The people who wrote the first New Zealand poems in English were businessmen, administrators or colonial politicians who had ventured to New Zealand to settle the new country. Writing the occasional poem, or in some cases a great many poems, was something they did in their spare time.
These colonial poets brought with them, literally (in their luggage) and figuratively (in their heads), the favourite poets of Victorian England. English poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning told them what a poem should feel like, but, as they struggled to respond to a new environment, these post-Romantic styles were an uncomfortable fit. Their work has not been well received subsequently.
A case in point is Thomas Bracken, whose best-known poem is the national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’. Allen Curnow described Bracken’s dozen volumes as ‘the weightiest objects of rhyme in the nation’s cupboard of worthless keepsakes’.1
Bracken was not the only one to write large quantities of verse. Alfred Domett’s epic Ranolf and Amohia: a south-sea day-dream (1872) is longer than Paradise lost by English poet John Milton. However, this sprawling cross-cultural romance is more or less unreadable by a modern audience.
In Australia during the same period the ‘bush’ poets (Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson) were writing popular ballad (or story-telling) poetry that felt at home in the Australian environment. To later Australian writers this would offer a useful beginning. New Zealand’s nearest equivalent, the ballad poetry of David McKee Wright, seems only half-formed by comparison.
Anonymous poet, around 1830
Come all you tonguers and land-loving lubbers,
Here’s a job cutting in and boiling down blubbers,
A job for the youngster or old and ailing,
The Agent will take any man for shore whaling.
I am paid in soap, and sugar, and rum,
For cutting in whale and boiling down tongue.
The Agent’s fee makes my blood so t’boil,
I’ll push him in a hot pot of oil!2
The 19th century reconsidered
Later scholars have combed the 19th century searching for anything that might have been overlooked in these sweeping judgements. Jessie Mackay has earned fresh consideration, though less for her poetry than for her progressive politics. Arthur Adams has received some recognition for several poems he wrote as a young man which expressed an unsentimental attitude to the New Zealand landscape. Many anthologies have included poems that focused on the colonial condition by two men active in Liberal politics: William Pember Reeves and Edward Tregear.
A small number of songs and ballads from the pre-1840 whaling and sealing era have also emerged. But the rewards have been greater in prose than in poetry, and chiefly of interest to academic specialists. For other readers, the best place to look for pre-20th-century poetry that still feels alive is not in English but in Māori.