Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872–1914

1. The Encyclopedic Fantasy of Alfred Domett

page 23

1. The Encyclopedic Fantasy of Alfred Domett

From the Late 1820s to the mid 1840s the family home of Frederick and William Curling Young played host to '[a] little debating society'.1 Chris Dowson (grandfather of the poet Ernest), writing to his brother Joseph, described it nostalgically as 'our "set" … [w]hich, I consider, consists of Arnould, Alfred, Browning, Pritchard and ourselves. How are they all dispersed! Never, I fear to be reunited in this world.'2 'Arnould' was Joseph Arnould, at that time training for the bar. 'Alfred' was Alfred Domett, recently returned from Canada. Browning joined in around 1840 after reading Domett's collection of poems Venice (1839), though he probably knew some of the members previously: he had been at school with Domett's brother Edward, and may have known Domett as early as 1830. Emma Young, Fred and William's sister, wrote later 'what an interesting set they were, Poets, Philosophers. Scientific — Literary all'.3 They referred to conversations they had — on literature, politics, religion — as 'colloquials'; the label also served as a name for the group.

The young men were all connected through school and a network of family, business and marriage alliances: Joe Dowson was partner in a copper business with Fred Young's brother William Curling; Chris and Fred had a business as ships' biscuit bakers; Emma Young married Arnould; Domett was related to the Youngs (his mother's surname was Curling), and to the Dowsons — his sister married Chris; many of the families were involved in some way with the shipping trade, and the Youngs' father was an early member of the New Zealand Company.

Interestingly, for Domett's later career in New Zealand, Browning's biographer, John Maynard, says of them:

page 24

Although a surprisingly large number of the group were destined to be involved in the development of the Victorian British Empire, Arnould in India and the Youngs and Domett in New Zealand, they saw themselves as liberals, colonizers, and free traders, not as nationalist imperialists.4

As just such a liberal, William Curling Young wrote a book critical of British policy in China prior to the Opium War of the 1830s.5 Browning's family had imperial colonial connections — his grandparents had owned a plantation on St Kitts in the West Indies — but his father, who worked in a bank, had given up any interest in that fortune due to his abhorrence of slavery: Browning wrote to Elizabeth Barrett 'if we are poor, it is to my father's infinite glory'.6

Camberwell, where the Brownings lived and where many of the group met, was at that time a suburb of London, quiet, leafy, relaxed, suburban in a new sense of the word, representative of a new kind of middle-class society: Carlyle, meeting Browning in the 1830s, described him as wearing a coat suggesting 'proclivities for the turf and scamphood'7 and 'speaking in the Cockney quiz dialect', though not without 'cockney gracefulness'.8 These families had become comfortable through trade, and were able to give their children access to the professions where they could take advantage of the opportunities for advancement empire afforded.9 Arnould later became a Bombay high court judge, 'one of whose judgements, on a question of liberty of conscience', according to Kenyon writing in 1906, 'was circulated by grateful natives in letters of gold'.10 Meetings of the Colloquials seemed to have ended when Browning left for Italy in 1846 and Chris Dowson died in 1848, though they did remain in touch: Arnould drew up and administered the Brownings' marriage settlement.

In 1840 when Browning and Domett consolidated their acquaintance, Domett was by far the more impressive and promising of the two. Twenty-nine to Browning's twenty-eight, he had been to Cambridge, though not taken a degree, and had travelled extensively in Canada, the United States, the West Indies (where he had worked as a surveyor) as well as in Europe. He had begun reading law, and already had two books of poetry published and well received. His poem 'A Christmas Hymn' was already, and continued to be, anthologised: it had been favourably compared to Milton's 'Hymn on the Morning of Christ's page 25Nativity' by a critic in Blackwood's Magazine.11 His friend Arnould told him he could be the latter-day Chaucer: 'you have mixed with men of all kinds, you have an open heart and a penetrating eye.'12 Browning by contrast was still living with his parents, was tangled in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt at a career as a playwright, and had just published his most ambitious work to date, Sordello, which proved a complete critical disaster.

A Browning Handbook states that 'Sordello has become so notorious as the least comprehensible poem written in the English language — at least before 1920 — that little comment is required here.'13 Elizabeth Barrett described it tactfully though ambiguously as 'like a noble picture with its face to the wall just now, or at least in the shadow.' Browning himself described it as 'praised by the units, cursed by the tens, and unmeddled with by the hundreds', and later seeing it at a friend's house exclaimed ruefully, 'Ah, the entirely unintelligible Sordello!14

Opinion seemed to centre on the relationship between the subject matter — medieval Italy, faith and doubt, the problems of introspection versus action — and the style in which it was expressed. T. R. Lounsbury, one of Browning's earlier biographers, writing in 1911, summed up its effect: 'It will remain a colossal derelict upon the sea of literature, inflicting damage upon the stronger intellects that graze it ever so slightly, and hopelessly wrecking the frailer mental craft that come into full collision with it'.15 The imagery used here is strangely reminiscent of Patrick Evans's judgement in the 1990 Penguin History of New Zealand Literature of Alfred Domett's epic poem Ranolf and Amohia, first published in 1872: 'Like a stranded whale, the poem lies rotting on the beach of New Zealand literature, an embarrassment that no one knows what to do with.'16 The difference is that Evans sees Ranolf and Amohia as a problem for contemporary readers and critics, especially those engaged in writing literary history. Sordello was a problem for Browning, and his reputation took twenty-five years to recover.

Browning gave Domett a copy of Sordello in March 1840 soon after the poem had appeared, writing, 'I hope you will like it a little, and beat it famously yourself ere the season is out.'17 That volume, now in the British Library,18 contains pencilled comments by Domett which Browning used when he revised the poem for a second edition.19 Of Domett's criticism Browning said to Arnould, 'Now this is what one wants; how few men there are who will give this to you.'20 And it seemed page 26that as an extension of their friendship, and of the operation of the Colloquials, Domett read, critiqued and defended Browning's poetry generally. Defence was needed. In 1841, Domett wrote an attack on a critic of Browning's, Pippa Passes. The critic is described thus:

A black squat Beetle, potent for his size,
Pushing tail-first by every road that's wrong
The dirt ball of his musty rules along
His tiny sphere of grovelling sympathies, —
Has knocked himself full-butt with blundering trouble
Against a Mountain he can neither double
Nor ever hope to scale. So, like a free,
Pert, self-complacent Scarabaeus, he
Takes it into his horny head to swear —
There's no such thing as any mountain there!21

A key aspect of the friendship between Domett and Browning was obviously their faith in each others' powers. When Domett left for New Zealand he wrote to Browning from on board ship, 'Write (to the world) — and to me at New Zealand.'22 Browning wrote back, 'I have read your poems: you can do anything — and (I do not see why I should not think) will do much. I will, if I live.'23

It could be inferred from the account of it in Browning's poem 'Waring' that Domett's departure for New Zealand was unexpected. But this can hardly be the case. His circle had New Zealand connections, and his cousin William Curling Young had gone ahead, settling in the Waimea Valley near Nelson. Domett left on the ship Sir Charles Forbes heading for Nelson in 1842. The news on his arrival was tragic, and this set the tone for the way in which his English correspondence represents his enterprise: Curling Young had been drowned (drowning was known locally as 'the New Zealand death')24 in the Wairoa River just before Domett's arrival. Domett wrote: 'The whole place seemed to turn black and lifeless when they told me of this shocking event, and though I have in some degree, recovered my interest in it, the Colony will never be to me what it was before.'25 More disasters followed: Domett fell in a river bed and broke his leg; this was an injury that affected him for the rest of his life. It is difficult not to read in Browning's response to this news the suggestion that Domett might have had a depressive personality:

page 27

I wish you had said more about yourself, and more encouragingly. But I take refuge now in what I used to deprecate once, your habit of painting everything en noir: as long as you can swim, for instance, how should you be 'crippled'?26

But the news of the 'Wairau Massacre', as it was then called, suggested that matters could not be simply written off as a product of Domett's gloominess. A group of settlers from Nelson led by Arthur Wakefield clashed with Maori under Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata over disputed land purchases beside the Wairau River. As James Belich puts it, 'in a confused fight, … 22 [settlers] were killed (some after surrendering) … Between two and six Maori were also killed, including Te Rangihaeata's wife, Te Rongo.'27 Browning writes:

… how unutterably glad and thankful I and all your friends are, that you are out of the horrible story of the massacre. But what melancholy work for you — most of the poor fellows must have been your friends … 28

Arnould, certainly, felt the emigration to have been ill conceived, though he conceded its initial attraction. He writes:

To have asked you not to go would have been as wild and hopeless as to request the Spring tide with compliments to defer its daily flow; but now you have been, you have seen, you have learnt all that experience can teach, and I wager anything that in your heart of hearts you pronounce the whole thing a failure. Well, what is there to tie you with your thirty-three years of life to a damned dull collection of log huts in the Antipodes, while you might have a very decent room chez moi as long as you liked to stay — a year's pupillage in the law without payment of your 100 guineas.29

