James McAuley: Sacred rhythms of the human condition

Friday 10 November 2017

Daniel Brace 

If you’ve ever explored the surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, you’ll find a poem by James McAuley (1917–1976) at the bottom-most part of a fountain streaming from the cathedral down St Patrick’s ‘Pilgrim Way’. Below the poet’s name there is an acknowledgment in stone of James’ beloved wife Norma, who lived to the age of 93 and passed away in Melbourne in 2012.

2017 marks the centenary of the birth of James McAuley, who was without question one of Australia’s great poetic and literary figures of last century. James was also a famous convert to Catholicism, being baptised at the age of 34 years. And while you’re more likely to find James’ poetry in libraries and rare book collections then on the shelves of commercial book stores, you are probably very familiar with the poetry of his hymns. In fact, it’s his contribution to hymnody which has remained popular and in circulation across Christian traditions here in Australia and across the English-speaking Christian world.

The wagtail in the myrtle-tree
Who cannot sleep for love
Sings all night long insistently
As if his song could prove
What wisdom whispered from the start,
That only love can fill the heart.
McAuley’s poetry doesn’t merely hint at his strong faith—it’s overflowing with biblical references, promoting his deep involvement with faith and spirituality. His words don’t divorce the heavenly realm from matters of the heart and the human experience. As you read through a lifetime of dedication to words and imagery, the ups and downs of life are linked with our shared journey and history in the Christian tradition. James died of cancer at the relatively young age of 59.

James was born in 1917 and grew up in New South Wales, attending Fort Street Boys High School in Petersham. His early career in teaching was something he would return to later in life as Professor of Literature at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. But after studying teaching he commenced his career in the public service and accepted an assignment in the Australian administered territory of New Guinea. This is where James discovered a community of faith with a commitment to social justice that eventually influenced a revival of the Church in Vatican II. This had a lifelong influence on McAuley. The energy, forward-thinking attitudes and strong support of individualism gelled with the young and ambitious McAuley.

James married Norma in 1942 and they had a family of five children. Music was a central part of family and social life. James was an accomplished jazz pianist and musician, and although much quieter than her extroverted husband, Norma was also an accomplished singer. There is a marvellous sketch of James at the piano by his close friend and fellow artist, John Olsen. You can imagine family and friends gathered around the piano at parties and special occasions.

It was this atmosphere of community music which resulted in James’ very successful collaboration with composer Richard Connolly (b. 1927). This resulted in a collection of hymns written around 1960 which were published as the best selling Hymns for the Year of Grace from 1963. So popular is the collection still that it was reprinted in 2012 and continues to be used or included in the hymnals of the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches.

Engender upon our souls your sacred rhythm: inspire 
The trembling breath of the flute, the exultant cosmic psalm,
The dance that breaks into flower beneath the storm-voiced mountain;
Array in your dazzling intricate plumage the swaying choir.
(‘To the Holy Spirit’ from A vision of ceremony)
The McAuley/Connolly hymns are described by James’ friend and commentator Peter Coleman as being ‘in the classic tradition of Ambrose of Milan and [in] the style of the 1950s’. ‘In the end,’ Coleman says, McAuley ‘considered the hymns were “at best but partial successes”, not sufficiently renewing their tradition’. It is such a shame if this were indeed the case, as it is his legacy in hymnody which continues to preserve and strengthen the Christian tradition.

Michael Tate recalls Prof. McAuley as a somewhat mysterious figure revered for his poetic gifts by students and staff alike at the University of Tasmania. The now Fr Tate, who has maintained a strong friendship with the McAuley family, promotes the McAuley hymns in the parishes he now serves.

His words don’t divorce the heavenly realm from matters of the heart and the human experience.

‘Many are so appropriate on different occasions. But particularly prophetic is his “Creation sings a new song”, resonating with the Canticle of St Francis of Assisi, the teachings of Pope Francis, and our current concern with ecology’:

Creation sings a new song to the Lord;
The universal energies rejoice;
Through all the magnitudes
of space and time
Creatures proclaim the grandeur of Christ.

Reflecting on the language of the hymns, James certainly succeeded in his aim of creating poetry with ‘beauty, use and meaning’. The representations draw from a colourful array of old and new testament imagery but focus on the way these relate to the human condition and not on dogma or the catechisms. There are abundant references to the world of creation, to Australian flora and fauna, and to the disappointment, pain and suffering of the human condition.

No worse age has ever been—
Murderous, lying and obscene;
Devils worked while gods connived:
Somehow the human has survived.

There is an element of the poet as prophet in James’ poetry, a longing for halcyon days of times gone by. He seems to have foretold a waning interest and commitment to tradition and faith in this excerpt from a mid-career poem:

We used to sing at Easter in the choir
With trumpet and harmonium and drums,
Feeling within our hearts new-kindled fire.
Now I’m the only one that ever comes.
(‘Parish scene’)

David McAuley is James’ grandson and sadly never met his paternal grandfather. David hasn’t yet heard some of the hymns being performed at the concert to celebrate the centenary of the birth of his grandfather. I asked David if James’ poetry still resonates today as it did 50 years ago:

There are abundant references to the world of creation, to Australian flora and fauna, and to the disappointment, pain and suffering of the human condition.

‘I think what is fascinating about poetry and art is how a fixed design can change so dramatically over time. I hope what resonates now is different from the 1950s–1970s, as I tend to believe that poetry is more than the best words in the best order. I know my grandfather most strongly through his poetry and I hope that his works continue to be renewed as time moves “through displacements”.’

Spring stars glitter in the freezing sky,
Trees on watch are armoured with frost.
In the dark tarn of a mirror a face appears.
Time is moving through displacements.
Hungrily the blind earthworm burrows
Deeper into its night. Surely
Heaven must ache with all its vacancies.
A dog’s howl is thrown up like a rope-trick.
It is an hour for prayer without words
(‘Winter morning’)

James’s poetry and hymnody continue to delight and unify communities in faith and spirituality across the Christian community and beyond. To celebrate McAuley’s work on the centenary of his birth, St Peter’s Catholic Church, Toorak is hosting an afternoon concert to present his work on Sunday 17 November. David McAuley and Fr Michael Tate will read selected works of McAuley’s during the concert. From St Peter’s, Fr Brendan Hayes says, ‘We’re proud to host this remarkable event in homage to a great Australian literary figure and a man of immense faith. The words of McAuley’s hymns resonate now as they did back in the 1960s.’

Tickets for this event are $25 (to cover costs). David McAuley and Fr Michael Tate will read selected works of McAuley’s during the concert. St Peter’s, Toorak is grateful for the support of the McAuley Family Trust, the musical communities of St John’s and the Uniting Church, Jennifer Chou, Curtis Brown Australia, the estate of Jack Carington Smith and Professor Phillip Hamilton.
Daniel Brace is the organist and music director at St Peter’s Church, Toorak. For more information or bookings please contact St Peter’s Church, Toorak.

Painting: Professor James McAuley by Jack Carrington Smith, 1963. Used with the permission of the Jack Carrington Smith estate.

This article also appeared in the November issue of Melbourne Catholic.
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