Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dunn, Maxwell Walter Dumont (1895–1963)

by Peter Pierce

This article was published:

Maxwell Walter Dumont Dunn (1895?-1963), poet and Buddhist, was born probably in 1895 in Dublin, reputed son of Richard Laurence Dunn, barrister, and his wife Helen Eloise, née Hunyady-Dumont. Max's versions of his early life were sufficiently various to provoke friends to scepticism. Privately educated in his youth, he claimed to have passed through the medical faculty at the University of Edinburgh and to have served in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I; there is no evidence that he did either. Following a trip to the United States of America, he arrived in Australia in 1924 as a remittance man and settled in Melbourne.

When his allowance diminished in the Depression, Dunn 'began his adventures in various vocations', which included running an art gallery, translating and freelance writing. He won first prize in the International Play Competition in 1938 and in the All-Australian Competition in 1939. During World War II he was aviation correspondent for the Argus and published the first of numerous books, War in the Sky (1940).

Thenceforward, Dunn's energies were increasingly occupied with poetry, self-published in volumes as fine as wartime restrictions allowed. First was Random Elements (1943), from Dunn's Anvil Press. His most substantial volumes, published after he had abandoned journalism for poetry, were Time of Arrival (1947), Portrait of a Country (1951) and The Mirror and the Rose (1954). An association with Jack Kirtley led to an edition, limited to 14 copies, of Dunn's The Journey of John Donne (1952). He wrote of one with whom he almost shared a name, and with whose journey he empathized:

Mapping his darkened hemispheres,
He found love's paradigm
Nailed as the answer to his grief
On one green branch of time.
Poems translated from the Chinese (one of numerous languages with which he claimed acquaintance), The City of Wide Streets by the Friendly River, appeared in 1952.

While Dunn was once mistakenly regarded as an antipodean Blake, the influence of Yeats is audible:

My father gave me a branch of bells . . .
My mother gave me a crystal quill.
Elsewhere he sounds like Ern Malley:

On the I, the upright pin of me
Ardent, my haloed coil revolves . . .

Some of Dunn's most lucid and accomplished work was published in Eight by Eight (1963), to which he contributed with other Melbourne poets.

In the 1950s, an epileptic living behind a shop in South Yarra 'surrounded with the vestigial remains of better days', he was helped by J. K. Moir, president of the Bread and Cheese Club, who on Sundays 'kept open house for undernourished poets'. In 1955 Dunn was converted to Buddhism. He adopted the title Reverend, but refused to teach at a Buddhist university in Thailand, arguing that 'where there is no frost there is no thought'. President and a life member of the Buddhist Society of Victoria, he was Buddhist chaplain at the 1956 Olympic Games. On 11 October that year in Melbourne he married with Unitarian forms Joan Thorpe, a 25-year-old nurse whom he had met at a Buddhist meeting. Survived by his wife, he died of cancer on 4 September 1963 at South Yarra and was cremated.

R. A. Simpson owned that he had heard Dunn called 'a sham', but judged him as 'intrinsically a true innocent'. For Leigh Cook, he was a 'cultivated sophisticate'; for David Martin, simply 'our austere Buddhist'. An accounting of the shifts and fabrications of Dunn's life must admit his dedication to poetry and printing, his affinity with languages, and his determination to live a literary life within a culture that incompletely supported him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Malloch, Fellows All (Melb, 1943)
  • D. Martin, My Strange Friend (Syd, 1991)
  • Southerly, 11, no 3, 1950
  • Quadrant, Oct-Nov 1964
  • Westerly, May 1966 (issues 3-4 of 1965)
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1963.

Citation details

Peter Pierce, 'Dunn, Maxwell Walter Dumont (1895–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 March 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


4 September, 1963 (aged ~ 68)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence