Faithful to the Earth:
Jack Lindsay’s Quest

Paul Gillen

I entreat you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of superterrestial hopes!

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Who knows which dust is Dives, which black dust
Is Lazarus, changed into garden loam
To await the fertile universal will?  

— Edith Sitwell, ‘A Song of the Dust - To Jack and Ann Lindsay’


Jack Lindsay (1900-1990) slashed a singular track through the jungle of twentieth century literature. Like all who ventured there he sought something for which the closest worldly equivalents seemed to be fame and truth. But the challenge of truth was more insistent for him than the seductions of fame, and all his life he made choices which obscured his immense gifts. Charming, humble and adaptable, he had a stubborn core. Refusing to settle on one or two themes or genres, he had to try everything, investigate everything. Invariably he would write a new book when often he should have lingered to revise the one he had just written. He insisted on voicing unfashionable issues and causes, especially political ones. And having the choice of aligning himself with the literature of Australia or England, he stayed on the periphery of both.

So this extraordinary man, though keenly wanting the attention of the generations that passed by his long life, would not tailor his message for them. What can he possibly show us today? But before approaching that question we must step over some of the hurdles that stand between him and us.

First, there is the vexed issue of his national identity. His father, the artist and writer Norman Lindsay was and remains a household name in Australia, and Jack spent his first twenty six years here. He kept his Australian accent, stayed in close touch with his birth country, and had many Australian friends. (He kept his name, too, the rebelliously plebeian ‘Jack’.) On the other hand his home for sixty three years was in England, and he refused many offers to return, even to visit. He always had a good reason for not coming, usually pressure of work. Only rarely did he write about Australia, even when he lived here: Greece, Italy and England were the main sites of his literary imagination. For most of his life Australia meant memories of a place he knew no longer existed, descriptions in books, letters and visits from friends and relatives who lived here. It was a country more imaginary than real.

In an article written for The Bulletin in the 1960s on ‘Why I am an Expatriate’ Jack claimed that ‘I feel more Australian, not less, with the years’. Christina Stead, who contributed to the same series, quipped to him that her reason for not living in Australia was short. ‘“I’m not rich enough to go home.” But I can’t say that.’ Money was a relevant consideration for Jack too, but it is true that his vision of universal ‘brotherhood’ had an affinity with Australian ‘mateship’, and his political allegiances created ambivalences like those of the colonial, who believes that he sees the ‘mother’ culture more clearly than its natives but is never fully accepted by them. ‘My values, my whole system of criticism, seem to me rooted in Australian soil...any virtues in my work derive from the conflict between my obstinate Australianism and my struggle to grasp English culture and life inside its focus.’

Jack became a Marxist at the beginning of 1936. Marxism offered hope in a desperate world situation and made sense of the intellectual positions he had reached. It also fulfilled emotional needs at a time when he was emerging from a deep personal crisis: a yearning for solidarity and community, and a shield against Norman’s hold on him. By the 1930s his father had become virulently reactionary, expounding a portfolio of anti-semitic, anti-female, anti-democratic and anti-working class prejudices. Jack’s communism was deeply idiosyncratic and unorthodox. When he finally became actively involved in Party activities in the 1940s, officials and many members did not know what to do with the voluble, enthusiastic but dangerously independent Australian. Several times he hovered on the brink of expulsion for a variety of deviationist sins: advocating more support for the Labour Party and more involvement in broad mass movements instead of falling back on ‘limited, sterile concepts of class struggle’, criticising the Party’s anti-war position in 1939-1941, stressing the importance of intellectuals for the Party and so on. Publicly enthusiastic about Eastern Europe, where he was fêted and his books translated, published and praised, he confessed privately to Edith Sitwell a suspicion that the attention to him and his work there was ‘false’, adding that ‘even the socialist state is evil—just as war is evil, even if “for a good cause”’—a reflection that would have brought strong rebukes from his comrades.

Yet Jack, while shedding many illusions about the Soviet Union, always struggled to ‘reject disillusionment too.’ As late as 1982 he argued that although Stalinism ‘was wrong’ it had positive aspects: many assented to and supported it, and ‘the vital spirit of the people’ he had observed on his travels was not just a facade, as was proved by the fact that so many Soviet citizens were dismayed by revelations of Stalin’s butchery. But similar things have been said of all dictatorships.

Jack’s communism undoubtedly damaged his reputation, especially in the 1950s. Later, in the 1970s, the rich historical knowledge which clothed his Marxism, its romantic, even mystical centre, and the deceptive clarity of his style, so unlike the intriguing obscurities of someone like Ernst Bloch, combined to help ‘scientific Marxism’ pass him by with scarcely a glance. But in time his specific political loyalties will make less and less difference to how his works are read, and given his long focus and essentially poetic sensibility this can only help them to be appreciated more clearly.

Another hurdle is the kind of writer he was. If he was anything he was an ‘all-purpose man of letters’, that cultured effusion of Europe’s heyday, who Michael Holroyd assures us ‘is a fallen man, as antique a phenomenon as the cobbler or tallow chandler to whom Trollope compared him’. Even ‘all-purpose man-of-letters’ is not quite accurate, not because it is too broad but because it is too narrow. Christopher Hill has remarked that he had roots in the anti-establishment Puritan tradition, the once sturdy spirit of English intellectual dissent which also nourished Bunyan, Milton, Blake, William Morris and Bernard Shaw. ‘I have always felt that a mere man of letters is only a halfman’ he said, and his eclectic enthusiasms for hand printing, book illustration, field archeology, brick laying and musical composition, as well as his political involvement, bear out the point. All occupations of the brain and body interested him. ‘Dilettante’ is unfair, but it was true that he would rather be competent at a large number of activities than superb at one or two. ‘To write only about what I already know thoroughly seems to me a tame job’. He tried almost every known literary form: poems from short lyric to long narrative; novels contemporary, historical, domestic, epic and juvenile; Elizabethan plays and experimental ones; film scripts, history, biography, criticism, cultural anthropology, political philosophy, translations in verse and prose from half a dozen languages, editing, publishing, lecturing—there seems no end to it.

Looking back from old age he had to admit that when he saw a list of his works he thought of someone chained to a typewriter. He must seem, he mused, ‘a horrid example of verbosity’. It was puzzling, because when he looked back on his life ‘the self I see over the years is gardening, bathing, going for long walks, contemplating nature’. The variety and quantity of his work was a ‘natural outcome of the quest for an ever-deepening unity’—a quest invisible to readers and critics, whose specialisations meant that if they read his novels, for instance, they were unlikely to read his histories or poems. As he grew older the sad thought grew in him that no one had ever really understood what he was driving at.

Such complaints of neglect and misunderstanding may seem exaggerated. Though none of his novels was a runaway success, several were reprinted and can still be found in public libraries throughout the English (and no doubt the Russian) speaking world. One was filmed (All on the Never, 1961, filmed as Live Now, Pay Later). He received official awards from Malcolm Frazer’s conservative Australian government and the even more conservative government of Leonid Brezhnev. Then there are the comments of peers: ‘one of the key figures in English cultural life’ (Bernard Miles); ‘an Australian poet, one of our finest’ (Robert Fitzgerald); ‘I know of no historian writing in English who has touched on so many of the crucial issues of our time’. (Christopher Hill). But despite such accolades, Jack Lindsay and his work remain relatively unknown and unconsidered, a fringe phenomenon of the twentieth century intellectual landscape. No doubt this landscape is an artifact of fashion, prejudice, taste, chance—all the tricks and foibles of cultural memory—as well being the product of a society Jack regarded as dehumanised, evil. And his heterodoxies and obstinancies, his intimidating range, his titanic output, his rush—all produce caution.

