DENNIS, Clarence Michael James (1876-1938)


DENNIS, Clarence Michael James (1876-1938)
the second name was never used
poet and journalist
the son of a retired sea captain who kept an hotel, and his wife Catherine Tobin, was born at Auburn, South Australia, on 7 September 1876. He was educated at Laura and at the Christian Brothers College at Adelaide, where with three others he produced a school paper The Weary Weekly. On leaving school he became a junior clerk in an office, but was shortly afterwards discharged because he found Rider Haggard's novels more interesting than office work. After working for his father for some time he began sending verses to the Critic, an Adelaide paper. He joined its staff when he was 22, but soon after went to Broken Hill, where he worked successively as miner, carpenter, labourer and canvasser. It was difficult to make even a bare living at any of these occupations, but his experiences widened his knowledge of human nature. He returned to Adelaide, took up journalism again, and in 1906 founded The Gadfly, a bright publication started with scarcely any capital, which survived for 18 months. Among its contributors was Will Dyson (q.v.), afterwards to establish a world-wide reputation as a cartoonist.
Towards the end of 1907 Dennis went to Melbourne, established himself at Toolangi some 30 miles away in the hills, and worked as a free-lance journalist on the Bulletin and other papers. In 1913 he published his first volume Backblock Ballads and Other Verses by "Den" (C. J. Dennis). This had but a moderate success, though it contained four of the poems in his next book The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, which made his reputation. It was published in 1915, and over 50,000 copies were sold in Australia within a year. Editions were also issued in Canada and the United States, and before the end of 1919 over 100,000 copies has been issued. Before its first publication Dennis had been working in the attorney-general's department of the Commonwealth government, and was for a time private secretary to Senator Russell. The success of his book enabled him to go to the country again, and he made himself a very pleasant home at Toolangi. Other books followed in quick succession, The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), The Glugs of Gosh (satire) (1917), Backblock Ballads re-issued with later verses added (1918), and Digger Smith in the same year. In 1919 Jim of the Hills, a Story in Rhyme was published, and in 1921 A Book for Kids (in prose and verse) reissued under the title of Roundabout in 1935. In 1922 Dennis joined the staff of the Herald, Melbourne, and during the next 15 years did a large amount of writing including much verse on topics of the time. Rose of Spadgers, a sequel to Ginger Mick, was published in 1924, and in 1935 The Singing Garden, mostly a selection from prose and verse contributed to the Herald, appeared. He died at Melbourne on 21 June 1938. He married in 1917, Olive Herron, who survived him. There were no children.
The great success of Dennis was due to his humour and pathos, his healthy sentiment, and his kindly view of human nature. If his sentiment at times tended to slop over into sentimentality, it was to some extent concealed by his humorous use of slang, of which a glossary was provided at the end of most of the volumes. Much of his work of later years was merely competent verse and, even when at his best, he tended to make the separate poems too long. But he succeeded in a very difficult feat. He wrote verse that could be read with pleasure both by uneducated people and by intellectuals. He was an excellent journalist, a first-rate literary craftsman, and he wrote some of the best popular poetry that has appeared in Australia. Personally he was a good companion much liked by his many friends.
Guy Innes, The Herald, Melbourne, 12 May 1922; The Argus, Melbourne, 22 June 1938; A. H. Chisholm, The Herald, 13 November 1943; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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