Lawson, Henry

Australia, (1867-1922)

The Ballad of the Elder Son

  1. A SON of elder sons I am,
  2. Whose boyhood days were cramped and scant,
  3. Through ages of domestic sham
  4. And family lies and family cant.
  5. Come, elder brothers mine, and bring
  6. Dull loads of care that you have won,
  7. And gather round me while I sing
  8. The ballad of the elder son.
  9.  
  10. ‘Twas Christ who spake in parables–
  11. To picture man was his intent;
  12. A simple tale He simply tells,
  13. And He Himself makes no comment.
  14. A morbid sympathy is felt
  15. For prodigals–the selfish ones–
  16. The crooked world has ever dealt
  17. Unjustly by the elder sons.
  18.  
  19. The elder son on barren soil,
  20. Where life is crude and lands are new,
  21. Must share the father’s hardest toil,
  22. And share the father’s troubles too.
  23. With no child-thoughts to meet his own
  24. His childhood is a lonely one:
  25. The youth his father might have known
  26. Is seldom for the eldest son.
  27.  
  28. It seems so strange, but fate is grim,
  29. And Heaven’s ways are hard to track,
  30. Though ten young scamps come after him
  31. The rod falls heaviest on his back.
  32. And, well I’ll say it might be caused
  33. By a half-sense of injustice done–
  34. That vague resentment parents feel
  35. So oft towards the eldest son.
  36.  
  37. He, too, must bear the father’s name,
  38. He loves his younger brother, too,
  39. And feels the younger brother’s shame
  40. As keenly as his parents do.
  41. The mother’s prayers, the father’s curse,
  42. The sister’s tears have all been done–
  43. We seldom see in prose or verse
  44. The prayers of the elder son.
  45.  
  46. But let me to the parable
  47. With eyes on facts but fancy free;
  48. And don’t belie me if I tell
  49. The story as it seems to me–
  50. For, mind, I do not mean to sneer
  51. (I was religious when a child),
  52. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear
  53. That Christ himself had sometimes smiled.
  54.  
  55. A certain squatter had two sons
  56. Up Canaan way some years ago.
  57. The graft was hard on those old runs,
  58. And it was hot and life was slow.
  59. The younger brother coolly claimed
  60. The portion that he hadn’t earned,
  61. And sought the ‘life’ for which untamed
  62. And high young spirits always yearned.
  63.  
  64. A year or so he knocked about,
  65. And spent his cheques on girls and wine,
  66. And, getting stony in the drought,
  67. He took a job at herding swine,
  68. And though he is a hog that swigs
  69. And fools with girls till all is blue–
  70. ‘Twas rather rough to shepherd pigs
  71. And have to eat their tucker too.
  72.  
  73. “When he came to himself,” he said
  74. (I take my Bible from the shelf:
  75. There’s nothing like a feed of husks
  76. To bring a young man to himself.
  77. And when you’re done with wine and girls–
  78. Right here a moral seems to shine–
  79. And are hard up, you’ll find no pearls
  80. Are cast by friends before your swine)–
  81.  
  82. When he came to himself, he said–
  83. He reckoned pretty shrewdly, too–
  84. ‘The rousers in my father’s shed
  85. ‘Have got more grub than they can chew;
  86. ‘I’ve been a fool, but such is fate–
  87. ‘I guess I’ll talk the guv’nor round:
  88. ‘ “I’ve acted cronk,” I’ll tell him straight;
  89. ‘(He’s had his time too, I’ll be bound).
  90.  
  91. ‘I’ll tell him straight I’ve had my fling,
  92. ‘I’ll tell him “I’ve been on the beer,
  93. ‘ “But put me on at anything,
  94. ‘ “I’ll graft with any bounder here.” ‘
  95. He rolled his swag and struck for home–
  96. He was by this time pretty slim
  97. And, when the old man saw him come–
  98. Well, you know how he welcomed him.
  99.  
  100. They’ve brought the best robe in the house,
  101. The ring, and killed the fatted calf,
  102. And now they hold a grand carouse,
  103. And eat and drink and dance and laugh:
  104. And from the field the elder son–
  105. Whose character is not admired–
  106. Comes plodding home when work is done,
  107. And very hot and very tired.
  108.  
  109. He asked the meaning of the sound
  110. Of such unwonted revelry,
  111. They said his brother had been ‘found’
  112. (He’d found himself it seemed to me);
  113. ‘Twas natural in the elder son
  114. To take the thing a little hard
  115. And brood on what was past and done
  116. While standing outside in the yard.
  117.  
  118. Now he was hungry and knocked out
  119. And would, if they had let him be,
  120. Have rested and cooled down, no doubt,
  121. And hugged his brother after tea,
  122. And welcomed him and hugged his dad
  123. And filled the wine cup to the brim–
  124. But, just when he was feeling bad
  125. The old man came and tackled him.
  126.  
  127. He well might say with bitter tears
  128. While music swelled and flowed the wine–
  129. ‘Lo, I have served thee many years
  130. ‘Nor caused thee one grey hair of thine.
  131. ‘Whate’er thou bad’st me do I did
