Letters and Art in New Zealand
7 — Close of a Century
Close of a Century
The phrase 'coming of age' has perhaps been linked too loosely in the New Zealand mind with the accomplishment of a century's history. Not that the two are unrelated. That three or even four successive European generations have grown up in this country is one reason for its relative degree of maturity in the year 1940. But to the historian of the future it may seem of equal moment that the final decade of the first century began with a depression. New Zealand had experienced other slumps and economic crises but none so far-reaching in its effects as that which brought to an end the era of prosperity extending, with only brief intermissions, from the nineties. The 'Great Depression' disorganised New Zealand's economy and the social edifice based on that economy; it led to political changes more radical than those of the nineties; it effected a reorientation in outlook of major importance to New Zealand's literature and not without some influence on its art. The precise link between cause and effect is not always page 170easily discerned; but it can be said with certainty that a continuation of the comfortable pre-depression conditions could not have led to the New Zealand of 1940 with its signs, few but positive, of adult nationhood.
One of the first hints of a new impulse in New Zealand letters was the publication early in 1932 of Phoenix by a group of Auckland students and their sympathisers. Not since the nineties had there been such healthy evidence of intellectual and spiritual unrest among New Zealand youth; and, speaking generally, the writers of Phoenix were more confident, better informed, and far more critical than their predecessors of the former generation. Their confidence, it is true, often took the form of cocksureness, and they were prone to the solemn theorisings and pontifical evaluations which are so often the marks of youthful enterprise. But in the circumstances of New Zealand at the time these in themselves were encouraging signs, and implicit in the undertaking was a conviction that tilings of the mind and spirit were worth considering, worth writing about, indeed worth suffering for. Phoenix was a challenge to New Zealand complacency and to the supremacy of material standards. More than this, it was a challenge to the attitude of timid provincialism which had characterised New Zealand writing in the earlier years of the century. 'Are we poor, that we should beg or steal? … let us work with our hands and page 171the sweat of our low brows until we have our own wealth to scatter.' So urged one contributor, and the same note is often repeated. Even London, now associated with economic thraldom, had lost some of its old glamour: 'Let us in New Zealand not lament too much that we are away from the centre of things, from the squabbles and bickerings and literary cabals.'
It was John A. Lee, an Aucklander by adoption, who first introduced to fiction an urban proletariat which had existed for most of New Zealand's history, though seldom recognised by its writers. On its publication in 1934 Children of the Poor enjoyed a succès de scandale that placed undue emphasis on questions of little relevance to criticism and obscured the book's genuine merit. Whether it was a good novel or a bad novel by literary standards was the one question that, for the most part, remained unasked and unanswered. It is, in fact, a question not altogether easy to determine. Children of the Poor contained too much unassimilated descriptive matter and too many passages of raw propaganda for it to be classed in the first rank even amongst New Zealand works of fiction. In these respects it marked a decline and a return to the period before Jane Mander. Neither Dunedin nor New Zealand itself was taken for granted, but had to be explained, presumably for the convenience of readers beyond New Zealand. A moral that was already obvious had to be underlined as Mrs Grossman at her most didactic might have underlined it. On the other hand, the novel explored tracts of New Zealand experience never touched before, and, in the absence of any local precedent, some technical faults were perhaps inevitable. And the faults of style and construction only mar Children of the Poor; they do not outweigh its merits. In this one novel John A. Lee portrayed the childhood of page 174New Zealand's submerged class as Katherine Mansfield had portrayed the children of the wealthy living in the same period. The record is harsher than Katherine Mansfield's, of its very nature less alluring than her delicate sketches, and the tone of wistful nostalgia so characteristic of her is replaced by one of passion, made strident on occasions by the biting recollection of injustice and crude want. Children of the Poor is more than a social document; its best episodes have an imaginative quality that makes it all the more regrettable that elsewhere the Upton Sinclair in John A. Lee gets the upper hand of the Mark Twain.
In the later thirties a more delicate approach was made to the scene of Children of the Poor by the poet and novelist, C. R. Allen. A Poor Scholar (1936) and The Hedge-Sparrow (1937) filled out the picture of Dunedin, while subtly conveying the moral that a child of the poor might, in the conditions of New Zealand democracy, rise to eminence as scholar and politician. At the same time Robin Hyde, in her first 'Starkie' novel, began to explore the lower social depths more in the spirit of John A. Lee. It is a measure of Robin Hyde's daring and of her complexity that she, the frail poet of The Desolate Star, should have attempted to set on record the fantastic career of 'Killer' Stark. The contrast between the poet and the author of Passport to Hell is, however, only one that is met with in this most bewildering and most page 175versatile of New Zealand writers. Now she was a writer of fantasy, now a chronicler of life at its rawest; one book was written in the flashy jargon of cheap journalism, the next maintained a good workmanlike level with only occasional lapses into poetic prose or glib reportage. She was claimed by both the rival groups of New Zealand writers and contributed to the journals of both (for though the 'literary cabals' of London might be scorned New Zealand was not slow in developing its own). She knew her country with an intimacy and an understanding that few have equalled, but she was drawn by an irresistible compulsion to Europe where she was to meet her death.