Yet it remains true that while there is much in his writing that is masterly, there is no work of his which is clearly marked with the mysterious seal of ‘masterpiece’, the usual ticket to the Valhalla of literary genius. As he wrote prophetically to his father when he was just nineteen, ‘taken singly each thing I have written always seems full of faults. It is only when I consider them as a whole that I am encouraged’ (page...). If his later years had been less taken up with the need to earn money he might have written a novel with something like the normal contemplation and care. In the late sixties he expressed the hope that he might do this, knowing that masterpieces need time. But then, projects which he did not produce quickly—like the unfinished attempt to write a history of modern poetry, The Starfish Road, or the unpublished attempts to analyse contempory cultural politics—tended to become digressive and unwieldy rather than to deepen and clarify. In any case it is useless to speculate. If Jack is to be admitted to greatness, it will not be on the basis of masterpieces, but on his entire life and work, his quest.

Jack’s quest belonged to a system too coherent to be called an ‘outlook’ but too open and labile to qualify for the portentous label of ‘Weltanschauung’; too impersonal to be a private mythology yet too poetic and intuitive to be a ‘philosophy’. Keeping in mind the philosopher Lik Tuen Tong’s interpretation of the I Ching—‘truth is what is revealed in the rightness of posturing’—perhaps his quest is best understood as a dance, a flow of posturings of the intellect and imagination. To appreciate his uniqueness we must try to understand something of the whole dance, not confine ourselves to particular gestures.

The underlying ground was the idea that conflict was the driving force of the human world, the impulse which produced individual and social development. All conflicts were an aspect or a metaphor of the primordial conflict: the saga of humanity’s loss of itself and the ongoing struggle to redeem that loss, the conflicted quest to restore freedom and mend the broken unity, to restore justice, freedom, life in all its fullness.

But history, like the individual self, was a tangled web. There are some cities—Canberra is one—where it seems that if you want to go somewhere it advisable to head in the opposite direction. This was how the maze of history often appeared to Jack. Nothing was simple. And freedom was not some future, abstract goal. It ‘is here and now or it is nowhere, never’. It was also sensual and concrete, found in activity, in the doing and making which transformed the world and the self. Freedom was life at its most intense. Freedom and unity were ultimately the same thing, the ‘pure moment of contact with otherness’.

In the final analysis the struggle for freedom/unity was the basis of every aspect of human affairs—art, science, religion, politics, economics, psychology. Both art and religion created transforming images of the quest for unity. Religion always had an aesthetic basis, art was always sacramental. The class struggles of capitalism were only the most recent form of an ancient turmoil. In this way Jack was able to align his personal quest for the ‘pure moment of contact with otherness’ (a yearning which may be interpreted psychoanalytically, poetically, religiously) with the underlying pattern of human history, and in particular with the struggles of the oppressed for dignity and freedom.

Three images of conflicted quest were especially characteristic of his thought: internal stress and break (a physical image, but a counter to the mechanistic idea of the world as a calculable system of atomistic collisions); the bewildering maze (related to the Theseus myth, the murderous passages of Midas/money); and most frequently the rite of passage or initiation, guided by a shaman-seer-artist-hero figure.

The pattern of initiation was ‘the deepest pattern of human experience’, reflecting many natural phenomena: birth and the changes from birth to death; spring and the turning from spring to winter, the seasonal cycle which provided an organising framework for so many of his novels and histories. The shaman archetype also recurred frequently: the Venetian rebel doge of the early verse play Marino Faliero (1927); Catalina (Rome for Sale, 1934); Mark Antony (1936); the neo-Platonist Giordano Bruno, burned by the Inquisition as a heretic (Adam of a New World, 1936); John Bunyan (Maker of Myths, 1937); Hannibal, the defiant near-conqueror of Rome (Hannibal Takes a Hand, 1941); the late Republic poet Catullus (The Complete Poems, 1929; a new translation with essay, 1948); Kett, the leader of the peasant revolt of 1549 (The Great Oak,1957); J. M. W. Turner (His Life and Work, 1966); Gustave Courbet (His Life and Art, 1973); William Morris (His Life and Work, 1975); William Blake (His Life and Work, 1978); and many wholly fictional characters. In Jack’s imaginative reconstruction such figures found themselves set against the existing state of things for confused, personal reasons, only to intuit that they were agents of a higher purpose—the life force, the materialist dialectic, the ‘fertile universal will’ of Edith Sitwell’s poem A Song of the Dust. They are shamans in being channels through which another, better world is glimpsed. Always they fail to achieve fully their aims, but their failures are fertile, integral to the fraught dialectic of social transformation. Despite the optimism of his most political phase, Jack never lost touch with tragedy, with life’s ‘Sophoclean laws’.

Jack’s dance borrowed postures from many sources. From Plato came the note of idealism. From Jane Harrison and the ‘Cambridge Ritualists’ he took the idea that all human culture bears strong traces of tribal myth and ritual. Spencer and Gillen’s studies of Australian totemism provided the notion of the initiation rite as the central human ritual, a universal link between individual and society and emblem of transformation. From C.H. and N.K. Chadwick came the figure of the shaman as a primal agent of transformation, an archetype of the poet, the artist and the revolutionary. Giordano Bruno and Hegel supplied the historicist pattern of human culture evolving out of primal unity through alienation and division towards a higher, ‘living unity’. Finally, from Marx and Engels came the thought that this redemptive process was not a matter of ideas or spirit, but of material reality, the incarnate world. And over this heady brew the shades of William Blake and all the poets muttered incantations and engraved divine images.

Because Jack’s life and work are linked to an uncommon degree, in compiling this anthology I have chosen to arrange the selections from his ‘multifarious works’ in chronological order, introducing them with brief biographical notes. Most of his books were large, especially the historical and biographical studies, and it is impossible for extracts to do their spacious architecture justice. On the other hand, they can provide a sketch of the whole, however rough, and that has been my chief aim. All the genres Jack worked in are represented, with two main exceptions. Translations have been omitted for lack of space, and I have not excerpted autobiographical writing, partly for the same reason and partly because Life Rarely Tells (1982 edition, originally published as three volumes) is still fairly easy to obtain.

Everyone will react in their own way to Jack’s dance. The words Marguerite Yourcenar applied to the sage Zeno in her novel The Abyss could certainly be applied also to him:

Sometimes the credulous smile of a visionary passed over his face, ordinarily so strong and firm, and his calm voice would take on the rather peremptory tone of one who wants to convince himself, frequently even at the cost of self-deception.

But in this he was like all who strive to understand and do not sink into utter confusion. Knowing well enough the dangers of speculative theorizing, he preferred to take risks than stick to a safe patch. If we wish to test the correctness of his postures we must do so by living and learning and doing—and also by reading him.

1: Early Visions (1919-29)

I look back on my youth
and the stark Hellas of thought,
the bonedry hills and the dancers.
You and I still converse
but where is that reckless truth?
where the oracular answers?

— from ‘Let the Bird Go (to Robert D. Fitzgerald on our youth in Sydney)’

Jack Lindsay was born 20 October 1900, the first of three sons of Norman Lindsay by his first wife Catherine. Norman was then beginning to attract national attention as a cartoonist for The Bulletin. He and his wife separated in 1909 and Katie took her sons to Brisbane, where Jack spent his adolescence. These years are recalled in the first volume of the autobiography Life Rarely Tells (1958) and in the novel The Blood Vote (written in 1935 but not published until 1986). Despite or because of a lack of regular schooling until he was twelve, the lonely boy was powerfully addicted to poetry and later became an outstanding classics scholar at Brisbane university. As his mother slipped into alcoholism he came increasingly under the spell of his by now famous and infamous father. When Norman sent him twelve etchings in the Spring of 1919, Jack responded with what his autobiography called ‘a long incoherent letter of delight’. It was signed ‘Bunny’, which was what his family and close friends called him in his Australian years. It was only after the traumatic rite of passage of the nineteen thirties that he was definitively reborn as a universal ‘Jack’.


