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Stewart, Harold Frederick (1916–1995)

by Michael Ackland

This article was published online in 2019

Harold Frederick Stewart (1916–1995), poet and Buddhist scholar, was born on 14 December 1916 at Drummoyne, Sydney, elder child of New South Wales-born parents Herbert Howard Vernon Stewart, health inspector, and his wife Amy Muriel, née Morris. Harold’s father had spent three decades in India. Fluent in Hindustani, he passed on his interest in Asian civilisations to his son. From his mother, Harold apparently inherited a remarkably retentive memory.

A gifted but cantankerous student, Stewart much preferred the role of teacher or guru to submitting to the lessons of others. He won a scholarship to the Conservatorium High School, Sydney, where he studied the trumpet and theory, before transferring to Fort Street Boys’ High School. There he shone academically until he discovered his homosexuality and abandoned conventional goals. His verse was published in the Fortian, and in 1934 and 1935 he won its prize for poetry. Initially he failed the Leaving certificate, and in 1936 he dropped out of the University of Sydney—where he had enrolled on a Teachers’ College scholarship—after two months. Nevertheless, he maintained that he was destined for poetic greatness.

Mobilised on 28 September 1942 for full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces and promoted to acting corporal in December (substantive, 1944), Stewart spent the remainder of his World War II service on the staff of Alf Conlon’s Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, Melbourne. The army discharged him in April 1946. He first achieved public notice through the Ern Malley hoax, which he perpetrated in 1944 with James McAuley, who was also in the directorate. They composed a body of poems satirising the modernist movement, and invented its supposed author, Ern Malley, a recently deceased automobile mechanic and insurance salesman. These they sent to the would-be doyen of Australian literary modernism, Max Harris, who was so impressed that he devoted an issue of his journal, Angry Penguins, to their publication. The hoax, which was soon revealed in the press, delighted local foes of Modernism and shredded Harris’s reputation as a discerning judge of literature, but it left the hoaxers still with the daunting task of each finding his own personal idiom and distinctive theme.

Stewart was to find material commensurate with his ambitions in Far Eastern heritages, as well as realms of discipline and order often absent from his own existence. In 1943 he defended his turn towards the Chinese as a means of opening up a new poetic terrain, and of self-fulfilment:

These are not mere fertilizing interests & agents but the very medium through which I realize myself … What Greece has been, from the Renaissance on, to English poets, Ancient China & the East in general are to me. I am most at home in their art & ideas, most myself, when effacing my self [sic] in those times & places & people (NLA MS 3925).

He later recounted how ‘just when all seems hopelessly lost … by writing a poem I fly together again’ (Stewart 1955). Meanwhile he published Phoenix Wings: Poems 1940–6 (1948) and Orpheus and Other Poems (1956). These volumes reflected his change of focus, and attracted a small but dedicated readership.

By 1950 Stewart had moved to Melbourne, where he headed a Traditionalist reading group, while during the day he worked in the Norman Robb bookshop; he also lectured for the Victorian Council of Adult Education and spoke on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio. The teachings of the so-called Traditionalists heavily influenced his understanding of Eastern philosophic and religious traditions. Both erudite and esoteric, the works of authors such as René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy offered acolytes access to heritages long forgotten by the scientifically oriented West, which constituted a ‘secret intellectual history of the twentieth century’ (Sedgwick 2009, 15). Here was material that conferred a sense of elite knowledge upon its devotees, and of being part of a chosen few. This suited perfectly the autodidact Stewart.

Thanks to the Traditionalists, too, Stewart’s interest in Japan and Pure Land Buddhism was aroused, and direction given to the last thirty years of his life. He published two volumes of haiku translations: A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings (1960) and A Chime of Windbells: A Year of Japanese Haiku in English Verse (1969). In 1961 and 1963 he visited Japan, on the latter occasion with the avowed intention of becoming a Buddhist monk. His resolve failed shortly before induction and he returned to Australia, but he went on to study diligently under Japanese masters and to gain a formidable knowledge of Japanese culture and Buddhism, despite having only a rudimentary grasp of the language.

In 1966 Stewart moved to Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He also travelled widely in Japan, often in the company of his preferred companion, Ueshima Masaaki. Stewart was always an extremely entertaining correspondent, and with time he became an enthusiastic as well as hugely knowledgeable guide to Kyoto for the people who visited him there. Some of these later showed their appreciation by supporting his publishing ventures. In correspondence from these years he presented himself as devoted to Buddhism and his muse. The final results were impressive. In 1980 he published The Exiled Immortal: A Song-Cycle, and the following year his epic work, By the Old Walls of Kyoto: A Year’s Cycle of Landscape Poems with Prose Commentaries, which charts his spiritual pilgrimage. He received the Christopher Brennan award from the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1987. Just before his death on 7 August 1995 at Kyoto, he completed his magnum opus, ‘Autumn Landscape Roll: A Divine Panorama.’ In 1995 the manuscript, together with other papers, was given to the National Library of Australia, Canberra. He has strong claims to be a great poet in his own right, as well as an important precursor of Australian interest in the Asian region.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ackland, Michael. Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001
  • Kelly, Peter. Buddha in a Bookshop: Harold Stewart and the Traditionalists. North Fitzroy, Vic.: Ulysses Press, 2007
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, N436963
  • National Library of Australia. MS 3925, Papers of H. M. Green, 1930–1963
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8973, Papers of Harold Stewart, 1933–1995
  • Sedgwick, Mark. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Stewart, Harold. Letter to James McAuley, June 1955. Norma McAuley collection. Private collection

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Ackland, 'Stewart, Harold Frederick (1916–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-harold-frederick-29423/text36418, published online 2019, accessed online 7 December 2019.

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