Christ, you walked on the sea


James McAuley, Professor of English at the University of Tasmania (1961-76) with Sir James Freeman, Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney (1971-83)

The recently posted article on CP&S  Six Cultural Trends That Challenge The Modern Evangelizer, written by Monsignor Pope, for me was pretty scary. I wonder too how many of us thought that Mons. Pope had stolen all our best original ideas? Or am I unique in that conviction? Well, it seems often to happen to me, I’m not sure why.

Meanwhile Professor James Phillip McAuley (1917-76) was an Australian poet. He was a founder in 1956 of the literary and cultural journal, Quadrant, and its chief editor until 1963. It is still running, as johnhenry, a subscriber, could tell us. McAuley also played the piano, pipe organ and virginal.

Dame Leonie Kramer, longtime professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University, said in her obituary for Professor McAuley that . . . at the centre of his intellectual interests was the large and complex set of problems related to the erosion of traditions, customs and beliefs in the modern world. She adds that . . . he was driven to search for the right word and the right phonetic structure in his poetry and the results were a number of the finest poems ever written in Australia. Dame Leonie edited all of McAuley’s works after his death and published them in 1988.

Two days ago on CP&S we enjoyed very much reading of all the sometimes shiver-inducing “cultural impediments” to evangelisation and faith in the West today. That would have been right up Professor McAuley’s alley as the following poem attests. In fact, it was his alley, mostly. There is much affinity in these few verses between Monsignor Pope’s most accurate observations about the modern West and the Professor’s own deep disappointments and concerns about same. I suggest so anyhow, as we can now see:


In the twentieth century


Christ, you walked on the sea

But cannot walk in a poem,

Not in our century.


There’s something deeply wrong

Either with us or with you.

Our bright loud world is strong:


And better in some ways

Than the old haunting kingdoms:

I don’t reject our days.


But in you I taste bread,

Freshness, the honey of being,

And rising from the dead:


Like yolk in a warm shell –

Simplicities of power,

And water from a well.


We live like diagrams

Moving on a screen.

Somewhere a door slams


Shut and emptiness spreads.

Our loves are processes

On foam-rubber beds.


Our speech is chemical waste;

The words have a plastic feel,

An antibiotic taste.


And yet we dream of song

Like parable of joy.

There’s something deeply wrong.


Like shades we must drink blood

To find the living voice

That flesh once understood.

Archibald_1963~M.tif *** Local Caption *** Archibald Portrait Prize winner.

Professor James McAuley, portrait (1963) by Jack Carrington Smith, oil on canvas – held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


About GC

Poor sinner.
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13 Responses to Christ, you walked on the sea

  1. GC says:

    Brother Burrito, can you call the technicians? I had a terrible time with the formatting when writing this.

    We have two other articles about Professor McAuley on CP&S. Those interested could look at A Poem from Tasmania and The Six Days of Creation.

    Here again is The Sixth Day set to music for soloist, choir and orchestra by George Palmer.


  2. GC says:

    Any wanting to know more of Professor McAuley’s life can read this briefish biography in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a project of the History department of the Australian National University in Canberra.


  3. Brother Burrito says:

    GC, The Sixth Day is one of my favourite pieces of music. Thank you for showing it again.


  4. GC says:

    Brother Burrito, you are most welcome. I hope others like it too, if also for Amelia Farrugia’s voice and performance. They say her voice on the upper notes is like a very fine stainless steel bell. And Mr Justice Palmer QC has lots of good moments in his composition and is superb overall. It’s hard to get a good part of it out of your head.

    I remember we had a chat in November 2013 about what the devil it all meant. You put me on the right track and everything fell into place. I narrowly escaped a visit from the nice young men in a van and wearing white coats, so frustrated was I at not being able to work it all out. Thanks for saving me from that fate, Brother Burrito.

    We could chat a little about this pome too, if you’re so inclined. Perhaps other readers too would like to comment on it?

    PS: do read the linked biography too, if you’ve the time. Good stuff. Peter Pierce, Professor of Australian Literature at the James Cook University (in North Queensland) wrote it. It’s not that long.

    In that biography you’ll discover that after the prof underwent surgery for bowel cancer in the early 70s, he remarked, “better a semi-colon than a full stop!”.

    He eventually died from liver cancer, at only 59 in 1976.


  5. Brother Burrito says:

    That biography is very good stuff indeed. A complex and interesting man was he.

    I shall comment on the pome anon.


  6. Brother Burrito says:

    This is an intensely Catholic poem and I am a most unworthy reviewer of it. I am a confirmed synaesthete who finds the bread, honey and warmed yolk so consoling, and yet:

    “Our loves are [cold] processes on [insubstantial] foam-[sterile]-rubber beds.”