The irony was, of course, that the Wairau incident was the making of Domett in the colony. He wrote an account of the affair for a special supplement to the Nelson Examiner, and served as a representative taking the settlers' viewpoint to Auckland, a position that began his career as a politician and administrator. All this was beyond the understanding of page 28his friends, who characterised the colony and his life there not in terms of the exotic or adventurous, but as a site of small-town provincialism. Arnould writes:

Law at Nelson! — all the bitter, and none of the sweets which time and prescription, and sociality, and classicality of a sort, and lucri odor, help to wring out of London Law-Life!30

He goes on to deprecate the very mention of 'something about a crop of potatoes, and net expenses, and loss — horrible!' Domett was certainly complicit in this representation, deploring 'the lounging shooting-jacket existence, Mrs Wray's … aesthetic tea, Miss Essex's piano, the brandy and whist-cum-cigar evenings'.31 'You are right about that New Zealand life,' Arnould agrees, 'Camberwell with a dash of the Coal-Hole is the very living portraiture of the whole thing … 'tis the effigy of the place in its totality of seediness, stale tobaccoism, & attorney clerkdom.'32 The contradictions do not seem to be acknowledged: is New Zealand provincial life in all its tedium, 'a damned dull collection of log huts in the Antipodes', or a savage massacre?

Despite the distance, Domett's involvement in the literary affairs of his friends and British literary life continued; indeed, there is little sense in their letters of Domett's geographical isolation. The progress of Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit is referred to, and 'Locksley Hall' is discussed in detail.33 Browning sent Domett a two-volume edition of Tennyson, bound in Russian leather for the climate, and he seems to have read it carefully: 'I was very interested with all you said about Tennyson,' Browning comments in one of his letters.34 A poem written by Domett on his return to England pictures the colonial reading public, knowledgeable though in awe of London literary luminaries, disappointed and disillusioned on their return:

'So far away so long — and now
Returned to England? — Come with me!
Some of our great "celebrities"
You will be glad to see!'
Carlyle — the Laureate — Browning — these!
These walking bipeds — Nay, you joke! —
page 29 Each wondrous power for thirty years
O'er us head-downward folk
Wrapt skylike, at the Antipodes, —
Those common limbs — that common trunk!
'Tis the Arab-Jinn who reached the clouds
Into his bottle shrunk.
The flashing Mind — the boundless Soul
We felt ubiquitous, that mash
Medullary or cortical —
That six inch brain-cube! — Trash!35

In return for the books, Domett sent Browning and Arnould New Zealand newspapers: 'I have received Examiners in abundance,' Browning writes,36 presumably appreciating not just the Nelson news but the fact that Domett was by now editor. 'Your newspapers — you feel how we all feel when they come to hand and heart. Surely the new dynasty will avail itself of your services,' he writes in 1846, as Domett's political ambitions grow.37 When Tom Arnold, Matthew's brother, met Domett in Wellington in 1848 he described him as 'of a passionate, fiery nature; full of suppressed energy; as proud as Lucifer … no dreamer, no waverer, but a fiery resolute man of action, capable of making his weight felt and his will prevail'.38

Browning, left behind, had fantasies of escape. He wrote to Domett:

I have a sort of notion you will come back some bright morning a dozen years hence and find me just gone — to Heaven, or Timbuctoo; and I give way a little to this fancy while I write, because it lets me write fully what, I dare say, I said niggardly enough — my real love for you … 39

The literary political and personal scene seemed to him overwhelmingly dull and petty by comparison with the details of Domett's pioneer existence:

Here everything goes flatly on, except the fierce political reality page 30(as it begins to be). Our poems, &c., are poor child's play — and I do, without affectation, very often think of you, and your progress, and welfare, and return one not very distant day: — so that (I mean to say) while, out of the myriad things that couldbe written of, scarcely one seems worthier note [sic] than another, you cannot write about acorn-planting or house-building or bird-shooting without interesting me. 40

Despite, or perhaps in contradiction to the characterisation of New Zealand as provincial, Browning can also express the idea that English literature needs the vigour of the colonial: 'we are dead asleep in literary things, and in great want of a "rousing word" (as the old Puritans phrase it) from New Zealand or any place out of this snoring dormitory,' he writes.41 The aridity of the intellectual climate is directly associated with place:

Here the vilest mill goes round and round; one quarterly has an article on Leibnitz, another on Spinosa, a third on Descartes. And outside the dry dust track is a strip of sand, and beyond — your country. 42

Fantasising about emigration, Browning writes, 'New Zealand is still left me!'43 And while this never seems to have been anything more than whimsy, the language of the settler creeps into his writing as a metaphor for his own intellectual and creative dilemma:

It seems disinspiriting for a man to hack away at trees in a wood, and at the end of his clearing come to rocks or the sea or whatever disappoints him as leading to nothing; but still, turn the man's face, point him to new trees and the true direction, and who will compare his power arising from experience with that of another who has been confirming himself all the time in the belief that chopping wood is incredible labour, and that the first blow he strikes will be sure to jar his arm to the shoulder without shaking a leaf on the lowest bough? I stand at present and wait like such a fellow as the first of these; if the real work should present itself to be done, I shall begin at once and in earnest… not having to learn first of all how to keep the axe-page 31head from flying back into my face; and if I stop in the middle, let the bad business of other years show that I was not idle nor altogether incompetent.44

The cure may not have been emigration, but, as it turns out, it certainly involved leaving England. In February 1845 he writes to Domett of 'some divine things by Miss Barrett', a much better known poet who had flatteringly included a reference to his pamphlet 'Bells and Pomegranates' in her poem 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship'.45 Their correspondence had begun in January, and in September 1846 they married and left for Italy. Sending letters from Italy to New Zealand was too difficult and though they heard of each other through Arnould, the friendship between Browning and Domett went into abeyance.46 In his 1848 poem 'The Guardian Angel', written and set in Italy, Browning remembers Domett:

My love is here. Where are you, dear old friend?
How rolls the Wairoa at your world's far end?
This is Ancona, yonder is the sea.47

Domett wrote in 1864 after Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death; though Browning did not answer, he remembered the letter and told Domett when they met again he could not bring himself to reply, saying 'it was too hard to begin'.48

Browning's poem 'Waring' was written soon after Domett's departure in 1842, and phrases from Browning's letters to him are echoed in the poem. Critics have stated that the main difference between Waring and Domett is that Waring has gone to Russia, not New Zealand, but careful reading of the poem shows this not to be the case. Waring has simply gone, and it is left to the narrator to imagine where he might be. 'Travels Waring East away'?49 Browning asks, as he constructs a bravura orientalist fantasy, consciously tongue-in-cheek. Imperialist narratives of a man venerated as a God, of '[h]ordes grown European-hearted / Millions of the wild made tame' suggest Waring's influence. Is he in India, an 'Avatar' in 'Vishnu-land'? Has he been seen in Moscow, walking 'the Kremlin's pavement bright / With serpentine and syenite' ? A welter of images and possible locations follows: the 'hailstone-beaten beach, 'myrrhy lands', 'the whirlblast to fierce Sythian strands'. Then page 32the Russian option is rejected — 'In Russia? Never! Spain were fitter!' Waring is imagined in 'grave Madrid / All fire and shine'. Or perhaps, after all, he is still in London working as a painter, or a playwright or poet. Wherever he is, he is needed:

Contrive, contrive
To rouse us, Waring! Who's alive?
Our men seem scarce in earnest now.

