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Alan Rowland Chisholm (1888–1981)

by Stan Scott

This article was published:

Alan Rowland Chisholm (1888-1981), professor of French, critic and commentator, was born on 6 November 1888 at Bathurst, New South Wales, fifth child of New South Wales-born parents William Samuel Chisholm, coach-painter, and his wife Eliza, née Heagren. Alan was to publish two volumes of memoirs: Men Were My Milestones (1958) and The Familiar Presence (1966). He recalled his childhood at Minore and Dubbo as `a kingdom of dreams’. His earliest education was acquired at home and from `Old Mr Ross’, an erudite bush character. The family moved to Sydney and at Milsons Point and North Sydney Superior Public schools he showed a precocious joy in learning. He studied French and Latin at Fort Street Model School from 1905.

The University of Sydney (BA, 1911) was Chisholm’s `spiritual sanctuary’. He continued Latin and French, the latter under the exacting George Nicholson, befriended Randolph Hughes—`the most memorable of all my milestones’—and graduated with first-class honours. Chisholm then taught at Fort Street and at Glen Innes. A scholarship enabled him to travel in 1912 to Berlin, where, at the Institut Tilly, he quickly mastered German. Moving to France in 1913, he attended the lectures of Gustave Lanson in Paris. That year he was awarded the German and French diplomas of the International Phonetic Association. He returned to Sydney in 1914 and joined the staff of the Teachers’ College.

On 24 September 1915 at St Andrew’s Scots Church, Rose Bay, Chisholm married with Presbyterian forms Laurel May Genge, a teacher; they were to have a son before being divorced in September 1923. The need to fight against Germany in World War I caused Chisholm acute anguish. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 December 1915, he served on the Western Front in 191718 at forward posts intercepting enemy communications. A diary and letters home told of staunch mateship in `this land of lurking death’, but also of private moments when he devoured French, German and Italian literary classics. He was demobilised as a lieutenant on 25 October 1919 in Sydney. Back at the college, he founded the Modern Language Review of New South Wales (1920-21).

The full impact on Chisholm of his friendship with Christopher Brennan—a `magic spell never since forgotten’—had come in 1919, when Chisholm, alerted to the links between German romanticism and French symbolism, began his lifelong devotion to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé. He was appointed lecturer-in-charge of French at the University of Melbourne in 1921 and senior lecturer in 1923. Nazar Karagheusian accepted his invitation to fill the role of native speaker; their happy collaboration was renowned. Chisholm married Lillian Norah Mulholland (d.1968) on 1 November 1923 at the Cairns Memorial Church, East Melbourne; they had a daughter.

Chisholm’s French course was bold and innovative. Almost from the start he promoted philological, medieval and Renaissance studies, as well as classical and nineteenth-century French literature, and pioneered the teaching of modern and contemporary authors. The historical bias was redressed by various `special studies’ that were critical, aesthetic and philosophical. His lectures attested to his idealism and his belief, as an educator, in the contact of minds. He encouraged co-operation between departments. On three occasions (1924, 1931 and 1937) he taught honours German courses during Augustin Lodewyckx's sabbaticals.

After reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jules de Gaultier and Fritz Strich, Chisholm wrote his remarkable study Towards Hérodiade (1934), which situated Mallarmé in the broad sweep of nineteenth-century ideas and sensibility. Chisholm, always optimistic and objective, consciously rejected the Romantic subjectivism and Schopenhauerian pessimism that his study so beguilingly described. Promoted to associate-professor in 1930, he occupied the full chair from 1938.

His flirtation with the ideas of Charles Maurras, whom he met during a sabbatical in France in 1936, was redeemed during World War II by his fervent espousal of the Free French and Italia Libera causes, and by his numerous articles in the Argus newspaper aimed at restoring faith in fallen France. From 1943 onwards his nights were reserved for serious study as, unknown to students and most colleagues, Lillian’s emotional health made their days a torment. Yet this was the time of Chisholm’s spellbinding lectures on Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry and of the increasing recognition in Europe of a `Melbourne School’ of scrupulous Mallarméan exegesis.

Chisholm was very short, tanned and dapper. His Australianness was free of both truculence and colonial cringe. After retiring in 1957, he revisited Europe, edited work by John Shaw Neilson and Brennan, produced A Study of Christopher Brennan’s The Forest of Night (1970), wrote volumes and articles on French poetry, reviewed regularly for the Age, and wrote poetry. In 1951 he had been appointed to the French Légion d’honneur; in 1961 he was appointed OBE. He died on 9 September 1981 at Armadale, Melbourne, and was buried in Springvale cemetery. The University of Melbourne holds his portrait by Clifton Pugh.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 25 July 1970, p 17, 7 Nov 1978, p 15
  • Chisholm papers (National Library of Australia and University of Melbourne Archives)
  • personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stan Scott, 'Chisholm, Alan Rowland (1888–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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