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Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 71-85

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Francis Adams and Songs of the Army of the Night:
Negotiating Difference, Maintaining Commitment

Meg Tasker

SONGS OF THE ARMY OF THE NIGHT (1888) IS A CLASSIC OF RADICAL SOCIALIST verse in both England and Australia. 1 The author, Francis William Lauderdale Adams (1862-93), an English writer who lived in Australia for only six years but was counted by Australian nationalist critics as an Australian in spirit, demonstrates in his political verse an ability to negotiate multiple writing positions and voices in order to reach widely different readerships in both the colonies and the motherland.

This essay examines the way in which, after establishing a broad literary and journalistic reputation in both England and Australia, Adams adopted a split writing position in Songs of the Army of the Night. Comprising mostly ballads in the style of Chartist protest poetry, the Songs are intertextually determined; to some extent they have a generic life of their own. Yet in adopting the form of popular verse, using vernacular forms and diction, Adams nonetheless constructs a persona that is consistent with much of his more "literary" writing. Songs of the Army of the Night does more than demonstrate conflict in Adams' work between the claims of "art" and "life," between his upper middle-class cultural affiliations and working-class political sympathies. Despite this element of conflict, the configuration of speaking positions is not dialectic, but dialogic in the Bakhtinian sense. 2 That is, the voices or speaking positions in the poetry do not work through opposition to achieve synthesis or progress, or to generate a new set of dialectical terms; rather, they co-exist in a synchronous multiplicity that allows the "implied poet" of the whole volume to be constructed as both a member of the oppressed masses and a middle-class sympathizer.

Only twenty-two when he arrived from England, Adams set out to make his mark as a fiction writer and essayist, analyzing and commenting on Australian literature and culture. Soon discovering that he could not [End Page 71] live by "literary" writing alone (that is, in books and monthly or quarterly journals), he started to contribute short stories and poems to the main newspapers in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. These pieces were usually set in Australia, and generally had strong social and political themes. Adams gradually left the more conservative newspapers (or they left him) to concentrate on publishing his short stories, poems, and signed articles in the radical press. He continued to be employed in mainstream journalism, however, writing editorial leaders and book reviews for the Brisbane Courier. Although these were unsigned, and are now hard to identify as his, they earned him some distinction as a journalist. He became one of the leading political commentators in Brisbane and Toowoomba during the 1888 General Elections, and was chagrined that his colleagues at the Courier praised his leader-writing in hyperbolic terms while failing to appreciate his more artistic productions in the form of lyric and dramatic poetry, which were mostly written before he had left England. 3

He wrote in a range of genres, producing at a rapid rate between 1882 and 1893 three volumes of poetry, 4 six novels, 5 a collection of short stories (Australian Life), a play, two collections of essays (Australian Essays, Essays in Modernity) and two books of social and political analysis (The Australians, The New Egypt). He wrote as an Anglo-Parisian "Child of the Age," in his experimental novel of that name; as a follower of Matthew Arnold in his early poetry and essays; as a "modified Arnoldian" social commentator and literary critic in his essays on Australia, and as an opinionated critic of British foreign policy in The Australians and The New Egypt. There are common themes through all his work, such as social justice, but a multiplicity of genres, voices, and implied readers. Across this diverse output, Adams addressed his work to cultural elites and scarcely literate working people, Australian nationalists, and British imperialists, men and women, artists and...


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