On Autograph Books and Adam Lindsay Gordon

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

Memorial bust, Westminster Abbey

Memorial bust. Image source: Westminster Abbey

These short lines are from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s long poem ‘Ye Wearie Wayfarer’. They have lodged peaceably in my mind for so long that, on my first visit to London, I made it a priority to visit Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey where I could stand before Gordon’s memorial bust and offer him a small vote of antipodean gratitude. (Gordon, who lived slightly less than half of his short life in Australia, is the only ‘Australian’ whose career is memorialised in Poets’ Corner.)

Autograph albums

Why do Gordon’s words resonate so deeply with me? The answer lies in that (now defunct) habit of keeping autograph albums. During my primary school years in country Victoria, the playground was infested with palm-sized books filled with an assortment of pastel-coloured pages. Initially blank, these pages gradually filled with inscriptions entered by class mates and teachers, each person contributing a pithy message above their signature. The mass-produced albums of my youth trace their origins to the mid-sixteenth century where they began as album amicorum (album of friends). These forerunners were kept by male students in Germany to commemorate friendships forged at university and to communicate cautionary messages to steady their future lives.

20th century Australian autograph albums

Australian autograph albums from the 1930s and 1960s

Gradually, the habit spread to wealthy young ladies who added drawings and craft samples to the collecting of words. By the nineteenth century, children’s autograph albums had also become popular, and a standard repertoire of mottoes and classical quotations, spiced with an occasional jest, was taking shape.

Australian albums

Gordon’s succinct philosophy, extracted from the final section of ‘Ye Wearie Wayfarer’, belonged to this repertoire in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia, and his ‘froth and bubble’ lines were regularly inserted into children’s autograph albums. In my own album, they appear above my sister’s signature, dated ‘10 May 1964’. In two albums from my mother’s girlhood, Gordon’s words appear once in 1933 and twice in 1934.

Froth and bubble_1933

Autograph album entry, 5 July 1933

(Gordon’s quatrain is not the only inscription to cross my family’s generational divide. A number of moral precepts, such as ‘Life is like a pathway covered up with snow, be careful how you tread it for every step will show’, appear in both sets of albums, along with the almost obligatory, inside rear cover entry: ‘By hook or by crook, I’ll be last in your book.’)

Publications like Ivy D. Cole’s Nifty Nuts: Sayings Suitable for Placing in Autograph Albums, Letters, Nonsensical and Commonsensical Conversations, Etc (Cole’s Book Arcade: Melbourne, 1913) provided fitting quotes and quips for Australian autograph album contributors. Among the largely British-origin pars and poetry extracts in the book are just two Australian-authored entries—a stanza from ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s sharply satirical poem ‘It’s Grand’, and Gordon’s ‘froth and bubble’ quote.

Newspapers regularly reminded would-be wordsmiths of Gordon’s lines. In 1919, Perth’s Daily News reported that during World War I many men quoted his poetic observation on life in their entries in nurses’ autograph albums. Another typical column appeared in The Sydney Mail in 1922 when the writer of the children’s page declared ‘froth and bubble’ ‘the prettiest verse I know for an autograph book’.

Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833‒1870)

Sea Spray cover_cropped

Sea Spray and Smoke Drift (1867)

But habits—and memory—fade. By 1978, when a new biography of Gordon was being published, The Australian Women’s Weekly reviewer, Heather Chapman, wrote: ‘Generations of Australian school children have autograph albums which contain the lines “Life is mostly froth and bubble, two things stand like stone, kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own”. I wonder how many of today’s youngsters would know that those lines were written by Adam Lindsay Gordon, once called Australia’s national poet?’
The answer to Chapman’s question, when posed nearly 40 years ago, was probably ‘not many’. By 2015, it would be ‘practically none’. And yet, Gordon’s lines remain; preserved in the pages of autograph albums of older generations. Hopefully, the albums will come to a better end than Gordon. The four lines that appear so often above the signatures of friends, teachers and relatives in Australian albums had been published in the poet’s Sea Spray and Smoke Drift in 1867. Three years later, Gordon was dead. Unable to pay his mounting debts, he embarked on a solitary walk to Melbourne’s Brighton Beach early on the morning of 24 June 1870. His body was found among the tea-tree—a rifle butt jammed between his feet, a slender branch strategically forked across the trigger. A jury found that he had ‘died from a gun-shot wound inflicted by himself while of unsound mind’.

The stanza from which Gordon’s oft-quoted lines come begins:

Question not, but live and labour
Till yon goal be won,
Helping every feeble neighbour,
Seeking help from none.

Poor Gordon. Help was at hand in 1870, in the form of friends willing to assist him financially, but he would not ask. Instead, he took his own life on the very day that his second volume of poems, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes, was published. The new collection would become his most acclaimed work.

Links and sources

You can read more about Gordon’s memorial in Westminster Abbey, and the way in which news of its 1934 unveiling was reported at the time, via the Adam Lindsay Gordon website.

The text of ‘Ye Wearie Wayfarer’, the long poem in which the ‘froth and bubble’ lines appear, can be read on the Australian Poetry website.

Many early Australian newspapers and magazines have been digitised and are available via the National Library of Australia’s Trove website. Trove sources quoted in this post are: ‘Nurses’ Autograph Albums’, The Daily News, 28 May 1919: 7; ‘For the Children’, The Sydney Mail, 15 February 1922: 42; ‘Books’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 18 October 1978: 197; and  ‘The Suicide of Mr. A. L. Gordon’, The Argus, 27 June 1870: 6.

Cole, Ivy, D. Nifty Nuts: Sayings Suitable for Placing in Autograph Albums, Letters, Nonsensical and Commonsensical Conversations, Etc. Melbourne: Cole’s Book Arcade, 1913.

Gordon, Adam Lindsay. Sea Spray and Smoke Drift. Melbourne. George Robertson, 1867.

Gordon, Adam Lindsay. Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes. Clarson, Massina, & Co., 1870.


If you have memories of autograph albums, you are welcome to share them in the ‘Leave a Reply’ section of this post.

3 thoughts on “On Autograph Books and Adam Lindsay Gordon

  1. Excellent, as always, Tessa. My mother’s autograph book was used as the basis for a family memoir I wrote and self-published, titled ‘Phillipa’s Album’. Yes, I had an autograph book, but regrettably I have not kept it. Your blogs are marvellously evocative and creative. Steph.

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