B.G. Hilton – Author

Dead Men’s Dream

The other day I learned that, every afternoon on my way home from work, I drive past the former home address of Mr Ern Malley. Properly, the house belonged to Ethel Malley, his sister. But it was here that Ern lived in the final months of his life, after he returned from Melbourne to his native Sydney. He lived in his sister’s care in those last few months, before dying of Grave’s Disease, an illness for which he had declined treatment.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Ernest Lalor ‘Ern’ Malley – a mechanic and sometime insurance salesman – died tragically young in 1943. Much like van Gough or Franz Kafka, he was not famous in his own lifetime, and his fame owes everything to a posthumous appreciation of his work. His position in Australian literature as arguably our most famous Modernist poet owes everything to a collection of sixteen poems that Ethel discovered amongst his papers after his death.

Ern Malley, painted by Sidney Nolan, 1973 (interestingly, Nolan and Malley never met). Copyright Art Gallery of South Australia.

Ethel Malley sent the poems to a journal called Angry Penguins an avant-garde literary magazine based in Adelaide. This was a controversial magazine, in its time. Not in a bad way, really, just one of those charming old-timey controversies where two schools of poets argue about how to do poetry, and we look back with the benefit of hindsight and see that we’ve moved on from both sets of ideas. Long story short, Angry Penguins and its editor Max Harris championed Modernist ideas in poetry (Harris was a Surrealist, specifically), while their opponents preferred traditional forms of poetry. I don’t know that either school of 1940s Australian poetry is much read in Australia any more, suggesting that both paths led to dead ends. Then again, some of the visual artists to come out of Harris’ milieu are still well known and well liked, so possibly the obscurity of both movements in poetry are more to do with the relative unpopularity of poetry in this country.

But I digress. Harris read Malley’s poems and flipped. His friends in the Heide literary circle flipped over them. Works of such great talent from an obscure mechanic! It wasn’t just great poetry, it had a cool story behind it. And, perhaps I’m being cynical, but it’s much easier to proclaim someone a genius once they are dead then when they are alive. Living geniuses have an unfortunate tendency to say really dumb things. Dead geniuses are a safer bet.

Sidney Nolan -designed cover of the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins featuring the poetry of Ern Malley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ern Malley’s cycle of sixteen poems, which he had titled The Darkening Ecliptic was published in the Autumn issue of Angry Penguins in 1944. (This is in the Southern Hemisphere, remember, so Autumn is March/April). The issue had a cover by Sidney Nolan (one of those well-remembered visual artists I mentioned; later Sir Sidney Nolan, having successfully navigated the path from enfant terrible to beloved of the Establishment) and the entire issue was intended as a memorial to the late poet. The poems have been republished several times since.

I came upon Malley’s address by accident. I was reading something about the man, and I noticed that he lived in the same suburb where I work. I didn’t recognize the street name at first, but a check of Google Maps showed it to be a little back-street that I usually short-cut through on my way to Paramatta Road. The next time I drove home, I took a moment to slow down — there is very little traffic in this street, usually, which is why I take it — and take a look at Ern’s residence as I passed.

I’m not a superstitious man, but honestly it looked haunted. I don’t know why, exactly. It’s an old house from the early 20th Century, yes, but it’s in a street of similar houses which don’t look at all haunted. Perhaps it’s that the other houses look better maintained and repaired than it? Perhaps it was just that the Venetian blinds in the front windows looked askew and made it seem deserted? Realistically, though, it’s probably a perfectly ordinary house with residents who are simply less keen on renovation than their neighbors, and it was nothing but my associations to make it seem like Ern’s ghost might not be around.

You see, it can’t be haunted by Ern’s ghost.

Ern Malley never lived.

‘Ern Malley’ was in reality two men, Harold Stewart and James McAuley. Stewart was actually the occupant of the house that I drive past, the haunted looking one, the address of which was given to Harris for return post. The pair were Traditionalist poets and political conservatives. Harris’ circle were largely political radicals, but again we are talking in 1943 terms, and this doesn’t always map well onto 21st Century notions of conservatism or radicalism.

Stewart and McAuley both despised Modernism in general, detested Harris and Angry Penguins in particular. They set out to hoax Harris, inventing the fictitious (and conveniently dead) Malley. Then, they sat down and wrote the poems.

The pair filled these poems with caricatures of what they considered the worst excesses of Modernist verse. They later claimed to have written all sixteen poems in a single sitting, though it seems likely this is an exaggeration and more work went into them than that. It is true that they deliberately obscured themes, threw in incorrect allusions and simply copied lines from textbooks or (in one notable instance) an American Army guide to preventing mosquito-borne infections.

Naturally, as soon as the Ern Malley poems were published, the hoaxers sprang the trap, and declared Harris a fool and a charlatan. Harris, in response, stuck to his guns. It was good poetry, he said. The insincerity of the poets was irrelevant to the quality of their work. What they had actually done was to move beyond their (frankly mediocre) traditionalist output and experimented with new forms and techniques, producing something genuinely good. Other literary critics at the time agreed, though the popular press backed the hoaxers claims that their work was self-evidently awful.

Personally, I don’t think the poems are genius, but some of them aren’t bad at all. If you handed them to a person unfamiliar with the context and said ‘here are some poems published in an Australian literary journal from 1943 that you’ve never heard of, what do you think?’ it would be a hard-hearted person indeed who didn’t say ‘these seem like pretty good poems to have come from an Australian literary journal from 1943.’ Benefit of hindsight, etc.

But let’s put aside what’s basically a series of Surrealist diss tracks that predate the Battle of Kursk. What about Ern?

Well here’s the thing. The ghost of Ern might not be found that house that I drive past, but I guess it does its fair share of haunting. It haunted Max Harris. He went on to a respectable career as a critic and bookseller, but his name has been permanently attached to Malley. In a more concrete way, Ern’s ghost got him charged with obscenity. The hoaxers had decided Ern’s work would contain “…no coherent theme […] only confused and inconsistent hints at a meaning held out as a bait to the reader.” They reckoned without the extraordinary imagination of old-timey Australian vice squads, and their ability to find obscenity practically anywhere. Detective Vogelesang of the South Australian Police brought charges of obscenity over the Malley poem ‘Night Piece,’ and Harris was fined 5 pounds (about 400 dollerydoos today). Vogelsang was rewarded with a special mention from the Commissioner.

But more than he haunted Harris, Malley haunted Stewart and McAuley. The poems they loved, the ones which they wrote from the heart in neo-classical style… these are long forgotten, while The Darkening Ecliptic has been republished dozens of times. In what is perhaps the strangest irony of the whole affair, these two determinedly traditionalist poets are best remembered for a body of sixteen Modernist poems.

Say what you will about Ern, the man had a wry sense of humour.

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B.G. Hilton - Author