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Walter James Redfern Turner (1884–1946)

by C. W. F. McKenna

This article was published:

Walter James Redfern Turner (1884-1946), poet and critic, was born on 13 October 1884 in South Melbourne, eldest son of Walter James Turner (1857-1900), warehouseman, and his wife Alice May, née Watson. Born on 3 July 1857 at Geelong, Victoria, the father became prominent in Melbourne's musical activities. Organist at St James's Cathedral and later at St Paul's Church, he was appointed to teach music at the Working Men's College in 1888; he also composed ballads and directed the People's Promenade Concerts at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. He died at Kew on 5 April 1900 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Educated at Carlton State School, Scotch College and the Working Men's College before working as a clerk, Walter junior recalled his Melbourne boyhood in his fictional autobiography, Blow for Balloons (1935). In 1907 he went to London to become a writer. Spending ten months in Germany and Austria in 1913-14, he wrote satirical sketches for the New Age and concert reviews for the Musical Standard. He returned to England before the outbreak of World War I and, although he served in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1916-18, his literary career flourished. In 1916 he published the first of sixteen volumes of poetry. His work gained prominence when it appeared in Georgian Poetry in 1917 and 1919. On 5 April 1918, at St Luke's parish church, Chelsea, he had married Delphine Marguerite Dubuis (d.1951); they remained childless.

Following the war, Turner's activities introduced him to leading literary and intellectual figures in Bloomsbury and at Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. He was music critic for the New Statesman (1915-40), Truth (c.1920-37) and the Modern Mystic (1937); drama critic for the London Mercury (1919-23) and the New Statesman (1928-29); literary editor of the Owl (1919) and the Daily Herald (1920-23); and had plays produced. Although he still admired and was influenced by Georgian poets such as Walter de la Mare, in 1922 he withdrew in disillusionment from the last Georgian Poetry anthology and experimented with a more modern verse in The Seven Days of the Sun (1925). While committed to rhythm, music, sensibility and imagination, Turner's poetry also pursues his metaphysical interests and reveals a philosophic idealism that relates closely to Platonism and the thought of Kierkegaard. Yeats valued Turner's modernity and philosophic energy, and in the late 1930s they collaborated in British Broadcasting Corporation poetry programmes.

As music critic, Turner distinguished himself by the independence, originality and outspokenness of his views. He published studies of Beethoven (1927), Wagner (1933), Berlioz (1934) and Mozart (1938), but also revered modern composers such as Stravinsky, and was one of London's most receptive commentators on the new music of Schönberg, Berg, Webern and Hindemith. He regarded Artur Schnabel as the greatest pianist of the age and became his close friend. In his late years Turner continued a prolific and varied literary output, writing poetry, short stories, criticism and drama. He was literary editor of the Spectator (1941-46) and general editor of the Britain in Pictures series. He died of cerebro-vascular disease at his Hammersmith home on 18 November 1946.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Hope, Native Companions (Syd, 1974)
  • C. W. F. McKenna, W. J. Turner, Poet and Music Critic (Gerrards Cross, Eng, 1989)
  • Times (London), 20, 23 Nov 1946.

Citation details

C. W. F. McKenna, 'Turner, Walter James Redfern (1884–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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