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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review 1912

Literature in New Zealand and Australia

Literature in New Zealand and Australia.

Since the first settlements were made in Australia and New Zealand our progress has been chiefly if not entirely, along material lines. Men have been busied in the strenuous work of subduing the wilderness, of carving out for themselves and their families a home in the waste, of bridging the river, of building the railway. The axe and the plough have been doing their work, the forests have been cleared, the swamps drained, the land tilled. Commerce has been advancing by leaps and bounds, bringing wealth to these Southern lands.

Little time has there been for devotion to literature and the arts. We are a nation of workers. Each and everyone of us is busied in earning his daily bread, and there is little place for the calm and repose in which the arts flourish.

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The first essential for the growth of a literary spirit is the existence of a cultured and leisured class. It is not till a large cultured class arises that the literary man has an audience to which he can appeal and look for support. Up to the present time it is probably true that our most leisured class is not our most cultured, and is apt to listen more to the "cry of the bookmaker" than to the song of the poet. The spread of education, however, has created a large demand for one form of literature—the journalistic.

Though I have not attempted to collect any statistics, I would hazard the statement that there are more newspapers published in New Zealand in proportion to the population than anywhere else in the world. The best of our newspapers will compare, for matter and for literary excellence, with daily or weekly newspapers in any part of the English-speaking world.

But though journalistic literature has kept pace with the rapid development in industry and commerce, the higher and more purely literary forms of composition have not developed to the same extent. One reason for this has been already adverted to—the absence of a leisured and cultured class. The poet, the novelist, the essayist, must have an audience sufficiently large to give him an adequate reward—for the poet, "sing he never so sweetly," has the same material wants and needs that we all have. It was the generosity of a Maecenas and an Augustus that gave to Horace and to Vergil the freedom and the leisure that were needed to enable them to perfect those works which have raised for their authors, as Horace himself proudly says, "a monument more lasting than bronze." In the past it was generally by the favour of courts that the literary man obtained the leisure that enabled him to devote himself to his art. The educated and wealthy public is the literary man's patron of to-day, and neither Australia nor New Zealand has yet produced a class free from the engrossing cares of the market-place.

But it is probably premature to look for, or to expect any outburst of literary activity in so new a country as ours. There must be something to stimulate the growth. In a dull age of material progress, poetry at page 19 least, if not other literary forms, does not rise to a high level. There must be something to kindle the poetic spirit, to fill the poet with ideals, to tune him to the right pitch. Accordingly we find that it is at periods when national life has been awakened, when some stirring event or movement has made men's pulses thrill with enthusiasm, that the greatest poetry has been born.

So will it some day be in this new continent and these new islands of the Southern Sea. We may hope that our awakening may not be attended with the upheaval that gave America her national life. Some crisis we shall have to pass through, some hardening process that will consolidate us into a nation, and make a national literature a possibility. Whatever the future holds in store for us we may be certain that a distinctive national literature will not be evolved until we are thoroughly awakened to a sense of our national existence.

Another circumstance that must play a large part in the evolution of our literature is the character of the land in which we live. This little Britain of the South possesses natural beauties that no land on earth can surpass. Our Alps with their towering peaks, their rolling glaciers; our calm, deep lakes; our cool green forests; our fiords with their leaping cascades, the wonders of the geyser, and the volcano—all these must stimulate the poetic mind. Such a land cannot fail to inspire sweet singers.

In Australia, on the other hand, there is little natural beauty Her wide, almost desert, places, the monotony of her forests, the often drought-smitten fields, give little inspiration—nay, they are apt, instead of stimulating, to depress, and perhaps to that may in part be traced the sadness that characterises many of her poets. However, this may be but the pessimism of youth; and in two of the best known of her poets, Gordon and Kendall, it is in general measure due to the circumstances of their own lives.

