Stewart's work has been associated with James McAuley and A. D. Hope, belonging to a neo-classical or Augustian movement in poetry, but his choice of subject matter is different in that he concentrates on writing long metaphysical narrative poems, combining Eastern subject matter with his own metaphysical journey to shape the narrative.
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. Leonie Kramer in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, p. 371, grades the literary quality of Ethel's letters as equal to those of Patrick White, Peter Porter and Barry Humphries.
Early life In Sydney
Stewart was raised in Drummoyne, in the western suburbs of Sydney. He came from a comfortable lower-middle-class background, and his father, employed as a health inspector, had a keen interest in Asia. Stewart displayed early promise as a poet after enrolling at Fort Street High School at the age of fifteen in 1932. Before attending Fort Street he studied the trumpet at the Sydney Conservatorium High School. A subtitle honouring Claude Debussy in 'Prelude: On the Quay,' written in the last year of high school, demonstrates that music was a formative poetic influence and one that provided a sense of organisation for his later poetry, which is most apparent in the fugue-like thematic structure of his spiritual autobiography By the Old Walls of Kyoto. The reference to Debussy also points to the significant influence the French Symbolists had on shaping the affective Gothic mood of his early poetry.
Fort Street was established in 1850 as an academically selective public high school reserved for intellectually gifted students. He got to know James McAuley at Fort Street and the budding poets shared a common interest in literature which provided the foundation for the exchange of ideas and the opportunity to develop a friendship. McAuley won the school Poetry Prize in 1933, while Stewart achieved the same honour in the two years that followed. In a letter to Michael Heyward, he writes: "Jim and I were not good friends at Fort Street, but rather rivals".
He had an early interest in French symbolists Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry and provided translations of their work in his first volume of poetry. He also favoured American modernists like Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Other major influences include the Romantics poets, especially William Wordsworth and John Keats. Carl Jung was an early metaphysical 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.
At Fort Street High School his poetry ranges from scarcely veiled confessional pieces, to poems such as 'Tanka' in which he attempts to create maximum distance between himself and his subject matter by importing a foreign posture or manner. The most confessional poems are addressed to a mysterious R.M, whose gender is confirmed by the dedication of 'Water Images': R.M. (if he will have it).' The identity of R.M., if there is one, has never been established.
When he dedicates 'Estranged' and 'Wither Away – ?' to R.M. in 1933 he does not question his secret lover's romantic intentions, but by 1934 his outlook changes dramatically. The opening line of 'Water Images' informs the reader of the dark journey of separation the subject has travelled: "I have been out and away in the night". A similar mood, though one which grows persistently darker as time passes, is common to 'Pansies,' 'Tanka' and 'Water Images,' and is characteristic of his high school poetry, especially in his penultimate year. In the opening verse he writes:
when the night air pierces to the heart /
and when the prelude of foreboding silence /
and turns the soul to stone.
The coldness of the night air pierces "to the heart" and as his tender hope fades for the arrival of his friend a menacing silence turns the soul to stone. This two-way flow of communication injects his poetry with a spiritual aspect and also demonstrates the structural importance that the philosophical concept of duality has in the inception and construction of his poetic voice.
The frosty autumnal atmosphere of 'Water Images' reflects the poet's state of mind as he realises R.M. would not attend their secret meeting. Overcome with disappointment he borrows lines from the earlier poem 'Tanka' and obscures the fact that he has lost his first chance of securing love by creating ambivalence about the gender of his friend which is stated in 'Tanka,' though in 'Water Images' the "he" is replaced with the impersonal pronoun "you." Concealment occurs after R.M.'s indifference wounds any chance of their nascent relationship maturing to a more secure footing.
