James McAuley: A Poet in Politics
James McAuley was 37 when he made his first pungent public statement on Australian politics — his letter of October 1954 to The Sydney Morning Herald, in support of the Industrial Groups against Dr.H. V.Evatt's attack on them. (Must Christianity, he asked, be seen as "a Levantine ideology" that will taint "the pure milk of Australian Labourism?") He was also 38 before his decisive meeting with Mr. B. A. Santamaria in Melbourne in January 1956.
He was clearly no impressionable youth. He was not only a husband and
father, a mortgagee and public servant, but also an established, even
acclaimed, poet who for 20 years had meditated on the crisis of civilization,
the sterility of the modern world, the quest for a principle of order and a
means of healing "the world's ripped entrails." These were the preoccupations he brought with him to politics — and indeed they were
reflected plainly enough in his letter to The Sydney Morning Herald.
They were already the themes of his very first - and unpublished – book
of poems, Prelude, Suite and Chorale, which may be a good starting point for our subject today. I tried to reconstruct this lost book of 1938 in my Heart of James McAuley. Some of its 25 linked poems have survived and there are many references to it in the correspondence of the period.It traces the poet's quest for escape from "tuneless creation", his struggle to awake from the nightmare of a world without meaning:
That I might stoop no more
When spring shall clot the bough,
To peel the ancient sore
And wince as I do now.
Its concluding Chorale offers little hope:
You shall be homeless, shall not build this year.
You shall be solitary and long alone;
Shall wake, and read, and write long letters home,
And on deserted pavements here and there
Shall wander restless, as the leaves are blown.
It is plainly an apprentice work, no masterpiece. Some of its poems indeed
rival lucid Em Malley's in their obscure profundity.
But the Problematik of all his work is there -- which took him in despair
and self-loathing through the various stages of his quest: the youthful
revolutionary anarchism and romanticism (which he sometimes called
Tristanism), the later Eastern mysticism (which he called the Magian
Heresy) and later still, the Christian illumination.
The best expressions of that first anarchist period are the poems The
Blue Horses (of Revolution):
(Leave to the councillors the garbage-plot,
The refuse and the greasy tins
Of this slum culture —
But the Blue Horses scream aloud:
A sudden movement shakes the crowd.)
and Gnostic Prelude with its haunting evocation of the heart's yearning
for an elusive and remote God:
And the heart is a blind man in the rain
That nightlong sings of what it cannot see.
This period culminated in the annus mirabilis 1944, the year of his
farewell to all that, The Ballade of Lost Phrases
(The left wing's moulting on our shore:
It will not fly again, I fear.
Freedom has become a whore.
Where are the phrases of yesteryear?),
of his satirical True Discovery of Australia, of his meditation on the death
of Hitler, The Incarnation of Sirius and above all The Darkening Ecliptic,
the Ern Malley hoax, his final renunciation of his past.
He and his friend Harold Stewart had already, in a rehearsal of the
hoax, created a critic named Dulcie Renshaw who ridiculed the academic
servility of the new magazine Southerly. Now, in a far more ambitious
and risky enterprise, they created Ern Malley to expose and ridicule
Angry Penguins which toyed with the Symbolist agony that was (then
and later) central to McAuley's life. It was his first major confrontation
with modernity — a confrontation for which he is paying a high price to
1944 was also an important turning point for McAuley in two other
respects. It was then that he began his deep involvement with Papua New
Guinea at the School of Pacific Administration — an involvement recorded
In many poems (New Guinea Lament; To a Dead Bird of Paradise) and in
a series of essays in Australian, British and American journals on the
corrosive effect of the West on a traditionalist society and the problems of
its inevitable decolonization. (It is time these essays were collected and
In 1944 McAuley also began his exhausting engagement with Eastern
mysticism, with the despairing gnosticism of such comprehensive critics of
Western civilization as Rene Guenon and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.
This engagement is reflected in a number of McAuley's poems of the late
1940s (especially The Hero and the Hydra) but it is enough to say that it
culminated, in his case, not in the gnostic and disdainful call for a revival
of Greek classicism and medieval Christianity as the best that the West
has to offer, but in his grateful baptism into the Roman Catholic Church --
at St. Charles Ryde, on 29 May, 1953. On that day he gave Father
Reeve the poem, Sequence:
Queen of heaven as we revere
The Word that formed your story,
So from our long distraction here
Receive us into glory.
