DEIRDRE MOORE

REMEMBERING MUIR HOLBURN

Southerly 61.3: 125-34

THE AUSTRALIAN poet, author and literary critic, Muir Holburn (1920-1960) has been too long neglected and demands rediscovery. His passion was Australian literature-its preservation and promotion, with special pleading for financial support for Australian literary criticism. He campaigned fiercely in articles, letters and speeches for its recognition, and specifically for a Chair at Sydney University, his alma mater, which denied Oz Lit existed as a serious subject for study. The war was won two years after his death, when a Chair was established under Foundation Professor G.A. Wilkes.

A meticulous research scholar into 1890s Australian literature, in 1947 Holburn published a definitive anthology of Victor Daley. Creeve Roe, Poetry by Victor Daley carries his twenty-two page introduction, “What Do They Know of Daley?”, which Miles Franklin describes on the cover as a “perceptive and poised essay”. To achieve publication he founded the Pinchgut Press, Wharf Lane, Sydney, 1947, with Rod Shaw’s illustration of Fort Denison as imprimatur. Creeve Roe, Poetry by Victor Daley was designed by Edwards and Shaw and co-edited by Holburn’s wife, Marjorie Pizer. This splendid book is a must for the bookshelves of every bibliophile.

The later Freedom on the Wallaby: Poems of the Australian People (1953), also published by Pinchgut Press, appears under Pizer’s name only. She, however, recently informed me (1.12.99) that it was as much Muir’s work as hers. But his name was omitted because, as a Commonwealth Public Servant with wife and two infants to support, he was fearful of losing his job, knowing that he was then under surveillance by ASIO. This book appeared one year before the Petrov Commission of 1954, with the Cold War at its height. Pizer writes in her introduction:

Particular thanks are due to my husband, Muir Holburn, without whose continuous assistance and enthusiasm this book would not have been completed...In preparing Freedom on the Wallaby we have sought our poetry...in all the many magazines, newspapers and journals, literary, religious and political...and in manuscripts, old and new, from every part of the country. (p.6ff)

The Men Who Made Australia, published by Pinchgut Press in 1957, with Marjorie Pizer again named as editor, is likewise derived from “original manuscripts, from the files of long defunct newspapers and periodicals...the Sydney Bulletin, and from some of the small editions issued during the poet’s lifetime and now virtually unobtainable.” (p.9) The three books testify to monumental scholarly research in the files of the Bulletin for the years 1884-1905, The Tocsin, the Lone Hand, Dawn and other primary source material of that period. “[We] read every scrap of poetry [we] could find in the Melbourne Public Library and the Mitchell Library in Sydney. "1

I do not meet Muir in the smorgasbord of First Year Sydney Univerity Arts 1939, where we are herded together like sheep through English I. Next year, in an English II lecture on the Romantic Revival, Professor AJ.A. Waldock looks up and asks, “Mr Muir Holburn, would you agree with my opinion on [Keats]?” I crane my neck to see this distinguished student poet who is already known to the English Department. Later this year Muir appears as a Performance Poet, in the sunny Arts Quadrangle, encircled by aficionados, aesthetes, and interested loiterers. Later still, at a Literature Club meeting chaired by a nonchalant, then Andersonian James McAuley, the two poet luminaries of our year are bracketed: Muir and Donald Home, editor of Honi Soit, will read, and defend, their poetry. In sharp contrast, the shorter, more casual Don rapidly mutters his more cerebral and symbolist verse, while the tall, dramatic Muir intones his poems with long, slow emphasis. It is only very thick glasses which mar the latter’s sartorial elegance, set off by his erect carriage. He is myopic, with light eyes. “I was born an albino baby with pink eyes,” he tells me, jokingly.

Holburn’s family was Scottish Presbyterian. His mother, born Scott Holland, alleged she was a descendant of Sir Walter Scott, and was something of a Scottish chauvinist. His parents had changed their surname to Holburn by deed-poll, and the name “Muir” is the Scottish variety of Moor (heathland). Because of bad eyesight Muir completed his Leaving Certificate at the Metropolitan Business College where less reading was required. His older brother, Paul, had attended Barker College. At one stage it was thought Muir might go into the church, helped by his declamatory style. His magnificent voice was compared to Leonard Teale’s.

