The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4 (July 1, 1938.)
New Zealand is approaching its hundredth birthday, and shortly we shall be proclaiming to the world that we have had a century of nationhood. It would almost seem that fortune is with us in demonstrating that in one important respect, we are justifying our claim to have reached the status of a fully-fledged unit of British citizenship. In the last year or two literary development in New Zealand has proceeded with amazing speed.
The sure test of the standard of culture in any country is its development of the creative imagination. One of the final tests of art capacity is the production of sound literature. I claim that New Zealand now is doing rather better in this regard than any other million and a half of British folk. It seems to me to be perfectly natural that this should be so. Added to our heritage of British cultural tradition, we have a standard of economic ease, and an ownership of scenic loveliness which are matchless in the world of men.
When we find a critic who loftily and summarily dismisses some literary work from New Zealand as negligible, we also find that he is helped by a grand old superstition. It is best summed up by the saying that “culture is the product of leisure.” The same idea has also been put this way: “the wall before the picture, the shelf before the book.” We in New Zealand are regarded as still being engaged in the stern task of turning a primeval wild into the “Empire's Dairy Farm.” The facts are, of course, that the average shophand or factory worker in New Zealand has an amplitude of leisure which would delight and astonish William Cobbett or old Francis Bacon if we could bring them back here to see it.
In any case the theory is a false one. Robert Burns could not be said in any sense to be the possessor of spacious leisure, nor the overworked journalist, Charles Dickens, nor the industrious civil servant, Samuel Pepys, and so on through the panorama of the great ones of English letters. It would be good, of course, if we could relieve any writer of genius from the task of winning his livelihood, to enable him to have all his time for the nurture of his brain children.
It is very obvious that before good work can be done in any art, familiarity with the tools to be used, is essential. Burns is a good example of this fact. He sprang from a community of poets. In his small county, books of verse were being produced and printed almost daily, and every inglenook heard the declamation by some earnest Scot of the latest poetry. The standard of general education in Scotland in his time was the highest in Europe, and the pupil at a small Scottish village school had educational opportunities that were hardly possible at Eton or Harrow.
Now, here to-day in New Zealand, illiteracy is for all practical purposes, non-existent. We have the largest ratio of secondary school pupils, and the highest proportion of university students in the world.
However, there is one final factor which is of the essential stuff of history. “Genius comes unbidden,” said Emerson. It cannot be created, or even fostered to growth by Governments or the action of authority. It springs “between the feet of men,” in times and places which are quite unheralded.
I remember the Dominion's editor of the London “Times” saying to me, “You can rest on your laurels in New Zealand now for a long time. One Katherine Mansfield is enough for you to produce every hundred years.”
I think, though, that there are abundant signs that we are on the eve of a Golden Age in New Zealand literature, and that the achievement of the one year just past has been more than an indication that we are on the way to take our place in the sun, high up on the Parnassian slopes.
Refreshing in the last year or two has been the work of the vigorous younger men such as R. A. K. Mason, Denis Glover, A. R. D. Fairburn, D'arcy Cresswell and others. Alan Mulgan has a poem in his slim volume “Aldebaran,” which amounts to an event in New Zealand literature, Gloria Rawlinson is growing up fast, and has the magic touch, and Marris's “Art in New Zealand” annual of verse shows that there are other workers in this field whose achievement is of value.
But, two women now stand alone as creators of poetry in New Zealand, and they have both earned for themselves deserved appreciation in the European and American centres of culture.
These are Eileen Duggan and Iris Wilkinson. Eileen Duggan is doing for us in verse what Katherine Mansfield did in the arena of the short story. Her fame is now world-wide. When, recently, a great prelate, Bishop Kelly, was leaving America for New Zealand, he was taking leave of his friend H. L. Mencken, one of the coruscating literary figures of modern times, a critic of dazzling ability and ruthless independence. Mencken's one thought was that Bishop Kelly should enquire in New Zealand about Eileen Duggan. Walter Delamare says this: “here is the revelation in its own kind and degree of a personal energy and vision, of a unique feeling expressed in a renewed language.” Later he says: “however much she may have nourished her mind on what other poets have written, she tells always of the direct experience of her own body, mind and spirit.”
It is impossible in the space of this article to quote so as to give an indication of the strength and beauty, the boldness and the rapture of her poems. But here are a few lines: