Great New Zealand Argument by Various Artists

The Singers of Loneliness

by Robin Hyde

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William Satchell’s most successful book was a novel called The Greenstone Door; the door of friendship, opening again between Maori and pakeha. But he had to wait twenty years after its publication to see its success. Jane Mander’s theme, in Story of a New Zealand River, is loneliness – that of a woman who sees all things flow away, and few things ever return. She has had other successes in London, but the quality of her first book was immediately recognised by such authorities as the one really great Australian novelist, Henry Handel Richardson, and it probably has the most meaning to New Zealanders. Another veteran writer of considerable ability is the lyric poet, Jessie Mackay, who has admirers at home and abroad, and who at seventy is still an active writer. But one of her strengths is also a weakness, an impairment of the integrity of her work. She is a passionate and idealistic admirer of all embodied in the old ‘Celtic twilight’ school. Much of her vitality goes into writing romances of the dead ages.

Two there loved in Rimini,
the dark tower of Rimini.
Two there died in Rimini,
With the dawn for company.

Ah, the death-bell, booming, booming,
When the Malatesta’s dooming
Rolled the night on Rimini …

From this one turns to Katherine Mansfield’s poem ‘The Sea Child’; or to this, most vividly New Zealand:

Last night, for the first time since you were dead,
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were alone again, beside the stream …

Then some lines I forget; the dead boy puts berries to his mouth, and she cries out, warning him:

You raised your head a little, and a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flitted round your head.
‘Don’t you remember? We call them Dead Men’s Bread …
This is my body … sister, take and eat.’

That loneliness; she was eaten up with it, but never knew why she was so inhumanly lonely, or what she was lonely for, because the heavy, conventional well-to-do household around her, a fortress of conservatism which so falsifies us, filled her with such exasperation against doors that she wouldn’t look out of windows. Unconsciously, of course, she did look: therefore exist ‘The Picton Boat’, ‘At the Bay’, ‘The Garden Party’, and, written when she was a young girl, the best poem about broom I have ever read. Taken with her other achievements, these were enough for a girl only thirty-three when she died at Fontainebleu. ‘I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, Danger, we pluck this flower, Safety!’ That was her epitaph. People say K.M. ran away from New Zealand, but if you see and understand her exact environs, you might sympathize with the belief that she ran away from a sham England, unsuccessfully transplanted to New Zealand soil, and utterly unable to adapt itself to the real New Zealand. They have cut down all the pine-trees in the street where she lived, in order to give her a memorial consisting of flat grass garden beds and a red brick waiting-shed. Running away from that sort of thing is the most understandable policy in the world.

J.A. Lee, Member of Parliament and now Under-Secretary for Housing, wrote Children of the Poor, a novel commended by Bernard Shaw. But poetry and the short story, especially K.M.’s short stories, have left a higher tidemark than the New Zealand novel. Here enters the factor of Eileen Duggan, a girl still in her early thirties, whose first book was prefaced by ‘A.E.’ She wrote:

Shall we let pride lay waste the soul?
What hope or need have we of pride?
We are but wanderers in the hinterlands,
Too few for linking hands …

Though that has a peculiar pertinence for the New Zealander, some more direct idea of the simplicity which is her main virtue may be gained from this little poem, included in her book of ‘New Zealand Bird Songs’.

Wanaka*, mother of Clutha,
Says to the Shag in her shallows:
‘Back, you thief of the twilight,
Highwayman of the headland,
After your line flew down
A nest in Hell was empty.’

Wanaka, little old woman,
Wrinkles and rocks and mutters:
‘Out of the land forever,
Out of the sky forever,
Back to the blight of God
In the land of hungry waters!

Dreamily answers the bandit,
‘My head is sold for silver,
But God, where all is gentle,
May weary of much meekness,
May turn unto the outlaw,
May bless the Shag, the seeker.’

*Wanaka, from which flows the River Clutha.

