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The Spike or Victoria College Review October 1930

The New Countries

page 41

The New Countries

Hector bolitho's anthology has received more kicks than ha'pence in the Southern Hemisphere. Any book of its scope would. To make such an anthology, and make it well, would be one man's life-work. Strictly speaking, an anthologist would have lived in the country from the poems of which he makes a national selection. How otherwise can he know what is or is not representative work? But, on the other hand, what anthologist of an Empire collection would have the means or the inclination to do it? And what anthologist would have a hope of pleasing in one brief volume three continents and three islands? He would need to be a Quiller-Couch and Lucas rolled in one.

I am not a critic. I make no claim that my taste is anything but personal. Nor have I lived in any but one of the countries named in the volume, so perhaps I have no right to speak on this book at all. It seems to me, however, that no anthology claims to be much more than an indication of the personal taste of the compiler, so that a reviewer may claim equal rights in the matter. If every anthology were taken and intended as the one infallible guide to the best in literature of the country it deals with, how many would have the courage or the impertinence to anthologise? Let us then judge this Empire collection of Hector Bolitho's less by the canons of national pride than by the rights of personal taste.

In any anthology it is easier to praise the good than to vilify the bad. I then take the road of least resistance. Indeed, in an excellent introduction, Bolitho himself makes the road for me one not of cowardice, but of justice: "I made no plan in editing the 'New Countries,' and I have no excuse for many omissions. The book is not a conscientious attempt to present all the best work done in the new countries. In no way is it comprehensive. . . . The conscientious and comprehensive anthology of verse and stories written in the new countries must wait for twenty or thirty years, when time, the only unbiassed critic, has nurtured the wheat and rejected the tares."

His reference to New Zealand's connection with the literature of her Motherland are both apposite and national. We know that Butler wrote "Erewhon" in Canterbury, that Alfred Domett was Browning's Waring, that Mary Taylor, of Wellington, was the Rose York of Shirley, and a few know that it was from Maynard's Diary that Dumas drew his facts for "Les Balineri"; but we know these things because we are New Zealanders, and to us it is like family history. The outside world would find them news.

He deals with each country in turn in the introduction, claiming for Olive Schreiner the first native-born creative work in the Southern Hemisphere. He includes only one poem in the South African section. The other three examples are prose, fine human prose from the pens of Pauline Smith, William Plomer and Sarah Gertrude Millin. The South African section is scanted, but South Africa has less to complain of than at least page 42 one of the other countries. Her three are of the soil and good. Whether they are the best specimens obtainable is not the point, since only Hector Bolitho's taste is in question.

Now for Australia! There are names I missed sadly, because I know the ground better in the Tasman countries, but there are lines here worth their place in most anthologies. Hugh McCrae's Joan of Arc should fire any Frenchman. It is a poem Morris would have loved:—

"Swift through the lightning, in and in,
Like flame-struck arrows aimed to win
The summer nests that pack the spouts
Eave-bursting of a king's redoubts—
Alas, saith Joan, 'and I must die?
Wherefore to Chinon? Wherefore I?'"

I think that on the poetry side Australia, on the whole, comes off best in the book. Geoffrey Cumine makes a delectable dancing thing of "Ancestor." There is devilry in this:—

"And I see him dancing a rigadoon,
Springing with arms akimbo—
The ruffied, cynical, suave buffoon,
Three hundred years in Limbo."

Cavalierly, insolent!

I have seen things by Gilbert Murray more Hellenic to me than the two chosen, though that is personal taste again, and this is surely great:—

"What else is wisdom? What of man's endeavour?
Or God's high grace, so lovely and so great?
To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait;
To hold a hand uplifted over Hate;
And shall not loveliness be loved forever?"

The poetry is all in the heroic mood. In the midst of it, like a shanty in the bush, stands a story by Henry Lawson, and the shanty, architecturally, is truer to type. Take this as a picture of a younster poddying a calf:

"He carries the skim-milk to the yard in a bucket made out of an oil drum—sometimes a kerosene tin—seizes a calf by the nape of the neck with the left hand, inserts the dirty forefinger of his right into its mouth, and shoves its head down into the milk. . . After a butting, buffeting, bark-skin interlude. . . . His hand feels sticky, and the cleaned finger makes it look as if he wore a filthy, greasy glove with the forefinger torn off." In the name of Dreiser, that is real enough!

We are back again to the epic with Slessor:—

"The unpastured Gods have gone,
They are above those fiery-coasted clouds,
Floating like fins of stone in the burnt air . . . . "

and with Pamela Travers's cry "to the ewes of thought and let down their milk." Now, if the Australian section had been as long as the Canadian, we might have had both justice and beauty.

The country that Louis Hemon greatened as Marie Chapdelaine is either served badly by its poets or by the men who advised the anthologist.

Apostles of mediocrity! Even Bliss Carman wilts and Marjorie Pick thall falters in that company. Can we hope that one has blundered? The page 43 French section is better than the English, but the examples chosen even from the two crowned by the French Academy are sonorous rather than mellow, sententious rather than noble. Nelligan has life at least, and there is simplicity in Old Man Savarin. But where are the snows of yesteryear? These writings are neither French fish, nor English flesh, nor Canadian herring. Come again, Canada!

Fiji has one solitary writer, Reginald Berkeley, the playwright, in a pre-execution sketch of the type of atmosphere that Dunsany or A. E. Housman would choose for a recreation. It is convincing.

In the New Zealand section there are, as the editor admits of all the countries, omissions. Angus Wilson was a new name to me. His theme was Paris, and his style electric. You see the Seine burning and chestnut blossoms slanting down. Jessie MacKay's poem is from "Land of the Morning," a deep wailing chant of lost loves, brown and white, at Phantom Ford:—

"The gull to the gorge, and the sun to his rest,
Glory! The shoaling of shells in the nest,
Shoaling divinely! O come to me soon;
Reach me the iris and read me the rune."

I wonder what Housman would think of Mary Veel's, "We go no more to the forest; the rimus are all cut down." It is a New Zealand version of "We'll go to the woods no more, the laurels are all cut. . . ." Classics find different words in different countries. Alice Kenny is represented by lines of sun and storm, Alan Mulgan, unhappily, I thought, by English of the Line. Bolitho himself, by two landscape poems, leisurely, meditative; Arnold Wall by a pig-hunting sonnet; and Katherine Mansfield by "The Wind," and that is worth the whole book. Grit and the zigzag path, and the aniseedy smell of the fennel, with two figures rocking "like two old drunkards" in the wind. It is Wellington, as grimy as Dublin, as windy as Thibet. It is Wellington and it is Mansfield.

—Eileen Duggan.