Not many biographers have stopped to consider the implications of Prime Minister John Curtin's regular poetry habit

John Curtin, who many of us thought we knew well, at the BBC in London in 1944. Picture: Getty Images

John Curtin, who many of us thought we knew well, at the BBC in London in 1944. Picture: Getty Images

  • Good for the Soul: John Curtin's life with poetry. UWA Publishing. $34.99.

Is John Curtin our most written-about prime minister? Many readers would treasure John Edwards' monumental two-volume John Curtin's War, totalling 1035 pages in all.

But there are many other biographies, compilations, selections and commentaries, many sponsored by the noble John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library in Perth.

Curtin richly deserves this attention as, probably, Australia's greatest ever prime minister. As Robert Menzies said, to paraphrase, I can attack his politics and policies, but the man himself, so noble, so human, cannot be touched.

To stand before his grave at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth remains a moving experience.

His great grandson, Toby Davidson, a literature academic in Sydney, came to Curtin from a unique angle.

Close students of Curtin's life may have known that Curtin determined to reserve an hour each Sunday evening for the reading and contemplation of poetry. No biographer that I know of ever gave thought to the meaning and importance of this.

Carefully reading Good for the Soul throws vast new light on the interiority of this amazing man.

Readers learn of Curtin's intellectual development and growth, from youth, as a reader.

With his education necessarily terminated so that he might contribute to the family well-being, Curtin spent long hours, night after night, in what was then the Melbourne Public Library, reading and thinking.

Of course he studied economics, history and politics but this earnest young man perceived that he must nourish his soul as well as his mind.

Toby Davidson traces each of the phases of Curtin's poetical development with care and detailed attention. Read, if you are only going to dip into this book, the chapter entitled "Dante as Political Mentor".

It will delight as well as astonish readers, many of whom will have attempted Dante at some stage in their reading, though few might have got past the Inferno.

Davidson writes that "prolonged interactions between poetry and Australian politics are as rare as they are peculiar". That is the charm of this book.

It is a rare insight into one of our greatest politicians, even including Curtin's own light verse.

It is also a peculiar take on a man whom many of us thought we knew well.

To find out something new and revelatory about prime minister John Curtin is as unexpected as it is welcome.

  • Michael McKernan was once a Visiting Fellow at the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.
This story A rare insight into a man we thought we knew first appeared on The Canberra Times.