Sharp water from the fountains /
hyphenate the blue and crystal air /
Showered figures there /
forever joyful or forever sad /
frozen in agony or mirth or stone /
wet with drippings like the autumn mountain /
when I waited and you never came /
when I was sad with an old age /
that was my passing youth,/
my childhood gone /
with the poignant disappointment of the rain /
wistful with resignation /
warm with tears /
wild with the wind /
and the rain /
in my hair
In 'Tanka,' the poet writes about the mountain meeting in the present tense, but in 'Water Images' he uses the past tense, haughtily assigning R.M. to the remote cobwebbed corners of memory. With little to affirm, the poet laments his "passing youth" as the elemental forces of wind and rain lash the cathedral of trees and, in a similarly overarching mood, he reminisces about the lost spirit of his innocence. His "poignant disappointment" is an admission that the desire for union did not come to fruition. 'Tanka' is credited to Skald, one of the poet's pseudonyms and a persona he deploys as a mask for identity.
Harold Stewart's enrolment in a teaching course at Sydney University was abandoned before his second year for the less certain but more enticing career of a poet. "I found the courses ... arid and boring to distraction," he recalls. His ambition to become a poet gathered momentum during high school and after completing his final year, and without university or full-time employment as a distraction, he embarked upon his chosen career path, spending many hours at the Sydney Public Library copying his favourite poems in long hand. In a letter to Michael Heyward, he wrote: "The period between leaving Sydney University and joining the Army was that period during which I worked through many modern influences, getting lost in the wilderness, stuck up blind alleys, and finding my way out of them".
This period served as an apprenticeship of sorts, suiting his introspective personality, though he did not abandon his social life completely and continued to gather with university friends in coffee shops and bars around Sydney to discuss literature and listen as they read their latest works. Despite his reserved social demeanour, and without the spur of alcohol as he rarely drank, he appeared forthcoming in conversation, though he had good reason to guard against revealing the more libertine details of his personal life. In a letter to Michael Heyward, Stewart discussed this social life: "... back in the later 1930's, I had met Alec Hope and he along with Jim [McAuley] and other literary friends used to meet on Saturday afternoons at Sherry's Coffee Shop in Pitt Street Sydney to discuss literary topics and improvise light verse, usually of a satirical nature".
While his former classmates engaged his intellect and wit, he had other friends entertaining more than just his mind. He refrained from publicly disclosing his sexuality while alive. After his death Cassandra Pybus announced it The Devil and James McAuley and Michael Ackland reiterated it in Damaged Men, though Sasha Soldatow was the first to publish the secret about Stewart's private life in 1996. Most of his friends were aware that Stewart made his way to the bohemian inner suburb of Kings Cross to discuss modern art, though, at the time, many were probably unaware that he also went there to pursue sexual relations with artists William Dobell and Donald Friend. Discretion about his sexuality was exercised after the final years of high school when accusations about his sexual orientation were made, forcing him to shelter his private life from scrutiny by developing a poetic persona as his public face. It is within this environment of intolerance that he had to appear as if poetry, not marriage and raising a family, was his main priority.
The long reign of Queen Victoria ended at the beginning of the twentieth century but the morality of her times lingered well beyond the 1930s and dictated that acting out homosexual passions would have destructive consequences. The fate of Oscar Wilde provided a rebarbative lesson to those brave enough to test the boundaries of socially acceptable sexual behaviour and even a poet with the most adamantine reputation, such as W. H. Auden, would not risk coming out of the closet in fear of reprisals. By creating a poetic persona as his public face Stewart could avoid suspicion, though not the fear of knowing that just one probing question could surgically pierce the protective epidermis created by duplicity and expose the rawness of his double life. For many of his friends he was a struggling poet, much like the persona he would invent for Ern Malley in the following decade, but for others he assumed a more furtive role. The avuncular poetic persona he invented for his university friends was not his first mask, nor would it be his last, but just another in a long charade of false identities.
Whether shielded behind the closet door or obscured by a poetic mask, Stewart deflected censure by not courting controversy and avoided offending mainstream sensibilities, more like Auden in this respect than Wilde, though keeping dirty secrets in the small social circles of Sydney required the vigilance of a sentinel.
Long before his conscription to the Army for WWII, Stewart fought a personal war of hide and seek. To understand his diffidence about revealing his sexuality it is necessary to appreciate the historical context of his times. Gay Rights did not exist until it entered mainstream political discourse with the sexual liberation of the 1960s. Yet, perhaps more tellingly, Australians were once far less tolerant of those who did not conform to conventional standards and many homosexuals suffered violence and hatred if the truth were revealed. Silence was necessary for survival.