Although it was only when the warring elements reached some state of equipoise that Robin Hyde produced her best work, both in prose and in poetry, after Journalese (1934) she wrote nothing wholly bad. Passport to Hell (1936) and its sequel, Nor the Years Condemn (1938), are impressive works of fiction, and wonder at her temerity in tackling the subject competes with admiration at her success in reconstructing the life of Douglas Stark, and through his life the shifting panorama of New Zealand in this century—the New Zealand that exchanged the uncouth simplicity of pre-war years for Cairo and Flanders, that came back to the riotous interlude of 'boom and bust', that knew the years of depression, the excitement of the 1935 election, and the shadow page 176of another war. The broad outlines of the picture are filled in with minutely detailed strokes, so that some curious book-worm a century hence will be able to dredge from the two novels particulars of changes in fashion, the ritual of prisons and two-up schools, the language of desultory yarning in estaminets and bars. Her power to evoke scenes and incidents of which she could have had no direct experience was prodigious, though sometimes the self-imposed restrictions became irksome and she fell back on reporting or introduced some highly intelligent commentator of a poetic cast of mind, like Sister Collins who wanders rather improbably through Nor the Years Condemn. Had she written nothing more than these two 'Starkie' novels Robin Hyde would have gone far towards satisfying the wistful aspiration quoted in Phoenix: 'We are hungry for the words that shall show us these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought.'
Check to Your King (1936) and Wednesday's Children (1937) are an illuminating pair. The latter is fantasy without ballast and is a disaster. Check to Your King is Robin Hyde's most satisfying book, mainly because fantasy had here a solid basis in fact, and imagination was curbed by the discipline of historical research. The two elements are brilliantly blended in this portrait of the eccentric Baron de Thierry, a figure after Robin Hyde's own heart. The book is not flawless—Robin Hyde was no Nathaniel Hawthornepage 177—and here and there she digressed into irrelevant bypaths or inserted passages that would have been more appropriate in a guide-book or in a chronique scandaleuse of New Zealand's founders. (She never grew out of the precocious child's desire to shock; it constitutes part of her charm as a writer—but it can also become exceedingly tiresome.) In spite of such flaws, the past comes to life as it rarely does in the work of professional historians and as it has done in no other New Zealand historical novel.
The last and most personal novel was The Godwits Fly (1938). Published in the year before her death, it is not only, in some degree, an autobiography of Robin Hyde but also the story of the generation which passed its childhood in the war years and experienced the disturbing influences that were the war's aftermath. An entirely new stratum of experience is here uncovered—not the two extremes shown by John A. Lee and Katherine Mansfield—but childhood and youth in an intermediate class more typical of New Zealand. The essential struggle in this class—between the desire to rise in the social scale and the contrary impulse to merge itself with the class below—is portrayed with understanding and humour through the figures of Augusta and John Hannay. There is also another not unrelated issue suggested by the godwits of the title. These symbolise the New Zealanders, 'brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow', who 'must page 178make the long migration, under a compulsion they hardly understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long.' The theme is not worked out to the point of resolution in this novel, but an article* written in the course of Robin Hyde's own long migration makes it clear that she had reached a stage of equilibrium between paralysing subjection to the prestige of England and strident nationalism. 'Remember us for this, if for nothing else,' she wrote, 'in our generation, and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be "for ever England". We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.'
To say that Man Alone is the best constructed New Zealand novel yet to appear is to go beyond a question of mere technique. The formlessness of most New Zealand fiction implies not only technical inefficiency in its writers but an uncertainty of aim which in turn has some relation to conditions in the society about them. With a detachment gained by living in England and an insight unclouded by the expatriate's nostalgia, John Mulgan has discerned a pattern in the events of the last twenty-five years. He has seen that the easygoing post-war New Zealand was moulded into something different—something older and more sober—under the pressure of economic collapse and approaching war. His choice of theme and protagonists is too significant to be mistaken; and in the introduction and the close of the novel he has suggested the wider framework within which the New Zealand development has taken place. It is a page 180mark of John Mulgan's skill as a novelist that this broad social theme is not imposed upon the novel, but arises imperceptibly from the telling in clear-cut, idiomatic prose of a highly dramatic story.