Letter to Norman Lindsay
Dear Daddy,

How can I express the absolute joy with which I found your letter awaiting me in the Men’s Common Room at the University—the moth that found the Star within its reach: Tantalus in his arid centuries getting a draught of desired water—no simile can express the heart-leap I had when I saw your writing and opened that package.

There can be no misunderstanding between us—there never could have been: my vision of beauty coincides too entirely with yours ever to admit of that. Though I cannot draw—yet my silence is full of the same unapparent passions as your full music. I believe flamingly in Life, naked and unashamed, before the divinity in it was shamed into clothes & prudery by Convention—and in Love, the crown of Life, and all its lusts. And I believe equally in Art, for Art and Life are ultimately one, and Art is woven out of the bowels of Life (if you will excuse the phrase). But it is so hard to talk of these things in cold prose, ‘stammering of lights unutterable’. The only road of expression open to me is Literature, and of that Poetry is what I aim at—the most personal and real of all the written word. I must, and do, find expression in Poetry.—its value is another question—But whether I alone can feel in them the wind of Inspiration lifting up the locks of Song—or whether it has the wider worth of universally intelligible expression, only Time can show. As yet my stuff is immature & I have made no efforts to publish, hugging the infant Song still to its mother’s breast. I think I can see the seeds of growth in it—but there again Time alone can tell.

I will send you a note-book in which I have copied out most of what I have written in [the] last three months. It will give you a better idea of me than if I picked out a few—for taken singly each thing I have written always seems full of faults. It is only when I consider them as a whole that I am encouraged. There is a lot in it that is not of much importance, but you will see me more truly as I really am…

I hope I will be able to see you in the Christmas holidays that will start very soon—we get quite long holidays at the ‘Varsity. I remember well the last time I saw you—at the hospital [when Norman was dangerously ill with pleurisy in 1911 and Jack and his mother had visited him]—you were reading ‘Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins: it[’s] funny how that stuck in my memory as I had never heard of him then,—nor did for some years after. May I meet you soon—& more happily.

The etchings are wonderful. ‘Who Comes’ is a thousand, thousand times more marvellous than the reproduction was. I think I love it the most. But I cannot name one without the beauty of the others clamouring for recognition. The world is a better place now. I own these twelve wonders. The winds shout it to the sun, and the trees murmur it, and the day is glad with it, and the night is more mysterious and vast. I am King, crowned and sceptred of an isle of Beauty, all mine own. I look down on the paltry monarchs of a throne of Dust. Mine is guarded by Dreams, poppy-wreathed, and Exultation is the crown upon my head.

Every artist worth the name is a Columbus voyaging on yet unknown sea[s]; a Balbao, who climbs the peak in Darien & finds the unnavigated ocean, leaving behind the low-lying land of the little men, who say ‘There is no Further & no Beyond: we hold the pinnacle of Art: ahead lies mist and impossible Thickets’. You have prest on & found new Beauty in despite of laws and bounds: I yet stand among the little folk & strive to rise and follow my heart’s Desire—the guiding of the spirit—a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Even if I perish in the process yet I had a vision, & a ‘seeing set beyond’ and rather that than the crown of the little men.

Forgive me if I seem an insufferable prig with all this talk, but I have just been writing as I feel... Dear Daddy I send my love & thank you, not with words, but with the gratitude of a whole being for these etchings,

Yours lovingly,


Jack narrowly missed out on Queensland University’s annual Scholarship to Oxford, which was awarded to the future lexicoprapher Eric Partridge. Jack went to Sydney, followed shortly afterwards by his younger brothers Ray and Philip, and joined the easy-going, curiously innocent bohemian world of writers, artists and musicians described in The Roaring Twenties (1960). His father was intent on inspiring this world to create an Antipodean renaissance based on exaltation of artistic creativity and licentious male heterosexuality. With immense energy and confidence Norman marshalled enthusiasms for Rubens, Dürer, Catullus, Petronius, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Villon, Shakespeare, Dickens, Beethoven, Wagner and above all classical Greece, and imagined them all assembled under the sign of Nietzsche to form the vanguard of a new Australian culture, which would revitalize the over-ripe culture of Europe and confound philistines, wowsers and decadents.

Such a ‘very odd layer-cake’, as A. D. Hope called it, could have had a significant impact only in a place like early twentieth century Australia, with its schizophrenic colonial culture, part squeezed down from imperial heights, part synthesised from the fragmented proletarian traditions and pioneering experiences of convicts and economic refugees. Hope represented it as ‘the first conscious movement of immaturity towards a mature literature, the first movement of provincialism towards autonomy.’ Today its playful eclecticism and theatrical posturing might easily be taken for something entirely different: as a cheerful symptom of cultural decay rather than a wild attack on it—postmodernism before modernism.

Jack took on the role of chief acolyte and propagandist, editing the magazine Vision (1923-24) with Norman and Kenneth Slessor. The ‘Foreword’ to the second volume contains a spirited defence of cultural cosmopolitanism.


Foreword to Vision


Jack collaborated with Slessor on the anthology Poetry in Australia. (1923), wrote bucolic lyric sequences (Fauns and Ladies, 1923; The Passionate Neatherd, 1926) and blank verse plays (Marino Faliero, 1927; Helen Comes of Age, 1927) and translated Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1925). These works were published in limited editions on a press owned by J. T. Kirtley, their value greatly enhanced by Norman Lindsay’s illustrations. Jack taught himself the craft of printing, championed the musician Adolph Beutler, drank and partied, and married Janet Beaton. Norman counted Janet with his second wife Rose as ‘the only intelligent women in the world’; she also possessed the useful asset of a small private income.

Pacific Aphrodite is one of many poems from Jack’s Sydney period reflecting the erotic pseudo-classicism of Norman’s etchings. Darlinghurst and Bondi juxtaposes this prettiness with a contemporary setting, hinting at darker anxieties and unsettledness.


Pacific Aphrodite

Darlinghurst and Bondi


Leaving Janet in Sydney, in 1926 Jack set off on what was supposed to be a brief visit to help Kirtley extend the reach of the Fanfrolico Press. He never returned. He never met again either his father or his first wife, though it was three and a half decades before Janet reluctantly consented to a divorce.

William Blake: Creative Will and the Poetic Image (1927), of which the following is a chapter, is an example of Jack’s critical writing in the London Fanfrolican period. In a style blending the lecture with the oracle, it sets out ideas he had hitched together from Norman’s enthusiasms and his own readings of Plato, Blake and Nietzsche. Jack later modified and elaborated the guiding concept of liberation through the transforming power of the created image, but never abandoned it.


William Blake - Los and Urizen


In London Jack fell in love with Elza de Locre. The ‘strange and lovely’ Elza was a latter-day Mimi, with a vague, unhappy past and a husband and child in Paris. Jack at first tried to treat her in accordance with the gender politics he had learnt in Sydney. But he could not sustain the attitudes those norms demanded. This love was the suffering kind. Elza, who showed promise as a writer, was disabled by painful memories and frustrated longings. She became neurotically withdrawn, demanding, erratic. Jack was unfaithful, and his guilt then made him more dependent on her. Meanwhile his other guilt—about Janet—prevented him from making a wholehearted commitment to Elza. In the Dusk of London and Elza is a premonition of the tragic affair, the story of which is told with breathtaking honesty in Fanfrolico and After (1962). ‘Her fine dreaming self haunted and haunts me,’ Jack wrote there, ‘and I have written this book, not to exorcise the ghost, but to give it a home.’ The ‘crucified goddess’ in the poem recalls Norman’s famous etching The Crucified Venus. The etching was intended as a protest against censorship, but the image is used here with very different connotations.


