Oracles and the Intellect: James McAuley in the Centenary of his Birth

‘It was a pretty idle afternoon in Victoria Barracks’, McAuley would later say. ‘I suppose we must have started about lunchtime.’ What followed is well known. In October 1943 two young poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart created the fictitious poet Ern Malley, whose slim manuscript of surreal poems, The Darkening Ecliptic, they sent to Max Harris and his magazine Angry Penguins. The idea was to ridicule this new movement of ‘garish images without coherent meaning and structure’. McAuley famously described how,

we produced the whole of Ern Malley’s tragic life-work in one afternoon, with the aid of a chance collection of books … opened at random, choosing a word or a phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them into nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusion.

The hoax succeeded. Max Harris dedicated a special issue, with a cover image by Sidney Nolan, to this sensational new talent. When the ruse was uncovered, Harris faced ridicule and was even tried in the courts for obscenity, a twist more absurd than the poems themselves. And yet Malley would not be laid to rest.

McAuley and Stewart had asserted that ‘the writings of Ern Malley are utterly devoid of literary merit as poetry’. Malley seemed determined to prove his creators wrong. He took on a life of his own, overshadowing the poetic careers of both his inventors. At the conclusion of the opening and best poem in The Darkening Ecliptic, ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’ Malley had described himself as ‘the black swan of trespass on alien waters’. But the movement McAuley and Stewart had ridiculed would turn out to be one of the dominant strands of modernism, and rather than being outcast, Malley would be perfectly at home in the twentieth century.

It was James McAuley who was the black swan of his times. This month marks the centenary of his birth in 1917. He would have been disappointed that this commemorative essay began with the hoax. He was in his mid-twenties at the time. He had not yet published a book, and his best poetry was still to be written. It was a youthful joke, before the serious work began. But where else could we begin? McAuley’s ensuing career can be read as a struggle to justify that claim that Malley was ‘utterly devoid of literary merit’. As modernism in its various manifestations became the dominant cultural voice, Malley became the epitome of everything McAuley would react against. McAuley was to be the real trespasser on alien waters, announcing his alternative vision for the age, sometimes as combative reactionary, sometimes crying from the wilderness. His poem ‘In the Twentieth Century’ begins,

Christ, you walked on the sea,
But cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century.

There’s something deeply wrong
Either with us or with you.

Now as we climb out of the twentieth century by our own bootstraps, does McAuley’s alternative vision have anything to offer?

Because Malley is at the crux of it all, let me delve a little deeper. Malley’s poem ‘Sybilline’ begins,

That rabbit’s foot I carried in my left pocket
Has worn a haemorrhage in the lining
The bunch of keys I carry with it
Jingles like fate in my omphagic ear
And when I stepped clear of the solid basalt
The introverted obelisk of night
I seized upon this Traumdeutung as a sword
To hew a passage to my love.

In these lines there are echoes of the symbolist poet Christopher Brennan, on whom McAuley had written his MA a few years earlier. The voice is also similar to a poem like ‘The Blue Horses’ in McAuley’s first volume of poetry Under Aldebaran published a few years later in 1946,

What loud wave-motioned hooves awaken
Our dream-fast members from the cramp of sleep?
The tribal images are shaken
And crash upon their guardians. The skies
Are shivered like a pane of glass.

What both these passages have is a surety of voice, a voice that commands authority, invites us to trust it, even where we may not understand everything it is saying. But early on in his career McAuley came to consider that authority bogus. It was the voice of the sophist.

Sophism was the reason for Plato’s famous dislike of poetry. Plato considered all poets to be sophists, peddlers of rhetoric who use language freed of responsibility to reason and truth. Plato was too pedantic, and hence reluctant to accept that truth and reason might have plains of expression beyond that of logic. Poetry, the real stuff, does aim at truth, but recognises that we can’t pin it down for long, just as words cannot be riveted into place like eternal forms. Auden, cutting his poem ‘September 1 1939’, is a Platonist at heart. It doesn’t matter how pretty it sounds, if it is untrue it’s a bad poem.

In a statement made about Ern Malley in 1960 McAuley recalled:

at that time there was a pretty big surge, in poetry and in the arts generally, of what I would call a wave of surrender to irrational forces. Now, there are lots of ways of describing this. One way I think would be to say that it was a quarrel over the nature of inspiration. I think there are in fact two sorts of process that lead to productions which purport to be artistic, and I would call one pseudo-inspiration and the other one genuine inspiration. And I think pseudo-inspiration is precisely the excitement of this surrender to irrational forces. It’s a devaluation of the capacities of consciousness in artistic production and an over-valuation, and over-reliance, on what can come up from the depths. It’s a matter of consulting the oracle in the unconscious cave. … Genuine inspiration I take to be an action of the whole man. … It is not a matter of excluding the energies and the imagery thrown up by the unconscious, but it is a matter of using all one’s resources, including the sovereign power of the shaping intellect.

