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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Wesley (Wes) Milgate (1916–1999)

by Fred Langman

Wesley Milgate, one of Australia's most distinguished literary scholars and an outstanding teacher, wore his considerable learning lightly. His lectures were as entertaining as they were instructive. His contribution to scholarship was greater than his modesty would ever acknowledge.

He graduated with first-class honours from the University of Sydney in 1935; completed his MA, for which he was awarded the University Medal, in 1943; and won the Nuffield Dominion Scholarship to study at Oxford in 1948.

In 1946 he was appointed to the staff of the English Department at Sydney, and in 1951 became Challis Professor of English.

During his 10 years in that position he was instrumental in establishing the Chair of Australian Literature and introducing tutorials into a teaching system previously based only on lectures to undergraduates.

It was, however, a stressful period; his health suffered, and in 1961 he resigned.

He returned to academic life in 1965, when A. D. Hope invited him to join the English Department at the Australian National University.

The vacancy was for a senior lectureship, which with characteristic modesty he was perfectly willing to accept, but in recognition of his stature the university upgraded the position to a readership.

He was appointed to a personal chair in 1971, and retired in 1976. The ANU English Department's common room, used equally by staff and students as he would have wished, is named in his honour.

Milgate was one of the world's foremost authorities on John Donne. He worked closely with Dame Helen Gardner, general editor of the new Oxford edition of Donne's poems, and produced two of the four volumes in the series, Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters in 1967 and Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes in 1978.

When R. C. Bald, who had been engaged for many years in writing a biography of Donne, died before finishing it he left a request in his will for Milgate to take it over. Milgate complied and the completed work appeared in 1970, under Bald's name alone. Nobody would guess from the text how careful Milgate had been to claim no credit for the considerable labour the work had cost him.

Milgate's exacting scholarship was enlivened in his teaching by an impish sense of humour.

With colleagues he was unfailingly generous of his time and critical acumen. Where possible he steered clear of the storms of academic controversy, where not possible he stuck firmly to his principles.

A skilled organist, he performed regularly at church services and had played on many of the great church organs of Europe.

As a collector of LP records he formed the project of getting the complete works of Beethoven, having decided that to do as much for Bach was beyond his resources.

In retirement he devoted his editorial skills to compiling the new Australian hymnals, of which three volumes have now been published.

After retiring from the ANU, he returned to his home in Leura and after a few years went to live in Sydney, where he died aged 83.

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Citation details

Fred Langman, 'Milgate, Wesley (Wes) (1916–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 January, 1916
Leura, New South Wales, Australia


15 July, 1999 (aged 83)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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