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Letters and Art in New Zealand

2 — Colonial Beginnings

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Colonial Beginnings

So much for the remote ancestors of the New Zealand writer and artist—the Maori poet and carver, emerging dimly from antique times; the Europeans of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, now elevated to a stature almost legendary; the saints and sages and swashbucklers who dared to visit and even settle a New Zealand notorious as the Alsatia of the Pacific. It is true that these men, through their works, have a continuous vitality, that their heirs are those who trouble to seek them out in galleries, libraries, and museums. Yet the fact is that modern New Zealand derives in the direct line not from the culture of the primitive Maori, nor from the spacious civilisation of the eighteenth century, nor from the discordant elements of pre-colonisation days, but from an age not yet distant enough to be glamorous. Our immediate origins go back only one hundred years to early Victorian times.

To the prosperous Englishman of the forties and early fifties, however, it might well have seemed that page 18no colony—unless perhaps Virginia—had been founded in a more auspicious age. Britain had now settled down after Waterloo to thirty years and more of peace and security. She had freed her slaves, she had enfranchised her own people—or all that could, with safety, be enfranchised. And as proof that virtue brings its reward even in worldly things, her prosperity had increased to an amazing degree. Britain, now the world's manufactory, poured out goods, men, money, ships into every quarter of the world—and with them her language, her theories of government, her religious ideas, her humanitarianism.

Nor, in spite of her Continental critics with their nation of shopkeepers' gibe, was early Victorian Britain lacking in culture. True, the Romantic writers were dead, or silent, or—witness the aged Thomas Campbell with his 'Song' for the New Zealand emigrants:

'Steer, helmsman, till you steer our way,
By stars beyond the line;
We go to found a realm, one day,
Like England's self to shine.'

—feebly echoing the tunes of their youth. But a new generation of writers had grown up; and, as an emigrant to the Canterbury settlement in the early fifties packed up his collection of contemporary classics, he would find it difficult not to exceed the space that could reasonably be set aside for luxuries like books.

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Such a man would almost certainly pack into his trunks a collection of verse, for in early Victorian England the profession of poetry was honourable and even on occasions lucrative. There would be, first, the works of Mr TennysonPoems, The Princess, and just off the press, In Memoriam, a work that would be pondered over in private during the voyage, read aloud in the family circle, and later memorised in parts and transcribed into the reader's album. Mr and Mrs Browning would be included, Mrs Browning for even stronger reasons than her husband, for was she not the author of 'The Cry of the Children' and the Sonnets from the Portuguese? A discriminating man might bring with him The Strayed Reveller by 'A' (said to be Matthew Arnold, son of the headmaster of Rugby), or a copy of The Germ, the paper of some affected young men who called themselves the 'Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood' and preached startling new doctrines of art and poetry. A university man might very well have decided to bring with him a copy of Clough's Bothie of Tober-Na-Vuolich with its playful references to such a visionary emigrant as himself:

'They are married and gone to New Zealand.
Five hundred pounds in pocket, with hooks, and two or three pictures,
Tool-box, plough, and the rest, they rounded the Sphere to New Zealand.
There he hewed, and dug; subdued the earth and his spirit;

Or he might place in some odd corner a slight volume, page 20 Venice, by Alfred Domett, now well established as a settler in New Zealand.

When it came to selecting works of prose the emigrant's problem would have been one of infinite difficulty. In spite of their bulk, he would be reluctant to leave behind any of the novels of Charles Dickens, who, since emigration was now in the air, in winding up David Copperfield had just despatched the Micawber family to the antipodes. Then there was Vanity Fair, Thackeray's masterpiece, completed at last only to be overshadowed by that startling novel, Jane Eyre—the work, it now appeared, not of a man, but of a female writer, Charlotte Brontë. If Jane Eyre were barred from the family circle, what inexhaustible supplies of fireside reading there were in the works of Captain Marryat, of Bulwer, of Lever, and of Charles Kingsley! And with the thought of long winter nights in the colony, the emigrant would select Peter Simple, The Last of the Barons, Charles O'Malley, Alton Locke, and many three-volume favourites.