In the Dusk of London and Elsa


In London Jack and P. R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen, two brash boys from Brisbane, ran the Fanfrolico Press and edited The London Aphrodite (1928-29), a magazine which set out to cock a snook at the literary establishment. They made a niche for themselves and eked out a living, but London was not Sydney and their impact on British cultural life was negligible. Jack’s ‘Manifesto’, printed on the first page of The London Aphrodite, gives a good impression of its cheeky tone, which no doubt owed as much to rough-edged Brisbane as to the apocalyptic fire of Nietzsche or the disillusioned hedonism the Jazz Age.


London Aphrodite Manifesto


2: Splintered Will (1930-35)

I write because I do not wish to be sent
back again by my own splintered will
and that intention shaped between myself
and men and women that were once called gods
and goddesses.

— from ‘The Poet explains the Situation to Los and Elza-Enitharmon while William Blake listens patiently’.

When the Fanfrolico Press collapsed with onset of the Depression, Jack and the increasingly unstable Elza left London. In the early 1930s they moved restlessly all over England, living in great poverty. But to return to Australia would have been a surrender to Norman’s hold on him. Elza could not bear to settle anywhere, tore up his manuscripts, demanded celibacy. The couple gave up eating meat, and Jack was to remain more or less vegetarian for the rest of his life. Later he saw this period in mythic terms, as a rite of passage. He fasted and saw visions, memorably of the Egyptian lion-headed goddess Tefnut. The extraordinary poetry he wrote at this time stands somewhat apart from the rest of his work, resembling in its metaphysical intensity the writing of Francis Webb. Four poems are included here. ‘Intimations of Mortality’ evokes a Brisbane childhood in a torrent of sinister imagery. The surrealism of this brief phase in Jack’s writing is displayed at its height in the almost hallucinatory ‘Portrait of a Lady’, while the later ‘Forest Hermit’, where the poet represents nature as a source of redemption, has a note of resignation.

‘Spinoza’, one of the most ambitious poems of these years, rehearses all the key figures of Jack’s later work. It is an assured statement of the motif of ‘regaining the earth’, encapsulated in his most characteristic form of expression, the biography. Depicting the course human alienation in history, the poem claims that men ‘knew the truth, but feared it; feared the full release of resting on the earth...They fled the cause, the whole.’ ‘God’—Spinoza’s name for earth, nature, necessity—is given by the mother, while life’s final goal, the knowledge which ‘frees the man who lives it’, reaches apotheosis in the vision of ‘human life a mounting wave of perfect law’.


Intimations of Mortality
Portrait of a Lady
Forest Hermit


Jack was reading voraciously, especially psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology, and at the same time struggling to write in way which would bring him some literary success. Following his younger brother Philip, who was making a name as an historical novelist, he succeeded with Rome for Sale (1934) in writing a novel which expressed something that he wanted to say about history and revolt, and also enjoyed critical approval and a modest financial reward.

Known only through the writings of his enemies, Catalina, the descendant of an impoverished patrician family, was the centre of a movement against the Roman republic which foreshadowed the moves of Caesar, Pompey, Antony and Augustus. Failing to gain a consulship, he gathered around him an uneasy alliance of the disaffected—ex-veterans, ruined nobles, city proletarians. Caesar gave covert support but kept his distance. Denounced in the Senate by Cicero as not only a traitor but guilty of a staggering array of crimes and vices, Catalina fled Rome. Subsequently he was formally convicted of treason and in 62 BC he and his supporters were hunted down and killed as public enemies. Even the hostile chroniclers grant that he displayed great bravery in the final battle. Jack depicted the situation as a product of unbearable social contradictions which would lead to the establishment of the Roman Empire and eventually to the triumph of Christianity.

Catalina’s failure is a double tragedy. The first tragedy is simply that he comes too soon—it will take a few more decades before the system he wants to overthrow can be smashed, as it will be by Caesar and the civil war. The second tragedy is an ironical one, of history itself. The popular support for an aristocratic rebel like Catalina—in whom some readers saw a prototype of the fascist leader—derived from impulses towards freedom and justice, ‘brotherhood’. But in the circumstances of the ancient world these impulses could not be realized—in fact they led to totalitarianism in politics and religion. And yet in furthering the rule of law and the spiritualized individualism of Christianity, these totalitarianisms in turn lay the foundation for a further development towards freedom and justice.

With Rome for Sale, Jack’s splintered will began to heal. But it would not become fully whole for nearly two years, when on reading the main works of Marx, Engels and Lenin he ‘felt that at long last I had come home; I had found the missing links in my dialectical system.’


Rome for Sale - the End of Catilina’s Year


3: Comradely Voices (1936-43)

Once I needed solitude
for verse to breed.
Now, so changed is my mood,
changed my innermost need,
when alone I find no rhyme;
I sit and mope.
But where comradely voices chime
song regains hope.

— from ‘A Word for the Poet Himself’ (Second Front, 1944)

Still kept from direct contact with the literary and political worlds by Elza’s dread of London and need for movement, in the second half of the thirties Jack wrote and published at a furious pace. Between 1934 and 1941 he produced 35 published books, including twenty novels. In Adam of a New World (1936) the methods and outlook of Rome for Sale were enriched and deepened, and in later historical fictions—1649: a novel of the year (1938), Lost Birthright (1939), The Stormy Violence (1941) and Men of Forty Eight (written in 1939-40 but not published until 1948)—he applied them to English history.

In the 1930s he was very proud of his ‘declamations’, performance poetry acted by troupes at political rallies: Who are the English? (1936), On Guard for Spain (1937), Five Thousand Years of Poetry (1938) and We Need Russia (1939). On Guard for Spain was particularly successful, being performed all over Britain at the height of the movement in support of the Spanish republic. For a writer who was still living in profound isolation, the acclaim was immensely gratifying.


On Guard for Spain


The declamations have not dated well: the very qualities that made them stirring rally pieces—topicality, simplicity and moral passion—on the page and at historical distance seem naive and forced. Indeed many felt that way about them at the time, and increasingly critics tended to read all of his writing as propaganda. At the same time, in a pattern around the reception of Jack’s work that was to be repeated many times, people who were delighted by the declamations found themselves bewildered and disturbed by the mythic and psychoanalytic elements in the novels and histories—aspects that politically conservative readers glossed over. His first literary biography, John Bunyan: Maker of Myths (1937), was attacked by F. R. Leavis as a tedious example of dogmatic Marxism, but today this judgement seems wide of the mark. What stand out are the empathy and subtlety of the portrait, and the deeply researched insights into the religious colouring of the political discourses of seventeenth century England. Jack used his knowledge of this period again in the novel 1649, and it produced more fruit in Civil War in England (1954). Jack’s research and writing on the civil war period helped map the terrain on which his academic friend Christopher Hill later built a formidable reputation, with books like The Century of Revolution, Puritanism and Revolution and The World Turned Upside Down exploring the close entanglement of religious and political radicalism in seventeenth century England.


John Bunyan - Inner Division and Release


Jack was called up in 1941 and put into Signals. By now very ill, Elza was institutionalized and died shortly after (not till 50s). In his first two years in the Army Jack was only able to finish two novels and a long poem, ‘Into action: the battle of Dieppe’. (1942) There are tales of him scribbling on army issue toilet rolls. He responded to life in the army with unexpected pleasure, as ‘Soldiers’ shows. In his autobiography he claimed that

I was ashamed that I should so crudely express in my life that element in men which made them accept and even long for war, as the only release from the intolerable but unrealized tensions of their daily existence...But the war, for all its confusions and complex trends, was in its strongest aspects an anti-fascist war; and so...I could assent to my position and be happy in it.