Now began a new and marvellous period in McAuley's work. His poems
of the years 1952-1953 include not only his favourite A Leaf of Sage with its
unexpected autobiographical conclusion
Rest now, my youth, under this hieroglyph,
This figured seal of silence; do not start
Up once more in agony and grief.
Sing, hidden bird, sing mercy and relief
To wanderers in the darkness of the heart.
They also include his Christian apologia, The Celebration of Divine
Love, and his major satire on "the age's mind", A Letter to John Dryden.
This period includes, too, his first lectures on poetics, his programme to
restore to poetry the active intellect, the discursive mode and the
metaphysical tradition. Shortly after delivering these lectures, he
assumed the editorship of the new quarterly, Quadrant.
It is time now to turn back to the Movement! [Note 1] But it is important to
keep in mind both the anguish that preceded McAuley's conversion
and the personal quest that he brought with him to the politics of the
1950s. Many adherents of the Movement were major influences on
McAuley and some became his good friends. But the collaboration with
B. A. Santamaria stands out — from their meeting in January 1956.
It was, it would seem, an unexpected association. Santamaria was
A life-long Catholic largely formed by the Church. McAuley was a convert
from a free-thinking background. At school, while one read Archbishop
Sheehan's Christian Apologetics to settle his doubts, the other read
J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough to remove the vestiges of faith. At
university during the Spanish Civil War, while one was chanting Viva
Cristo Rey! in Melbourne, the other was publishing Joycean parodies
of the Mass in undergraduate journals in Sydney. While one was editing
The Catholic Worker and declaring in its first editorial "The day of the
Sunday morning Catholic is over!" the other was editing Hermes,
explicating the French and German symbolists and preparing Prelude,
Suite and Chorale.
In the following 20 years, Santamaria deepened his involvement in
party and ecclesiastical politics while McAuley pursued the ideological
mirages noted here. But when they met in Belloc House, Melbourne (at
the height of the Labor Party crisis), it was for both of them, however
unlikely, a meeting of souls.
Something of this comes through in Santamaria's account in his
autobiography, Against the Tide. The meeting lasted two days and
"throughout that short time, we did not speak to any other person as we
traversed areas of thought and experience far beyond the limits of the
current political crisis..." When he returned to Sydney, McAuley sent
Santamaria the poem In a Late Hour, which begins with a version of a
hymn by Novalis (Wenn alle untreu werden — Though all men should
desert you) but which is also personal — and Santamaria certainly
understood it, especially the refrain ("I will not let you go"), as personal:
The hearts of men grow colder,
The final things draw near,
Forms vanish, kingdoms moulder,
The Antirealm is here:
Whose order is derangement:
Close-driven yet alone,
Men reach the last estrangement
The sense of nature gone.
Though stars run distracted,
and from wounds deep rancours flow;
While the mystery is enacted
I will not let you go.
Some 20 years later, shortly before he died, McAuley said of Santamaria that he was "the most dear" of all his friends.
It is foolish to try to analyse friendship of this character, or any deep
friendship. But one may at least say that McAuley found in Santamaria both
an adamantine anti-Communism and a hostility to modernity that were,
or seemed, in no way undermined by despairing uncertainties. He also
found in him a flair for political organization which he profoundly admired
but knew was beyond him: McAuley may not have been, as the poet Amy
Witting had once affectionately put it, a Machiavelli with two left feet. But he
knew his limitations.
For his part, Santamaria found in McAuley an apocalyptic and poetical
vision of the drama in which they were all enmeshed, a literary depth that
was beyond his grasp. But there was also something else. McAuley
retained links with his heretical past. I recall once discussing his involvement
with the Living Parish group for whom he wrote several hymns: Santamaria
remarked of this movement of clerics and laity that "they were not really
Catholics", that in their bones they were rebels against the faith. Right or
wrong, the point for the moment is that McAuley was for a time one of this
group and, I believe, Santamaria valued his intimate understanding of the
culture of scepticism.
In saying this I do not want at all to seem to be playing down McAuley's
fervour, especially in the 1950s. A reference to his poem The Vintage,
published in The Bulletin soon after his meeting with Santamaria removes any doubts. Its imagery is from the Book of Revelations:
In blissful measure moving
The choric angels tread
The wine-press of our aeon,
The harvests of the dead;
Their lifting feet are red.
