The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4 (July 1, 1938.)
The Golden Year For New Zealand Literature — Varied Achievement in the Art of Letters
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:
Lord, mind your trees to-day
My man is out there clearing.
God send the chips fly safe.
My heart is always fearing.
And let the axehead hold!
My dreams are all of felling;
He earns our bread far back
And then there is no telling.
If he came home at nights,
We'd know, but it is only—
We might not even hear—
A man could lie there lonely.
God, let the trunks fall clear,
He did not choose his calling;
He's young and full of life—
A tree is heavy, falling.
* * *
The Tides Run Up The Wairau.
The tides run up the Wairau
That fights against their flow,
My heart and it together
Are running salt and snow.
For though I cannot love you
Yet, heavy, deep and far,
Your tide of love comes swinging,
Too swift for me to bar.
Some thought of you must linger
A salt of pain in me,
For, oh, what running river
Can stand against the sea.
And then there is this about a bird:
For he broke off, forgetting all,
And sang four pure, plain notes, a call
That startled him as well as me,
It was such aimless ecstacy;
Unwary even in a bird,
A joy too naked to be heard.
This is the magic of pure poetry, and we are right to be proud of our own Eileen Duggan.
The pen-name of Iris Wilkinson is “Robin Hyde,” and she has had two collections of verse published in London in the past year. They are of astonishing quality, loaded with rich fancy, and pulsing with feeling. Her emotions are distinctively her own and her facility of self-expression is prodigious. Both as a journalist and novelist she remains a poetess, and her novels both gain and lose for that very reason. However, Iris Wilkinson has made her place in London, and we shall hear more of her when she settles down in her new environment. I am giving two short excerpts of her quality.
The English Trees.
Never again shall breath of hawthorn in a morn,
Song of a thrush forlorn
Give them such dreams of Rosalind as stray
Lithe-limbed, bare-footed, half a world away.
Dreams shall not trouble their eyes. But on our shore
The English trees are stranger trees no more—
The golden youth that signed our fathers’ page
Won all green England for our heritage.
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.