James McAuley (1917-1976) poet and public intellectual

James McAuley was a Lakemba boy who lived through interesting times and made his mark upon them in Australia. Given the time since his death in 1976 a person would need to be well into middle age to have any living memory of the man, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse because he spent his last 16 years in Hobart as Reader in Poetry at the University of Tasmania.

I played hookey from Ag Science and attended two of his lectures with a friend who was reading English. He was a captivating lecturer, an actor and a performer. He brought passion and power into the classroom, one of the lectures on King Lear was especially dramatic and insightful. I expected that his exhilarating experience would stimulate interesting conversation over coffee after the lecture but our group was dedicated to discussion of the student gossip and social events of the forthcoming weekend.

This is a trial run for an Introduction to a collection of McAuley’s essays to be published by Quadrant Books. What do people under the age of 60 and 30 need to be told about McAuley? People are invited to help me to target the Introduction for best effect.

He went from Homebush Public School to Fort Street Boys High, a notorious incubator of young talent, then to Sydney Uni immediately before the war. He flirted with communism and anarchism under the influence of John Anderson, distinguished himself playing jazz piano at parties and appeared to be the shining star of his generation but missed out on a travelling scholarship to Britain.

During the war he taught in Newcastle and then languished in the mysterious Directorate of Research run by the legendary (and mysterious) Alf Conlon. With time on his hands he teamed up with another poet, Harold Stewart to write some imitation avant garde poetry under the name “Ern Malley” which created a sensation when it was taken seriously at first by Max Harris and others.

In 1943 he started has association with New Guinea and lectured for many years in courses to prepare field officers and administrators for service in New Guinea. During that time he converted to Catholicism and in the 1950s he engaged on the side of the Groupers and Splitters when the ALP fragmented to produce the catholic/conservative DLP (keeping the Menzies administration in office through the 1950s and beyond).

In 1955 he became the founding editor of Quadrant, then quarterly, and remained a guiding editorial presence for many years, even when the moved from Sydney to Tasmania in 1960. His poetry developed in interesting directions and he maintained his critique of aspects of modernity with two collections of essays.


The Australian Dictionary of Biography

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26 Responses to James McAuley (1917-1976) poet and public intellectual

  1. dragnet

    I have a book of his poetry at home somewhere, I think I bought it via Quadrant mail order some years ago. Some great bits of work in there!

  2. C.L.

    McAuley was one of Australia’s few genuinely profound and important intellectuals.

  3. C.L.

    I mean, compare McAuley to Flannery and you get a good idea of the country’s moral and cultural decline.

  4. Phillip W

    I was at Tas Uni in the 60s and met him there – a commanding intellectual presence.

  5. In 1975 (so I was told by a lecturer who taught his son), McAuley was telephoned several times by a Governor-General seeking McAuley’s advice on a tricky constitutional matter.

  6. I played hookey from Ag Science and attended two of his lectures

    Presumably this “hookey” word means you wagged class? (The nearest meaning I can find in limited time online)

  7. cohenite

    I expected that his exhilarating experience would stimulate interesting conversation over coffee after the lecture but our group was dedicated to discussion of the student gossip and social events of the forthcoming weekend.

    Typical bloody students! Still a step-up from the anarchists and nihilists bashing the place up now.

  8. Bern1

    Ern Malley. Says it all about pseud intellectuals.

    Even when the hoax was exposed the lefties still managed to come out the other side smelling of roses.
    This is actually taught in some schools.The ” poems”‘ are published,apparently it teaches us of the “genius of creative thought”
    Harold Stewart, James McCauley I don’t see anyone of your stature around today.

  9. Poor Old Rafe

    Yes hookey = wagging class or truancy.

    Very pleased that I did. Only twice.

  10. Vicki

    McAuley was a somewhat austere and classical poet – but his verse (in my opinion) was not as trenchant and elegant as his contemporary, and another academic, A.D. Hope.

