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Robinson, Roland Edward (1912–1992)

by Peter Kirkpatrick

This article was published online in 2016

Roland Edward Robinson (1912–1992), poet and collector of Aboriginal legends, was born on 12 June 1912 at Balbriggan, County Dublin, Ireland, second of three sons of English parents Walter Robinson, lace worker, and his wife Sarah, née Searson. Unsettled by the rising tide of Irish nationalism, the family returned to England during World War I, and then emigrated to Australia when Roland was nine, settling at Carlton, Sydney. Roland was educated at Blakehurst Public School and Hurstville Technical School, where an inspirational teacher encouraged his interest in writing. Following the death of his mother, and unhappy at his father’s remarriage, he went to work at fourteen as a houseboy on a sheep farm near Coonamble, New South Wales, and then as a rouseabout and station hand on other properties in the area.

Returning to Sydney about 1932, Robinson was employed at Lustre Hosiery Mills, Rushcutters Bay. Conditions there, together with a passion for poets such as Shelley, Blake, and William Morris, radicalised him. He was active in the Australian Textile Workers’ Union and also began to write poetry. Edward Thomas, the English poet and essayist, was a lasting influence, as were the novelists Turgenev, Tolstoy, and D. H. Lawrence.

On 20 March 1937 at St Cuthbert’s Church of England, Langlea (South Carlton), he married Barbara Alice Robinson, an English-born stenographer. On weekends the couple would bushwalk and camp in and around the (Royal) National Park, an activity that awakened in him a deep love of Australian nature. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin began publishing his verse. He then embarked on one of his nomadic periods, travelling in rural New South Wales and Tasmania as a fruit-picker and labourer. Called up in Hobart early in World War II, he declared himself a conscientious objector by refusing a medical examination, and spent a night in gaol. He was soon back in Sydney and working as an artists’ model. When cleaning her studio he met Hélène Kirsova and joined her company in the corps de ballet. Later he would review both books and ballet for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Robinson shared the cultural nationalism of the Jindyworobak poets, and while in Adelaide with Kirsova in 1944 he became friends with their founder, Rex Ingamells, who published his first book of verse, Beyond the Grass-Tree Spears (1944). Robinson edited the 1948 Jindyworobak Anthology, and later in life would declare ‘I was, and still am, an ardent, an aggressive “Jindyworobak”’ (Robinson 1976, 70). In 1948 he co-founded the Lyre Bird Writers cooperative, which published his second collection, Language of the Sand (1949). This and Tumult of the Swans (1953), which won the Grace Leven prize, were republished with later poems as Deep Well (1962). Mixing strong natural imagery with taut, sharply turned lines, he sought to capture an animistic, at times erotic, vision of the Australian landscape: ‘I wanted what I had to say to be in-dwelling, immanent’ (Robinson 1973, 220).

Towards the end of World War II Robinson had worked for the Civil Constructional Corps in the Northern Territory, an experience that ‘changed my blood’ (Robinson 1973, 319). He became friends with the bushman and author Bill Harney and the naturalist Eric Worrell, and met Aboriginal people for the first time. Returning to the Territory with Worrell after the war, he visited Roper River and took down the stories for his first collection of Aboriginal myths, Legend & Dreaming (1952). Of the influence of Indigenous people on his own outlook, he wrote, ‘I think that I have received more comfort, more enlightenment, more religion, and poetry . . . from the Aborigines, than from any of the wise books of the white man’ (Robinson 1973, 352).