To revert once more to New Zealand. Besides being beautiful, she is already the home of romance and poetry. The brave native race which we have dispossessed has already clothed mountain, lake and stream page 20 with poetic legend and fable; and we, their successors, cannot fail to be affected by the glamour which they cast over the. land. Then the story of an heroic, chivalrous race struggling for freedom against hopeless odds has already given us a romantic past, has already given our poets a theme, something that rises above our ordinary dull commercial life. Our earliest, and perhaps our greatest poet, Alfred Domett, found in the Maori the subject for his poem Ranolf and Amohia; while in the realm of music the legend of Hinemoa gave Alfred Hill a theme.

Australia, however, has little of the romantic past that we can claim. There is m the Australian black nothing of the poetry, the romance, which surrounds the Maori. He has no legends, no past, and, we may add, no future. Nor is there in the early history of Australian settlement anything to compensate for this want. Its beginnings as a convict station have indeed had an effect on its literature, but can hardly be said to have inspired its poets. The convict days, the days of the gold-mining rush, and the lawlessness that characterizes them, have found an echo in Australian books. Two of the best known are Marcus Clarke's "For the Term of his Natural Life," and Rolfe Boldrewood's "Robbery Under Arms." There is something in Australian early life very suggestive of the life of Western America, and this picturesque life, the life of the mining-camp and the bushranger, will probably furnish themes for many stories, and many another "Starlight" will entrance and delight readers with his wild and daring exploits.

Another aspect of Australian life that has already been reproduced in its literature is station life. Much more has this been the case in Australia than in New Zealand. Our station life has been described by Lady Barker in her "Station Life in New Zealand," and in other books; but it has not found an expression in literature in the same way as it has in our sister colonies. The huge Australian stations, and the wilder life of the stockmen have seized on the imagination of writers, and indeed the local colouring is at present the most distinctive feature of Australian verse. Perhaps it is rather unfair to lay too much stress on this aspect of Australian literature, page 21 for there are many writers who aim at higher things. Much that has been written smacks of the stock-whip, the steer, and much more of the "horse." This is probably largely due to the influence of one of the earliest and greatest of the Australian writers, Adam Lindsay Gordon. "How We Beat the Favourite" and the "Sick Stockrider" are better known than any other Australian verse. Many who have never heard of Domett, or Bracken, Kendal, or Stephen, know the name of Gordon, and can probably recite one or other of his characteristic racing-poems. In many of his other poems we see the vein of sadness that is a marked characteristic of much Australian verse, probably in unconscious imitation of Gordon, or perhaps because of the sense of dreariness that the wide spaces of Australia itself produce.

Next to Gordon, or perhaps even higher, stands Henry Kendal. He is regarded by Australians as the greatest of the poets that have yet appeared there. His best known work is his "Songs of the Mountains." Kendal's poems distinctly suggest the influence of the English poets of nature, and especially of Wordsworth.

This is indeed the outstanding characteristic of both New Zealand and Australian verse, that it is largely imitative. Gordon is the most original poet we have yet produced, and he has a host of imitators. Such are Lawson and Banjo Patterson. In their verses, mingled with the influence of Gordon, is evident that of Kipling. The novelty of the latter's style, the directness, not to say occasional brutality of his verses, have a considerable fascination for many readers of our day. It is only natural that the free and somewhat rough life of young Australia should find expression in a style eminently suited for it.

But while no doubt verses full of open-air life and freedom have been the outstanding feature of Australian verse, there have been many writers who have aimed at higher things. Next to Gordon and Kendal may be mentioned James Brunton Stephens, whose poems have won more than local fame.

Many of the younger poets of Australia have found expression through the pages of the "Bulletin," a paper which, both for good and ill, has had a great influence on page 22 Australia. Among the sweetest of these young singers may be mentioned Victor Daly. Many of his poems, like so much of the serious verse of Australia, has a strong vein of sadness.