Muir is a highly original undergraduate who creates his own Bohemia. In 1940 I am asked to his Sydney North Shore home-low lights, Persian carpets, Eastern drapes, a grand piano-where he and Paul vamp out their improvised vaudeville with verve, “Hairy knees are cosy/ Hairy knees are grand/ If your hirsute/ Matches pursuit...” Muir extemporises for a while, then plays for us Scriabin and Scarlatti. He is mourning the death of his father whose jute business has just folded, its imports threatened by war. His mother has the same deep, resonant voice as Muir, is stagey and la grande dame. Wearing a toque of massive artificial roses, she welcomes me generously. Later she takes me aside to whisper that “No money worries will cloud Muir’s outstanding literary and musical gifts... He must be left to focus on music, and poetry...and study.” I visit their country seat, “The Bool”, at Yerrinbool, near Mittagong NSW, a much enlarged log cabin with a huge wood fire. But during World War II, both the North Shore upmarket home and the Southern Highlands country manor must be sold. The boys leave home and their widowed mother moves into a flat.

Muir’s father was also entrepreneurial in the theatre world, and Muir grew up wanting to be an actor He wrote, directed and produced plays, and sang well in a loud, ringing baritone. But his family dissuaded him because a stage career was “not respectable”. Muir Cofounded the University Arts Theatre which opened at Union Hall on 22 November, 1941 with a progamme of extracts from Elizabethan drama, songs and music. Mary Hollingworth was the producer. In his review (Union Recorder 31.7.41), Guy Manton, lecturer in Classics, made special mention of the “understanding and clarity of speech” that Muir brought to his performances in Jonson’s Volpone and as Cardinal Monticelso in Webster’s The White Devil. (For the record, I played Vittoria, the White Devil.)

For his English IV Honours thesis Muir chose D.H. Lawrence as his subject. Lawrence’s short stories were “always about bored and monied ladies rescued from their boredom by Pan-like males. Could one suggest that all the monied ladies require is a little work to do?” Lawrence’s poetry, with its message of rejuvenation through a return to the flesh, appealed especially to the young poet in Muir. Through sexuality spoke the voice of the gods, “the power and the glory of the living cosmos”. He linked the poet Lawrence to John Donne and William Blake, but most of all to Walt Whitman, seeing Lawrence as Whitman’s true successor. His poems written during that year (1942), show influence of all three:

      When will the firm wind hush and whisper through the vibrant loam,
Again, again 0 Ceres, conjuring up the grain,
Stirring the languid seed, shaping the tender limbs, warming the home,
Spreading the voluptuous pollen, courting and fanning the rain?
     (“From Earth”)

Soon after, he writes a 2000 word poetic drama, Exit with Effect or Death of a Hero Etc. Although it is reminiscent of his 1941 Elizabethan verse drama production, the theme has changed. The prologue states:

The “hero”, an enigmatic and complex public figure has just been fatally injured in a street riot. Being simultaneously wealthy and an active sympathiser with the working class movement...the Press, the Radio and Polite Conversation have joined forces in labelling him “eccentric”.

Very much in the spirit of the times, it is also partly autobiographcal, a political coming-of-age, as Muir ponders over becoming a “social poet”. He is now most prolific. “Spectres II”, dated April 1942, paints a humorous portrait:

The good nun rode in a basin of wan light
In the corridor of a train, crossing a high bridge at evening.
Beads brittle crackling, stinted hands exploring
The basketwork chair, a diocese of dust.
Grey eyes devolve and tour down havenways, perceive
Lust lurk on isthmus, passion pollute the peninsular...
Hoping the beads will save all at the close,
The carriage air
boils up, caves in most dangerously with
her sighing.

In 1942 the German Sixth Army besieges Stalingrad. Holburn writes a sixty-line ode, “Christmas 1942”, to celebrate a war-time turning point, and the relief that we hard-working honours undergraduates experience after four years “in the library”. Medically unfit due to severe myopia, Muir still feels some guilt that this peer group are in uniform, defending us with heavy casualties. He also worries about post-graduate job prospects. “I’ll be writing ditties like ‘Banish Those Washing Day Blues’ for Lever-Kitchen or ‘Come to Ballina Where the Beer is Beaut’ for the NSW Tourist Bureau,” he tells me.