All of this is quite consciously nonsense, a pastiche of the exotic language of place. Browning cannot imagine Waring or Domett away, hence the absurdity of the imaginary destinations. Browning wrote to Domett:

I could easily fancy you were no farther off than Brighton — not to say Exeter — all this while, so much of you is here, and there, and wherever I have been used to see, or think about you. 50

Acorn planting and log huts simply don't supply a vivid enough picture, and certainly not one capable of poetic articulation. Browning wrote in puzzled tone: 'We two [Dowson and himself] went up our hills (what are your hills, now?) and talked about you.'51 At the end of the poem Waring becomes a mysterious absence, glimpsed on a passing boat off Trieste. The poem ends with a consoling though still fantastic note:

Oh, never star
Was lost here, but it rose afar!
Look East, where whole new thousands are!
In Vishnu-land what Avatar!52

In March 1872, Robert Browning, widowed, elderly, successful, wrote to a friend:

Waring came back the other day after thirty years' absence, the same as ever — nearly. He has been Prime Minister at New page 33Zealand for a year and a half, but gets tired, and returns home with a poem.53

The poem was Ranolf and Amohia,54 in many ways Domett's Sordello. Domett arrived in London with the manuscript of the first version complete, in search of a publisher. Their friendship re-established (Domett's diary of these retirement years are a major source for Browning biographers) Browning suggested Domett try his own publishers, Smith and Elder. Domett wrote in his journal, 'Smith and Elder say Poems "won't pay"'.55 Browning was consoling, slipping again into that metaphorical possession of Domett's colonial landscape, when he says, 'still, you that have managed rougher men, will you be brained absolutely by the tap of a publisher's paper-knife?'56 Browning then suggested Murray, who declined, saying that he never published either poetry or sermons (Domett felt that his poem was 'a combination of both'), but Domett recorded his saying that 'if I had anything new about New Zealand to tell in prose he would be most happy to undertake it'.57 Eventually Domett arranged for Smith and Elder to publish Ranolf and Amohia at the author's expense. Domett sent a copy to Browning, who in reply praised the poem, noting its 'subtle yet clear writing about subjects of all others the most urgent for expression and the least easy for treatment' (a polite way, perhaps, of saying it was not easy to read) and noted the stylistic range and the way that Domett introduces Maori material — 'such treasures new and old of language, and such continuance of music in modes old and new'. There is perhaps a desperate note of suppressed hysteria, common among readers of Ranolf and Amohia, when he speaks of 'the affluence of illustration and the dexterity in bringing together to bear on the subject every possible aid from every conceivable quarter'.58

The first version of Ranolf and Amohia was subtitled A South-Sea Day-Dream. At 500 pages it was longer than Paradise Lost. Domett proceeded to use his English retirement to revise and enlarge this text, adding another four thousand lines in the second edition, published in 1883 with the new subtitle, A Dream of Two Lives. Domett sent a copy (of the shorter version) to Tennyson, the poet laureate, and records in his diary Lady Tennyson's saying to Browning, 'He [Tennyson] says your friend only wants limitation to be a very considerable poet.'59 Domett sent a copy to Longfellow, who had anthologised Domett's poem 'A page 34Christmas Hymn'. The American poet also commented on the poem's scope:

There is ample space in it to move and breathe. It reminds me of the great pictures of the old masters, and of what a Western woman said, when she first saw the ocean; 'Well, I am glad at last to see enough of something.'60

The Spectator praised the poem's 'power, buoyancy, intellectual subtlety' and 'vigorous and vivid sketches of modern doubts and faiths', although there was perhaps a barb in its opinion that there was 'picture enough in this book to make a great many poems' and it closed with an ambiguous conclusion that '[n]o one who really understands the book can help thoroughly enjoying it'.61 It was reviewed in the Sunday Times, the Civil Service Gazette, the Literary Churchman, the Illustrated London News and the Manchester Guardian. Douglas Sladen in his introduction to A Century of Australian Song (1888) described it as 'the principle achievement of Australasia in poetry' and Domett as 'a writer whom it is as impossible to represent fairly in selections as it would be to represent the Iliad or the De rerum Natura'.62 The Chicago Times praised it, even though the reviewer thought it was set in India. Despite this, and despite the melodrama of the poem's plot, two discussions of Ranolf and Amohia, by William Gisborne in 1897 and Frederick Kenyon in 1906, suggest that the poem succeeded in persuading most contemporary readers of its faithfulness to particularity of place. Gisborne described it as 'a comprehensive and accurate record of natural history, of scenery, and of Aboriginal life in New Zealand'.63 Kenyon wrote:

[Ranolf and Amohia] is the epic of New Zealand, not merely because its scene is laid there, but because its finest and most attractive passages are those which describe the romantic scenery of the islands (including the wonderful, and now lost, Pink and White Terraces) and the customs and mythology of their native inhabitants.64

Certainly, Domett was at pains to display his ethnographical knowledge of Maori language, custom, history and lore. There are explanatory notes, a guide to pronunciation, and appendices on the page 35Maori 'waiata or native songs' (which are taken from Grey's 1853 Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirarao nga Maori), legends (with acknowledgements to Grey's Polynesian Mythology [1835]), and 'Natural Objects' (trees and shrubs, plants and insects). In this, the poem resembles Sordello with its opening insistence on truth: 'Who believes me shall behold / The man… Only believe me. Ye believe?'65 Browning's 1891 biographer, Mrs Sutherland Orr, describes Browning preparing to write Sordello by consulting thirty books in the British museum,66 part of what a critic describes as Browning's 'general effort … to ground poetic perception on documentary truth on a scale not usually attempted in literature except in the historical and the realistic novel of the nineteenth century'.67 This may not have added to the success of either Sordello or Ranolf and Amohia: James Russell Lowell said of Sordello that '[i]t was a fine poem before the author wrote it'.68

More acute local critics recognised Ranolf and Amohia's place in British rather than local literature: James Fitzgerald thanked Domett for sending him a copy of the 1883 version, noted that he had read the 1872 version twice and was looking forward to reading it for the third time, and called Domett 'a true Browningite [believing] in nothing but "the Soul and God"'. He situates the poem's argument in T. H. Huxley's materialist philosophy and Edwin Arnold's poem 'The Light of Asia'.69 In 1901 James Cowan wrote: 'Ranolf was Domett himself, a lay-figure on which to hang his Browning-like views on man and the infinite.'70 Similarly, despite his research, Browning wrote of Sordello: 'The historical decoration was purposely of no more importance than a background requires; and my stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study.'71

Essentially Ranolf and Amohia is not about New Zealand any more than Browning's Sordello is about Italy or his 'Waring' about Russia or Spain. As the subtitle of its first edition describes it, it is a 'South-Sea Day-Dream', part of that fictional construction of exotic place; it is Maoriland, a fantasy alternative version of New Zealand, the modern progressive colony. Domett's Maoriland is a literary place, archaic space, peopled by the ghosts of a now dying race, warriors, maidens, and tohunga, in settings sublime and exotic, all configured by the conventions of European Romanticism and its nineteenth-century modifications, from Rousseau to Ossian to Ruskin to the Celtic Revival. Its relationship to modern New Zealand was that of self-justifying page 36myth. Maori were ruled out of contention as owners of the new colony not because of their putative barbarity or racial inferiority — although Domett sees them as both barbarous and racially inferior — but because of their location in the past. Despite his obvious distaste for Maori in his political life, Domett can display Maori in Ranolf and Amohia as noble, brave, beautiful, and seductive, because they are carefully hermetically sealed in an invented past. Ranolf can even, after misgivings and near disaster, marry Amohia and take her back to England: as he can visit and leave Maoriland, so she, by virtue of his love and approval, and licensed by romance conventions, can renounce her place there and become his wife in the world of the present. Maori knowledge of the world, of religion and philosophy, can be accorded space and respect in the poem, as it operates only within the circumscribed parameters of Ranolf's overarching and Browningesque account of European systems of knowledge.

As Browning in Camberwell invents medieval Italy as a stage for his metaphysics, so in Ranolf and Amohia, Domett conjures up a world as far removed from the colonial life he experienced as fact is from fiction. Thus his work fitted into the colonists' project by which the 'damned dull collection of log huts in the Antipodes', the potato harvest, and the painfully provincial sociality, cut only by random and bleakly incomprehensible tragedy, could be transformed and safely re-presented to the world as the mysterious, intricate, romantic and exotically seductive realm of Maoriland.

The Plot ofRanolf and Amohia is relatively straightforward. Ranolf, a young Briton (in spite of his iconic Englishness, the details of his parentage suggest a Scots background) is shipwrecked off the coast of New Zealand, saved by the local Maori tribe, and meets and falls in love with Amohia, the daughter of the Rotorua chief, Tangi-Moana. Kangapo, the conniving tohunga, observes Amohia's love for Ranolf, and sees that it will interfere with his plans to marry her off for strategic purposes, so arranges to have Ranolf kidnapped. Ranolf is rescued by Amohia who arranges his escape to an island; she learns of her imminent marriage, and swims across the lake to join him. They flee through the bush, returning to Rotorua in time to take part in a battle page 37between Tangi's forces and those various tribal enemies stirred up by Kangapo. Tangi is killed, but Ranolf leads a party into the enemy camp to capture Kangapo. Despite this excitement, Ranolf grows restless with his life among such savage strangers, longs to return to England, but worries about Amohia's place there. Amohia, for her part, interprets his melancholy as weariness of her. Peace is established between the warring tribes, and the question of Amohia's marriage is again raised. She decides to flee, in part to release Ranolf from his obligations to her. She encounters Kangapo who tries to capture her, but in the ensuing struggle he falls into a pool of hot mud and is killed. Amohia falls — or jumps — into a river, is carried along for a time, and is cast up, seemingly drowned. When Ranolf is told of this, he is beside himself with grief and guilt, but then Amohia reappears. They are reunited, and she explains the misapprehension surrounding her supposed death. They board a ship for England.

