Marie Elizabeth Josephine McKeown was born on 6 August 1869 at Bulumwaal, Victoria, the eldest of seven children of an Irish immigrant prospector, Edward McKeown, and his Scottish wife Mary Stuart (née Dawson). When Marie was three years old her father took up a selection at Doherty’s Corner (later Wy Yung), in the Mitchell River valley, East Gippsland. She attended the Wy Yung Public School until the age of twelve, and spent her teenage years working as a labourer on her father’s farm. The family was poor, and work on the farm arduous, but Marie was profoundly influenced by her bush upbringing, and her reverence for the natural surroundings of her childhood strongly marked her poetry. She was also influenced by her mother’s knowledge of the poetry of Robert Burns and the traditional Scottish border ballads.
At the age of twenty, Marie left her father’s farm to work as a retoucher at a photographer’s studio in Bairnsdale, publishing her first poems in the Bairnsdale Advertiser. In 1893, she married William Henry Pitt, a farmer and miner from Longford, Tasmania, and moved to Tasmania with him shortly afterwards. For the next twelve years the couple lived mainly in isolated mining camps on the west coast of Tasmania, and had four children. Despite the hardships of raising a family in the mining camps, Marie continued to write. A satirical poem on the Boer War, ‘Ode to the Fat Man’, was published in the Bulletin in 1900 under the pseudonym ‘Magnet’, and, in a somewhat incongruous development, two years later she won a competition run by the English periodical Good Words for a ‘Song of the Empire’. While in Tasmania, Pitt became active in the Labour movement, and began contributing journalism and verse in support of the workers to the Tasmanian press. From 1904 onwards, she also made regular poetic contributions to the Bulletin and other left-leaning papers.
In 1905, after William Henry Pitt contracted a lung disease from the mines, the family returned to Victoria. They moved to Melbourne, where Marie became involved with the Victorian Socialist Party and the Socialist newspaper, and supported the family through journalism and clerical work. Her poetry increasingly reflected her strong socialist views, and the publication of her first collection of poems, The Horses of the Hills and Other Poems (1911), was organised by her VSP connections as a means of raising money for her family. After her husband died in 1912, Pitt played less of a role in the VSP but retained an interest in the cause through her writing. From 1920, she lived with fellow radical poet Bernard O’Dowd, a relationship that lasted for the rest of her life.
Late in life Pitt gained national attention after her poem ‘Ave Australia’ won the ABC’s National Lyric Competition for a national anthem in 1945. She died at Kew, Melbourne, on 20 May 1948. Best known, perhaps, for the lyric poetry descriptive of the bush country of Gippsland and the west coast of Tasmania, Pitt was also the author of verse a great deal of verse which confronted and challenged the political and social orthodoxies of her time.Poetry Collections
- The Horses of the Hills and other verses (Melbourne: Lothian, 1911).
- Bairnsdale and other poems (Bairnsdale, Vic: Back to Bairnsdale Committee, 1922).
- The Poems of Marie E. J. Pitt (Melbourne: E. A. Vidler, 1925).
- Selected Poems of Marie E. J. Pitt (Melbourne: Lothian, 1944).
- Colleen Burke, Doherty’s Corner: The Life and Work of Marie E. J. Pitt (Sydney: Sirius, 1985).
- Colleen Burke, ‘Marie E. J. Pitt, Poet and Socialist,’ Overland no. 158 (2000), pp. 51–57.
- Gary Catalano, ‘Two Women Rebels,’ Overland no. 99 (1985), pp. 74–75.
- Nancy Keesing, ‘Neglected Poet,’ Australian Book Review no. 71 (1985), pp. 17–18.
- Ann Vickery, ‘Marie Pitt: Cui Bono? The Poetics of Protest,’ Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2007), pp. 52–80.