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Poems by Katherine Mansfield

Introductory Note

page xi

Introductory Note.

In her Journal, on January 22, 1916, Katherine Mansfield told her plans as a writer to her dead brother. She wanted to pay “a sacred debt” to her country, New Zealand, because “my brother and I were born there.” “Then,” she continued, “I want to write poetry.”

“I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry,” she whispers to her brother. “The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, the flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder, and the times that your photograph 'looks sad.' But especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you … perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in prose. Almost certainly in a kind of special prose.”

This “special prose” was the peculiar achievement of her genius. It seems to me that nothing like Prelude or At the Bay or The Voyage or The Doves' Nest had ever been written in English before. English prose was turned to a new and magical use, made page xii crystal-clear, and filled with rainbow-beauties that are utterly indefinable. What might, in another writer of genius, have become poetry, Katherine Mansfield put into her stories.

Nevertheless, she had written and, at long intervals, continued to write poetry. Perhaps her poetry is not quite poetry, just as her prose is not quite prose. Certainly, whatever they are, they belong to the same order; they have the same simple and mysterious beauty, and they are, above all, the expression of the same exquisite spirit. To my sense they are unique.

Comparatively few of these poems have been published; and of these few hardly one, except those which have appeared after her death in The Adelphi, over her own name. All those which were published in her lifetime, with two exceptions, appeared in papers which we edited together-in Rhythm, when we were young; in The Athenaeum, when we were older. The reason of this restriction was that she had tried in vain to get them published in other places. I remember her telling me when first we met that the beautiful pieces now gathered together as “Poems, page xiii 1911–1913” had been refused, because they were unrhymed, by the only editor who used to accept her work. He wanted her to write nothing but satirical prose. This treatment made her very reserved about her verses. Those she published in Rhythm appeared as translations from an imaginary Russian called Boris Petrovsky; those she published in The Athenaeum appeared over the pseudonym of Elizabeth Stanley. Her cousin, to whom this book is dedicated, was the only person to penetrate this latter disguise.

The poems have been roughly grouped in periods. Katherine Mansfield's practice was suddenly to spend several days in writing poetry, and then to abandon poetry wholly for months and years together. “Poems at the Villa Pauline,” with the exception of the sonnet to L. H. B., were written in curious circumstances. Villa Pauline was a four-roomed cottage on the shore of the Mediterranean where we lived in 1916. For the whole of one week we made a practice of sitting together after supper at a very small table in the kitchen and writing verses on a single theme which we had chosen. It seems to me now almost miraculous that so exquisite page xiv a poem as, for instance, “Voices of the Air,” should have been thus composed.

The Child Verses at the end of the volume were written when Katherine Mansfield was still at Queen's College. They were saved from destruction by one of her friends.

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