By 1943 Jack was writing full-time again, having become script-writer for the Army Theatre unit. Usually in collaboration with others, he worked on dozens of playscripts, film treatments and ‘living newspapers’—dramatized documentaries influenced by Brecht and the American avant gard. None have been published, though some survive in Jack’s papers in the National Library of Australia. The unit was collective, experimental and politically radical, aiming to raise political consciousness by arguing the need to defeat fascism and to struggle for a better world once the war was over. He was happy.

4: Clasped in our hands (1944-1955)

When lovers meet
nothing is lost:
the communist future
once clasped in our hands.

— ‘To Ann’

Jack’s scriptwriting job had brought him to London—in fact he had a desk at the War Office—and he resumed contacts there. These included meetings with Dylan Thomas (with whom Phil was very thick) and with Communist Party members and other activists who had previously known him only through his writings and letters. ‘We had been prepared for a quick thinker,’ Montagu Slater recalled, ‘but not for a jet’.

Through Unity Theatre he met the Welsh actress Ann Davies. Ann had been the star of Unity’s immensely popular Babes in the Wood, a prewar political pantomime satirizing the Munich agreement. Most men and a large number of women who met ‘the dear’, ‘the beloved’, ‘the lovely’ Ann were bowled over. She had literary as well as theatrical talents, later writing a book about contemporary British drama and translating Zola’s Earth. She also possessed an imposing reputation for political, theatrical and business management. Ann was a fiercely committed communist and involved in a multitude of councils, boards and groups, as well as managing Fore Publications, a small Communist Party outfit which for a time she and Jack virtually took over. Slater called her ‘Lord High Everything’. Soon Jack and Ann were telling everyone they had married. (They were not, but Jack had not heard from Janet for years and did not want to face the lengthy and expensive rigmarole divorce then involved.) They were a happy, devoted, and very busy couple, and the note of bustling, slightly dumbstruck joy in the following letter is characteristic of their correspondence.


Letter to Ann
ND [1943-44]
Saturday morn

Lovely love, had a day of scene shifting etc yesterday, so have decided today to make a start on my own and am typing in the small hut our two sergeants have, which possesses a table. The ex-Unity chap is Mendelssohn, he says he knows you and showed the correct delight when I said we had just got married. Dear me, just found a cigar in my pocket, given by the governor of the Mill Club last might which happens among other things to be HQ of the local home guard and we called there to get some bangers for effects in the LL [Lend-Lease] play. What I was looking for in my pocket was the card of a US major, with whom I hobnobbed for a while last night. He’s a military attaché and a valuable contact, he asked me to see him a soon as I’m back—good: another detail in the argument for my return. there’s going to be a discussion after the performance on Monday, and that will be excellent.

Cold and wet up here.

Only the thought of you keeps me warm. I’ve just got to relax for a moment and the images of you come...O my sweet snugabed, to wake up once more in the morning with you at my side: it seems a fabulous happiness, and yet so naturally right that I can’t imagine life without it now...all time and space a tryst with you. Sometimes it hits me staggeringly: that I should love you and be loved. It makes all of life so clear and simple, like communism already achieved and the road of the will clear and simple before man. It’s like our own private bit of the future, and yet not private because it reflects the course of history. I mean, there seems no longer any conflict in the will, in desire. It’s as if one has emerged entirely from the tangled past with all its clever wishes, and life is decisively born on a new level of unity. I am so happy.

It’s pleasant , the group life here, but I am of course haunted by the sense of wasted time...Still…

O darling, to see and touch and hear you again. Don’t chide me for the intensity of my love for you. It isn’t possessive, it will never interfere with your “social self.” But outside that I can’t limit it. I rejoice in you infinitely. In that sense I speak sober fact in saying I adore you. Love my lovely love…

I hope to speak to you on the phone tomorrow morn...all my love forever,



In the shattered years of reconstruction there was a lot for a couple of political radicals to do on the cultural front. Jack occupied his time editing the literary magazine Arena (1949-1951) and the series New Developments (1947-1948) and Key Poets (1950), playing a high profile role in several cultural committees of the Communist Party. He was also active in a variety of socialist and peace movements, notably The League for Democracy in Greece. Through the League he came into contact with persecuted leftwing Greek writers. Tefkros Anthias in particular became a close friend. Several times he and Ann visited Eastern Europe, where Jack met and maintained friendships for many years with Soviet writers, in particular Nickolai Tikhonov and Marietta Shaginyan. They also travelled to Paris and got to know poets of the Wartime Resistance, among them Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard. Jack also published some contemporary novels (Hullo Stranger, 1945; Time to Live, 1946; The Subtle Knot, 1948), some translations (Daphnis and Chloe, 1948; Catullus, 1948), some history (Song of a Falling World: culture during the break-up of the Roman Empire, AD 350-600, 1949), some controversial philosophy (Marxism and Contemporary Science, 1949), and a long poem meditating on Theseus (Clue of Darkness, 1949).

In the late forties they moved out of London, first to Kent and later Essex. Jack was working hard on a biography of Charles Dickens (1950), praised for its psychological sensitivity and a standard reference, and Byzantium into Europe (1952), a history of the Eastern Roman Empire which was widely condemned for elevating the historical importance of the ‘Second Rome’: it was apparently accepted in the Cold War atmosphere by both Jack and his critics that this emphasis endorsed the significance of the ‘Third Rome’, Moscow. Then he began the ‘British Way’ novels, a series tracing the political fate of postwar England from the popular enthusiasm for socialism which saw the election of a radical Labour government in 1945, through the defeats and disillusionment of the late 1940s, to the conservative resurgence of the 1950s and early 60s. Betrayed Spring (1953) was the first of of what eventually became a sequence of nine novels ending with Choice of Times (1964). In the bitter political atmosphere they provoked strong reactions, especially when their focus was on hot issues like housing and strikes. Some socialists attacked them as ‘apolitical’, even anti-working class, while other readers thought them fatally preoccupied with politics. Newspaper review pages mostly ignored them. Today it is becoming possible to read these novels for the complex and modulated light they throw on largely forgotten aspects of British history. The story of Phyllis Tremaine, threaded through Betrayed Spring with several others, vividly renders a young woman’s growing political awareness. Jack’s letter to his friend and fellow communist Alick West shortly after its publication reveals a growing sense of estrangement from the Party and its writers in the wake of the the novel’s reception, as well as providing a glimpse of his fieldwork research procedures.


Betrayed Spring - Phyllis


Letter to Alick West
ND [1953]
Dear Alick,

...I spent all Saturday wandering about Dagenham and my worst suspicions were verified. This “town” of more than 100,000 people has absolutely no civic or social organs whatever. And for a vast proportion of the space, only one house endlessly repeated, a low two-storey brick building. The effect is really indescribable when one takes it in mass. Hell is the suburbs of itself, wrote Graves in an early poem.

There are hardly even any shops let alone any building of social point. Not one Labour club. Just nothing. Fiercely overcrowded infant schools and one grammar school.

I had a long discussion with a number of party people, at the end of which I said, “Thanks, I’ve learned a lot about Dagenham.” And they replied, “So have we!” They had never pooled their ideas and memories about the place before.

At the same time it is practically 100% working class, a sort of vandieman’s land to which the worst-housed of Stepney Poplar etc were transported, all the result of the period since 1920. The first transported fled the unholy place. But successive waves have gradually got roots. But they have no way whatever of expressing themselves socially or politically except the ballot box and booing Churchill at the local cinema...