The depression stirred Eileen Duggan, who, a devout Roman Catholic, is today writing for the political United Front paper, WomanTo-day. So is C.R. Allen, blinded poet and author, son of a wealthy Dunedin family:

Eyes of the heart, that vacillate and fumble,
Seeking perfection by some hidden gauge,
Intent on certitude, that fleeting lingers
Like winter sunlight on the printed page,
Searchers are we, somnambulists who stumble
On fragments of the truth. O, traitor fingers! […]

Thus the blinded poet writes of the ‘traitor fingers’ which are his only guide. But even more deeply affected and stimulated by the depression were young student groups, and individual writers unprotected from the storm. The leader of the student writers I would regard as R.A.K. Mason, author of ‘The Beggar’ and ‘No New Thing’, whose bitter verse, sometimes recalling that of A.E. Housman, has been included in leading English anthologies.

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
Why, it does me.

A.R.D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Ian Milner, Frank Sargeson (whose short stories are of striking merit, though suffering from an overdose of the Hemingway technique), belong to this group, which has definitely furthered good printing and fought the ‘pretty-pretty’ in New Zealand. Its faults are endless, verbose political argument, and, like the erstwhile Spender-Auden-Lewis combination in England, on which its members have patterned themselves, not a little literary gang warfare. But the existence of such a student movement is a sign of growth. Probably the political stimulus which created it was the same that sent young James Bertram, New Zealand Rhodes scholar, to Siam, where he wrote Crisis in China, and later to five months’ experience with the Eighth Route Army, resulting in the forthcoming publication of a second book on China. Geoffrey Cox was similarly beckoned into fighting Spain, where he wrote a clear-cut and excellent book, Defence of Madrid. In other words, the quick, quarrelsome, often imitative but as often talented young student group of today has helped to develop in New Zealand a keen political consciousness, which in the best minds becomes world consciousness, sympathy for the world.

Parallel, less aggressive, but containing members more gifted in a purely literary way, is the group whose works are usually represented in the quarterly Art in New Zealand, and the annual collection, Best Poems of New Zealand. Douglas Stewart, a nature-poet whose book Green Lions was a brilliant tour de force, has followed Katherine Mansfield’s example, and sought London. D’Arcy Cresswell, a young soldier of the last great war, is too individualistic and, in a half-humorous way, too eccentric to work with any group; but his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, caused a sensation in London some eight years ago, and he has also a deep and thoughtful poetic gift. Arnold Cork, Dora Hagemeyer, E.V.D. Morgan stand high among the others. But there is black-opal fire and nobility in the poems of Eve Langley, a girl from a peasant community in Gippsland, whose imaginative verse has all been written in New Zealand:

The sun salutes and sinks; the roads flow on,
And I am carried with them where they flow
Towards the sea, that holds and heals the swan …

He stands and says that when he leaves our yurts
He crosses a desert like a cloth of gold,
The idle freedom of his wandering hurts
As if my love were dead, or I were old.

Nor do I think this discreditable, from Gloria Rawlinson, at nineteen the most popular of the very young writers. Her first London publication, The Perfume Vendor (a book of poems), has been followed by a novel, Music in the Listening Place.

Eat of my bread, Wind,
Hungry wind, eat:
Snow, pile upon me,
Warm your white feet.
I have a sun in my heart,
I have a fire in my breast.

Rest on me, weary sea,
Tired sea, rest.
Warm your small fingers, Rain –
You are so cold:
Lean on me, lean on me,
Time, you are old.

There they are – the old and the young, the conventional, the restless pioneers of new means of expression: no group (their number is too small for the term ‘class’) is more penniless in New Zealand than the writers, who come under none of the three national means of protection – income, trade union award, or State pension. But they have their work to do. Heard or unheard, they must live or die in the doing of it. What work that really is, anyone who visits underpopulated New Zealand can find out: the moment a train leaves a city station, past the window flock the heads of man-high, barbarous grasses, over which plough and scythe have never run. And every head of that grass has a story to tell, something to say, of the past or for the future. To tell it lucidly, in his own way – that is the New Zealand writer’s most essential concern. Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation and of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be ‘for ever England.’ We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand.

The Singers of Loneliness is used here with the permission of Derek Challis and was retyped by Fiona Rae.

As ever, Great New Zealand Argument is made possible through the kind support of Karajoz Coffee Company

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