Vale Rosemary Dobson (Australian poet)

Last time I wrote about poet Rosemary Dobson was in my post on Australian literary couples but my post today is a sadder one as Dobson died this week, just a week or so after her 92nd birthday. She had a long career as a poet, starting soon after World War 2. When she first came to recognition, winning awards in the 1940s, she was described as the granddaughter of English poet and essayist, Austin Dobson, who was well-known in his time.

Dobson moved to my city – well, she was here first, in fact – in 1971 when her husband Alec Bolton became the National Library of Australia’s first Director of Publications. I knew Alec, as his office was next to mine for a few years in the late 1970s. He was a charming, lovely man who, first as a hobby and then a retirement project, managed his own small press which printed, among other works, some of his wife’s poetry. It’s nicely fitting that the poem used in our newspaper’s front page article on her death is one she dedicated to him:

The kitchen vessels that sustained
Your printed books, my poems, our life,
Are fallen away. The words remain –
Not all – but those of style and worth.

(from “Divining Colander”)

The poem goes on to use the “colander” as a metaphor for sifting out the bad from the good.

Dobson was active in Canberra poetry circles and well-known to our poets, some of whom I’ve written about here, such as Geoff Page and Alan Gould. But, she was known more widely too, having won several significant literary (and other) awards, including:

  • Patrick White Award for Literature (1984)
  • Grace Leven Prize for Poetry (1984)
  • Order of Australia for Services to Literature (1987)
  • Australia Council’s Writers’ Emeritus Award (1996)
  • The Age Book of the Year Award for Untold lives (2001)
  • NSW Premier’s Special Award (2006)

In a review of a recently published collected edition of her work, titled, Collected, Australian writer David Malouf described her as “the last of a generation of Australian poets – Judith Wright, David Campbell, Gwen Harwood – who in the 1940s and ’50s remade Australian poetry, and then, by remaking themselves, helped remake it a second time in the ’70s.” He also refers to a poem of hers which appears in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1986) which I like to dip into every now and then. The poem is dedicated to Christina Stead, whom Dobson knew, and is about Stead’s dying:

I sit beside the bed where she lies dreaming
Of Pyrrhic victories and sharp words said


Suppose her smouldering thoughts break out in flame,
Not to consume bed, nightdress, flesh and hair
But the mind, the working and the making mind

That built these towers the world applauds

(from “The Nightmare”)

I reckon that effectively conveys Stead’s strength and feistiness – and Dobson’s affection and admiration for her. “The Nightmare” is one of five poems of hers, from her mid career I think, included in the anthology. They demonstrate some of Dobson’s variety, her seriousness and her humour, but there’s no way I can do justice to her career here, now. Before I conclude though, I must say that what I found interesting, when I researched her life a little a few years ago, was that she and poet David Campbell, also produced anthologies of Russian poetry that they had translated.

For a lovely, brief summary of her life and contribution to Australian poetry, check out the podcast from ABC Radio’s Books and Arts Daily.

Australian poetry will miss her …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literary couples

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (Unknown date and photographer, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Are you fascinated, like I am, by literary couples? It seems so romantic to share one’s calling with another … even if the reality is not always as idyllic or as successful as it sounds. We’ve all heard of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, to name just a few famous couples. I’m guessing, though, that not many have heard of our Australian couples, but we do have them – and so this week I’m sharing five (from the past) with you.

Vance (1885-1959) and Nettie Palmer (1885-1964)

While Vance and Nettie Palmer are not particularly well-known now (at least to the best of my knowledge), they were extremely significant in their heyday, the 1920s-1950s, as writers, as proponents of Australian literature and as mentors for younger writers. Nettie in particular corresponded with and supported many women writers, including Marjorie Barnard (1897-1987) and Flora Eldershaw (1897-1956). They were literary critics and essayists. Vance was also a novelist (I read his The passage many moons ago) and dramatist, while Nettie was also a poet. They were political – egalitarian, anti-Fascist, and tarred, as were many back then, with the “Communist” brush! Their relationship seems to have been a productive and supportive one.

George Johnston (1912-1970) and Charmian Clift (1923-1969)

This is one of those troubled pairings, and it ended in the suicide of Charmian when she was not quite 46. They met in Australia, lived together in England and Greece (where they tried to live on their writing), before returning to Australia with their three children in 1964. Johnston wrote the highly successful My brother Jack, which some see as a contender for the Great Australian Novel and which is the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Charmian wrote two successful autobiographies, Mermaid singing and Peel me a lotus. Both wrote much more across a wide spectrum: novels, essays and other journalistic pieces, short stories, and so on. Theirs was, in the end, one of the more self-destructive rather than mutually supportive relationships. Sad.

Ruth Park (1917-2010) and D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967)

Ruth Park (born in New Zealand) and D’Arcy Niland were more than a literary couple. They created a literary family, with two of their five children, twin daughters Deborah and Kilmeny, becoming successful children’s book writers and illustrators. I have written about Ruth Park before. She and D’Arcy worked as free-lance writers and shared a concern in their writings for the battlers in Australia. They worked hard to survive on their writing, turning their hands to a wide range of forms and genres, including novels, short stories, plays and journalistic pieces. They were, like the Palmers, a successful and happy couple until D’Arcy’s early death.

Rosemary Dobson (b. 1920) and Alec Bolton (1926-1996)

Rosemary and Alec were a little different from the other couples I’ve chosen to discuss here, but I’ve chosen them because they lived in my city, and I (ta-da) met and worked for a few years in the office next door to Alec. Rosemary Dobson is a significant Australian poet who associated with other major Australian poets like A. D. Hope and David Campbell. She has published around 14 volumes of poetry, edited anthologies, and translated poetry from French and Russian. Her husband was not so much a writer as a publisher. According to the AustLit* website he “was a creative force in Australian publishing for almost half a century. After his war service he worked as an editor for Angus & Robertson and Ure Smith before establishing the publishing program at the National Library of Australia”. He established one of those wonderful small presses, Brindabella Press, in 1972 while still working at the Library, and then continued working on it after his retirement. It was a labour of love, and among the authors he published was, of course, his wife!

Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) and Andrea Goldsmith (b. 1950)

Dorothy Porter, whose last book The bee hut I have reviewed here, is (was) another Australian poet. She lived with her partner, the novelist Andrea Goldsmith, for 17 years before she died through cancer in 2008. Goldsmith, whose latest novel The reunion I’ve also reviewed here, said in an interview after Porter’s death that “I’ve always loved Dot’s work – indeed I fell for the poetry before I fell for the poet”. Porter, who also wrote several verse novels, was more prolific than Goldsmith, but both produced well-regarded work during the course of their relationship. Another productive and successful pairing.

Some time ago I read an article about literary couples and the challenges they face: financial (supporting themselves from writing), space (finding room for each to write), and the big one, jealousy or competitiveness. I’m impressed that, despite such issues, four of the five couples I’ve described seem to have been remarkably successful – and this is beautifully exemplified by Ruth Park’s words at the end of her autobiography, Fence around the cuckoo:

We lived together for twenty-five years less five weeks. We had many fiery disagreements but no quarrels, a great deal of shared and companionable literary work, and much love and constancy. Most of all I like to remember the laughter.

After sharing five children and a rather insecure career, that’s pretty impressive.

I’d love to hear about other literary couples – Australian or otherwise, past or present – that you have come across.

* I have not provided a link to this site since most of its content is available by subscription only.