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. In The Ern Malley Affair, Michael Heyward recounts the events of the hoax when Stewart conspired with friend and fellow poet James McAuley to dupe Max Harris, the young leader of the modernist movement, and his fellow Angry Penguins associates, into believing that Ern's sister, Ethel, had found an unpublished manuscript while sorting through her brother's personal belongings after his premature death at the age of twenty-five from the usually non-fatal hyperthyroid condition known as Graves' disease or more commonly as goiter. A cure for Graves' disease does not exist but with palliative treatment the symptoms can be ameliorated. Mostly electing to ignore the warning signs of his faltering health, Ern returned to Sydney after a failed romance tested his resolve, but then, just weeks later, died in the care of his sister, leaving his unpublished manuscript for posterity.
The age of his death was contrived to draw parallels with John Keats, a principal poet of the English Romantics, who had died at the same age. More tangential clues awaited discovery, some obscure like the reference to Keats, others more obvious as when Ern writes in 'Sybilline': "It is necessary to understand / That a poet may not exist," though none were sufficiently provocative to prick the ear of suspicion, which was largely due to the credibility of Ethel. By grounding the story with a sense of humility she plays a pivotal role in securing the bond of trust. Her letters display disarming candour: "It would be a kindness if you would let me know whether you think there is anything in them. I am not a literary person myself and I do not feel that I understand what he wrote, but I feel that I ought to do something about them." A couple of poems were enclosed with her first letter. The language of 'Durer: Innsbruck 1495' stunned Harris, resonating with his modern sensibilities. Even though the other poems might not have been as accomplished, Harris made his mind up with the first flush of enthusiasm and read 'Durer' over and over again, convinced that with the right promotion Ern could shine as the next big star in the modern firmament, which, in turn, would assist the promotion of modernism. The neat self-serving circularity of the plan was too delicious to resist.
While McAuley has been widely acknowledged as the main author of the meretricious poems, Ethel Malley, an ordinary suburban housewife, was primarily the product of Stewart's imagination, though McAuley and his wife Norma made some minor editorial contributions. Ethel has the warm familiarity of a congenial neighbour living in the type of lower-middle class suburb that Stewart experienced as a child but had since gladly left behind. Yet, in the letters, there is also a glimpse of a darker, more judgmental side to her personality; of a suburban philistine insulated from events in the wider world and dismissive of her brother's impulsive choices, such as his decision to quit his job in Sydney and relocate to Melbourne. Heyward notes: "Ern Malley mocked the romantic myth of the proletarian artist but Ethel anticipated by a decade that formidable icon of the Australian suburban sensibility, Edna Everage."
Harris was charged with publishing obscene material though could have avoided an appearance before the Adelaide Magistrates' Court if he had known about Stewart's skill for inventing poetic masks, yet this would have cruelly denied future generations the brilliant comedy of that vaudevillian farce. Paul Kane in Australian Poetry, p. 142, describes the trial as "an incipient Monty Python skit." Detective Vogelsang was the chief witness for the prosecution and thought that 'Night Piece' was obscene. Under oath he declared: "Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive . . . I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes." He also found the word "incestuous" indecent in 'Perspective Lovesong' but admitted he did not know the meaning of the word.
The unsettled life of Ern Malley, made painfully public in Ethel Malley's correspondence where she describes a young poet battling the machinations of a materialistic modern world in the poverty of war-time rationing, desperate for the soft touch of love, for a moment that would clarify purpose with a salvatory meaning, displays an uncanny parallel to Stewart's own early life. Ironically, he went on to write poetry which represents such an enlightened moment in much the same unappreciated circumstances suffered by Ern Malley. For Stewart, the Malleys were not only a mask to hide behind, but also a mirror which reflected his own precarious life as a young aspiring poet.
Stewart was partly inspired in the creation of an imaginary poet after attending some lectures given by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges  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.
