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Geoffrey Dutton (1922 – 1998)

Geoffrey Dutton, World War II pilot, photo courtesy the Estate of Geoffrey Dutton Geoffrey Dutton, World War II pilot, photo courtesy the Estate of Geoffrey Dutton

Geoffrey Piers Henry Dutton was born on 2 August 1922, at his family’s property Anlaby, near Kapunda, in the Clare Valley, South Australia. Both his mother and father came from wealthy, pastoral backgrounds; the Dutton family had established Anlaby, Australia’s oldest sheep stud station, in 1839. Dutton grew up amongst his family’s extensive library, and was educated first at Anlaby by a governess, before being sent to a preparatory school near Adelaide, and then, aged nine, to board at the prestigious Geelong Grammar School in Victoria. Dutton’s candid autobiography, Out in the Open, revealed his difficult childhood relationships with his alcoholic father (who died when he was only nine), and his distant, status-obsessed mother.

In 1940, Dutton matriculated to the University of Adelaide, where he studied English, History and French. At Adelaide, he met others with an interest in modern and avant garde literature, including Max Harris and D. B. ‘Sam’ Kerr, whose literary magazine Angry Penguins (1940-1946) became a rallying point for Australian modernist writing and art. Dutton became a regular contributor to Angry Penguins and published his first poems in the journal. His studies were interrupted in 1941, when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force; he spent much of the war training, eventually becoming a flight officer training pilots in Victoria, although he was lucky to escape death in a plane crash during a reconnaissance flight in New Guinea late in the war. In 1944, Max Harris and his new partner John Reed published Dutton’s first collection of poetry, Night Flight and Sunrise.

After the war, Dutton was accepted into Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied English Literature under C. S. Lewis, among others. After graduating from Oxford, he spent some time travelling through Europe with his first wife, Ninette (née Trott), before returning to Australia. In 1956 Dutton took up a lectureship at the University of Adelaide, beginning a long and prolific academic career. His literary activities were also reinvigorated after his return to Australia; with Max Harris and Bryn Davies, he established a literary quarterly, Australian Letters (1957–1968), and, also with Harris, established Australian Book Review (1961– ). From 1961–1965 he served as an editor for the Australian branch of Penguin publishing, and in 1965, with Brian Stonier, he founded his own paperback publishing house, Sun Books. He was also involved in the founding of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Dutton’s poetry also prospered. His work regularly appeared in major Australian literary journals like the Bulletin, Meanjin and Southerly, and he published a number of collections: Antipodes in Shoes (1958), which won the Grace Leven Poetry Prize, was followed by Flowers and Fury (1962),  On My Island (1967), Poems Soft and Loud (1967), and a volume of selected poems, Findings and Keepings (1970).

Through the last three decades of his life, Dutton established himself in Australian literary life as a prolific and influential writer, editor and critic. He published numerous scholarly and popular articles on Australian literature and culture, with his major publications including a collection of essays, Snow on the Saltbrush: The Australian Literary Experience (1984), and a biography of Kenneth Slessor (1991). In all, he is credited with writing or editing more than 200 books. He edited numerous anthologies and collections of Australian criticism, poetry and stories, including The Literature of Australia (1964), The Beach (1985), The Picador Henry Lawson (1991), and the Collected Poems of Kenneth Slessor (1994), and remained an enthusiastic book reviewer for a number of journals and newspapers, including Australian Book Review, the Bulletin, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald—for all of which he also served in an editorial capacity at one time or another. Through all this he remained a substantial literary figure in his own right, with his diverse output including six novels, a number of children’s books, travel works, biographies, short stories, and translations of Russian poetry. He published eleven collections of his poetry, including two with Angus and Robertson: Selective Affinities: New Poems (1985) and New and Selected Poems (1993).

Dutton divorced his first wife in the early 1980s, and married Robin Lucas in 1984. From 1983–1989, the couple lived in Sydney, before moving to Mudgee in New South Wales (1989–1991), and then the Glasshouse Mountains in Queensland (1991–1996). Dutton spent the last years of his life in Melbourne; he died in Canberra, at the age of 76, on 17 September 1998. Dutton’s wide-ranging literary activities were recognised with the award of the Order of Australia in 1976, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Christopher Brennan Award in 1993. While his early poetry was characterised by dense, self-consciously modernist imagery, his mature work was increasingly lyrical, and thematically indebted to his travels, his love affairs and interpersonal relationships, and his keen observations on Australian cultural life. 

Poetry Collections

Night Flight and Sunrise (Melbourne: Reed and Harris, 1944).

Antipodes in Shoes (Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1958).

Flowers and Fury: poems (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1962).

On My Island: poems (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1967).

Poems Soft and Loud (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1967).

Finding and Keepings: Selected Poems, 1939¬–1969 (Adelaide, SA: Australian Letters, 1970).

North West: Fifteen Poems from the Pilbara and Kimberley ([the Author], [1971?])

New Poems to 1972 (Adelaide: Australian Letters, 1972).

A Body of Words (Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1977).

Selective Affinities: new poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1985),

New and Selected Poems
(Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1993).

Suggested Further Reading

Bruce Beaver [untitled review], Weekend Australian Magazine 12-13 October 1985, p.31.

Kevin Brophy, ‘Vintage Poet,’ Australian Book Review no.157 (1993), pp. 48–49.

Geoffrey Dutton, Out in the Open: An Autobiography  (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1994).

Geoffrey Dutton, ‘Rocky Point: The Bush, the Bay,’ in Roger McDonald, ed., Gone Bush (Moorebank,
NSW: Bantam, 1990), pp. 49¬–64.

Craig Munro, ‘Geoffrey Dutton (1922–1998),’ Southerly 58.4 (1998), pp. 6–7.

Geoff Page, ‘Geoffrey Dutton,’ A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Qld:
University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 63–65.