I think I read a brief piece about this a long time ago -- as in, over twenty years ago. (Possibly in some sort of literary reference book.) As near as I can recall, the following sequence of events is supposed to have occurred in the real world, probably in the decade of the 1920s.

  1. Some time after the end of World War I (then better known as "The Great War"), a group of poets in the United Kingdom contrived a hoax.

  2. I believe that a bunch of them, well-acquainted, were all spending a weekend in someone's country house, and then someone suggested they invent the complete works of an imaginary poet whom they would allege had been one of the many brave young Englishmen whose lives had been cut short in the recent war.

  3. Most of this fledgling poet's "complete works" were turned out within the next few days.

  4. Then someone arranged to have it all published in one small volume, with one or more introductory pieces to "inform" the reader of when and where this talented youngster had been born, and had died in the war, and how one or more of his notebooks had been returned to his family, with his unpublished poetic efforts contained within. (This explained why nobody had ever heard of him before; he had never made a sale to any British periodical.)

  5. I don't remember how long the hoax lasted, but eventually someone spilled the beans and admitted that it was pointless for critics to try to trace signs of the young poet's gradual psychological development, etc., in different poems written on similar themes, supposedly a few years apart, as he matured and reconsidered his previous attitudes on one thing or another.

A few months ago, I spent some time looking through Wikipedia pages on such subjects as literary forgery, nonexistent people used in hoaxes, etc., but I did not pick up the trail of this imaginary young poet. For some reason, it did not occur to me at that time to seek help on here.

Better late than never! Now that I've described what I am sure I once read, does anyone recognize this episode? If you remember the name of the fictitious poet, that probably will suffice to help me track down anything else I want to know about the hoax.

  • 4
    Possibly the story of a bunch of poets inventing a nonexistent poet as a hoax was itself a hoax.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 11, 2017 at 3:21
  • 1
    Reminds me slightly of Nicolas Bourbaki, the imaginary French mathematician used as a pseudonym by a group of real mathematicians in the early 20th century who wrote many great works together.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 11, 2017 at 13:58
  • 1
    Look up Spectrism and Ern Malley. Might be one of those. Aug 11, 2017 at 18:53
  • I already read about Ern Malley a few months ago, when I was hunting on Wikipedia. Definitely not the same thing (for reasons I've explained in detail in my reply to Sean Duggan). I don't think I'd heard of Spectrism before, but definitely not it. (Spectrism was not British, not after WWI, only had two people working on the poems, and those works were not alleged to have been written by a now-dead soldier.)
    – Lorendiac
    Aug 14, 2017 at 22:39
  • 1
    @MoziburUllah Yes, the name was a reference to this French general. IIRC, it emerged from a then-current practice among top French maths graduates of providing a list of results attributed to obscure mathematicians, one of which was false and attributed to a military figure instead, and challenging each other to identify the false one. Or something along those lines.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 14, 2017 at 23:07

1 Answer 1


As Ralph Crown comments above, is it possible you're thinking of Ern Malley?

Ernest Lalor "Ern" Malley was a fictitious poet and the central figure in Australia's most famous literary hoax. He and his entire body of work were created in one day in 1943 by conservative writers James McAuley and Harold Stewart in order to hoax Max Harris and his modernist magazine Angry Penguins, which Harris co-edited with John Reed of Heide, Melbourne. Imitating the modernist poetry they despised, the hoaxers deliberately created what they thought was bad verse and submitted sixteen poems to Angry Penguins under the guise of Ethel, Ern Malley's surviving sister. Harris and other members of the Heide Circle fell for the hoax, and, enraptured by the poetry, devoted the next issue of Angry Penguins to Malley. The hoax was revealed soon after, resulting in a cause célèbre and the humiliation of Harris, who was put on trial, convicted and fined for publishing the poems on the grounds that they contained obscene content. Angry Penguins folded in 1946.

McAuley and Steward were Australian, not from the U.K., and there was no party involved, and it's a bit later in history (1940s, not 1920s), but the rest seems to match. All seventeen poems were written in a single afternoon. There was not, as far as I can tell, any commentary on the analysis of development. In fact, the whole thing was found out in the week of publication.

The preface biography:

According to his inventors' fictitious biography, Ernest Lalor Malley was born in Liverpool, England, on 14 March 1918. His father died in 1920, and Malley's mother migrated to Petersham, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, with her two children: Ern, and his older sister Ethel. After his mother's death in August 1933, Ern Malley left school to work as an auto mechanic. Shortly after his seventeenth birthday, he then moved to Melbourne where he lived alone and worked as an insurance salesman, and later as a watch repairman. Diagnosed with Graves' disease sometime in the early 1940s, Malley refused treatment. He returned to Sydney, moving in with his sister in March, 1943, where he became increasingly ill (as well as temperamental and difficult) until his death at the age of 25 on 23 July of that same year.

Malley's life as a poet became known only after his sister Ethel (another fictitious creation of McAuley and Stewart) found a pile of unpublished poems among his belongings. These poems featured a brief preface, which explained that they had been composed over a period of five years, but it left no instructions as to what was to be done with them. Ethel Malley supposedly knew nothing about poetry, but showed the poems to a friend, who suggested that she send the poems to someone who could examine them. Max Harris of Angry Penguins was to be that someone.

  • 2
    I remember reading up on Ern Malley a few months ago when I was going on that crawl through Wikipedia that I mentioned. I'd never heard of "him" before, but that hoax is mentioned on the "Nonexistent People Used in Hoaxes" page which I linked to in my post. I'm positive that the discrepancies are too great for this to be what I remember reading a couple of decades ago. I'm sure it was British, a lot more than two people writing the poems, post-WWI instead of during WWII, and not a hoax that was meant to target and humiliate one particular editor as the entire point of the exercise!
    – Lorendiac
    Aug 14, 2017 at 22:36
  • Fair enough. :) Aug 14, 2017 at 22:47
  • 1
    @Lorendiac Maybe you remember it as having happened in the UK after WWI because of a similar hoax that Evelyn Waugh was involved in in 1929, where he and others exhibited paintings they attributed to a spoof German artist they named "Bruno Hat". See e.g. phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2017/july/18/… and maharam.com/stories/p_bruno-hat-and-the-painted-bath-mat Oct 16, 2020 at 1:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.