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When I Was King

Henry Lawson 1867 (Grenfell) – 1922 (Sydney)



The second time I lived on earth
Was several hundred years ago;
And—royal by my second birth—
I know as much as most men know.
I was a king who held the reins
As never modern monarch can;
I was a king, and I had brains,
And, what was more, I was a man!
Called to the throne in stormy times,
When things were at their very worst,
I had to fight—and not with rhymes—
My own self and my kindred first;
And after that my friends and foes,
And great abuses born of greed;
And when I’d fairly conquered those,
I ruled the land a king indeed.

I found a deal of rottenness,
Such as in modern towns we find;
I camped my poor in palaces
And tents upon the plain behind.
I marked the hovels, dens and drums
In that fair city by the sea.
And burnt the miles of wretched slums
And built the homes as they should be.

I stripped the baubles from the State,
And on the land I spent the spoil;
I hunted off the sullen great,
And to the farmers gave the soil.
My people were their own police;
My courts were free to everyone.
My priests were to preach love and peace;
My Judges to see justice done.

I’d studied men and studied kings,
No crawling cant would I allow;
I hated mean and paltry things,
As I can hate them even now.
A land of men I meant to see,
A strong and clean and noble race—
No subject dared kneel down to me,
But looked his king straight in the face

Had I not been a king in fact,
A king in council-hall and tent,
I might have let them crawl and act
The courtier to their heart’s content;
But when I called on other kings,
And saw men kneel, I felt inclined
To gently tip the abject things
And kick them very hard behind.

My subjects were not slaves, I guess,
But though the women in one thing—
A question ’twas of healthy dress—
Would dare to argue with their king
(I had to give in there, I own,
Though none denied that I was strong),
Yet they would hear my telephone
If anything went very wrong.

I also had some poets bright—
Their songs were grand, I will allow—
They were, if I remember right,
About as bad as bards are now.
I had to give them best at last,
And let them booze and let them sing;
As it is now, so in the past,
They’d small respect for gods or king.

I loved to wander through the streets—
I carried neither sword nor dirk—
And watch the building of my fleets,
And watch my artisans at work.
At times I would take off my coat
And show them how to do a thing—
Till someone, clucking in his throat,
Would stare and gasp, ‘It is the king!’

And I would say, ‘Shut up, you fools!
Is it for this my towns I burn?
You don’t know how to handle tools,
And by my faith you’ll have to learn!’
I was a king, but what of that?
A king may warble in the spring
And carry eggs home in his hat,
Provided that he is a king.

I loved to stroll about the town
With chums at night, and talk of things,
And, though I chanced to wear the crown,
My friends, by intellect, were kings.
When I was doubtful, then I might
Discuss a matter quietly,
But when I felt that I was right
No power on earth could alter me!

And now and then it was no sin
Nor folly to relax a bit—
I’d take my friends into an inn
And call for wine and pay for it.
And then of many things we’d clack
With loosened tongues and visions clear—
I often heard behind my back
The whispered ‘Peace, the king is here!’

The women harped about a queen,
I knew they longed to have a court
And flaunt their feathers on the scene,
But hitherto I’d held the fort.
My subjects wanted me, no doubt,
To give the throne a son and heir—
(There were some little kings about,
But that was neither here nor there).

I’d no occasion for a wife—
A queen as yet was not my plan;
I’d seen a lot of married life—
My sire had been a married man.
‘A son and heir be hanged!’ I said—
‘How dare you ask for such a thing,
‘You fight it out when I am dead
‘And let the best man be the king!’

‘Your Majesty, we love you well!’
A candid friend would say to me—
‘But there be tales that people tell
‘Unfitted to thy dignity’—
‘My dignity be damned!’ I’d say,
‘Bring me no women’s chattering!
‘I’ll be a man while yet I may—
‘When trouble comes I’ll be a king!

I’d kept my kingdom clean and strong
While other kingdoms were like ours—
I had no need to brook a wrong,
I feared not all the rotten Powers
I did not eat my heart out then,
Nor feebly fight
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson 17 June 1867 - 2 September 1922 was an Australian writer and poet Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period more…

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