I realised that there are only two of the [Communist Party] writers with whom I can discuss things—you and Jack Beeching. With the others there is an entirely negative attitude or a deeply hostile one. The latter puzzles me a lot, but it is undoubtedly there, and finds expression in the review [of Betrayed Spring] by Doris [Lessing] that I mentioned. I have noted it growing in her. Before I began the present series she read a couple of my historical novels and was really moved by them. She expressed herself very warmly and strongly to me about them. But at once with Betrayed Spring she was clearly withdrawn, disliking the book...I am particularly sorry about this as I admire her a lot and feel sure that she will keep on developing. For chaps like Monty [Montagu Slater] and John S[ommerfield], the books mean just nothing; for the snobs like Arnold [Kettle] and Derek [?] they are very distasteful.

But to come back to Doris...I think that my best historical novels have a textural richness that these later novels lack. The best writing in the Roman novels and tales and in books like Adam of a New World, The Stormy Violence, Light in Italy and Fires in Smithfield, is I feel of a pretty high quality of intensity and colour. The postwar novels often lack this, but the intensity has gone into a deepened feeling and understanding of people. I don’t think I am deceived about this. They have many faults and roughnesses, but I think they have the virtue I mention. I therefore cannot see why Doris should be able to get inside the historical ones and stand right outside what is done in the contemporary ones.

It struck me a few moments ago that there is something analogous in the position of Aragon in France...At the time when I was in close contact with the French writers—when Aragon alone was tackling the job of a national socialist realism—the attitude to him was largely one of real hatred. Of course he is a swashbuckling and strong character as I am not; but mutatis mutandis I feel there is something the same here. While I am the only one struggling for socialist realism—I mean all out for it—I will have this isolated position and the other writers will feel they must protect themselves against me. only when several more take the same path will there be any neediness to look seriously and penetratingly at my work for what is good and weak in it.

I may seem to you to be harping too much on all this, but I do feel it very painful. Attack from anywhere else I do not mind in the least. But when to the frontal fight there are added these blows, nudges or whatnots from one’s own side, it is really disheartening. All of which of course has nothing to do with the necessary process of criticism and self-criticism.

Another point in this reaction that came to me—it is allied to the problem I raised in relation to the mistakes of the party and the effects on writers etc—is the particular vulnerability of the artist when he really throws in his lot wholeheartedly with the party. He discounts that final toughness (I work for myself alone: myself alone inverting itself dialectically into the human universal as opposed to the partial class-creeds of the day); he unites himself artistically as well as politically with the party. And so the wrong sort of criticism or attitudes from the party—which includes here both the party in general and his comrades in the same field—can really strike home deadeningly behind his guards, This puts a special responsibility on the party which is not always appreciated—eg the sectarianism and philistinism that drove Mayakovsky to suicide. A while ago I found that suicide hard to understand. Now I don’t feel it so dark an enigma...


By 1951 Ann had developed cancer, and went through several operations. She continued to work on the Zola book and Party and Peace Movement business until her last cold days in early 1954. Jack spent most of the following year travelling. For once his output faltered. But faith in communism and love for Ann had become intertwined for him; now he had lost one the other seemed even more precious.


Elegy of Ann - the Return


One of Jack’s more surprising friendships was with the aristocratic modernist Edith Sitwell. They admired one another’s work before they met, and by the late forties Jack and Ann and Edith were very close, often dining together at Edith’s London base, the Sesame Club. Jack praised Edith as England’s greatest poet, while she encouraged him to finish a critical history of poetic modernism, a chaotic manuscript called The Starfish Road. Her decision to become a catholic was one of a number of steps on the way to a subsequent estrangement. The letter Jack wrote to her on hearing the news is of great interest for its underlining of the parallels between catholicism and communism. Many non-believers have seen similarities, but few believers want to admit them.


Letter to Edith Sitwell
Dear Edith,

I was very happy to see you again and I am hoping that I can get along on Sunday...

Meanwhile there are one or two things I would like to say. I am in a way sorry about the decision you mentioned as contemplating, since it isn’t my own line of development. But I do respect your decisions, and perhaps you will forgive me if I say that I think the reasons why I am a communist are not so far from those which are impelling you to this step. Both communism and catholicism seek to express and incarnate the human universal in a concrete way; and historically I am sure that communism belongs to the same central stream of the human life-process as christianity—not a very good phrase, but you will know my meaning. I have myself at times been very close to the catholic creed. (I use catholic in the sense of the essential body of creed-symbol-sacrament, indistinguishable perhaps from the ekklesia of the faithful—the people who are Christ, and so include in it the eastern church.) I think it unlikely that you know much of my earlier novels, but the theme of acceptance or rejection of what I may call the sacramental unity with life, is a main theme in them. In novels like Hannibal Takes a Hand or tales like that of Cleomenes in Come Home at Last, in the divergent directions of the two main characters in The Barriers are Down, one turning to the peasant rebels, the other becoming a monk (5th century AD)—and their different purposes brought out on the last pages. It is in a complex way the theme of my novel on Bruno [Adam of a New World].

Nobody of course has ever made even an iota of an intelligent analysis of these and other works of mine. I wish I had copies of them for you, Mostly I haven’t even a single copy for myself…

My deep love,

5: Tragic contradictions (1956-69)

I thought your world at last had woken
beyond this bitter dream and broken
the bonds of tragic contradictions.
That thought was born of roseate fictions
and now we know, though true our cause,
still hold the Sophoclean laws

- from ‘The Inquest in Moscow (To Alexandr Fadeyev after he committed suicide.)’

Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ to the Soviet Politburo denouncing Stalin’s crimes was a shock to Jack, as the poem Sudden Discords registers.


Sudden Discords in the Trumpets of Overdelayed Last Judgement, 1956


Discords in the communist dies irae had been sounding for some time before 1956. In retrospect it is clear that Krushchev’s unmasking of Stalin—which even in the ‘thaw’ was supposed to be concealed from the rank and file of the Communist Parties, let alone the peoples ruled by them—was just one incident of many marking the growing European disenchantment with Leninism in particular and socialism in general, after the highpoint of the mid forties. The truth was unavoidable that the road to communism was going to be much longer and more arduous than Jack would have believed possible in the first years of his political infatuation.

Bernard Shaw, arriving at a similar realization of how distant a goal human liberation was to be, turned to futuristic fantasy. Jack looked instead to the past for guidance, in particular to William Blake. ‘I think that in each phase of my development I’ve turned back to Blake’.


Request for Help


Jack’s delving into history for comfort and guidance went even further back, to the world of Ancient Greece and Rome he knew so well. He justified this attitude in ‘The Analogies and Contrasts of History’, a good example of the verse of his later years, a conversational poetry of ideas addressed to particular people and intended to illuminate specific issues or topics. Nearly all of it was composed in the form of epigrams for the title pages of his books.


The Analogies and Contrasts of History


Analogies and Contrasts was written for Thunder Underground, Jack’s last published novel, set in Nero’s Rome and dedicated to Katharine Susannah Prichard. In 1961 Clem Christesen of Meanjin persuaded Jack to write a critical essay on Prichard’s novels. The result ‘overwhelmed’ the West Australian novelist, then in her seventies, and the two ageing communist writers, reassuring each other that they did not deserve the neglect they were both experiencing, entered into an affectionate correspondence which ended with Prichard’s death in 1969.


The Novels of Katharine Susannah Prichard


Jack kept in close touch with the Australian scene and made many other friends here, among them Noel Counihan, Frank Hardy, Bernard Smith and Michael Wilding. The writing of the autobiography, his main work of the late fifties and early sixties, prompted a turn to Australia at several levels. At Christesen’s urging he wrote about many Australian writers at this time, including Patrick White. Although Jack’s admiration for White is qualified, the essay is notable for its generous appreciation of his qualities at a time when many ‘Old Left’ intellectuals associated with Meanjin were as scathing of him as he was of them.


