Ern Malley aside, Harold Stewart and James McAuley are poetic confrères in a region of Australian letters that has been largely overlooked. McAuley (1917–76), who translated only intermittently from the German, gave us poems by Stefan Georg, Karl Haushofer, and Georg Trakl, but the poem I will concentrate on is his 1946 version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Herbsttag’, which is so remarkable that later I intend to examine it closely. Stewart 1916–95), in contrast to McAuley, spent a good deal of his writing life, both in Australia and Japan, in translating Japanese classical verse, particularly the masters of haiku: Bashô, Buson, Shiki, Issa, Ryokan, Baizan, and others. This work, which occupied him for many years in Australia and Japan, was gathered in two books that will be the focus of my remarks.
I have to admit at the outset to several biases. Stewart was, for several years, my maître à penser in the art of versification, and I owe him a good deal. However, when I sailed to Europe in the late 1950s, I turned away from much of his thought and practice because I felt, and still feel, that they didn’t encompass enough of the particular life of Australia (or elsewhere) that I regarded as my own essential material. Finally, though I had seen and been impressed early on by a number of his translations from the Japanese, I was strongly convinced that, in choosing the heroic couplet as his unique formal means, he had made a mistake. With its end stop, often on both lines, it seemed to me too pert and too ‘square’ to capture the unique effects that I had intuited in the translations of Japanese verse that I had seen to that point.