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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 10 (January 1, 1937)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 46 — Jessie Mackay — Poet, Idealist And Celtic Patriot

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 46
Jessie Mackay
Poet, Idealist And Celtic Patriot

Miss Jessie Mackay, who has been described as a Celt transplanted by fate to the Antipodes, is the most honoured and admired figure in New Zealand literature to-day. She combines in her character and her writings the true spirit of our own land with the fire and enthusiasm and intense love of country of the Gael. Her ardent sympathies and her eloquent tongue and pen have throughout her life been devoted to humanitarian progress and to the helping of just causes. The weaker side, the little nations oppressed by the powerful, have drawn her passionate championship. Fire and compassion, one of her fellow-writers has well said, abide together in her nature. She has written much that is distinctively New Zealand; she knows the land as only the native-born and the country-bred know it. With that knowledge and affection there is blended the profound love of the older lands and their associations, and inspiring all is the soul of a mystic. Rightful honour was paid to her when she was chosen some years ago to visit Ireland and England and Europe as a delegate to the Irish Conference in Paris, where she met many of the great figures in the world of Celtic culture. Jessie Mackay, daughter of Robert and Elizabeth Mackay, was born in 1864 at Rakaia Gorge, among the Canterbury foothills of the Alps, where her father had his sheep station. The greater part of her life has been passed in Canterbury, and she lives now on Cashmere Hills, looking out over Christchurch City and the great Plains she knows so well.

(Clifford, photo.) Miss Jessie Mackay.

(Clifford, photo.)
Miss Jessie Mackay.

The Noble Rebel.

The quality in Jessie Mackay's poetry and her prose writings in the newspapers, that first greatly attracted me long ago was her divine spirit of rebellion. All that has ever been done in this world for the betterment of mankind has been done or begun by rebels against established tyrannies and long-persisting wrongs. Jessie Mackay's chivalrous soul was fired by the Celtic race's long struggle for self-government in Ireland. I imagine that if she had lived in New Zealand a generation earlier she would have championed that great patriot Wiremu Tamehana and his lost cause which a more just appraisal of Maori national rights by the pakeha has now given its proper place in history. Jessie Mackay could never conceivably have been found on the side of a land-acquisition war upon a weaker people. I do not at the moment recall her published views on the Boer War, that most debateable of subjects, but I can imagine that her opinion of the root-causes of that campaign agreed with mine. The mainspring of her life, in fact, has been her immensely strong sympathy for the peoples whose homes and liberties are threatened or demolished by the hand of wrongly-based authority and power. The Highland clearances in the name of the Law by the usurpers of the people's ancient rights were the first burning wrongs that gave a note of passion to her pen.

Poet of Old Lands and New.

The sorrows of “Dark Rosaleen” and the lament of the evicted crofter for his home-glen and his ruined clan were the two national calls of the Celtic race that inspired our sweet singer. She wrote, too, of the pioneer spirit, and she gave her own touch of mysticism to the poetry of that other most imaginative of folk-poets the Maori.

Only Eileen Duggan of all our poets has approached her fine quality—the inner dream-vision that informs everything it touches with the essence of spirituality.

Jessie Mackay's volume of verse, “Land of the Morning,” first published more than a quarter of a century ago, is a glorious treasury of such thoughts, as well as of great poems that incite to action like a war-song. She is a true daughter of New Zealand in her love of the country scene in the outer parts. Early memories colour one's outlook through life. Jessie Mackay was reared in a rugged tussock land. Like another Canterbury woman country-bred, she could say of her childhood surroundings:—“From the dark gorge, where burns the morning star, I hear the glacier river rattling on And sweeping o'er his ice-ploughed shingle bar.”

Something from those solitary places must have gone to shape her character, predispose her to calm, clear thinking, the “harvest of a quiet eye” yielded by the sight of far stretching ranges and roomy landscapes of the downs. Like yet another Canterbury-lover, her thoughts must often have returned in the noisy places of the crowds to the leisurely scenes of heartsease far back: “…. the pastures and peace Which gardened and guarded those valleys With grasses as high as the knees, Calm as high as the sky.”

She saw and felt her land in its every mood. Here is the nor'-wester, the hot and dusty wind that Canterbury knows only too well:—

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“A tinder earth, a burning blue With eyes of Nemesis glaring through, Heavy as death and hot as hate! Windy brown to the mountain-gate—

Windy brown to meet the sky!
All the sap of the earth is dry.”

But relief comes in the evening, “the hour between the lights,” when the breeze of solace comes down from the Southern Alps:—

“…. the maidens of the cool
Vast Eden of the after-glow
Dream-heavy from the cooling snow,
Their wings drop comfort as they glide,
To cure the world at eventide:
And more—they left the gate ajar
Of Eden, where their dwellings are;
For here, unsealing ear and eyes,

Returns the Wind of Paradise!”

The Dwellings of Her Dead.

Family and clan tradition, and her reading, long before ever she saw the homeland of her fathers, implanted convictions that made her a crusader for the Celt:—

“Lo and lo, mine ancient people!
Cairn and cromlech hold them sleeping—
Mine though the world divide!”