Faith in the sovereign power of intellect places McAuley with Auden as a quester for poetic truth. In his 1959 collection of essays The End of Modernity McAuley associated this pseudo-inspiration with the concept of art for art’s sake, where rhetoric, which is the art of verbal communication, has broken free of its intellectual responsibilities and is degraded ‘into sophistic, the art of verbal gratification and display’.

Artists of the twentieth century lost faith in the intellect for a number of reasons, and not all artists were willing to share McAuley’s claim that despite its limitations, reason was a god-given gift to be nourished rather than ridiculed. As children of that century it is sobering to be reminded of the limitations of our inheritance, something The End of Modernity foretold.

What is that inheritance? For McAuley poetry had become disconnected from its social role. The isolation of aesthetic motives in art for art’s sake, far from being the natural and original condition of art,

is rather to be considered a perversion and decadence, and a sure sign of the approaching exhaustion of cultural vitality. A veritable cult of originality arises precisely at the point where art, having been fully ‘emancipated’ becomes unable to originate any style of its own, but is driven to a restless creation of novelties by the elaboration, syncretisation and parody.

It’s not the intellect alone that will fix poetry’s social role. There’s the heart too. ‘In the old symbolism the heart was the principal organ, the seat of life, soul, intellect, memory, will. It is as it were the gathering together of the powers of the mind into that unity which we speak of as “I”’. Thus, in ‘An Art of Poetry’ he writes,

Scorn then to darken and contract
The landscape of the heart
By individual, arbitrary
And self-expressive art.

Let your speech be ordered wholly
By an intellectual love;
Elucidate the carnal maze
With clear light from above.

These days it requires mental effort to acknowledge the distinction such lines make between the landscape of the heart on the one hand, and all that is individual, and self-expressive. McAuley’s landscape requires one to look outwards from the self, towards what is common rather than what is idiosyncratic. Similarly, in ‘Credo’ he writes,

The meaning not ours, but found
In the mind deeply submissive
To the grammar of existence,
The syntax of the real

Why deeply? Does he mean down to the bedrock of belief? Or is he talking about that marriage of heart and intellect, the poetic truth, to set against Plato’s rationality? If so then this quatrain belies the stereotype of McAuley as a throwback to the English eighteenth century.

What role might poetry have then? ‘Poetry lives closer to the metaphysical centre; its symbolisms are more nearly primal and universal’. The End of Modernity is a lament for a vanishing metaphysical dimension in literature. It is as if the landscape of the heart were able to transport the intellect into a realm of archetypes:

it is poetry with its musical power and its greater access to the myths and symbols associated with man’s deepest longings, that can most richly assert against the modern world the true values of the spirit. Poetry continually tends to revive in man the sense of what makes him authentic.

The importance of this metaphysical dimension becomes clear when McAuley takes aim at its opposite, those artists who ‘fall into a state of nescience about their own intellectual assumptions and allegiances’. This leads to envisaging the writing of poetry as a sort of play of an unattached sensibility, where the materials of poetry are like a ‘confetti of sense-impressions whirled about by little gusts of feeling’.

The references to myths and symbols remind us that McAuley kept in touch with his early interest in symbolism. Like Yeats, McAuley saw poetry as an antidote to the naturalism, scientism and materialism of modernity. Unlike Yeats, he is sceptical of the Imagination. Blake could write ‘the world of imagination is the world of Eternity. It is the Divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. The world of imagination is infinite and eternal.’ Yeats agreed, and put his finger on the heart of the issue at the end of his essay ‘Symbolism in Painting’: one must determine what value to give to the imagination. Is it an alternative to the lost metaphysical certainties of religion, and a way of keeping in touch with an archetypal realm? Does imagination tap into the ‘eternal realities’? Or is it merely a momentary dream, an escape into idiosyncratic vision and madness?

Yeats knew his mind on this subject. McAuley was more wary. Horatio, after all, had used imagination as a synonym for madness in this description of Hamlet, ‘he waxes desperate with imagination’. Similarly, Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
and as imagination bodies forth
the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes and give to aery nothing
a local habitation and a name.

