James McAuley

James McAuley Poems

James McAuley Biography

James McAuley was a 20th century Australian poet and man of letters.  He also worked as a journalist and literary critic.  Perhaps his most famous literary “achievement” was a collaboration with fellow poet Harold Stewart in 1943.  The pair invented a writer named Ern Malley and they submitted a body of work numbering seventeen poems to the editor of a magazine called Angry Penguins.  The poems were written in the modernist style that McAuley despised but were, basically, all nonsensical.  They were, however, taken seriously but when this hoax was discovered it caused a sensation and the downfall of the magazine and its editor, Max Harris.

He was born James Phillip McAuley on the 12th October 1917 in a western suburb of Sydney called Lakemba, the son of a grazier and real estate speculator.  Following high school, where he had shown early musical and literary talent, and had achieved the position of school captain, he went on to Sydney University, reading English, philosophy and Latin.  He was writing poetry and found an outlet for some of his work in Hermes, the university’s annual literary journal, a publication that he edited during the year 1937.  He graduated from Sydney in 1938 with a BA (Hons) and later achieved a Masters’ degree.  He was interested in the Anglican church at the time and occasionally played the organ and supervised the choir at a local church but his faith waned as he got older.

He was able to support himself, taking various teaching and private tutoring jobs and it was while working at the Newcastle Boys Junior High School that he met and married a fellow teacher in 1942.  As Australia was involved in the Second World War McAuley was inevitably called up for Militia service, serving his time as a commissioned officer in home postings.  He went to live in New Guinea after the war and found that his spiritual feelings were being restored to the extent that, in 1952, he converted to Roman Catholicism.  Politically he moved from early communist sympathies as a young man to being very much against that political creed as he got older.   During the fifties and sixties he made advances in both journalistic and academic fields.  He was the founder and chief editor of a cultural journal called Quadrant from 1956 to 1963 and was appointed professor of English at the University of Tasmania in 1961.

McAuley received praise from many quarters for his poetry.  A good example would be, in reference to the Ern Malley hoax, a fellow writer and politician called Peter Coleman who wrote that
It’s clear from one of the “Malley” poems reproduced here what Coleman was talking about.  It is written in the nonsensical style that McAuley vehemently ridiculed and is called Durer: Innsbruck, 1495:
The year 1946 saw the publication of his first collection of poetry (using his own name this time).  It was called Under Aldebaran and it would be a further ten years before a second collection appeared under the title A Vision of Ceremony.  He was, by now, being described as “a conservative public intellectual”.  Further collections of his work came out over the next twenty years despite him being busy in a number of academic roles.  A crushing blow fell on him in 1970 when he was diagnosed to be suffering from bowel cancer.  He appeared to make a recovery and threw himself into his work for the next few years, but his health failed once more, and this time there was no remission.

James McAuley died on the 15th October 1976 in Hobart at the age of 59.