McAuley was born in Lakemba, a suburb of Sydney. He was educated at Fort Street High School and then attended Sydney University where he majored in English, Latin and philosophy. In 1937 he edited Hermes, the annual literary journal of the University of Sydney Union, in which, many of his early poems were published until 1941.
In 1943 McAuley was commissioned as a lieutenant in the militia for the Australian Army, and served in Melbourne (DORCA) and Canberra. After the war he also spent time in New Guinea, which he regarded as his second "spiritual home".
McAuley came to prominence in the wake of the 1945 Ern Malley hoax. With fellow poet, Harold Stewart, McAuley concocted sixteen nonsense poems in a pseudo-experimental modernist style. These were then sent to the young editor of the literary magazine Angry Penguins, Max Harris. The poems were raced to publication by Harris and Australia's most celebrated literary hoax was set in motion.
In 1952 he converted to Roman Catholicism, the faith his own father had abandoned. This was in the parish of St Charles at Ryde. He was later introduced to Australian musician Richard Connolly by a priest, Ted Kennedy, at the Holy Spirit parish at North Ryde and the two subsequently collaborated to produce between them the most significant collection of Australian Catholic hymnody to date, titled "Hymns for the Year of Grace". Connolly was McAuley's sponsor for his confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church. In his undergraduate years McAuley was influenced by both communism and anarchism, but although a man of the Left, McAuley remained staunchly anti-communist throughout his later life. In 1956 he and Richard Krygier founded the literary and cultural journal, Quadrant and was chief editor until 1963. From 1961 he was professor of English at the University of Tasmania.
James McAuley died of cancer in 1976, at the age of 59, in Hobart.
- Under Aldebbaran (1946) Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
- A Vision of Ceremony (1956) Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- The Six Days of Creation (1963) An Australian Letters Publication.
- James McAuley (1963) 'Australian Poets Series' Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- Captain Quiros (1964) Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- Surprises of the Sun (1969) Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- Collected Poems 1936-1970 (1971) Sydney : Angus & Robertson.
- A Map of Australian Verse (1975) Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
- Music Late at Night (1976) London ; Sydney : Angus & Robertson.
- Time Given:poems 1970-1976 (1976) Canberra : Brindabella Press.
- A World of its own (1977) Canberra : Australian National University Press.
- The End of Modernity: Essays on Literature, Art and Culture (1959) Syndey: Angus & Robertson.
- A Primer of English Versification (1966) Sydney: Sydney University Press.
- C.J. Brennan (1963) Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
- Edmund Spenser and George Eliot: A Critical Excursion (1963) University of Tasmania.
- Hobart (1964) Sydney: Current Affairs Bulletin.
- Versification: A Short Introduction (1966) Michigan State University Press.
- The Personal Element in Australian Poetry (1970) Foundation for Australian Literary Studies, Townsville. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- The Grammar of the Real: Selected Prose 1959-1974 (1975) Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
- The rhetoric of Australian poetry (1978) Surrey Hills: Wentworth Press.
Editions and Selections
- Australian Poetry 1955 (1955) Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
- Generations: poetry from Chaucer to the present day (1969) Melbourne: Thomas Nelson.
- Hymns for the Year of Grace (n.d.) Sydney: Living Parish Series.
- We Offer Mass (n.d.) Sydney: Living Parish Series.
- Song of Songs (1966) Darton: Longman & Todd.
- ↑ cf. Australasian Catholic Record October 1995
- Peter Coleman, The Heart of James McAuley, 2nd edition, Connor Court, Ballan, Victoria, 2006
- Vivian Smith, James McAuley, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1970
- Coleman, Peter. "James McAuley: A Poet in Politics". The Rathouse. http://www.the-rathouse.com/PC_PoetinPolitics.html. Retrieved 2006-12-24.
- Ritchie, John; Diane Langmore (eds). "McAuley, James Phillip (1917 - 1976)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A150192b.htm?hilite=James%3BMcAuley. Retrieved 2006-12-24.
- Cook, Michael (15 October 2006). "Remembering a poet of commitment". MercatorNet. http://www.mercatornet.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=387. Retrieved 2006-12-24.