Sydney swarms with Americans in tailored creamy uniforms, contrasting sharply with the sloppily cut Aussie khakis. Muir and I meet an American serviceman with a difference, the poet Karl Shapiro, handsome, smooth-skinned with close-cropped tightly curly black hair “You can pat my hair, if you like. Everyone wants to!” he replies to our admiring glances. “Do you know Cecily Crozier?” he asks, but we do not even know Melbourne, let alone Cecily, publisher of the literary journal, Comment. She will publish “Christmas, 1942”:

Winter was over.
We wintered in the library
Collecting our winter references, which the pen
Scrawled heavily and were bitter to the taste...
    This was man’s victory
Sealing the dubious centuries...

In the mutilated cold, in the screaming hinge of struggle,
And knew only the cold heart’s cynic hopelessness.
We should have been no courage...
Winter was over - Stalingrad was over...

We came from fanatic gloom, our work done -
Their work done...

    No wonder Summer
Saw lines of communication throb again
With carol of a comfort new to man...
Winter was over.

In 1943 Holburn joined the federal department of War Organisation of Industry, in Melbourne. Henceforth he dated his poems in Roman numerals as subscript, and some this year have sombre overtones, like “Nachtmusik Winter, mcmxliii”, “Poem XIII Melbourne, October, mcmxliii”, and “Shrine, Melbourne mcmxliii”. The last named reads:

                        ...the Shrine
Reminds us of the value of  ’14,
Promising us Utopias where we’ll find
The moral life, cities of hungry parks,
Lustier warms, bigger and better shrines
To honour spilt blood and mock the dispossessed.

Also sombre is “Gladly now we explore the silent Alleys (Melbourne mcmxliii)”:

Gladly ? now
We explore the silent alleyways, crossing
Avenues of hours, barely saluting the signpost...
Bungling down gardens of bounteous error we bluster,
While the arms hang awkward, wrongly affixed, they never blossom
Into such luminous pinions as bolster the angels.

But far from sombre are a series of eight poems, entitled “Spectres”. Wickedly funny, with the poet always the comedian, these are randomly scattered throughout his collection, and are not written in chronological order His wife informs me that, just prior to his untimely death, he numbered them in his attempt to publish them.

Spectres III: Basil My Boarder (undated)

When Basil my Boarder quite suddenly put
His brush and comb on my bathroom shelf
Without invitation, my mind spun to soot,
And I trembled in terror in spite of myself.

Why did he do it? On the sagging rack
Stands brush upon comb in a monstrous inversion
Alongside my talcum. I fear that I lack
Force to withstand such an act of assertion.

Spectres IV The Epitaph (undated)

Here lies revolting old Miss Gertie
Who, at the age of nine and thirty
Dissatisfied by youthful flings,
Set out to make the worst of things.

Spectre VIII: The Bequest (1943)

To you, good my lord devil, I shall leave
A little, long-valued book that holds the key
Phrases to fivescore lively and competent jokes,
Collected on board earth ... Consider them my passport.

The poem “Qualitative Change” combines the comic with the sensual:

Having been dead for thirty years, Buzz suddenly died...
He watched his sharp passing, saw the death of his enemies
Programmed for near future. There would be no postponement
Ordained from higher centres, no prayers or atonement.

....O down with the shadows that followed my furrow, that seized up my
                                        plough. O death to the rust,
Oppressing the sensitive dance of the delicate dust!

In his introduction to Creeve Roe Holburn defines the poet: “The true poet is concerned with the sensuous, intellectual and emotional experience of his life.” (p.36) He tried to live up to this. His early poetry is lyrical and sensuous, full of luxuriant word cadences with near sexual overtones, as in his Arts quadrangle performance poem, “Blue Lagoon, Bronze Fringes” (1940), or the later “From Earth” (1942). This romanticism is reinforced by his apprenticeship to D.H. Lawrence. Later, a sharper imagery enters, as in the image of the good nun (“Spectres II”). After this, a more intellectual content prevails.