Patrick White: the Burnt Ones


Jack came to art biography through poetry, in particular via The Starfish Road. The wide-ranging field of this study led to an exploration of early nineteenth century French art (Death of the Hero, 1960) and also to an interest in J. M. W. Turner’s unpublished poems. The final result was a full-length biography of Turner (1966). Catching an upsurge of interest in Turner, and making an original contribution in the use of his previously unpublished poetry, this study was Jack’s most commercially rewarding book.


Turner - Personal Crisis


After the success of the Turner biography it was not surprising that Jack went on to write another six biographies of artists: Cézanne (1969); Gustave Courbet (1973); William Morris (1975); Hogarth (1977); William Blake (1978); and Thomas Gainsborough (1981). Art ran as strongly in the Lindsay clan as literature. But by the late sixties the clan was thinning out. Philip died in 1958, uncle Lionel in 1961. In his nineties, Norman lived on in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. Father and son had corresponded intermittently over the years, Jack always admiring but defensive, Norman always crusty and also suspicious that Jack wanted to cheat him by pirating his drawings. In 1958, angry that Jack had publicised the breakup of his first marriage in Life Rarely Tells, Norman broke off relations completely. The lines Jack addressed to him in ‘Family Poems’ are an unforgettable memorial to a relationship edged with loss and evasion. With his father’s death in 1969 died also Jack’s fears and hopes of returning to Australia.


Family Poems.

6: My Thanks for Earth (1970-82)

I shall speak out my thanks for earth
and all its mingling worths and powers
while at the root of my tongue there tingle
the plumed and twinkling leaves
the scales of shrugging water
the spark of mint’s sharp coolness
the apple’s ichor of purifying gold
the bread that’s like the face broken or whole
brotherly in all faces.

— from ‘Autumnal Balance in Ashour Woods’


After Ann's death Jack married a Dutch woman, Meta Drinkwater, and for the first time became a father. The couple and their two children continued to live in the sixteenth century farmhouse he and Ann had bought in the ancient village of Castle Hedingham, named for its dominating Norman ruin. Over the next quarter century the farmhouse literally filled up with books.

In old age Jack became increasingly anxious about the responsibilities he had taken on. Deeply attached to his children, he also felt separated from them by unbridgeable gulfs of experience and mortality, emotions expressed in ‘In the Wild Surf’.


In the Wild Surf : to my daughter Helen, on the beach at St Ives, Cornwall


Such feelings, friends tried to reassure him, were perfectly normal at any age. More tangible were the financial burdens of parenthood. Jack had never cared for money—in the depraved world of the cash-nexus poverty was a mark of honour. Now that he needed money he found himself short. Though his books sold steadily he never had a best seller. Some early works were being reprinted by the 1960s, but the royalties were trivial. His career as a novelist had folded in the face of an increasingly dismissive critical response: reviewers mostly saw them relics, stylistically and politically dated. The reception of his non-fiction works was more positive, and the only course he could see was to go one producing them at an even faster rate than before.

At every stage of his career Jack was a prodigy, but his output after 1970 was a truly astonishing feat for a man of his age. Fifteen intensively researched books in twelve years, including five full-length biographies, compendious historical works on ancient and medieval history, weekly book reviews for the Communist newspaper The Morning Star and a considerable quantity of other journalism, more translations and editing, continued involvement with cultural and political events and debates, translating and talks for Bernard Miles’ Mermaid Theatre in London, and a correspondence as gigantic as in previous decades. He was doing what he wanted to do, what he had been doing all his life and probably would have done at a slower pace anyway, but it is no wonder that he sometimes felt exhausted, ‘crushed’. Yet as the following letter to his old companion-in-poetry Jack Beeching shows, he kept a sharp eye, and a sense of humour perhaps more pronounced than in younger, missionizing years. Jack had known and admired Robert Graves in the 1920s.


Letter to Jack Beeching

...By the way, met [Robert] Graves a couple of months ago. The Poetry evenings that began with me—and then plus Roy Fuller. who brought two not so bright lads in, and the interesting project of a lively Club became one more Mermaid event with Names. Bernard [Miles] asked me to come to the Graves. The poet arrived with about ten teenage girls and a Spanish hat over silvery curls. Dialogue. Bernard: Here’s Jack Lindsay. JL: It’s a long time since we met. Graves (nearly fainting): Thousand of years. End of Dialogue. We then went to the hut by the river bank. Graves took the seat at the back, the teenagers then settled five on each flank like a bodyguard coming down each side of the table. The others, Bernard and myself and a few more thus in the role of commoners holding an audience with Apollo or the Sun King. Nobody allowed to speak except humbly with a request or plea. Fine show of temperament. Tony Loyes, Bernard’s son-in-law who organises the things: “There’s a young fellow outside who has done drawings to your poems. Will you see him?” Graves: “No, I couldn’t possibly. It’d upset my nerves. Besides, nobody can illustrate my poems.”

JL cynically sitting back and watching. Graves had shrunk, I swear, several inches in height and girth. When I knew him he was a large ungainly fellow—and the one thing he hated, as a rebel without a cause, was the world of literature and the Literary Man, the Selfconscious Poet, eg couldn’t stand Yeats. And now he had become the Perfect Literary Lion. Such are the jests of Time and Fate...


The books of the last decade or so of Jack’s writing contain some of his best work, the fruit of more than half a century of study and thought and action. But produced so quickly by one who could no longer, as for so long he had, even seem to be young, inevitably a certain slackness haunts them. Sometimes they stagger under a sheer weight of erudition. But in Cleopatra (1971) the tendency for information to suffocate clarity is kept at bay by the narrative impulse. It belongs to an imposing series of historical works concerned with Greco-Roman Egypt which includes Daily Life in Roman Egypt (1963), The ancient world: manners and morals (1968), Men and Gods on the River Nile (1968), The origins of alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1970), Origins of astrology (1971) and Blast-power and ballistics: concepts of force and energy in the ancient world (1974).

Like much of Jack’s writing Cleopatra is mixed in genre. Its cinematic story-telling is reminiscent of the technique of his novels (indeed in 1934 a sequel to Rome for Sale was Last Days with Cleopatra), while the mythic space which Antony and Cleopatra inhabit is explored in works such as The Clashing Rocks (1965) and Helen of Troy (1974).

The large quantity of direct quotation from ancient sources illustrates the documentary approach characteristic of Jack’s historical method. He wished the past to speak for itself and was indefatigable in unearthing its suppressed or forgotten voices. In the twenties the Fanfrolico Press published 16th and 17th century madsongs (Loving Mad Tom: bedlamite verses of the 16th and 17th centuries, 1927) and arcane dissertations on toilets and vermin. The same delight in forgotten scatology was apparent decades later in the annotated collection of graffiti from Pompeii, The Writing on the Wall (1960), and the ‘potboiling’ anthologies Ribaldry of Ancient Greece (1961) and Ribaldry of Ancient Rome (1961). The line between anthology and history was sometimes erased completely, as in Song of a Falling World: culture during the break-up of the Roman Empire, A.D. 350-600 (1949). If the last is historical criticism masquerading as an anthology of late Latin poets, then Cleopatra, with its rich polyphony of contemporary historians, political and religious symbolism, poets and popular culture, is perhaps anthology masquerading as biographical history.


Antony and Cleopatra


The 1978 biography of William Blake provides a revealing comparison with the 1927 study. In place of the preoccupation with individual creativity, it sets Blake’s work in a painstakingly detailed social context. For the 1927 study history ‘is but a timeless pattern arranged by the logical caprice of the idea’, while the later book tangibly implicates Blake in the political struggles of his day and insists on placing him in an historical context. For all that the subversive but fearful visionary who emerges from this treatment is recognisably the same Blake as the baffled, unhappy creator Jack had depicted fifty years earlier, and the two studies, vastly different in tone and approach, share a common dialectical approach and vision.