In spite of a lack of subplots, Domett takes 150,000 lines to tell his story. He is not unaware of his prolixity:

Then pardon us, although
Beguiled, dear Reader, at this stage too long,
(Alas for sins of inartistic Song!)
O prithee pardon, if with little skill
We fling these scraps together — skip who will!72 (69)

There are long and graphic descriptions of the landscape in which the poem is set, the thermal region of Rotorua, 'this remote sweet wilderness, / This Life-deserted, Life-desiring land' (79), including passages describing thermal geysers, boiling mud pools, the native bush, and the Pink and White Terraces.

Patrick Brantlinger points out that 'the "mysterious Orient" seems to the early Tennyson a daydream realm of ahistorical exotic and erotic pleasures, locked away in a charming past that bears no immediate relation to the concerns of modern, progressive, real Europe'.73 Ranolf and Amohia is constructed in a similar fashion. The immediate and the actual are pushed into the past and the fantastic and invented elements are moved to the foreground: '[W]e pause — we pale before it, / Fairest reader — that soft splendour!' (252). Domett employs the somewhat exhausted language of the European sublime:

page 38

… these glades
And glens and lustre-smitten shades,
Where trees of tropic beauty rare
With graceful spread and ample swell
Uprose … (7)

But it is invigorated by the strangeness and particularity of the New Zealand landscape:

Aye! in this realm of seeming rest,
What sights you met and sounds of dread!
Calcareous caldrons, deep and large
With geysers hissing to their marge;
Sulphureous fumes that spout and blow;
Columns and cones of boiling snow;
And sable lazy-bubbling pools
Of sputtering mud that never cools … (7)

It is, says Domett, as if'Green Paradise were flung over Hell' (8).

Domett cannot wholly retreat from the present into the seductions of myth. His problem is that he is not as removed from the actual as Browning or Tennyson. Browning researched Sordello while sitting in the Reading Room of the British Museum. While he was writing his vast epic, Domett was actively involved in the running of the colony, dealing with actual rather than mythical Maori. 'Everybody likes Mr Domett; everyone admires his vigorous, cross-grained, charming, cantankerous mind,' wrote the Christchurch Press.74 His special area of expertise was in land matters and he made his reputation as a vocal agitator for adopting a non-humanitarian stance towards Maori and for promoting extreme land confiscations — 'the loudest rattle in the land', as the Press put it.75 As he pointed out in a petition, the Land Question was the Native Question.76 He argued there that '[t]he only true humanity would be to make … [the natives] amenable to British laws'. Domett's poem thus has a contradictory relation to his public life. In dealing with actual Maori he was punitive and racist even by the standards of the time. He writes:

page 39

The uncertainty then of boundaries, the mixed and complicated nature of the relations between chiefs and individuals as to ownership, but much more, the unchanged character of the natives, their subtlety, cunning, cupidity, and perfect disregard for truth in deed and word — for of these qualities, whatever excellences they are coupled with, and these are many, there can be no doubt, exemplified as they have been in frequent sales of land belonging to other natives, re-sales of land already parted with, and false assertions on the investigation of them — these causes have conspired to produce the dissatisfaction and delay respecting claims justly founded and purchases made with liberality and good faith.77

Domett held that Maori understanding of property rights was primitive and that mana meant simply 'might is right'.78 Hence the vigorous prosecution of the wars against Maori over land was justified. As an improver, convinced that empire's justifying mission was to make land productive and profitable, he wrote, 'the rights of the aborigines to land, of the capabilities of which they cannot avail themselves, are not to be considered of any great value or entitled to much respect.'79 The land, he asserted, belongs to those who have 'skill to use it best and strength to hold it fastest'.80 Yet in his literary treatment of Maori, he chooses to return to a world before settlement had begun in earnest, the close of Maning's 'Old New Zealand', when '[t]he white man's creed — the potent spell / Of civilized communion had begun / Their work about the borders of the land' (90). He does so in order not so much to present a nostalgic version of a vanishing traditional Maori world, as Maning does, but to use that setting as a figure of the premodern,

… days when Nature — ere discharmed,
Undeified by Science — swarmed
With bright Divinities … (215)

Leonard Bell asks, 'Why were there so many images romanticising Maori at a time when government policy and the dominant ideology looked forward to the end of a distinctive Maori culture and the incorporation of Maori into European structures? '81 The extent to which Ranolf and Amohia can be related to a local particularity is arguable. page 40As Bell argues, all colonial representations of Maori were conventional, even if those conventions were at times contradictory:

European artists formulated multiple, at times seemingly conflicting 'views' of Maori people, culture, and history. For instance, Maori could be presented as savages existing at a primitive stage of social development. Maori could be presented as romantic beings, as noble, as ignoble, as relics of antiquity, as exotic curiosities, as picturesque, as hostile, as friendly or deferential, as objects of desire or display, as participants in a spectacle, as members of a dying race, as ethnological specimens, as marketable commodities, as antipodean peasants.82

Belich delineates the colonial categories of Maori as grey (declining or dying), black (unsalvageably savage), red (ferocious, formidable), brown (natural subordinates, comic and unimprovable), green (Nature's gentry, at one with their environment) and white (almost European).83 Domett has three main kinds: unredeemably savage; recalcitrant but admirable; and salvageable. The more salvageable, the more mythical.

Amohia is the most mythically conceived to the extent that one critic interprets her appearance at the end of the poem as an apparition.84 She is described in terms taken from Shelley's orientalist works and Tennyson's Arthurian heroines: she is associated in her beauty and proud demeanour with classical figures of legend, with Boadicea, and with the submissiveness and docility of Milton's prelapsarian Eve. She lacks the distasteful markers of the savage: although she has 'tempting, twisting lips', 'no stain / Of tattoo had turned [them] azure' (17). Her accent is 'liquid': she calls Ranolf 'Ranoro', which sounds Italian. She is, says Domett, '[l]ike and unlike — such counterpart / And contrast to that deathless dream of Art'. That her name is a near anagram of Hinemoa points to Domett's local sources. Domett suggests that Hinemoa is Amohia's 'own great Ancestress' (165). Amohia is an heroic swimmer, as was the legendary Hinemoa, and is associated with Mokoia Island, Hinemoa's haunt. As Bell points out, the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai was well known by the late 1870s not only in New Zealand but even in Britain, mainly by way of Grey's Polynesian Mythology.85

The Hinemoa story is the most famous of the Europeanised legends of the Maori, perhaps because it allows the Pakeha reader a glimpse page 41into an imagined Maori erotic. Versions of the story are ubiquitous in late colonial writing, even in a 1906 sketch by Katherine Mansfield, 'Summer Idylle'. Ranolf and Amohia differs from its source in that the couple are Maori and Pakeha, and in the sense the reader has that Ranolf, 'Supreme Civilisation's tender heir' (151), is more interested in talking to (or at) Amohia than disporting himself with her. Rather than being purely erotic, Amohia represents the beautiful, romantic associations of Maori culture, and this is being rescued and redeemed from the unacceptable, unassimilable savage elements. Significantly, Amohia, the assimilable Maori, is literally drawn from myth rather than being a representation of reality. Assimilation is figured by the romance plot, in which marriage is both conquest and possession.

Domett's second category is that of the recalcitrant but engaging Maori, and is represented by Tangi-Moana, whose chiefly authority is a version of that of the British aristocracy; indeed, Domett calls Tangi and his warrior companions 'unkempt Aristocrats' (89):

His many merits how shall we repeat?
In all that most adorns a Chief, complete.
Highborn — of ancient perfect pedigree,
The carved and saw-notched stick, his family-tree
And roll heraldic, where each tooth expressed
A male progenitor, concisely showed
How still through these his lineage proud had flowed … (88)

If Amohia is readily assimilable, indeed, marriageable, Tangi is resistant yet not ignoble. He is still in a state of savagery, but near the pinnacle of the carefully graded Victorian imperial racial ladder. His warrior status locates him within the discourses of European romanticism, the noble savage inhabiting a world where courage and honour are terms not yet debased by modernity.86 His courageous death in battle entitles him to entry into a Maori Valhalla:

He had his Heaven, be sure; where warriors brave
Found all the luxuries their rude tastes would crave … (415)

Tangi compares the old Maori ways with Christianity, 'our dark world of chance and change' (184). His contempt for the Christian doctrine page 42of damnation, and for a deity that would delight in pain echoes the arguments of many doubting Victorians. Charles Darwin wrote: 'I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat would play with mice.'87 In a manner that reflects Domett's own negative feelings towards institutionalised religion, 'the leaden links / Of dogmas stereotyped — creeds cut-and-dry / And double dry' (66), Maori spirituality is distinguished from the social practices of religion: the 'springs of spiritual truth sublime' as opposed to the 'dams and dykes of narrow Creeds' (204). Thus the utterly unredeemable Maori in the poem is the tohunga, whose superstitious and devious practice is contrasted with the natural spirituality of Tangi and Amohia. Kangapo the tohunga is not only a thaumaturge (spirit-raiser) and a fraud but also a ruthless political manipulator possessed of Jesuitical cunning. His power of tapu, 'the basis of their savage Church and State' (100), is specifically compared to that of the Catholic priesthood:

