Australian Poets

Letter-s L~fteot ~V\,to 'Poetr-kj Jonathan Persse, editor of the correspondence between David Campbell and Douglas Stewart, reflects on a remarkable friendship T h irt y y ea rs a go , t he N at io na l L ib ra ry acquired the papers of two of Australia's leading literary figures, David Campbell (1915-1979) and Douglas Stewart (1913-1985). Four years ago, I set out to write a life of David Campbell, the grazier-poet. M a ki ng regular trips to Canberra, I have enjoyed working in the Manuscript R ead in g R oo m at the Library. I have also been asfar afield asMelbourne and Hobart, and Urunga, seeing members of Campbell's family and his friends. The work continues, but I went off at a tangent when I read the letters that Douglas Stewart had written to Campbell-there are well over 200 of them in Campbell's papers, dating from 1946 to 1979-and found almost as many letters from Campbell to Stewart, in the latter's papers. This two-way correspondence resulted in a very fine collection of letters that has recently been published by the Library as Letters Lifted into Poetry. The title of the c olle ct io n comes from Stewart's last letter to Campbell, in June 1979, in which he w ro te , ' wh at ev er happened to be outside the window, or seen in a morning's walk- hawk or swallow or dabchick-lifted a letter into poetry'. In 1940, Stewart, a New Zealander, became literary editor of the Bulletin, a magazine that, since its birth in 1880, had fostered Australian writing. C am p be ll 's first poem, 'Harry Pearce',appeared in the issue of 18 November 1942, though it was not until the last year of the war that the two men met, a meeting ividly described by Stewart n a letter to Norman Lindsay (now held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney). Campbell was then a Squadron Leaderin the RAAF,fighting a ga in st t he J ap an es e t o

Transcript of Australian Poets

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Letter-s L~fteot~V\,to'Poetr-kjJonathan Persse, editor of the

correspondence between David

Campbell and Douglas Stewart,

reflects on a remarkable friendship

Th irty years ago, the Nat iona l L ib ra ry

acquired the papers of two of

Austral ia 's leading l iterary f igures, David

Campbell (1915-1979) and Douglas Stewart


Four years ago, I set out to write a life ofDavid Campbell , the grazier-poet. Making

regu la r t rips to Canberra, I have enjoyed

working in the Manuscript Read ing Room

a t the L ib ra ry. I have a lso been as far afie ld

as Melbourne and Hobart , and Urunga,

see ing members o f Campbell' s family and

his friends.

The work continues, but I went off at a

tangent when I read the le tte rs tha t Douglas

S tewart had written to Campbell-there are

well ove r 200 o f them in Campbell's papers,dating from 1946 to 1979-and found

a lmost as many le tte rs from Campbe ll to

Stewart, in the la tter's papers .

This two-way correspondence resul ted

in a very fine collection of letters that has

recently been pub lished by the L ib rary as

Let ters Lif ted into Poetry. The title of the

collect ion comes from Stewart's last le tter

to Campbell, in June 1979, in which hewro te , 'whatever happened to be outside

the w indow, or seen in a morning's walk-

hawk or swallow o r dabch ick-lifted a lette r

into poetry'.

In 1940, Stewart , a New Zea lander ,

became litera ry editor o f the Bulletin, a

magazine that, since its b irth in 1880, had

fostered Austral ian wri ting. Campbell 's

f irs t poem, 'Harry Pearce',appeared in the

issue of 18 November 1942, though it was

not until the last year of the war that thetwo men met, a mee ting vividly described

by S tewart in a letter to Norman Lindsay

(now he ld in the Mitchell L ibrary in Sydney).

Campbel l was then a Squadron Leader in

the RAAF, fight ing aga inst the Japanese to

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the north of Australia; by the end of the war

he had risen to be W ing Commander, with aDFC(Distinguished Fly ing Cross) and bar.

He returned to the land after the war

and, on the death of his father in 1947,

took over Wells Sta tion, on the northern

edge of Canberra . H is mother continued for

some time to live there, and he had built a

house fo r himself and his w ife Bonn ie and

their two chi ld ren, John and Raina. The ir

th ird child, And rew , was born in 1958. A t

the end of 1961 the family moved to a new

property, Palerang, near Bungendore, thenin 1969 to The Run, on the Molonglo River

near Queanbeyan. In tha t last decade of his

life, Campbell spent a good deal of time in

Canberra , where h is second wife, Judy, had a

house in Grif fi th . He pub lished 11collect ions

of his own poems, two of short stories, and

edited or collabora ted on another seven.

