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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, September, 1922

Seaforth Mackenzie

page 19

Seaforth Mackenzie.

New Zealand, as G. K. Chesterton has proved conclusively for the benefit of all who do not understand him, is not a young country. Her foundations were laid at the same time as the rest of the world, she is equal in antiquity with the Mother Country and the Continent of Columbus, even though, in her ideas, she may he something more than antediluvian.

But not even G. K. Chesterton could prove that the literature of New Zealand is anything but youthful; in fact there are those who say that it is not yet hatched and whose ears are anxiously cocked for the first peep of the chick within the shell. Katharine Mansfield and Godfrey Turner have failed to convince them. They seek the larger theme, the wider vision and the poet who shall write of his home hills. Some one said of the Dominion long ago that here everyone writes poetry and nobody reads it. And the statement has just that element of exaggeration which points its truth, New Zealand has produced very many versifiers, mostly bad ones, as there is a sufficiency of volumes in the General Assembly Library to show. But of the others Boyce Bowden and Sea forth Mackenzie have given us poems not in the tradition, and have shown signs of an individuality both marked and interesting.

Of all New Zealand poets Seaforth Mackenzie is easily the greatest. The true poet of these tiny islands, at least in these more primitive days, must begin with the soil. The expression, the individuality of the race can he found most truly in the great out-doors and in his open-air poems Mackenzie was second to none. He came under the shadow of Kipling; but it was the Kipling of the best years; he was faintly brushed by the wings of the decadents and we can see the influence of Wilde and Dowson. But even when he has taken the form of earlier writers in its entirety, as in his French dalliances, we can see his personality shining through it, too strong to be subdued.

It is fitting that this man should come to us from the province of the broad acres, and it was on the plains of South Canterbury that Mackenzie passed his earlydays. Educated at Timaru high School he came to Wellington about 1903 and was entered as a student at Victoria College in the same year. He obtained a position in the Treasury while reading for Law, and later was transferred to the Public Trust Office. In 1908 he was capped as a Bachelor of Laws and a little later commenced in practice on his own account. But he had not the legal temparament; he was too impulsive and easy going, and within a year he had given the business best. He cut the gordian knot by leaving New Zealand forever. At Melbourne he worked for some time on a paper called the "Southern Sphere," which seems to have had a brief and unhappy existence. Then he joined the staff of the Federal Attorney-General's Office, where he remains to this day-On the departure of the Expeditionary Force to German New Guinea he was appointed Lieut.—Colonel, and on the military occupation of the island held the position of page 20 Judge of the Central Court of Rabaul. He remained there through-out the war years, twice being Acting-Administrator, and on his return to Australia was appointed Principal Registrar of the High Court. He is now engaged, I understand, in writing the New Guinea section of the official history of the Commonwealth's part in the war.

In person Mackenzie was a most average fellow. Fair, and placid, with an open good-tempered look, he was in no ways marked out from the men of his year. A photograph of the "Spike" Executive in an early year shows him in those high collared days, a lurking smile which was never long absent from his face, a cultured face which reveals him as one of a long line of Seaforths.

"He was essentially a lotus-eater," said one close friend of Mackenzie, and we can see this characteristic plainly in his verse. The very theme of "A Leaf from a Fly Book" betrays him, and his indolence, his acceptance of the easiest way are set forth in these poems again and again. You will see it in his "Villanelle," in "A Song of Saddle," and in "Wanderlust," as well as in a wealth of single lines elsewhere. His imitations were both marked and many; but, as I have said already, he transferred some of his own vivid feeling into the method of Wilde or the jingle of Kipling. The poem with which he won the Macmillan-Brown Prize, "Empire," would never have been written without Kipling's "Seven Seas" to inspire it-But there is no debt to Kipling of either imagery or invention in the songs with which his blank verse is studded; still less resemblance to anything except the essential Mackenzie in the march of the blank verse itself, which is as individual as were the iambics of Swinburne or Tennyson.