A Man and his Wife marks the highest point of a noticeable tendency amongst recent writers—the increasing use of a distinctive New Zealand idiom which is different from the popular speech of the Australian or the Englishman or the American, though it contains elements derived from each of these sources. It is reasonably accurate to say that before the nineteen-thirties only occasional novelists and writers of light verse drew anything from the idiom of the New Zealand farmer and town-worker, and an excessive desire to preserve the 'purity of English speech' was as typical of New Zealand authors as of New Zealand pedagogues. Satchell's dialogue is colourless, differing little from that of the conventional English novel, Jane Mander shows a slight advance, Guthrie-Smith makes apt use of sheepfarming terms, though the staple prose of Tutira is that of a man steeped in English literature and drawing on it for image and illustration. (It is only this which qualifies the indigenous character of the book.) A sensitiveness to local nuances shows itself in John A. Lee, grows stronger in the 'Starkie' novels of Robin Hyde, pervades Man Alone, and in Frank Sargeson's sketches expresses itself in an attempt to mould the language and the rhythm of everyday New Zealand page 181speech—the speech of the street, the government office, the hotel bar, the middle-class household—into a literary form quite new in this country.
The immense effort of combined technical and imaginative exploration is sometimes visible in the slightness of a sketch and more rarely in the improbability of a dénouement. But this collection makes more clear what was already evident in the earlier Conversation with my Uncle (1936): that Frank Sargeson has not experimented for the sake of experimentation, but in order to convey a view of things and people which is at once personal and representative. Usually it is the view of those underdogs who are the central figures of the longer sketches, though Frank Sargeson shows himself to be a sympathetic interpreter of childhood and, in 'Three Men', of young womanhood (a young womanhood very remote from Katherine Mansfield's but more typical and quite as interesting). It is a view of life that is entirely unromantic, that is superficially tough, but coloured by a curious twisted humour and a sense of pity, half-furtive and barely articulate. Despite their kinship with American analogues, there is in Frank Sargeson's Kens, Toms, and Neds and in their outlook something that is deeply rooted in this country. Its origins may be imperfectly seen in the letters of labouring immigrants of the forties and in goldfields literature, though it has rarely reached the printed page. None the less, modified by each turn of events in the past page 182century, it has had a continuous history, passing from each generation to the next, largely by way of popular speech. Thus, paradoxical as it may seem, Frank Sargeson is traditional to a greater degree than any other New Zealand writer of to-day; he is the exponent of a local tradition that has hitherto been inarticulate. That he will continue the work he has begun and that others, working in their own way, are likely to enrich this tradition are two signs of hope in the New Zealand of 1940.
The response of novelists to the changing conditions of the past ten years may be paralleled in the work of the more enterprising writers of verse. With some reluctance, they have abandoned their isolation to give New Zealand verse a social content lacking since the nineties, and with this a vigour and an intellectual distinction hitherto unknown. Inevitably, the dislodgement of the Muse has been accompanied by some noise, and on occasions the New Zealand poetic scene has had more in common with an arena than with the 'divinest of Poets' ideal of bliss', to hark back to Domett. This has been all to the good, for New Zealand verse has suffered much from complacency and the absence of positive criticism. More important than the disputes of opposed factions, if less entertaining, has been a noticeable development in the writers themselves, as they have modified their conception of page 183the poetic through the stress of the contemporary world. This tendency is apparent even in Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde (as poet), who are associated with the more conservative group of writers. In her later work Eileen Duggan tentatively handles themes drawn from the daily life of farms and sawmills, while there is a note of poignant anxiety in what she has written under the oppressive shadow of war. Robin Hyde's Persephone in Winter (1937), as compared with her two earlier collections, shows similar preoccupations. She is still the maker of diaphanous embroideries woven chiefly from nature and literature, but to these highly allusive poems are added pungent social epigrams, a poem on the Abyssinian war, and one in which her fancy plays on
'grey slum cottages, chipped bowls
Of life set out for starveling's crust and sup,'.
Walter D'Arcy Cresswell is too individual and too eccentric a figure to be worked without strain into any pattern of social development. There is, nevertheless, a marked difference between The Poet's Progress (1930) and Present Without Leave (1939)—a difference not unrelated to his experiences in the depression years, retold in the later chronicle. The Poet's Progress had an undeniable charm which was due partly to its archaic style, partly to the interest in any narrative of vagrancy, partly to the strange mingling of egotism and humility in the writer's personality. The same page 184elements are to be found in Present Without Leave, but they have been transformed by greater maturity and, it is reasonable to suggest, by the author's protracted sojourn in 'that Antipodean Hades of darkness' to which he belongs by birth. The mannered prose has now been shaped into a medium responsive to the writer's more complex demands; vagrancy no longer describes his manner of living, since it proceeds from a deliberate rejection of standards which are, in the modern world, incompatible with a serious pursuit of the arts; the egotism too remains, but combined with an unsuspected power of self-criticism and, in spite of some extravagance, with a deep, intuitive knowledge of New Zealand.
