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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1932

Hubert Church

page 12

Hubert Church

I send you a sonnet I made on Seddon. I heard the news (of his death) the afternoon I left Melbourne, and I made the lines in the train. They will appear in the Red Page issue, the day you get this. Stephens told me he thought the last line extra good. If not too late you can offer them for 'TheSpike.' suppose you are busy over Capping Night. Trust it will be a great affair."

—Extract from letter of Hubert Church dated 15th June, 1906.

When "The Spike" was very new and all and was aspiring towards its first flights in poetry, it owed a great deal, in criticism and in encouragement, to a few friends who were by nature attracted to a new literary venture. John William Joynt, then Registrar of the University, whose weight and dignity by no means inhibited enthusiasm, one of the first friends, is a case in point. Possibly, however, the greatest contribution from outside was made by Hubert Church, whose death has lately been reported from Melbourne. Hubert Church's was a rare spirit. His was a soul apart, free of sordid motive and base ambition. His singular detachment had in it something of the tragedy of physical infirmity; something of the strength wrought by the Fates on the anvil of circumstance.

Jessie Mackay in the Christchurch "Press," W. F. Alexander in the "Dunedin "Star," and no doubt many writers in Australia, have spoken in generous praise. These tributes are such as Hubert Church would dearly have loved, for they are written by fellow-craftsmen. He well knew that, if he were a true maker of song he was not a popular, but a poet's, poet. Jessie Mackay says of him that he "will yet hold a high place among the young immortals of these young lands of ours." Estimates of his position in Australian and New Zealand verse by his peers will bring his work again under review, and perhaps help to re-establish our literary values. What I should like to do, however, is to give to kindly readers a glimpse of the man as he seemed to "The Spike" thirty years ago.

From Tasmania, where he was born in 1857, he proceeded to Oxford, and, while yet in early manhood, he came to New Zealand. He studied law, but an accident in the cricket field almost totally destroyed his sense of hearing. So was he driven to seek employment in the shelter of the Civil Service, and he became an officer of the Treasury Department. Through the swing doors on the first floor of the Government Buildings every morning day by day for upwards of 35 years he passed to the ledgers he so thoroughly disliked. At five o'clock to the minute he would emerge and make his deliberate way from Quay to Terrace, homeward. Leaving the world of figures he sought the world of books. He left a drab and uncongenial world in which he was merely a wayfarer and entered that familiar world, rife with wild flowers and ful of pleasant places, to which he in fact belonged. With the mind and heart of a scholar, with a generous training and a classic tradition, he looked about him with the clear young eyes of a poet. Suddenly cut off from his fellows by his infirmity he turned with courage, and not without zest, to that life of the spirit which derives so much of its inspiration from the great men and women of all ages. Twenty years later, a ripe scholar, a sensitive spirit, but with no narrow horizon, he welcomed the new University and its student songs. Such was the man we knew.

He published three books of verse, "The West Wind" (one of a "Bulletin" series) in 1901, "Poems" in 1905, and "Egmont" in 1908. The first will always be the most popular. It is a collection of little lyrics, all of them simple, fresh and charming. The selection, no doubt, reflects the judgment of A. G. Stephens, who edited the series. It avoids, on the one hand, the obscurity which so often attached to the poet's philosophical musings and, on the other, the difficulty which came of a vocabulary which, besides being very rich, was often exceedingly "rare." Many of the verses in "Poems" and "Egmont," and many, I suspect, still unpublished, can only be approached with a lexicon in one hand and a philosophical dictionary in the other. page 13 Hubert Church made the task of reading his verse much too hard for the average reader. Nor, I think, was he quite great enough for the task he set himself. Lucretius could turn philosophy into poetry and defy the ages, and Browning could set common humanity staggering without sacri-ficing his claim to genius. Church was a very scholarly and well-informed writer, but he was not, I think, a great philosopher. He had the makings of a great poet, but he missed the highest possibly because he could not hear his own words nor test them day by day in the world of men. He had the makings of a great philosopher, but perhaps no great philosophy can be hammered out nor its fruits be won save in closest contact with our communal life. To the rare spirit, however, which soars on poet's wings, which, understanding, is content to wait and perchance to catch the fleeting shadows of a poet's dream, there will always come moments of ecstasy and a rich reward. Church was a true artist in another sense. His words were no mere echo of things remembered. He painted his can-vases from the life around him, and if the tones are affected by his infirmity, they are still stirring and sincere. Nor could there be any thought of "art for art's sake." He fashioned no fancy costumes for drapers' dummies. He sought only to find appropriate clothing for his thoughts and fancies.

