Walter D'Arcy Cresswell was born on 22 January 1896 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the son of Hannah Reese and her husband, Walter Joseph Cresswell, a solicitor. After attending Elmwood School, Christchurch, and boarding at Robin Hood Bay Public School in Marlborough, Cresswell studied at Christ's College without particular distinction from 1910 to 1912; his most notable achievement was to evade compulsory cricket for three years. On leaving school he joined the Christchurch architectural firm of Collins and Harman. In mid 1914 Cresswell went to London to further studies at the Architectural Association, but in early 1915 enlisted as a private with the Middlesex Regiment. He was wounded in France in 1916, and after convalescence joined the Corps of New Zealand Engineers, serving from 1917 until the demobilisation of 1919.
He rejoined his family, now resident in Timaru, and began to develop his view of himself as a New Zealander called to the vocation of poetry. It was a belief that he was to profess for the whole of his life, though events were soon to hasten his departure from New Zealand. On 10 May 1920, when visiting relatives, he was introduced to the mayor of Wanganui, Charles Ewing (Evan) Mackay. The two men quickly became friendly, but five days after their first meeting Cresswell was shot and injured by Mackay. Cresswell later alleged that the mayor had made homosexual overtures to him, to which he responded by demanding a letter of resignation. The real motivation behind Cresswell's actions remains unclear. Mackay was subsequently convicted for attempted murder, and sentenced to 15 years' hard labour.
Cresswell returned to England in April 1921. He stayed for a time with a sister in Herefordshire and with various acquaintances in southern England, and lived a wandering life for several years, visiting Germany in 1922 and Spain and Portugal in 1924. He supported himself with irregular journalism and sales work, and by selling poems in typescript on a walking tour of southern England in 1925. It was this gesture, and Cresswell's identification of himself as a New Zealand poet, that led Allen Curnow to name him as one of those who introduced a new sense of serious intent to New Zealand poetry.
On 28 August 1925 Cresswell married Emily Freda Dacie (the 'Freda' of several of his poems) in the Marylebone Register Office in London. The marriage was short-lived, although a son was born early the following year. In fact Cresswell's attitude to women was ambivalent, and he is known to have had homosexual relationships.
Cresswell published two small books of verse: Poems (1921–1927) in 1928 and Poems, 1924–1931 in 1932. But his single real success in those years was a volume of autobiography, extracts of which had been published in the Press during 1928. On Arnold Bennett's recommendation, Faber and Faber published it as The poet's progress to a good reception in 1930. Its success and Cresswell's lionisation by Lady Ottoline Morrell, with whom he had conducted a lengthy correspondence both in England and from New Zealand, enabled him to return to New Zealand in January 1932 with the reputation of a successful man of letters.
His satirical 'reports' on New Zealand, from the perspective of a Swiftian traveller, analysed the unease that he now detected beneath the exterior confidence of the country. They were published by Oliver Duff in the Press between February and April 1932, but caused some outrage and were soon discontinued. Undeterred, Cresswell was later to make them the opening sections of his second volume of autobiography, Present without leave (1939).
He published essays in the Auckland Star, Phoenix and Oriflamme, reviews in Tomorrow, gave some radio talks, and wrote at least two small booklets in the next six years. At the same time he was working on the manuscript of an anthology to be entitled 'Since Byron', commissioned by the Bodley Head. The work, which the publishers finally rejected in 1937, expressed Cresswell's increasingly obsessive belief that modern poetry was irredeemably decadent, and that poets since the seventeenth century had, with the exception of the Romantics, been seduced away from the celebration of nature by scientific rationalism. There was, he averred, only a handful of nineteenth and twentieth century poets – himself included – who were keeping faith with the ideals that he espoused. His other long-running project was the composition of a didactic verse drama, The forest, justifying his views on poetry, Hellenism, and homosexuality. Lyttelton Harbour, an autobiographical sonnet sequence, was published in 1936.
Cresswell lived a penurious life in New Zealand during the depression, though he was not backward in seeking financial assistance from friends and acquaintances. He kept company with the writers Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, Jane Mander and Robin Hyde in Auckland, and with the parliamentarian Ormond Wilson, to whom he dedicated his second autobiographical work. He returned to England in 1938 and worked first as a broadcaster and then as a lecturer for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. In 1947 Hutchinson commissioned him to write the biography of the social reformer Margaret McMillan, published the next year.
After the war Cresswell continued to live in a cottage in St John's Wood, London, supporting himself with a variety of jobs. In 1950 he received a small grant from the New Zealand Literary Fund to help him return to New Zealand; the expectation was that he might write a third volume of autobiography. This did not eventuate, though some excerpts appeared in the New Zealand Listener. He did, however, arrange for the publication of his play The forest, and the visit gave rise to a long polemic poem, 'The voyage of the Hurunui' (1956). He returned to England after a few months and for the last 10 years of his life worked as a night-watchman at Somerset House, an occupation that enabled him to write poems, satires and pamphlets which he published under his own imprint, the Trireme Press. The poems, he hoped, would eventually vindicate his claims to poetic greatness. But increasingly he was racked by ill health, the effects of poverty, and despair. He died on 21 February 1960 of accidental gas poisoning; his death certificate recorded his occupation as 'a poet'.
While Allen Curnow and M. H. Holcroft were to acknowledge the importance of Cresswell's literary protestations in their essays on the development of a national literature, and while he was to be represented in three major anthologies of New Zealand poetry between 1945 and 1960, Cresswell's reputation as a practising poet, even in his own lifetime, was not substantial. His prose and his correspondence have been of more lasting interest. It was his declaration of the importance of poetry and of the role of poet, rather than any of his poems, that marked him as an influential figure in the 1920s and 1930s.