[Review]The Letters of D'Arcy Cresswell,
Within a year, two books about D'Arcy Cresswell, New Zealand poet and essayist - one, a selection of his letters to friends in the literary worlds of England and New Zealand, 1917-60; and more recently, an exegetical study written by Cresswell's enduring apostle, the novelist and short-story writer Roderick Finlayson. Why the renewed interest? It seemed in 1960 - the year of Cresswell's lonely death in London - that many of his intimates and acquaintances had weighed their experience of Cresswell, and found him wanting. In the Landfall
memorial of December, 1960, Oliver Duff stated baldly
"I was not sure whether we had lost a genius or a humbug." and C.E. Carrington, ever ambivalent in his relationship with Cresswell, queried.
"Was he charlatan, madman, or genius? In mid-twentieth century we no longer think the categories exclusive and perhaps should not pose the question."
Perhaps not - but being posed, the question stands.
What are we now to make of Cresswell, and of his place in New Zealand letters?
Frank Sargeson has said "It is in the nature of things that his work will eventually be judged by those who never knew him as an individual" - and the difficulty now is compounded by the inaccessibility of Cresswell's work, ironic for a poet who so much sought an audience. His verse - by critical consensus held to be undistinguished when measured against the achievement of his younger New Zealand contemporaries Brasch, Curnow, Glover, Fairburn, Mason - is nearly all out of print, although Voyage of the Hurunui
, the last major poem is still available from Caxton, and some of the sonnets from Lyttelton Harbour
are anthologised in the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse
. Of the latter, Allen Curnow has commented:
"Cresswell wears the true mask of a poet at odds with his country and his time. The period costume of his style and the bristling particulars combine in a modern statement, rich in general insights." — a judgement to which Sargeson lends qualified support; Finlayson a more enthusiastic advocacy.
The critics have on the whole been kinder to Cresswell's prose. Much to his own annoyance, he has been chiefly remarked for the autobiographical and metaphysical tracts published in the decade 1930-40: The Poet's Progress, Modern Poetry and the Ideal, Eena Deena Dynamo
, and Present Without Leave
. Written in a style which blends Carlylean pomp with an almost Coleridgean insight, these works expound a world-view which is at once egocentric and illuminating. In his indictment of contemporaneity - both Old World and New - Cresswell declared in a thesis redolent of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy:
"I was more and more in my labours becoming convinced that what afflicted this world and must overthrow it was a deep and organised cleavage between concrete and abstract (the senses and reason) in our faculties, whose harmony was poetic and the labour of poets, and the only refuge before Mankind."
Man's senses, Creswell argued, had now declined to the pursuit of mere sensation, man's intellect, losing its anchorage in the concrete world of the senses, went flying after false and meaningless abstraction. It would be the function of the artist to yoke them once more into harmonious unity. In this, Cresswell shares the singularly romantic stance which has dominated New Zealand writing since the thirties - a revulsion against our alienated, rationalistic, scientific, materialism, and a declaration for the artist as vates
the messianic deliverer of a new truth. In Landfall
53 Charles Brasch declared similarly of our writers:
"Remaining close to the sources of life, they became the spokesmen and guardians of that potential virtue which is the endowment of every human being; they form the unlicensed conscience of society;"
It is timely, then, that these books should be published in a period when we are critically reviewing that burgeoning of a New Zealand literature in the '30s, and also experiencing a wider revulsion against the fragmenting materialism which those writers first protested. Finlay- son's work, a close and absorbing examination of Cresswell's thesis, and its expression in poetry and prose, was written at least partly as a stimulus to the republishing of Cresswell's work:
"It is, indeed, part of my purpose to show the importance of Cresswell's view of the modern world, and to hope to arouse enough interest in his work, both the poetry and the other writings, to justify its presentation anew."
Helen Shaw's Selected Letters - as I understand it severely but painstakingly edited at the insistence of the publishers - provides the denouement to Present Without Leave, as Ormond Wilson had suggested in
the 1960 memorial.