Douglas Stewart married the painter

Margaret Coen in 1945. From a flat in

Bridge Street, Sydney, they moved in 1953 to

St Ives where , in the ir daughter Meg 's words,

'the adjacent Ku-ring-gai Chase not only

provided my father with bush to explore but

a lso new sub jects fo r poems '.

In 1961,w ith a change of ownership at

the Bulletin, Stewart resigned and joinedAngus & Robertson, where he worked on

the publishing side of the company w ith the

famous Australian editor, Beatrice Davis;

he remained w ith the firm un til 1972. F rom

1955 to 1970, he was a member of the

Commonwealth Literary Fund and, unt il the

end of his life, con tinued to w rite, both poetry

and prose, and to work w ith the Nationa l

Trust in maintaining Norman Lindsay 's

property at Spr ingwood. He published

13collect ions o f poetry , wro te five versep lays (the best known being The Fire on the

Snowl. numerous short s tories and essays

o f c ritic ism, b iographies o f L indsay and of

Kenneth Siessor,and he edited anthologies-

in a ll, an enormous outpu t. He was awarded

the OBE in 1960, and the AO in 1979.

The ear liest letter from Campbell to Stewart

in the L ib ra ry, though a lmos t certain ly not

his first, was written on 27 October 1946 ;

he wrote two more befo re S tewart replied to

a ll th ree on 11December that year. Thus thecorrespondence held by the Library began,

end ing with Stewart's le tte r o f 11June 1979.

What were David Campbell and Douglas

S tewart w riting to each o the r about

for nearly a third of a century? It was

not politi cs -Menzies, Whit lam, and the

prime min is te rs between, came and went

w ithou t a mention . Nor was it interna tional

events-the Korean War and the V ietnam

War l ikewise came and went unmentioned.

Nor was it sport; nor even fam ily life exceptoccasionally and brief ly . So what, then?

Literatu re and the art of w riting, fellow

authors, fishing , nature and the land ...

Poetry is the st ronges t thread runn ing

through the lette rs. When Stewart was at the

Bulletin, Campbell would send a contr ibution,

mostly a poem but now and again a short

story, and Stewart in reply would often give

a critique of the p iece , and occasiona lly o ffer

sugges tions or adv ice . Poetry , and the art

and cra ft o f poe try, the joy and satisfac tion

o f exp loring the poetic instinct, so strong in

both men , are the re in the letters.

Each man, too, wou ld w rite when the

other pub lished a book of poems, or when

one of Stewart 's p lays was perfo rmed. On

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re-reading TheF ire on the Snow , Campbell

wrote in June 1951 that he had,

found a greater beauty in it than ever before:

the crystal clarity of the lyrics; the lovely

contrasts of the white and green, today and

yesterday, death and li fe; the courage and

terror; and the ideas wh ich bind i t together,

which to my mind are far more valid and

enduring than the shallow psychology of plays

such as Auden's Ascent.

In the book of letters now published, 27

poems and an extract from The Fire on the

Snow are included.

Contemporary poets, some of them

friends o f Campbe ll and of S tewart, and the ir

work, are often mentioned. Jud ith Wright, of

course, receives their attention (15 letters);a fte r see ing a photograph of her, Campbell

w rote in Novembe r 1946, 'I ag ree w ith you:

she has a mouth in a m illion. No shabby tiger

there '. R .D.F itzGera ld is a lso the sub ject o f

their exchanges (16 letters); Campbel l wrote

in November 1952 of 'the fine cra ftsmansh ip

and great phi losophical passages' in

his Between Two Tides. Francis Webb is

mentioned in 17 le tters; both Campbell and

Stewart admire much o f his poetry, though

they a re sometimes ba ffled by it. They aredeeply concerned for his welfare, especia lly

as h is menta l hea lth deterio ra ted. Many

other Aus tra lian writers are mentioned in the

letters , especia lly when either Campbel l or

Stewart is collect ing work for an anthology.

