James McAuley had a gift for overcoming first impressions. Manning Clark, the future doyen of Australian historians, met the twenty-five-year-old poet in the crowd at an Aussie Rules game. McAuley was blind drunk, full of wild slogans about art and politics, and looked wrecked even by the usual standards of young poets. (When McAuley was later introduced to Clark’s wife, she thought he looked at least forty-five.) And yet, Clark would write years after, “beneath the appearance of degradation I sensed a mighty spirit.”
There was something about McAuley—what his hymn-writing partner Richard Connolly called an “inner, mysterious power.” The Malaysian writer Salleh Ben Joned arrived at the University of Tasmania in the early ’60s, soon after McAuley had been appointed professor of English. Salleh, a leftist in his politics and a modernist in his tastes, was wary of this notorious Catholic reactionary, but came under McAuley’s spell and never forgot his generosity as a teacher, his “political courage,” or his poetry. McAuley was “a remarkable and, to me, even a great man.”
In the years after McAuley’s death in 1976, that would not have qualified as a controversial judgment: Even his enemies had to admit his importance. McAuley was so disliked in the Kremlin, for instance, that a Soviet anthology of Australian poetry carried a preface announcing: “We deliberately decided not to include his poems.” But today, McAuley’s books are out of print, and were it not for the magnificent work of the Australian Poetry Library, which has put most of his verse online, he would almost have disappeared from view. Even in McAuley’s centenary year, which has just passed—he was born on October 12, 1917—there was hardly a nod of recognition from the academy or the literary press.
To some of his admirers, this is itself a tribute: McAuley defended his unpopular causes with such zest, they say, that the Australian chattering classes have conspired to bury him in silence—a “deliberate and shameful neglect,” to quote Peter Coleman’s biography. A more humdrum reason is just that the audience for poetry has declined. As McAuley put it, “the common reader has been liquidated as a class.” Christianity, he recognized, had suffered a similar fate: Believers find themselves disinherited, wandering through a post-Christian civilization like jewel-hunters picking through a disused mine.
Over white gravel we crawl
Searching the dumps in hope
Of amethyst, citrine quartz,
Topaz pure as water:
Stones fit for heaven’s courts.
“That’s nothing, once you could find,”
So the old-timers say,
“Sapphires big as your nail;
We used to throw them away—
No value in them then.”
Now, what wouldn’t we give?
The question to which McAuley returned again and again was how to keep the faith, and to resist ugliness and lies, without getting stuck in the death trap of nostalgic gloom.
Withstanding melancholy was, for McAuley, the work of a lifetime. He called himself “a native / Of the country of despair.” His father, who worked in farming and real estate in Sydney, renounced his Catholic background in order to marry McAuley’s Protestant mother. Their son lost any residual Christian belief at the age of fifteen after reading J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough. By the time he arrived at Sydney University on a scholarship, McAuley was deeply read in poetry, with a particular taste for nineteenth-century French symbolism, and he had an unusual self-confidence. His literary judgments were sought, his laconic put-downs feared; student parties pulsated to his gin-fueled, hours-long performances on the jazz piano. He treated women with that kind of cruelty that seems to be for its own sake. One biographer tells us that McAuley once went round his friends raising cash for an abortion.
He knew perfectly well that he was miserable, and his poems, published and unpublished, up to his mid-thirties are clouded by a bitterness and melancholy which make them hard to enjoy. Among his favorite subjects are futility, disappointment, and sexual passion, usually the prelude to further misery. The poems are also packed with mythology both classical and biblical, none of it pointing toward any kind of redemption. “Look, cranes still know their path through empty air; / For them their world is neither soon nor late; / But ours is eaten hollow with despair.”
This is necessary background, I think, for the episode which remains McAuley’s best-known contribution to twentieth-century literature. In 1942, by which time he had gotten married and qualified as a teacher, McAuley was called up for military service and soon found himself reunited with an old friend, Harold Stewart. The two soldiers decided to use their downtime in Melbourne to hoax the world of modernism, which they regarded as having neglected true standards of literary judgment. McAuley and Stewart created a fictional poet, Ern Malley, and submitted Ern’s gibberish to the influential magazine Angry Penguins. If the editor Max Harris rejected it as nonsense, he would pass the test. In the event, Harris was so taken with Ern’s genius that he devoted a whole special issue to this once-in-a-generation discovery.
The hoax—which, once revealed, was on the front pages of the Australian newspapers, and won approving notices in TIME and the New York Times—still feels rather sad, and not just because of the deceit involved. It shows that McAuley was finding it easier to destroy than to affirm. The sloppiness of much avant-garde poetry, for him, was just one symptom of modernity’s sickness, the subject which absorbed him throughout the 1940s.
