Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Baylebridge, William (1883–1942)

by Nancy Bonnin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Baylebridge (1883-1942), writer, was born on 12 December 1883 at East Brisbane, son of George Henry Blocksidge, estate agent, and his wife Kate, née Bell. Christened Charles William Blocksidge, he adopted the name Baylebridge without legal change soon after 1925. He was educated at Woolloongabba State School, at Brisbane Grammar School, and by a private tutor David Owen, a classical scholar who became a close friend and a major influence. He chose a writer's career, which divided him bitterly from his father, a rigid Methodist who was absorbed in local business and politics.

In 1908 Blocksidge went to England with his friend Robert Graham Brown. He was financed at first by his maternal grandmother and by his mother's half-sister Celia Grace Levin (or Leven), but later lived as a poor scholar in cheap rooms, probably by pseudonymous hack-writing. He toured the Continent with his aunt and sister, and published eight books of verse and two of prose in England, beginning with Songs o' the South; most were private printings. He was influenced at this time by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, either directly or diluted by various English interpreters, and developed a mystic nationalistic scheme of metaphysical philosophy akin to that later espoused in Nazi Germany: he presented it publicly in National Notes (1913). This burden proved too much for his poetic talent, and his pleasure in archaic constructions often resulted in obscure versification.

Early in World War I Blocksidge tried to enlist from London in the Australian forces but was told that he could do so only in Australia or, possibly, in Egypt. Spencer Browne later reported helping him out of trouble with the British military authorities in Cairo when he arrived there mysteriously with no satisfactory explanation for his presence. He claimed subsequently to have done special literary work for the British Secret Service. He returned to Queensland in 1919 and, after living briefly on a family farm at Mount Gravatt, writing occasionally for Brisbane papers, he settled in Sydney. He made a living by using a private income for operations on the Stock Exchange. When the marriage between his sister Muriel and his friend Brown collapsed in 1923, he helped her set up house at Manly, living himself in a room in Macquarie Street in the city. His mother and sisters later settled in a house which he bought for them at Wahroonga.

Baylebridge wrote continually, revised constantly and published versions of earlier work under new titles so frequently that his output is a bibliographer's nightmare. The Mitchell Library contains twenty-one books produced during his life, many of which are clearly revisions. In 1922 he published An Anzac Muster, a complex epic of Anzac in 'Miltonic prose'. Unable to find a publisher to match his own standards of book production, he continued to publish privately and established the Tallabila Press in 1934; thenceforth he appeared under that imprint.

Baylebridge died, unmarried, in Sydney on 7 May 1942, shortly after a heart attack brought on by fighting a bushfire which threatened his country cottage at Blackheath. His estate, valued for probate at £18,158, was left to his mother and sister, with a large provision for an annual poetry prize in memory of 'my benefactress Grace Leven' and for the publication of his own work. The will was contested by relations, but upheld in 1947.

Tall, fair, handsome and athletic, Baylebridge was said to be a good conversationalist and raconteur who sang well and could play the violin, cello, fife and banjo. Nevertheless he had few friends, guarded his privacy rigorously, shunned literary society, resolutely refused nearly all invitations for publication in anthologies, and was regarded by many as a mysterious recluse.

No two critics agree on his work. Frederick T. Macartney accused him of habitual larceny and applied to him W. S. Gilbert's verse, 'If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,/Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!' Tom Inglis Moore saw him as the only Australian poet with a philosophy. H. M. Green placed him with the intellectuals alongside Christopher Brennan, devoted fourteen pages to his work, admitted all the faults pointed out by other critics, and asked whether he was 'a minor talent enlarged by an immense determination and enormous pains or a major talent handicapped by an effort overstrained, a taste insufficiently cultivated and an element of the counterfeit'. Judith Wright, in more sympathetic vein, admired Baylebridge's sincere attempts 'to relate humanity to some wider and greater unity' and 'to find some basis for a new faith for mankind'. 'It is ironical', she wrote, 'that a man dedicated to the forwarding of life's creative impulse should find himself in the position of Canute bidding the waves to stand still'. No one understood his dilemma more clearly than Baylebridge himself:

All that I am to Earth belongs:
This Heaven does me violent wrongs …
True Earth am I, of Earth I'm knit —
O, let me be at peace with it!

Select Bibliography

  • H. A. Kellow, Queensland Poets (Lond, 1930)
  • T. I. Moore, Six Australian Poets (Melb, 1942)
  • C. H. Hadgraft, Queensland and its Writers (Brisb, 1959)
  • N. Macainsh, Nietzsche in Australia (Munich, 1976)
  • Southerly, 16 (1955), 35 (1975)
  • Australian Literary Studies, 7 (1975-76), no 2
  • Quadrant, Mar-Apr 1975
  • Westerly, Mar 1975
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jan 1935, 17 Oct 1936, 4 May 1940, 16 May 1942, 22 May 1943
  • Bulletin, 10 Aug 1938
  • W. Baylebridge manuscripts (State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. M. Green manuscripts (National Library of Australia)
  • Vance and Nettie Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • P. R. Stephensen correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Nancy Bonnin, 'Baylebridge, William (1883–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baylebridge-william-5160/text8661, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Blocksidge, Charles William
Birth

12 December 1883
East Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Death

7 May 1942
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence
Occupation