Dos toevsky is the sub ject o f severa l

le tters in 1950. Wordswor th and Yeats are

touchstones, as is Shakespeare: how wel l,

Campbell wrote in Ju ly 1952, he 'shows the

good th ings o f life: friendsh ip , love , hones t

dea ling ; and makes of them a yardst ickfor measuring evil' . Stewart occasionally

compares Campbel l with Byron.

It is, however, the work o f several o f their

con temporary British and American poets

that they d iscuss more thoroughly . Dylan

Thomas comes in for p ra ise and crit ic ism.

Neither Campbell nor Stewart warmed to

IS. Elio t's la te r p lays . Campbell wro te , in

June 1950,

I'm in bed with a cold and thoroughly enjoying

it, having just read The Cockta il Par ty , The

Tempest and Macbeth. What an insipid cold

tonic that first is; and what a distaste Eliot has

for ordinary li fe ... I've always bel ieved (he) had

humour, but the thin smiles in that play left me

cold ... It was a relief to leave that cold doctor

and turn to the real magician of The Tempest . .

Campbell a lso wro te , the fo llowing month ,

how he was,

throwing Auden out the window ... and fetching

him back again to read many of his lyrics with

delight when he's not trying to be clever; to

admire h is technique, when he's not talking

in private language; to be astonished by the

occasional depth of his understanding, when

he's not quoting Freud ... He seems to me to

have everything that goes to the making of

masterpieces, except what it takes: a respect

for, and delight in, li fe.

Implicit in many of the letters is an

exp lo ra tion and an understanding of the

art of poetry. Th is becomes more exp licit in

some of S tewart's letters; he was, afte r all,one of Aust ra lia 's f ines t c ritics, as well as

a poe t himself. O ften he would commen t

on the contributions Campbell sent to him

for the Bulletin, and occasionally would

give advice, sometimes very speci fic adv ice,

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about either the content or the form of a

poem-as he did for the unpublished plays

Campbell appa rently w ro te, and fo r the war

novel, Strike (pub lished in 2006, 60 years

on). In one le tte r, da ted Octobe r 1962 ,

Stewart expressed gra titude to an unnamed

rev iewer of Campbell 's recently published

collection, Poems, calling h im 'tha t s illy

fellow in the Herald' and declaring thathe had made him 'define what I feel

abou t the p ro fundity o f your lyrics:

which lies in the ly rica l mus ic itse lf, and

in the vision of joy and the philosophy

o f the continu ity o f life exp ressed quite

implici tly in the s implest-seeming poems'.

Both Campbell and Stewart d rew

much o f the ir insp ira tion from na tu re .

They loved the bush , the chang ing o f

the seasons , the trees, the orch ids , the

b irds and anima ls . Campbel l wou ld o ftentell S tewart what he was doing on the

property-planting or harves ting wheat ,

bui ld ing a dam, dea ling w ith foo t-rot

in the sheep, observing hawks or foxes .

When re- read ing h is f riend 's le tte rs and

so rting them ou t for the L ib ra ry, S tewart

w rote , in Ju ly 1977,

It occurs to me that you have in a way, and

a very effective way, written that Diary of

the land I mentioned to you ... your letters.

are full of your nature observations, and will

undoubtedly be publ ished some day.

They loved fishing : along w ith poe try, the

other constant theme running through the

letters. Every season they would go to the

mountain streams and rivers to fish for

t rout, and occas iona lly to LakeWapengo

to join Manning Clark for some coastal

f ishing. Margaret Coen (Douglas Stewart 's

wife) sometimes went with the men, to

paint, and two of her landscapes and a map

painted on silk are reproduced in the bookof letters .

Let te rs L ifted in to Poetry is the reco rd

of the friendship of two of Australia's great

litera ry figures. Both Campbell and Stewart

were gene rous in the encouragement and

the advice they gave to you nger writers at

the time, and they are remembered with

a ffection and g ra titude. But the collectiv e

memory fades. How very pleasing it is,

then, that in 2006 not only are these letters

pub lished but a lso Campbell' s novel Strike,and a new volume of selected poems,

Hardening of the Light. Now it is time for

his biography to be w ritten, and that work

continues; would someone do the same for

Douglas Stewart?

JONATHAN PERSSE is writing a life of

David Campbell