The world of Spirits was their dumb Police,
And Ghosts enforced their lightest Laws. (101)

In contrast to the uncanny sublime of the landscape, Maori society and culture in general are seen not in a romantic light but as savage and degraded:

What dwarfish forms those ponderous heads upbear:
Their crooked tortoise-legs, club-curved and short;
Their hands, like toasting-forks or tridents prest
Against each broad and circle-fretted breast … (144)

What Ranolf admires and becomes absorbed in are the legendary renditions, by Amohia and others, of Maori myth, cosmolgy and metaphysics, which speak in a particular way to his own preoccupations. The bulk of Ranolf and Amohia, what modern readers find indigestible and Victorian readers praised, consists of the philosophical discussions and meditations of Ranolf, a 'sailor-student' akin, as Dennis McEldowney notes, to Arnold's scholar-gypsy.88 Indeed, the plot of Ranolf and Amohia and the descriptions of place are subsumed under Ranolf's subjective page 43and to a great extent unresolved musings. Partly, these concern the nineteenth-century problem of doubt versus belief: 'We ground on those mudbanks of Doubt,' he laments. But his instincts, though they are firmly non-sectarian, are not entirely to reject belief: 'What need of Temples', he asks:

… 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! (61)

Ranolf's (and Domett's) stance is Darwinian and triumphalist. He states:

… all creatures — foul or fair
One universal endless progress share;
In their procession headed by mankind … (5)

George Bornstein Writes of the way in which the Romantic lyric's organic relation between the speaker and nature was, in Victorian poetry, infused by 'linguistic self-consciousness' and 'textual defensiveness': while the Romantic poet strives to minimise the self-division inherent in the relationship, the Victorian exacerbates it.89 Isobel Armstrong characterises this as a doubleness, where the poem combines a sense of both 'unified selfhood and fracturing self awareness': 'It draws attention to the epistemology which governs the construction of the self and its relationships to the cultural conditions in which those relationships are made.'90 Those relationships are characteristically unstable. As Warwick Slinn observes, 'speakers in Victorian poems rarely find the palpable end or closure that would ensure aesthetic order and cultural or personal meaningfulness.'91 Thus the Maoriland setting of Ranolf and Amohia, infused with a sense of distance and strangeness, beautiful and terrible but also unsettlingly wrong and subjectively page 44nightmarish, becomes an objective correlative of Ranolf's state of mind. Although the plot is ostensibly resolved by the mechanisms of romance, the reunion of the lovers seems arbitrary. The couple's return to Britain is an admission by Domett of the fragility of the New Zealand setting and of its failure to resolve either Ranolf and Amohia's mutual misgivings or Ranolf's attempt at intellectual totalising.

The intellectual totalising of Domett's poem — the attempt to contain the fracturing universe of high Victorian thought — was a not unusual colonial activity. The critic Rukmini Bhaya Nair writes:

During the period of the consolidation of the East India Company, the British in India produced surprisingly large quantities of one commodity that could not be traded — poetry … questions of value and fetish [are] raised by such prized, yet priceless goods. Why should a nascent colonising culture, confident of both its mercantile and military prowess, expend so much labour on the production of such apparently unsalable goods and services?92

Nair implies that poetry is a form of dilettante experience at odds with the world of commerce and colonial authority, but this is arguable. Colonial poetry was a part of public as well as private discourse, not so much a commodity in itself, but a means of organisation and classification for both the world of the mind — or as Domett and Browning would have put it, the Soul — and the commodified world of empire. This is the aspect of Ranolf and Amohia that produced admiring interest in Victorian readers and still unsettles its few modern readers, sensitive to questions of appropriation. Thomas Richards has written of the project of empire as the collection of knowledge, of the business of empire as the control and ordering of a multitude of facts:

From all over the globe the British collected information about the countries they were adding to their map. They surveyed and they mapped. They took censuses, produced statistics. They made vast lists of birds. Then they shoved the data they had collected into a shifting series of classifications.93

Given this excess, the fantasy of colonial literature was the text that page 45would contain and make coherent the imperial experience. From the Rev. Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch with his inevitably unfinished work The Key to All Mythologies to McIntosh Jellaludin in Kipling's story, 'To be Filed for Reference', whose book explaining India turns out to be merely 'a big bundle, wrapped in the tail of a petticoat, of old sheets of miscellaneous notepaper, all numbered and covered with fine cramped writing',94 it was a project frequently figured in terms of failure. The colonial poet could nonetheless aspire to an essential role as collector, recorder, or scholarly elucidator of local and indigenous material. The Victorian poem, with its formal, organising rhetoric and unifying textuality, acted as an interpretive archive for that knowledge. The indigenous owners of the material are visible and acknowledged, but are held within the colonial frame. As Gibbons writes:

Even though the indigenous people are imprisoned within the texts, and their traditions distorted by being reduced from oral performance to print, nevertheless they are accorded a participatory role within the text, and thus in the historical sequences. Moreover, the textualisation of traditions is in effect a demonstration that indigenous traditions have a place within the discourse. Once the indigenous people were located in the textual world as participants, and their traditions were accorded status within the discourse, they could not be erased.95

The ur-text for all this ethnographic epic literature was the work of the Scottish poet Ossian, supposedly third century, and (scholarly opinion varied) either collected, recorded and translated by James Macpherson, or completely invented by Macpherson in the 1760s.96 The impetus behind Ossian and his imitators has been described as the 'invention of tradition', that response to modernity by which national and cultural identity is manufactured by means of a narrative of the past in whose authority and direct veracity the audience is asked to believe. Hence the ethnographic detail. Macpherson's collection of Ossian became a landmark of Scottish culture, and was a common emigration present to settlers.97 Ossian's poems — ancient, heroic, authentically primitive — defined Scottish nationality, and served as an antidote to the bustling modernity of the new colony. Their epic seriousness would be an appropriate guide for the new life.

page 46

Writing creates rather than reflects reality. That Ossian's work is now recognised to be a forgery and a fabrication, the product of Macpherson's Romantic imagination rather than, as he purported it to be, a work of scholarly collection, did not matter to the many Scottish immigrants throughout the empire who carried his text in their cabin trunks. Ossian represented, by its fraudulent manufacture, as much as by those fragments of genuine traditional poetry Macpherson had included, not only a Romantic response to the problems of the modern, but also nostalgia for a Scottish nation, albeit one non-existent outside the novels of Scott, as well as the invention of a set of traditions by which nationhood could be forged, or at least imagined. Peter Gibbons has spoken of the late nineteenth century in New Zealand as a time when '[t]he "native-born" colonists were trying to depict themselves as the indigenous people'.98 What better way of doing this than to represent the actual indigenous in those terms that you confidently owned. Ossianic Maori became a feature of New Zealand colonial literature, consumed by the New Zealand reading public, and by a British readership agog for adventures of empire.

The Romantic elevation of the primitive fed into a sense that modernity had obliterated all trace of the past, save for the fast-vanishing oral record; the epic is a heroic story in an unheroic age: as Arnold says in 'The Scholar Gipsy', it is counter to

… this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
Its heads o'ertax'd, its palsied hearts …

The primitive integrity of these texts would, it was thought, act as an antidote for

Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
Who never deeply felt, nor clearly will'd,
Whose insight never has born fruit in deeds,
Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill'd …99

For colonial writers and readers these epic texts had an added dimension. The Idylls of the King or Ossian could be read in terms of memory and nostalgia, but also as adaptive and appropriative tools for page 47the new place. They were the means by which the origin and identity of a settler culture could be encoded, transported, and celebrated; Longfellow wrote:

… we cannot yet throw off our literary allegiance to Old England [yet] we may rejoice … in the hope of a beauty and sublimity in our national literature, for no people are richer than we are in the beauties of nature … every rock shall become a chronicle of storied allusions; and the tomb of the Indian prophet shall be as hallowed as the sepulchres of ancient kings.100

Ossian's delineation of the primitive — authentic, spiritual, warlike but heroic — served as a template for interpreting local indigeneity, adapting and appropriating it. Throughout the empire, the native spoke in tones and terms that were pure Ossian. The nationalist epic depicted him willingly offering his history and mythology to the European colonist and collector. The distinguishing feature of these colonial poetic archives is not just their epic scope — serious purpose, length and complexity of narrative, heroic action and the mythic status of characters and events — but the fact that they all purport to be, following in the footsteps of Macpherson, contemporary redactions of 'primitive' material which are authentic and ethnographically correct, collected and transmitted in such a way as to insist upon an authority which is not merely literary but scholarly, presenting themselves as in some way containing the true voice of the indigenous.