Robinson eventually became a groundsman at Woollahra Golf Course, Sydney, a job that would support him for two decades. He worked on a screenplay for John Heyer’s documentary The Back of Beyond (1954), about the Birdsville Track mail run, but his difficulties with screenwriting and with Heyer’s conception of the film meant that only part of his script was used; the main work was done by Douglas Stewart. At this time his involvement in the peace movement attracted the attention of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

Having divorced Barbara in March 1952, Robinson married Elizabeth Anne Lonergan, a teacher, on 5 July 1952 at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Rose Bay; this marriage also ended in divorce. In 1954 he and Elizabeth travelled around the Northern Territory on a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship to collect Aboriginal legends that he published in The Feathered Serpent (1956). While holidaying on the south coast of New South Wales they became friends with a Yuin man, Percy Mumbulla (Mumbler), with whom Robinson collaborated on stories recorded in Black-Feller, White-Feller (1958) and The Man Who Sold His Dreaming (1965). Alcheringa and Other Aboriginal Poems (1970) contained verse renditions of tales by Mumbulla and other informants.

In 1962 Grace Perry invited Robinson to join the editorial board of Poetry Magazine, the journal of the Sydney-based Poetry Society of Australia. He was elected the society’s president, but soon chafed at Perry’s influence and resigned, only to resume an editorial role after Perry was herself displaced in 1964. Together with his then partner, Joan Mas, Robinson became an anchor of the society, and later returned to the presidency. At the height of his influence he revived Lyre Bird Writers to publish emerging authors such as Robert Gray and Peter Skrzynecki. He nevertheless resisted growing pressure from other younger poets, led by Robert Adamson, to open the society and its journal to contemporary American influences. When a meeting to decide the issue in 1969 reached a stalemate, Robinson chose to withdraw rather than fight on. In 1971, under its new editors, Poetry Magazine became New Poetry.

Robinson was never a prolific poet, but his output slowed further in the 1970s, when he directed his energies to three volumes of autobiography: The Drift of Things (1973), which won the inaugural National Book Council award in 1974; The Shift of Sands (1976); and A Letter to Joan (1978), which recalled his troubled relationship with Mas. He was a passionate, deeply intuitive writer, who was proud of his bush skills, suspicious of intellectuals, and defensive of his lack of education. Subject to fits of depression, he possessed little self-irony and ‘nae tact’ (Robinson 1973, 147, 166), yet was a helpful mentor and encourager. His obsessions lent him charisma, though some found him theatrical. Having read the psychology of C. G. Jung in the 1960s, Robinson felt that he had ‘two selves,’ and that ‘the demonic self, the primitive self, has always pursued me’ (Robinson 1967, 4, 177). Believing that he was ‘a reincarnation of one of the ancient oral bards—preferably Anglo-Saxon’ (Robinson 1973, 278), he took pride in being able to recite from memory his own and other poets’ work ‘for two hours non-stop’ (Robinson 1973, 323). His lean, active physique, strong features, and a leonine shock of hair enhanced his bardic persona. Always in need of a muse, he was attractive to women and had numerous amours.

In the late 1970s Robinson moved to Belmont, New South Wales, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He was appointed an emeritus fellow of the Australia Council in 1982 and awarded the OAM in 1984. In 1988 he won the Patrick White award and, from the Fellowship of Australian Writers, the Christopher Brennan award. The University of Newcastle awarded him an honorary DLitt in 1991. Survived by his then partner, Jacqueline Diplock, he died on 8 February 1992 at Belmont and was buried in the local Anglican lawn cemetery. The City of Lake Macquarie named the Roland Robinson Literary Award and the Roland Robinson Library, Belmont, in his honour. He was the last of the Jindyworobaks, and his poetry has proved the most enduring of the group’s, not least because he took Indigenous culture closest to heart.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Ramsland, John. ‘Roland Robinson, 1912–1992: “Verses in Charcoal”.’ Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, June 1992, 8
  • Robinson, Roland. The Drift of Things: An Autobiography 1914-52. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1973
  • Robinson, Roland. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 14 December 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Robinson, Roland. A Letter to Joan: An Autobiography 1962-73. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978
  • Robinson, Roland. The Shift of Sands: An Autobiography 1952-62. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1976.

Citation details

Peter Kirkpatrick, 'Robinson, Roland Edward (1912–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-roland-edward-16981/text28851, published online 2016, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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