This dreamy early love of kin and ancient glens grew “by the bright unstoried waters” round the world where the children of the clansmen found new life and room to grow. The story of the infamous Highland clearances and the eviction of the clans from their native straths and glens set the indignant grief-song ringing in two of her greatest poems. “For Love of Appin” is indeed a heart cry as poignant and pathetic as the tear-bringing “Lochaber No More” of the pipes.

It is a kupu irirangi of the Celt. The Maori was in spirit a very Celt himself. He heard that unearthly message in the upper air, the voice of the dead, or soon to be dead, that sang to the awed and weeping people below.

The Tragedy of the Mackays.

“Strathnaver No More” is a tangi poem that embodies the great sorrow of the Clan Mackay and their kin. Stern, sharp, indignant, it is a terrific indictment of the clearances that reft the land from the people and accounted them less than the aeer that roamed the hills:—

“O the shadow's on the glen and the gloom is on the heart
Of the far-wandered men of Strathnaver,
When they look across the sea to the lost Land of Reay
And count the bitter fee for Strath-naver!
O if blood had been the price, then Mackay were lord to-day:
Blood-bought, ay, and thrice, ran the Naver
From the days of Angus Du when the Aberach arose
And the White Banner flew by the Naver!
And if love had bought it clear, the Mackays were thick as grain Where wild run the deer in Strathnaver.
It was washed in tears as milk where the hearts of bold Mackay Wound like the silk round Strathnaver.

* * *

(A. Vaughan.) The Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand.

(A. Vaughan.)
The Bridge of Remembrance, Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand.

It was gold of London town, it was foreign dross that dulled The sea-bright crown of the Naver; ‘This by English gold and gun and the lisping English tongue That the land lies undone by the Naver.

For the sea has opened wide her gates to bear away The flower and the pride of Strathnaver; And the songs of Rob the Bard, they will never sound again Where men loved and warred in Strathnaver!”

The ruin of the land of the good Highland fighting men is complete; the clan has sought new fields where there are no petty tyrants to rob them of their homes. “Let the salmon and the deer be your righting men to-day,” contemptuously says the poet to those who swept the people away from their homes. Let the salmon and the deer plead for the landlords when those who made the clearances are called “at the bar of heaven high, ye that swept the gallant glens, and reft away Mackay from Strathnaver!”

It was, however, some consolation to our poet of the Gael to hear later that the resumption of farms for deer-forests had been stayed in some parts, and that Strathnaver was being re-peopled by the children of its former occupants.

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The Friend of the Landless Men.

There was the reverse side of the Highland clearances, the New Zealand settlement reform, that inspired the grieving yet triumphant pibroch note in “The Burial of Sir John McKenzie.” This is the greatest of Jessie Mackay's poems in a New Zealand setting. It tells how the Minister of Lands, who had been a Ross-shire shepherd, went to his grave, lamented by the young nation:—

“The clan went on with the pipes before
All the way, all the way;
A wider clan than ever he knew
Followed him home that dowie day.
And who were they of the wider clan?
The landless man and the no man's man
The man that lacked and the man unlearned,
The man that lived but as he earned;
And the clan went mourning all the way.”

On Maori Legends.

Miss Mackay has taken some of the dramatic Maori traditions that appealed to her and made poems of them, one or two with the true flame and vigour of the war-god Tu, others with the lilting charm of a fairy-lorist. The tale of Rona has the truth and simplicity that you find in Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verse:—

“In the moon is Rona sitting Never to be free;
With the gourd she held in flitting, And the ngaio tree.”
Her fore-verse to the volume of poetry
that made her name contains two descriptive lines that haunt the memory
like a treasured tune, of long ago:—
“Land of the morning, Kiwa's golden daughter,
Land of the fleet-foot mist and singing water.”

In those two lines the singer captures the essential character of these lands in Kiwa's Great Ocean.

The Worker and Publicist.

Jessie Mackay is a very practical idealist and apostle of the political and social reforms that have engaged her pen for so many years. She was and is a keen pleader for improvement in the lot of women. She was a pioneer feminist, and she worked hard in the election which resulted in the return of her friend Mrs. McCombs as the first woman member of the New Zealand Parliament. For about ten years she was the woman editor of the “Canterbury Times,” and she put an immense amount of thought and effective writing into that work. She wrote much also for the “Otago Witness” and often for the Auckland “Star.” Educational methods and ethics engaged her pen; she had practical experience, for she taught in country schools for some years.

Miss Mackay's visit to Europe and to Ireland, Scotland and England in 1921–22, on her mission as a delegate to the Irish Conference in Paris, enabled her to realise the hopes of a lifetime, to see the lands of her ancient race, and to meet the leaders of Scottish and Irish thought.
(Thelma R. Kent, photo.) A scene on the road near Lake Taupo, North Island, New Zealand.

(Thelma R. Kent, photo.)
A scene on the road near Lake Taupo, North Island, New Zealand.

Her work and her genius were thoroughly well recognised. A colonial Scots-woman, she was yet thoroughly at home among the Irish politicians and writers, and she contributed appreciably to the successful issue of the gathering of enthusiastic Celts and Erse scholars.

The sunset of life gives one mystical lore, said a poet of the Gaels. Miss Mackay, we all hope, is still far from the sunset of, life, but mystic vision has found expression all her writing years. Long ago she peered like a priestess into the sunlit mists where the faerie land of Tir-nan-oge may lie.

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