Elias Lonnrot's Kalevala (1835, enlarged in 1849), Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion (1838-49), Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1833-85), George Gordon McCrae's Mamba the Bright-Eyed (1867), Samuel Ferguson's Congal (1872), Edwin Arnold's Indian Idylls (1883) and The Song Celestial (1885), Lady Gregory's works of 'Kiltartanese' (1900s), Pauline Johnson-Tekahionwake's Vancouver Legends (1911) — all use various methods to insist upon their authenticity and authoritative status. They do so in various ways: within the text; in the apparatus surrounding the text; by the collection principles; in terms of the supposed degree of archival record versus imaginative redaction and of the relationship of the collector/editor/author/poet to the original material.101 Sources are important, as is authentication. Hence the glossaries, the footnotes, and page 48the appendices. Hence the anxieties about originality and plagiarism, although in a slightly inverted form as the notion of absolute originality or invention is suppressed and the poet's role is depicted as that of a neutral transmitter of primitive material. Longfellow, accused of plagiarising The Song of Hiawatha from Elias Lonnrot's Kalevala, appealed to the universality of his material: 'Whatever resemblance … may be found between the poems of the"Kalevala" and mine … is not of my creating, but lies in the legends themselves.' But he also stressed the authority for his version of the legend of Hiawatha:

My authorities will all be found in the notes. All these strange stories are in Schoolcraft and the other writers on Indian matters, and this ought to shield me from any accusation of taking them from Finnish sources.102

There is a paradox here, as there is in the structure of Domett's encyclopedic fantasy. Longfellow is claiming that all legendary material is ultimately unified, while at the same time insisting on the particularity of his own version.

Ranolf and Amohia far from being, as it is usually represented, something unusual and local is part of this general phenomenon. Domett's immediate source was Governor George Grey's Polynesian Mythology (1855). Grey, in turn, had relied on information from Wiremu Te Rangikaheke of the Ngati Rangiwewehi of Te Arawa. Grey probably advised Domett as to his use of the material: the two men were friends, and Domett said that Grey was the only person apart from his family to read Ranolf and Amohia before he took it to Britain. Grey for his part saw his recording of poetry, legends, and mythology as pragmatic as well as scholarly. He could, he wrote in the preface to Polynesian Mythology,

… neither successfully govern, nor hope to conciliate, a numerous and turbulent people, with whose language, manners, customs, religion, and modes of thought I was quite unacquainted.
… [They] frequently quoted, in explanation of their views or intentions, fragments of ancient poems or proverbs, or made allusions which rested on an ancient system of mythology … the page 49most important parts of their communications were embodied in these figurative forms … 103

Domett's political career in New Zealand and his hard-line involvement in Maori affairs demonstrate his pragmatic side.104 But Ranolf and Amohia's orientation was neither pragmatic nor local. It was a poem to take back home, a demonstration not of what was unique about New Zealand but what was universal. What he approves of in New Zealand is that which can be generalised — the sublimity of the landscape and the metaphysical speculation it prompts in Ranolf; what he disdains even as he catalogues is what a later and more economical poet calls the 'local and special'.

As a Victorian of a doubting cast of mind, Domett believed in the unitary nature of all mythologies and systems of belief. The beliefs, practices and traditions of the Maori are, to him, unfamiliar and repugnant but only on a superficial level. His poem instructs the reader — the British reader — how such material should be contexualised and universalised. Despite the Romantic descriptions of the landscape and the action scenes — shipwrecks, floods, thermal eruptions, warfare — the bulk of Ranolf and Amohia is a dialogue between the lovers, British Ranolf and the Maori princess Amohia, which allows him to explain European philosophy, as she, in return, gives her version, in song, story and legend, of what is essentially the same body of knowledge. Ranolf describes this material as 'recastings from the ancient mould':

Greek, Gothic, Polynesian — all
Primeval races on a train
Of like ideas, conceptions, fall.105 (115)

There is, of course, a difference in the status the poem accords each system. Darwinian hierarchies are important to Domett and to Ranolf. Both emphasise the inferiority of the Maori and the difficulty of interpretation: 'were this a German tale, / Not artless Maori', he says at one point, 'who could fail / To hit its sense, extract its pith / So pregnant, palpable a myth!' (123). Equivalents between European mythology and Maori can be worked out, but an act of translation is necessary. He muses:

page 50

But how translate
In German style the mystery? —
Shall Hapae our URANIA be? (127)

What Ranolf sees as the crudity and unsophistication of Amohia's system is balanced by its noble simplicity. He is intrigued by the fact that for Amohia knowledge and history are cast as mythological narrative:

Can that dark forest overgrown
Be Metaphysics? And the crone
So watchworn, Kant or Hegel is't? (128)

The implication he draws is that philosophy is a development from, or later stage of, myth:

Myths may be construed many ways ….
That savage story strangely rings
With echoes of profoundest things …
… [N]ought can stifle or repress Man's upward tendency … (130)

Listening to Amohia, and others, tell him their stories Ranolf gains an insight into the nature of such material and its origin:

'Well, these are genuine Myths at last,'
Thought Ranolf, 'samples from the Past
Of modes men caught at to record
Notions for which they had no word; So clothed, unable to abstract,
Emotions deep in fancied fact;
To else unutterable thought
Imaginative utterance brought …' (198)

The unity of this system and the identical nature of Maori and European thought can be discovered through their respective mythologies; this is central to Ranolf and Domett's understanding of the world as '[t]his vast Machinery for making Souls':

page 51

… as that Law of Storms
Cannot be gathered from a single breeze
Or local gale; so must a myriad forms
Of lives and their environments be learned
And disentangled ere can be discerned
The law that flows around each, unguessed, unseen,
Like fluid wool that through the ribbed machine
Which looks so bare, so finely runs and fast
O'er whirling cylinders, a viewless stream … (485)

Ranolf assumes that Amohia does not understand the implications of what she is telling him: his role is thus not simply to record her material but to interpret it:

… this Song, a glimpse, a hint,
An impress from Reflection's mint
Struck faintly of a theme so vast —
Of a wide bee-eyed truth one tiny facet
With nothing but simplicity to grace it —
The fancy of the native girls had caught
(Who only of its literal meaning thought)…. (205)

Although he learns quickly, Ranolf's knowledge of the Maori language limits him, especially as he is explaining to Amohia 'the stately ship of Western thought'. The poem makes it clear that, textually and technically, it has to make up for this seeming deficiency, substituting 'phrases freer, fuller and more flowery' in place of 'the rudeness of his simple Maori' (135). The written text is not a transliteration of what Ranolf says, but is tailored for a British reading audience: 'all the interruptions we omit', Domett says at one point, '[w]here foreign thought or phrase required explaining …' (285). He is aware of the insufficiency of one language to describe the concepts of another culture: Ranolf is, the poem says, 'constraining / Strange words and strange ideas to fit …' (285).

The relationship between the two lovers is figured as a meeting of an oral and a literary culture. Amohia describes reading as 'the white man's art / Of seeing talk' (344). In contrast with the limitless memory of Amohia and her kin, Ranolf must write down what he cannot remember of his experience (236). As he tutors Amohia in the philosophy of page 52Western thought, he also teaches her to read, so that when she decides to leave him, she is able to write him a letter, albeit on a flax leaf with a shell:

… that simple scrawl —
Pothooks and hangers painfully produced —
Disjointed — childlike! yet a wonder all,
In one to symbolled language so unused,
And with such marvellous aptitude acquired … (451)

But essentially Amohia is of an oral culture. The poem makes clear to its readers that, just as Ranolf's crude Maori has been altered to meet the requirements of poetry, so Amohia's recitations of legend and song have been translated not just from Maori into English, but from the performance values of her oral literature into the structures of Victorian poetics:

An ancient legend she began to tell
Of one God-hero of the land,
Of which our faithful lay presents
Precisely the main incidents,
Diluting only here and there
The better its intent to reach,
The language, so condensed and bare,
Those clotted rudiments of speech … (120)

Actual words — song, haka, narrative — recorded by the ethnographer must be expanded by the poet, not simply for aesthetic effect, but in order that the true meaning of the Maori can be conveyed. At one point Domett speaks of

… a song …
Whose purport, feebler paraphrase alone
Can give — the sense that to themselves it gave;
For the simplicity of that rude stave
Was so severe, its literal words made known,
Were almost gibberish in their brevity:
Only dilution can lend any zest,
page 53 Or nutriment a stranger could digest,
To song in short-hand, verse so cramped — comprest,
The very pemmican of poetry … (406–7)

Orality and performance (in this case, 'half chaunt-half shouts, deep melancholy cries') give additional meaning to the words. Such material cannot be simply transcribed and translated. The transcriber must employ equivalent but different poetic strategies to compensate for the absence of the actual person, the 'living book'. Domett explains this quality and process in his Glossary:

Of the songs above specified, those invented are, it is believed, sufficiently in accordance with the ordinary tone of native feeling and thought; while those paraphrased or amplified will perhaps in their English dress have much the same appearance to an English reader as the originals to a native hearer. In songs or other compositions orally transmitted, it should be remembered that the hearer receives them in most cases from a source which can itself supply the associations, details, or explanations, which so often render paraphrases necessary to make them intelligible to others. The reciter is a living book, ready to answer every query, and amplify to any extent desirable; adapt itself, in short, to the greater or less degree of imaginativeness in the hearer. Perhaps that may partly account for the exceeding simplicity and terseness of most early and oral poetry, quite as much as any presumed severity of taste in the composers. Poetry so communicated always had, besides, the expressive looks, tones and gestures of the person communicating it — to facilitate brevity. (502)

He gives an example of this, defending his use of the term 'immeasurable abyss' as 'but a slight amplification of an epithet not uncommonly applied in their songs by a woman to her lover' (498).

