The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4 (July 1, 1938.)
Take from the bird Thy gift
Whereby she sings,
Still will she keep her swift
Treasure of wings.
Steal from the rose its scent,
Still is its hue
Splendour made innocent,
Softened with dew.
Silence the singing stream
H[gap — reason: illegible] in my brain—
Bid the bright waters gleam
Empty were I as shells
Cast on the shore,
Through which the ocean bells
Echo no more.
I think we can safely say that the art of poetry has reached its highest expression in New Zealand this year, and that our workers in this field have taken a place of proud distinction.
However, in nearly all reviews of a country's literary work, critics of the older lands, concentrate on the output only of imaginative fiction. I say with confidence that New Zealand has added this year a substantial shelf of major works of fiction to the library of British works.
“The Story of a New Zealand River” has just been re-issued. It is pre-war, originally, and must still rank as the most important work of fiction written in this country. Its reception, on its first appearance in London, was extraordinary. It captured the fancy of the English reading public at once, as well as earning encomiums from the London critics on a scale hitherto denied to any New Zealand novelist. Its re-publication is welcome. Time has not dimmed its brilliance, nor the authenticity of its New Zealand scenes. It is romance of a high order, it is daring, and, best of all, it could only have been made in New Zealand by a New Zealander. It will remain a minor classic. Another re-issue of almost equal importance was that of “The Greenstone Door,” another work written long years ago, possessing the sturdy qualities of a Waverley novel. The complete understanding of the Maori race, the sheer speed of the story itself, and the grave beauty of the prose, make this a work that will endure. These two revivals unfortunately do call attention to the comparative poverty of this branch of New Zealand letters for a long period. But the 1937-38 period in New Zealand has been one of riches of production.
There is the boldly original work of J. A. Lee. Here is a new voice altogether, prose with a pulse in it, and a creative imagination borne of a new vision. One type of Homeland critic was entirely puzzled to find a writer from the Antipodes preoccupied with the psychological reactions deriving from slum life and social injustice. The books were endowed with such power of expression and tenderness of sympathy, that they were acclaimed at once as the work of a notable artist. Mr. Lee also had, for good measure, the unique possession of an amazing visual memory of the things of childhood and the happenings of early youth. “The Hunted” was the successor to “Children of the Poor,” but both of them were exceeded in craftsmanship values by the astonishing “Civilian Into Soldier.”
During the year also, Iris Wilkinson published two novels in England, “Check to Your King” and the fantasy, “Wednesday's Children.” They aroused great interest in England and have all her qualities of opulent imagination and riot of fancy. “Music in the Listening Place” is an extraordinary effort, and Gloria Rawlinson in its treasures of epithet and wandering beauty, furnishes another example of a novelist remaining a poetess.
G. B. Lancaster, after the success of “Pageant,” a large canvas of the Tasmanian historical scene, has produced a splendid large-scale novel of New Zealand's beginnings and called it “Promenade.”
I regard as just as important, in its own metier, the novel of New Zealand life, “The Hedge Sparrow,” written by C. R. Allen. It has notable naturalness and ease of writing, and is a faithful picturing of New Zealand's own distinctive method of life and outlook.
In another vein altogether, the year has been adorned by the steady successes of two Christchurch writers, Miss Ngaio Marsh and Mr. Norman Berrow. Norman Berrow is a maker of adventure stories of the type first perfected by John Buchan, and he has a steady sale and good reception in England for everything he writes. The rise of Miss Ngaio Marsh has been remarkable. Her crime stories are regarded as standard work in England, and she is rapidly joining the little favoured band among whom are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. She has an extraordinary gift of humour, and a facility for making plots. Inspector Alleyne is taking his place along with Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector French, and Hercule Poirot.
There is another most encouraging feature of this renaissance in New Zealand. The stream of books published locally is steadily increasing in volume. Messrs. A. H. and A. W. Reed, for instance, handled this year a number of books of memoirs and recollections which would do credit to a major English publishing house. I have read thirty or more, and they are even in craftsmanship and well produced. Their value as recorded history goes without saying. The reproach that we know more about the actual ways of living of the Sumerians and early Egyptians than the Englishmen of the time of Samuel Pepys can never be levelled at New Zealand.
Other local houses such as Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd., Thomas Avery & Son, the Caxton Press and others have also helped in the good work. The doyen of our literary world, James Cowan, had “Suwarrow Gold” published in England, and it has proved a brilliant success. He and others of our noble band of delvers into our soil of history have left for us a library of records of imperishable lustre.
In the realm of pure scholarship, I doubt whether any country has produced in one year the equal of J. C. Beaglehole's “New Zealand—a short History” and his “History of the New Zealand University,” Eric Ramsden s “Marsden and the Missions,” and the epoch-making “Littledene” by H. C. D. Somerset. There is also news of the re-issue of that magnificent work, “Tutira.”
It is not over-patriotic to claim that New Zealand has just concluded a golden year of achievement in literature.