William Baylebridge was an author, poet, and philosopher. He was regarded as one of the leading Australian writers of his time.
Baylebridge was born Charles William Blocksidge in East Brisbane, Queensland, on 12 December 1883. He was the son of George Henry Blocksidge (a real estate agent and auctioneer) and Kate Blocksidge (née Bell); his father became the mayor of South Brisbane in 1903 and was a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Queensland, representing the electorate of Woolloongabba, in 1907-1908. Although his father wanted him to go into business, William found that poetry was his driving force in life. It was in the 1920s that William adopted the surname of Baylebridge, although the change was never legally ratified.
William attended Woolloongabba State School and Brisbane Grammar School, and was also privately taught by David Owen, who was steeped in the classics and who had a significant impact upon the direction the young man chose to take in life.
Young Blocksidge travelled to Britain in 1908, with his initial finances being supplied by his grandmother and his aunt Celia Leven (both from his mother’s side), and he later toured Europe with them. Whilst in England, he published several booklets of his verse.
When the First World War broke out, William tried to join up with the Australian forces whilst in England; however, he was informed that he would have to go to Australia to do so, or he could try joining up with the Australians stationed in Egypt (although, when he arrived in that country, he was instead treated with suspicion). There were rumours that he ended up doing work for the British intelligence service during the war, but any such activities have not been substantiated.
When he published An Anzac Muster, comprising stories about Australians at war, as told by some ex-soldiers on a sheep station, the book received very positive reviews. Indeed, it seems that his prose was far better suited for a wide audience than his poetry.
The Sun (3 September 1922) gave An Anzac Muster high praise:
“the author seeks to enshrine the soul of the Anzacs. … They are men’s stories, strong and broad, touching deep essentials, and often with a Rabelaisian quip. Strong meat, but true Australian. … he has a fine descriptive touch, and he knows his Australia. His prose is distinctive and beautifully cadenced.”
Reviewers of Baylebridge’s verse were of the opinion that his poetic works were influenced by the Elizabethan poets (1558-1603) and the Caroline poets (1625-1649). P. R. Stephensen noted the influence of Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, the Cavalier poets, the 19th century Romantics, and A. E. Housman; he also suggested that the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson had an impact in shaping Baylebridge’s philosophy.
As William Baylebridge’s poetry sometimes included arcane and archaic terminology, it can be expected that many people would not find such works easy to read and understand, and therefore his own style of writing narrowed his own reading audience. It was along these lines that Henry Arthur Kellow described him:
“Vigorous writer of prose, sonneteer of outstanding merit, poet of vitalism, Baylebridge bids fair to be the greatest literary figure that Queensland has yet produced. But he is too subtle, too concise, too artistic, to win instant recognition. It is probable that his audience will always be limited, for his appeal is to a select circle of the initiate.”
Similarly, The Age (12 July 1941) noted that Baylebridge’s poetry was often beyond the reach of the ordinary reader; however, his talent for sonnet-writing was also recognised:
“Although, in many ways, William Baylebridge is one of the most outstanding of Australian poets, it is doubtful whether he will ever command a wide public. For the most part, his poetry is the vehicle of his own rather complicated philosophy, which is probably too deep and metaphysical for the majority of readers.
… “Love Redeemed.” … one of the few books he has issued to the general public, is perhaps the finest collection of sonnets anyone in this country has produced. … these sonnets point out Baylebridge as a true writer in “the grandmanner,” a poet sensible to the melodiousness and sonorousness of his verse, and to rich, but restrained colorings.”
William Baylebridge was a rather insular person, being described as a recluse and hermit-like, as well as somewhat mysterious and eccentric. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he did not join in the usual fellowship of writers and poets, and rejected almost all offers for his works to be included in anthologies. Indeed, P. R. Stephensen noted that “he was aloof and almost completely estranged from the “literary” Australians of his generation.”
Nonetheless, he was regarded highly by many in the literary world. The West Australian (27 September 1930) said of Baylebridge that he was one of the best poets to have arisen from Queensland:
“up to the present time, Queensland has produced only three poets of any peculiar distinction … These three distinctive poets are, of course, Brunton Stephens, Essex Evans and William Baylebridge.”
This Vital Flesh, Baylebridge’s 1939 book of poetry, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society in 1940 (given “for an outstanding literary work in the preceding calendar year”).
C. Hartley Grattan, an American journalist, declared that William Baylebridge’s works were “An extraordinary body of thought-packed poetry and epigrammatic prose.”
The Courier-Mail (20 September 1941) described Baylebridge as “perhaps the greatest living philosophic poet in the Commonwealth”.
