The Ballad Of The Elder Son

A poem by Henry Lawson

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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