It is significant that one touches on D'Arcy Cresswell's prose before his verse, which falls short of his own high estimate. Lyttelton Harbour (1936), it is true, cannot be disregarded: it has a nice turn of invective, a rotundity of phrase, and, when the poet muses on the fabled Greece of his imagination, a fine serenity. But the archaisms are an insuperable obstruction, and, on the evidence of his published work, it seems that D'Arcy Cresswell has been less successful as a poet than as a prose-writer in coming to terms with his models and his own particular talent. Perhaps he himself takes his poetry less seriously than he sometimes professes, for in Present Without Leave he avers that 'the first symptoms of a native poetry are to be found' in From a Garden in the Antipodes (1929) by page 185Evelyn Hayes. It seems very much beside the point to apply the word 'native' to these cultivated poems, so manifestly written, as the title implies, in the spirit of the English expatriate. There is in this collection wit, scholarship, and a power to translate into words subtle nuances of feeling and vision, but little sense of belonging to any part of New Zealand beyond the plot of ground commemorated by the poems. That sense does, however, pervade some of the finest work in two later collections—for example, 'The Long Harbour' of Time and Place (1936), where the past is beautifully interwoven with meditations on the present, or again in the close of 'Spring on the Plain' in Day and Night (1939):
'There is no more richness, no riper consummation
Of terrene fate than this conjunction with earth-form'.
The work in these two collections does not always maintain the standard of accomplishment seen in the 'garden' poems. Evelyn Hayes has progressed beyond occasional verse to a kind of poetry where perfection is more difficult to achieve, and some of her poems break down under the weight of feeling and scholarship. But she has written nothing that does not bear upon it the marks of a distinguished and sensitive mind, and she has shown New Zealand that the work of a woman poet can be refined without sacrifice of strength or complexity.
Except for an allusion worked into the texture of page 186one of her most subtle poems, 'Picnic', the work of Evelyn Hayes has been unaffected by contemporary events; as the title page of Day and Night suggests, it ends in 1934, before a 'new immediacy of menace' had made itself felt. The phrase is quoted from the Selected Poems (1940) of J. R. Hervey, a writer whose development has been symptomatic of the times. If one takes as a starting-point the apparently early 'From The Poet' ('He's pledged to wonder and to fantasy'), he seems to have passed from facile Romanticism to the bare suppleness of his later poems. The stress of economic uncertainty and of war has given his work a new seriousness of content and a new rhythmic strength, seen at their best in 'War Refugee' and 'Parachute Fatality'. The manner is not so well sustained in 'Salute to Youth', where a slight theme is elaborated to inordinate length and a note of false modernity intrudes. This poem, however, shows the writer's large generosity of mind which, combined with his technical enterprise, may result in work even more impressive than 'War Refugee' and 'Parachute Fatality'.
Up to a certain point, the published work of J. C. Beaglehole as a poet has followed a similar line of development. His early verse is the product of that phase of lyrical nature-worship through which most New Zealanders must pass, though here and there it is given some distinction by a vein of fancy or a turn of phrase. He had already progressed beyond this, page 187when he published in 1934 'Meditation on Historic Change', a long personal statement, reflecting, in its opening sections, the sense of bankruptcy which afflicted many sensitive people in the early nineteen-thirties. The poem is serious and moving, but it suffers from wordiness and a piling up of parallel images, and it falls between two stools: while its erudition would deter most readers, it is not sufficiently recondite to satisfy those whose taste for erudition has been formed on T. S. Eliot. In this, and in other shorter poems on present-day society, there is lacking that tension which would be needed to convey feelings of desolation or disgust. His most satisfying work up to the present has been Words for Music (1938) and other poems, still uncollected, in which he records the sensations and fancies of the scholar and man of culture. Here the fluidity of phrase and image is appropriate, while the poems give some measure of the interests which have done so much, in so many ways, to enrich the life of contemporary New Zealand.