The danger of imagination is its independence from reality, for without reality we have no common ground. Yet imagination is necessary, for it has the potential to enrich and transform cool reason’s thin reality. When Hippolyta replies to Theseus, she says the trick is to make the poet’s fantasies through art, ‘grow to something of great constancy’. Would McAuley have agreed? The factor which he believed distinguished his ideas from Blake, is imagination’s ultimate ‘submission to reality’. ‘It is not an individual idiosyncratic enterprise. It finds truths rather than contrives them’. Thus McAuley dismisses Yeats as a peddler of ‘spiritual-cultural make-believe’.

McAuley was born in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba in 1917. He was a scholarship boy at Sydney University, where he wrote his masters thesis, ‘Symbolism: An essay in Poetics’, in 1940. In 1943 he was commissioned as lieutenant into the Australian army, serving in Melbourne (the Victoria Barracks that gave rise to Malley), and Canberra. After the war he continued in the army where he worked in New Guinea. In 1952 he converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith his father had abandoned. He went on to be one of the most fiery and outspoken Catholic intellectuals of his day. In 1956 he founded together with Richard Krygier the literary and cultural magazine, Quadrant, where he was chief editor until 1963. In 1961 he became professor of English at the University of Tasmania. He remained in Hobart until his death from cancer in 1976, aged 59.

McAuley’s ideas of the social role of poetry were closely connected to the way the artist relates to the tradition. It is through an engagement with the tradition that one learns to get beyond a cult of individualism and emotional idiosyncrasy, as Eliot had announced in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. But modernism and its offshoots were to have troubled relations with those traditions. It’s not hard to imagine McAuley taking aim at works like The Cantos and The Waste Land in this quote:

For the traditional artist originality has nothing to do with novelty or individual idiosyncrasy; it means making the tradition one’s own, by re-creating it at each moment in one’s own spirit. This does not mean an absence of borrowing of motifs, though it is opposed to the curio-work, the kleptomania, and the necrophilia of arts that live on sensations.

What would McAuley have made of MONA, that cabinet of curiosities now on the bank of the Derwent? In the tide of the twentieth century the past has often been either violently thrown off, or grasped at in fragmentary form, decontextualized, and reincorporated through irony and parody in the multi-vocal surface play of the new art work. But can one distinguish between cherry-picking from the past, and an abiding recreation of traditions in one’s own spirit? If so how?

The dogma ‘make it new’ has its double, announced by Gower in a (newly invented!) dictum from the prologue to Pericles, ‘et bonum quo antiquius eo melius’. My sense is that both urges coexist in the writer: to preserve and to make new. When Hamlet asks himself ‘what is man?’ his first definition is an ability to look ‘before and after’. Wordsworth is a good example. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads there is the revolutionary ardour for a vital language and a wider gamut of human experiences, but there is also this:

[the poet] is the rock of defence for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

A challenge for contemporary writers is to find meaningful ways to bring together a globalised world. Wordsworth gives equal weight here to a diachronic empire of human civilization. Dante would have agreed. At the beginning of De monarchia he takes up an image found in Psalms of a tree flourishing along the banks of a river. He links that image to the classical topos of desire for knowledge. The tree has been nourished by the cultural knowledge of the river, just as we have been nourished by the labour of those before us in their quest for truth, ‘Omnium hominum quos ad amorem veritatis natura superior impressit hoc maxime interesse videtur: ut, quemadmodum de labore antiquorum ditati sunt, ita et ipsi posteri prolaborent, quatenus ab eis posteritas habeat quo ditetur’. I love that image. It is so characteristic of Dante’s long vision, yoking classical and Christian traditions while stretching its sight into the future by reminding us of our responsibility to continue to transmit that flood of knowledge. It reminds us that poems are written both as offerings to our forebears and prayers to our children.

McAuley gave voice to these ideas in The End of Modernity. He saw the danger when the created world is abolished in favour of a world of poetry’s own making, when the poet transforms rhetoric to sophistry, or when he turns his back on the past, in short when the twentieth century commits what he calls ‘The Magian Heresy’.

In turning to McAuley’s own poetry for alternatives to what he had so passionately denounced in The End of Modernity, I find myself disappointed. Not that the poetry is bad. His best work is excellent and deserves a central place in the history of our mid twentieth-century poetry. But it is excellent in ways that are unexpected from the author of The End of Modernity, and it was not until later in his career that he found that voice. Up until the mid-sixties McAuley’s preferred mode in poetry and prose was the polemic, what Les Murray calls his ‘scornful Sydney University debating style’. In the ‘Prologue’ to the first issue of Quadrant he wrote with characteristic divisiveness, ‘We shall try to be liberal and progressive, without falling into the delusion that to be liberal and progressive means to rehearse with childish obstinacy the rituals of a sentimental and neurotic leftism.’ The poetry written up to and during the same period and collected in Under Alderbaran (1946) and A Vision of Ceremony (1956) tends to a similar tone, most famously in the heroic couplets of ‘A Letter to John Dryden’:

