A National Symbol?
“The sea's own heart must needs wax proud
To have borne the world a child like thee”.
So wrote Swinburne in one of his more inflated moments. He was extolling not Zealandia, Mother of the Free, but apostrophising the Empire of the Good Queen's Jubilee in 1887.
Over Athens had presided the grey-eyed Pallas Athene, helmeted, gold armour clad (when the armour wasn't being melted down for the war effort); a figure of calm resolution, her spear tip gleaming to the Ionian Sea. Some 2,000 years later, Britain furbished up Britannia in Achilles' helmet, classically robed and posed beside a cartwheel shield, and armed with trident. Pax Britannica!
What of New Zealand, Britain of the South? These were the days of the Athenaeums, days when the classics were sometimes quoted in the colonial Parliament, days when Progress was dawning as never Progress dawned before in dark bush yielding to the plough.
“Out of the shadow, starlike still,
She rose up radiant in her right”,
says Swinburne. And so rose up Zealandia, full-armed, from the head of first one artist, then another. Britannia's Daughter, more than ocean-girt (no one ever mentioned father), she became the mother-mistress symbol of young nationhood. On music scores and programmes she wore her cloche helmet – a sad sort of coal scuttle – with a sword cast carelessly at her feet, the right hand clutching a cornucopia pouring forth apples and pears while from the left there dangled the caduceus. Depending on the skill of the artist, her expression ranged from vacuous insipidity to a crystal-gazing trance.
“How should not she best know, love best,
And best of all souls understand”,
asks Swinburne. How not indeed? They even named a weekly paper after her, and a pub or two. And would-be bards, agonising in the Poet's Corner of their local news sheet, ceaselessly extolled her charms – Zealandia of the sea-girt isles!
But greater fame was in store. Universal penny postage (ah, Progress) swept her triumphantly onward and outward on the flood of trivialities that makes up the postbag. From 1901 till 1909, in a well-washed red, her figure was daily battered by the cancellation mark of every post office in the land. Zealandia has suffered a sea change. She now stands on the end of a wharf, leaning against a murky globe. The caduceus shows signs of weighing heavy, and her right hand rests unsteadily on the foremast of a proud steamer tossing in mid-Tasman. She has lost her hat, and her tresses are wildly windswept. There is a slight glaze to her eye: she looks dissolute. Against the gale her nightie is reinforced by a nether Kaiapoi rug. It is cold, and there's not a sailor in sight.
“From light to light her eyes imperial
Turn, and require the further light”,
says Swinburne. The engraver was Henry Bourne “who had great difficulty in producing a satisfactory figure owing to the very poor model provided for him”.
Refaced but not disgraced, she has slipped away from our midst. Well, we have had our worse symbols. There has been some experimenting with Maori chiefs and fern leaves and moas and kiwis. On many Government publications there is still a crown and shield propped on one flank by a matted Maori with taiaha and hair-do; and on the other – can it be? – yes! Zealandia's Daughter solicitously chatting him, or chattingly soliciting him in a sexless sort of way. Zealandia's nightie has been cut down a bit, and the draughtsmanship is not even as good as in Mother's day.
“So from time's mistier mountain lawn
The spirit of man, in trust immortal
Yearns toward a hope withdrawn”,
by Denis James Matthews Glover, D.S.C., B.A., Author and Typographer, Wellington.