Home > Poets > Stewart, Douglas

Douglas Stewart (1913 – 1985)

Douglas Stewart

fl. 1936-1985

Douglas Alexander Stewart was born on 6 May 1913, at Eltham, Taranaki, New Zealand. The second of five children of Alexander Armstrong Stewart, a schoolteacher and later lawyer originally from Melbourne, and his wife Mary (née Fitzgerald), Stewart enjoyed a happy childhood, which he would describe in his late memoir, Springtime in Taranaki (1983). He attended a private school from the age of four, and, aged eight, began attending Eltham Public School, where he claimed to have made the decision to become an author. At the age of twelve, he won a scholarship to a boarding school, New Plymouth Boys' High, where he began writing poems and stories. Disappointed that the poems he sent to the local paper were published on the children's page, Stewart began sending his work to the Bulletin in Australia. While rejected by the Bulletin, one of the paper's editors, Cecil Mann, saw to it that some of Stewart's poems appeared in another Sydney paper in the Bulletin stable, the Australian Women's Mirror.

Stewart briefly studied law at the Victoria University of Wellington, but lacked interest in his studies and failed his exams. Leaving Wellington and law for journalism back in Taranaki, he was briefly the sole reporter for the Eltham Argus, and then became a reporter for the Taranaki Daily News. His poems, meanwhile, were being accepted for publication in the Bulletin, and in 1933 he went to Sydney in the hope of securing a position on the Bulletin's staff as a writer of light verse. When this job fell through, he went to Melbourne to work on The Star, before returning to Sydney to try freelance journalism. In 1934, he returned to regular work in New Zealand and self-published his first poetry collection, Green Lions in 1936.

In 1938, Stewart went to England. He moved in literary circles, but found it difficult to subsist as a professional writer, although he did find a London publisher for his second poetry collection, The White Cry (1939). He returned to Sydney, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He was employed initially as assistant to Cecil Mann, then editor of the Bulletin's famous Red Page (the paper's literary section). When Mann left briefly for war service and was promoted to associate editor of the Bulletin on his return, Stewart took over as editor of the Red Page, where he remained for twenty years. This period was also Stewart's most productive as a writer. The impact of the war can be seen in some of his publications in the 1940s, including Elegy for an Airman (1940), published in a limited edition illustrated by Norman Lindsay, and dedicated to a childhood friend of Stewart's killed in combat, as well as a collection of war poems, Sonnets to the Unknown Soldier (1941). The latter collection was Stewart's first with Angus & Robertson, who would become his regular publishers. In 1945, Stewart married Margaret Coen, a painter; their only child, Meg, was born in 1948. In the decade following the end of the war, Stewart published three poetry collections with Angus & Robertson, The Dosser in Springtime (1946), Sun Orchids and other poems (1952), and The Birdsville Track and other poems (1955), along with a epic poem constructed as a sequence of ballads, Glencoe (1947), and the verse plays The Fire on the Snow and The Golden Lover (1944). In 1948, he published his first book of literary criticism, The Flesh and the Spirit: An Outlook on Literature, and in the 1950s, extended his reputation as an editor and man of letters with the publication of two influential and highly popular anthologies compiled in collaboration with the writer Nancy Keesing, Australian Bush Ballads (1955) and a revised edition of A. B. Paterson's Old Bush Songs and Rhymes of Colonial Times (1957). Stewart's verse play Ned Kelly (1943) would become one of the best known stage versions of the bushranger's story, and a widely-read work in its own right.