For in Mackenzie, lover of fireside and easy chair as he was, stirred the vigorous blood of the North. In the green-sickness of youth he showed it in the songs of the wanderlust, of the beckoning road and shifting sky, that he has left us. Then it moved him to such poems as "A Northern Song," "A Song of Saddle" and the "Ballad of the Golden Hind." He had all youth's love of strange seas and tropic islands, all the wanderer's desire to see the surf creaming on far beaches and to leave cove and creek dwindling in his wake. "To drain brimmed draughts of beauty to the lees." Nothing less would satisfy him in his hunger for adventure in a world of dream. But the days of the rover are many centuries dead, and it was in "various violent games" that Mackenzie found his relief. Football found and held him and he has left us some of the finest football verse which has ever been written."L' Envoi" has at once the spirit of the game and is the last word upon it, as on all games. He repeated himself in the "Sports' Chorus," this time in rollicking verse, but nothing can equal the message of "L' Envoi" which came from a man who, himself, was defeated in his first tussle with the world and who had to begin anew.

There was plenty of fight in Mackenzie. He suffered grievously; whether some of his sorrows were the mood of a moment I cannot tell; but "The Blue Waters of Forgetfulness," among others, reads to me-like a literary grief. Personally, I think that he liked nothing so well as his pipe: there is a comfortable aroma of tobacco page 21 around those many capping songs which he penned with a fluency so fatal to his successors, and I can see the mellowing influence upon some of the less-known extravaganza songs. For Mackenzie possessed an acute sense of humour; his pen was at once that of the wit and of the idealist, and he could mingle mirth and poetical image in a somewhat disconcerting way. In company with S.E he has been responsible for the most (I had almost said the only) amusing numbers in our procession of extravaganzas, and his skill in Capping Songs is so well-known as to need no stressing. Of all the sentimental numbers with which "The Spike" has been blessed his are easily the best, not only because they are few, but because they were written by a genuine poet with real feeling; and a poet who thought that what he felt was worthy of expression in the best manner at his command.

Never was poet so many-sided. He felt the physical appeal of the earth in all the changing moods of her seasons, he loved the sea, deep ocean, and fairway, and shoaling waters; and we feel that love of elbow-room and of a level vista which stamps him as a dweller on the plains; never quite reconciled to our northern hills. But suffering and clean humour and the liner things of the mind were of his company and, little as he has left us, there is enough to show that he felt deeply and that his writings are no sham. His translations from Calpurnius and Ovid, particularly of the former, are remarkably fresh and vigorous; it might be an original work, so evident is the feeling in it, so delicate the phrasing and little handicapped by the necessities of rendering the original-But the crafts-man in Mackenzie gives cause for perpetual wonder."Whether he writes a few lines for the heading of some College Notes or the Easter Tournament, wishes farewell to a departing friend, or tilts with Villon in a Ballade, his work is surprisingly even in quality. Never does he fail to strike the correct form, never does he infringe the modern rule by indulging in mere decoration, always he has something to say and hits upon an abiding image. In earlier days he was not so free from faults, as the cumbersome metre and stumbling lines of his muchcited "Inaugural Ode" can testify. These years of 1903-04 were not those which show his finest verse. For though he was already writing of" a want hands could not close upon," he was as yet following in the footsteps of his metrical masters, and, indeed, in one sonnet we read that" sudden song bursts bright as blossoming brine," a line which might have come from almost any of the "Poems and Ballads."

Apart from this he has that astonishing ease of expression, that meet wedding of adjective and noun that gives the reader the sense of the inevitability of a word. Not that he relies to any extent upon adjectival effects. He sings the thing that is new, he has his own philosophy and his images are no book-inspired fancies. In him there was nothing of the library poet; his whole work is a plea for youth; it has the vigour of a young and virile member of an old and hardy race, free from the grosser corruptions of a higher civilisation, but near to his ideal; and the chance which robbed New Zealand of his more mature work has been a great loss to our national literature.