Reprint: Hugh McCrae: Poet and Author by D. P. McGuire

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He is tall, and his grizzled hair is greying, and he has a great power of joy in him and a great gentleness. It is difficult sometimes to believe that he is a man with physical bonds and physical necessities; one believes in fairies when one knows him, and one believes, too, in those things which Arnold spoke, sweetness and light. And yet he is very human. One hears his mighty shout of laughter, and sees him holding up all the people in Pitt street, while he enjoys a huge joke; his length doubled across the footpath, his arms poised like birds. I do not think I have ever known any one who enjoyed a joke as much as Hugh McCrae; and no one who has learnt the art of life so fully and finely. He is not a rich man; he is probably very poor, but be is unbelievably endowed with quips and cranks and jollities, and deep, enduring joy that cheats the angels.        

I met him first in an office. I went in with fear and trepidation, expecting to be reviewed in order by some dour and solemn editor. McCrae was the editor. He came in, and I am sure that his embarassment was greater than mine. We fidgeted together, he with a bundle of manuscripts, I with my hat. There were little, intermittent bursts of speech, and long, awkward silences. It lasted a whole 10 minutes. Then suddenly we got over it. I do not know why, but I think it was some glow from the man's spirit. I felt warmed and happy in a very strange way. We marched off down the street, we went to lunch, we marched back up the street, we yelled at one another so that people turned to stare at us. It was four days before I realized that I had some matter of business to settle with him.  

Hugh McCrae is the most exquisite writer we have known in Australia. A poet of ardent sensibilities, and a delightful grace of utterance, he will be remembered as some of the early English poets are remembered, by those who rejoice in pure light and undefiled diction, and the clear song that is like bird's voices.

   Here will I lie
   Under the sky,   
   Green trees above me,
   All birds to love me . . .
   Nature and I.   

   Wish me good den
   And leave me then . . .
   This sweet forest wind   
   Is more to my mind       
   Than cities or man.

   And in the morn I will see born
   That does dappled young,
   Whose father was sung
   To death by the horn.

   Here will I lie
   Under the sky,
   Green trees above me,
   All birds to love me,
   Nature and I.

The whole is a perfect ''lyric cry;" and the third verse especially, is as faultless as Shelley's

   "He will watch from dawn to gloom
   The lake-reflected sun illume
   The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom."


McCrae is one of our first masters of prose, too. No one in English literature has come nearer in spirit and method to Yorick Sterne. Naivette and subtlety, sentiment and a sudden, swift gleam of intellectual passion temper his expression; and though he, himself, declares that he has only a gift for phrasing, and that his argument wavers, his prose is crystal-clear and steel-sure.  

Nothing better than the 'Du Poissey Anecdotes" has been done in Australia. I sincerely doubt that any English book in the manner has been better done since the eighteenth century. Yet the volume is almost unobtainable. I am told that a great number of copies have been destroyed -- because there was no sale for them. And the book shows a freshness and savour, a sauvity and charm, a delicate sophistication that no living writer approaches. I open it entirely at ran-dom.  

"On Wednesday, October 4, Du Poissey and I took boat and rowed up the river to Cropley Lock, where we dined under the tree; upon buttered chickens and orange marmalade.

All at once, in the middle of our meal, he looked up, and, pointing with his finger to the sky, exclaimed:-"Do you see the cloud that's almost in shape like a camel?"            

Whereupon I, not to be outdone, replied in the words of Polonius:-- "By the Mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed."

"Methinks it is like a weasel", quoth Du Poissey.      

"'It is backed like a weasel," said I.  

"Or," continued Du Poissey, "like a whale?"

"Very like a whale," exclaimed I, and burst into a fit of laughing.

"Sir," said he, "this is most childish . . . can it be possible that you have no opinions of your own?"  

"Why," I replied, "these are neither your opinions nor my opinions. They are not even the opinions of Shakespeare, but the opinions of Hamlet and Polonius."

"Sir,'' said Du Poissey, "I quoted nobody. What has happened is simply this:- Looking up in the air just now I saw a curious cloud, which I remarked upon as being a little like a camel; you immediately agreed with me; but, because I had doubts of your sincerity, I now pretended that the cloud had taken the formation of a weasel and you had the assurance to say so too.This kiss-breach kind of conversation would serve to madden a saint, yet I was not unwilling to give you another chance, wherefore I declared the cloud --"

My patience having come to an end, I would not allow him to continue, but, looking at him very fiercely over some buttered chicken, challenged him to say another word.        

He grew silent in a moment, and a little later expressed his sorrow, "not that I have been rude to you, but that you have been rude to me." I am afraid the quotation is a long one; but it will convey more of the significant savour of McCrae's writing, than a dissertion of mine.

It is, perhaps, a sufficient justification for an Australian authors' week, that this jolly book should have passed with notice from no more than a score or so of McCrae's countrymen. It makes one desperate. All about us, we hear opinionated ignorance talking of our art with a dreadful air of despair; deploring the barrenness of the natives; and neglecting a writer who is conceivably of a very high rank, and is certainly of that class for whom an especially delectable corner of Elysium has been reserved, because they have been gentle and kind, and have lived only with beauty. 

First published in The Register, 10 September 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on November 18, 2011 6:50 AM.

Great Australian Authors #54 - Hugh McCrae was the previous entry in this blog.

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