Reprint: Mystery of Poet Stirs 'Varsity: Challenge Over Ern Malley

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Mr. Brian Elliott, lecturer in Australian literature at the Adelaide University, has challenged Mr. Max Harris to prove the existence of Ern Malley, a poet "discovered" by Harris,

The mystery of Ern Malley is causing concern in literary circles not only in Adelaide, but through out Australia. The reason is that the poems are good, whoever wrote them. Some of them were included in the anthology of Australian verse collected by the American poet, Harry Roskelenko, and published in New York by Henry Vinnal.

An alleged life story of Malley, together with all his poems, appears in the latest issue of "Angry Penguins," published by Reed & Harris. 

Mr. Elliott was asked to review this issue for the Adelaide University Union publication "On Dit." 

He sent, instead, a "Batrachic Ode," the first letters of each line of which spell "Max Harris Hoax.'' With the ode was a letter to the editor in which he said. 'I promised to review the new "Angry Penguins" for you. The task is beyond my humble capacity. I ask you to forgive me. Some splendid poems (e.g., Davies' about Joshua) are bound to be eclipsed in the "Darkening Ecliptic," by Ernest Lalor Malley. This sequence of poems, some of which I understand, fires me to passionate admiration."

Seventeen Poems

In a postscript Mr. Elliott added: 'Malley is the goods. Nothing better has been written since the "Vegetable Pie." 

"The Darkening Ecliptic" consists of 17 poems. They are published in "Angry Penguins" with an introduction and a biography of Malley by Max Harris.

Harris says:-- "Recently I was sent two poems from a Miss Ethel Malley, who wrote saying they were found among her brother's possessions after his death on July 23, 1943. Someone suggested to her that they might be of value, and that she send them to me for an opinion.

"At this stage I knew nothing about the author at all, but I was immediately impressed that here was a poet of tremendous power working through a disciplined and restrained kind of statement into the deepest wells of human experience."

Story of Life

Harris adds that at his request, Miss Malley then sent him, from Sydney, the complete manuscripts of her brother's poems, together with a letter telling her brother's life story as she knew it.

The introduction then quotes verbatim from the letter. According to this Malley died of Graves disease at the age of 25. He was born at Liverpool, in England, on March 14, 1918. Their father died of war wounds in 1920, and the family then came to Australia.

They lived in Petersham (a Sydney suburb), and Ern went to the Petersham Public School and the Summer Hill Intermediate High School.

In 1933 he left school and went to work as a mechanic in Palmer's garage, on Taverner's Hill. Later he went to Melbourne, where his sister believed he was selling policies for the National Mutual Life Insurance Co., living in a room by himself in South Melbourne. Later he returned to Sydney, where he died.

The letter ended with, "As he wished, he was cremated at Rookwood."

Appear Genuine

Adelaide University students who have seen the original of this letter and the original poems say that if it is a hoax it is an elaborately prepared one, as these documents appear to be genuine.

"On Dit," in commenting on the controversy, says: "Superficially, Malley's work and opinions could be taken as belonging to Mr. Harris -- they are in true Penguin's style.

"Mr. Harris sincerely insists that he is not hoaxing anyone: there is nothing to gain from doing so; but on close examination Malley has left clues of literary knowledge which to the learned and initiated indicate Adelaide as the source of the poems, and if not Harris then a close friend of his."

Professor Mentioned

Mr. Elliott said today that he was firmly convinced that Max Harris wrote the poems.

He said that he had heard a rumor that they might have been written by the professor of English literature (Professor J. I. M. Stewart).

"'I think it absolutely incredible," he said. Students who discuss the rumor that the poems may be the work of Professor Stewart point out that he is keenly interested in modern poetry.

Professor Stewart is also the detective novelist Michael Innes. He said today that he had heard of Em Malley and of Max Harris, but he did not wish to comment on either of them. 

First published in The Mail, 17 June 1944

[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 February 17, 2012 9:07 PM.

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