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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Ursula Bethall

For Ursula Bethall (Collected Poems, 1950), as for Brasch in his different way, the individual's simultaneous rootlessness and rootedness in his environment, was an analogue of man's whole temporal life; earth, to this deeply Christian poet, was a transient lodging, though still a true home. Wherever she saw herself and her fellows – in a suburban garden, on the Canterbury Plains, or sailing to a new colony – she saw them sub speciae aeternitatis. Her concern with the particular places and times relates her to Brasch, Fairburn, and Curnow; her religious basis links her with J. R. Hervey and Basil Dowling. In each of these two a moralistic trend is combined with a corpus of nature poetry. Dowling's neatly turned evocations, and Hervey's infrequently fluent but always deeply felt probings into the human predicament, seldom had the thrust of the best contemporary work, though both added greatly to their stature in the 1950s, Dowling in Canterbury (1949) and Hervey in She Was My Spring (1955).

It was the distinction of these poets to be the first New Zealanders to write consistently well; they were competent, and their verse arose from authentic experience of themselves and of their world. Their successors have not rivalled their achievement. How much their quality owes to their concern with their country is a difficult point. There is, au fond, no reason why a poet of importance should not write for his lifetime out of his interior world, though the effort to think in a vacuum might in the end exhaust him, as, perhaps, it exhausted Mason, and a later and more extreme introspective, Charles Spear. But it is a fact of additional significance that these poets did look hard at their country, and that their country exists in their verse, the poems produced subsequently as well as in the 1930s.

Curnow's myth of discovery and conflict rose to a climax in two works, Landfall in Unknown Seas and a verse play, The Axe. Since then, his work has had less external reference (though, always, the most “external” poems sprung from an interior impulse) as in At Dead Low Water and especially Poems 1949–57. But his later plays, his light verse, and some serious poems, are more explicitly satirical and even didactic than anything in his earlier work. Fairburn wrote to the end of his life with rare consistency; “To a Friend in the Wilderness” (printed in Three Poems) continued the debate between the reformer and the escaper, and affirms the individual's duty of involvement with common humanity. Glover, with less panache than in his early days, continues to dwell upon lake, mountain, sea, and stream, and upon the men who have achieved fellowship with them. Hervey ended his career with unexpected passion in a group of intimately personal poems (She was My Spring), poems centred upon his wife and her death.

Brasch's later years have been unusually fruitful. Uneasy homelessness marked much of his early verse; in later poems, especially those in The Estate, it has been balanced by the discovery of symbols of permanence and rest. In the achievements of settler ancestors, in the accomplishments of artists, in the quality of friendships, he has found occasions of equipoise between tensions, resting places in a pilgrimage through flux. The tone may be overly solemn, the spirit too relentlessly dedicated, but the achievement is considerable.