Ruth Dallas, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished and widely read poets, had a deep connection to the southern South Island. This shaped her reputation as a regional poet, but her work was also strongly influenced by Asian poetry and thought, and by an appreciation of poetry’s links with song. Like other mid-twentieth century writers and artists, Dallas felt creative works could help define a New Zealand cultural identity. She advanced this goal through her poems, with their keen sense of history and place, as an editorial assistant on the influential arts and literary journal Landfall, and as a successful children’s author exploring New Zealand history and society. As a child, she had longed to read stories set not indoors in England, but outdoors in New Zealand; as an adult, she wrote them herself.
Ruth Minnie Mumford was born in Invercargill on 29 September 1919, the youngest of three daughters of Minnie Jane Johnson and her husband, Francis (Frank) Sydney Dalton Mumford. Frank drove a taxi in Invercargill at the time of Ruth’s birth, and worked as a barman for several years before opening a petrol station in front of the family home in 1928. Minnie briefly operated a number of small fruit and sweet shops during Ruth’s childhood. Ruth later remembered her parents with warmth and affection, which she also felt for her maternal grandmother, Jessie Dallas, who lived with the family until her death in 1932. These close family relationships, and a keen interest in the region’s settler heritage, informed her adult poetry and prose.
Ruth attended Waihopai Primary School and in 1932 started secondary school at Southland Technical College. Her earliest poetry dated to her schooldays. She later recalled that her first poem was ‘given’ to her at age 11, on seeing a field of lupins, and demanded to be written down.1 Like many of her subsequent works, it was a direct response to her delight in nature. At 12 she began writing poems and stories for the children’s pages of the Southland Daily News, initially under the nom de plume ‘Multum-in-parvo’ (‘A great deal in a small space’) and, from 1936, under her real name. She read several of her poems over the radio. Ruth contributed to the children’s page regularly until she turned 18 in 1937, and was awarded annual prizes of poetry anthologies which introduced her to the work of poets in other countries.
At 15 Ruth noticed she had reduced vision in one eye and, after a period of hospitalization, the eye was removed to save the other. Grateful to have emerged partially sighted, she later observed: ‘Like most handicapped people it became important for me to overcome my handicap, to prove to myself that what others could do I could do too.’2 It also meant that nursing, her preferred career path, was no longer an option. In 1935, aged 16, Ruth earned her driver’s licence and left school, in anticipation of a period in the workforce followed by a life of domesticity as a wife and mother. Unable to find suitable paid employment in Invercargill, she continued living with her parents and enjoyed gardening and socialising. In 1938 her father died suddenly in his sleep, from heart failure, aged 56.
In her late teens, Ruth became engaged to a steady boyfriend, but the Second World War, which broke out in 1939, radically altered the course of her life. Her fiancé, who enlisted early in 1940, met someone else and wrote breaking off their engagement. This was a ‘cruel blow’ at the time, but Ruth later observed that being single suited her independent nature.3
In 1941, keen to contribute to the war effort but disliking the city office environment, Ruth found work as a herd tester, which entailed visiting Southland dairy farms and testing milk for butterfat content. She had little previous experience of country life, but loved being out in the fresh air and greatly admired the farmers she met, whose devotion to their land and livestock made a lasting impression on her. She eventually gave up the work when the cars used by women herd-testers were replaced by horse-drawn vehicles to save petrol. In March 1943 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), a women’s branch of the armed services which assigned women to jobs usually undertaken by men. Ruth worked in a clerical capacity at the Invercargill Drill Hall.
Ruth had continued to write poetry after turning 18, occasionally placing poems in the monthly journal the Mirror and the New Zealand Railways Magazine. The conflict brought a new seriousness of purpose to her creative writing, and during the war years she embarked on a project of self-directed study that laid the basis for her future literary career. Relying on books in the local library and obtained by interloan, she voraciously read poetry, fiction and literary criticism. Her interest in ancient Chinese poetry led to an absorbing interest in works by Eastern thinkers and philosophers. Buddhist influences in Indian, Chinese and Japanese literature helped her to find meaning during a time of crisis and suffering, and to see humans as part of the natural, cyclical order of life.
In 1945 Ruth overcame her shyness and showed her poems to M.H. Holcroft, editor of the Southland Times and a well-known essayist and social commentator. He responded positively, urging her to keep writing and to visit him again in a year’s time. When she returned in July 1946 she was heartened by his offer to publish her new, more mature poems, but was reluctant for them to appear locally under her name. Holcroft suggested she adopt a nom de plume, and henceforth she wrote as ‘Ruth Dallas’, the name a tribute to her beloved maternal grandmother. She was discharged from the WAAC shortly afterwards, and found congenial work in a local doctor’s surgery, where she could occasionally read during the working day.
