Arachne. No. 3
I am the Dark
I am the Dark
As Though she had understood blindness and taken Milton's 'dark in light' as her text Ursula Bethell's poetry is filled with praise of light and haunted by its inevitable eclipse. But it is a contemplation of death made in the mood of the hermit in love with the life in nature.
She is alone with her mountains, solitary in her conclusions. Her regret for passing time and spent life is tempered with the resignation of one who acknowledges faith. It is never the cynical regret of the sensualist faintly saving himself with wit.
The experience is limited but rarefied. Her poetry moves between narrow boundaries although she herself, in the greater part of her writing, sought fulfilment at least twice over. Shall we say she asked for a state of grace both as poet and as mystic. Fusion of the two states was perhaps her most difficult task.
Everywhere is intensification rather than variation. The poems 'Night Rain' and 'Waves' might almost have sprung from the one great creative moment. Certain images are ardently pursued but seldom repetitively since those upon which her vision depends—Rose, Sea-bird, Wave, Mountain, River—are continuously being developed. Phrases are turned and returned, recharged with significance and deepened as they are made to climb the spiral of the poet's spiritual experienc. Her development of the single image is very clearly seen through the recurring use of Rose and of Sea-bird. She seems always to have been adding to their emotional quality. She carries forward many words which must have become curiously necessary to her, their necessity made more manifest now that the total collection of her poems is available. And so are found : homing, established, whiteness, clear quickening, initiate, responsive, record.
There is nowhere in the background any sense of a peopled world. The poet's world is peopled with dark rocks, white mornings, birds and roses and these are the images through which she feels her existence and by which she considers the doom of man. The imagery of flowering earth and moving waters bulks so large that Ursula Bethell is easily thought of as a pure landscape poet; but with few exceptions, from the collection 'Time and Place' onwards brief lines resolve her spiritual experience of nature and these are the lines that shift the emphasis and value from natural description to vision. 'Evening Walk in Winter' holds this:
So airy light I seemed to climb, the earthy path so gilded,
the illumined hill appeared in that transmuted hour
the self a quenchless effluence of fire.
But overhead marmoreal white now hung the cold moon ominous
in ashen blue of empty dome, our doom exhibit thus
even so to frozen death we must all come.
The further the work recedes from the volume 'From a Garden in the Antipodes' the more the poet is felt to be in a state of mystical communion, coldly remote from the breath of humanity. There is no return to the gay and personal verse of flowers and gardens. It must be said that when she fails to communicate her experience she is sometimes failed by poetic intuition and the result is near to bathos. But when she succeeds those few words with which she transmutes the Rose or Mountain into a spiritual blazing are the ones that count.page 27
Alas, alas, to darkness
Descends the flowered pathway,
To solitary places, deserts, utter night;
To issue in what hidden dawn of light hereafter?
Everything was white, this morning,
Untroubled, luminous and tranquil pure;
Bright as an affianced bride, adorning
Herself with white upon the plighted morning;
Past all debate, all hazard, still, and sure.
Ursula Bethell's poetry is a conscious statement of Canterbury landscape. Its geography is concisely told that the work falls naturally to a group with land-conscious N.Z. poetry, but it is also a language of death. The intense preoccupation with the doomed rose and the deepening dark is at the same time accompanied by an intense infatuation for light which aces some of her poetry in the tradition of Henry Vaughan. What they have in common the power to shift the stress from life swiftly on to death by a movement of contrasting words, by passing from an image that suggests light to one that is startlingly sombre, by swinging the image. Not by imaginative symbols or by the elaborate conceits of Donne that flash with wit—their way is simpler, the journey of a lamp carried across a dark field. It can be seen in Vaughan's 'The Retreat', The Timber', and 'The Night'; his star is the tomb, his lilies in the dust.
With Ursula Bethell the swinging of the image works either in the detail of a single line: 'Thy great stars scattered on black immensity . . ' or throughout a whole poem such as 'Evening Walk in Winter'. It is a heightened sense of death that leads her to choose the image which will glow in order to suggest more overpoweringly the finality of darkness: red-robed beside death-dusty; ardent lilies on the clammy ground.
