This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012
Douglas Alexander Stewart (1913-1985), poet, editor and literary critic, was born on 6 May 1913 at
Throughout this six-year period, as recounted in his autobiography, Stewart’s commitment to writing was a constant ground note accompanying his tales of youthful adventure; in his appreciations of nature; in his encounters with influential writers like Eve Langley, John Cowper Powys and Edmund Blunden; and above all, in the constant stream of poems that he directed towards the Bulletin in Sydney. More than fifty of Stewart’s poems were published in the Bulletin during these early years. He visited
Stewart’s first book of poems, Green Lions, had been published in
There were similar forces at work in Stewart’s second play, Ned Kelly, broadcast in 1942, but here human defiance was located within a social context: the Kelly gang’s hold-up in the town of Jerilderie, the previous murder of three policemen at Stringybark Creek and the attempted destruction of a train at Glenrowan. The play made much of
Stewart’s subsequent radio plays, The Golden Lover (1944) and Shipwreck (1947), did not achieve this level of acclaim, though the shift in registers—to romantic comedy and lyricism in the former, and then to the horrors inflicted and suffered by the survivors of the Batavia in the latter—was a good indication of Stewart’s versatility and range. His writing opened up long and chilling perspectives effortlessly, but it could be light and satirical and relaxed in its virtuosity too. In its evocations of
Between 1940 and 1967 Stewart published seven collections of verse. The most important of these was Sun Orchids (1952), where he presented the finely focused lyric poems that would become his most important individual contribution to Australian poetry. In these his habitual perspective was reversed: the large forces of nature were pushed into the background, and the attention was held by the small or transient element—orchid or bird or centipede—which Stewart captured in a moment of concentrated energy and poise. The poems portrayed with great sensitivity the interplay between delicacy and grandeur in the Australian landscape, particularly the Blue Mountains, the ranges beyond them west of
But it was as editor of the Bulletin’s 'Red Page' that Stewart’s literary influence was most powerfully felt. Over a period of twenty years he published and encouraged some of the most important poets of his generation, particularly those who shared his fascination with the natural world and his commitment to vitality, form, vision and the reach for the universal—such poets as David Campbell, Francis Webb, William Hart-Smith, R. D. FitzGerald, Judith Wright, John Blight, Roland Robinson and Rosemary Dobson.
Stewart’s defining contribution to Australian literature continued after he joined Beatrice Davis as 'literary adviser' at Angus & Robertson Ltd in 1961. He published selected and collected volumes by significant contemporaries, including Wright, Campbell, A. D. Hope, Hugh McCrae and James McAuley, and oversaw the Australian Poets series, which made available in a paperback format important earlier poets like Henry Kendall, Christopher Brennan, Bernard O’Dowd, John Shaw Neilson and Dame Mary Gilmore. His output, in collaboration with Davis, also included important anthologies, designed to encourage writers and readers of Australian literature alike: the Australian Poetry and Coast to Coast collections—begun while he was at the Bulletin—two collections of bush ballads, Modern Australian Verse (1964), The Wide Brown Land (1971), Australia Fair (1983) and a collection of Australian short stories.
These editorial positions also empowered Stewart’s role as a critic. As he noted in his 1975 collection of criticism, over a period of thirty years he had observed the 'broad stream' of Australian literature passing before him: the collection bore this phrase as its title. He had been part of that stream as a poet: his reviews and introductions displayed a judicious familiarity with their subjects, and were clearly written from within Australian literature, and not simply about it. After his retirement from publishing in 1973 he wrote two book-length 'appreciations', one of Norman Lindsay and another of Kenneth Slessor, both of whom had exercised a strong influence over his work. Earlier, in The Seven Rivers, he had offered a similarly affectionate portrait of David Campbell.
In his 1977 (Sir Richard) Boyer lectures Stewart went back to the Bulletin of J. F. Archibald and Alfred G. Stephens in recalling the more colourful writers associated with the magazine. He was very conscious of the tradition to which he had contributed as poet, editor and critic. In his memoir of Lindsay he wrote: '"Take away the Bulletin, and take away Angus and Robertson, and see what you’d have left", he [Lindsay] used to say when stressing the importance of those two institutions to the development of Australian literature'. Stewart, of course, had held commanding positions in both.
Stewart was a member (1955-70) of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. On
Ivor Indyk, 'Stewart, Douglas Alexander (1913–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-douglas-alexander-15726/text26914, accessed 10 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012