Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Singers of Loneliness

by Robin Hyde

‘My body is the temple of the Most High. Therefore I must be very careful what I do with it, how I eat, with whom I confide it, where I lay it down … ‘ Thus a translation of part of the Io creed, given to me by a Maori woman of rank. But also, in the great northern kauri forest, I have placed the green branch of salutation under the roots of mighty Tane Mahuta, the tree chosen because of its size and age to be the personification of the God of Forests. Unless you know these names, you cannot know what was, what might have been and what still may be in the world of Maori legendry, which, though mainly unwritten, is a culture in itself.

After Waitangi were men who knew this storehouse – Selwyn, the tall young English Bishop, whose long bush journeys astonished everyone, whose wooden churches are among our few beautiful architectural remnants, and who wrote in his old stone library at Keri-Keri, the Place of Rumbling Waters, a prayer for a few hours of daily solitude ‘that there may be some abundance in me from which I can give to others’. The Roman Catholic Bishop, Pompallier, wrote many Maori textbooks, and a journal, which unfortunately contains more of his religion than his record. At a little missionary press in the Bay of Islands (one of many such presses), Bishop Colenso printed an original composition – the first poem, so far as I know, ever written and printed in New Zealand. The quixotic Baron de Thierry, who wanted a little independent state where brown man and white would live on terms of perfect equality, lived in isolation on Mount Isabel, called after his beautiful dark-eyed daughter, and there wrote by crude candlelight the beginnings of the enormous, unpublished, unpublishable records which provided the writer of this article with the substance of an historical novel. In England a minor poet wrote a chorus especially for New Zealand emigrants:

Steer, helmsman, till you steer our course
By stars beyond the Line.
We go to found a land, some day
Like Britain’s self to shine.
Cheer up! Cheer up! Our course we’ll keep
With dauntless heart and hand,
And when we’ve ploughed the restless deep
We’ll plough the smiling land.

The admonition ‘Cheer up!’ was necessary; all early emigrant ships, after heartbreaking months at sea, arrived with a record or cargo of dead children once as many as forty. Frantic, ineffectual nursing under the light of the sweating slush-lamps, an airless hold, and then another corpse overside …

Perhaps the greatest literary and political figure to make use of the early treasure-house was that of young Captain Grey, who came from South Australia in 1845, ended Hone Heke’s individualistic Robin Hood war in the north, became Governor Sir George Grey, and wrote Polynesian Mythology, the most reliable attempt at investigation of the subject.

Heke died, with the words in his mouth: ‘It is better to sit at peace for ever.’ Grey lived on into old age, stripped of his political dignities, his silk hat as much an object of amusement as of awe in Auckland, his smug enemies well satisfied: ‘Grey cannot work with anyone!’ He wrote of a famous landgrabbing family: ‘The A’s are a soft rata vine, strangling the growth of New Zealand’; but he could not avert, and did not always handle wisely, the clash between landgrabbers and the original owners. There were wars, never involving the whole or a major part of the Maori race, but even until now alienating some of the finest northern tribes, rendering them landless, and, in the pumice and scrub country north of Auckland, resulting in their terrible deterioration of body and hope. I spoke to a Maori of this area, where once the great honey-peaches had stocked hundreds of canoes gliding down to Auckland, of the tragedy of lost legend, lost poetry. He said: ‘It’s all here still … only covered up. But the people who could uncover it – they, mostly, seem to be too busy.’ An exception to this ‘too busy’ rule was the late Elsdon Best, author of Tuhoe and other celebrated books, who became a white tohunga, risking his life to make the Maori Yesterday a coherent prelude to Maori life today. Elsdon Best died a few years ago, having received little reward from his countrymen; James Cowan, Eric Ramsden, Lindsay Buick and Dr. Ivan Sutherland – the first three are historical experts, while Dr. Sutherland is a young author who prefers to write of the Maoris as living people with baffling health and sociological problems – are Best’s most logical successors, but none equals him in merit.

While Governor of Cape Colony, Sir George Grey was in constant correspondence with the famous explorer, David Livingstone, whose long, vividly-interesting letters lie with many from Florence Nightingale and the noted Australian explorer, Eyre, in the Sir George Grey collection, probably one of the best, and least-known collections of literary and historical research materials in either New Zealand or Australia. Like Maning and Selwyn, Grey loved the lofty heart-of-kauri houses which are New Zealand’s best attempt at individual architecture, and which, in their setting of blazing pohutukawa trees, shady English elms and oaks, tropical creepers, must be among the most beautiful wooden houses in the world. On Kawau Island in Auckland Harbour he built such a house, and planted the island with tropical trees and plants, loosing among them exotic animals and birds. Here he played patron to poor Thomas Bracken, reckoned as New Zealand’s first poet; who did, indeed, write one fine poem on the fighting chieftain, Te Rauparaha, but whose general level may be judged by a stanza from his once world-famous poem ‘Not Understood’.

