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Quinn, Roderic Joseph (1867–1949)

by Axel Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Roderic Joseph Quinn (1867-1949), by Talma Studios, 1890s

Roderic Joseph Quinn (1867-1949), by Talma Studios, 1890s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23481027

Roderic Joseph Quinn (1867-1949), poet, was born on 26 November 1867 at Surry Hills, Sydney, seventh of nine children of Irish parents Edward Quinn, letter-carrier, and his wife Catherine, née McCarthy. He was educated at the parish school of St Francis de Sales, Haymarket, where Christopher Brennan was a schoolmate; at the Marist Brothers' School; and then their High School where he and E. J. Brady formed a lifelong friendship. He worked for a produce merchant, studied law irregularly for three years and taught for six months at Milbrulong Provisional Public School, near Wagga Wagga. After a brief spell as a public servant back in Sydney, he became editor of the North Sydney News.

Quinn had spent much of his youth in the company of brothers and friends who were poets or poets-to-be. It was as a poetic dreamer that he established his reputation in the 1890s. His first poem to be published by the Bulletin, characteristically entitled 'A Dreamer', appeared in 1894. He turned increasingly to writing verse as his main occupation and by the end of the decade was widely considered one of the leading poets in Australia. The Hidden Tide (1899) was warmly praised by local critics, including A. G. Stephens, and attracted favourable (although circumspect) comment from W. B. Yeats. Quinn's novel, Mostyn Stayne (Melbourne, 1897), written in very ornamental style, was less successful, but later volumes of verse—The Circling Hearths (1901), A Southern Garland (1904) and Poems (1920)—maintained his position as an important poet. He also regularly wrote short stories for the Bulletin.

His shyness and reticence did not prevent Quinn from making strong friendships or enjoying lively company. He was a leading member of the Dawn and Dusk Club in the late 1890s; but at the club's convivial, boisterous gatherings, it is said, he was always calm and philosophical, his bearing dignified, his language exquisite. In company he listened rather than talked, although he relished the opportunity of reciting his own poetry which he intoned like a Celtic bard; he also enjoyed telling Irish fairy stories. He had an air of courteous deference and a fine sense of humour. Genuinely kind and considerate, he was not given to making derogatory remarks about his colleagues or their works. His tall, big-boned frame, cavalry moustache and deep-sunk, gentle eyes made him an appealing figure.

In 1925 David McKee Wright said of Quinn: 'among the world singers of his time, his place is very high'. He was also quite a popular poet, especially in the Sydney Catholic community. From the mid-1890s to the mid-1920s he supported himself almost entirely on the proceeds of his poetry: he never married and lived mainly with other members of his family. For the last twenty years of his life he boarded at the house of Mrs Lucy Cassidy at Waverley. From 1925 he received a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension of £1 a week, supplemented by the State government. He died in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, on 15 August 1949 and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Appealingly modest about his achievement, Quinn spoke of himself as 'a pleasant minor poet', a view that became increasingly prevalent between the two world wars when interest in his work slackened. His poetry belonged very much to the era in which he was brought up, but owed little to the country in which he lived. Like Victor Daley, with whom he is often linked, he set himself at some distance from contemporary bush balladists, drawing much more heavily on the language and imagery of later nineteenth-century English poetry and Irish poetry of the Celtic Twilight; he did so even when he wrote on specifically Australian subjects, sometimes with incongruous results. A bust of Quinn, by Tom Bass, is in the State Library of New South Wales.

His brother Patrick Edward (1862-1926) was born on 16 March 1862 at Darlinghurst and educated at the Marist Brothers' and Fort Street Model schools. He studied law, but at 20 became a journalist and worked for newspapers, including the Star, Echo and Illustrated Sydney News. In 1898-1904 as a Protectionist (Progressive from 1901) he was member for Sydney-Bligh in the Legislative Assembly, and in 1912-17 was deputy trade commissioner for New South Wales in the United States of America. Returning to Sydney, he joined the editorial staff of the Daily Telegraph. He died at Manly on 2 April 1926 and was buried in Manly cemetery. His wife Julia, née Bourke, whom he had married in Sydney on 26 April 1888, and a daughter Marjorie, also known as a verse-writer, survived him.

Patrick himself published a good deal of verse and fiction in the Bulletin, Freeman's Journal and elsewhere. He also wrote a cantata, Captain Cook (1891; music by J. A. Delany), The Jewelled Belt, a Detective Story (1896), and The Australian Storyteller, for an Idle Afternoon (n.d.). His verse was polished, but it was generally considered inferior to his brother Roderic's—an opinion shared by Patrick himself, and by another brother James, who also published verse. According to Stephens, they both looked up to Roderic, and there was a strong bond of affection between the three brothers. 'Jim was particularly warm-hearted and lovable; Pat had a harder fibre, perhaps gained by combat in the political arena; Rod was like Jim, but always a dreamer'.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Lindsay, Bohemians of the Bulletin (Syd, 1965)
  • Bookfellow, 25 Mar 1899
  • Meanjin Quarterly, Autumn 1951
  • Bulletin, 28 Oct 1899, 8 Apr 1926, 31 Aug 1949, 19 Dec 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1926
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Apr 1926
  • The Early Poems of J., P. and R. Quinn (typescript, State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Axel Clark, 'Quinn, Roderic Joseph (1867–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/quinn-roderic-joseph-8145/text14231, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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