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McAuley, James Phillip (1917–1976)

by Peter Pierce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976), by unknown photographer, 1971

James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976), by unknown photographer, 1971

National Library of Australia

James Phillip McAuley (1917-1976), poet, was born on 12 October 1917 at Lakemba, Sydney, third child of native-born parents Patrick Phillip McAuley, grazier, and his wife Mary Maud, née Judge. From Homebush Public School, James proceeded to Fort Street Boys' High School, where he became school captain; a contemporary was (Sir) John Kerr, later godfather to one of McAuley's children. Winning an exhibition to the University of Sydney (B.A. Hons, 1938; M.A., 1940; Dip.Ed., 1942), McAuley graduated with first-class honours in English. During his undergraduate years he was influenced by the philosophy of Professor John Anderson, and attracted to communism and anarchism. His first poem, 'Homage to T. S. Eliot', appeared in 1935 in Hermes, the university magazine he was to edit. Music was another recreation. 'Jimmy the Jazz Pianist' (in Donald Horne's fond phrase) was a fabled figure on campus, and McAuley also served as organist and choirmaster at Holy Trinity Church, Dulwich Hill. Later, he wrote hymns, besides playing a modern reproduction of the virginal.

While tutoring (1938) at a property near Bungendore, McAuley gathered his early poems under the title 'Prelude, Suite and Chorale, a livre composé'. His M.A. thesis, 'Symbolism: An Essay In Poetics', manifested his abiding interest in twentieth-century German and French poetry. Appointed junior housemaster at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) in 1940, he resigned when questioned about his principled refusal to volunteer for war service, took a teacher's scholarship and was appointed in 1942 to Newcastle Boys' Junior High School. Throughout his career he remained deeply concerned with standards in secondary education and became president (1971) of the Australian Association of Teachers of English.

At the district registrar's office, Newcastle, on 20 June 1942 McAuley married Norma Elizabeth Abernethy, a 22-year-old schoolteacher. In October he was appointed research consultant to a wartime advisory committee in the Prime Minister's Department, before being mobilized in the Militia on 7 January 1943. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force that month. Following a stint in army education, Sergeant McAuley was commissioned in January 1944 and worked in Melbourne with A. A. Conlon's Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs).

On idle afternoons in the Victoria Barracks in 1944, McAuley and Harold Stewart concocted the 'Ern Malley' hoax. Intending to castigate 'the decay of meaning and craftsmanship' in much contemporary verse, they targeted the Adelaide journal Angry Penguins, edited by Max Harris. Using a comically eclectic array of sources, together with a fictitious biography for the hapless Ern, the hoaxers sent 'his' The Darkening Ecliptic to Harris, who eagerly published it. This successful and serious prank has been loosely blamed for setting back literary modernism and encouraging philistinism in Australia. Exaggerated claims were advanced for the Malley poems, but, once the hoax was exposed in a Sydney newspaper, McAuley had little to say of them.

In December 1943 he made the first of many visits to New Guinea, which became a second 'spirit country', as well as an inspiration for his thinking about post-colonial polities. From August 1945 McAuley was an instructor at the Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs (later Australian School of Pacific Administration), first in Canberra and then in Sydney. Transferring to the Reserve of Officers in March 1946, he remained at the school as a lecturer until 1959. One of his tasks was to train officers for service in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Inspired by the mission of Marie Thérèse Noblet, McAuley adopted in 1952 the Catholic faith from which his father had lapsed.

His first volume of verse, Under Aldebaran, was published by Melbourne University Press in 1946. In the early 1950s he discovered the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, whose work he later translated. McAuley's poetic reputation was consolidated with A Vision of Ceremony (Sydney, 1956). The role as public intellectual, which he increasingly sought, found expression in The End of Modernity (Sydney, 1959). Anti-modernist in precept and tone, these essays argued for the spiritual dimension of the greatest art. He developed that position, while trenchantly stating his liberal-conservative political beliefs, through the journal Quadrant, of which he became founding editor in 1956. In 1967 it was revealed that, through its association with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Quadrant received funds from the Central Intelligence Agency. McAuley claimed, without refutation, that no consequent pressure had ever been placed on him as editor. Nevertheless, Quadrant continued to be demonized by its left-wing competitors, Meanjin and Overland, though all shared contributors, a constant struggle for funds and an inclusive, liberal practice in the selection of material.

From the mid-1950s McAuley's energies were directed to ideological differences within the Australian Labor Party. Support for the anti-communist policies of the industrial groups brought him into sympathetic contact with B. A. Santamaria and the Catholic Social Studies Movement. It also placed him in conflict with the Catholic hierarchy of Sydney, notably Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy and Bishop James Carroll. Eventually McAuley supported the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.