    I found a few poems of his collected in a 1967 edition of Modern Australian Verse.
    Like A.D. Hope he sometimes (but not always) expressed a harsh view of Australia:

    “Where once was a sea is now a salty sunken desert,
    A futile heart within a fair periphery;
    The people are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them,
    The men are independent but you could not call them free.”

    (from “Envoi for a Book of Poems”)

  11. ella

    The people are hard-eyed, kindly with nothing inside them,
    the men are independent but you could not call them free.”

    What a load of bullshit.

    I prefer John Milton myself.

    For an action to be virtuous it has to be freely chosen.

    Kindness is a virtue.

  12. Robert Blair

    I think have a copy of every poem and song ever published in book (or hymnal) form by James MacAuley.

    Most I picked up from op-shops and library sales. A couple (Time Given, Hymns For A Year of Grace) were quite hard to find.

    In my opinion MacAuley and Hope are Australia’s greatest poets. There are many who are also good, even great poets, but MacAuley & Hope are the best.

    And we will never see their like again in this country.

    Anyway, the poem most mentioned (I think) of MacAuley’s is “In the Huon Valley”:

    The ultimate verse is:

    Something is gathered in,
    Worth the lifting and stacking.
    Apples roll through the graders,
    The sheds are noisy with packing.

    I picked apples as a teenager in the Huon, back when it had an apple industry.

  13. Robert Blair


    compare McAuley to Flannery

    Well, I too have a very low opinion of Tim Flannery. But to be fair to poor old Tim, Jim MacAuley found that Australia was wall-to-wall carpeted with Flannery-strength numpties back in his day.

    Jim just rolled up his sleeves and set to work mocking, harassing, undermining and organising against them as best he could.
    He didn’t achieve any great roll-back, but if were here today I think he would just roll up his sleeves again.

  14. johanna

    Robert Blair, don’t forget Les Murray, who is better than either of them on his best days, IMO.

    Anyway, reviving J.M. is an excellent project. And Steve Slessor was no slouch either.

    Difficult to think of any contemporary poets in that class. An important reason for that is the domination of Arts funding by lefties, so that we end up with mediocrities like Mark O’Connor being funded to go and live on the Barrier Reef and write dirges about how evil humans are destroying it.

  15. Vicki

    Yes Robert, there is a real strength in both men’s poetry, and a towering intellect.

  16. Turtle of WA

    “Where once was a sea is now a salty sunken desert,
    A futile heart within a fair periphery;
    The people are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them,
    The men are independent but you could not call them free.”

    Something of a nihilist was A.D. Hope. I like the aesthetic of the desert waste empty interior thing, but I sense that he sold this country short. Still, different times.

  17. Turtle of WA

    The Ern Malley hoax was brilliant. The poems are hilarious:

    Petit Testament
    In the twenty-fifth year of my age
    I find myself to be a dromedary
    That has run short of water between
    One oasis and the next mirage
    And having despaired of ever
    Making my obsessions intelligible
    I am content at last to be
    The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
    Begin here:

    In the year 1943
    I resigned to the living all collateral images
    Reserving to myself a man’s
    Inalienable right to be sad
    At his own funeral.
    (Here the peacock blinks the eyes
    of his multipennate tail.)
    In the same year
    I said to my love (who is living)
    Dear we shall never be that verb
    Perched on the sole Arabian Tree
    Not having learnt in our green age to forget
    The sins that flow between the hands and feet
    (Here the Tree weeps gum tears
    Which are also real: I tell you
    These things are real)
    So I forced a parting
    Scrubbing my few dingy words to brightness.

    Where I have lived
    The bed-bug sleeps in the seam, the cockroach
    Inhabits the crack and the careful spider
    Spins his aphorisms in the comer.
    I have heard them shout in the streets
    The chiliasms of the Socialist Reich
    And in the magazines I have read
    The Popular Front-to-Back.
    But where I have lived
    Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray
    Guernica is the ticking of the clock
    The nightmare has become real, not as belief
    But in the scrub-typhus of Mubo.

    It is something to be at last speaking
    Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
    Only to No-Man’s-Land.
    Set this down too:
    I have pursued rhyme, image, and metre,
    Known all the clefts in which the foot may stick,
    Stumbled often, stammered,
    But in time the fading voice grows wise
    And seizing the co-ordinates of all existence
    Traces the inevitable graph
    And in conclusion:
    There is a moment when the pelvis
    Explodes like a grenade. I
    Who have lived in the shadow that each act
    Casts on the next act now emerge
    As loyal as the thistle that in session
    Puffs its full seed upon the indicative air.
    I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.

  18. nerblnob

    Spain weeps in the gutters of Footscray

    Love it. Spain would certainly weep over the smug clip joints calling themselves tapas bars in Footscray these days.

    Even using supposedly random phrases to parody bad pretentious poetry, MacAuley and Stewart couldn’t help but produce something better than what they mocked.

    In addition to Slessor and Murray mentioned above, Bruce Dawe could spin a phrase or two.

    I’m tired of hearing people who are ignorant of these guys spinning me the line that Australia had/has no culture until multiculturalism/boat people/Gillard/white aborigines/sociology students etc came to liberate us.

  19. nerblnob

    Oh, and I had a high opinion of Flannery’s books “Country” (about kangaroos) and “Throwim Way Leg” (about tree kangaroos); and his editing of “The Explorers” and “The Life and Adventures of William Buckley”.

    These last two show quite clearly that the early contact with Aborigines and the settlement of Australia was not the grim catalogue of brutality that is currently propagated.

    None of the above is any reason why he should have been paid to make disastrous national policy on electricity prices, drought mitigation and flood abatement, any more than we would pay Bob Brown to coach Collingwood

  20. Robert Blair


    don’t forget Les Murray

    I actually really like Les Murray’s poems. And there are a lot of them.

    I have several of his collections, but I have no great urge to read everything he has written, unlike Hope and MacAuley.

    I have noted that Les is a very nice guy – a very bad poet that I know has been given encouraging comments by Les, to put on the back of one his excruciating books.

    MacAuley would never have put his name to that sort of thing, just to be supportive of local talent.
    I think he would have pointed out the awful truth about solipsistic self-expression, and how it’s evil effect is exacerbated by the foolishness that is un-metered blank verse.

  21. stackja

    Official Histories – Second World War – Volume VII – The Final Campaigns (1st edition, 1963) – Gavin Long – Chapter 16 – Planning for Borneo – April to June 1945
    In April Stanner and Major Kerr 9 (who had joined the army in 1942 as a research officer in what later became the Directorate of Research) were attached to the Australian Army Staff in London.
    9 Col J.R. Kerr, NX164481. Deputy Director, Research and Civil Affairs 1945; Chief Instructor, School of Civil Affairs 1945-46. Barrister-at-law; of Roseville, NSW; b. Rozelle, NSW, 24 Sep 1914.

  22. Poor Old Rafe

    Here is a book about the Alf Conlon group. Thanks to Christian Kerr.

    One of his early poems, Envoi, conveys an unsentimental sense of place and provides a hint of his lingering need for some kind of spiritual consolation which he eventually discovered in the church.

    And I am fitted to that land as the soul is to the body,
    I know its contradictions, waste, and sprawling indolence;
    They are in me and its triumphs are my own,
    Hard-won in the thin and bitter years without pretence.

  23. daggers

    Great lines there, Rafe. Cassandra Pybus’ hatchet job on Jim McAuley must be subsumed. Good luck.

  24. maman

    Catallaxy Feb 17 2014 “Where is the Black Steam Train when we need him?”

    Great Good News! He’s back on track and posting again on the Aboriginal Industry – HOORAY!

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