The Melbourne he now lives in is the Australian Headquarters for the administration of World War II. This increases its desperate housing shortage. Like Muir, I too have been “manpowered” (“essential services”). We exiles from interstate must rent tiny, single bedrooms, usually south-facing, with only corner triangular iron frames for hanging clothes. Some are euphemistically called “guest” houses, with full supervision by inquisitive landladies. I cannot find a room with a chest of drawers and must live out of suitcases. The luckier Muir finds a room with sink and gas-ring, and uses the gas jet for warmth. With nimble wit and infectious smile he wheedles cigarettes (unobtainable) from kiosks. Every second Sunday we are invited to a soirée at Cecily Crozier’s East Malvern home, having been introduced by Karl Shapiro. To us room-renters it’s like Buckingham Palace. We are warmed and well fed before facing the late train back to seedy lodgings on those frosty Melbourne winter nights. From her luxurious sofas we admire the tiger’s skin stretched before the fire, and the divine Cecily playing her grand piano. The daughter of a mining engineer, she was brought up in outposts in Chile and Malaysia, without formal education. She is totally liberated, a Free Spirit. Muir is now partly in love with this Golden Girl with the body of Juno. With trilling laughter they chirrup about Debussy, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams (“Forever ascending,” says Muir). Here aesthetes, socialists and the “lunatic fringe” do battle, the left wingers debating whether the extensive social canvas of Balzac is more significant than that of the individualistic Proust. Or do Breughel’s crowd paintings represent greater art, require more artistic and technical mastery, than Dali’s? Is the representation of Man-in-Society more difficult to handle skillfully than Man Alone?

Muir’s long poems, “Birth of an Elegant Slum” and “Australian Film Studio” are published in Australian New Writing (nos. 1 and 2, 1943-4). In the latter he claims that the Australian film industry can only truly reflect Australian society by a forcible separation from the past, pouring scorn on films like “The Squatter’s Daughter” and questioning the reliance on stock characters. In another long poem Holburn introduces the Aboriginal theme. In “Prelude to a Poem on Edmund Kennedy” (nineteen verses), which precedes his unfinished ballad on this explorer, he describes how Kennedy’s party, including his Aboriginal co-explorer “Jacky-Jacky”, started the journey from Sydney to Cape York in April, 1848. “Prelude” begins:

So stood the colony that windy April
Two barques from Sydney bore a curious freight
Of fated brilliant manhood pledged to fathom
The secrets of Cape York, to subjugate...
What Kennedy discovered was not bounded
By heathen wrath, intractable terraine,
Or inimical climates. If he was confounded
By death’s exigencies, did he not invade
Another country too, finding its heart
(Surer than any who had sought before)
Whose name is found on no official chart?

Muir was now writing regularly for New Audience, the periodical of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), and for the 3KY weekly radio show, “Stories in Song”. For this radio programme he both wrote and delivered, in March and May 1945 respectively, the segments entitled “The Ballads of Eureka” and “The Voice of Humanity: F.J. Brady”. For the same session he wrote additional scripts on Lesbia Harford, Bernard O’Dowd and Francis Adams, which were not broadcast because the session folded. Some of his draft on Lesbia Harford was used in The Poems of Lesbia Harford (1985), edited by Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer and dedicated to Muir Holburn. He also wrote several dramas for “Lux Radio Plays”.

In July 1945 Holburn returned to Sydney with Marjorie Pizer. (My diary describes the send-off party at Hotel Menzies.) In the NSW Fisheries Department they found jobs as research workers to gain maximum access to the Mitchell Library. Here they researched both fish and the literary magazines, Tocsin, Dawn, Lone Hand, Bulletin and old manuscripts, finding material for their three anthologies. Holburn joined the editorial board of Progress (poetry, short stories, articles, criticism), and in 1946 became editor of Australian New Writing with Bernard Smith and Ken Leavis as co-editors. He was elected President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers for 1947-48, leading the fight against censorship, principally that of Robert Close, jailed in 1946 because of his novel Love Me Sailor. Through FAW he campaigned against American publications flooding the market; the end of war-time import restrictions had increased the grasp of overseas publishers. It was widely rumoured that Holburn might become publisher for the FAW, which had a paid-up capital of five hundred pounds collected by George Farwell for this purpose, but the venture did not materialise.