Domett was perhaps alerted to the question of translation by his source, Grey, who writes in the preface to Polynesian Mythology that:

it is almost impossible closely and faithfully to translate a very difficult language without almost insensibly falling somewhat page 54into the idiom and form of construction of that language, which, perhaps, from its unusualness, may prove unpleasant to the European ear and mind … 106

Grey claims for his text an authority and an authenticity in terms not just of content but of voice:

For the first time, I believe, a European reader will find it in his power to place himself in the position of one who listens to a heathen and savage high-priest explaining to him, in his own words, and in his own energetic manner, the traditions in which he earnestly believes, and unfolding religious opinions upon which the faith and hopes of his race rest.107

Grey and Domett are placing themselves within a wider intellectual debate, originating from Friedrich Wolf's 1795 Prolegomena ad Homerum, which argued for the late, disparately authored and orally transmitted nature of Homer's works. This led to a discussion on the implications of Wolf's theory for translation and the relation of the oral and the written text, which was summarised by Matthew Arnold in his 1860 lecture, 'On Translating Homer':

On one side it is said that the translation ought to be such 'that the reader should, if possible forget that it is a translation at all, and be lulled into the illusion that he is reading an original work, — something original … from an English hand' … On the other hand … [it is said that the translation ought] 'to retain every peculiarity of the original, so far as [the translator] is able, with the greater care the more foreign it may happen to be'; so that it may 'never be forgotten that he is imitating, and imitating in a different material'.108

Grey subscribes to the latter position, hence his fear that his work 'may prove unpleasant to the European ear and mind'. Domett is attempting to retain the accuracy of the latter position — as Arnold represents it, '[t]he translator's first duty … is a historical one: to be faithful' — with the aesthetic pleasures of the former, while justifying and explaining the process to the reader.

page 55
Modern critics of Ranolf and Amohia have been interested in poetics not ethnology. MacDonald Jackson in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature complains that

… four simple and effective sentences (amounting to just over one hundred words altogether) in Grey's English account of the legend of Tawhaki are expanded by Domett into seventeen rhymed trochaic octameters totalling nearly 200 words.109

But Domett explains in the poem why such amplifications are necessary as an act of faith to the original: the poem is not simply the words, it is the performance of those words. Jane McRae, also in the Oxford History, supports his position when she says of nineteenth-century Maori-language texts authored by Maori that:

[s]ome writing … presents difficulties for the reader because the authors employed the oral style of composition which assumed the understanding of an immediate audience conversant with the tradition.110

It is significant that McRae is writing in the section 'Maori Literature', Jackson in 'Poetry' — different standards are being applied. As D. F. McKenzie reminds us in 'The Sociology of a Text', '[l]iteracy both as a concept and as an historically traceable phenomenon, is inseparable from a concern … with orality and the recording function of memory'.111 In an unconscious echo of Domett, McKenzie goes on, '[t]he memorized text … makes one a living library in a way the read book cannot'.112

Domett wrote Ranolf and Amohia at the conjunction of an oral society and a print culture. One of the processes the poem works through is how to represent Maori literature in terms that are consistent with its oral performance, as encoded and contained within a Victorian poem. Domett's processes and values are those of a Victorian coloniser — how could they be otherwise? But they are not miles apart from a Waitangi Tribunal report of 1983 on reading practices appropriate to bicultural New Zealand's founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi:

A Maori approach to the Treaty would imply that its wairua or spirit is something more than a literal construction of the actual page 56words used can provide. The spirit of the Treaty transcends the sum total of its component written words and puts narrow or literal interpretations out of place.113

1 Emma Young to Emily Secretan, c. 1904, Hall Griffin papers, British Library, Add. MS 45, 564, fol. 66–68b, n.p.

2 W. H. Griffin, 'Early Friends of Robert Browning', Contemporary Review 87 (March 1905), 427–46, p. 440.

3 Young to Secretan, n.p.

4 John Maynard, Browning's Youth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 104–5.

5 William Curling Young, The English in China (London: Smith, Elder, 1840).

6 The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1845–1846, ed. Elvan Kintner (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), vol. 2, letter 523, 26 August 1846, p. 1005. This contrasted with the position of Elizabeth Barrett's father, Edward Barrett. Browning wrote to Domett: 'He was in fact a great slaveholder and seemed to consider that everyone belonging to him must bend to his will and pleasure as his slaves did', The Diary of Alfred Domett 1872–1885, ed. E. A. Horsman, Diary (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), 14 April 1873, p. 80.

7 New Letters of Robert Browning, eds. W. C. DeVane and K. L. Knickerbocker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 263.

8 The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 329.

9 Eric Glasgow describes Domett as 'a typical upper class Englishman' of his time, 'Alfred Domett: Fulfilment in the Antipodes', Contemporary Review, vol. 215 (1969), p. 316. In fact, he was not strictly upper class. He was from the wealthy commercial middle classes but had been educated to think of himself as a gentleman.

10 Robert Browning and Alfred Domett, ed. F. G. Kenyon (London: Smith, Elder, 1906), p. vi.

11 Christopher North (Blackwoods Magazine, 1837), The Diary of Alfred Domett, introduction, p. 1. 'A Christmas Hymn' was republished in Domett's Flotsam and Jetsam: Rhymes Old and New (London: Smith and Elder, 1877), p. 44.

12 Charles Stuart Perry, 'What became of Waring: A Life of Alfred Domett called "Waring" by his friend Robert Browning', unpublished typescript (c.1935), J. C. Beaglehole Collection, Victoria University Library, Wellington, p. 82.

13 W.C. DeVane, A Browning Handbook (New York: F. S. Crofts, 1955), p. 85.

14 DeVane, Browning Handbook, pp. 85–6.

15 DeVane, Browning Handbook, p. 85.

16 Patrick Evans, The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature (Auckland: Penguin, 1990), p. 43.

17 7 March 1840, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, pp. 27–8.

18 British Library MS Ashley 247.

19 Domett writes in his diary that in his opinion the intricacies of the plot present more difficulties than the '"subjective" phrases': 'I had scribbled in pencil on the book, two or three impatient remarks such as "Who said this?", "What does this mean?" &c', 8 March 1872, Horsman, Diary, p. 49.

20 n.d., Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 84.

21 Domett, Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 25.

22 Perry, 'Waring', p. 79.

23 22 May 1842, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 35.

24 See the entry 'New Zealand death', DNZE, p. 531.

25 Letter to Capt. Nairne, 28 August 1842, 'William Curling Young: Letters and Notes 1840–2', compiled by Mary Young, J. C. Beaglehole Collection, Victoria University Library, Wellington, p. 224. In this manuscript, Mary Young transcribes a letter from Domett in which he writes of Curling Young's death being still fresh in the mind of the inhabitants of Nelson when he arrived: 'People of the Labouring Class often pass me in mourning for him.' Curling Young's time in Nelson is discussed in Ruth M. Allan, Nelson: A History of Early Settlement (Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1965), p. 181.

26 8 November 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett p. 95. This is borne out by later letters quoted by Helen Blythe, 'Paradise or Hell: Ranolf and Amohia, the New Zealand Colony, and Alfred Domett' in 'The Idea of Place', special issue of Australian-Canadian Studies, 18: 1–2 (2000) 113–28, though Blythe's interpretation differs from ours.

27 Belich, Making Peoples, p. 205.

28 8 January 1844, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 99–100.

29 n.d., Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 81.

30 23 February 1845, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 109–10.

31 Horsman, Diary, p. 15.

32 Maynard, Browning's Youth, pp. 17–18.

33 13 July 1842, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 40.

34 n.d., Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 84.

35 Domett, Flotsam and Jetsam, p. 75.

36 13 July 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 126.

37 19 March 1846, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 122.

38 Horsman, Diary, p. 25.

39 22 May 1842, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 33.

40 13 July 1842, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 42–3.

41 15 May 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 54.

42 15 May 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 57.

43 15 May 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 56.

44 13 July 1846, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 128

45 23 February 1845, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 113.

