Clarence Michael James Dennis, the eldest child of James Dennis, a hotelier, and his wife Kate (née Tobin), was born on 7 September 1876 at Auburn in the Clare Valley, South Australia. After the death of his mother shortly before his fourteenth birthday, Dennis and his two younger brothers were raised by two aunts, although from 1890 to 1892 he was a boarder at Christian Brothers’ College in Adelaide.
Dennis left school at the age of 17, working briefly as a clerk in Adelaide before returning to his father’s home in Laura, in the Flinders Ranges. Here he began his first forays in verse, publishing a humorous poem in the Laura Standard on some local residents who had become lost in the bush. In the late 1890s, Dennis had a stint as a journalist for the Adelaide weekly The Critic, but after about a year he returned to Laura where he worked at his father’s hotel. Dennis later claimed it was in these years that he ‘learned to drink’, a habit that would plague him for the rest of his life. After falling out with his father, Dennis travelled to Broken Hill in western New South Wales, before returning to Adelaide and rejoining the staff of The Critic. He continued to submit his poetry to other periodicals, sending several unsuccessful contributions to the Bulletin before his poem ‘’Urry’ was published in November 1903.
From February 1906, Dennis teamed up with A. E. Martin to publish the leftwing, pro-nationalist weekly The Gadfly. Featuring satirical verse by Dennis, the paper was critically well received but commercially unsuccessful and at the end of 1907 Dennis left the struggling paper and travelled to Victoria. After a period of hard living in Melbourne, he went to live in a hut in the isolated settlement of Toolangi, on the rim of the Yarra Valley. Here Dennis was able to concentrate on his writing. In early 1913 he published his first volume of poetry, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, collected mainly from his earlier work on The Critic and The Gadfly along with a few newer compositions. This book was not a success and Dennis continued to lead a marginal existence in Toolangi.
From 1913, however, Dennis’ fortunes improved thanks to the support of John Garibaldi (‘Garry’) Roberts, an official with the Melbourne Tramways Company, and his wife Roberta, who were enthusiastic patrons of literature and the arts. Dennis became part of a group of artists and writers who congregated at the Roberts’ holiday house ‘Sunnyside’, at Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges. Dennis divided his time between ‘Sunnyside’ and Toolangi until 1914 when, tiring of the bush lifestyle, he traveled to Sydney where he worked for the unionist journals The Call and The Australian Worker. In early 1915, Dennis secured a position as a clerk at the Navy Office in Melbourne, and the following year became secretary to Senator E. J. Russell.
By 1916, his fortunes as a writer had also dramatically improved. In Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, Dennis included four interconnected ‘verse tales’ relating the story of a romance between a Melbourne larrikin and his sweetheart Doreen. The poems were narrated by the protagonist – dubbed ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ – allowing Dennis to display his facility for vernacular verse in developing the slang idiom of ‘the Bloke’. Through 1914 he expanded the series, submitting further ‘Bloke’ poems to the Bulletin, and in 1915 managed to interest the Sydney firm of Angus and Robertson in publishing the series as The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. The combination of a vernacular Australian narrative idiom with a sentimental love story appealed to a nation undergoing the strain of its part in the First World War. The book was wildly successful, and Dennis was transformed virtually overnight from ‘a frayed little wanderer, battered by hard adventure in bush and city’, to the most commercially successful poet in Australian history.
Dennis was quick to capitalise on his success. His next publication, The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), was set within the same imaginative universe: the title character, a Melbourne larrikin become heroic soldier, was a mate of Bill, the ‘Sentimental Bloke’. The Moods of Ginger Mick was also a great success, and in 1917, Dennis followed it with Doreen, a booklet of four poems centered on the domestic happiness of the now married ‘Bloke’. Dennis expanded the world of ‘the Bloke’ again in 1918, with the publication of Digger Smith, another romantic verse-story about another soldier mate of ‘the Bloke’. In the meantime, Dennis had also published the satire The Glugs of Gosh (1917), and republished his first book as Backblock Ballads and Later Verses (1918). All these works were published by Angus and Robertson, who enthusiastically collaborated with Dennis in exploiting the latter’s popularity, and all featured the illustrations of Hal Gye, whose artwork provided an important complement to Dennis’ verses. None of Dennis’ publications after 1917 met with anything like the success of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick, but these two works were enough to establish his reputation as ‘the laureate of the larrikin’. Mirroring the domestic virtues espoused through his ‘Sentimental Bloke’ stories, Dennis was also beginning to lead a more settled existence. He used some of the proceeds of his publishing success to purchase land at Toolangi, and in July 1917, Dennis married Olive Price, whom he had met through an artist friend. The Dennis’ house at Toolangi was extended and nicknamed ‘Arden’.
After the war Dennis continued to publish new work, meeting with various degrees of success. His Jim of the Hills: A Story in Rhyme (1919), a verse novel about a solitary backwoodsman finding love, was a commercial disappointment, as was Rose of Spadgers, the 1924 sequel to The Moods of Ginger Mick. The most enduring work of Dennis’ post-war years was his collection of children’s verse, A Book for Kids (1921), which also contained illustrations by Dennis. Dennis’ literary reputation, however, rested largely on the extraordinarily successful Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, a work that continued to exert great prominence as a cultural artefact through much of the twentieth century, inspiring a number of film and theatrical adaptations, musicals and even a ballet. In 1922 Dennis joined the staff of the Melbourne newspaper The Herald as ‘staff poet’, a role which would occupy the bulk of his creative energies for the rest of his life. His last publication, The Singing Garden, was based on Dennis’ observations of his garden at ‘Arden’. He died of a heart condition brought on by asthma on 22 June 1938.Poetry Collections
- Backblock Ballads and Other Verses (Melbourne: E. W. Cole, 1913).
- The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1916).
- The Moods of Ginger Mick (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1916).
- The Glugs of Gosh (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1917).
- Doreen (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1917).
- Digger Smith (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918).
- Jim of the Hills: A Story in Rhyme (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1919).
- A Book for Kids (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1921).
- Rose of Spadgers: A Sequel to “Ginger Mick” (Sydney: Cornstalk Publishing, 1924).
- The Singing Garden (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1935).
- Phillip Butterss, “ ‘Ar, If a Bloke wus only understood!’ C. J. Dennis and The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke,” in Susan Magary and Kerrie Round, eds. Living History: Essays on History as Biography (Unley, South Australia: Australian Humanities Press, 2005), pp. 113–26.
- Phillip Butterss, “C. J. Dennis, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and It’s Film Versions,” The Regenerative Spirit: Volume 2: (Un)settling, (Dis)locations, (Post-)colonial, (Re)presentations – Australian Post-Colonial Reflections (Adelaide: Lythrum Press, 2004), pp. 192–99.
- Phillip Butterss, “ ‘Parnassus Slope’: C. J. Dennis’s First Years in Victoria,” Southerly 67.1-2 (2007), pp. 254–71.
- Alec H. Chisholm, The Life and Times of C. J. Dennis (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1982).
- Ian F. McLaren, C. J. Dennis: A Comprehensive Bibliography Based on the Collection of the Compiler (Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1979).
- Ian F. McLaren, Talking About C. J. Dennis (Melbourne” English Dept., Monash University, 1982).
- Karenlee Thompson, “The Australian Larrikin: C. J. Dennis’ (Un)Sentimental Bloke,” Antipodes 21.2 (2007): pp. 177–83.