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Michael, James Lionel (1824–1868)

by T. T. Reed

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

James Lionel Michael (1824-1868), poet, was born at Red Lion Square, London, second son of Jacob Michael, solicitor, and his wife Rose Lemon, née Hart. He left school at 15 and was privately tutored in English, French, Italian and drawing. After visiting Europe he was articled to his father with whom he later practised as a solicitor. He became associated with the Pre-Raphaelites in whose defence he is said to have written a pamphlet which was well received by Millais, Turner, and Ruskin. In May 1853 he arrived in Sydney and on 30 July was admitted a solicitor. He went into partnership with David Lawrence Levy and later practised on his own account. On 13 February 1854 in Scots Church he married Eleanor Grubin; their only child, James, was born at Burwood on 16 October.

Late in 1855 Michael met J. S. Moore, who introduced him to other literary men. He regularly contributed verse, essays, and criticism to the Month, edited by Moore, and the Southern Cross, edited by D. H. Deniehy. In November 1857 Michael published Songs Without Music, a collection of lyrics, Isle of Vines: A Fairy Tale for Old and Young in 1858 and in April 1860, John Cumberland, a narrative poem partly autobiographical. A long romantic poem, 'Sir Archibald Yelverton', which he had contributed to the Month in September 1858, was not published separately. His guests at literary dinners in his Burwood home included Henry Kendall. Bankrupt in 1858 Michael transferred his legal practice to Grafton in October 1861. He became a member of the committee and secretary of the local School of Arts. The only lawyer in the district, he had a busy practice but found time to contribute leading articles, poems, essays and practical advice to farmers in the Clarence & Richmond Examiner. He read widely and studied plants, ferns, mosses and insects. He also dabbled in chemistry and theology. In 1862-63 his clerk was Kendall who described him as an elegant verse writer, an able essayist and a brilliant talker rather than a poet.

In 1864 Michael was legally separated from his wife and given custody of their son. Michael developed chronic bronchitis and later asthma after an accident forced him to spend two nights in the bush in wet clothes without food or shelter. In May 1866 he wrote to his father 'God help those, who with the habits and education of London, the recollection of intelligent society, and the tastes of a gentleman are doomed to settle in a place like this'. In 1868 he suffered from gastric fever and his doctor advised him to curtail his work and studies. On 26 April he went for a walk dressed in a great-coat, galoshes and a cap with ear muffs. His body was found two days later in the Clarence River; an open verdict was returned at the inquest and he was buried in the Grafton cemetery with no minister present.

Michael was of medium height with a swarthy complexion and a self-possessed manner. He was a sparkling conversationalist, lecturer and advocate but diffuse as a writer and without originality; he lacked the capacity to be more than a competent writer of smooth and graceful verses. He had little capacity for administration and by improvidence died heavily in debt.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Moore, The Life and Genius of James Lionel Michael (Syd, 1868)
  • Clarence & Richmond Examiner, 28 Apr, 5 May 1868
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 1868
  • Australasian, 2 Apr 1870
  • Bowden lectures (Clarence River Historical Society records, Grafton City Council)
  • Michael papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

T. T. Reed, 'Michael, James Lionel (1824–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/michael-james-lionel-4193/text6745, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 20 February 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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