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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

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  • 8/6/2019 Australian Poets


    Letter-s L~fteot~V\,to'Poetr-kjJonathan Persse, editor of thecorrespondence between DavidCampbell and Douglas Stewart,reflects on a remarkable friendship

    Th irty years ago, the Nat iona l L ib ra ryacquired the papers of two ofAustral ia 's leading l iterary f igures, DavidCampbell (1915-1979) and Douglas Stewart(1913-1985).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 enjoyedworking in the Manuscript Read ing Rooma t the L ib ra ry. I have a lso been as far afie ldas Melbourne and Hobart , and Urunga,see ing members o f Campbell' s family andhis friends.The work continues, but I went off at a

    tangent when I read the le tte rs tha t DouglasS tewart had written to Campbell-there arewell ove r 200 o f them in Campbell's papers,dating from 1946 to 1979-and founda lmost as many le tte rs from Campbe ll toStewart, in the la tter's papers .This two-way correspondence resul ted

    in a very fine collection of letters that hasrecently been pub lished by the L ib rary as

    Let ters Lif ted into Poetry. The title of thecollect ion comes from Stewart's last le tterto Campbell, in June 1979, in which hewro te , 'whatever happened to be outsidethe w indow, or seen in a morning's walk-hawk or swallow o r dabch ick-lifted a lette rinto poetry'.In 1940, Stewart , a New Zea lander ,

    became litera ry editor o f the Bulletin, amagazine that, since its b irth in 1880, hadfostered Austral ian wri ting. Campbell 'sf irs t poem, 'Harry Pearce',appeared in theissue of 18 November 1942, though it wasnot until the last year of the war that thetwo men met, a mee ting vividly describedby 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 inthe RAAF, fight ing aga inst the Japanese to

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    the north of Australia; by the end of the warhe 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 northernedge of Canberra . H is mother continued forsome time to live there, and he had built ahouse fo r himself and his w ife Bonn ie andtheir two chi ld ren, John and Raina. The irth ird child, And rew , was born in 1958. A tthe end of 1961 the family moved to a newproperty, Palerang, near Bungendore, thenin 1969 to The Run, on the Molonglo Rivernear Queanbeyan. In tha t last decade of hislife, Campbell spent a good deal of time inCanberra , where h is second wife, Judy, had ahouse in Grif fi th . He pub lished 11collect ionsof his own poems, two of short stories, andedited 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 toSt Ives where , in the ir daughter Meg 's words,'the adjacent Ku-ring-gai Chase not onlyprovided my father with bush to explore buta 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 onthe publishing side of the company w ith thefamous Australian editor, Beatrice Davis;he remained w ith the firm un til 1972. F rom1955 to 1970, he was a member of theCommonwealth Literary Fund and, unt il theend of his life, con tinued to w rite, both poetryand prose, and to work w ith the Nationa lTrust in maintaining Norman Lindsay 'sproperty at Spr ingwood. He published13collect ions o f poetry , wro te five versep lays (the best known being The Fire on theSnowl. numerous short s tories and essayso f c ritic ism, b iographies o f L indsay and ofKenneth Siessor,and he edited anthologies-in a ll, an enormous outpu t. He was awardedthe 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 nothis first, was written on 27 October 1946 ;he wrote two more befo re S tewart replied toa 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 aboutfor nearly a third of a century? It wasnot politi cs -Menzies, Whit lam, and theprime min is te rs between, came and wentw ithou t a mention . Nor was it interna tionalevents-the Korean War and the V ietnamWar 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, fellowauthors, fishing , nature and the land ...Poetry is the st ronges t thread runn ing

    through the lette rs. When Stewart was at theBulletin, Campbell would send a contr ibution,mostly a poem but now and again a shortstory, and Stewart in reply would often givea critique of the p iece , and occasiona lly o ffersugges tions or adv ice . Poetry , and the artand cra ft o f poe try, the joy and satisfac tiono f exp loring the poetic instinct, so strong inboth men , are the re in the letters.Each man, too, wou ld w rite when the

    other pub lished a book of poems, or whenone of Stewart 's p lays was perfo rmed. On

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    re-reading TheF ire on the Snow , Campbellwrote in June 1951 that he had,

    found a greater beauty in it than ever before:the crystal clarity of the lyrics; the lovelycontrasts of the white and green, today andyesterday, death and li fe; the courage andterror; and the ideas wh ich bind i t together,which to my mind are far more valid andenduring than the shallow psychology of playssuch as Auden's Ascent.

