A Short History of ARNA

Robin M. Eames

ARNA is not the oldest literary journal in Australia. That distinction goes to our sibling publication, Hermes, published by the University of Sydney Union since 1886, whose editors dryly noted upon our establishment that “At last something has happened in Arts”. ARNA was first published in 1918 as the Arts Journal of the University of Sydney, edited by the Sydney University Arts Society (SUAS), founded in 1917, now known as the Sydney Arts Students Society (SASS). 

During the early years of the Arts Journal, the issues were shorter and more numerous than they are now. Her pages were littered with advertisements for Kodak cameras, Penfolds fountain pens, and Remington typewriters. The shadow of the Great War hung over everything. The second issue of 1918 noted that a Sydney University Company of a hundred and eighty men had been formed and recently sent to Liverpool, and the journal had lost a Business Secretary and several contributors to the war effort. The “soldier-students”, the editors wrote, were “still with us – within the University, as it were – but seeing their Alma Mater from a standpoint which we who still remain cannot reach, and treading upon its fields with a tread that is theirs alone”. Another student magazine, Kookaburra (now defunct), published news from the front accompanied by a list of soldier-students who had died. Hermes printed war records and eulogies.

After the Peace Treaty was ratified, the Arts Journal warned her readers not to be complacent: the work was not done yet. The immediate legacy of the war was one of poverty and hardship. Living conditions in Sydney were dire. It was up to the younger generation to create a better future, one in which people were “provided with comfortable homes”, with access to “a purer air and sunshine”. The question of how to reach this future was admittedly enormous, but it seemed to the editors that “none are better qualified to consider the most vital question than the student in Arts”, and the Arts Journal itself could “serve no nobler end than as a channel for the frank discussion of all shades of graduate and undergraduate opinion on this question”.

Not everything in the journal was noble. A recurring satirical column called Quad Wrangle appeared until 1929, filled with cartoons, epigrams, and parodic poems. The latter were often accompanied by short notes reading “(With apologies to Wordsworth)” or “(With sincerest apologies to Lord Byron)”. A 1922 one-act play expressed its apologies even more thoroughly “to Gilbert, Shaw, Shakespeare, and others”. Much of the content was comprised of inside jokes that are quite mystifying to read today, though occasionally even funnier for lack of context. This in the first issue of 1919: “Why do certain Profs. object to the attendance of dogs at their lectures? Can it be that they consider the competition would be unfair to the students?” The subsequent issue advised that “Casual canine visitors to first year classes should know that there are no lectures in dog-Latin”. Often the journal encouraged pranks and misbehaviour; a piece on “parlour games for lecture rooms” suggested that “When the radiator goes out, any student so desiring shall throw at it any article whatsoever. The first to hit it gets a point. If any student should hit the Professor by mistake, he or she shall be awarded ten points.”

The answers to correspondents in the back of the issues were usually in response to students whose contributions had been rejected, and were often devastating. One aspiring contributor was told their piece “has no outstanding defect save that it also lacks any positive merit”; another that they were “to be congratulated on keeping awake while writing it; we could not when trying to read it”; and another that “Having about fourteen thousand sonnets to choose from, yours failed to draw the lucky ticket”.  Playful jabs at Hermes were quite common here: in 1923 a note read “not quite up to standard. Try ‘Hermes’”. Possibly the most scathing note was one published in 1920, which simply read ‘You are not the greatest of our modern poets”. Some of the more brutal notes were delivered to writers who would go on to become celebrated in their fields; a note to A. D. Hope in 1925 read “very low language, would be disgusted if we understood half of it”. Hope went on to edit the journal in 1926 and 1927.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the early issues were occasionally appallingly racist or sexist. Racial slurs were not uncommon. A 1923 article began with the sentence “Physically, women are usually inferior to men” and more or less declined from there. Interestingly the editorial team never lacked for women; the very first editorial team was staffed by an even split of women and men, which continued to be the case for the majority of the journal’s subsequent issues. In 1921 the journal published “A Song of the Women”, a blisteringly funny rhyming ballad celebrating the university women who had ditched their dresses for trousers in order to play football, despite the disapproval of the Senate. Several prominent women writers featured in the journal even then; Dorothea Mackellar published a poem in 1924, and Judith Wright was on the editorial team in 1936.