I see in deepest midnight
A glare upon the sky;
I hear behind the silence
The spirit-voices cry,
Bidding my tongue reply.
Cry that the seals are broken
That cannot be restored;
Deceit has bred Confusion,
Confusion the abhorred
Avenger with the sword.
Shall my flesh too be trampled,
My views flow out like must?
Lord, when the terror tries me
Shall I stand with the just,
Or faint away to dust?
The cock-crow sounds the vintage
Like blood splashed on the sky.
Blissful those angel-dances,
Blissful the mystery
Their voices bid me cry.
There is no need to repeat yet again the details of the Labor Party split, the formation of the Democratic Labor Party, the bishops' hostility to the Movement in Sydney, its collapse and its revival as the National Civic Council. McAuley was up to his neck, and further, in the details of these dramas, drafting pamphlets, sitting on committees, joining deputations, manning booths, advising correspondents("prayer and organization" was his usual advice) as well as writing poems – which ranged from the elegaic Nocturnal, induced partly by the DLP's bad showing and Jack Kane's defeat in the 1958 federal election, to the squib.The Leader, about Dr. Evatt:
With daring energy and force of mind
To some great good young Herbert seemed designed
Which Providence for our poor country meant.
Now all — the fools, the knaves, the operators,
The gelded groupers and the grouper-haters —
Turned zombie by the threat of liquidation
Must work the bankrupt socialist plantation.
But we cannot pass over McAuley's reaction to the culminating crisis in
the Movement in late 1956 when the Sydney bishops sought to destroy it.
Patrick O'Farrell in his riveting Vanished Kingdoms: Irish in Australia
and New Zealand (1990) sees the collision between the bishops and the
Movement as a re-enactment of the Pamell case in Ireland some 60 or
so years earlier. Just as the bishops in Dublin had resented and feared
the emerging lay ascendancy in Irish affairs under the leadership of
Charles Stewart Pamell,had campaigned against him and his Home Rule
Party and had rejoiced in the scandal that brought him down, so the
Sydney bishops resented, feared and campaigned against the lay
Leadership of the Movement which threatened their established authority
within the Labor Government of New South Wales.
According to O'Farrell, the lay leaders of the Movement were naively
unprepared for the ecclesiastical unscrupulousness they encountered:
"It was the Pamell case over again", as the clergy used, in O'Farrell's
words "political ploys, pre-arranged motions, secret arrangements,
disinformation, deviousness generally" to nullify the Movement. At the
momentous Kensington meeting in the Sacred Heart Monastery on
September 30, 1956, some 800 people witnessed the bishops use
these means to engineer lay support for their position. They indeed
succeeded in undermining the Movement, but by their "crude, aggressive
incompetence" they also, in O'Farrell's view, undermined ecclesiastical
authority, including legitimate authority and bequeathed "a powerful legacy
If Jack Kane and B.A.Santamaria evinced a simple-minded "astonishment"
and "bewilderment" at this episode, McAuley's response was apocalyptic.
All his years of agonizing contemplation of the crisis of civilization, of attempts to resume the High Road of Virgil and Milton, of lyrics of despair and hope, not to mention his dreams of a Christian Australia — all were dismissed at a stroke to save the authority of some clerical double-dealers and a Tammany State Government.
His anguish lingers still in his surviving annotations of copies of the
Catholic Weekly ("Lies"!), in his hymn of this period:
Help of Christians, guard this land
From assault or inward stain
and in the poem Retreat which he sent to Santamaria:
Come into yourself a while,
Be deaf to outer cries;
Ask not who wins, who falls, who rages,
Or what each doubtful sign presages,
Or what face treachery wears.
It is not said we shall succeed,
Save as his Cross prevails:
The good we choose and mean to do
Prospers if he wills it too,
And if not, then it fails.
Nor is failure our disgrace:
By ways we cannot know
He keeps the merit in his hand,
And suddenly as no one planned,
Behold the kingdom grow!
But above all it is the epic poem Captain Quiros that is McAuley's final
statement on these events. I am not referring mainly to its famous sketches
of the ecclesiastics:
One was a churchman in the recent style
A cold mean creature with placarded smile.
His close advisor was a canonist,
Well practised in dissembling double thought
In double speech...