In 1949 Muir and Marjorie married. A son, Kim, was born in 1951. In that same year Muir’s poem, “A World of Good”, won the Sydney Morning Herald Poetry Prize, which brought him a little money and more status. A daughter, Jo, was born in 1953. Muir began writing his MA thesis for the English Department, Sydney University, on “The History of Literary Criticism in Australia”. In this last decade of his life his poetic energy was increasingly channelled into literary criticism. Towards the end of the 1950s, the Holburns moved from Kirribilli to 6 Oaks Avenue, Cremorne, a Federation house built in 1899 on Sydney sandstone foundations, with servants’ quarters (a “maid’s room”). Marjorie Pizer still lives there, where the garden which Muir planted over forty years ago (including mulberry trees for his children’s silkworms) is now almost a forest. A huge paperbark melaleuca dominates the front garden, and at the rear is a mammoth liquid amber, larger than the house.

The Holburns once visited Dame Mary Gilmore at her Kings Cross flat and Muir asked her, “When, Dame Mary, does Sturm und Drang, passion, desire, sexual drive, that sort of thing, come to an end?” “Muir dear, you’ll have to find someone older than me to answer that question!” she replied, now well into her nineties. Muir wrote the quatrain “Dame Mary Gilmore”:

She - whom we love - she has lived for ninety years,
She shall live more! - for wisdom and song.
Poets whom the gods love die with early tears;
Those whom the people love live rich and long.

Mary Gilmore died at ninety-seven.

Muir’s death in 1960, of a coronary occlusion, was premature. Marjorie was only forty, and, with two young children to support, faced a financial dilemma. A graduate in history, she explored the possibility of teaching in primary schools, but, because she had a university degree, the NSW Education Department would only employ her as a secondary teacher. She and Muir had already studied scientology.2 Pizer now changed direction to practise as a psychotherapist, at the old home.

As an undergraduate, Muir Holburn had an ethereal quality about him: his was a delicate, fragile spirit like the Shelley of André Maurois’ Ariel. He was lit up, often ecstatic, and when he recited poetry one heard the vibrato of violin strings playing. Some fellow students lampooned him as a “mystical freak”. Bursts of rollicking laughter became his self-defence, his method of self-excuse, possibly unconscious but frequently employed. ASIO did keep a “dossier” on him, but no clear picture of the man emerges from the security files: he is described not only as “an aggressive type” but also as a “vague, airy, intellectual”.3

Holburn’s description of Victor Daley applies equally to himself: his poems reveal “a mind that delighted in surfaces yet sought essences”.4 His poems were published in Southerly (ii.41, iii.42, ii.43, iv.44, iv.51, ii.53), Overland (October 1955, April 1957, October 1958), The Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere. Articles as well as poems were published in Comment up till its demise in 1947. In 1965 Stephen Murray Smith, editor of Overland, applied to the Commonwealth Literary Fund for a grant to publish Muir Holburn’s work. The estimated cost of this publication was 350.0.0, but Stephen only applied for 145.0.0 as against a financial loss. The grant was not forthcoming.

Now, thirty five years later, this unique writer’s contribution must be preserved. His poems - sensual, erotic, satirical, epic - and his fine plays and essays shed much light on Australian society of his era, 1939-1960. There is much material not mentioned here, material which is not part of my personal Holburnia. The task of creating a definitive bibliography of his many publications is one that awaits the research worker. Publication of his collected literary works, or at the least a selection of his poetry, is long overdue. His papers are in the Mitchell Library.


1 Interview with Marjorie Pizer, December, 1999. back to text
2 In 1957 the Holburns spent three months in New Zealand on a course in Scientology/Dianetics. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) and founded a Church of Scientology in Los Angeles in 1954, moving the church’s headquarters to England in 1959. Marjorie later abandoned his methods for a more eclectic approach to psychotherapy. back to text
3 Fiona Capp, Writers Defiled (Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1993), p.204. back to text
4 Muir Holburn and Marjorie Pizer, eds. Creeve Roe: Poetry by Victor Daley (Sydney: Pinchgut Press, 1947), p.37 back to text