46 Arnould's description of Barrett to Domett was surprisingly hostile: 'the soidisante invalid of seven years, once emancipated from paternal despotism, has had a wondrous revival, or rather a complete metamorphosis; walks, rides, eats and drinks like a young and healthy woman — in fact is a healthy woman of, I believe, some five and thirty — a little old — too old for Browning — but then one word covers all: they are in Love, who lends his own youth to everything', 30 November 1846, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 136. In fact Barrett was 40 years old.

47 Robert Browning, 'The Guardian Angel', Poetical Works, vol. 5, eds. Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), p. 413. The editors are incorrect in identifying the Wairoa as the river of that name in Hawkes Bay. Browning is referring to the Wairoa near Nelson.

48 1 March 1872, Horsman, Diary, p. 46.

49 Robert Browning, 'Waring', Poetical Works, vol. 3, eds. Ian Jack and Rowena Fowler (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), pp. 225-35.

50 13 December 1842, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 47.

51 5 March 1843, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 51.

52 Browning, 'Waring', p. 235.

53 Browning to Isabella Blagden, 30 March 1872, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 145.

54 The first version of Ranolf and Amohia subtitled A South-Sea Day-Dream was published by Smith and Elder, London, in 1872. The revised edition with the new subtitle A Dream of Two Lives was published by Keagan Paul, London, in 1883. Subsequent references are in the text.

55 18 March 1872, Horsman, Diary, p. 50.

56 22 March 1872, Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 149.

57 25 March 1872, Horsman, Diary, p. 51.

58 Perry, 'Waring', pp. 168–9.

59 9 January 1873, Horsman, Diary, p. 69.

60 7 September 1878, Horsman, Diary, p. 223. Domett says: 'While he has a quiet hit at the unconscionable length of the poem, in other respects his opinion seems sufficiently grateful.'

61 Perry, 'Waring', p. 179.

62 Douglas Sladen, A Century of Australian Song (London: Walter Scott, 1888), pp. 6–7.

63 William Gisborne, New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen from 1840 to 1897, rev. ed. (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1897), p. 116.

64 Kenyon, Browning and Domett, p. 18.

65 Sordello, Browning, Poetical Works, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), eds. Ian Jack and Margaret Smith, p. 195.

66 Browning, Poetical Works, v. 2, p. 174.

67 Roger Sharrock, 'Browning and History', Robert Browning, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: G. Bell and Son, 1974), p. 77.

68 DeVane, Browning Handbook, p. 77.

69 Alfred Domett papers, MS-Papers-1632-2, ATL.

70 Quoted in Perry, 'Waring', p. 176.

71 DeVane, Browning Handbook, p. 73.

72 Elsewhere, a long descriptive passage of 'moving mountains and still Main' is curtailed by the admission, 'In brief, dear tortured Reader — it was near / The dawn' (473).

73 Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism 1830–1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 9.

74 16 January 1864; quoted in Edmund Bohan, Blest Madman: Fitzgerald of Canterbury (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1998), p. 244.

75 14 March 1863; quoted in Bohan, Blest Madman, p. 229.

76 Jean Stevenson ['Adroit'], 'Alfred Domett: His Life and Work', M.A. thesis, University of New Zealand, 1933, p. 41.

77 Quoted in Stevenson, 'Alfred Domett', p. 27.

78 Stevenson, 'Alfred Domett', p. 116.

79 Quoted in Horsman, Diary, p. 16.

80 Quoted in Horsman, Diary, p. 18.

81 Leonard Bell, Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840–1914 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992), p. 3.

82 Bell, Colonial Constructs, p. 4. There was a standard stereotype of 'the primitive'. Andrew Wawn describes the Viking in nineteenth-century writing in terms that parallels Maori representations: 'variously buchaneering, triumphalist, defiant, confused, disillusioned, unbiddable, disciplined, elaborately pagan, austerely pious, relentlessly jolly, or self-destructively sybaritic. They are merchant adventurers, mercenary soldiers, pioneering colonists, pitiless raiders, self-sufficient farmers, cutting edge naval technologists, primitive democrats, psychopathic berserks, ardent lovers and complicated poets.' Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge and New York: D. S. Brewer, 2000), p. 4.

83 Belich, Making Peoples, p. 21.

84 Helen Blythe, 'Paradise or Hell', pp. 113–28.

85 Bell, Colonial Constructs, pp. 140–3. Bell is discussing an 1879 painting, 'Hinemoa: A Maori Maiden' by Nicholas Chevalier.

86 This looks forward to Goldie's portraits, although by then a consciousness of their fabrication was stronger.

87 The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, 2 vols (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896), I, p. 554–5.

88 Dennis McEldowney, 'The Unbridled Bridal Pair: "Ranolf and Amohia"', Landfall, 22 no. 4 (December 1968), p. 377. McEldowney points out that in fact '[Domett's] "sailor-student" … hardly shares the concerns of the scholar gypsy but Domett may have sought some credence from the verbal similarity'.

89 George Bornstein, Poetic Remaking the Art of Browning, Yeats and Pound (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1988), p. 39–40.

90 Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 13.

91 E. Warwick Slinn, 'Experimental Form in Victorian Poetry', The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 48.

92 Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Lying on the Postcolonial Couch: the Idea of Indifference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 5. Nair writes of 'the complex poetics of early colonialism, during which time buccaneering instincts were locked in a reflexive struggle to turn themselves into the image of bureaucratic respectability' and the consequent 'transformations of subjectivity and profession', p. 3.

93 Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire (London: Verso, 1993), p. 3.

94 Rudyard Kipling, 'To Be Filed for Reference' (1888), Plain Tales from the Hills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 240.

95 Peter Gibbons, 'Non-fiction', OH, p. 61

96 For a fuller discussion, see Fiona Stafford, The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988).

97 An example of this is discussed in Jane Stafford, 'Immeasurable Abysses and Living Books: Oral Literature and Victorian Poetics', Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia and New Zealand, spec. issue: 'Books and Empire: Textual Production, Distribution and Consumption in Postcolonial Countries', eds. Elizabeth Webby and Paul Eggert, 28 nos. 1, 2 (2004), pp. 161–71.

98 Gibbons, 'Non-fiction', OH, p. 55.

99 Matthew Arnold, Poetical Works, eds. C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 261, 260, lines 203–5; 172–5.

100 Quoted in Steven Olson, The Prairie in Nineteenth Century American Poetry (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), p. 89.

101 Longfellow used Lonnrot's metre, but he also relied on the work of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a government official who had married an Ojibwa Indian woman, Jane Schoolcraft, daughter of the Chippewa chief Waub Ojeeg. Their six volume Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes in the US appeared between 1851–57. Ferguson's Irish epic Congal was based on The Battle of Dun-na-n-Gaedh and The Battle of Magh Rath published by the Irish Archaeological Society in 1842 though he claimed that he balanced 'the largeness of purpose, unity and continuity of action which are the principal elements of Epic poetry' in his sources against their 'inherent repugnancies'. Arnold's two Indian epics were a somewhat tendentiously colonial reading of the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata:

He who ever so slightly explores this epical ocean, will indeed perceive defects, excrescences, differences, and breaks of artistic style and structure. But in the simpler nobler sections, the Sanskrit verse (oft times as musical and highly wrought as Homer's own Greek), bears testimony, I think, — by evidence too long and recondite for citation here, — to an origin anterior to writing, anterior to Puranic theology, anterior to Homer, perhaps even to Moses.

Preface to Indian Idylls, (London: Trubner, 1883), p. xii.

102 Letter to Theophilus Carey Callicot, The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vol. 3 (1844–56), ed. Andrew Hilen (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 503.

104 For an account of this, see Blythe, 'Paradise or Hell', pp. 113–28.

105 Ranolf and Amohia: A South-Sea Day-Dream (London: Smith, Elder, 1872), p. 114. We use this edition as it was the one wholly written in New Zealand. The 1883 revision was done during Domett's retirement in London.

106 Grey, Polynesian Mythology, pp. x–xi.

107 Grey, Polynesian Mythology, p. xi.

108 Matthew Arnold, 'On Translating Homer', The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, Vol. One: On the Classical Tradition, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), pp. 97–8. Arnold is summarising the views of Ichabod Charles Wright and Francis W. Newman, both of whom had translated Homer. Both men objected to Arnold's representation of their positions, Wright in A Letter to the Dean of Canterbury on the Homeric Lectures of Matthew Arnold (1864), and Newman in Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice: A Reply to Matthew Arnold (1861).

109 Jackson, 'Poetry: Beginnings to 1945', OH, p. 407.

110 Macrae, 'Maori Literature: A Survey', OH, p.8.

111 D. F. McKenzie, 'The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy and Print in Early New Zealand' (1983), The Book History Reader, ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 189.

112 McKenzie, 'The Sociology of a Text', p. 196.

113 Report, findings and recommendations of the Waitangi tribunal on an application … on behalf of the TeAtiawa tribe in relation to the fishing grounds in the Waitara district (Wellington: The Tribunal, 1983), p. 55; quoted in McKenzie, 'The Sociology of a Text', p. 207.