Henry Lawson’s “Sweeney” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” at Mission Australia

What a fantastic session we had this week with Henry Lawson and Robert Frost. Both these poets display such a deep insight into the human condition but do it in such dramatically different ways.

Lawson1                                                            frost_robert

Henry Lawson, poet and short story writer, writes his tribute to the man named “Sweeney” in the form of a ballad with a very regular rhythm and rhyming pattern. The poem tells a story of Lawson’s meeting with Sweeney and then reflects on both Sweeney’s life and on Lawson’s own life. In telling a story the poem can be described as a narrative poem. It is indeed a very empathetic poem that gives many of the details of Sweeney’s rather tragic life. Even more sadly the poem finishes off with Lawson’s premonition that the lot of Sweeney might become his (Henry’s) lot- at the end of his life. This in fact is -as we know- what happened. The one most philosophical moment in the poem is where Lawson (as the narrator, the speaker) refers to “the man he might have been” (stanza 11). This is a very painful question for anyone to deal with and Sweeney answers Lawson in the next stanza with the philosophical response:

“What’s the good o’ keepin’ sober? Fellers rise and fellers fall:

What I might have been and wasn’t doesn’t trouble me at all.”

But that is not the end of the story, because in the very last line of the poem Lawson echoes this response as he tries to imagine where Sweeney might be now:

I suppose he’s tramping somewhere where the bushmen carry swags,

Cadging round the wretched stations with his empty tucker-bags:

And I fancy that of evenings, when the track is growing dim,

What he “might have been and wasn’t” comes along and troubles him.

LIke so many of Lawson’s stories and poems this one gives a voice to some of the forgotten, poverty stricken people in the world. Lawson was able to understand and respond to people like this because of his own background growing up on the gold fields and then carving a career for himself as a writer in Sydney- a place where writers were not paid much and always needed supportive hand -outs. In his later life Lawson indeed would have understood the lines of his own poem “Sweeney” even better, because Lawson’s life took a tragic turn in his last years. 

The poem by Robert Frost The Road not Taken” is completely different in its poetic approach. It doesn’t tell a story, but it does provoke deep questions, just like Lawson’s poem does. But it does this in a different way. It describes what might be an ordinary country scene where there is a fork in the road – it could be anywhere in the bush somewhere (or in the “woods” as the Americans call it). Frost describes the scene so that you almost feel as if you are standing there in the spot being described: there are the leaves lying loosely on the path and the tufts of grass. But almost immediately (unlike the Lawson poem) you realise that it is not a real place that interests him so much, but the symbolism of the place, the fact that this fork in the road is the like the fork in a person’s life: which path will I take? which path will give me the most satisfaction as a human being? Can I know in advance where this path will lead? It was great to hear so much discussion arising from this poem (listen to the audio!). Everyone in the group seemed to be able to identify moments in their own life where such a fork had occurred and where they had made a decision. For some the fork led directly into the room in which this poem was being discussed!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thank you all for your great conversations on both poems.

Our session ended with a brief look at Act 5 Scene 3 in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where our main exploration was the way that Shakespeare loves to switch between poetry and prose frequently (within his drama!!! three genres in one!). Watch the scene right here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5IzwTcQQV0


Blog Topics for this week- to get your creative juices going:


1. Try to write two or three stanzas (in the style of Henry Lawson) describing a person you have known.

2. Try to write two or three stanzas (in the style of Robert Frost) describing a situation where you have had to make a difficult choice.


3. Find two or three good web sites that could help to introduce one of our authors to the wider public. Introduce the web sites with a few well-chosen comments helping your reader to see why you chose these. Consider this like a mini- digital kit that others could come to in order to find out more about an author and his/her works.

4. Write a short summary of why you think “The Road Not Taken” is such a thought-provoking poem.

Lecture/ Seminar Week 4 Part 1 : Audio File

Lecture/ Seminar Week 4 Part 2 : Audio File

John Bell and Cast of As You Like It in Conversation with MG and students

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