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John Streeter Manifold (1915–1985)

by William Hatherell

This article was published:

John Manifold, by Alec Bolton, 1984

John Manifold, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14262028

John Streeter Manifold (1915-1985), poet and musicologist, was born on 21 April 1915 at Toorak, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents John Manifold, grazier, and his wife Barbara, née Grey-Smith.  A grandson and great-grandson of William Thomson Manifold and John Manifold, John grew up in genteel circumstances on two family properties, Milangil and Purrumbete, in Victoria’s Western District.  At Geelong Church of England Grammar School (1925-33), he showed a talent for languages and verse translation, and in his last year published Verses, 1930-1933.  Dux of the school, he won a Whittingham scholarship that took him to Tours, France, early in 1934.  Later that year he entered Jesus College, Cambridge (BA, 1937), where he read modern languages (French and German) and English.  He embraced communism, a belief system that would remain central to his political and cultural activities.  In 1938-39 he worked as a translator with a publishing firm in Bonn; he fled Germany just as war was declared.  On 9 March 1940 at the register office, Hampstead, London, he married Katharine Mary Hopwood (d.1969), who had been a fellow student at Cambridge.

Commissioned in December 1940 in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps, Manifold served in Africa and then Western Europe, where he wrote 'The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth, A.I.F.', a terza rima elegy for a school friend who died in Germany while a prisoner of war.  Manifold was demobilised in June 1946 as a lieutenant.  Back in London, he combined occasional teaching with literary work as a poet and essayist.  Selected Verse (1946) clearly staked out his poetic concerns:  a reinvigoration of the traditional Australian bush ballad; a preference for conventional forms, particularly the sonnet; and war themes.  Also associated with London musical circles, Manifold in 1948 published The Amorous Flute, a practical treatise on the recorder.

Returning to Australia in 1949, Manifold settled at Wynnum, on Brisbane’s suburban fringe.  Helping to found in 1950 the Brisbane Realist Writers’ Group, he was soon at the centre of a range of local literary, musical and political associations with communist affiliations, including the Communist Arts Group and the Australia-China and Australia-USSR societies.  His home became a celebrated 'salon' for Brisbanites with a cultural bent, among them David Malouf, Thomas Shapcott, Rodney Hall and Judith Rodriguez.  With his refined accent and encyclopaedic knowledge of arcane matters such as eighteenth-century English opera, he cut an eccentric figure in Brisbane, particularly among the largely working-class membership of groups like the realist writers.  He produced a scholarly monograph, The Music in English Drama, from Shakespeare to Purcell (1956), and several slim volumes of verse:  Nightmares and Sunhorses (1961), Op. 8 (1971), Six Sonnets on Human Ecology (1974) and On My Selection (1983).  In 1968 the Queensland section of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, of which he had been president for two years, elected him an honorary life member.

Attempting to find 'common ground between European high culture and Australian working-class people', Manifold collected Australian bush ballads, which he championed as genuine folk art, and published anthologies, notably The Penguin Australian Songbook (1964), and the critical monograph Who Wrote the Ballads? (1964).  His bush band 'The Bandicoots' regularly performed at his home and elsewhere.  The simultaneous publication by University of Queensland Press in 1978 of Manifold’s Collected Verse and Hall’s interview-based J. S. Manifold: An Introduction to the Man and his Work prompted a reappraisal of his work.  Collected Verse showed the consistency of Manifold’s themes and forms, but also the unevenness of his achievement.  Poems such as 'Ballad of ‘17 and ‘53' are examples of political doggerel, but the best poems, particularly some of the sonnets, were exquisitely crafted with a compactness of argument and imagery much admired by other poets, including A. D. Hope and John Forbes.

In critical essays such as The Changing Face of Realism (1971), Manifold had sought to identify a privileged tradition of literary 'realism' that encompassed Henry Lawson and A. B. Paterson as well as Byron and Balzac.  For some reviewers of the 1978 books, however, such a project was starting to look decidedly old-fashioned.  Manifold’s resistance to developments such as the 'new' left and the more commercial folk revival of the 1960s betokened to commentators a certain inflexibility and an unwillingness to engage with contemporary cultural and political realities.  In 1984 he was appointed AM and was awarded an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Queensland.  Survived by his son and daughter, he died of cerebrovascular disease on 19 April 1985 at Wynnum West and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Hall, J. S. Manifold, 1978
  • J. McLaren, Writing in Hope and Fear, 1996
  • W. Hatherell, The Third Metropolis, 2007
  • Australian Book Review, November 1978, p 18
  • Poetry Australia, no 68, 1978, p 57
  • Overland, no 73, 1978, p 47
  • Overland, no 96, 1984, p 27
  • Overland, no 99, 1985, p 38
  • Corian, July 1985, p 165
  • A6119, items 3462-7 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Manifold papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

William Hatherell, 'Manifold, John Streeter (1915–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Manifold, by Alec Bolton, 1984

John Manifold, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14262028

Life Summary [details]


21 April, 1915
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


19 April, 1985 (aged 69)
Wynnum, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.