Remembering a poet of commitment

The pathos and the pity notwithstanding, war doesn’t necessarily fuel the creative energies of poets. The apocalyptic slaughter of World War I produced several fine ones in England, most of whom died in the trenches. But in World War II, even closer to the apocalypse, there were virtually none. So what chance did the Cold War have? But one does spring to mind, the Australian James McAuley, who died 30 years ago today. In an era of uncertainty and derangement he made fine poetry out of commitment and fidelity to Western ideas.

Culturally, the world doesn’t expect much from Australia: a sprinkle of stars and starlets like Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman; a handful of novelists like Morris West and Nobel laureate Patrick White; a few philosophers like Peter Singer. And their achievements tend to be overshadowed by cultural blimps like The Wiggles or the late Steve Irwin. But Australia has had some very fine poets and McAuley is one of the best.

Admittedly, this is not a judgement which all of his countrymen share. In fact, his posthumous reputation has taken a peculiar trajectory. His works most often studied he wished he never had written, and for his best-loved works he gets almost no credit. Today his books are often dismissed by academics as too conservative, or too religious, or too formal. But when the dust has settled, McAuley will be seen as a major figure of mid-century English-language poetry, not just for the beauty of his lyrics, but for their profound humanity and their engagement with the crisis of Western thought. The recent re-publication of a biography, The Heart of James McAuley, may draw him to the attention of a new generation of readers.

McAuley first became famous as the co-author of a literary hoax which was reported around the world. In 1944 he and a friend, Harold Stewart, submitted a sheaf of avante-garde poems to a radical literary magazine, Angry Penguins. They were the work of Ern Malley, an uneducated youth who had died of "Graves disease". They had some fine lines charged with a surrealist magic -- "I am still/the black swan of trespass on alien waters" -- but McAuley and Stewart, who were then in the Australian Army, had composed them all in a single afternoon with the help of a few beers, a dictionary, a mosquito control manual, and the collected works of Shakespeare. The editor was completely taken in and published them as the work of an antipodean Keats or Kafka.

The hapless editor was not the only one whose reputation was blighted by the affair. For ever after McAuley was suspected of being an enemy of modernity by left-leaning contemporaries. Typically, one Australian anthology has included the complete works of Ern Malley and almost left James McAuley out.

But McAuley understood the challenges of his age better than most of his contemporaries, even though he saw his task as adapting eternal verities to changing times rather than sacrificing them on the altar of Progress. At the end of the War, after seeing a bit of action in New Guinea, McAuley worked intermittently there. It was a country which was moving straight from the Stone Age into the 20th century. He ended up lecturing in colonial administration, an interest which heightened a sense of civilisational crisis within himself which became more acute with the threat of Communist activity overseas and within Australia.

As well, after meeting some saintly missionaries in New Guinea, McAuley converted to Catholicism in 1952, along with his young family. Many of his friends were aghast at his transformation from a hard-drinking, profane atheist into "a meddling Chauvinistic Jesuitical proselytising Popish pomposity". However, not being a man who did things by halves, he plunged himself into the study of Catholic philosophy and culture. One later outcome from this was a number of hymns, some of them deeply moving in their piety. It is unlikely that the thousands of people who take up their hymnals every Sunday know the author. His faith was deep, although sometimes shaken by tragedy and ill-health. One of his best known poems, Pietà, was composed upon the death of a child:

A year ago you came
Early into the light.
You lived a day and night,
Then died; no-one to blame.

Once only, with one hand,
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand

A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all

She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible,
Are those made with the Cross.

Moaning about civilisational crisis is one thing; defining it is another. For McAuley, one aspect of it was the Communism, which was both a deadly threat and a lethal temptation for many of his contemporaries. In part to combat this, he co-founded Quadrant, a high-quality magazine of literature and ideas. It has always been an important element in Australian intellectual life and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, with the Prime Minister extolling it as "a beacon of free and sceptical thought against fashionable leftist views".

Another aspect was the spiritual crisis which gripped the West, and even the Catholic Church which he had grown to love. Many of his contemporaries, much like the villagers in his beloved New Guinea, no longer understood what it meant to be a free and responsible person. "If anyone thinks that this notion of the 'person', with all it implies, is something that comes automatically and universally, and does not have to be learned, and learned by heart, he has not understood his own civilisation," he wrote in one of his eloquent essays. Commitment and fidelity were key to developing this. In his own life, that meant a commitment to political struggle in public life, the Church and in the university where he worked in his later years. Life made little sense unless there was something to fight for. I've always thought it significant that some idealistic Australian politicians have committed one of his poems to heart, In a Late Hour:

Though all men should desert you
My faith shall not grow less,
But keep that single virtue
Of simple thankfulness.

Pursuit had closed around me,
Terrors had pressed me low;
You sought me, and you found me,
And I will not let you go...

Though the stars run distracted,
And from wounds deep rancours flow,
While the mystery is enacted
I will not let you go.

One of the most interesting things about McAuley is his ambition to be thoroughly modern without betraying "the old fidelities of earth". The idea that he had also been called to redeem the time, not simply to reveal himself in "individual, arbitrary/And self-expressive art" is a key feature of his life's work.

McAuley was not a saint. He was a complex man who could be cantankerous and moody, although he was known as a generous friend and hard-working colleague. In his later years, his verse is darker and often despairing, although he approached his impending death from cancer calmly. "Better a semi colon than a full stop," he quipped about his colostomy.* It was a time when some of his most poignant poems were composed. The often-quoted poem Parish Church is characteristic in its bleak depression shot through with deep faith. It also serves as a sort of capstone for his life's achievement:

... We used to sing at Easter in the choir
With trumpet and harmonium and drums,
Feeling within our hearts new-kindled fire.
Now I'm the only one that ever comes.

I bring with me my griefs, my sins, my death,
And sink in silence as I try to pray.
Though in this calm no impulse stirs my breath,
At least there's nothing that I would unsay.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Note * For American readers, a full stop is a period. It makes a very fine pun.


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