The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)
New Zealand Literature — Part I
It is sometimes said that New Zealand has no literature. This is so far from being the case that an attempt to review it in the space of one article is an ambitious, not to say a presumptuous, task. To begin with, many of our pioneers were men of culture and vision as well as of practical enterprise. Edward Gibbon Wakefield himself, with all his faults, had distinctly original ideas on colonisation, and his “Letter from Sydney” not only roused great discussion at the time, but has been deemed of sufficient interest to be reprinted recently in Messrs. J. M. Dent and Sons’ “Everyman's Library.” New Zealand, therefore, and especially Wellington, may be said to have had a distinctly literary genesis. Among the group of leaders that included Fitzgerald, Featherston, and the Bowens, were many with intellectual and literary leanings. The verses that some of them have left show, not unnaturally, a mingling of regret for the old and with boundless hope for that to which they had come, as in the characteristic lines of C. C. Bowen:
But for us the morning's garland,
Glistens still with evening dew:
We, the children of the far land,
And the fathers of the new.
While, through all the future gleaming
A light golden promise runs,
And its happy light is streaming,
Of the greatness of our sons.
Prince of the early poets was Domett, the friend of Browning, who came to New Zealand in 1842. He was Commissioner of Crown Lands in Hawke's Bay; and Napier—the first Napier—was of his planning, and owes to him the poetical names of its streets. He became Premier of the colony in 1862. His “Ranolf and Amohia,” published in 1872, won instant recognition both here and at Home, but it is, alas! rather heavy reading for the taste of to-day. It embodies much of the old Maori mythological lore, and its best remembered passage is a description of the famous Pink and White Terraces.
Foremost among the cultured Englishmen who adopted New Zealand as their home was Sir George Grey, three times Governor and afterwards Premier. His “Polynesian Mythology,” published in 1855, was the first really scholarly and exhaustive account of Maori beliefs, and is still a standard work. His statesmanship, as well as his munificence, especially to the City of Auckland, left their mark for ever on New Zealand culture.
Turning aside now from the line of political leaders, and going back in time to the days before the establishment of British sovereignty, we have Maning's “Old New Zealand,” published in 1863. Pember Reeves says of the author: “Maning lived with a tribe on the beautiful shores of Hokianga, was an Irish adventurer possessed not only of uncommon courage and acuteness but of real literary talent, and a genial and charming humour. He lived to see savagery replaced by colonisation. Some of his reminiscences still form the best book the colony has been able to produce. Nowhere else has the comedy and childishness of savage life been so delightfully portrayed. Nowhere else do we get such an insight into that strange medley of contradictions and caprices, the Maori mind.” This book marked the beginning of a stream of reminiscences on both Maori and pakeha matters. Among serious historians may be mentioned Dr. Robert McNab, who was Minister for Education under Mr. Seddon, and who made invaluable researches into the early history of southern New Zealand and the outlying islands. Mr. T. Lindsay Buick is an authority both on New Zealand history and on New Zealand birds. The late Mr. Elsdon Best, Mr. James Cowan, and Mr. Johannes Andersen have continued the work of investigating and recording much valuable native lore, which otherwise would have been lost for ever. And Mr. Louis E. Ward, in “Early Wellington,” has brought together, in a readable form, many scattered narratives of our own beginnings.
Returning now to poetry, which we left with Domett, his successor in popular regard was Thomas Bracken. Bracken was an unequal poet, but his best work reached a high standard. “The March of Te Rauparaha” embodies much of the Maori war spirit. His “Not Understood” —a little sentimental perhaps to the modern mind—and his “New Zealand Hymn” are well known. William Pember Reeves, the real statesman behind Richard Seddon's early social legislation, was a man of many parts, and a poet among other things. In “Aotea-roa, the Long White Cloud,” he gives us both history and description of the colony, touched with the finger of poetry. As it happens, the writers so far mentioned have all been men. The women pioneers were too busy with many things to write much more than their long letters Home, but we have still with us the veteran women poets of more recent times. Miss Jessie Mackay, Miss Dora Wilcox, and Miss Mary E. Richmond, with a very fine poet of a younger generation, Miss Eileen Duggan. Miss Wilcox page 10 page 11 (Mrs. Moore, of Sydney) left us some years ago, but Miss Mackay is all our own, and is always beautiful and inspiring. Mr. Johannes Andersen's verse always rings true, and he, perhaps, would be our Poet Laureate of to-day. A writer of whom we should be proud is Mr. Arthur H. Adams. Like Miss Wilcox, he has for long made his home in Australia, but his thoughts, like hers, turn back to the land of his birth:
“But over the loping leagues of sea,
A lone land calls to her children free;
My own land holding her arms to me,
Over the loping leagues of sea.”
Mr. Will Lawson has journeyed back and forth, and David McKee Wright migrated altogether. His work is unequal, but much of it represents very truly our back-blocks life. A considerable addition to our poetic achievement is Mr. Alan E. Mulgan's “Golden Wedding.” He writes the story of fifty years of pioneering endeavour in eighteenth century couplets which are equally adapted to humour or to quietly beautiful description. Early this year, Mr. C. R. Allen, son of Sir James Allen, published a volume of “Sonnets and Studies.” In verse and prose alike, this writer is subtle, musical, thoughtful and stimulating.
There are many who might be called present day minor poets, and individual mention might perhaps be invidious. Scattered in newspapers and magazines, their work is little regarded, and yet when collected in volumes, such as “Kowhai Gold,” “Best Poems of 1932” (“Art in N.Z.”), or the “Gift Book of N.Z. Verse” (“Radio Record”), its quality is surprising. Writing without much hope of reward, or even of recognition, they sing to please themselves, and set their standard high. While not developing any special local idiosyncrasies, they observe keenly and express their sentiments truly. They are content to experiment with measures, and to use rhyme as a servant and not as a master, without the self-sufficient iconoclasm of the advanced modern school. A little fountain is rising among us, not very conspicuous in force or volume, and yet of pure and clear quality. Indeed, it may be that future critics will recognise that the true tradition of English poetry was carried on at this period, not by the London cliques, but by writers of the overseas Dominions. Who can deny the authentic poetry of such lines as these, chosen almost at random from our New Zealand poets:
“Each of her streets is closed with shining Alps,
Like Heaven at the end of long plain lives.”
(The City from the Hills.)Arnold Wall.
“Thou wilt come with suddenness,
Like a gull between the waves.”
(Spring in Maoriland.)—Hubert Church.
“Birds from the coverts are calling,
Calling in tinkle and trill;
Medley of harmony ringing
Musical, mellow and chiming,
Night-airs a-quiver with singing—
Jangle of sweetness and riming!
(Twilight and the Makomako.)
“Gone is the Atua, and the hillsides lonely,
The warriors dead;
No sight, no sound! the weird wild wailing only
Of gull instead.”
Here's to the life we shall never live on earth!
Cut for us awry, awry, ages ere the birth.
Set the teeth and meet it well, wind upon the shore;
Like a lion, in the face look the Nevermore!
For they had heard from golden tree
With dripping note a tui sing,
And learned with what wet mystery
Manuka bloometh in the Spring.
Yet chanting bird and chiming bell
Weave something of the old-world spell,
And still in gardens there are set
The gillyflower and mignonette,
The rata on the oak-tree hung—
Ah sweet it is—so old, so young!
The jonquil, mocking kowhai's gold—
So blithe, so new! So triste, so old!