Harris eventually overcame the humiliation of Ern Malley and even managed to capitalise on the celebrity gained from the hoax in his business life, but the resentment directed toward Stewart and McAuley simmered long after the last Japanese soldier had surrendered in the Pacific. Serious reservations persisted about the lack of support his poetry received from Australian critics and in a letter to Heyward he outlines his feelings about the lack of critical attention. "How would you feel if a life time's serious work in poetry and prose, based on scholarship and experience of a profound Tradition, were almost totally ignored, while an afternoon's jeu d'esprit by two bored young soldier poets amusing themselves by satirising the fashionable literary kitsch of the period is inflated into an event of national cultural importance?"
His defensive tone highlights the distant relationship he had with his home country and confirms the disregard he harboured for those Australian critics who ignored the later part of his career. The sad and unforgiving truth for Stewart is that Ern Malley not only haunted his career but also eclipsed his other poetry, though this should not be the manner in which his Buddhist poetry is remembered according to several critics. Heyward describes his poetry as "gorgeous, adjectival, multi-faceted like cut jewels, sculpted into tableaux and set pieces." H.M. Green describes Stewart as an accomplished verbal artist and an innovator in rhythm. In relation to his Buddhist poetry, Dorothy Green writes: ". . . the verse rises to a solemn incantatory splendour quite unparalleled in verse written by an Australian." A.D. Hope was the first critic to acknowledge Stewart's skill in marrying Eastern philosophies with the Western narrative form. He writes: This is not chinoiserie, it is not English poetry in Chinese fancy dress. It is English poetry which has enlarged its resources by an intellectual penetration of and an artistic comprehension of another culture. . . I am struck by the mastery, the justice and the originality of movement." Similarly, Kelvin Lancaster, in 1949, argues that even though Stewart appears derivative, excoriating him for adopting the "irresponsible style of Rimbaud," his poetry provides an original and distinct contribution to Australian poetry: "As it is, his brilliant style and versatile direction are a distinct contribution toward brightening the too often pallid and anaemic style of Australian poetry. With an originality of thought equal to his powers of expression, Mr Stewart could become the major Australian poet of the younger generation." Stewart was sixty-three years old and obviously excluded from claiming to be part the younger generation when his youthful promise belatedly reached its potential with the publication of By the Old Walls of Kyoto in 1981.
The middle years - Melbourne
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 Australia 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.
Stewart died in Kyoto on 7 August 1995 after a short illness. A Shin Buddhist ceremony was conducted for him. He left a considerable sum of money (about AU$1M), 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.
Stewart's high school poetry has homoerotic subject matter, making Stewart the first poet to embrace gay subject matter in Australia - although the closeted Stewart might have rejected being labelled Australia's first gay poet. In the 1950s he encrypted his poetry with personal homoerotic subject matter and also added other gay subject matter under the guise of Greek mythology. Stewart remained in the closet for the rest of his life.
After he died, Cassandra Pybus publicly declared his sexuality in The Devil and James McAuley. However, Sasha Soldatow was the first to publicly announce the truth about Stewart's sexuality in the UTS Review in 1996.
- Ethel Malley in a letter to 'The Editors,' 28 October 1943, Ern Malley Collected Poems, p.1. Stewart included the small incidental detail which provided enough background information so that Harris could imagine Ethel's social circumstances. She writes: "When I was going through my brother's things after his death, I found some poetry he had written. I am no judge of it myself, but a friend who I showed it to thinks it is very good and told me it should be published." Leonie Kramer in The Oxford History of Australian Literature, p. 371, grades the literary quality of Ethel's letters as equal to those of Patrick White, Peter Porter and Barry Humphries.
- Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, p.103. Peter Craven in The Australian, 23 August 1995, p.30, also makes the association between Ethel Malley and Edna Everage. He writes: "There are certainly moments in the literary and artistic history of this country when it seems reasonable to think that if Barry Humphries had not existed we would have had to dream him up. There is a sense in which the Ern Malley hoax was a prefiguring, in the circles of literature and public controversy, of that spirit of devilment and national self-mockery which became Humphries's hallmark. It is said that towards the end of his life McAuley took to calling Ethel Malley "Dame Ethel.""