    In the book of letters now published, 27poems and an extract from The Fire on theSnow are included.Contemporary poets, some of them

    friends o f Campbe ll and of S tewart, and the irwork, are often mentioned. Jud ith Wright, ofcourse, receives their attention (15 letters);a fte r see ing a photograph of her, Campbellw rote in Novembe r 1946, 'I ag ree w ith you:she has a mouth in a m illion. No shabby tigerthere '. R .D.F itzGera ld is a lso the sub ject o ftheir exchanges (16 letters); Campbel l wrotein November 1952 of 'the fine cra ftsmansh ipand great phi losophical passages' inhis Between Two Tides. Francis Webb ismentioned in 17 le tters; both Campbell andStewart admire much o f his poetry, thoughthey a re sometimes ba ffled by it. They aredeeply concerned for his welfare, especia llyas h is menta l hea lth deterio ra ted. Manyother Aus tra lian writers are mentioned in theletters , especia lly when either Campbel l orStewart 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 aretouchstones, as is Shakespeare: how wel l,Campbell wrote in Ju ly 1952, he 'shows thegood th ings o f life: friendsh ip , love , hones tdea ling ; and makes of them a yardst ickfor measuring evil' . Stewart occasionallycompares Campbel l with Byron.It is, however, the work o f several o f their

    con temporary British and American poetsthat they d iscuss more thoroughly . DylanThomas comes in for p ra ise and crit ic ism.Neither Campbell nor Stewart warmed toIS. Elio t's la te r p lays . Campbell wro te , inJune 1950,

    I'm in bed with a cold and thoroughly enjoyingit, having just read The Cockta il Par ty , TheTempest and Macbeth. What an insipid coldtonic that first is; and what a distaste Eliot hasfor ordinary li fe ... I've always bel ieved (he) hadhumour, but the thin smiles in that play left me

    cold ... It was a relief to leave that cold doctorand 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 fetchinghim back again to read many of his lyrics withdelight when he's not trying to be clever; toadmire h is technique, when he's not talkingin private language; to be astonished by theoccasional depth of his understanding, whenhe's not quoting Freud ... He seems to me tohave everything that goes to the making ofmasterpieces, except what it takes: a respectfor, and delight in, li fe.

    Implicit in many of the letters is anexp lo ra tion and an understanding of theart of poetry. Th is becomes more exp licit insome of S tewart's letters; he was, afte r all,one of Aust ra lia 's f ines t c ritics, as well asa poe t himself. O ften he would commen ton the contributions Campbell sent to himfor the Bulletin, and occasionally wouldgive advice, sometimes very speci fic adv ice,

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    about either the content or the form of apoem-as he did for the unpublished playsCampbell appa rently w ro te, and fo r the warnovel, Strike (pub lished in 2006, 60 yearson). In one le tte r, da ted Octobe r 1962 ,Stewart expressed gra titude to an unnamedrev iewer of Campbell 's recently publishedcollection, Poems, calling h im 'tha t s illyfellow in the Herald' and declaring thathe had made him 'define what I feelabou t the p ro fundity o f your lyrics:which lies in the ly rica l mus ic itse lf, andin the vision of joy and the philosophyo f the continu ity o f life exp ressed quiteimplici 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 fthe seasons , the trees, the orch ids , theb irds and anima ls . Campbel l wou ld o ftentell S tewart what he was doing on theproperty-planting or harves ting wheat ,bui ld ing a dam, dea ling w ith foo t-rotin 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 tewartw rote , in Ju ly 1977,

    It occurs to me that you have in a way, anda very effective way, written that Diary ofthe land I mentioned to you ... your letters.are full of your nature observations, and willundoubtedly be publ ished some day.

    They loved fishing : along w ith poe try, theother constant theme running through theletters. Every season they would go to themountain streams and rivers to fish fort rout, and occas iona lly to LakeWapengoto join Manning Clark for some coastalf ishing. Margaret Coen (Douglas Stewart 'swife) sometimes went with the men, topaint, and two of her landscapes and a mappainted on silk are reproduced in the bookof letters .

    Let te rs L ifted in to Poetry is the reco rdof the friendship of two of Australia's greatlitera ry figures. Both Campbell and Stewartwere gene rous in the encouragement andthe advice they gave to you nger writers atthe time, and they are remembered witha ffection and g ra titude. But the collectiv ememory fades. How very pleasing it is,then, that in 2006 not only are these letterspub lished but a lso Campbell' s novel Strike,and a new volume of selected poems,Hardening of the Light. Now it is time forhis biography to be w ritten, and that workcontinues; would someone do the same forDouglas Stewart?JONATHAN PERSSE is writing a life ofDavid Campbell