In the early years of the 20th century, poetry continued largely in the same confused vein as in the 19th century. The talented poets who did emerge are remarkable for what they achieved in such isolated conditions.
The first European New Zealander to write a poem of genuine distinction was Blanche Baughan. A well-educated, adventurous woman with a degree in Greek and an interest in mysticism, Baughan arrived in New Zealand from England in 1900. Her long visionary poem ‘A bush section’ (1908) is based on her experiences in Hawke’s Bay shortly after her arrival. The poem adopts its shape from American poet Walt Whitman. Its long unrhymed lines sprawl across the page.
Although it portrays in stark detail the desolation left by the destruction of the bush, the poem also has Whitman’s sense of spiritual excitability. Anything seems possible in the new settlement. In a lesser writer this optimism might seem naïve, but Baughan looks so clearly at what is in front of her that she makes it feel real.
Ursula Bethell, ‘Detail’, 1929
My garage is a structure of excessive plainness,
It springs from a dry bank in the back garden,
It is made of corrugated iron,
And painted all over with brick-red.
And beside it I have planted a green Bay-tree,
– A sweet Bay, an Olive, and a Turkey Fig,
– A Fig, an Olive, and a Bay.1
Like Baughan, Mary Ursula Bethell was English-born and of independent means. Also like Baughan, she settled on the hills above Christchurch, where her cottage in Cashmere became the setting for her best-known poems. These first appeared (under the pseudonym Evelyn Hayes) in From a garden in the antipodes (1929).
Where ‘A Bush Section’ is sprawling and inclusive, Bethell’s poems are brief, spare and controlled. ‘Detail’ begins, ‘My garage is a structure of excessive plainness’; the entire poem is just seven lines long.
The sparseness and delicacy of her observations calls to mind the imagism of modernist poets such as Ezra Pound. It is likely that, like Pound, she was influenced by Oriental poetry.
Modernism or Victorianism
Neither Baughan nor Bethell was writing in an entirely original mode (poets always draw on other poets). It is more that the styles they adopted seemed to match their New Zealand circumstances better than the Victorian models that most poets still favoured. Additionally, the influences that touched them are those that would shape the mainstream of modern poetry.
Eileen Duggan was a devout Catholic whose work was widely read in the 1920s and 1930s. However, because her work appears untouched by the grittier styles that would mould 20th-century tastes, her poems seem quaint and inaccessible by comparison with Bethell’s.
R. A. K. Mason, ‘Prelude’, 1936
This short straight sword
I got in Rome
when Gaul’s new lord
came tramping home:
It did that grim
old rake to a T –
if it did him,
well, it does me.
Leave the thing of pearls
with silken tassels
to priests and girls
and currish vassals:
Here’s no fine cluster
on the hilt, this drab
blade lacks lustre –
but it can stab.2
R. A. K. Mason was a native-born Aucklander who published remarkably mature poems while still a teenager.
Mason appears a mysteriously isolated figure. Legend has it that, in despair at not finding an audience, he dumped 200 copies of his first book into the Waitematā Harbour. And yet in Britain an admiring editor, Harold Monro, was publishing his work alongside the foremost modernist poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Mason was proficient in Latin, and Latin poetry helped shape his own, as did 20th-century British realists such as A. E. Housman. Mason’s poems were brief, bare and grim. There is almost no reference to New Zealand in them. His unsparing vision would strike a chord with the new poets of the 1930s.