The ills of modern society became a matter of professional interest after the war, when McAuley began working for the Australian School of Pacific Administration. In traveling through New Guinea and meeting its people, while giving lectures to the colonial administrators of the future, McAuley’s mind turned to a momentous question. New Guinea was soon to be independent of Australia; what should the more enlightened and technologically advanced nation hand on before it left the stage?
McAuley’s answer was fairly tragic: Whatever the benefits of Western civilization, it could only produce “psychic bewilderment and impoverishment.” Without the rituals and traditions of premodern society, man is “cut off from the deepest sources of human satisfaction, restless and jangled, driven by unstilled cravings through a course of life without meaning or direction.” These words, written in 1954, might also have been applied to the James McAuley of the 1940s. His poetry, including the 1946 collection Under Aldebaran, had taken on a nightmarish quality that reflected his own agonies: He would occasionally wake up the neighbors, or other soldiers, with his screams.
Meanwhile, McAuley had begun a serious study of religions, and his questions about Christianity had narrowed to the issue of whether the New Testament could be relied on. As he read his way through the latest biblical scholarship, McAuley found it increasingly difficult to deny the truth of the gospels. Above all, it seemed implausible that the first disciples, who took the teaching of Jesus to the far reaches of the known world while forming themselves into a coherent body with an intelligible doctrine, were simply the victims of hallucination and collective fantasy.
It helped that McAuley had gotten to know the French missionary priests in Papua. One in particular, the retired bishop Alain de Boismenu, impressed McAuley as
the person in my experience who most completely exemplified “greatness”—an inspiring force of mind and will, large views, courage, intense affections and complete self-abnegation, cheerfulness, candour, a noble simplicity utterly devoid of all pretension. And behind these qualities something more, as all his associates knew: a rare sanctity and unerring spiritual discernment. Very characteristic was the reply he once gave to the question: “By what sign can sanctity be recognised?” His answer was: “By naturalness.”
He took from Boismenu one lesson above all: that pessimism, in the bishop’s words, “is the source of nothing whatever, it paralyzes all impulse, deadens every generous feeling.” Better was optimism, which despite its risks could at least produce something. But the right state was something different from either: “confidence in God.” McAuley would often repeat these words, to others and to himself, in the years after his reception into the Church, which came finally in 1952. Becoming Catholic did not make McAuley into a saint, but it was in every way the turning point of his life—for, as he put it, the convert walks through a door with submission written over the frame.
McAuley liked the word: Poetry, he thought, is written in submission to the real, in accepting what is actually there. He was persuaded by Joseph de Maistre’s idea of a divine “syntax” in creation. “In effect,” McAuley quoted Maistre as saying, “all these beings are letters which unite to form a discourse which proves the existence of the God Who pronounces it.” McAuley believed that the poet can learn this language by attending closely to what the Creator has made. He was a keen birdwatcher and observer of the natural world, especially of Coles Bay on the east coast of Tasmania, to which he devoted a short collection of poems.
For a poet whose mind was so easily fixed on sorrow and loss, the contemplation of nature was a relief and a joy. It is hard to show through quotation—it can only really be discovered by sitting down with McAuley’s poems and letting them sink into the memory—the sheer delight he takes in swans, crabs, rocks, wattle flowers, cloud formations, magpies, roses, and his trust in language to help us glimpse creation as it might have looked before the Fall. The poet Gwen Harwood remembers McAuley watching the stars come out and exclaiming, “What a virtuoso created the world!” Even his poem on marriage, “One Thing At Least,” is about the meaning God has inscribed in all things:
One thing at least I understood
Practically from the start,
That loving must be learnt by heart
If it’s to be any good.
It isn’t in the flash of thunder
But in the silent power to give—
A habit into which we live
Ourselves, and grow to be a wonder.
Some like me are slow to learn:
What’s plain can be mysterious still.
Feelings alter, fade, return,
But love stands constant in the will:
It’s not alone the touching, seeing,
It’s how to mean the other’s being.
The first thirty-four years of McAuley’s life, up to his conversion, were about the discovery of this truth: that God has written his purposes into the world, and our experience can at all times point us toward divine providence. The remaining twenty-five years were about clinging to that belief in the face of disappointment, failure, and bewilderment.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity suggests that there is a trial peculiar to contemporary believers. The modern Christian, Ratzinger writes, “suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking under the firm structure of the supporting conventions.” Not just this or that doctrine but the whole of religion is unexpectedly cast into doubt. “Nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall.” In his Spiritual Letters, Dom John Chapman similarly observes that the classic spiritual trial—of feeling abandoned by God—“doesn’t seem to happen nowadays. But the corresponding trial of our contemporaries seems to be the feeling of not having any faith; not temptations against any particular article (usually), but a mere feeling that religion is not true.” This is the spiritual landscape of many of McAuley’s poems: an unpromising soil in which faith stubbornly endures.