The whole theme of the work draws on (one should not put it higher
than that) the experiences of the 1950s: Captain Quiros' dream of winning the Southern Continent for Christ, the corruption of the Christian West, the betrayal by ecclesiastical authorities, the age of Antichrist, Quiros' Last Vision of Australia:
Terra Australis, heartland of the South,
In the Great Lauds your myriad creatures raise
May there never be wanting the singer's mouth
To give words to that canticle of praise
Which from all beings pours forth to the Spirit.
And from our broken toil may you inherit
A vision to transform your latter days.
Captain Quiros is the greatest of all the Movement-related poems. I need not add that it would be an absurd error to read it only in this way. That would diminish it dreadfully. He saw it, in Chapman's words and his own, as "the work that I was born to do", as the epic summa of his life as a poet. But it would also be foolish — and against McAuley's wish and intention — to ignore its roots in the events of the 1950s. As he wrote to Santamaria when
he sent him a manuscript copy: "the experience I have brought to bear in
interpreting the historical situation is our own experience."
When he had finished it, a new period began — in both his work and life. He left Sydney, Quadrant and the New Guinea enterprise and moved to Hobart and the University of Tasmania. It was a difficult time: "dark night of the soul" is "too grand" a phrase for it, he wrote to his friend A.D. Hope, but
he nevertheless experienced "much soreness and fatigue, and prayer only
in darkness." It was a moment for complete reconsideration.
Politically, communism was at last seen to be doomed — most obviously
after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 — although there would be some
decades before its final and total collapse. Poetically, he had exhausted his
discursive mode and he would turn again to shorter poems and lyrics of his
later books — beginning with Surprises of the Sun. In Tasmania he remained active in public life — helping to settle the Orr case, sitting on government committees to wind down the censorship laws, becoming President of the National Civic Council.
Then in 1970, at the age of 53, he was struck by cancer and he knew that
his days were numbered. But these last years were busy indeed. In particular he led — and threw himself into — the Peace with Freedom Movement to combat the leftist politicization of universities. (His annual reports on the university situation are an invaluable record of the times. But like his perceptive New Guinea essays, not to mention his fascinating letters to friends and correspondents, they still remain uncollected and unpublished). He also produced several books of poems in the early 1970s, two anthologies, a book of literary essays and many papers and articles including a regular column on manners and morals in Quadrant. He died on October 15 1976, a couple of days after his 59th birthday.
May I complete this brief survey with two observations? The first is this: I have stressed McAuley's religious faith and commitment. These are central
to his work in the period we have considered. But it is also important to keep
in mind the liberal and empirical vein that always enlivened his work. For all
his deep faith — "tough, inert and old" — he never quite overcame the lure
of scepticism, what one might call the Stoic Temptation. One of his last
essays was about the final days of the German poet and opponent of Hitler,
Albrecht Haushofer. It includes McAuley's translation of Haushofer's
sonnets written in the Moabit prison in Berlin while, without any of the
consolations of Christian faith, he waited for the SS to execute him. McAuley made it clear that they are not great poems but he responded deeply to their disciplined adherence to values, their acceptance of responsibility, their refusal to take the easy way out — their civilized stoicism. McAuley admired and to some extent shared this stoicism. Its quickening echo can usually be caught in his latter work.
My remaining point is that Jim McAuley's life is a permanent refutation
of the constant complaint, beloved of Australian intellectuals, that Australian
society is devoid of those conflicts and divisions that sustain a lively literature and culture. According to these critics, the End of History that was recently announced in Washington DC, arrived in Australia,if not with the First Fleet, then soon after.
But the problem is not Australia, where human beings carry within them
the great conflicts of the age and the race, but the blindness or worse of the
intellectuals who cannot and will not see or engage in the great conflicts
around them. No society and no person can escape the crisis of modernity
that was Jim McAuley's great theme. What he wrote in the first issue of
Quadrant in the summer of 1956 remains true today and always:
"Truly an exhilarating time! — on condition that we have relevant principles worth living and dying for and are not unnerved by the lightnings and thunders, the whispers and temptations, the heatings and brainwashings...or by the rustle of dead leaves..."
Footnote: 1. ' The Movement' is the name by which the Catholic Social Studies Movement, formed in 1941 in response to the growing Communist influence within the trade union movement, was known. The Catholic Social Studies Movement is the predecessor of the National Civic Council.
This article is the text of an address to a conference entitled "Fifty Years of
the Santamaria Movement" which was held in May. Published in Australia and World Affairs, a quarterly journal of the Council For The National Interest. No.14. 1992.