Some day I hope a collection of Hubert Church's poems will be published which, by its exclusiveness, will commend our old friend to a considerable audience, while, by its inclusiveness, it will do justice to the full range of his power. It will certainly include "Rosalind"—

Rosalind has come to town!
All the street's a meadow,
Balconies are beeches brown,
With a drowsy shadow.

which is full of sweetness and sympathy; "The Old Sandhills—Hobart," recalling with sudden vividness the poet's earliest memories, and "Peter Parley," speaking as it does of brave figures hidden away in quaint corners of our literature. I wish here, however, to refer particularly to the work first published in "The Spike." "The Ode to Metaphysical Thought," the most considerable of these poems, I was able to rescue in its original manuscript, because for some years I had the privilege of reading the poems new-born. This one is characteristic of his habitual mode of thought and of his mature form of expression. He sees through countless ages man struggling for Truth, mocked by illusion; he sees time marked only by the wrecks of things forsaken.

Behold the ocean of old time
Traced with dead beliefs;
Naught risible sublime,
Only grey forgotten reefs,
Where drowned nations who believed
The Star led thither, moulder deep
Their alchemy of hope achieved
In a sea-change of quiet sleep.

It is part of his prophetic message that, at the point his mind faltered at the mystery of the night, his brave heart was inspired by the promise of the morning:

Some deviner argonaut
Of the drifting sail of thought
Shall discover all the main
We have trembled for in vain.

One morning the poet brought me "Vera Figner," "made," as he used to say, overnight. It was the story of a woman, a young and beautiful revolutionary, condemned to imprisonment for life under the Czarist regime—the living death of the Schlusselburg Fortress. Nothing he wrote shows more fully the spirit of sorrow, of sympathy, of freedom, and of divine indignation.

Oh marvel of misfortune that a soul
So full of liberty and love should be
Tired, ever tired, to creep like any mole
From wall to wall in darkling vacancy.
To wrap the rich thought of the brain in death,
For never any sound may let it forth—
Oh God, that givest consecrated breath
To holy truth, why tarreyeth Thy wrath?

The last stanza breathes the promise and hope which, with him, were unconquerable. Alas! would that the vengeance of the past decade could atone for the ancient wrongs.

Thou canst not be endungeoned ever more!
Thy sold is where the breezes blow with pain
Past Ladoga! there is not any shore
That hath not felt thy yearning. If again
Thou hast all agony, thou hast the crown,
The heaven within the spirit that shall save,
Though earth be cruel. Death hath his renown,
But cannot pass our conquerable grave.

page 14

By a very curious chance, on the day after these verses were written a note appeared in the papers to the effect that Vera Figner had been releasd.

I must conclude these quotations with the sonnet written specially for us—the sonnet called "Victoria College." It tells the same yearning and the same faith which the founders of the new Universities brought from other skies to the lands of their pilgrimage—"Sidere mens eadem mutato."

Thou shalt be greater than the city that lies
Beneath thee, though the wave curve tender foam
Athwart her beach, thou hast a fairer home
Where mountains watch thee with eternal eyes.
Within thy sanctuary men shall prize
The charm of Greece, the majesty of Rowe,
And science through thy starry-circled dome
Shall trail her robe of unimagined dyes.
As thou has gathered round thee all that brood
Of sacrifice for knowledge, who forsee
Regeneration, humbleness, and faith,
Won through the yoke of Pallas, thou shalt be
Memory for those that build thy walls when death
Had given them else forgotten solitude.

Possibly there is no New Zealand writer concerning whom there may be recorded more divergent opinions. To some he is obscure and dull, to some he is vibrant and stimulating. Yet to none who have written in New Zealand can we, I venture to think, with more assurance apply the word "poet." He lived and moved and had his being in that land of fancy which lies so close to the world of fact. No breeze, no trumpet blast, no tear, reaches that land without its tale of sweetness, of derring-do, of fellow-suffering. Oh, brave spirit! You shouldered your burden. You brought with you courage and good cheer. You have put down your load. May you sleep well!

"The Spike" knew him as a friend and a brother. It extends to Mrs. Church, who so cheerfully shared his affliction and tended his ways, its sympathy and its greetings.