I know that faith is like a root
That’s tough, inert and old;
Yet it can send up its green shoot
And flower against the cold.
When McAuley spoke of “despair,” as he often did, he did not mean it in the theological sense of abandoning hope in God’s mercy. He meant the overwhelming sense of failure brought on by personal disappointment and by a series of distressing setbacks in secular and church politics.
In 1950s Australia, the left’s most serious internal division was between Catholics and communists. The Labor Party uneasily held the two groups together. But a Catholic grassroots movement, led by the devout and ceaselessly controversial B. A. Santamaria, was highly active in the trade unions, fighting for workers’ rights and against communist influence. Santamaria, who was saturated in the social teaching of the popes, was one of those troublesome figures who put their own ideas before party discipline, while attracting a large following. In addition to promoting his own program, whose priorities included the redistribution of land, Santamaria was determined to drive out communist influence from the labor movement. Eventually the Labor Party took against Santamaria, and most of the Catholic bishops, hoping to retain the link between Labor and the Church, withdrew their support from him.
McAuley had thrown himself into the struggle, and had become close friends with Santamaria. The defeat of their cause, with—as they saw it—the collusion of the church hierarchy, moved McAuley to some of his most despondent lines about the breakdown of society: “Close-driven, yet alone, / Men reach the last estrangement— / The sense of nature gone.” McAuley later confirmed that he was talking about disregard for the natural law. He made the same point more polemically elsewhere. “Letter to John Dryden” suggests that democracy becomes absurd when the electorate casually vote “as they please / For or against the eternal verities.” Unborn children, for instance, were treated in a way that mocked the most basic principles of the natural law. “It is not murder if the child’s not seen; / This is what sentimental ethics mean.” The confusion was not only about morality, but about truth.
Men look to seats of learning in their doubt,
But seats of learning have contracted out
Of natural law, and bid us do the same:
Truth has no rights that error may not claim;
“Dogma” is dead; the student’s vision clears:
Philosophers are but opinioneers;
Opinions are all equal—till it’s found
That some must be discouraged. On what ground?
The poem maintains this pace for hundreds of lines, ridiculing progressive Christians, secular education, McCarthyism, dietary reformers, T. S. Eliot’s prosody, the Whig interpretation of history, and so on. Probably the biggest target is liberalism, which McAuley defined elsewhere as the attempt to “[make] men free and happy, negatively by ridding them of the cramps of custom and tradition, and positively by applying the latest results of philosophic reason and science.” The trouble with liberalism is that it cannot even begin to address “the darkness in man”; it habitually grinds down communities into “a heap of alienated individuals without organic bonds”; and its lack of principle means that it is easily co-opted by more confident ideologies. “Fare forward, fellow-travelling liberal / For ever dancing to some alien song, / And everything by turns but nothing long!”
Les Murray, another Australian Catholic poet, finds the “Letter to John Dryden” unsatisfying: It is marked by “that slightly peevish tone that has so bedevilled much Catholic and conservative writing in the last century, that defiant making of brilliant points to a public one knows deep down is not listening.” Even if this underrates the poem’s satirical exuberance, it can fairly be applied to much of McAuley’s prose. Peevish defiance is often the lot of those who have seen through liberalism but are struggling to articulate a realistic alternative. The “Letter to John Dryden” is born out of this feeling of helplessness; McAuley ends by saying that the only answer is for Christians to live holy lives.
McAuley was not always so detached: He swings back and forth between despising the modern world—“No worse age has ever been: / Murderous, lying, and obscene”—and claiming that “the chance of recovery” is just around the corner if we can only come to our senses. In this spirit, he threw himself into public life. As well as teaching and writing poetry, criticism, and hymns, he edited the influential journal Quadrant and founded two associations for defending educational standards against progressive reformers. When you read McAuley’s bitterest poems, you wonder how he managed to get out of bed in the morning. But he is constantly reminding himself that the world cannot be entirely rejected, because it has been redeemed; that “Our privilege is now.” These affirmations were tested by the political defeats of the ’50s, and the very different, but even more painful, setbacks of the ’60s.