Likewise, P. R. Stephensen regarded him as a “poet-philosopher”, and wrote:
“William Baylebridge is ineluctably established as a major poet, not only in the literature of Australia, but also among all poets of his time using the English language.”
The philosophy of Vitalism was espoused by Baylebridge (basically “that the universe is, or contains, a force, stream, or principle of life which is not itself material, but interacts with and animates matter in order toform living organisms”). However, the ideas of Vitalism had previously been promoted by others, had been found wanting, and thus had been generally discarded by the philosophical and scientific community.
He also advocated a nationalist philosophy (he has been described as being a “populist nationalist”).
William Baylebridge died in Sydney (NSW), on 7 May 1942, after having suffered a heart attack in consequence of battling a bush fire that threatened to engulf his property in the Blue Mountains.
His literary legacy continued on after his death, as his will set up a trust to republish his works, as well as providing an endowment to establish the Grace Leven Poetry Prize (named after his aunt who had helped him during troubled times).
From 1961 to 1964 Angus & Robertson published a series of four volumes (one each year), the Collected Works of William Baylebridge, edited by P. R. Stephensen. It was noted in Volumes II, II, and IV that two further volumes were planned (Vol. V A Harvest of Hours, Vol. VI Fragments), as well as a “Bibliography of Baylebridge”; however, as a result of Stephensen’s death in 1965, those intended volumes unfortunately never eventuated.
Baylebridge printed many of his books privately, and often revised his works. The series published by Angus & Robertson included his revisions sourced from revised editions, unpublished books, and manuscript notes. Stephensen said that Baylebridge was “a perfectionist of style”, and noted his tendency towards constant revision, remarking “It could be said of him that he printed in haste, and reprinted at leisure.”
Baylebridge was an unusual author and poet, perhaps even eccentric in character; however, his place in Australian literature was a significant one and his contribution to the national literary landscape should be remembered.
Books by William Baylebridge:
1908: William Blocksidge, “Songs o’ the South”, London: Watts & Co. (poetry)
1909: William Blocksidge, Australia to England and Other Verses, London: David Nutt (poetry, by William Blocksidge)
1910: William Blocksidge, Moreton Miles, [London?]: [W. Blocksidge] (poetry; also published: 1914, 1941 as William Baylebridge)
1910: [Anonymous], The New Life: A National Tract, [London?]: [W. Blocksidge] (also published: 1915)
1910: William Blocksidge, A Northern Trail, [Melbourne?]: [W. Blocksidge]
1910: William Blocksidge, Southern Songs, [Melbourne?]: [W. Blocksidge] (poetry)
1913: William Blocksidge, National Notes, [Melbourne?]: [W. Blocksidge] (also published: 1922, 1936 as William Baylebridge)
1914: W. B., Life’s Testament: Songs from the Hill of the Seven Echoes, [London?]: [W. Blocksidge]
1916: William Blocksidge, Seven Tales, [London?]: [W. Blocksidge]
1916: W. B., A Wreath, [London?]: [W. Blocksidge]
1919: William Blocksidge, Selected Poems, Brisbane: Gordon & Gotch
1921: William Blocksidge, An Anzac Muster, [Sydney]: [W. Blocksidge] (also published: 1962)
1934: William Baylebridge, Love Redeemed, Sydney: Tallabila Press (also published: 1935 USA)
1939: William Baylebridge, This Vital Flesh, Sydney: Tallabila Press (also published: 1961)
1939: William Baylebridge, Sextains, Sydney: Tallabila Press (also published: 1940 USA)
1939: William Baylebridge, Life’s Testament, Sydney: Tallabila Press (also published: 1940 USA)
In the early 1960s Angus & Robertson published a series of four volumes, the Collected Works of William Baylebridge, edited by P. R. Stephensen:
Vol. I, 1961: William Baylebridge, This Vital Flesh, Sydney: Angus & Robertson (first published: 1939)
Vol. II, 1962: William Baylebridge, An Anzac Muster, Sydney: Angus & Robertson (first published: 1921; author’s revised text, edited with a preface by P. R. Stephensen)
Vol. III, 1963: William Baylebridge, The Growth of Love: Love Poems, Sydney: Angus & Robertson (author’s revised text, edited with a preface by P. R. Stephensen; comprising works from Love Redeemed, an unpublished revised edition of Moreton Miles, and manuscript materials)
Vol. IV, 1964: William Baylebridge, Salvage, Sydney: Angus & Robertson (author’s revised text, edited with a preface by P. R. Stephensen; comprising works from A Wreath, Seven Tales, Selected Poems, and Sextains)
* Under construction.
References and further text to be added.
An edition of Moreton Miles was printed but not published in 1941.