One of the best, Hugh Roberts

Ursula Bethell. Collected Poems. [Revised edition]
Vincent OSullivan (ed)
Victoria University Press $24.95
ISBN 0 86473 307 0

One of the reasons we keep reading good writers – and Bethell is one of the best – is because every time we return to them we discover that what we had thought was important about them no longer seems to be so, and aspects that we had previously ignored take on a new significance. The blurb on the back of Victoria University Presss revised and updated edition of the 1985 Oxford Collected Poems suggests one such new context in which to read Bethells work:

Vincent OSullivans introduction to this new edition of Bethells Collected Poems takes account of discoveries and insights from the last decade, especially about her close friendship with Effie Pollen, with whom she shared a house for the 10 years during which almost all of these poems were written. After Effies death Ursula Bethell wrote to Eileen Duggan: “Now I am a tree struck by lightning – dead. I can think things but not feel them . . . all joy is lost.”

This replaces a half-paragraph from the (otherwise unchanged) original blurb which described Bethell as “the truest colonial voice New Zealand possesses” – a two-edged statement, both asserting and undermining the “indigenousness” of that voice. This point is emphasised by a list of illustrious literary influences (Whitman, Hopkins and Wiley) that suggests, as well as something of the tone and style of her poetry, something of its hieratic and expatriate allegiances.

Bethells relationship with Effie Pollen has gone, it would seem, from being simply another part of her life – however rich and rewarding in itself – to being one of its defining aspects, something that the reader needs to know about Bethell if they are to understand her significance. What is “interesting” about Bethell is no longer just her literary influences or her position in New Zealand literary history but her relationship to the sexual politics of her age and ours. Depending on the readers choice, she can be seen either as boldly defying them (she lived with her “consort”, after all, and celebrated their love in some of her best poetry) or as falling victim to them (she could only express that love as an exalted form of “friendship”, or maternal affection, and we know that this is merely sublimation or repression).

If a bit of lesbian street cred attracts a few more readers to Bethells poetry, then Im all for it, but the curious fact is that (pace VUPs blurb writer) OSullivans additions to his original introduction and notes say very little about Effie Pollen and nothing that substantially alters what was already known long before 1985. Indeed, apart from the minimal statement that Pollen “became the centre of [Bethells] affections for the rest of her life” and an identification of the “Six Memorials” as being written for Pollen, the only additions are quotations from letters to friends which testify to the depth of Bethells feeling (for example, the letter to Duggan quoted in the blurb).

So if the pioneer-of-lesbian-literature angle on Bethell proves to be somewhat chimerical, what is new about this new edition? If you already own the 1985 edition and your interest in New Zealand literature is not scholarly then the answer is probably: not enough. There are no previously unpublished poems, for example. One day, no doubt, someone will bring out a Complete Bethell, which will include the unpublished poems which one assumes must exist in the correspondence of a prolific letter-writer whose first collection of poetry was published so late in life and mostly drawn from poems sent in letters to friends. Until that time, however, this book is the best Bethell we are likely to have – and Bethell is indispensable.

The new cover, with a sketch of the poet by Toss Woollaston and higher quality paper, make this a far more attractive book than the old edition and the textual corrections, although minor, will be welcomed by scholars. (Victoria University Press has been let down by its printer here, the poems have not been reset from the earlier edition and where the corrected lines have been pasted in, they are often visibly misaligned. In the case of the first stanza of “November 1936” this has led to the final word of the stanza [“ours”] being lost altogether.) Vincent OSullivan has extended his introduction with some judicious and interesting comments on Bethells “colonial” context, her Anglicanism and the influence of Hopkins on her work. An assiduous search through Bethells letters to her friends has produced numerous characteristic quotations which flesh out OSullivans portrait of the writer and add specific insights to the notes on individual poems.

Other changes to the introduction are an interesting barometer of Bethells changing stature in our literary pantheon. While Bethell has always been seen as one of our foremost poets, critical comment on her poetry has tended to take the form of high praise with certain reservations. She is excellent but essentially English (the title of her first collection From a Garden in the Antipodes says it all – and wasnt it published in England?); her poems are charming but domestic, slight; she is an interesting prosodic experimenter but isnt her recherché vocabulary just a little, well, precious? OSullivans revisions to the introduction have included an assiduous weeding of such “buts”. We are, for example, no longer told that the poems in Bethell’s second collection, Time and Place, “draw far more from the Georgian and Victorian models which her generation had been reared on” but that “their diction is more diversely ranging than that in any New Zealand poet”. Hopkins “total metrical freshness” is still seen as assisting Bethell “towards an effective reshaping of her own sense of line” but this reshaping is no longer seen as “comparatively modest”. The poems of the River Ashley series were in 1985 “not ‘successful’ poems any more than they are finished” but in 1997 there is nothing quite like them in New Zealand writing before her”. And, where she was seen, simply, as colonial, she is now seen as struggling with the “colonial dilemma”.

A similar, although perhaps more surprising set of changes concern the implications of Bethell’s devout Anglicanism. Here too, the passive and limiting becomes active and extending. Where she was “firmly, traditionally Christian”, she now has “a strong, and strongly articulated faith”; she is no longer suspected of denying Hopkins’ poetic influence because of a priggish resentment of his Catholicism, and Holcrofts claim that happiness was for Bethell at best “a brief visitation” is no longer quoted.

