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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May 1, 1934.)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 14 Alfred Domett — The Author of “Ranolf and Amohia.”

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 14 Alfred Domett
The Author of “Ranolf and Amohia.”

Alfred Domett at 25. (From a water-colour drawing by G. Lance, R.A., in 1836.)

Alfred Domett at 25. (From a water-colour drawing by G. Lance, R.A., in 1836.)

Of the numerous gifted and cultured men who helped to pioneer New Zealand in the days of its beginning as a British colony, Alfred Domett was the greatest in a literary sense. His first home in this country, Nelson, became like Canterbury, a place where able writers such as he made their influence felt in the newspapers of the day. Domett occupied many public positions and was for a time Premier of the colony. But he was more a poet and a philosopher than a politician, and his title to fame rests on his great romantic poem of New Zealand primitive life “Ranolf and Amohia,” and on his lifelong friendship with the greatest English poet of his time, Robert Browning.

Alfred Domett was the first writer of any distinction to realise and appreciate the artistic and inspirational value of the Maori life and the religion and mythology and traditions of the race. And although his long epic poem was written more than sixty years ago no writer of poetry has equalled him in transcribing the many-coloured story of the Maori for English readers or in painting the tangled riotous glory of the New Zealand forest and the landscapes of the strange region of geyser, mountain and lake. One may speculate as to what Domett's life would have been had he not chosen to try his fortune in a new wild land, instead of remaining in the heart of the cultivated and literary world of which Browning and Tennyson were the chief figures in his day. But it is likely enough that he would have achieved less that was substantial and enduring had he continued in England than he accomplished in New Zealand, where he found so much that was new and vivid and stimulating, and entirely novel and wonderful. The Maori life and the Maori lore was an inexhaustible source of suggestions, a quarry from which he hewed and shaped powerful narrative and tender lyric verse. Much has been said and written during recent years to direct attention to the merits of Maori literature and Maori artcraft. Sir George Grey and Alfred Domett were the first to develop, after their respective methods, this rich and varied store of legend and wonder-tale and song. Grey was a recorder; Domett was an observer, a man of imagination, with a wide culture and a command of English as rich and luxuriant as the bush he loved.

Literary Associations.

Domett had already won a place, though a minor one, in literary England when he decided to abandon the familiar ties and see for himself what manner of life it was in New Zealand, then beginning to figure enticingly in the English world's news. In the year he left St. John's College, Cambridge, 1833—he did not take a degree—he published a volume of verse, and later he published a second volume. He was born in 1811, the son of an English naval officer who had fought against the Dutch in the battle of the Dogger Bank in 1781, and who later was in the merchant service. He could afford to travel; he went to Canada and the United States, and toured Europe. In 1841 he was called to the Bar, but London did not hold him long. His greatest friendship was that with Robert Browning. The two earnest and enthusiastic young poets began, in 1840, an association which endured for life, though the width of the globe separated them for thirty years.

In Sir Frederic Kenyon's book on “Robert Browning and Alfred Domett,” published by Smith, Elder and Co. in 1906, there is a portrait (in the possession of Domett's son) which seems to reflect the romantic soul of the young poet. It is a water-colour drawing by George Lance, R.A., with the date 1836. The drawing (here reproduced, with acknowledgments to the publishers) shows Domett at the age of twenty-five, five years before he sailed for New Zealand. Kenyon's book is curiously one-sided in its material; it consists almost wholly of letters from Browning to Domett in New Zealand; there is nothing from Domett in return. The letters from Browning had been preserved carefully; the return correspondence, which must have been voluminous, has vanished. There is, therefore, as the author observes, only a reflex representation of the friend with whom Browning's poem of “Waring” is associated, seeing him in the light of letters written to him.

Domett's New Zealand Career.