The work of J. C. Beaglehole forms a kind of bridge between the more traditional modes of New Zealand verse and the experimental work which began to appear about the time Phoenix flickered on the literary horizon. Of the group of young versifiers who then challenged the established deities some have left New Zealand, others have lapsed into silence, and it has been left to four writers—A. R. D. Fairburn, page 188R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, and Denis Glover—to continue the work so valiantly begun in the early depression years. That they have gone on writing and experimenting is in itself proof that they had something more to say than the crop of rebellious poetasters which appears with each generation of university students. And the saying of it has not been easy. Two of them have had to curb a habit of mellifluous rumination which won them acclaim as 'promising poets' in the nineteen-twenties, and each has made some material sacrifice to follow his vocation. The writing of poetry has been for them not the random activity of inspired moments but a serious and exacting occupation. (This is less true of Denis Glover, most of whose work is written with a careless exuberance which has its own charm.) They have brought critical intelligence to bear on their writing, and they have broken down barriers that divided New Zealand verse from some of the most vital interests of the New Zealand people. This, of course, means little in itself, and a good deal of Caxton Press verse has little more importance than the ammunition fired by a sniping party. But a residue—passages in A. R. D. Fairburn's Dominion, some of the shorter poems by Allen Curnow and R. A. K. Mason, with a handful of Denis Glover's good-humoured lampoons—has added considerably, in variety and accomplishment, to New Zealand verse.
Where this group has failed is in their inability, in page 189their more serious work, to come to terms with their social environment, as Frank Sargeson, with no apparent loss of integrity, has come to terms with his. This failure is particularly noticeable in the two most ambitious poetical works of the decade, Dominion by A. R. D. Fairburn* and Not in Narrow Seas by Allen Curnow. These poems appear to have been written in an unyielding spirit of antagonism (sometimes of petulance), which, healthy as it may be in the work of the very young, denotes in the more mature some failure to develop. This is not to deny a large measure of truth in these two versions of the New Zealand scene or the poetry in Dominion. The criticism is of the distortion that results, in works of such scope, by applying theories without modifying them to meet the conditions of this country; it is as if the corpse of New Zealand had been stretched on a Procrustean rack of doctrine. This defect is related to an undiscriminating devotion to the younger English poets, whose influence is deplorably evident in Denis Glover's facile tributes to the proletariat and in R. A. K. Mason's Squire Speaks (1938). In spite of their ability, it is evident that these poets have themselves suffered from the social disunity of which they have written. This is regrettable, for any future New Zealand poetry may have probably lies in the direction they have pointed.
T.A. McCormack: Irises (1936)
The less traditional painting of the past ten years has fluctuated between the two tendencies represented by McCormack and Perkins, with a meeting-point in the work of John Weeks. Weeks's virtuosity as a colourist and his compelling strength as a draughtsman are well exemplified by two contrasting examples of his work—the first a still life, 'Fruit and Flowers' in the National Gallery, the other 'Industry' in the Auckland Gallery. The still life is a complex pattern of objects welded into a unity by the artist's masterly sense of form and a bold but unerring use of colour. The same qualities have gone to the making of 'Industry' in which a contemporary subject has been handled with sufficient verisimilitude to satisfy the literal-minded but at the same time moulded by the will of the artist into a composition of arresting vigour and superb richness of colour.
* See illustration facing page 34.
It is unlikely that a healthier social art will be possible until the gap between the New Zealand artist and the New Zealand community is narrower than at present. For that reason the appearance of the page 194state as a patron of art may prove to be significant. New Zealand is not yet a Medici Florence nor even a New Deal America, but the building in the worst depression years of the state-subsidised National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum was a challenge to the primacy of economic considerations at a time when they were most insistent. Government patronage of artists has more recently marked the celebration of New Zealand's Centennial, with very notable results in a group of murals by F. H. Coventry, a New Zealand artist who brought a refined decorative talent, widened by experience overseas, to the interpretation of four stages in New Zealand history. These murals open up great possibilities in the field of public art, and, for the benefit of New Zealand artists and the New Zealand public alike, one hopes that they will soon be permanently displayed. Finally, it was under government auspices that the Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art was organised and sent throughout the country, to smaller centres as well as to the four main cities. In this way New Zealanders have been able to see in its most concrete form the embodiment of their European past. What effect this will have on the mind and imagination of New Zealand is a question to which the next century will supply an answer.
The next century will supply answers to a number of questions—the thought comes insistently as the year 1940 approaches its end. At this point it would page 195be interesting to speculate on the future, interesting—but futile. Futile, because a year that has seen encouraging signs of growth in New Zealand has also been a year of war. Whether in the next hundred years New Zealand will add anything great and distinctive to the tradition of European civilisation will not be decided wholly in New Zealand nor wholly by New Zealanders. When European civilisation itself is threatened one turns for a kind of illumination not to the literature of New Zealand but to a mature European mind:
'between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.