In 1960, Stewart was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to Australian literature. That same year, after the Bulletin changed owners, Stewart moved to Angus & Robertson, where he took up a position as a literary adviser, remaining with the publisher until 1971. His last major collection of new poetry, Rutherford and Other Poems, appeared in 1962, and was followed by volumes of selected work: Douglas Stewart (1963) and Selected Poems (1973), and his Collected Poems 1936-1967 (1967)- which won both the Grace Leven Poetry Prize and the Sydney Myer Award. But though he published no further collections, Stewart continued to write and publish poems in literary journals into the 1980s. After his move to Angus & Robertson, Stewart's energies as a writer and editor were channelled into a diverse range of literary pursuits. He edited a number of poetry anthologies, including Voyager Poems (1960), Modern Australian Verse (1964), The Wide Brown Land: A New Selection of Australian Verse (1971), and Australia Fair: Poems and Paintings (1974), as well as short story collections, including Short Stories of Australia: Volume I: The Lawson Tradition (1967), and Best Australian Short Stories (with Beatrice Davis, 1971).  He also edited selected volumes of the work of Australian poets, including Kenneth Mackenzie (1961), 'Bellerive' [Joseph Tishler] (1961), A. D. Hope (1963), Hugh McCrae (1966). After his retirement from Angus & Robertson, Stewart wrote books of literary criticism: The Broad Stream: Aspects of Australian Literature (1975), A Man of Sydney: An Appreciation of Kenneth Slessor (1977), and Writers of the Bulletin (1977); memoirs, including Norman Lindsay: A Personal Memoir (1975), and Springtime in Taranaki (1983), and contributed forewords and introductions to numerous other books. In 1970, Stewart was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Douglas Stewart died in Sydney on 14 February 1985. A fervent nationalist, Stewart was one of the last, and most influential, of the Bulletin school of poets who had such a strong impact on Australian literature in the first half of the twentieth century. In recent years, Stewart's main literary legacy has been seen as his work as an influential man of letters-his editorial work for the Bulletin, and advisory role for Angus & Robertson-and the support he provided from those positions for canonical Australian poets like Judith Wright, David Campbell, James McAuley, and Francis Webb. Yet Stewart was also a versatile and prolific poet in his own right. His poetry was diverse, ranging from the lyric, where he displayed a fine technical command, to the ballad form, where he was influenced both by the traditional Scottish border ballads and the Australian 'bush balladists' of the late nineteenth century, to the epic. His thematic material was similarly varied, ranging from nostalgic depictions of New Zealand and ruminations on a variety of Australian landscapes, to tragic historical events, such as the Glencoe massacre and Scott's ill-fated expedition to Antarctica.
 
Poetry Collections

Green Lions: poems (Auckland: the Author, [1936]).

The White Cry: poems (London: Dent, 1939).

Elegy for an Airman (Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1940).

Sonnets to the Unknown Soldier (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941).

The Dosser in Springtime (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1946).

Glencoe: a series of ballads (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1947).

Sun Orchids and other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1952).

The Birdsville Track and other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1955).

The Dryad and other poems (Adelaide, Australian Letters, [1962]).

Rutherford and other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962).

The Garden of Ships: a poem (Sydney: The Wentworth Press, 1962).

Douglas Stewart (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1963).

Collected Poems 1936-1967 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1967).

Selected Poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1973).

Suggested Further Reading

R. D. FitzGerald, 'Motif in the work of Douglas Stewart,' The Elements of Poetry (St Lucia, Qld:
University of Queensland Press, 1963), pp. 25-50.

Paul Kavanagh, 'Preternatural Mimicry: the Lyric Poetry of Douglas Stewart,' Southerly 43.3 (1983),
pp. 265-81.

Nancy Keesing, Douglas Stewart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1965).

Leonie Kramer, 'Two Perspectives in the Poetry of Douglas Stewart,' Southerly 33.3 (1973), pp. 286-99.

James McAuley, 'Douglas Stewart,' A Map of Australian Verse: the Twentieth Century (Melbourne:
Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 219-37.

David McCooey, 'Douglas Stewart,' in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers 1915-1950 (Detroit,
USA: Gale Research, 2002), pp. 355-366.

A. A. Phillips, 'The Poetry of Douglas Stewart,' Meanjin Quarterly 28 (1969), pp. 97-104.

Clement Semmler, Douglas Stewart: A Critical Study (New York: Twayne, 1974).

Michael Sharkey, 'Douglas Stewart and the Voyager Poems,' Salt 9 (1996), pp. 71-80.

John Thompson, 'Poetry in Australia: Douglas Stewart,' in Brian Kiernan, ed., Considerations: New
Essays on Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright and Douglas Stewart (Sydney: Angus and
Robertson, 1977), pp. 115-26.