But these on whom my anguish lingers most,
The disinherited and anxious host
Of half-way-decent simple stunted souls,
What hidden principle is it controls
Their creedless thoughts? What flag hangs on their poles?
It may be no one principle indeed,
But unexamined shreds of every creed;
And certainly their minds contain a hash
Of random notions in a tasteless mash

The dismissive and generalising tone is more distasteful than what he takes aim at. There is a proselytising streak in McAuley that worked against him. ‘Take salt upon the tongue. / And do not feed the heart / With sorrow, darkness or lies’, he wrote in ‘To Any Poet’ – but most of the salt seemed to be issuing from his own pen.

There are signs in this period of the more personal tone which was to come later. Take for example, ‘Late Winter’, in McAuley’s favourite form, the quatrain and quoted whole:

The pallid cuckoo
Sent up in frail
His tiny scale

On the cold air.
What joy I found
Mounting that tiny
Stair of sound.

‘Late Winter’ could be set anywhere. When McAuley turns to Australia as a subject, the portrayal is in the tradition of Hope’s ‘nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey’. Take ‘Bush Scene’, for example, which begins,

Harsh, dry, abrasive, spiky, rough,
Untidy, tattered, irregular:
Beauty is not a word you’d choose
For what’s most characteristic here.

The poem goes on to claim, ‘by no stretch is it a locus amoenus‘. Despite the disparaging tone, I take heart reading this now. It reminds me how far our poetry has come in the last fifty years. We have now learnt to tune our sensibilities to our landscapes. The generic title, ‘Bush Scene’, would never do today. Our poets have found ways to celebrate the continent’s natural environments. If it is hard to consider those landscapes as loci amoeni, then the fault lies not in the land itself so much as our uneasy relationship with it; and where they are celebrated as such, they are not subservient to the classical Western trope, but grow out of it to become something unique. It is also a reminder of just how important Judith Wright was in these decades.

From the mid-fifties until its publication in 1964, McAuley channelled much of his poetic energies into Captain Quiros. Perhaps the best way to describe Quiros is as a mini-epic. It adopts the tropes and themes of the epic poem, as well as a formal tone, and yet it is only seventy pages long. The poem is an account in rhyme royal (rhyming either ABABCCB, or ABABCCA) of the two unsuccessful voyages by Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (1565-1614) across the Pacific Ocean in search of Terra Australis. McAuley emphasises Quiros’ fervent Catholicism so that the voyage becomes a search ‘to win for Christ the Southern Continent’. It was not well-received at the time, and has subsequently struggled to gain attention. McAuley, or at least his fictional narrator, Belmonte, does not have a knack for creating memorable characters. Despite the interest of events themselves, the poem struggles with pacing and is not good at evoking scenes.

It would be wrong however to ignore Quiros, for the explorer is in his crusading role McAuley himself:

Our voyage was to be a solemn rite,
A passing through the waters to rebirth
In a new world, created in despite
Of the demonic powers that rule the age.

Those demonic powers recall the age denounced in The End of Modernity. McAuley, like Quiros, pits himself against his times. When Belmonte says ‘I play a match against the age’s mind: / The board is set; the living pieces move’, it is impossible not to see the parallel with McAuley.

The parallel is important because at the end of the poem Quiros accepts the misguidedness of his unrealised ambitions. Returning after the second failed journey Quiros asks the dying Father Commissary who had accompanied the ships why God had denied them:

He lapsed through weakness. Then he spoke once more:
‘Conformed to Christ in longing, we aspire
to re-create creation, and restore
All things in Justice, perfect and entire:
This is indeed our task and privilege;
This in our voyage was our sacred pledge,
Yet under limits we may not ignore.

‘For in the midst of time God has not willed
The End of Time. Nor ours to bring to birth
That final Realm; nor shall our labours build
Out of the rubble of this fallen earth
The New Jerusalem …

These are wise words to set against the intellectual hubris of Quiros/McAuley. They are also a recognition of a bridge between the desires of Quiros/McAuley to ‘re-create creation’, and those artists such as Yeats and Rilke who had been denounced in The End of Modernity for the Magian Heresy, that is replacing God with themselves as creators of their own worlds. Quiros was ready to see the errors of his way:

In Quiros’ soul a troubled echo sounded:
‘That even perfection is a snare, I see;
Yet by the gospel word I am confounded:
Be ye perfect. Was it fault in me
That with intense desire I sought to escape
This blind world’s evil so far as to shape
Our labours to a secular liturgy?’

