with Banjo Paterson, wrote short stories and light verse, and published two further collections of poetry. He was an avid federalist, and founded the Austral Society in Toowoomba, in 1903, which sought to adapt the Welsh tradition of the Eisteddfod to an Australian national environment.
Upon his death, the Melbourne Argus, called him "A poet of Australian repute" and noted that flags at public buildings in Brisbane were flown at half mast. His work remained sufficiently popular that Angus & Robertson published a volume of his collected verse in 1928. However, by 1930, Kellow had noted that "According to the critics, the place of Evans in Australian literature is not too secure."
Today, with the exception of "Women of the West", (which I have included on this site) almost none of his works appears in anthologies. Why is this so?
First, Evans wrote poetry to supplement his income as a public servant. His work is necessarily concerned with the preoccupations of its times. During his lifetime, his most famous poem was "Ode for Commonwealth Day" which won a New South Wales Government sponsored prize, for a poem to mark the Australian Federation.
That poem begins:
"Awake! Arise! the wings of dawn
Are beating at the Gates of Day!
The morning star hath been withdrawn
The Silver Vapours melt away!"
While a poem like this may help one understand the kinds of sentiments that were expressed at the time of federation, it has little impact on a contemporary reader.
Secondly, Evans is too often drawn to cliché. An early poem about the Brisbane river begins "An amphitheatre of purple hills". A more famous poem, about Toowoomba, begins:
Dark purple, chased with sudden gloom and glory.
If every hill is purple, it is going to get very hard to tell them apart.
But, on closer inspection, a good deal of his work still holds its own. His poems are always well crafted. "How's that Umpire?" which I have selected for this site, though dated, is every bit as well developed as C.J.Dennis' poem on the same theme, "The Australaise".
However craftsmanship alone is never enough. What distinguishes the best of his work is his sympathy for the figures in the poem. Take this piece:
In the old log hut the shepherd lay,
His fevered cheek by the hot wind fanned;
And he dreamt of the dear ones far away,
And the fields and the flowers of his native land.
from The Shepherd's Last Sleep.
In a poem like this, melodramatic as it is, there is a sympathy for the exile, for a transplanted lonely Englishman, that is at odds with the romanticised view of the bush expressed by many of his contemporaries.
Likewise, there is always a sympathetic treatment of the urban man:
His boots are pieced and his tie home-made,
and his trousers patched where the edge was frayed
from The Average Man
Lastly, poems like "Women of the West" last, because they record characters who we can understand.
So, for his skill, insight and empathy, he deserves to be better remembered today. I think the reason his work is not better remembered today, is that, having been overlooked in previous anthologies, it is overlooked now. Click on the links to the right to read some more of Essex Evans' work.
Best book to buy: Evans, G. E., The Secret Key and Other Verses, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1906.
Select further reading: Kellow, H.A., Queensland Poets, London, Harrap, 1930, chap VII.