In 1960 McAuley seemed to have retreated from politics, when he accepted a readership in poetry at the University of Tasmania. Next year he succeeded to the chair of English, which he held until his death, despite soundings from mainland universities. Teaching and administrative responsibilities (he was at various times chairman of the professorial board and acting vice-chancellor) did not impede his role as controversialist, nor his literary output. A monograph on Christopher Brennan's poetry appeared in 1963. When, 'suddenly, unbidden, the theme [returned]', McAuley recovered his poetic drive and completed a verse epic on the Portuguese explorer, Captain Quiros (Sydney, 1964). Always an inspiring teacher, he instilled in students love and respect for the craft of poetry. His modestly titled A Primer of English Versification (Sydney, 1966) remains an exemplary, traditional introduction to this subject. It was in the fecund decade of the 1960s that he also wrote most of his hymns, many set to music by Richard Connolly. While in Europe and the United States of America in 1967, he began the sequence of poems on Sydney youth called 'On the Western Line'. In the same year he helped to form Peace With Freedom, a body of right-wing intellectuals determined to counter 'propaganda against the allied commitment in the Vietnam War'. Earlier that year he had spent a month in South East Asia, meeting Australian servicemen in Vietnam and experiencing a misplaced confidence in America's capacity 'to knock out the major forces' of its enemy.

McAuley's next volume of verse, Surprises of the Sun (Sydney, 1969), made as much impact as any before, being received with puzzlement and acclaim. Containing numerous autobiographical poems, it seemed to mark a shift from austere classicism towards a Romantic sensibility. In fact, few Australian poets had been more wholehearted in believing in the healing powers of nature. 'At Rushy Lagoon' the poet—characteristically at the edge of the scene—discerns 'a world of sense and use'. McAuley rejoiced in natural plenitude, as in the poem, 'In the Huon Valley', which the governor of Tasmania was to read at his funeral. This was McAuley when most like Keats, of whom he was less suspicious than of other Romantic poets, such as the radical Shelley. Distinctively, he pressed for meanings that could be made explicit and sought declarative statements:

Life is full of returns;
It isn't true that one never
Profits, never learns.

A wistful hope, in this conclusion, temporarily mastered anguish, but for McAuley dread was always at hand. Like Keats, he savoured:

joys that lie
Closest to despair.

The latter was ever ready to announce itself, whether as terror of spiritual emptiness or political disorder at home and abroad. Teaching Shakespeare's Henry IV, McAuley spoke with especial relish the words 'Let order die!' The fascination of that terrible sentiment recalled the anarchic side of his nature, the youthful self which he summoned and faced down. He maintained that, without order, or belief in the structure of faith that can sustain it, there was nothingness. 'The Exile' represented the poet as a 'man repudiated, cancelled', whose life is 'without contexts, or hope' and for whom emptiness is intensified by spiritual dread.

In 1969 McAuley was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. After a visit to New Delhi in January 1970 for a seminar on Australian and Indian literature, he was found to have bowel cancer. Once recovered and able to quip 'better a semi-colon than a full stop', he intensified his literary and public efforts. Significantly, the poems which he wrote in 1970-76 were collected as Time Given (Canberra, 1976). In 1972 his achievement in the humanities was recognized by the Britannica Award of $10,000 and a gold medal. A volume of essays, The Grammar of the Real, and a critical anthology, A Map of Australian Verse, were published in 1975, the year he was appointed A.M. Music Late at Night (London, 1976), which contained his Trakl translations, was inspired, in part, by a visit to that poet's familiar Austrian cities of Innsbruck and Salzburg.

Early in 1976 McAuley was diagnosed as having liver cancer. Courageously and meticulously, he prepared for death. A man in whom gracefulness always consorted with rage, and whose opinion of himself was more scarifying than that of his enemies, McAuley was a bold and bitter jester. More droll than the Ern Malley hoax was his projection of Poets' Anonymous, wherein bad poets would be encouraged to discuss their affliction and be paid by the government not to write. McAuley—who often took an angry man's comfort in last things—began his testament, 'Explicit', playfully:

Fully tested I've been found
Fit to join the underground.

While he praised the discursive poetry of Dryden as 'well-bred and easy, energetic, terse', McAuley was committed to a hard-won lyric impulse. Things of the world delighted him: landscapes, political connexions, wine. Spiritual promises he affirmed passionately, but did not trust. The prescriptive McAuley who declared that Christ

cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century

was given the lie in his resplendent poem, 'Jesus'. McAuley had the hazardous gift of turning metaphors into edicts, behind which practice lay his desperate wish that these might yet be vehicles of truth.

Survived by his wife, daughter and four sons, McAuley died on 15 October 1976 at Lenah Valley, Hobart, and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. Lean, sandy haired, with grey-green eyes and a deeply lined face, he was energetic and patrician in gesture, melodious and measured in speech. His portrait, painted in 1963 by Jack Carington Smith, is held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; another, by Nora Heysen, belongs to the University of Tasmania. Dame Leonie Kramer, a long-time friend, edited his Collected Poems (Sydney, 1994). The University of Tasmania established the James McAuley lecture in 1979 and named three prizes in English in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Smith, James McAuley (Melb, 1965)
  • P. Coleman, The Heart of James McAuley (Syd, 1980)
  • L. McCredden, James McAuley (Melb, 1992)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18 Jan, 14 July, 30 Oct 1961, 30 Mar, 21 Oct 1963, 5 Mar 1966, 10 June, 30 Oct, 30 Dec 1967, 27 Dec 1969, 29 July 1970, 5 May 1971, 20 Nov, 16 Dec 1972, 24, 28 Apr, 16, 19 Oct 1976, 18 Nov 1980, 5 Nov 1982.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Pierce, 'McAuley, James Phillip (1917–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcauley-james-phillip-10896/text19347, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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