From these works, a far more compassionate insight into Cresswell's career may be drawn - far more, that is than from the Landfall
tribute which curiously failed to include any statement from Cresswell's confidante D M. Mirams, the "Miranda" of the letters. Cresswell's egoism - obsessive and insufferable - is there as his critics charge (among them Stella Jones, who reviewed the Letters
for the Auckland Star
under the headline, "Poets Letters are Painful", but it is tempered by humour. In 1917 he wrote to Carrington:
"I am absolutely incapable of sanely judging a creation of my own Imagine the mental state of a hen contemplating her first egg."
and forty years later to Michael Hamburger :
"......here on night watch I somehow feel like writing a letter, which means talking about myself, because I'm only vaguely interested in other persons, whereas I'm fairly absorbed and fascinated at myself."
But more often, there is a poignancy in Cresswell's claims - a despair at ambition unrealised, or more properly, at vocation unfulfilled. The Selected Letters
show a developing crisis from the assertion of 1929:
"My spirit is strong and right. The times are weak and depraved. There is no doubt who must win in the end."
to the anguish of rejection and failure and, one suspects, of doubt in himself. It was this, it seems, which produced his final querulous dismissal of New Zealand for its apostasy in 1950 :
"unless, and until, their meanness to me, and ingratitude for all I have done for literature in New Zealand (far surpassing anything poor little Katherine Mansfield has done, as will be found) is publicly and amply revoked."
and of the Old World for its pursuit of false prophets, Eliot, Spencer, Auden, Day Lewis, Pound, against whom Cresswell spent the last decade of his life writing the Trireme Press satires.
Yet there is more than mere poignancy in Cresswell's proud claims. He spent his most fruitful, and assertive, period - 1932-38 in New Zealand, and much of it at Castor Bay, Auckland, where he met Sargeson, Finlayson, Robin Hyde, Bob Lowry, all involved in the self-conscious beginnings of our serious writing. One cannot help but speculate if Cresswell - older than most of them - acted quite unconsciously as a kind of literary midwife to the new birth. For all that he held the art of Sargeson as a lesser thing, good "of its kind" but still not poetry, there is no question of his challenging or denigrating Sargeson's assumption of the role of artist, "the suspect physician of society" (Brasch's words again). For Cresswell, art was a divinely-ordained duty, and perhaps his undeviating allegiance to it — egocentric as it may have been — conferred on those less confident of their vatic role, an implicit legitimacy. Certainly, Cresswell could be more than a myopic hen when assessing the work of his circle - the Letters demonstrate Roderick Finlayson's indebtedness to Cresswell for some sound cautioning against too strident a didactism in his art. The Letters range widely, too - from scurrilous gossip ("That pink puff-ball B. Shaw") to some pointed criticism of Tennyson and the Victorian decadence, and an interesting appreciation, in 1933, of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover:
"I feel its force and truth and great modesty and delicacy. Yet I would not stay in that region, which was Lawrence's own. I think sex is to art what sleep is to waking life, an unconscious replenishment."
So finally, how are we to react to Cresswell's claims, and to the judgements - wry and perplexed - of his peers? At first glance, Denis Glover's assessment seems undeniable:
"But let this be said: Cresswell did create a cosmogony, and he was immovably its centre. So much so that everything in orbit was driven out."
True, and yet - in the light of the new evidence presented by Helen Shaw and Roderick Finlayson - only partly so. Let Frank Sargeson's voice be added:
"It goes without saying that neither his work nor anyone else's has discouraged mankind from taking the path which leads to the termination of the human experiment...... For those of us who had ears for D'Arcy Cresswell's warnings, it is as though the gods have admitted their own defeat; but before abdicating they may perhaps have decided to gather to themselves that slight figure of a man who conceived of himself as a poet wholly dedicated to their service."