  132. ‘And for my brother made amends;
  133. ‘Thou never gavest me a kid
  134. ‘That I might make merry with my friends.’
  135.  
  136. (He was no honest clod and glum
  137. Who could not trespass, sing nor dance–
  138. He could be merry with a chum,
  139. It seemed, if he had half a chance;
  140. Perhaps, if further light we seek,
  141. He knew–and herein lay the sting–
  142. His brother would clear out next week
  143. And promptly pop the robe and ring).
  144.  
  145. The father said, ‘The wandering one,
  146. ‘The lost is found, this son of mine,
  147. ‘But thou art always with me, son–
  148. ‘Thou knowest all I have is thine.’
  149. (It seemed the best robe and the ring,
  150. The love and fatted calf were not;
  151. But this was just a little thing
  152. The old man in his joy forgot.)
  153.  
  154. The father’s blindness in the house,
  155. The mother’s fond and foolish way
  156. Have caused no end of ancient rows
  157. Right back to Cain and Abel’s day.
  158. The world will blame the eldest born–
  159. But–well, when all is said and done,
  160. No coat has ever yet been worn
  161. That had no colour more than one.
  162.  
  163. Oh! if I had the power to teach–
  164. The strength for which my spirit craves–
  165. The cant of parents I would preach
  166. Who slave and make their children slaves.
  167. For greed of gain, and that alone
  168. Their youth they steal, their hearts they break
  169. And then, the wretched misers moan–
  170. ‘We did it for our children’s sake.’
  171.  
  172. ‘And all I have’–the paltry bribe
  173. That he might slave contented yet
  174. While envied by his selfish tribe
  175. The birthright he might never get:
  176. The worked-out farm and endless graft,
  177. The mortgaged home, the barren run–
  178. The heavy, hopeless overdraft–
  179. The portion of the elder son.
  180.  
  181. He keeps his parents when they’re old,
  182. He keeps a sister in distress,
  183. His wife must work and care for them
  184. And bear with all their pettishness.
  185. The mother’s moan is ever heard,
  186. And, whining for the worthless one,
  187. She seldom has a kindly word
  188. To say about her eldest son.
  189.  
  190. ‘Tis he, in spite of sneer and jibe,
  191. Who stands the friend when others fail:
  192. He bears the burdens of his tribe
  193. And keeps his brother out of jail.
  194. He lends the quid and pays the fine,
  195. And for the family pride he smarts–
  196. For reasons I cannot divine
  197. They hate him in their heart of hearts.
  198.  
  199. A satire on this world of sin–
  200. Where parents seldom understand–
  201. That night the angels gathered in
  202. The firstborn of that ancient land.
  203. Perhaps they thought, in those old camps,
  204. While suffering for the blow that fell,
  205. They might have better spared the scamps
  206. And Josephs that they loved so well.
  207.  
  208. Sometimes the Eldest takes the track
  209. When things at home have got too bad–
  210. He comes not crawling, canting back
  211. To seek the blind side of his dad.
  212. He always finds a knife and fork
  213. And meat between on which to dine,
  214. And, though he sometimes deals in pork,
  215. You’ll never catch him herding swine.
  216.  
  217. The happy home, the overdraft,
  218. His birthright and his prospects gay,
  219. And likewise his share of the graft,
  220. He leaves the rest to grab. And they–
  221. Who’d always do the thing by halves,
  222. If anything for him was done–
  223. Would kill a score of fatted calves
  224. To welcome home the eldest son.

Henry Lawson. When I Was King and Other Verses. Sydney: Angus and Robertson (1905).

About the Poet:

Henry Lawson, Australia, (1867-1922) was an Australian bush poet and writer. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the Colonial Period. He was the son of the poet, publisher and feminist Louisa Lawson.

Henry Lawson remains, arguably, the best known Australian writer. His poetry and prose are still widely quoted. Most of his works are still in print. His written images are those most often used by Australians call upon to depict their country.

Lawson began writing and publishing poetry as a teen. Early employment in journalism fed his interest in and sympathy for working Australians, the labour movement, and for an Australian republic. Lawson was also profoundly moved by the harshness of rural life and the resilience of the people who lived in the drought-stricken outback. As a journalist he honed his abilities to produce verse and prose quickly.

In 2008, journalist and writer Bruce Elder described Lawson as using “short, sharp sentences, with language as raw as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. With sparse adjectives and honed-to-the-bone description”. Elder also said that Lawson created a style and defined Australians as dryly laconic, passionately egalitarian and deeply humane. [DES-03/18]

Additional information:

A random image of a pig, hog, boar or swine from the collection at Porkopolis.