Echoes of Romantic Revival
The verse written in the nineteenth century and, with few exceptions, until the 1920s, was a muffled and undistinguished echo of the Romantic Revival. A few volumes may be recalled now, largely for their historical and sociological interest; Charles Bowen's Poems (1861), Thomas Bracken's numerous and portentous volumes in the later nineteenth century (yet Bracken's “Not Understood” remains the best-known single New Zealand poem), Blanche Baughan's early twentieth century work, and, pre-eminently in this period, William Pember Reeves' (q.v.) New Zealand and Other Poems (1898) and The Passing of the Forest (1925). In the last years of the nineteenth century, too, Arnold Wall, began to publish his many collections, though his definitive volume, The Pioneers and Other Poems, did not appear until 1948. Today we are not tempted to greet these and other productions as the foundations of a distinctive New Zealand literature – which is not to say that a few agreeable poems may not be found in them.
Two subsidiary streams may be mentioned; the first a version of Scottish dialect verse running from James Barr of Craigilee (Poems and Songs, 1801–11) to Jessie Mackay (Poems, 1911), and not yet finally extinguished; the second the importation from Australia of the colonial ballad, a vigorous but debased form of versifying used to celebrate the feats of outback notables – gold diggers, drovers, swaggers, and the like. David McKee Wright (Station Ballads and Other Verses, 1897) was the most notable New Zealand practitioner.
Occasional successes on one side, nothing these writers produced, with the exceptions of Reeves and Wall, amounted to a distinguished achievement. That most of them lacked talent is probably a sufficient explanation. Critics have stressed other factors: the insipidity of the prevailing romantic fashion, the preoccupation of their society with concrete colonising tasks, and the inhibiting gulf separating their mental equipment (English and Scottish) from their situation (antipodean and bewildering). Few of them aimed high; those who did fell the more resoundingly fiat. Most were cripplingly self-conscious of their colonial status; many were engaged upon exacting careers – Bracken, Bowen, and Reeves were eminent politicians, especially the last.
The first writer to shake off this mantle of mediocrity, Katherine Mansfield, wrote verse a good deal less notable than her fiction. She spent her mature life in Europe, publishing there a volume of poems (Poems 1923), and setting an example of self-exile which many have followed, but not typically to the point of permanent expatriation.