The Woman Problem & other prose
A New Zealand Poet
In 1924 a young New Zealand poet, Mr R. A. K. Mason, published a book of poems. It was a very modest affair, measuring four inches by five, and containing only twenty-six pages. The cover was of buff-coloured paper, and the general get-up displayed in full that colossal lack of imagination which seems to be the outstanding characteristic of New Zealand publishers. It was no doubt partly this, and partly the lack of any great body of poetry-readers in the Dominion, which brought neglect upon the book. Whatever the cause, its advent passed practically unnoticed except by the few who were enthusiastic enough, but not sufficiently numerous to make the book a selling success. This result was naturally rather discouraging to Mr Mason, and to it, I think, in spite of the high praise he received in certain quarters, may be attributed his almost unbroken silence during the intervening five years. I am unable to say exactly how many copies of the little book were sold, but I know that at least nine-tenths of those printed were left on his hands. He must have become sick of the sight of them in the end. I remember meeting him one day, and his telling me, half in sorrow and half in relief, that he had just been down to the end of the Queen's Wharf and had disposed of a bundle of two hundred. 'Thank God I've got a few of them off my mind, anyway!'
Mason sent some copies of his book home to the Poetry Bookshop, in the hope of selling a handful of them in England. The result was a letter from Harold Monro, saying that he was including two of the poems in his 1925 Chapbook, and would have used more if space had allowed. Monro praised the book highly; and that he was not alone in his in-page 110terest in Mason was shown by the experience of a mutual friend who recently visited England. He was chatting to Humbert Wolfe about New Zealand poetry, and happened to mention Mason's name. Wolfe immediately produced a copy of The Beggar , which he had picked up in fair fight at the Poetry Bookshop. He seemed to know a considerable amount about Mason, and displayed great interest in him.
All this, of course, was very pleasant, but the book continued to be ignored by the New Zealand reading public— a state of affairs which still persists today.
Mason is one of the 'lean and swarthy poets of despair'. His outlook is rather similar to that of A. E. Housman, although he wrote the whole of The Beggar before becoming acquainted with A Shropshire Lad. He is in revolt against life, and resorts to a smouldering pessimism, ranging from wistful melancholy to out-and-out rancour, using it homeopathically as a drug in order to escape from reality. This weltschmerz becomes in Mason, as it does in Byron, Heine, Housman, and all pessimists, thoroughly romantic in its expression. 'After Death', which is worth quoting in full, exemplifies this:
And there will be just as rich fruits to cull
And jewels to see;
Nor shall the moon nor the sun be any more dull;
And there will be flowers as fine to pull,
And the rain will be as beautiful—
But not for me.
And there shall be no splendour gone from the vine,
Nor from the tree;
And still in the heavens shall glow Jah's radiant sign,
And the dancing sun on horses' sleek hides shall seem no less fine;
Still shall the car sweep along with as lovely a line—
But not for me.
And men shall cut no less curious things upon brass,
Still sweep the sea;
Nor no little, lustrous shadow upon the sand's mass
page 111 Cast by the lilting ripple above shall cease to pass.
And radiance still shall enhalo shadows on moonlit grass—
But not for me.
That his pessimism is not entirely self-centred is shown in his stoical 'Sonnet of Brotherhood', one of the finest sonnets I know:
Garrisons pent up in a little fort,
With foes who do but wait on every side,
Knowing the time must come when they shall ride
Triumphant over those trapped, and make sport
Of them; when they within know very short
Is now their hour, and no aid can betide:
Such men as these not quarrel and divide,
But, friend and foe, are friends in their hard sort.
And if such things be such—oh, men!—then what
Of these beleaguered victims—— this, our race—
Betrayed alike by Fate's gigantic plot,
Here, in this far-pitched, perilous, hostile place,
This solitary, hard-assaulted spot,
Fixed at the friendless, utter verge of space?
There is always strong evidence of intellectuality in Mason's work, and his diction, it will be seen, is classically simple, powerful yet restrained. A New Zealand journalist, Mr Ian Donnelly, in a recent article on Mason in the Auckland Sun, said: 'R. A. K. Mason has one of the most original minds in the young New Zealand literary movement…. With his peculiar strength of mind, and his aptness for originating forms, there seems to be every hope that he will accomplish some really memorable verse. Philosophic poets are rare in these days, but he is certainly one.'
It is a tragic thing that a book of this sort should find its way into the hands of only a scattering of people in all Australasia. Mason wrote the whole of The Beggar before he was nineteen—some of it when he was considerably younger. There seems to be very little hope of establishing a native page 112literature in New Zealand as long as the people of that country continue to ignore the claims of talent of this sort and it is not to be wondered at that most of the young and brilliant men get out of the Dominion as quickly as they can.