    The final verse captures it all.


  7. kathleen says:

    This is just superb – thank you so much GC! A wonderful ‘welcome back to CP&S’ gift for me, home at last from all my travels. 🙂

    I read Prof. McAuley’s interesting biography; a fine and talented man who embraces his earlyish death with faith and courage. (I couldn’t help wondering if his friend, John Kerr, godfather to one of McAuley’s children, might not have been a relation to one of the two brothers of my paternal grandmother (née Kerr) who both emigrated to Sidney after uni and, I believe, fathered plenty of children! 😉 )

    McAuley was a convert to Catholicism (or a revert really, as his father was a lapsed Catholic), and I find it greatly encouraging to see once again how much renewed vigour and talent so many zealous converts bring to the Faith.


  8. GC says:

    kathleen, welcome back! I hope you were able to keep half an eye on CP&S while on your travels. mmvc is getting her rest now.

    Sir John Kerr was the governor-general who dismissed the Labour government in 1975, as you may know. It was quite a crisis down there and Mrs Queen was cold-called all about it.

    Kerr was a real working-class boy originally and his father was a boiler-maker. I’m not sure then that he was related to your well educated rels.

    Yes McAuley was originally an Anglican and played the organ and directed the choir at an Anglican church. Another Anglican in Australia that became a Catholic was composer Malcolm Williamson (Master of the Queen’s Music). Williamson also set some of McAuley’s verse to music.

    You seem very refreshed after all your travels, kathleen? I’m usually exhausted.


  9. GC says:

    Brother Burrito, 3 above this:

    But for the poet, something is deeply wrong in the 20th century in which he lived for quite a bit. Too much plastic for the soul, cheap artificial relationships, no deep wells to drink from.

    I have more than a faint suspicion that James McAuley and Monsignor Pope would have got on famously together.


  10. kathleen says:

    GC @ 13:27

    Everything you say, including:

    “I’m not sure then that he (Sir John Kerr) was related to your well educated rels.

    is wonderful :lol:.
    GC – you are unique! We should clone you for future generations to enjoy as much as we do!
    (No, I doubt he’s a “rel” – Kerr is not an uncommon name among Celtic descendants – and anyway, he would have been younger than my great uncles by perhaps only a few years.)

    My “travels”, mostly visiting the homes of my siblings and their offspring, was great fun, and not really “exhausting” at all… except for dry throats from excessive chatting and laughing, just like old times. Lots of us managed to congregate to celebrate a family Baptism for the youngest member: a new little Catholic member of the Church – another ‘Dominic’!
    Such beautiful autumnal colours to enjoy in our long walks in the country too, something one appreciates when you live in the dry south of Europe. Also, I had the possibility of attending a few times the heavenly Traditional Latin Mass, sadly lacking in my neck of the woods here!

    There were well over 2.000 participants for the procession of the Rosary Crusade of Reparation between Westminster Cathedral and Brompton Oratory. An amazing turn out that stunned the onlookers as we passed along the streets of (mainly) secular London, enthusiastically singing praises to Our Blessed Lady. 🙂


  11. johnhenrycn says:

    Yes, I do subscribe to the Quadrant, as our dear GC recalls. Here’s a recent post on their website that I hope causes as much mirth for everyone here (even John Kehoe) as it did me.


  12. GC says:

    Thanks for that link, JH. Peter O’Brien’s article about his return from a trip to the future is a laugh all right.

    If Quadrant will permit me to share a little slice of it here:

    Some activists are even calling on the Human Rights Commission to outlaw terms such as ‘husband’, ‘wife’ and ‘traditional marriage’ as hate speech under Section 18C of the new Omnibus Discrimination Act.

    Pixie Stalin supports this initiative. “Rather than ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, we would prefer to see more inclusive terms such as Life Partner A and Life Partner 1, which are neutral as to gender, sexuality and precedence. ‘Life Partner’ would be reserved for married couples, while de facto couples could use the simpler terms Partner A and Partner 1.”

    I’m still trying to wipe that grin off my face in case the wind changes.

    You know Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) used to contribute to Quadrant in earlier days?


  13. GC says:

    I include this only as it features the same composer, George Palmer QC and same fine soloist, Amelia Farrugia, as in the very first comment above.

    At the Sydney World Youth Day in 2008.

    I think there is a bit of a pun going on here. Mr Justice Palmer’s Missa Benedictus Qui Venit could either mean Mass Blessed is he who comes or Mass Benedict who comes (or came!).


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