Skip to main content
Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


FAIRBURN, Arthur Rex Dugard


Poet, satirist, and critic.

A new biography of Fairburn, Arthur Rex Dugard appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Rex Fairburn was born on 2 February 1904 at Auckland, the son of Arthur Fairburn, who was music critic on the Auckland Star for many years. He was a fourth-generation New Zealander whose great grandfather, a noted missionary, had signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Fairburn was educated at Parnell School and Auckland Grammar School. His occupations (as distinct from his career, which was poetry) included periods as an insurance clerk, free-lance journalist, relief worker in the depression, radio-script writer, assistant secretary to the Auckland Farmers' Union, university English tutor, and, for several years, a lecturer in the history and the theory of art at the Elam School of Arts.

In Rex Fairburn the mind and the man demand to be described together, and can be, in similar terms. For the poet, like the man, stood out among his fellows by his stature, his athletic vigour, his human warmth, his firm, commanding voice, and his always agreeable presence. Fairburn's tall entry to a room, like his name in the list of contributors to some hopeful new magazine, raised expectations. With his loose, comfortable clothes, his fine clear eyes, and a large cherrywood pipe to gesture with, Fairburn in a room made many friends and seldom an enemy. His argument, though often absurd because wit was tempting, was always enjoyed. He talked as he wrote, indefatigably but not selfishly. Wit and benevolence flowed from him; his mind was fertile and swift with simile and epigram, and in his time scarcely a magazine in New Zealand was launched without some crackling contribution either from the poet or the critic – as can be seen from the complete bibliography of his work by Olive Johnson. He liked boatbuilding and took pleasure in the use of tools, which he handled always in a manner slightly larger than life. For a time he embraced Social Credit; and he was an enthusiast for compost. He drank cheap local wine with gusto, would ridicule a gourmet, and once remarked of an acquaintance that he had “a great deal of taste, but very little appetite”.

Except in his last few years (when he was lecturer in the history and theory of art at Auckland University College), Fairburn's occupations were merely his compromise, accepted as cheerfully as possible, with a society that was not yet ready to accommodate his kind. It was as poet that he asked attention, and latterly received it from an audience no longer small and defensive. His early work, influenced by the Georgian poets, was lyrical and romantic, and during a visit to England in the early thirties he was warned by Humbert Wolfe that what he was doing was “not fashionable”. He had already announced his own rejection of it, however, in the title poem of his first published volume, He Shall Not Rise (London, 1930). The depression of the thirties, during which he did relief work on the roads, coloured his next volume, Dominion (1938), a sequence of poems that bitterly assailed New Zealand society. A new lyricism here rode well clear of what Fairburn once called the “imitation goat tracks” left all over the country by versifying followers of Pan, and the colour and warmth of the Auckland land- and sea-scape, which he now acknowledged as his true environment, found expression in a language recognisably his own.

Society and land were themes in Dominion – themes of local reference. With his next volume (passing over the shared book, Recent Poems), the emphasis shifted to themes of universal reference – to love and death. In Poems 1929–41 Fairburn selected the best of his work to date, which included Night Song, The Cave, and A Farewell, three of his finest love poems. By allowing the whole of that book to be included 11 years later in Strange Rendezvous (1952), and by publishing in the same year Three Poems (containing his three long works, Dominion, The Voyage, and To a Friend in the Wilderness), Fairburn authorised what will stand for some time as virtually his “collected poems”. From the whole, To a Friend in the Wilderness stands out as undoubtedly the richest, most satisfactory single example of his work. In it, maturely, he replaced the protesting attitudes of Dominion with a larger acceptance. Society and land now are one; they are “country”, not New Zealand only but any country, and may not be chosen between.

The poem takes the form of a dialogue with an alter ego (“Old Rebel”) who advocates escape (the sun is on the sea and the fish are biting,| the garden is full, the fruit begins to fall.| For God's sake chuck it, join me and share my crust,| the world well lost. Make life a long week-end). The poet, affectionately, rejects this tempter as he rejects all romanticism. He can praise the wilderness with a richer lyric than can the friend who calls him there (I could be happy, in blue and fortunate weather,| roaming the country that lies between you and the Sun) and can impugn society with surer touch than could the author of Dominion (Doctrines are many and doctors two a penny.| Truth in her time-flight scatters a million fragments, and the paper-chase is endless); but now also he is committed utterly to both (This is my world.| These people are my clansmen, my accomplices. This guilt is my reprieve:| I am alive, and I do not mean to leave|till the game is up, and my hand has lost its power). By this poem Fairburn moved on to his own, unhappily final, poetic maturity and also greatly advanced that process in which New Zealanders are engaged, of taking imaginative and spiritual possession of their land.

Though doubtless they are not for export, Fairburn's satire and horseplay are important in his output, and much valued in New Zealand. Rare copies of The Sky is a Limpet (A Pollytickle Parrotty) and How to Ride a Bicycle (In Seventeen Lovely Colours), both in typographical collaboration with R. W. Lowry, are rightly treasured by those who own them. In addition, much light verse, from The Rakehelly Man to the posthumous Poetry Harbinger, exhibits Fairburn's benevolent nature and broad, sane outlook.

In 1931 Fairburn married Jocelyn, daughter of Selwyn Mays, and had one son and three daughters. He died in Devonport on 25 March 1957 and is buried in the cemetery at Albany, Auckland.

On 21 March 1964 a special ceremony was held at Fairburn's grave, when a monument was unveiled which took the form of a 7 cwt piece of unhewn grey stone, with his name and date of birth and death.

by Antony Francis George Alpers, Editor, Caxton Press, Christchurch.

  • New Zealand Herald, 27 Mar 1957 (Obit)
  • Auckland Star, 26 Mar 1957 (Obit).


Antony Francis George Alpers, Editor, Caxton Press, Christchurch.