In 1937 the journal changed her name to Candide for two issues, and then became ARNA in 1938. For quite some time I assumed that ARNA stood for the Arts National, especially since the official full name of the journal was The ARNA: The Journal of the Arts Society. This is not the case. The 1938 editorial explains that the journal was named for a word from an unspecified Aboriginal language, supposedly the name of “a sun-god who gave laws and culture to mankind”. The editors did not stipulate which language group the name was taken from, and there is no evidence that this was done with consultation or permission. Fisher Library retains a 1930 copy of Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines, a collection plagiarised from Ngarrindjeri writer David Unaipon’s Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. The name Arna appears in one account of the sun, moon, and stars, but Arna is the name of the moon, not the sun. It’s hard to say where exactly the 1938 editors picked up the name from, but since the University of Sydney’s first self-identified Aboriginal students enrolled in 1965, it is unlikely to have been from personal experience. It is probably not a coincidence that the name change occurred around the same time as the inception of the Jindyworobak movement, whose white members sought to incorporate Aboriginal qualities into their poetics, again largely without consultation or permission. Evelyn Araluen notes that although some Aboriginal scholars see this as an evasion or disruption of settler poetics, she is “unsympathetic to the aesthetic appropriation of Aboriginal languages at a time when speaking your language was an offence worthy of physical violence or forced removal”.

Between the 1940s and 1970s several members of the Sydney Push were well-represented in ARNA’s pages, including Geoffrey Lehmann, Harry Hooton, Robert Hughes, Richard Appleton, Frank Moorhouse, and others. Some of the journal’s published pieces have aged poorly, and some seem not to have aged at all. One essay on Palestine could easily have been written today. From the very earliest issues the editors protested the perceived uselessness of the arts, lamented the defunding of the sector, and remained convinced that hope for the future lay in the hands of arts students. I am in agreement on this point at least: arts students can be unreliable and silly, but they have a magnificent capacity for imagination and love, and the world could certainly use more of both.

1    Hermes (1918): vol. 24, no. 2, p. 223. 

2 The Arts Journal (1918): vol. 1, no. 2, p. 50.

3   The Arts Journal (1919): vol. 2, no. 1, p. 2.

4   Ibid, p. 3.

5  Ibid, p. 13; The Arts Journal (1919): vol. 2, no. 1, p. 38.

6    The Arts Journal (1922): vol. 5, no. 1, p. 7.

7    The Arts Journal (1919): vol. 2, no. 1, p. 13.

8    The Arts Journal (1919): vol. 2, no. 2, p. 55.

9    The Arts Journal (1921): vol. 4, no. 1, p. 32.

10   The Arts Journal (1920): vol. 3, no. 3, p. 110; The Arts Journal (1920): vol. 3, no. 2, p. 30; The Arts Journal (1918): vol. 1, no. 2, p. 86.

11   The Arts Journal (1923): vol. 6, no. 2, p. 73.

12   The Arts Journal (1921): vol. 4, no. 2, p. 76.

13   The Arts Journal (1925): vol. 8, no. 3, p. 87.

14   The Arts Journal (1923): vol. 6, no. 2, p. 77.

15   The Arts Journal (1921), vol. 4, no. 2, p. 47.

16   ARNA (1938), p. 2.

17   Unaipon, 2001.

18   Araluen, 2017.


Araluen, Evelyn. (2017). Resisting the institution. Overland 227.

The Arts Journal/ARNA, 1918 onwards.

Unaipon, David (2001 [1920s]). Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Robin M. Eames is a queer crip punk poet living on Gadigal land. Their work has been published by Cordite, Voiceworks, Archer Magazine, Hermes, and Honi Soit, among others. They have edited two previous editions of ARNA. You can find them online at robinmeames.org and @robinmarceline.