McAuley was sympathetic to the Second Vatican Council and—at least initially—to the reform of the Church’s liturgy. But during the following years he saw, in the parish churches where he went to Mass, in the Catholic schools his children attended, in the Catholic newspapers and journals which he eventually had to stop reading, that the faith was simply not being transmitted. The Church he had joined in 1952
conspicuously honoured Our Lady, said the rosary, was not embarrassed by apparitions, or miracles, or martyrdom, was the ultimate adamantine rock of resistance to Communism, was quite, quite sure that marriage was indissoluble, that pre-marital unchastity was wrong, that sexual perversion was wrong, that Satan and his angels were the enemies of man as Christ and his angels were the allies of man, that there was a hell of damnation as surely as there was a heaven of beatitude, that the Gospel narratives were true, that Christ died and rose again from the dead not in some Pickwickian or Bultmannian sense but really and truly. . . . That Church does not clearly and recognisably exist today.
The catastrophe had come about, McAuley thought, partly because of the Church’s reluctance to proclaim its teaching. Rome had decided not to issue an outright condemnation of communism, and had allowed the Vatican’s internal discussion about birth control to drag on for five years before Pope Paul VI finally reaffirmed the traditional doctrine. It was during this latter delay that Catholic figures were found justifying all kinds of other sexual sins. “By the time the Australian bishops tried to speak recently against abortion legislation, no one was listening.”
McAuley was kept sane by his sense of absurdity. His mind simply expelled theological humbug the way that a healthy body expels toxins. He poked fun at the way certain words—“dialogue,” “relevant”—were used to tiptoe away from church teaching. “We know all the moves, / The language-games, the ploys.”
In the last year of his life, McAuley could avow that, despite it all, he still accepted every Catholic doctrine (“though some remain dark to me”), still said his rosary and went to Mass, still put his trust in the reality to which Bishop Boismenu had witnessed. In the late poem “Parish Church,” McAuley describes sitting in the familiar pews looking on the “bonewhite” crucifix and the brightly colored depictions of the Resurrection.
We used to sing at Easter in the choir
With trumpet and harmonium and drums,
Feeling within our hearts new-kindled fire.
Now I’m the only one that ever comes.
I bring with me my griefs, my sins, my death,
And sink in silence as I try to pray.
Though in this calm no impulse stirs my breath,
At least there’s nothing that I would unsay.
Perhaps because his faith had been concentrated into this bare affirmation, which was everything to him even if it felt like almost nothing, most of the very last poems are radiant little paintings of the natural world, from which polemics and spiritual agonies are absent.
In a way, McAuley had already given his answer to the turmoil in the Church and in the world. The epic Captain Quiros, published in 1964, does not sound like an appealing read: a sixty-five-page poem about a seventeenth-century Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, searching for Terra Australis, the hypothetical southern continent which nobody had ever seen. McAuley believed this was the poem he was born to write, a tribute to a civilization that crossed the seas to try to win souls for Christ. But the epic is also shadowed, almost overwhelmed, by the human wickedness that disfigures the explorers’ efforts as it disfigures Catholic history. In the first voyage, on which Quiros serves as navigator, the crew reaches the Marquesas; a skirmish breaks out between the explorers and the islanders. One frightened “savage” jumps into the sea with his child,
And then a soldier, taking careful aim,
Sent man and child to the bottom with one shot;
Which grieved him later. Quiros murmured blame:
“Why not fire in the air?”—“But that would blot
My record as a marksman,” he replied.
Confronted with such grossness Quiros sighed:
“What use in hell will be a marksman’s fame?”
With that first violence the happy time
Burst like a bubble, the irised colours fled.
McAuley had found a grand metaphor to encapsulate a lifetime’s concerns. The search for Terra Australis is the soul’s journey to somewhere as yet unseen, the existence of which, even if it stands to reason, must be to some extent a matter of faith, a journey on which physical and spiritual evils can never be wholly defeated. What makes sense of it all is the grandeur of the final goal.
Those who have quenched the heart, who would not dare
For any cause to set life on a throw,
Who never walked with failure, death, despair
In long familiar converse: how can they know
What the world looks like in a blaze of glory?
They end as they began, and have no story;
With life unused they dwindle as they go.
As he lies dying, Captain Quiros prophesies that Christians of some future age will endure “a time of loneliness and dearth,” in which their institutions fall to pieces, “Altars and thrones are toppled and destroyed,” and the faithful eventually become a despised minority. It is characteristic of McAuley to allow this vision to develop in all its horror before it fades into the image from Revelation of the Virgin Mary, crowned with twelve stars and reigning as Queen of Heaven; and then, a hint of some spiritual renewal to come. Anyone could have told us that sin and death do not have the last word, but the twentieth-century poet who said it most eloquently was also the one most fluent in the language of despair.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.