Arguably the most popular book of poetry ever produced in Australia, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was first published in October 1915. Its success was immediate and unprecedented for a book of Australian verse. The first edition of 2,480 copies sold out within weeks, and by the end of February 1916 the book had reached a fifth impression and was still selling well. Tongue firmly in cheek, C. J. Dennis informed his publishers Angus and Robertson that the work's 'success [was] becoming monotonous'. There was more monotony to come, however: the book sold more than 100,000 copies in the first five years after its publication, and was rarely out of print in Dennis's lifetime. Added to this, there were film, stage, and musical versions of the work, as well as recitals given by popular entertainers. In many respects, 'The Sentimental Bloke' became a phenomenon of popular culture that took on a life of its own.
Dennis later claimed that the idea for 'The Sentimental Bloke' came from a 'racy' young man from Melbourne he had met in Toolangi. According to Dennis' wife Margaret Herron, the young man had fallen in love with a farmer's daughter, but the farmer disapproved and forbade her from having anything to do with him. The Melbourne man was said to have complained to Dennis, 'what sort of bloke do they think I am? Blimey, anyone would think I was a crook! Ain't a bloke got sisters of his own?' In Dennis's imagination, this frustrated love affair eventually became a story in which a tough, streetwise young larrikin gives up his dissolute ways for domestic happiness with his sweetheart. A crucial factor in the success of Dennis's 'Sentimental Bloke' verse was that it was narrated from the point of view of 'the Bloke', employing a slang idiom appropriate to the character. In his correspondence with his publishers, Dennis noted that 'the stuff, while not having any considerable literary merit, is, I believe, extremely popular'.
Adapted by Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell from C. J. Dennis's collection of poems (The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke), the story concerns Bill ('the bloke'), a Sydney larrikin who vows to abandon his life of gambling and drinking when he falls in love with Doreen (who works in a pickle factory). His reformation comes about after he has been released from gaol, having been convicted of assaulting a policeman ('stoushing a John') during a raid on a two-up game.
With a screenplay written by C. J. Dennis, based on his collection of verse published as The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, this cinematic adaptation similarly tells the story of Bill, a larrikin of the Little Lonsdale Street Push, who is introduced to a young woman called Doreen. Through the course of their courtship and eventual marriage, Bill transforms from a violence-prone gang member to a contented husband and father.
Although Dennis retains the basic storyline of the poems, he also adds a sub-plot in which Bill saves Doreen's Uncle Jim from an attempted swindle.
The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke had a fairly lengthy genesis, with the first two poems in the series appearing in The Bulletin as early as 1909. After the failure of his first book, Backblock Ballads, Dennis turned his attention to developing the 'Sentimental Bloke' series. A further eight 'Sentimental Bloke' poems appeared in the pages of The Bulletin between February 1914 and April 1915, unfolding in a sequence suggestive of a serial fiction. By early 1915, Dennis was seeking a publisher for a book version of his work. After being rejected by the Melbourne publishers Robertson and Mullens and Lothian Publishing, he submitted the work to Angus and Robertson in Sydney. Dennis's friend Henry Lawson claimed to have been the first to show Dennis's work to George Robertson, but Dennis made an approach of his own in a letter of 23 March 1915. Though Robertson was initially affronted by the demands Dennis made about the illustrations and 'get-up' of the book, the differences between author and publisher were soon smoothed over and an agreement was reached by mid April. In its original published form, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke featured illustrations by Hal Gye, a preface by Henry Lawson, and a glossary of slang terms. It was dedicated to 'Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Roberts', Dennis's friends and patrons of the previous few years, and according to Dennis's wife, 'never was a dedication so richly deserved'. Just two of the work's fourteen poems had not previously appeared in the pages of The Bulletin.
Dennis' romantic and distinctly Australian verse proved extremely popular during the Great War. Angus and Robertson sought to cater to homesick servicemen by producing this and subsequent Dennis works in a series of 'Pocket Editions for the Trenches'. The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke also sold well in New Zealand, and Dennis became known as the 'laureate of the ANZAC' as well as the 'laureate of the larrikin'. Its popularity outlasted the war however. Angus and Robertson continued to produce reprints of the work until 1940, and from the late 1950s the book was regularly revived, thanks in large part to the popularity of various stage adaptations of the work.
A two-act ballet titled The Sentimental Bloke was produced in 1952, with choreography by Laurel Martyn and music by John Tallis (produced by the Victorian Ballet Guild). The ballet remained in the Victorian Ballet Guild's repertoire for many years and was filmed by ABC Television.
Theatrical adaptations include:
'The Sentimental Bloke was a hugely popular multi-media phenomenon in Australia during the First World War and early interwar years. I explore the work as a heterosexual “masculine romance”: a love story expressing heterosexual romantic feeling from a masculine point of view and in a self-consciously masculine way. The Bloke phenomenon demonstrates that “ordinary” Australian men were more interested in certain forms of romantic popular culture than previously allowed. It also points to the fact that avowedly masculine constructions of romantic feeling were emerging in this period in response to criticism of elaborate Victorian-era expressions of romance on the one hand, and of commodified approaches to romantic love on the other. This point has implications for romance studies, which has paid little attention to the concept or even the possibility of masculine romance. In Australia, there was an insistent emphasis on plainness and straightforwardness as the hallmarks of a sturdily masculine approach to romance in the 1910s and 1920s. My hope is that this discussion will prompt other romance scholars to consider the particular inflexions given to masculine constructions of romance in other localities in the same period.'