Another young poet, revealing similar characteristics, is the sonneteer William Gay. What he has written breathes with the spirit of true poetry, and a competent critic has stated that his "Ode on Australian Federation" comes nearer the voice of the true national Australian poet than any other single poem. These are but one or two of the school of poets. Time will but permit the mention of O'Hara, Ogilvie, Quin, and many others, specimens of whose best work is collected in the Golden Treasury of Australian Verse.

In his "Long White Cloud," W. P. Reeves says, "There is no New Zealand literature." This seems somewhat severe. The name of Domett stands first and also, perhaps, highest in the roll of our poets and verse-makers. His "Ranolf and Amohia," a long narrative poem combining philosophic reflexion with descriptions of nature and accounts of Maori legends, earned the warm approval of both Browning and Tennyson.

Next to Domett ranks Thomas Bracken. But however proud we may be of him as a "local product," we cannot truthfully say that he rises to the higher flights of poetry, and some of his poems are no more than facile verse.

Few New Zealanders have published volumes of poetry, for to publish is expensive, and the lovers of poetry here are few, and their purses light. I note in this connection that the edition of the "Old Clay Patch" is not yet sold out. In the "Jubilee Book of Canterbury Rhymes" are collected the best and most characteristic of Canterbury verses; and in the Golden Treasury of Australian Verse all the most noteworthy of our verse-writers find a place. Among these we may mention W. P. Reeves, Miss Veel, Mrs. Wilson, John Liddle Kelly, William Lawson, Jessie Mackay, Miss Dora Wilcox, Arthur Adams, and Miss Bingham.

It is a noteworthy fact that so many of our best New Zealand poets are women. Perhaps it is that to their page 23 finer natures the beauty of New Zealand makes its strongest appeal.

In the realm of prose we have done hitherto rather less than in that of poetry. Our achievements in the direction of imaginative prose literature are, it must be confessed, somewhat meagre. Marcus Clarke's "For the Term of His Natural Lite," a fine, though harrowing, picture of old convict days, is probably still the most outstanding work of fiction Australia has produced. Miss Ethel Turner is another Australian writer who has gained considerable success; and her stories of Australian child-life are well worth reading. Mr. Steele Rudd, the author of many back-blocks sketches, has a considerable fund of humour, and his works have found many readers.

In New Zealand we cannot point to much prose literature of a permanent form. There are books dealing with the Maori, and the Maori war, a narrative of travel and Alpine climbing. Of such books Mr. W. P. Reeves' "Long White Cloud" undoubtedly deserves a foremost place.

Some young New Zealanders have attained to prominence in the realm of fiction, among them being Mr. Fergus Hume, and Mr. Marriot Watson, the latter figuring in that very delightful book of J. M. Barrie's, "My Lady Nicotine." Mrs. Grossman, another Canterbury College student, is a writer of considerable power, and deals chiefly with social problems. Mr. Arthur Adams, already referred to as one of our poets, and now editor of the literary side of the "Bulletin," has also found it necessary to leave his native shores to seek a wider audience. Among Australian novelists that have found it necessary to appeal to an English audience are Mrs. Campbell Praed, Ada Cambridge, Haddon Chambers, and Guy Boothby. One reason for this is the want of a wide and cultured audience here, though this fact has more influence on the production of poetry than of prose, especially prose fiction. One great reason for the exodus is that we do not put any confidence in our native authors, or in our own judgment. We want a book approved of by English critics; that stamp once given, a book will "sell like hot cakes." But, lacking that, we page 24 are inclined to look with suspicion on the home-product, and wonder whether any good thing can come out of Galilee. Another reason is that other professions and avocations offer to young men and women more certain hope of success and profit, so that few are tempted to devote themselves entirely to a literary career.

And after all, we are but babies in the family of nations. Our material bodies have grown so fast that our minds and brains have not kept pace with them. We are adult in body, but not in mind. The ability of strength that has manifested itself in our commerce, in our outdoor life and sports, will, in due time, let us hope, be manifested in our literature.