Denis James Matthews Glover, one of the most spirited, versatile and influential figures in New Zealand literature, was born at Dunedin on 9 December 1912. He was the third of four children of Irish-born Henry Lawrence Glover, a dentist, and his wife, Lyla Jean Matthews. From his Irish ancestors Denis Glover evidently derived his wit, devilry and frequent bloody-mindedness; while from Lyla's wide reading and ambitions to be a writer he acquired his literary instincts.
A fluent reader from the age of six, Glover attended Dunedin's Arthur Street School. In 1925 Lyla (now divorced from Henry) moved the family to New Plymouth; Glover was dux of the Central School and spent 1926 at New Plymouth Boys' High School. They then shifted to Auckland where he excelled in English at Auckland Grammar School, and finally to Christchurch where he attended Christ's College in 1929–30.
In 1931 Glover enrolled at Canterbury College, where he took Greek, Latin, philosophy and English for his BA. He captained the boxing club, won a blue as a welterweight, played rugby for the Old Collegians, yachted and joined the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and Christchurch Classical Association. From 1936 to 1938 he was an assistant lecturer in English and reported university news for the Press. Other journalistic work included editing Motoring magazine, the Canterbury University College Review and Canta. In 1932 Glover formed the Caxton Club to pursue the study of printing and typography, and the following year he published one issue of a student magazine, Oriflamme. An article advocating trial marriage caused its suppression by the college authorities and ended Glover's brief career as a journalist.
On 8 January 1936 at Christchurch Glover married Mary Granville, the English-born daughter of a retired army officer. In the previous year he had entered into a partnership with John Drew to found the Caxton Press. Commercial printing able to fit the firm's one small press provided a modest income and allowed Glover to pursue his real interest, publishing. Leo Bensemann, artist and typographer, joined the press in 1937 and with his help Glover printed and published the work of many writers who have become established names in New Zealand literature: Ursula Bethell, R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, Frank Sargeson and A. R. D. Fairburn. Volumes of his own verse also appeared, one of which included 'The magpies', New Zealand's most widely anthologised poem. The Caxton Press had become the most important publisher of creative writing in New Zealand; its publications were distinguished by the care that Glover gave to typography and printing.
During the Second World War Glover served with the Royal Navy and made four 'suicide' runs to Murmansk with the Russian convoys. On D-Day, with the rank of lieutenant, he had charge of an infantry landing craft at Normandy, earning the DSC. During leave in London, Glover discussed with Charles Brasch the founding of the literary periodical Landfall. John Lehmann, the celebrated editor, introduced him to Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender and other important men of letters.
In 1944 Glover returned reluctantly to New Zealand to resume married life and his work at the Caxton Press, but he found it hard to settle back into former routines and began to drink heavily. He became a lieutenant commander in the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve and from 1945 to 1948 served on the Canterbury University College Council. Glover continued to publish important new work, by Basil Dowling, James K. Baxter, Janet Frame, Ngaio Marsh and others, as well as new poetry of his own. This included his two outstanding verse sequences, Sings Harry (1951) and Arawata Bill (1953).
Glover's drinking, financial mismanagement and erratic attendance now became a major problem at Caxton, and in 1951 Dennis Donovan, the majority shareholder, dismissed him. Glover then got work with his friend Albion Wright at the Pegasus Press, but was dismissed from there also. Despite the birth in 1945 of their son, Rupert, Mary and Denis drifted apart and in 1950 Glover began living with Khura Skelton. In 1954, his Canterbury career in tatters, Glover moved to Wellington with Khura. They lived, unmarried, mostly at Paekākāriki, where their hospitality, drinking bouts and high-decibel ructions became legendary.
Glover worked as an advertising copywriter for Carlton-Carruthers du Chateau and King in 1954, as production manager and typographer for Wingfield Press from 1954 to 1962, and as typography tutor for the Technical Correspondence Institute from 1964 to 1973. He helped, during the late 1950s, to develop the Mermaid Press, and in 1971 founded the Cats-paw Press. He was a member of the New Zealand Literary Fund Advisory Committee from 1955 to 1958; from 1963 to 1965 he was president of the Friends of the Turnbull Library.
Glover in 1959 dictated for the New Zealand Listener (where it first appeared) the text of his lively autobiography Hot water sailor (1962). He continued to produce poetry collections such as Enter without knocking (1964), Sharp edge up (1968), Come high water (1977), Or hawk or basilisk (1978) and For whom the cock crows (1978).
Khura died in 1969, and Glover was divorced from Mary in 1970. He then laid siege to several women. In 1971 he met Gladys Evelyn Cameron (née Stevens), a voice and drama teacher, and after a six-week courtship married her at Wellington on 21 September. Lyn did much to monitor Glover's drinking and accompanied him on a trip to Russia, where he was presented with a Soviet Union war veterans' medal. In that same year, 1975, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Victoria University of Wellington and elected president of honour of the New Zealand Centre of PEN.
Glover, despite his alcoholic decline, produced 14 publications in his last decade. These included poems on Wellington Harbour, a third poetry sequence called Towards Banks Peninsula (1979), and Landlubber ho! (1981), an addition to Hot water sailor. Glover also published the collected poems of his close friend A. R. D. Fairburn and helped to edit his letters for publication. His last task was to select poems for Denis Glover: selected poems, published posthumously in 1981. On 7 August 1980, while moving belongings to a new home at Breaker Bay, Glover fell down some steps, injured himself and died two days later from bronchopneumonia. He was 67, and was survived by his second wife and his son.
Lehmann has described Glover as 'looking rather like Mr Punch in naval uniform, sturdy, stocky, sanguine of complexion and temperament, a man in a million, imperturbable and with a great sense of humour.' Glover's conversation and letters could be wickedly witty and subversive. He was an indefatigably pugnacious talker with outrageous remarks his trademark. But the mask should not be mistaken for the man. Within the jester was a sensitive poet, a serious craftsman with a passion for excellence. Under Glover's discerning eye, New Zealand typography and poetry both came of age.
Glover had an Elizabethan breadth of talent and fullness of character. He was, among other things, scholar, adventurer, typographer, publisher, poet, author, critic, raconteur, performer, drunkard and lusty lover. A man of sometimes anarchic temperament but warm humanity, Glover was impatient with prudery, shoddiness, pretence, political chicanery, officialdom or anything mean-minded. Faults he admitted to included an unrepentantly monocultural and masculine view of society and of literature, an 'immodest enthusiasm for draught beer' and a tendency to shed 'printing presses, wives and books' as he went.
Denis Glover is probably New Zealand's most quotable poet. His best verse, evincing a timeless simplicity and directness, is built to last – even when Glover declares the opposite: 'Verses, verses, what are they? / The wind will blow them all away.' Glover persistently undervalued his own poetry, and there is certainly much lightweight and facetious verse scattered through his output. None the less, he is New Zealand's best poet of the mountains and the sea, the author of some strikingly original love poems, a superb lyricist and satirist. His style is completely individual: idiomatic, tough, sardonic, flexible and spare, marked by glittering imagery and a deft use of assonance and rhyme. He had the common touch. Harry, Arawata Bill, and Mick Stimpson, with their brooding, lyric, restless souls and crusty self-reliance are now key man-alone figures in our literature. They are also versions of Glover himself.