You can see the same kind of thing in Katherine Mansfield, who consistently moved her characters into the intensity of brilliant light and who frequently suggested the obliteration of hope, the snuffing out of life by clouding the sun or darkening the sea. And it is interesting that in their late, mature work both Ursula Bethell and Katherine Mansfield involved seagulls, rocks and waves with their premonition of death.
Ursula Bethell moves then between the extremes of light and dark. She uses many variations of darkness—dark, darkly, darkening, negation, muffled, quench, silence, abyss—and ways in juxtaposition with her obsession for light-snow, sun, water, stars, moon, cloud. Thepage 28
title 'Day and Night' is the physical term for the underlying content. Day is light, light is life and for life she cries: 'All is well'. Night is dark, dark is death, or at least its herald.
There is no other poetry in N.Z. which so dwells on the dark through its constructions of light, which presents so maturely the theme of death in terms of a landscape; but it is in the theme rather than in the concisely told landscape that the essence of this poetry is to be found, and it is by consideration of the theme rather than of the native background that we can see where Ursula Bethell belongs. Here, I think, it is with Katherine Mansfield, because in each there is a technique of light meticulously evolved; and to a lesser degree with Hubert Witheford. There must be reservations because Witheford embraces a more imaginative symbolism and his one published volume, 'Shadow of the Flame', is far from being a life-work.
There is no claim here for greatness, rather for definition. Ursula Bethell's poetry arises out of an overruling impulse to face death, which is a darker reality because of the glowing light she threw on the mountains in her verse and as the poet personally hastened towards finality the pursuit of light was made ever more consciously resulting in a craftsmanship of contrast. Contrast is not restricted to one image balancing with another, to the counterpoint of light and dark, but is frequently found between one state of being and another, between opposite kinds of actions or feelings where it is in effect a perceptible movement that represents the stirring of conflict and doubt. Many passages from her poetry can be read for contrast. I follow and end with three beside which the New Zealandness of her descriptions seems to take a somewhat minor place.
Now in the dark of night disposed
Sleepwards, but aware meanwhile,
(Night of cloud, sky speechless,
Lights on alluvial plain muffled,
Neighbouring hill-lights long extinguished),
Under the silence I hear
Deep calling to deep.
Beauty, now in Death's disguise,
silencing these stammering lips,
sealing these astonished eyes,
that our sight closes
on earth's dear mummery,
to wake upon your counterpart,
mirage roses, . . .
(from 'Rose-Wreath')page 29
Oh ! to ride, seagull, surely
over the abyss of whirling waters,
to plunge into the tumult
unseeing, safe, in the dark crypt of the breakers
(loosed, my soul, from earth-lust)
secured through insecurity.
('Kaikoura. Winter, 1941')
In the first is a swing from the darkness of sleep to the remaining light of wakefulness, from the negation suggested by 'speechless sky' to the positive and resolved 'I hear', while in a verse suggesting not only night but the dimming of light, of life, 'aware meanwhile' the active state of mind, is the glowing pin-point. In the second the play of life and death moves within each line with an ascent of hope from 'sealing' to 'wake', a dramatic impression of movement and imagery in 'mummery' that is shrivelled with 'closes', while 'Mirage roses' becomes the more brilliant in juxtaposition with the weight of stifling death. But it is in the last that the method of contrast achieves a multiple effect. The seagull is in the light of air, the abyss in the dark waters. The riding seagull is free and compares with the released soul, ascending from the earthly body, while the 'Life' in the seagull swings again downwards to the poet's imagined death, to the crypt, the waiting tomb; the final swing occurring between the certainty with which the bird hovers resolved (surely) above the 'whirling waters for the poet the unfathomed uncertainty of infinity. The poet longs to face death 'unseeing' as the bird will plunge, but for her is left 'tumult', the turmoil which her mind glimpses without resolving.
'What if the light go out? . . .
... I am the dark.'—is the single and unifying theme of Ursula Bethell's subject, craft and experience.