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Stewart, Douglas Alexander (1913–1985)

by Ivor Indyk

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 Eltham, New Zealand, second of five children of Victorian-born Alexander Armstrong Stewart, solicitor, and his wife Mary Effie, née Fitzgerald, born in EnglandDouglas’s childhood and youth, as portrayed in his autobiography Springtime in Taranaki (1983), was an idyllic one.  He was educated at New Plymouth Boys’ High School, and his first poems were published in the school magazine The Taranakian, which he edited.  In 1931 he enrolled in law at Victoria University College, Wellington.  After failing all his exams—caused, he would say, by his immersion in the composition of a long poem in the manner of Byron—he discontinued his studies to work as a journalist on the local newspaper.  In 1932-38 he travelled the countryside with a merry-go-round operator, worked on various newspapers, mainly in the Taranaki district, and then on board a steamer, around New Zealand and through the Panama Canal to England and Scotland.

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 Sydney in 1933, at the invitation of the Bulletin’s literary editor Cecil Mann, but the promised position as a writer of light verse did not eventuate.  He dropped by again, on his way back from England in 1938, and this time he stayed:  'Springtime in Taranaki was over for me; and summer in Sydney had begun'.  In 1940 he took over from Mann as literary editor of the Bulletin, a position he held until 1961, leaving after the magazine was sold to (Sir) Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press Ltd.

Stewart’s first book of poems, Green Lions, had been published in New Zealand in 1936; his second, The White Cry, in England in 1939.  Many of the poems had previously appeared in the Bulletin.  They showed an extraordinary versatility with rhythm and rhyme, and from the outset, Stewart’s characteristic placing of individual life and consciousness as a heroic, fragile, and sometimes alien element within the drama of the natural world.  This dramatic tendency culminated in his radio play The Fire on the Snow, about Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, which was first broadcast on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio in June 1941, though it owed its gestation to the preceding New Zealand years.  The play was highly acclaimed and frequently performed.  Its heroic perspective—'a man must learn/ To endure agony, to endure and endure again/ Until agony itself is beaten out into joy'—provided dramatic expression both to the oppressive spirit of the times, dominated by war, and to the power of radio as the medium for the spoken word.

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 Australia as a breeding and testing ground for the heroic impulse, while also confronting its destructive consequences.  It too proved extremely popular, and was widely set in high school curricula over the following decades.

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 New Zealand The Golden Lover also testified to the persistent atavism in Stewart’s writing, the constant return to the landscapes of his youth.  Glencoe (1947), the cycle of ballads that commemorated the massacre of the MacIans by the Campbells in 1691, went much further back, to the landscapes of his Scottish ancestors.  Stewart said he suspected that one of those ancestors might have had a hand in the ballads, just as he would later write of Ernest (Baron) Rutherford, the heroic 'sea-farer of science' who was also a New Zealand native, 'Hands not his own, like a mist, came creeping through/ His own at their work and made what he was making'.

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 Sydney, and the high country of the Monaro.  This was country that Stewart knew intimately, through his friendship with Norman Lindsay, and through his passion for trout fishing, recorded in The Seven Rivers (1966).  The heroic stance was still there, but it was modulated by being seen from a modest or humble perspective, a modulation that is evident too in Stewart’s later long poems, as in the collection Rutherford (1962), which took the scientist and the curious observer as its subjects rather than the explorer and the adventurer.

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 5 December 1945 at the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick, he had married with Catholic rites Margaret Agnes Coen, an artist.  A convivial man, he delighted in conversation and humour.  At their home at St Ives he and his wife created a beautiful garden.  He was appointed OBE in 1960 and AO in 1979.  Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 14 February 1985 at Hornsby and was buried in Frenchs Forest cemetery.  In 1987 his diaries of domestic life were published as Douglas Stewart’s Garden of Friends.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Keesing, Douglas Stewart (1965)
  • C. Semmler, Douglas Stewart (1975)
  • M. Stewart, Autobiography of My Mother (1985)
  • J. Persse (ed), Letters Lifted into Poetry (2006)
  • B. Taaffe, Douglas Stewart (PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1996)
  • Stewart family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

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, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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