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Kendall, Thomas Henry (1839–1882)

from Sydney Morning Herald

Our obituary notices to-day contain an announcement of the death of Mr. Henry Clarence Kendall, the well known poet. This sad event creates a great gap in Australian literature that we have little hope of seeing quickly filled. Rhymesters we have in shoals, but a true poet as Kendall was comes to us seldom, and unhappily does not tarry long. He has been ungrudgingly recognized as an exponent of the poetic sentiment of these young communities — as one who had communed with the spirits of our forests and hills and plains, and had been gifted with the power of interpreting the voice of nature in smooth, soft measures, and depicting her moods in brilliant imagery. To quote his own aspiration, he was one upon whom shone

"A flood
Of light, ineffable, that made me feel
As felt the grand old prophets, caught away
By flames of inspiration."

With the exception, perhaps, of Adam Lindsay Gordon, there is no poetic writer whose works breathe a purer Australian spirit, or are more deeply marked with the influence of the life and scenes of these lands. His poems gave evidence of close acquaintance with the "sweet singers" of other countries; but in and throughout all he betrayed the influence of his surroundings in his lonely forest homes, where he was frequently a self-condemned exile from the everyday world. English critics have acknowledged and commended the local colouring of his work, and they have also cordially welcomed him into the ranks of poets, and expressed their hope of great things from him in the future. His work was of a character that improved as his powers matured, and had his bodily vigour not been so sadly impaired, he might have lived to raise a greater monument to his own memory than even his "Songs from the Mountains." Each succeeding publication showed greater power, deeper thought, and finer execution. His first book, "Poems and Songs," which was published in 1862, was uneven and in portions crude; his next, "Leaves from Australian Forests," contained much better work, and established his claim as a poet of high merit; and his last "Songs from the Mountains," published last year, won for him the fullest measure of praise from the most capable critics. Fifteen years ago Mr. Kendall received commendatory notice from English literary journals, and in the London Athenaeum, one of the leading English critical organs, his work was noticed at considerable length. Two of his poems, "The Song of the Cattle Hunters," and "The Ghost Glen," were published in extenso, and the critic said:—

"If Mr. Kendall continues to exert his faculty as successfully as he has in these two pieces, England as well as Australia will gladly recognize his place as a singer. He has both disadvantages and advantages in his distant sphere, but the latter preponderate. He occupies virgin soil, stands in the midst of a society whose characteristics have never yet been mirrored in song; while English writers are throwing up their pens yearly because they can assimilate nothing new. Let him seek in the great life around him those human forms of humour, pathos, and beauty which, touched by the gifted hand, cannot fail to win the heart of the public; and let him use his local colouring, a precious treasure, to illustrate truths which are universal. It is impossible, of course, to say how he will succeed in the profounder labour of dramatic insight, such faculty as he shows in the poem before us being distinctively a lyrical faculty; but that he has gifts there can be no question; and his communication to us is so modest and so sensible that we are assured he will put these gifts to the best use, leave his imitative efforts behind, and strike out in the path which he is most suited to explore.''

In a notice of Mr. Kendall's last publication, from the pen of Mr. W. B. Dalley, this opinion is endorsed, and Mr. Dalley adds:

"Since the bestowal of this honest advice, and the expression of this deserved and encouraging eulogium, the object of it has had a hard and continuous struggle with the stern realities of life. He has had, certainly, no lack of opportunities for the intensest study of form of pathos, and his education as a poet has seemingly not been deficient in the elements of suffering. A great living poet and essayist in a well-known critical paper has said that "The lesser poets are poets prepence, the greater are at once poets of their own making, and of natures equidistant in their line of life from the mere singing bird and the mere student. Mr. Kendall, whatever the world may deem of his title to be ranked with the latter, has unquestionably the one characteristic — that he stands midway between the singer and the student."

Mr. Kendall's career was chequered and gloomy and overshadowded by great troubles, of which he may have been partly the victim and partly the creator, but the few who gained an insight into his inner life knew that he often went out into the wilderness and wrestled terribly with his temper in a mental and physical struggle, of which, happily, few knew the terrors. His work was tinged with the sorrow of his life. The dedication to his last collection of poems said:—

"These are the broken words
Of blind occasions when the world has come
Between me and my dream. No song is here
Of mighty compass; for my singing robes
I've worn in stolen moments. All my days
Have been the days of a laborious life;
And ever on my struggling soul has burned
The fierce heat of this hurried sphere.''

The shadow of death has passed over the sufferer, and a career that was marked by few joys and many sorrows has closed just when it should have been at the zenith of its usefulness. In life he knew much of the heat and burden of the day, and latterly he had learned to look forward to a period of eternal cessation from trouble —

"Of folded hands closed eyes and heart at rest,
And slumber sound beneath a flowery turf."

Mr. Kendall, who was 40 years old at the time of his death, was born at Ulladulla, New South Wales. When only 18 years of age he commenced his career as a contributor to the Sydney press, and two years later published his first book, "Poems and Songs." His later publications were "Leaves from an Australian Forest," in 1869, and "Songs from the Mountains," in 1881. In 1863 he held an office in the Lands Department, and subsequently was transferred to the Colonial Secretary's Office, where he remained until 1869, when he resigned and went to Victoria, where he resided for some time and became a frequent contributor to the Melbourne press. He subsequently returned to this colony, and accepted a situation at Brisbane Water, where he resided till 1881, when he was appointed Inspector of Forests. He was the composer of the cantata for the opening of the Melbourne Town Hall, and the cantata for the opening of the Sydney International Exhibition, and the prize poem in commemoration of the last mentioned event. Latterly his health broke down completely, and after a few weeks' severe illness he died of phthisis yesterday afternoon at Bourke-street, Surry Hills.

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Citation details

'Kendall, Thomas Henry (1839–1882)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/kendall-thomas-henry-3941/text35295, accessed 26 May 2019.

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