When Les Murray received an honorary D Litt degree from the University of New England in 1990, he began his acceptance speech in an unusual way. He said that he only spoke in prose when the occasion would not allow him to speak in verse. He was, as this confession revealed, a natural poet; in fact, I would suggest, a supernatural poet. His poetic instinct was not only born in his mind and heart: it lay deeply imbedded in his soul.
His recent death as Australia’s unofficial poet laureate has been widely lamented. Yet few of the obituaries have highlighted a crucial part of his life and character – that he was a deeply religious and sacramental poet. His poems have long formed part of the daily reading of a priest-friend of mine, who has found they supply both spiritual and intellectual nourishment.
Les Murray’s ancestry was Scottish and he was baptised into the family faith in his hometown Presbyterian church in Bunyah, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. He converted to Catholicism in 1964, at the age of 26.
Various factors entered into this momentous decision. I first met him in Sydney in the late 1970s, and quickly came to realise that his entry into the Catholic Church was a process of development and completion, not of reversal and denial. On a personal level, he had Catholic friends in his early years who impressed him with their surprising blend of faith and humour. As he once noted: “They could laugh at the most sacred things and not dismiss them. They could be loyal while laughing. This struck me as a wonderful liberation.”
A second influence was his poetic sensibility, which opened his gaze to the divine life of the Incarnation of Christ.
He had a profound responsiveness to images and the sacredness of words, which paved the way, in his germinating Catholic imagination, for a sense of sacramental reality – of the visible embodying the invisible; of the material being fulfilled in the spiritual; of the Word made Flesh, so that language itself became a channel of divine communion, not just an instrument of human communication.
He faced no difficulty in accepting the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. I remember attending Mass with him at the Hornsby Cathedral in Sydney in 2015, the morning after he had visited the city’s Campion College for a poetry reading to students, and the ease with which he participated in the sacred ceremony.
As he recalled in 1994, 30 years after his conversion: “I was fascinated by the idea of the Eucharist. It absolutely wowed me. Anybody who’s interested in imagery has to be interested in that type of fusion, metaphor taken all the way to identity.”
His sense of the power of the Eucharist was physical and immediate. In The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), an extraordinary novel presented in poetic form, he described the Eucharist as the “food that solves the world”.
In another part of this novel-poem, he captured the nature of our present-day civilisational crisis. His vision of the future of our culture was vivid, even apocalyptic, as he saw it falling back into a horrible and bloodstained barbarism:
It was all resolved once: this is
My Body, My Blood,
It’s coming unsolved now. And your thinkers did it.
The blood is on the thinkers.
In a different poem, he crystallised the differences between truth and falsehood – between the brilliant light of Christ’s truth and the caverns of dark ideologies calling forth a substitute devotion. This contrast was captured in two arresting lines in “The Boys Who Stole the Funeral”:
The true God has given His flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.
I once asked Les what had drawn him to the Catholic Church. Bearing as he did such a strong resemblance to GK Chesterton – in physical frame and, as the years made clear, in literary genius – I mistakenly thought that Chesterton, a fellow convert and poet, might have influenced him.
Les responded that he only discovered Chesterton after his conversion.
What factor, then, had been most significant? He mused for a moment: “The pure devotion of a loving wife,” he answered, with quiet feeling.
His wife, Valerie, a cradle Catholic, was of Hungarian-Swiss descent and emigrated to Australia as a child. She and Les met at Sydney University in the 1960s.
Her impact on his life was profound and enduring. She inspired and steadied him, in various ways, during their 57 years of marriage. As she recalled in Flight from the Brothers Grimm: A European-Australian Memoir (2016): “We married too young to have anything except each other. We grew each other up, as much as we were able to.”
Valerie resisted the present-day use of terms that made permanent fidelities sound like temporary or superficial liaisons: “I call [Les] my husband because for decades I have always done so. ‘Partner’ just doesn’t cut it. It is cold and smacks of pre-nuptial contracts and terminology that changes like any other fashion.”
Her husband won numerous awards, including the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry and a UK Poetry Society Choice (for his 1996 book, Subhuman Redneck Poems). At different times he was rumoured to be a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yet he never confused these temporal accolades with the ultimate prize of eternity.
He once sent me a poem on Mary MacKillop’s canonisation, which took place on October 17, 2010, a date of special significance to him as it was his birthday. In the poem he asked what gift had been given to St Mary MacKillop on his birthday. Was it sainthood – “so long after God did?”
Les Murray was an indisputably religious giant in our literary landscape. What other Australian poet would have introduced his books with a dedication to “the glory of God”?
Karl Schmude lives in Armidale, north-west of Bunyah, where he frequently visited Les Murray on his way to and from Sydney’s Campion College. He is a co-founder of the college, and president of the Australian Chesterton Society