To give in brief compass Domett's colonial life, he emigrated to Nelson in 1842 with some of the first settlers, and became a settler there, but speedily found himself drawn into the field of local letters. He wrote descriptions of farming and bush experiences for the Nelson “Examiner,” and presently was invited to take over the editorial side, and his writings immediately began to attract attention beyond the bounds of the young town. Sir George Grey, in his first governorship, soon page 18 came to appreciate Domett's gifts. He called him to the Legislative Council, and he appointed him Colonial Secretary of the southern part of the North Island and the whole of the South Island. In 1851 Domett was further appointed Civil Secretary of New Zealand. He held these offices conjointly until after the introduction of the new Constitution, in 1853. He then held the offices of Magistrate and Commissioner of Crown Lands in Hawke's Bay, where he had virtually the whole official management of the province. In 1855 he returned to Nelson, and was elected to the Provincial Council, and later sat in the General Assembly as member for Nelson. He held office also as Commissioner of Crown Lands in Nelson. On the resignation of the Fox Cabinet, in 1862, Sir George Grey, lately back from South Africa for his second term as Governor, asked Mr. Domett to form a Ministry. Domett did so, and was in office for about a year. On resigning, he was appointed Secretary for Crown Lands, and at the same time he sat in the Legislative Council. In fact, for a number of years, until he left for England, he occupied a dual position, a Civil Servant and a member of the Legislature.

The Measure of the Man.

William Gisborne, in “New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen,” his estimate of Domett's character and capacity, said that “what Mr. Domett failed in was as a politician, in the Parliamentary sense, namely, as a party man and as a Minister under responsible government. He was a hero-worshipper and admired splendid autocracy. The seamy side of political life, as seen in the Parliamentary system, was not congenial to his taste, and he was not fitted to work out what he regarded as a lower level of public service.” But left as it were to himself, Mr. Gisborne admitted, Domett did “great and good work.” The petition which he wrote in 1845 to Parliament for the recall of Governor Fitzroy was a most masterly document.

During his period at Napier, 1854–6, Domett acted practically on his own responsibility; next to Sir Donald Maclean he was the most prominent man in the foundation of the Napier settlement. His impress on the Hawke's Bay town is seen to-day in the names of the principal streets. Domett was the name-giver; his literary trend is witnessed by such names as Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Browning, and Carlyle.

As Prime Minister of the colony in 1863 he devised and embodied a scheme for the self-reliant defence of the country and its peaceful settlement. A scheme of great merit, it was not given effect to, by reason of political disagreements, nevertheless its spirit was admittedly excellent, and Sir Donald Maclean, Native and Defence Minister from 1869 to 1876, put into operation some of the principles of military efficiency and peaceful penetration of the interior of the country which Domett had proposed.

Though not a politician in the ordinary party sense, Alfred Domett was a statesman. He had length and breadth of vision. Though no debater, he was the most fluent writer of his day; perhaps his only peer was that gifted Irish pioneer of Canterbury, James Edward Fitzgerald. His regard for literature and his cultured mind found vent in several directions, one of which was the foundation work in the organisation and classification of the General Assembly Library.

In 1856 Domett married Mrs. Mary George, of Wellington, who had a young son, Johnny George. This lad became an officer in the Colonial Forces, and in 1869 he was killed in the storming of Te Kooti's pa at Te Porere, close to the base of Tongariro mountain. In “Ranolf and Amohia” Domett has some lines to his gallant stepson, “young, kindly, chivalrous St. George.”

Return to England.

In 1871, at sixty years of age, Domett returned to England to spend the rest of his days, and his first task was to arrange for the publication of his long poem. It appeared in 1872, in one volume. A second edition, in two volumes, was brought out in 1883. Domett's long period of colonial service, and his great literary work, conjoined to his close friendship with the greatest poet of the day, won recognition for him in England, and he was awarded the honour of C.M.G. in 1880.

Another volume of verse, a book called “Flotsam and Jetsam,” including some of his early poems, was published in 1877. He died on November 2, 1887, two years before Browning. Kenyon wrote of him, in allusion to his hero-worship of Browning and his fervent love of the romantic and poetic: “The bright-eyed enthusiasm which seems to show itself in his portrait” [Lance's drawing of 1836] “lasted apparently to the end.”

