Poet, journalist, and social reformer.
A new biography of Mackay, Jessie appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Jessie Mackay was born in a sod hut in the Rakaia Gorge on 15 December 1864. She was the second child of Robert Mackay, a Highland Scotsman who emigrated in 1863 and managed successively the Double Hill, Raincliff, and Opuha Gorge sheep runs in Canterbury, and William Aker's properties in the Manawatu. Jessie was educated at home until she attended Christchurch Normal School and Training College. She taught first at Kakahu Bush school, near the Raincliff homestead from 1887 till 1890, when an attack of pneumonia forced her resignation.
Her first book of poems, The Spirit of the Rangatira, was published in 1889 in Melbourne and was prefaced with a hope for “a dawning of the national spirit” in New Zealand. Later, while she was living at home, she became a well-known worker in the suffragette and prohibition movements, and her second volume, The Sitter on the Rail (1891), contained many satirical and political poems. After a visit to Australia she taught school again, at Ashwick Flat during 1893–94, but in 1898 she moved to Dunedin, where she contributed articles and poems to the Otago Witness.
She went back to Christchurch in 1902 to teach “classes for ladies” at Inveresk School for the next two years, but her most important post came in 1906 as lady editor of the Canterbury Times. Here she continued to advance the feminist cause and advocated the international rights of the world's “little peoples”. It was also her most prolific period as a poet. In 1908 From the Maori Sea appeared, followed next year by Land of the Morning, which contains her best work, and in 1911 by The Poems of Jessie Mackay.
About this time she became a vegetarian, and when the Canterbury Times ceased publication in 1917 she moved to a house in the Cashmere Hills, Christchurch, where with her sister Georgina she stayed for the rest of her life, writing poetry and newspaper polemics against vivisection, blood sports, and alcohol. She was a delegate to the Gael Race Conference in Paris in 1921. More poems, entitled The Bride of the Rivers, came out in 1926; a reforming booklet, The Girl of the Drift, in 1928; and her last poems, Vigil, in 1935. She was awarded a Civil List pension in 1936 and died at Christchurch on 23 August 1938. In that year the Jessie Mackay Memorial Award for Verse was established by the PEN society.
Jessie Mackay was a genuine humanitarian, a thin, grey, fragile woman, with intense eyes, low-toned speech, and a slow smile, but her reputation as a poet is not high today. Some of her poems are in Scotch dialect and others make use of Maori legend, yet her genuine lyric gift was often marred by archaisms and jagged rhythms. Nevertheless her personal example and work inspired later writers and helped to crystallise a spirit of nationalism in the eighteen nineties.
by Phillip John Wilson, M.A., Author, Wellington.
- A Voice in the Wind, MacLeod, N. F. H. (1955)
- New Zealand Literature – a Survey, McCormick, E. H. (1958)
- Evening Post, 3 Sep 1938, “Jessie Mackay, Poet and Crusader”, Mulgan, Alan.