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Ian Ramsay Maxwell (1901–1979)

by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

This article was published:

Ian Ramsay Maxwell (1901-1979), professor of English, was born on 27 June 1901 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, third child of John Ramsay Maxwell, a banker from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Cecile Eleanor Elfie, née Strong. Ian was educated at Scotch College, where he gained distinction as a schoolboy poet, a prefect and editor (1919) of the Scotch Collegian. He matriculated with first-class honours in English and entered the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1923; LL.B., 1925). Admitted to the Bar on 16 July 1926, he practised as a barrister until 1931, an occupation which contributed to the fluent persuasiveness of his subsequent teaching. On 18 December 1926 at Queen's College chapel, Parkville, he married with Methodist forms Beatrice Muriel, daughter of Professor R. J. A. Berry. She was a first-class literary scholar who tutored in English at the university and taught with distinction at several Melbourne schools. A woman of strong political convictions, she later acquired great proficiency in Russian and travelled widely.

In the pit of the Depression, Maxwell quit the law and went to Balliol College, Oxford (B.Litt., 1935). His study of the relations between French and English drama in the Renaissance became in time a book, French Farce and John Heywood (Melbourne, 1946). A fellow Oxford student remembered him in these strong terms: 'he was a lion and we were mice'. In 1934-36 he taught as docent in English at the University of Copenhagen. There, he was memorable for his 'easy manner of presentation' and for his ability at wrestling. His public lecture on 'The Ring and the Book' proved not to be about Robert Browning but about literary accounts of boxing.

Maxwell was appointed in 1936 to the Department of English at the University of Sydney where he remained until 1945. He was president of the university union in 1939. His teaching combined a concern for linguistic and grammatical precision—in which he had enjoyed lively exchanges with C. A. Bodelsen while in Copenhagen—with enthusiastic illumination of a wide range of literature. During World War II he became air-raid precautions warden in the Great Quad, in which role he grew tomatoes atop the tower. In 1942 his family retreated to The Hermitage, in the hills beyond Healesville, Victoria, and Maxwell frequently spent whole weeks in his university study.

For a man who communicated his love of literature so powerfully, Maxwell wrote few poems. They included the often-sung ballad, 'Good Rum's Me Darlin', and the rhythmically haunting lyric, 'Vespers', which was used by H. M. Green to open his influential anthology, Modern Australian Poetry (Melbourne, 1946). There was also a ballade, with the oddly typical refrain, 'Brown ale, spring onions, and a slice of cheese'.

In 1946 Maxwell returned to his native Victoria, having been appointed to the chair of English language and literature at the University of Melbourne. He was dean of arts in 1948-50 and one of the leading academic opponents, with Professor (Sir) Roy Wright, of the proposal (1950) to ban the Communist Party of Australia. It was a source of great pride that he could work in the department of English with A. D. Hope, whose loss to the new chair at Canberra University College in 1951 he felt very keenly.

Although his teaching interests ranged back to French romances, the Border ballads and Milton, Maxwell was particularly notable for expanding the modern offerings in the English course; he gave enchanting lectures, for instance, on W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster and Aldous Huxley. Maxwell's bravura performance of Robert Burns's 'Tam o'Shanter' was famous, as was the occasional shedding of an empathic tear. Only late in the piece did he realize that one could lecture on a poem without knowing it by heart. At informal gatherings he would sing affectingly.

Maxwell held his chair at Melbourne until the end of February 1968, surviving sturdily into the new Leavisite era of literary moralism. He published little, being chiefly famous for his spellbinding lectures and for his latterly acquired enthusiasm for Old Icelandic language and literature. His study in the Old Arts building was legendary for its aged furniture, bookbinding equipment, overproof rum and 'deliquescent bananas', though few colleagues could be persuaded to sample the slab of dried shark which he brought back from one trip to Iceland. In 1966 he was appointed (chevalier) to the Icelandic Order of the Falcon. He derived joy from his remote bush camp at Howqua, whence came the story of his climbing a tree with a knife between his teeth, seeking to cut the throats of cormorants. His enthusiasm for axemanship was pronounced, and in one letter he wrote: 'some swine stole my axe, and I had a mild headache for a day and a half as I thought out what I should like to do to him'.

After his retirement, Maxwell was widely said to spend six and a half days at the university instead of seven. His clubbable, informal reading groups in the Norse sagas continued unabated, and there was a private edition of his useful pamphlet on rhythm and metre, Scansion Scanned (Melbourne, 1967). Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he died on 4 September 1979 at Heidelberg and was cremated. His old friend A. D. Hope had justly immortalized him in a sonnet:

The man of action in the scholar's chair,
Like Gunnar gentle and like Ari wise.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Turville-Petre and J. S. Martin (eds), Iceland and the Mediaeval World (Melb, 1974)
  • H. Dow (ed), Memories of Melbourne University (Melb, 1983)
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 June 1952
  • Maxwell papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Vice-Chancellor George Paton's files (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Maxwell manuscripts (State Library of Victoria)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Chris Wallace-Crabbe, 'Maxwell, Ian Ramsay (1901–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1901
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


4 September, 1979 (aged 78)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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