“Ranolf and Amohia.”

Alfred Domett's great epic poem of New Zealand may be described as the apotheosis of primitive Maori Land and of the unspoiled native life. The lovers in the enchanted regions of the forests and the lakes and the geyserland provide a narrative of great charm and beauty, in amazingly fluent and expressive language, a poem that runs to 14,000 lines. It has been said that “Ranolf and Amohia” is not inspired by the magic of the highest poetic imagination. Nevertheless, there is a vast amount of beauty in its pages; and several of the loveliest lyrics ever written in these parts of the earth gleam out from its mass of psychological wanderings and philosophical speculations.

Domett is unknown to the multitude because, for one thing, “Ranolf and Amohia” has long been out of print, and for another because casual readers taking up the book in a reference library would find it difficult to see the grand trees for the scrub. The poem greatly needs pruning. Its bulk could be reduced by half, or even more, with benefit to the work and to the reader. Had Domett kept to his narrative and his lyrics and resisted the temptation to preach on all manner of subjects under the sun, the poem would have been the gainer in merit and in popularity. Some day a publisher may discover this and issue it in a convenient volume, sub-edited with discretion. “Ranolf and Amohia” lends itself so well to illustration that a very beautiful book could be produced with drawings by artists who really know the Maori and who can depict accurately scenes of Maori life.

The Maori Types.

One fault which some critics have professed to find in “Ranolf and Amohia” is that Domett idealised the Maori as Fenimore Cooper idealised the Red Indian. I cannot agree with this view, at any rate to any considerable extent. It is not a fault that a writer should select romantic and chivalrous episodes for his principal themes, as Scott did. Domett's Amohia is not overdrawn. There have been many such in, Maori history. Tangimoana, the grand old chief of Mokoia, is a faithful portrait of a typical ariki of the tribe; the original of this character was the great Te Heuheu, of Taupo. There, too, have been such tohungas as Kangapo. The one unconvincing figure is Ranolf, when he begins his long-drawn metaphysical disquisitions. No young pakeha could possibly have made the Maori mind comprehend such abstruse philosophising. But Ranolf was Domett himself, a lay figure on which to hang his Browning-like views on man and the infinite.

Domett knew the sea-life, too, as every colonist did in those days of sailing ships. His description of reefing topsails and of a sudden squall which wrought damage aloft, are page 19 graphic and technically accurate. So, too, is the tragic picture of the wreck of Ranolf's ship, in which we recognise the exact story of the loss of H.M.S. “Orpheus” on the Manukau Bar in 1863.

Alfred Domett. (From a photo about 1870).

Alfred Domett. (From a photo about 1870).

The Chants of the Maori.

Domett took Maori song-themes and expanded the often staccato measure into poetry of luxuriant imagery. He described the native chants as “the very pemmican of poetry,” in allusion to their concentrated form. His method was to obtain a literal translation and then to broaden and develop and embroider the lines into a version that would convey the full idea to English readers. He had learned something of the language, and he was assisted in the translation of the songs by such men as Captain Gilbert Mair.

In 1868 Mair was in Wellington for some time, and it was then, I think, that he interpreted for Domett some of the chants in Sir George Grey's collection of songs, “Nga Moteatea,” in which only the original Maori is given. Laments for the dead, warchants, love-lilts are amplified with vividness of imagery and richness of language.

Everywhere in the great poem there are lines that print themselves unforgettably on the mind. To the primitive Maori he paints:

“All Nature was a human face,
A Sybil with a thousand tongues.”

There are pictures in a single line, as—

“Wind-swept, a waft of seabirds white went scattering up the sky.”

The Landscape Poet.

The forest, the unspoiled forest, with its extravagance of loveliness in tree and creeper, fern and moss, is a theme to which the poet returns again and again. He knew the bush as no other poet has known it. His descriptions of the ancient pohutukawa groves on the cliffy shores of Lake Tarawera, and of the Rotomahana Terraces, are pictures of vanished glories that have historic value in addition to their own beauty.

