The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (November 1, 1938)
Not Understood — A Note on Thomas Bracken
Not understood, we move along asunder,
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life? And then we fall asleep—
On 16th February, 1898, there died in humble circumstances, in Dunedin Hospital, a simple, lovable philosopher—Thomas Bracken. Bracken achieved fame in his day through the beauty, fragrance and melody of his poetry, the most widely known of his verses, perhaps, being the poem “Not Understood.” Above his grave in the Northern Cemetery at Dunedin rises a monument surmounted by a laurel-wreathed urn, and the granite face of the monument bears the following inscription:—
the memory of
Poet, Journalist, Legislator.
Born in Ireland 1843.
Died in Dunedin 1898.
Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy! Ah! day by day,
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
How many noble spirits pass away
* * *
Oh, God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly where they cannot see;
Oh, God, that men would draw a little nearer
To one another, they'd be nearer Thee,
* * *
At the close of an eventful and far from prosperous life, Thomas Bracken succumbed to the ravages of goitre. In his own words he is:
“Sleeping alone where but few have trod,
Till the last bell tolls
And the unjudged souls
Bring up their clay to the throne of God.
What manner of man was Thomas Bracken? Unfortunately, there is little data available, concerning the early life of the poet. We know, however, that he was born in Ireland and went out to Victoria at the age of twelve. For several years he experienced the uncertainty and hardship of early colonial life, and it was during this period of trouble and stress that he discovered within himself a dormant spirit of poetry and whimsical humour. At first his writing met with little success. Few people understood the man, and the great forceful spirit which prompted him. Thomas Bracken learned that life could be harsh and cruel, but through his trials and tribulations he gained character, and a deep insight into human nature.
At the time of the Gold Rush in Victoria, the poet went to Bendigo, and here his highly sensitive nature made him the butt of all and sundry. Still, he kept on writing—the beautiful spontaneity of expression in his soul refusing to be crushed.
When Thomas Bracken crossed the Tasman and sailed up the Harbour of Otago his artistic temperament was inspired by the beauty of the velvet-green hills, the purple-shadowed mountains—the distant snow-capped peaks—and from this inspiration was created one of his finest and best-known poems, “Dunedin from the Bay.” He paints a vividly beautiful picture as he writes:
“Yellow beams that darted
From the sinking King of Day
And bathed in a yellow flood
Dunedin from the Bay.”
The poet made his home in Dunedin, and entered the profession of journalism. Here he found his forte. For the first two years of its existence the young man edited the “Saturday Advertiser.” His diligence was remarkable, and in partnership with the Honourable John Bathgate achieved considerable success. Forsaking journalism for politics, Bracken, in 1881, was elected as a member for Dunedin Central in the House of Representatives. He lost his seat, however, at the 1884 election, but three years later regained his membership in Parliament.
But Thomas Bracken will be remembered as a poet rather than as a politician. He helped create a national literature, and he wore the poet's laurels with dignity and pride. Everyone should read his “March of Te Rauparaha,” “Tarawera,” “Waiaronui,” “Orakau,” his beautiful and touching little poem, “Good-night to Baby,” his inspiring and thrilling “Hurrah for New Zealand,” his graphic “Waiting for the Mail,” and his famous “Dunedin from the Bay.” These verses reveal the philosophy, the soul, and the harmonious outlook of one of the great poets of our own country.page 48