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McKellar, John Alexander (1904–1932)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Alexander Ross McKellar (1904-1932), poet, was born on 9 December 1904 at Dulwich Hill, Sydney, son of Neil Calman McKellar, Victorian-born stock, station and land agent, and his wife Valentine Irene, née Machattie, from Bathurst. He was intensely proud of his parents' Highland origins and later developed Jacobite sympathies. Educated at Sydney Boys' High School, he surprisingly did not learn an ancient language.

In 1920 McKellar joined the Bank of New South Wales and took to banking with the same zest and application that he did everything. Promoted to head office in 1930, he worked on the amalgamation with the Australian Bank of Commerce. He was an ardent cricketer and Rugby footballer, captaining a successful Randwick reserve grade fifteen in 1929 and playing with the firsts next year. He also coached Sydney High's crews.

Throughout the 1920s he read omnivorously. While the Jacobean and Caroline dramatists and poets and the later eighteenth-century novelists were his English favourites, and the Roman satirists and the Greek anthology were his classical choice, his interest in French literature was catholic and deep. His poetic development was rapid. Early imitations of Housman changed to a distinctive style in his three poems in the New Triad in 1928. He met Hugh McCrae and began to impress his fellow craftsmen. When Frank Johnson began the Jacaranda Tree series of Australian poets, McKellar wrote the introduction, stressing the continuity of local poetry with overseas tradition. He helped to edit Kenneth Slessor's contribution with (as the author admitted) salutary effect. For all his enthusiasms, McKellar was a realist and a practical critic. His own volume, Twenty-Six, appeared as the first in the series early in 1932. 'It must not be presumed that because this poet is young he has little to say or little skill in self-expression', said the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer.

McKellar was working on 'The fourth Napoleon', his most ambitious venture, when, unmarried, he died on 8 March 1932 of pulmonary embolism and pneumonia at Mosman; he was cremated with Anglican rites. Many of his new poems were published by Southerly in 1944, with a perceptive memoir by J. W. Gibbes. In 1946 his Collected Poems finally appeared.

McKellar was an attractive, many-sided man. His poetic form was conventional but his imagery and turn of phrase could be strikingly original. Like other Australian poets of his generation, he often tried to relate the European heritage to Australia, not only the Rome of Petronius or the France of Voltaire, but also his boyhood memories of Anzac and of Australia at war. With these he joined a lively perception, as in 'Pigeons in the City' and 'Oxford Street—The Five Ways', of the urban present. Henry Mackenzie Green, whose radio broadcast in 1942 began renewed interest in McKellar's work, later asserted that 'the four leading intellectual poets [Alec Hope, James McAuley, Slessor and Robert FitzGerald] might have been five but for the cutting short of one of the most promising of all Australian youthful poetic talents'.

Select Bibliography

  • Meanjin Quarterly, 1, no 11, 1942
  • Southerly, 5, no 4, 1944
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 7 June 1945.

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'McKellar, John Alexander (1904–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckellar-john-alexander-7384/text12837, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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