William Blake - Political Prophecy, 1794-5


The late seventies and early eighties witnessed a surge of political radicalism, including a revival of intellectual interest in Marx, together with a much more effective counter-surge of conservatism epitomised by the figures of Reagan and Thatcher. For decades Jack had been thinking about political questions, the main result of which was a large bundle of unpublished manuscripts. In 1981 he finally published Crisis in Marxism, which argues the anthropological underpinnings of his communism and reveals a strong sympathy with Antonio Gramsci, both for his emphasis on cultural struggle and for his tragic inflection (‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’). It has happened, written for a friend who was a militant London Councillor, is a succinct statement of the mood of Jack’s last political phase.


It has Happened


Jack continued writing into his eighties: a biography of the eighteenth century Thomas Gainsborough (1981), who was born and grew up in Sudbury, a town close by Castle Hedingham and whose easy-going nature must have reminded Jack of his brother Philip; a translation of Alexander Blok’s great poem of the Russian revolution, The Twelve (1982); a revision of the Turner biography (1985); and the unpublished Theatre of War, his autobiography of the forties. Arthritis gnawed at his hands and finally stilled them. In 1985 he and Meta moved to Cambridge, ‘the only place I could bear to leave Hedingham for now’, where he died 8 March 1990.

It has happened
To Patricia Moberly

It has happened all before, and yet
it has all to happen. So it seems.
Darker grows the manic threat
and richer swell the answering dreams.
Just past our straining fingertips
it lies. And that’s the very thing
they said two thousand years ago,
broken, with hope unslackening.
At every gain, away it slips.
In struggle, entire and strong it grows;
the bonds of brotherhood hold fast.
Someday the treacherous gap will close
and we’ll possess the earth at last.


I am grateful to Meta Lindsay for permission to publish the extracts; to the University of Technology, Sydney, for a research grant; to the National Library of Australia for a Harold White Fellowship; to the English Department and the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University for institutional support in Canberra; and to Graham Powell and the Manuscript staff there for their kind attentions. I owe thanks to many but would like to especially single out Drusilla Modjeska for encouragement and advice, Bernard Smith for inspiration, Leslie Devereaux for shelter and Beth Yahp for everything.

The Extracts

‘Letter to Norman Lindsay’ Mitchell Library, Sydney. MSS 742/4.

‘Foreword to Vision’ from ‘Foreword’, Vision: a literary quarterly, no 1, May, 1923, pp 2-3. Extract reprinted in Ian Turner (ed), The Australian Dream, Melbourne, Sun Books, 1968, pp. 286-288.

‘Pacific Aphrodite’. First version (‘Aphrodite’) Vision, no. 1, May 1923, reprinted in Fauns and Ladies (J.T. Kirtley, Sydney, 1923); Jack Lindsay, Kenneth Slessor and Frank C. Johnson (eds) Poetry in Australia (The Vision Press, Sydney, 1923); George Mackaness (ed.) Poets of Australia (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1946 and revised edition An Anthology of Australian Verse (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1952). The version of the poem here first published in The Roaring Twenties (Bodley Head, London, 1960, p. 60), reprinted in Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 24-25).

‘Darlinghurst and Bondi’, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois. 1981). Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois. 1981, pp 89-90).

‘William Blake - Los and Urizen’ in William Blake: Creative Will and the Poetic Image (Fanfrolico Press 1929, pp 16-28). Second enlarged edition Fanfrolico Press, 1929. Reprinted Folcroft Press, London, 1969; Haskell House, New York, 1970; Folcroft Library Editions, Folcroft, Pa 1976; Norwood Editions, Norwood, Pa, 1977; R. West, Philadelphia, 1978.

‘In the Dusk of London and Elsa’, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois. 1981, pp 131-132).

‘London Aphrodite Manifesto’, London Aphrodite 1, 1928, p 2.

‘Intimations of Mortality received in early boyhood’, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 175-176).

‘Portrait of a lady’, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981), pp 177-178.

‘Forest Hermit’, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 219-220).

‘Spinoza’, Dublin Magazine NS 11(2), 1936. Reprinted in Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 223-227). Also in Les Murray (ed) Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry, Collins Dove, Melbourne, 1986, pp 102-106.

‘Rome for Sale - the End of Catilina’s Year’, in Rome for Sale (London, Mathews and Mariot, 1934) (New York, Harper), Chapter 12, pp 417-437.

On Guard for Spain, Left Book Club Theatre Guild, London (1937). Reprinted in The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, edited by J. M. Cunningham, Marmondsworth, 1980, pp 253-263. Also in Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981).

‘John Bunyan - Inner Division and Release’ from John Bunyan: Maker of Myths, 1937 (Methuen, London). pp 47-63; 81-86; 96-97.

‘Soldiers’ in Second front: poems, Andrew Dakers, London 1944. Also in Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981), pp 388-392.

‘Letter to Ann’, National Library of Australia, MS 7168, Box 21, Folder 126.

‘Betrayed Spring - Phyllis’, from Betrayed Spring: a Novel of the British Way. London: Lane 1953, pp 11-24; 39-48; 81-105.

‘Letter to Alick West’, National Library of Australia, MS 7168, Box 28, Folder 166.

‘Elegy of Ann - the Return’ in Three Elegies, Myriad Press, Sudbury, Suffolk, 1957. Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 554-556).

‘Letter to Edith Sitwell’, National Library of Australia, MS 7168, Box 164.

‘Sudden Discords in the Trumpets of Overdelayed Last Judgement, 1956, Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, 558-559).

‘Request for Help’ in William Blake: 200 Years, Myriad Press, Sudbury, Suffolk, 1957. Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 564-567).

‘The Analogies and Contrasts of History’. First published with Thunder Underground: a story of Nero’s Rome, Muller, London, 1965. Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, 575-576).

‘The Novels of Katharine Susannah Prichard’ Meanjin 20(4), 1961. Reprinted in Decay and Renewal: Critical Essays on Twentieth Century Writing. Wild & Woolley, Sydney. Lawrence & Wishart, London. 1976. pp 304-333.

‘Patrick White: the Burnt Ones’ Meanjin 23(4), 1964. Reprinted in Decay and Renewal: Critical Essays on Twentieth Century Writing. Wild & Woolley, Sydney. Lawrence & Wishart, London. 1976. pp 364-369.

‘Turner - Personal Crisis’. From J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Cory, Adams & MacKay, London ch 10, pp 123-135.

‘Family Poems’. Collected Poems The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois. 1981. pp 583 - 584 ‘To my father Norman’ reprinted in Les Murray (ed), The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 140.

‘In the Wild Surf : to my daughter Helen, on the beach at St Ives, Cornwall’ Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, pp 588-589).

‘Letter to Jack Beeching’, National Library of Australia, MS 7168, Box 10, Folder 66.

‘Antony and Cleopatra’ From Cleopatra. Constable, London pp 1971, pp 156-181.

‘William Blake - Political Prophecy, 1794-5’, William Blake: His Life and Work. Constable, London, 1978. pp 77-101.

‘It has Happened’ Collected Poems (The Cheiron Press, Lake Forest, Illinois, 1981, p 604).

SOURCE: Jack Lindsay: Faithful to the Earth, compiled by Paul Gillen. Pymble, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1993. viii, 296 pp.

Note: Front matter text given to me by Paul Gillen and re-published here with his permission. I corrected a few obvious typos and attempted to reformat aspects of the text, with mixed results.The Acknowledgements and list of Extracts have been moved to the end of the text to enhance its logical structure and readability. — RD

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