William Golder’s Poetry

Biographical and cultural contexts

William Golder (1810–76) is credited with being the author of the first volume of poetry printed and published in New Zealand, and the first amateur printer who was not a missionary. He arrived in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, or Port Nicholson, on The Bengal Merchant in February 1840. He was 29, and accompanied by his wife Mary and their young family. He spent the rest of his life (until 1876 when he returned to Scotland some years after the death of his wife only to die shortly after arrival) as a settler in the Hutt Valley and an active member of the new British society being formed in this region of New Zealand. The eldest son of a Scottish soldier who settled in Strathaven, near Glasgow, a town noted for its radicalism in the early decades of the nineteenth century, like many others of his social position William Golder learned farming and weaving. He advanced his literacy to the point where he was appointed as a school teacher; he subsequently attended the Glasgow Normal Seminary where he engaged in a training programme based on a progressive conception of how children learn and the role of the teacher in facilitating learning. His professional advancement was evidenced by his then taking charge of a primary school at Newton, near Edinburgh, but it abruptly ended when his wife converted to Catholicism and he was obliged to resign his position. Unable to find work, he decided to emigrate when he saw the posters advertising the New Zealand Company’s plans to establish a settlement in Wellington; he was refused initially as a teacher, but accepted when he produced evidence of his farming experience. Once settled, he added teaching to his other commitments, running a school in the Hutt Valley and playing a part in the establishment of a public school system in Wellington area.

Further information about the Golder family can be found in Patricia Golder, The Golders of Upper Hutt and Hukanui 1840–2000, and associated families: The Browns, Martins, McCools and Somers (Wellington, 2000).

Before leaving Scotland, Golder published a volume of poetry and prose, and during his residence in the Hutt valley he published four more volumes of poetry.

Recreations for Solitary Hours, consisting of Poems, Songs and Tales, with Notes (Glasgow: George Gallie; Edinburgh: W. Oliphant & Son; London: Simpkins, Marshall & Co; Dublin: J.Robertson; 1838).

The New Zealand Minstrelsy: Containing Songs and Poems on Colonial Subjects (Wellington: R. Stokes and W. Lyon, 1852)

The Pigeons’ Parliament; A Poem of the Year 1845. In Four Cantos with Notes. To which is added, Thoughts on the Wairarapa, and Other Stanzas. (Wellington: W. Lyon, 1854)

The New Zealand Survey; A Poem in Five Cantoes. With Notes Illustrative of New Zealand Progress and Future Prospects. Also The Crystal Palace of 1851; A Poem in Two Cantoes. With other Poems and Lyrics, (Wellington: J. Stoddart and Co., 1867).

The Philosophy of Love. [A Plea in Defence of Virtue and Truth!] A Poem in Six Cantos, with Other Poems (Wellington: W. Golder, 1871).

These volumes include ballads, lyrics, satires, odes and an epic, The New Zealand Survey. The large purpose for the New Zealand publications is to contribute to the process of constructing a national identity through contributing to laying the foundations for a national literature.

They also testify to a much larger body of writing than he was able to get into print. Characteristically, he includes in three of the four volumes a “Prospectus” or “Prospective” in which he details other completed writing which he intends to publish, but did not. He names two major poems, The Philosophy of Thought, in two cantos, and The Progress of Piety, in fifteen cantos, as well as much other shorter verse and prose.

There are three decisive aspects to his formation as a poet:

  1. He understands history and society as the product of the moral and spiritual qualities of individual human actors, whatever their social station; and he seeks a political order in which liberty is an informing concept and fact of social relations. The other necessary constituents of society are friendship and the loving family. The progressive improvement of material life and the enlarged expression of human mental powers are achieved through and exemplified by science and technology.

  2. Golder’s poetic and cultural milieu can be precisely located. The term “artisan poet” has been applied to writers of the first half of the nineteenth century in the Scottish Lowlands, in order to mark a specific moment in which local publishing by largely self-taught writers in a context of drastic social and economic change became possible. These writers participate directly in and help to formulate modes of expression for an increasingly urbanised population; they place political, economic and social improvement in a protestant religious framework and they are participants in the “popular enlightenment”, the process of disseminating new thinking in literature, science, philosophy and religion through the diffusion of literacy and through institutions like the Mechanics Institutes and Athenaeums which were formed during this period.

    Golder also draws strongly upon Scottish cultural nationalism, especially as it is manifested in the figure and role of the bard or minstrel, while also affirming the nation-state and monarchy of Britain. On the model of the double identity (linguistic and cultural) signified by Scotland and Britain, Golder builds a third, New Zealand, identity in the formation of which poetry is a crucial factor. He persistently thinks of himself not as a provincial writer but as a founder of a new national literature, a literature which will necessarily be less “civilised” or artistically accomplished because it is interactive with the environment in which it is being composed. It is out of an imaginative and knowledgable engagement with the specific features of one’s place that a distinctive national literature is created.

  3. Golder is particularly aware of his medium of expression. His repeated and traditional metaphor for the linguistic work of the poet is that of clothing ideas with words; but he offers two other analogies, both technological — printing and photography — which extend the other traditional metaphor of picturing into the era of technical process and scientific invention. There is nothing casual about these analogies. These analogies go a long way towards explaining a notable quality of his poetic voice which is, in its usual register, marked by plainness of diction, the rational exposition of knowledge, and a discrete dignity of rhythm, but which can also invoke powerful moral sentiments as a proper response to the significance of what is described and imagined. The dominant effect which he achieves is one of direct engagement of the mind with a real world.

Key concepts informing all his poetry are: love and faith, knowledge, improvement, liberty, and civilisation. Golder sees the development of human society, to which poetry makes an important contribution, as the fulfilment of nature. Time is not impersonally chronological but historical, infused by the activity of mind, both human and divine. The two principal dimensions of social time which frame Golder’s poetry are the past as remembered time and location, and the future as the progressive materialisation of knowledge in endlessly improving forms of scene and society.

A significant instance of his application of this way of thinking to New Zealand is his interpretation of Maori society as cut off from the developments, religious, moral, scientific, and technological, which have made it possible for European societies to become progressively more civilised. The arrival of the settlers is in principle positive in its implications for the future of Maori society.

The four volumes of poetry which Golder published in Wellington are shaped by the distinctive subjectivity of the emigrant or exile; Golder is separated from his home and society of origin, which remain deeply embedded in memory. But he also committed to making a new home in New Zealand. His life’s work is integrated by a precise analogy between his physical work as a settler clearing land for farming, his social and educational work in shaping the new society and nation of New Zealand, and his poetic work of envisaging the future form of New Zealand society. In each domain, effort driven by ideas about how things should be leads to the progressive civilising of nature and society. An overriding purpose for publishing his poetry is that future New Zealanders should appreciate those whose energy, work and conviction established its cultural and economic foundations.

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