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Harold Stewart: Wikis


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Harold Frederick Stewart (14 December 1916 – 7 August 1995) was an Australian poet and oriental scholar. He is chiefly remembered as the enigmatic other half of Ern Malley. Noted American poet and academic John Ashberry included the Ern Malley poems in his syllabus for many years. Ern Malley has had a widespread and lasting influence on Australian artists. Peter Carey's novel My Life As A Fake is based on Ern Malley. Of special interest is the manner in which the poems were constructed. The two poets borrowed from various sources, including Shakespeare, their own poetry and an Army handbook on mosquitoes, and by interpolation, constructed the poems. The poets argued that their construction method disassembles the poet's voice and renders the poems meaningless. Although many thought otherwise, arguing that Ern's poetic voice, brittle with pain and seasoned by loss, shines through and consolidates meaning. The difference of opinion raises the question as to the calibration of the different levels of consciousness in the creative process. Stewart preferred the formal order of the Apollian consciousness over the wild and unrestrained Dionysus consciousness. He is usually described by critics as a traditionalist and conservative but described himself as a conservative anarchist. A witty and engaging letter writer, many examples have been retained by the National Library in Canberra.


Early life

Stewart was born in Drummoyne, Sydney. He came from a lower middle-class background and his father, who was a health inspector, had a keen interest in Asia. He attended Fort Street High School after a brief period studying the trumpet at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and then went on to the University of Sydney in 1936. He began writing poetry at high school and was awarded the Poetry Prize in 1934 and 1935. It was at high school that he first met James McAuley. His early enthusiasms were for the French symbolist poets Mallarmé and Valéry, whom he translated, and for American modernists like Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. He always held Wordsworth in high regard.


He dropped out of university after a couple of months and devoted himself to poetry and studying the art and philosophies of Asia. Carl Jung was an early influence and it was by way of Jung's commentaries on oriental texts that he discovered the 'Traditionalist' school of writers. He also immersed himself in Chinese art and poetry, and this determined the subject matter of his first published collection, Phoenix Wings: Poems 1940-46 (1948). A later volume, Orpheus and Other Poems (1956), was strongly influenced by Jungian ideas.

WWII & the Ern Malley affair

During the Second World War, he worked in Army Intelligence (DORCA) at the St Kilda Road Barracks in Melbourne. In 1943, while at the Army Barracks, he collaborated with James McAuley and invented Ern Malley, which aimed to expose the excesses of literary modernism. To facilitate an exchange of letters and also lend credibility to the story, Stewart invented Ethel Malley, Ern's sister. She sent two letters to Max Harris, the first included a manuscript titled "The Darkening Ecliptic" (17 poems were included but only 16 were published). Her personality, which can be gauged from the letters, has been compared with another great Australian suburban icon - Edna Everage. Stewart was partly inspired in the creation of an imaginary poet after attending some lectures given by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges [1] in Melbourne in 1938, though, more importantly, he had been busy inventing several other poetic identities in his earlier years, including Skald and Dulchie Renshaw. Skald was used to hide the fact that he preferred same-sex relationships. Michael Ackland in Damaged Men explores the effect this had on Stewart's life, which, if Ackland's hypothesis is right, was considerable. Stewart's work has been associated with McAuley and A. D. Hope, belonging to a neo-classical or Augustian movement in poetry, but his content was quite different as he concentrated on writing long metaphysical narrative poems,combining Eastern subject matter with his own metaphysical journey to form the narrative.

During the 1950s he worked at specialist bookshop in Melbourne, the Norman Robb bookshop in Little Collins Street, and collected many of the Eastern books he would subsequently take to Japan. Many of these books are now currently for sale online after his nephew sold the collection. Noel Tovey in Little Black Bastard provides a brief portrait of Stewart when both men lived in Melbourne, though Tovey's chronology of events is dubious as he states Stewart had recently returned from Kyoto. Stewart's first visit to Japan, however, was in 1961 and not during the 1950s as Tovey states. Given Tovey would have been fifteen or sixteen at the time, it implies Stewart was a paedophile, which was never the case and demonstrates how dangerous it is for reputation when hazy memory parades as biographical fact. Peter Kelly's Buddha in A Bookshop does more justice to Stewart's legacy in both its accurate portrayal of him as a person and the chronology of events. At this stage he begins to move away from the Traditionalist writers he had been studying and increasingly pursues Japanese Buddhism and researching haiku. He published two haiku volumes in the 1960s, which, although popular and reprinted for nearly twenty years, have recently been subjected to some excellent technical analysis by Greg McLaren, who is one of the first academics to examine Stewart's poetry by way of a dissertation.


He visited Japan in 1961 and then again in 1963 to be ordained as a JodoShin Shu priest only to withdraw at the last minute. It was rumoured he did not want to have his hair shaven. He returned to Australian and later enticed Masaaki, the Japanese man he had fallen in love with, to visit. Masaaki claims to have built the first Japanese-style garden in Australia in the Dandenongs. In 1966 he left Australia to live permanently in Japan. He devoted himself to studying the doctrines of Shin Buddhism to which he had converted. He became an expert on the history of Kyoto and was intimately acquainted with its temples, gardens, palaces and works of art. He became fascinated with Japanese poetry and published two translations of haiku: A Net of Fireflies (1960) and A Chime of Windbells (1969) which proved popular with the reading public.

His 1981 book By the Old Walls of Kyoto consists of twelve poems in rhyming couplets celebrating Kyoto's landmarks and antiquities, and Stewart's own spiritual pilgrimage into Buddhism. The poems are accompanied by a prose commentary.

He also devoted a great deal of time to collaborating with his teachers, Shojun Bando and Hisao Inagaki, in producing English versions of Japanese Buddhist classics such as the Three Pure Land Sutras and the Tannisho.

He died in Kyoto on 7 August 1995 after a short illness. A Shin Buddhist ceremony was conducted for him. For a man who always cried poor, he left a considerable sum of money (about a $1M in Australian Dollars), which was intended to fund the publishing of his last long poem, Autumn Landscape Roll, but the money was not used for this purpose and has never been accounted for. His sister was executor of the will. Just one of the mysteries Stewart left behind. The other significant mystery is: Who was R.M. - the boy who rejected him during a mountain-top tryst in high school and broke his heart. His high school poetry exhibits a rare display of emotion, when compared to his later poetry, as he relates the pain of losing one's first love, R.M., and forced the poet to develop a poetic persona and become more guarded about revealing his feelings. Stewart remained in the closet for the rest of his life, and after he died Cassandra Pybus publicly declared his sexuality in The Devil and James McAuley, which has a rather lopsided and one-dimensional portrayal of Stewart.


  1. ^ Jorge Luis Borges never came to Australia. His fictional lecture was described in a hoax article, A Surreal Visitor written by Guy Rundle and published in The Age newspaper April 22 2002.
  • Damaged men: the precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart. by Michael Ackland. Allen & Unwin, 2001.
  • Buddha in a Bookshop. by Peter Kelly, self published, 2007.

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