Henry Lawson

The Ballad Of The Elder Son

A son of elder sons I am, Whose boyhood days were cramped and scant, Through ages of domestic sham And family lies and family cant. Come, elder brothers mine, and bring Dull loads of care that you have won, And gather round me while I sing The ballad of the elder son. ’Twas Christ who spake in parables To picture man was his intent; A simple tale He simply tells, And He Himself makes no comment. A morbid sympathy is felt For prodigals the selfish ones The crooked world has ever dealt Unjustly by the elder sons. The elder son on barren soil, Where life is crude and lands are new, Must share the father’s hardest toil, And share the father’s troubles too. With no child-thoughts to meet his own His childhood is a lonely one: The youth his father might have known Is seldom for the eldest son. It seems so strange, but fate is grim, And Heaven’s ways are hard to track, Though ten young scamps come after him The rod falls heaviest on his back. And, well I’ll say it might be caused By a half-sense of injustice done That vague resentment parents feel So oft towards the eldest son. He, too, must bear the father’s name, He loves his younger brother, too, And feels the younger brother’s shame As keenly as his parents do. The mother’s prayers, the father’s curse, The sister’s tears have all been done We seldom see in prose or verse The prayers of the elder son. But let me to the parable With eyes on facts but fancy free; And don’t belie me if I tell The story as it seems to me For, mind, I do not mean to sneer (I was religious when a child), I wouldn’t be surprised to hear That Christ himself had sometimes smiled. A certain squatter had two sons Up Canaan way some years ago. The graft was hard on those old runs, And it was hot and life was slow. The younger brother coolly claimed The portion that he hadn’t earned, And sought the ‘life’ for which untamed And high young spirits always yearned. A year or so he knocked about, And spent his cheques on girls and wine, And, getting stony in the drought, He took a job at herding swine, And though he is a hog that swigs And fools with girls till all is blue ’Twas rather rough to shepherd pigs And have to eat their tucker too. When he came to himself, he said (I take my Bible from the shelf: There’s nothing like a feed of husks To bring a young man to himself. And when you’re done with wine and girls Right here a moral seems to shine And are hard up, you’ll find no pearls Are cast by friends before your swine) When he came to himself, he said He reckoned pretty shrewdly, too ‘The rousers in my father’s shed ‘Have got more grub than they can chew; ‘I’ve been a fool, but such is fate ‘I guess I’ll talk the guv’nor round: ‘I’ve acted cronk, I’ll tell him straight; ‘(He’s had his time too, I’ll be bound). ‘I’ll tell him straight I’ve had my fling, ‘I’ll tell him I’ve been on the beer, ‘But put me on at anything, ‘I’ll graft with any bounder here.’ He rolled his swag and struck for home He was by this time pretty slim And, when the old man saw him come Well, you know how he welcomed him. They’ve brought the best robe in the house, The ring, and killed the fatted calf, And now they hold a grand carouse, And eat and drink and dance and laugh: And from the field the elder son Whose character is not admired Comes plodding home when work is done, And very hot and very tired. He asked the meaning of the sound Of such unwonted revelry, They said his brother had been ‘found’ (He’d found himself it seemed to me); ’Twas natural in the elder son To take the thing a little hard And brood on what was past and done While standing outside in the yard. Now he was hungry and knocked out And would, if they had let him be, Have rested and cooled down, no doubt, And hugged his brother after tea, And welcomed him and hugged his dad And filled the wine cup to the brim But, just when he was feeling bad The old man came and tackled him. He well might say with bitter tears While music swelled and flowed the wine ‘Lo, I have served thee many years ‘Nor caused thee one grey hair of thine. ‘Whate’er thou bad’st me do I did ‘And for my brother made amends; ‘Thou never gavest me a kid ‘That I might make merry with my friends.’ (He was no honest clod and glum Who could not trespass, sing nor dance He could be merry with a chum, It seemed, if he had half a chance; Perhaps, if further light we seek, He knew and herein lay the sting His brother would clear out next week And promptly pop the robe and ring). The father said, ‘The wandering one, ‘The lost is found, this son of mine, ‘But thou art always with me, son ‘Thou knowest all I have is thine.’ (It seemed the best robe and the ring, The love and fatted calf were not; But this was just a little thing The old man in his joy forgot.) The father’s blindness in the house, The mother’s fond and foolish way Have caused no end of ancient rows Right back to Cain and Abel’s day. The world will blame the eldest born But well, when all is said and done, No coat has ever yet been worn That had no colour more than one. Oh! if I had the power to teach The strength for which my spirit craves The cant of parents I would preach Who slave and make their children slaves. For greed of gain, and that alone Their youth they steal, their hearts they break And then, the wretched misers moan ‘We did it for our children’s sake.’ ‘And all I have’ the paltry bribe That he might slave contented yet While envied by his selfish tribe The birthright he might never get: The worked-out farm and endless graft, The mortgaged home, the barren run The heavy, hopeless overdraft The portion of the elder son. He keeps his parents when they’re old, He keeps a sister in distress, His wife must work and care for them And bear with all their pettishness. The mother’s moan is ever heard, And, whining for the worthless one, She seldom has a kindly word To say about her eldest son. ’Tis he, in spite of sneer and jibe, Who stands the friend when others fail: He bears the burdens of his tribe And keeps his brother out of jail. He lends the quid and pays the fine, And for the family pride he smarts For reasons I cannot divine They hate him in their heart of hearts. A satire on this world of sin Where parents seldom understand That night the angels gathered in The firstborn of that ancient land. Perhaps they thought, in those old camps, While suffering for the blow that fell, They might have better spared the scamps And Josephs that they loved so well. Sometimes the Eldest takes the track When things at home have got too bad He comes not crawling, canting back To seek the blind side of his dad. He always finds a knife and fork And meat between on which to dine, And, though he sometimes deals in pork, You’ll never catch him herding swine. The happy home, the overdraft, His birthright and his prospects gay, And likewise his share of the graft, He leaves the rest to grab. And they Who’d always do the thing by halves, If anything for him was done Would kill a score of fatted calves To welcome home the eldest son.

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