Not understood! How trifles often change us –
The fancied insult or the unmeant slight
Destroy long years of friendship, and estrange us,
And on our souls there falls a freezing blight.
Not understood!

This is printed on Thomas Braken’s tombstone in his South Island, Scottish city, Dunedin. They gave him a large tombstone when dead; but Grey, while he was alive, wrote the introduction for his poems, and entertained him on Kawau, where many a time they heard the dip of paddles and saw the sunset fluttering of plumes on the chief’s taiaha (spear) as canoes came in. Sir George had a fully-tattooed chieftain for his bodyguard – Moki, who was ready to die for ‘Hori Korei’. Yet among both whites and Maoris his old age was partly discredited. He was hot-tempered, and both sides wanted everything. Once Waitangi was signed, it was so obviously impossible that either should get their full desire. So Hori Korei saved from the wreck his beautiful island, his excursions into patronage, and the love of a few.

In his late years he shall go much alone, and silently behold the branch of peachblossom in the courtyard, and think long on his youth, when he had not yet ventured.

Yet when he is dead, a sigh shall go up: they shall remember his day, or ever the sandal was dipped in blood.

For it is good that he does, but evil in the doing of it: and in the end, only the mountains can be his friends.

This was the beginning of the end of the first good period in New Zealand letters – the period of unselfconsciousness, when writers knew, without question, moralizing or hesitation, what they were. They were Englishmen – not exiles or minds divided, but whole people, supremely at ease, fascinated by a new, wild and appealing terrain. Therefore they wrote what was natural and human, and their work remains well worth reading, often for style as well as for record. But the undivided New Zealand writer shook hands with this past on the edge of the landgrabbing wars, and it was an abnormally long time before he evolved any new literary present or future.

I should mention Robert Browning’s friend, Alfred Dommett (the hero in Browning’s ‘I wonder what’s become of Waring?’), who was once Prime Minister of New Zealand. His epic poem ‘Ranolf and Amohia’, is living work, and so are his brilliant, human letters, many preserved privately in New Zealand. The Mr. Brown so often mentioned as a literary intimate and walking-tour companion in Keats’ Journals lived in New Zealand, as Superintendent of the prosperous Taranaki Province. Two sailoring sons of the poet, Leigh Hunt, used to visit him, rough and bearded, after voyages round the coast. In a little cottage in one of the loneliest far south sheepfarming districts, Samuel Butler, author of that famous novel The Way of All Flesh, got the inspiration for Erewhon, which during the nineteenth century held a place beside Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Jerningham Wakefield (a brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose settlement in the Hutt district, first called Britannia, at last saw the beginnings of the present capital city, Wellington), wrote a serial journal of his adventures on foot-journeys through the New Zealand bush. In the South Island, Lady Barker wrote and published her two-volume Diary – one of the most human and touching of all early New Zealand books. Heaphy, a minor explorer, but a fine descriptive writer whose literary work is all too rare, found the Greenstone People of the West Coast, and heard tales of Captain Cook himself from the lips of the ancient Coromandel chieftain, Te Taniwha.

It was the end, for four reasons: the closing, in war, pride and injury, of understanding between Maori and ‘pakeha’; the dead hand of mid-Victorian morality, driving the poets and writers into a region of vain abstractions, sentimentalities, hypocrisy. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was virtuoso here, and New Zealand produced novelists and versifiers even weaker than the bangled and jangled American. Thirdly, the new, lonely, under-occupied country, successfully prevented Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s policy of dear land from growing as it should have done, was taken up with the effort to become a land of men instead of wilderness. Writing was done with pick and mattock, not with a pen. The fourth reason was that the New Zealander was no longer an Englishman: he did not know quite what he was, in what ideograph, or of which situations he wanted to write. He was terribly lonely, terribly self-conscious …

I know that three mountains in the gold-bearing South Island regions are named Mount Hunger, Starvation Peak, Mount Misery. But except in imagination, I will never know the broken stories of the men who named them, because the people who should have written these stories preferred to write of how soon a child who sang a ‘worldly’ song on a Sunday should be forgiven by her father. In this false unreal atmosphere, the writers of my land and generation grew up: loving every inch of the terrain, feeling it grow into mind and bones, but knowing little of its story or cultural past except what, unconsciously hungry for some background, we were able to invent. We were too young to be much affected by the war, but the depression meant release.

Among the older writers, William Satchell, Jane Mander, Jessie Mackay and Ursula Bethell are the most outstanding – the last, a poet (author of ‘Garden in the Antipodes’ and ‘Time and Space’), though by many to have caught the tempo and feeling of New Zealand earth better than any other.

These brown hills have the texture of paduasoy.
Or of old marching, pebble-worn sandals …

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