Equally essential to the library both of the educated settler and of the ambitious mechanic would be a bulky section of serious and improving works. There would be the Critical and Historical Essays of Macaulay, indispensable on any early Victorian bookshelf, and, in contrast with Macaulay's complacent rhetoric, the Chartism and Past and Present of Carlyle. More than likely John Stuart Mill's Political Economy would find its way into the luggage of many settlers who left page 21after 1848, and it is not inconceivable that some radical emigrant took with him the Communist Manifesto. (For the age of prosperity and expansion saw the creation of a vast proletariat; it produced not only 'God's in His Heaven', but 'The Song of the Shirt'.) Finally—if the emigrant's trunk were not already full to bursting—a few works of religion would have been included; it was not until later that the impact of Darwinism was felt, but the Tractarian controversy raged bitterly and many copies of Tracts for the Times must have been imported to early New Zealand and, in particular, to the Puseyite Canterbury settlement.

These were a few of the seeds of New Zealand culture that might have been brought out by such a settler as James Edward FitzGerald; FitzGerald, indeed, the friend and correspondent of Ruskin, of Charles Kingsley, of Gladstone, and of other eminent Victorians, may be taken as a representative of the men of talent who, bringing with them the ideas and ideals of the Victorian age, did so much to shape the life of early New Zealand and, to some extent, its later development. As Under-Secretary at the British Museum he had seen the rebuilding of that monument to Victorian enlightenment, and he may have discussed with Panizzi plans for its crowning-piece, the great domed reading-room. He would have seen the Palace of Westminster as it slowly took shape, perhaps giving rise in his mind to the Canterbury provincial buildings, later to be built in modest emulation.

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With mingled feelings on the point of embarkation, he would have read, or heard, the 'Poetical Offering' of Martin Tupper, who, looking with seer's eye on a dubious future, had been reassured by the departure of the Canterbury pilgrims:

'Even should Britain's decay be down-written
In the dread doom-book that no man may search,
Still shall an Oxford, a London, a Britain,
Gladden the South with a Home and a Church.'

A poet himself, FitzGerald had made his own contribution to the nascent literature of New Zealand in the 'Night-watch Song of the Charlotte Jane'. Here, in his invocation to 'the fathers of our line', is a sample:

'Though their tombs may not receive us,
Far o'er the ocean blue,
Their spirits ne'er shall leave us,
In the land we are going to.'

To this accomplishment he added those of amateur artist, and his painting, 'The Lady Nugent on the High Seas', reproduced in Charlotte Godley's Letters from Early New Zealand (1936), stands out among the few examples of New Zealand emigrant art.

This one man, in fact, illustrates the contradictions, the virtues, the strength, and some of the weaknesses of New Zealand's founders. He had thrown up a congenial post and the certainty of worldly advancement to pursue an ideal to the other side of the world. Genuinely believing that a new and better society might be created, he had urged the legislators of page 23Canterbury to remember their freedom from 'the principles, the sentiments, and the traditions' of Britain, only to be reproached in later years by Sir George Grey for 'striving to transport the old world in portions to the new'. In political assemblies noted for their oratory he won fame as a speaker—fluent, eloquent, though to the modern taste sometimes over-rhetorical. He led a busy life as an administrator and civil servant, yet he found time for the writing of prose articles that are journalism only because the colony provided facilities for little else. As versifier and painter his qualities are best seen if the 'Night-watch Song' is placed beside the Lady Nugent sketch. The poem, despite a certain poignancy and the interest it has acquired from old associations, is now irretrievably dated, its sentiments long since outmoded. With the sketch it is very different. The simple, bold lines of the sailing ship, the foreground of swelling sea with the horizon beyond—how fresh to-day, how infinitely more eloquent than the 'far o'er the ocean blue' of the poem!

It was in this way and by men like this that the next phase of New Zealand's history was begun. FitzGerald, Domett, the Wakefields, Grey—as we look back at them over a century or so, it is impossible to withhold our respect, though we sometimes regret the standards and taste, not so much of the men as of their age. We may admire their courage and their high seriousness of purpose, tinged though they seem page 24in the cold forms of print with the Victorian vice of cant. We may enjoy their prose writings, whether in the journals and letters they wrote with such charm and assiduity, or in their full-dress performances in newspapers, periodicals, books, and even official reports. If our approval of their more ambitious efforts in the Gothic manner must be qualified, we can still look with pleasure on their first unpretentious buildings. With a few exceptions, we can only deplore the badness of their verses, which are, however, redeemed by their sketches and water-colours—though these usually owe less to genius than to a vision unblurred by photography and quickened by fresh surroundings.

When the accounts are cast, our ancestors are seen to have done well by their adopted country. Yet, impatient at the shortness of their lineage and yearning for the fulfilment of a colonial New England, their descendants are sometimes heard to complain unreasonably: 'Would that they had come a century or two earlier!'