- Paul Kane in Australian Poetry, p.142, describes the trial as "an incipient Monty Python skit." Detective Vogelsang was the chief witness for the prosecution and thought that 'Night Piece' was obscene. Under oath he declared: "Apparently someone is shining a torch in the dark, visiting through the park gates. To my mind they were going there for some disapproved motive . . . I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes." He also found the word "incestuous" indecent in 'Perspective Lovesong' but admitted he did not know the meaning of the word. The use of the words "immoral purposes" in the context of parks at night suggests that Vogelsang is referring to homosexual activity. A major patron of Max Harris, especially in the early days in Adelaide during the first few editions of 'Angry Penguins,' was Charles Jury. Wealthy, single and homosexual, Jury had retired from the chair of English Literature at Adelaide University and lived in the city opposite a park similar to one described in 'Night Piece.' Sasha Soldatow, in The UTS Review, 1996, Vol 2/ No.1, May, in a review of Michael Heyward's The Ern Malley Affair, points out the relationship between Jury and Harris and describes Heyward's use of word "fruity" as homophobic. Soldatow also describes Heyward's characterisation of Jury and his relationship between Harris as "homophobic." Max Harris in Ern Malley Collected Poems describes Jury as a skilful and scholarly influence. Harris describes Jury's use of Greek mythology as a means of expressing a noble idealisation of homosexual love. Patrick Buckridge in 'Clearing A Space For Australian Literature 1940–1965,' in The Oxford Literary History of Australia (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1988), p.174, writes that the court appearance and conviction of Harris "were a key moment in the translation of popular philistinism into repressive state power."
- 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 22 April 2002. http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/04/22/1019233309914.html
- 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.
Anthologies which have included Stewart's poetry
- John Kinsella, Australian Poetry (Melbourne, Penguin, 2009), 'The Leaf-makers', p. 183-184. Before his death Stewart's poetry was anthologised in Australian Poetry 1943 (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1944), selected by H.M. Green, p. 25, Modern Australian Poetry (Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1946, reprinted 1952) selected by H.M. Green, pp. 57–64, Australian Poetry 1949-50 (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1951), selected by Rosemary Dobson, pp. 37–39, An Anthology of Australian Verse (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1952), selected by George Mackaness, pp. 356–359, Australian Poetry 1955 (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1955), selected by James McAuley, pp. 69–70, Australian Poetry 1956 (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1956), selected by A.A. Philips, pp. 18–19, Australian Poetry 1960 (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1960), selected by A.D. Hope, pp. 65–73, Modern Australian Verse (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1964), selected by Douglas Stewart, pp. 129–132, The Penguin Book of Australian Verse (Victoria, Penguin, 1972), edited by Harry Heseltine, pp. 265–266, which has Stewart's birth year incorrectly stated as 1913, Australian Voices: Poetry and Prose of the 1970s (Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1975), edited by Rosemary Dobson, p. 16, The Golden Apples of the Sun: Twentieth Century Australian Poetry (Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1980, reprinted 1981), edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, pp. 98–106, The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (South Australia, Oxford University Press, 1986 and in the third edition a year after his death in 1996), selected by Les Murray, pp. 202–203, Australian Poetry in The Twentieth Century (Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1991), edited by Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann, pp. 170–175. When first published by H.M. Green in Australian Poetry 1943, the poem was titled 'The Leaf-Marker, though its title was subsequently altered in Phoenix Wings to 'The Leaf-maker' and then to 'The Leaf-makers' in Douglas Stewart's anthology. Kinsella's anthology adopts the same title.
- Leonie Kramer, The Oxford History of Australian Literature (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1981)
- Paul Kane, Australian Poetry
- H.M. Green, A History of Australian Literature (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1961)
- Harold Stewart Papers - National Library of Australia
- Essay on Harold Stewart's Metaphysical Poems
- Harold Stewart's Writings on Shin Buddhism