"By no stretch . . .a locus amoenus"— traces of dirt in the early poetry of James McAuley

Jean Page


Western mythology traditionally offered sparse, negative readings of things related to earth, as a prison-like entity guarded by the god Hades (Cirlot, Grillet). This paper traces motifs of dirt and soil in several early poems by James McAuley (1917-76). “Envoi” (1938), an inland landscape from McAuley’s stay in Bungendore, rural NSW, attributes to the “soil, the season and the shifting airs” the “faint sterility that disheartens and derides.” Similarly, “The Tomb of Heracles” (1947-49) reiterates motifs of aridity and sterility in imagery of dry landscape: “Blind light, dry rock, a tree that does not bear.” Nonetheless, a differentiation occurs in “Envoi,” in introducing the motif of suppressed fertility and “good chance” in the “artesian heart,” in which earth is reluctantly recognised as the eventual, vital water bearer.

This paper traces the important formative influence of T.S. Eliot, notably “The Waste Land” and Australia’s own agency of modernism the Jindyworobak movement, with its original environmental manifesto (1937) and celebration of Australia’s dry interiors and indigenous values. It traces other, desolate encounters with earth in McAuley’s war-time reading of early Portuguese chronicles of voyage reflected in his explorer poem “Henry the Navigator” (1944)— “These roots of stunted bushes scrabble earth/Like withered birds […].” The poem adverts to later European “discovery” of Australia’s reportedly arid coasts. 

The paper also identifies the return to a more accepting reading of motifs of dry earth-scapes “Harsh, dry, abrasive, spikey, rough” in  McAuley’s later poems depicting the Coles Bay nature reserve in eastern Tasmania: “By no stretch [..] a locus amoenus” (Bush Scene”, 1974).


James McAuley; Australian poetry; modernism

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