A little later, now on his own death-bed, Quiros comes to accept the limits of the secular age he finds himself in. He turns from proselytiser to a quieter spirituality:

Now in a time of loneliness and dearth
The just shall live by faith without the aid
Of custom that bound man to heaven and earth.
Estranged within the city man has made,
Like smoke of sacrifice they shall arise,
Or vapour drawn up swiftly to the skies,
Unknown or counted as of little worth.

It is a melancholy and lonely vision. McAuley would make this same turn in his next and best volume, Surprises of the Sun, 1969.

Surprises of the Sun, contains most of McAuley’s best poems, many of which are very good indeed. Vincent Buckley had written of McAuley’s earlier work, and the comment is applicable to everything up to Surprises, that it wasn’t ‘earthy enough … there is too little flesh to afford incarnation to the word’. Les Murray describes it as ‘pruned of all emotion except perhaps angry combativeness’. Suddenly, he had found a way to transform the persona of public intellectual that had dominated his poetry. He bows his humble head, and writes poems that ‘make no comment’, as in ‘Childhood Morning – Homebush:

The half-moon is a muted lamp
Motionless behind a veil.
As the eastern sky grows pale,
I hear the slow-train’s puffing stamp

Gathering speed. A bulbul sings,
Raiding persimmon and fig.
The rooster in full glossy rig
Crows triumph at the state of things.

I make no comment; I don’t know;
I don’t know what there is to know.
I hear that every answer’s No,
But can’t believe it can be so.

The voice of vates is replaced by that of an individual talking to a lover or a god. It has become common to see Surprises as a surprise, arriving out of the blue. Leonie Kramer, who edited a useful anthology of McAuley’s work for UQP in 1988, is right to point out that the new direction was neither wholly new, nor a simple rejection of his intellectual rigour for confessionalism. The fine early poem ‘Celebration of Love’ suggests what was in potentia. And yet there is a new humility, an ability to confess ‘I cannot understand’, learnt from Captain Quiros.

Many of the best poems in Surprises return to McAuley’s childhood, such as ‘Because’ and ‘Wisteria’, ‘Tabletalk’ and ‘Soundings’. The note of contrition is strong. Who would have thought the author of ‘A Letter to John Dryden’ would come to write the following:

People do what they can; they were good people,
They cared for us and loved us. Once they stood
Tall in my childhood as the school, the steeple.
How can I judge without ingratitude?

Judgement is simply trying to reject
A part of what we are because it hurts.

Then there is ‘Pietà’, which though I’ve read it countless times still gives me goose bumps,

A year ago you came
Early into the light.
You lived a day and night,
Then died; no-one to blame.

Once only, with one hand,
Your mother in farewell
Touched you. I cannot tell,
I cannot understand

A thing so dark and deep,
So physical a loss:
One touch, and that was all

She had of you to keep.
Clean wounds, but terrible,
Are those made with the Cross.

In 1975, the year before his death, McAuley published A Map of Australian Verse, an anthology I found very useful when starting out as a poet. In the introduction to the section dedicated to his own poems he makes repeated reference to having followed ‘an inner necessity’ and ‘a path intuitively sensed and dimly descried’, before summarising his career as ‘the persistent desire to write poems that are lucid and mysterious, gracefully simple but full of secrets, faithful to the little one knows and the much one has to feel’. No mention of the intellect here. Is it too far fetched to see in this return to mystery, a reconnection with Malley? In ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’ after all he had written:

I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Perhaps we should leave the final words to McAuley’s other alter ego, Quiros:

For me the watch is past, the night is done;
However men report when I am gone,
The travail of my soul is satisfied.


Michael Ackland, Damaged Men, The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart, Allen and Unwin, 2001.
Peter Coleman, The Heart of James McAuley, Wildcat Press, 1980.
Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, UQP, 1994.
Leonie Kramer (ed), James McAuley, Poetry, essays, and personal commentary, UQP, 1988.
Ern Malley, Collected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1993.
James McAuley, The End of Modernity, Angus and Robertson, 1959.
James McAuley, A Map of Australian Verse: The Twentieth Century, Oxford Uni. Press, 1975.
James McAuley, The Grammar of the Real, OUP, 1975.
James McAuley, Collected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1994.
Lyn McCredden, James McAuley, OUP, 1992.
Les Murray, Fivefathers, Five Australian poets of the pre-Academic era, Carcanet, 1994.
Cassandra Pybus, The Devil and James McAuley, UQP, 1999.