In March 1947 Dallas was delighted to discover the first issue of Landfall, a literary quarterly edited by the Dunedin poet Charles Brasch. As she recalled: ‘now, for the first time, I encountered the work of other young New Zealand writers; the platform existed on which we could speak; the rest was up to us.’4 Three of her poems were printed as a group in Landfall in September 1947, and that November the New Zealand Listener published her ‘Milking before dawn’, which would become perennially popular. In 1948 Dallas was one of six new poets featured in Landfall 8, alongside Louis Johnson, W.H. Oliver, Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman and P.S. Wilson. Her first book, Country road and other poems, published by the Caxton Press in 1953, attracted critical acclaim. Its poems, written between 1947 and 1952, expressed her fascination with human interactions with the natural world, responding to ‘the poetry which I felt already existed in the landscape and people of Southland.’5
Dallas and Brasch became close friends and developed a mutually beneficial relationship as poets, rigorously critiquing each other’s work without giving offence. Despite different backgrounds and temperaments, they shared a strong love of the southern South Island, a devotion to poetry, and a keen desire to foster and encourage a distinctive national literature and cultural voice.
In 1954 Ruth and Minnie moved to Dunedin, partly because Ruth wanted access to a larger library but also at Brasch’s urging. Ruth did not initially seek paid employment, feeling her mother needed full-time care. Although of a reserved, home-loving disposition, Ruth was energised by the move and drawn into Brasch’s wide circle of artistic friends. A productive period ensued: her second book of poetry, The turning wheel (1961), jointly won the 1963 New Zealand Literary Fund Award. Dallas’s grief over Minnie’s death in 1961 permeated her third collection, Day book: poems of a year (1966). Shadow show (1968) featured more formal experimentation, along with the brevity and clarity she admired in Asian poetry. She lived with her niece Joan Dutton from 1964.
In 1962 Dallas began working as Brasch’s paid editorial assistant on Landfall, proof-reading, indexing, assessing and discussing manuscripts with Brasch, and looking after administrative matters. She supported Brasch’s decision to retire in 1966. The editorship of Landfall shifted to Christchurch, leaving Dallas to focus her attention on writing for children.
In 1958 Dallas began writing for the New Zealand School Journal, which, by the mid-1960s, had published some 20 of her children’s stories, many set in the southern South Island. Hoping there might be an overseas market for a short-story collection, she sent a small sample to the London publishing firm Methuen and Co., which expressed a preference for a longer work. In 1967 she finished the first draft of a children’s book set in a Southland sawmilling community in the 1890s. It was loosely based on stories from her mother’s childhood, when her grandmother, a widowed nurse and midwife, had to leave her three children at home alone, often for weeks at a time, while she attended patients on isolated farms.
In 1968 Dallas was awarded the prestigious Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. The resources this provided – an office, library access and junior lecturer’s salary – helped her undertake several writing projects, including completing the book for Methuen, The children in the bush (1969). It was to be the first of four books about the same family, which were popular with young readers at home and abroad, with several reprinted and translated into other languages. Between 1969 and 1983, Dallas produced eight successful children’s books, two of which, A dog called Wig (1970) and The house on the cliffs (1975), were set in contemporary New Zealand. The latter sold 30,000 copies. Shining rivers (1979), aimed at slightly older readers, followed the adventures of a 14-year-old boy during the 1860s Otago gold rush.
After a hiatus, Dallas had two poetry collections published in 1976, with their reception marking a new phase of public recognition of her work. Walking on the snow jointly won the 1977 New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, and Songs for a guitar, a selection of her song poems chosen by Brasch not long before his death in 1973, won the 1977 Buckland Literary Award. In 1978 she and her friend Janet Frame were awarded honorary doctorates in literature by the University of Otago. Dallas’s poetry collection Steps of the sun was published in 1979, and her Collected poems in 1987. In 1989, Dallas was made a CBE for services to literature. By the 1990s, with vision fading and reading no longer possible, she relied on audiobook cassettes for access to literature. In 1999 she won the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind’s National Blind Achievers Award for her contributions to literature.
Despite bouts of serious ill-health, Dallas drew pleasure from gardening and from observing local bird life during her later years. She also continued writing. In 1991 the University of Otago Press published her autobiography Curved horizon, which was followed by a new edition of her Collected poems in 2000. Her first and only collection of adult short stories, The black horse and other stories, appeared the same year. These powerful tales, many with rural settings, share the simplicity of language and vivid imagery of her poems. Her last book of poetry, The joy of a Ming vase (2006), inspired by an exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, was published when she was 86. Ruth Dallas died in Dunedin, aged 88, on 18 March 2008, from complications following a fall in her home.
Despite being largely self-educated, visually handicapped, and reliant on her own efforts for financial survival, Ruth Dallas had a long and successful literary career as a poet and children’s author. While always keenly attuned to the local environment of the southern South Island, her writing was neither parochial nor narrowly nationalistic. Throughout her career she wrote for, and found favour with, audiences far wider than the critics and academics who praised her work.