There is a memorable picture of a sunset on Lake Tarawera which seems to me to have been inspired by the view through the once-celebrated stained-glass window in the mission church at Te Mu, at Te Wairoa, a beautiful old place which was destroyed in the Tarawera eruption long after Domett's day:

“Now Sunset's hushed and awful Splendour fills
The solemn scene;—transfigures heaven and earth
With luminous glory as in strange new birth;
Clothes with vermilion woods the Eastern hills;
And where the lake should spread its glassy length
Leaves a great hollow of one hue— blood-red
As the mysterious garments round Him rolled
Who travelling in the greatness of his strength
In glory of apparel unalloyed,
Though stained as one who doth the winepress tread,
From Edom and from Bozrah came of old.”

It was a year or two after Domett had left New Zealand that Anthony Trollope, the English novelist, visited New Zealand; Captain Gilbert Mair accompanied him over those Lakeland scenes. Mair told me that he took his famous guest into that church at Te Mu to view sunset on Tarawera. Trollope gazed at it through the stained-glass window overlooking the lake, which turned everything to a wonderful crimson. After a long look he turned and said: “Mair, that must be what the Day of Judgment will be like.”

The glories of the land, of such a place as the Tongariro trinity of volcanic peaks, are reflected here:

“What need of Temples! All around,
Through Earth's expanse, through heaven's profound,
A conscious Spirit, beauty-crowned,
A visible glory breathes and breaks,
And of these mountains, moors and lakes
A Holiest of the Holies makes!
Above—around—where'er you be,
The true Shekinah shining seel
With ever-fuming incense there
An altar burns for praise and prayer!”

The Love Songs.

There is Miroa's song based on a little love-chant that begins “E tangi e te ihu,” a phrase which the first verse explains:

“Alas, and well-a-day! they are talking of me still:
By the tingling of my nostril, I fear they are talking ill;
Poor hapless I—poor little I—so many mouths to fill
And all for this strange feeling, O this sad sweet pain.”

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There are little lilting songs of simple charm, as Amohia's rhythmic measure that tells about “a maid her home for love forsaking”:

”… . To the current confiding my little canoe,
See! joyously gliding my course I pursue.
Look! carelessly twirling the paddle I sit,
The river deciding which way we shall flit:
I sit all alone, no fear have I, none!
For I know to what quarter its waters will run.”

How true to the New Zealand scene is the mention of the raupo, the whispering reeds by the river margin:

“The ranks of green rushes
With their brown knobs of down,
Where the stream's overflow
Creeps dimpling and slow—
How gentle their stirring
As softly conferring
They murmur so low!
In a moment ‘tis done;
They are still every one!”

Amohia watches the distant sail of her lover's boat on Rotorua, and apostrophises lake and puia:

”… . O dull, dull lake!
How canst thou sleep so blue—nor wake—
Nor rise and wreathe with loving spray my own, my darling lover!
“You vapoury columns that from hot springs rise
(As from my heart such sighs)
So white against the green.
And through the day serene
Now this, now that way lean,
And easier postures take for silent contemplation,
O, why not always turn towards him in speechless admiration!”

But one could quote scores of passages of beauty, fertile in imagery. In contrast to such lines, Domett often lapses into the commonplace. However, that is not uncommon with poets. Pegasus occasionally comes to earth with a bump.

It was in 1883 that the two-volume edition of “Ranolf and Amohia” was published; this is the edition most often seen to-day in libraries of New Zealand books. In this edition there is a foreword in verse (rather trite verse, to be sure), which introduces the reader to the Rotorua Geyserland region. It invites the English visitor “weary of mists” to rove in a land “where the fanciful fountains are raining swift brilliants of boiling and beautiful spray,” a land “where a people primeval is vanishing fast with its faiths and its fables and ways of the past.” Assuredly the picture drawn is an inviting one, a vast and strange and wonderful landscape, with the most romantic story ever told. “Ranolf and Amohia” should be regarded as a national treasure, the greatest gift that ever a poet made to this country. But, as I have submitted before, it would be a greater work if it were less in bulk.