Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Waldock, Arthur John Alfred (1898–1950)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Arthur John Alfred Waldock (1898-1950), professor of English, was born on 26 January 1898 at Hinton, New South Wales, only son of Rev. Arthur John Waldock, a Baptist minister from Victoria, and his native-born wife Charlotte, née Godfrey. His father moved to Sydney in 1899. John attended Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1918; M.A., 1925). He graduated with first-class honours in English literature and history, having been greatly influenced by (Sir) Mungo MacCallum and George Arnold Wood.

After briefly teaching at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Waldock was appointed lecturer in English at the university in 1919. He remained at Sydney for the rest of his life, apart from a year at the University of London in 1924 and some study leave abroad.

Backed by a strong testimonial from the university librarian Henry Mackenzie Green, who was himself a candidate, Waldock succeeded John Le Gay Brereton in the Challis chair of English literature in 1934. His own range of literary interests was catholic. He soon introduced courses in modern English and American literature. Steeped in European culture and, to some observers, reminiscent of an 'Oxbridge don', Waldock gave an international flavour to his Sydney department. While a patron of Australian writers (and assistant-secretary of the Australian English Association from 1923), he could not believe that what they produced merited separate and distinct study.

Waldock had gained acclaim in Britain with Hamlet: A Study in Critical Method (Cambridge, 1931). Its sensitivity to characterization and acute analysis of dramatic technique, succinctly presented, were to be his critical hallmarks. The breadth of his lectures was shown in the collection of studies, James, Joyce and Others (London, 1937). He returned to the classical field with Paradise Lost and its Critics (Cambridge, 1947). His most controversial work, the study of Milton, was criticized for undervaluing the character of epic poetry; it was also alleged that Waldock's 'intelligent secularism' exposed him to historical error. F. R. Leavis (with whom Waldock had little in common) defended the distinction of the book. Waldock's reputation overseas was enhanced by his work on Paradise Lost.

A humble man of retiring disposition, Waldock lived modestly, for some years at a Young Men's Christian Association hostel. But he gathered great affection and friendship. He ran an effective department which coped competently with the pressures of the postwar university expansion. Yet he was averse to leadership and administration, and succeeded through the loyalty that his gentle and humorous personality elicited: 'he would ask as a favour what he was entitled to command'. He was a stimulating teacher of small groups and, for all his diffidence, was a superb lecturer to large classes: 'every lecture he gave was a finished piece of art'.

Waldock had moved on from Milton to Sophocles. His study of the Greek dramatist was due to be published by Cambridge University Press. He was planning a work on Euripides and thinking about further work on Shakespeare. At the beginning of 1950, intending to marry Brydie Kelsall and travel with her to see his English publishers, he was taken ill. He died of acute pancreatitis on 14 January after an operation at St Luke's Hospital, Sydney. Survived by his father, he was buried with Baptist forms in Northern Suburbs cemetery. Sophocles the Dramatist (Cambridge, 1951) appeared posthumously and his three major publications were subsequently reprinted.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney et al, Australia's First, vol 1 (Syd, 1991)
  • W. F. Connell et al, Australia's First, vol 2 (Syd, 1995)
  • B. H. Fletcher, History and Achievement (Syd, 1999)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 16 Mar 1950
  • Southerly, 12, no 1, 1951, 35, no 1, 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1934, 12 June 1936, 15 Jan 1950
  • Times Literary Supplement (London), 27 Nov 1947
  • Sunday Herald, 15 Jan 1950
  • Bulletin, 25 Jan 1950.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Waldock, Arthur John Alfred (1898–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waldock-arthur-john-alfred-11935/text21387, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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