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Harold Stewart was born in Drummoyne, Sydney. His father, Herbert Howard Vernon Stewart, a health inspector, had lived in India for many years and was fluent in Hindustani. Stewart's father bequeathed him an interest in Asian civilizations; the family regularly went back to India on holidays. He was not brought up as a Christian. His mother, Amy Muriel Stewart nee Morris passed on a prodigious memory. Stewart attended Drummoyne Public School and then Fort Street High School where he and James McAuley (q.v.) were 'rivals'. He began writing poetry at Fort Street High School and like McAuley was editor of the school magazine. Michael Heyward (30) describes him at this time as 'a quiet, determined boy with a sparkling sense of humour, was small, with a lean, even-featured face, blue eyes, and oiled dark-brown hair he parted down the middle.' He was an outstanding student until he discovered his homosexuality and an intense sense of social ostracism led him to abandon conventional life goals. Stewart chose poetry as his true vocation and later the path of a Buddhist sage.
Stewart won a scholarship to the Sydney Conservatorium where he studied trumpet for three years. He enrolled at the University of Sydney on a Teacher's College scholarship in 1936. Stewart did not complete his degree, commenting: 'I have never been so bored in my life, no, not even in the Army'(32). He was to reflect thirty years later: 'I have been handicapped or penalized for the lack of a degree all my life, whenever I applied for a job or a scholarship or a grant.' (Ackland, 32). The late thirties were a difficult period for Stewart in which he went up a 'succession of blind alleys to little avail' and explored the artistic milieu of Kings Cross. He became a champion of artistic modernism as art critic for Honi Soit.
Stewart was conscripted into the Army on 28 September 1942 and for part of the time worked in the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs in Melbourne with James McAuley under their mutual friend, Alf Conlon (q.v.). He was also intermittently ill and developed a lifelong sensitivity to the state of his health. In 1944 he collaborated with James McAuley to perpetrate the 'Ern Malley Hoax' in an effort to expose the lack of integrity in literary modernism. Their fabrication of a series of poems from a fictional author caused an international sensation, but their claim of an absence of literary merit in these poems has been challenged by critics. The poems have remained in print despite the hoax. After exposure to the poetry of French symbolists and American modernists, Stewart devoted his life to poetry and the study of Asian philosophy. His first book of poetry was heavily influenced by Chinese art and poetry, and the influence of Carl Jung is reflected in a later volume. Stewart was linked to McAuley and A. D. Hope (q.v.) as part of a neo-classical movement in poetry.
Stewart lived frugally, supporting himself with literary journalism and part-time work in the Norman Robb Bookshop in Melbourne 1950-1966. While working at the Bookshop, Stewart set up a weekly study group to discuss Oriental doctrines. By this stage, Rene Guenon and the new philosophical movement, Traditionalism, had displaced Carl Jung in his thinking about Eastern religions. Its key insight was to posit a single spiritual tradition underlying all the great religious faiths and call for a return to spiritual values being lost in the modern world. Several members of the study group became interested in practice and attached themselves to particular Buddhist traditions. In the late 1950s Stewart became more engaged with Japanese culture just as a second wave of Traditionalist theorists led by Frithjof Schuon emphasised the need for active involvement in a living tradition. In 1959-1960 Stewart was awarded the Saionji Memorial Scholarship to study Japanese culture for a year. He visited Japan in 1961 and again in 1963 when he met the love of his life, Ueshima Masaaki. Stewart studied under Bando Shojun, a Shin Buddhist priest and professor of Buddhism. Stewart moved permanently to Japan in 1966, settling in Kyoto and continuing his study of Shin Buddhism. He produced several translations of haiku and translated a number of classic Buddhist texts in collaboration with his teachers.
His first epic,By the Old Walls of Kyoto(1981), was supported by grants from the Literature Board of Australia and the Australia-Japan Foundation. In 1982, he was awarded a Senior Emeritus Writers' Fellowship by the Literature Board which provided his first stable income. His second epic, 'Autumn Landscape Roll: A Divine Panorama' , a five thousand word voyage to the afterlife by the Tang Dynasty poet Wu Tao Tzu, was completed just before he died and is yet to be published. It was dedicated to his patron, Dr. Heinz Karrer of Switzerland, who had supported him for decades. Although fairly reclusive, Stewart kept up a voluminous correspondence with, among others, Dorothy Green (q.v.), the literary critic and Carmen Blacker, folklorist and Professor of Japanese at Cambridge University. When he died in 1995, he was mourned by many people throughout the world who valued his contribution to Buddhist teaching and Australian literature. Stewart never achieved the recognition he desired from his home country, the land he called 'darkest Oz'. Michael Ackland claims he had the misfortune to produce his greatest work at the end of his career. (270). James McAuley never lived to see his 1938 prophecy realised that '"Skald" (Stewart) is capable of producing stuff that will put us all to shame' but A. D. Hope did and said that Bythe Old Walls of Kyoto (1981) was the greatest poem in English written in the twentieth century. (247).
(Source: Adapted from 'Harold Stewart Interviewed by Richard Kelly Tipping' Westerly 32.4 (1987): 24-35); Michael Ackland Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of JamesMcAuley and Harold Stewart (2001); Michael Ackland 'Harold Stewart December 14, 1916-August 7, 1995' Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 260: Australian Writers, 1915-1950. (2002):. 367-374; Michael Heyward The Ern Malley Affair (1993 ); Peter Kelly Buddha in a Bookshop : Harold Stewart and the Traditionalists (2007)).