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Although the portrait of Bethell that emerges from the new introduction is on the whole richer and more just, some of these revisions have been done a little carelessly, even mechanically, and indeed one gets the impression that the book as a whole is marred by a certain hastiness in the final stages of production. In the extended discussion of Bethells debts to Hopkins, for example, O’Sullivan asserts that Hopkins was responsible for “taking English metre from being a matter primarily of accounting for syllables, to counting simply stresses”. Such a blatant error would not have survived careful re-reading. For example, a line of anapaestic tetrameter verse (12 syllables and four stresses) has never been regarded as even remotely similar to an alexandrine (also 12 syllables, but six stresses). Syllabic Verse is a purely modernist experiment.

Similarly, an error from the 1985 introduction has survived into the 1997 one. Bethell’s “October Morning” is offered as an example of “conventional pentameter” when only four of its 14 lines could be so described. These might seem merely technical points but in an age when so few people have any understanding of poetic metre and in the context of a discussion of Bethell’s metrical sophistication, it is important to get these things right. Students of English literature in particular are confused enough about metre without mistakes of this kind.

While several errors or absences of attribution have been corrected in the notes to the poems, and some very useful extra material has been added, some of these additions seem rather random. There is, understandably, no systematic effort to help the reader with Bethell’s learned and wide-ranging allusions but where such help is offered it seems to have been more because the novelty of the explanation appealed to the editor than the result of any assessment of its value to the reader. The final lines of Bethell’s “Detail” (” – A sweet Bay, an Olive, and a Turkey Fig, / – A Fig, an Olive, and a Bay”) are tentatively, and in my view unconvincingly, derived from Exodus 28:34 (“A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate”) but where Bethell unmistakably alludes to this passage from Exodus in the poem “Grey Day”, the notes are silent.

While an edition of this type could not allow the editor to elucidate all Bethell’s allusions, there are some cases where Bethell’s poems are markedly impoverished if we do not know the source of the imagery, and where the silence of the notes is particularly regrettable. In “Grace”, for example, which begins “I have a little Raven / Who brings me my dinner” the notes only identify the Raven as Pollen. How helpful it would have been to most readers to explain that the Raven who brings dinner is drawn from the Christian legend of St Anthony Abbot’s visit to St Paul the Hermit and the miraculous raven which brought them their daily bread. If we understand that the bird is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the bread, conventionally, of Christ’s body, then we understand that in this apparently slight poem Bethell is comparing Pollen’s free gift of love with God’s grace (hence the title) – that unaccountable and miraculous love from God which Protestant theology insists is a free gift and cannot be earned.

This deceptive simplicity is characteristic of the best of Bethell’s work and this is why I disagree with O’Sullivan and most of Bethell’s critics who regard the poems of From a Garden in the Antipodes, however charming, as a lesser achievement than the later work. Although OSullivan makes a strong case for Bethell’s alert and intelligent response to Hopkins’ poetry and her consequent poetic experimentation, I still feel that Hopkins is one of those sui generis writers who, while excellent in himself, is a dead end for would-be disciples. The problem with Hopkins is that his voice is so individual (“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . . “) that even the best imitation of it sounds like pastiche:

On a bright morning of winter I walked up the bitumened highway
to forget the fret of the fetters of down-tending detail,
of diurnal subsistence escape delight-dimming screen.

(“Morning Walk”)

And a less than excellent imitation tends to sound contrived and self-consciously poetic:

and there, still, the shade-flitting, honey-sipping lutanists
copy the dropping of tree-cool waters
dripping from stone to stone.

(“The Long Harbour”)

Nor can I share O’Sullivan’s enthusiasm for Bethell’s experiments with the hexameter line, which I would guess owed more to her wide reading in French literature than to her interest in Hopkins. In English verse, the hexameter line always threatens to break in two, and where Bethell avoids this trap she cannot avoid the corresponding problem of the line’s tendency to drag.

The best of Bethell’s later, more “formal” verse draws its inspiration from quite other sources. Tennyson, for example, lies behind both the stark dactylic dimeter of “Grey Day” (put to a startlingly different use from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”), and the modified versions of the so-called “In Memoriam” stanza which she adopts for the first two of the “Six Memorials”. In the first of these in particular (“October 1935”), Bethell’s “long line” comes into its own as the deliberate awkwardness and irresolution of the switch from four beats in the first three lines to five or six in the last mirrors the poem’s grief-stricken refusal of consolation:

You were laughter, my liking, and frolic, my lost one,
I must dissemble and smile still for your sake,
Now that I know how spring time is heart-break,
Now that you have left me to look upon all that is lovely, alone.

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By contrast, the poems of From a Garden in the Antipodes are, on the whole, at once more relaxed and more lively, without ever being loose. They are “free verse”, but free verse written by somebody with an ear trained to the rewards of traditional poetry. Bethell is always alert to the rhythm of the language and achieves wonderful effects with sudden grouping of stresses (as in the final line of “Discipline”, where the three heavy stresses in the lingering phrase, “very young green peas”, leave the poem hanging, a non-committal ending which perfectly suits the poem’s dry humour) or with an equally surprising reversion to traditional metre. The poems are delightful in their informality, their domesticity, their mordant wit (“When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls / Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser (“Pause”)) but this should not blind us to their extraordinary scope and power.

The ease with which a poem like “Grace” moves from the domestic to the eschatological is entirely typical. These poems are constantly, actively, concerned with such weighty themes as mortality, time, God and the human relationship with the natural world; and they are also some of the most intelligent, and percipient explorations of the “colonial condition” in New Zealand literature. The image of the gardener, trying to “establish” foreign plants in an often unwelcoming soil and climate naturally lends itself to a rich metaphorical play on this subject.

A final example, the poem “Detail”:

My garage is a structure of excessive plainness,
It springs from a dry bank in the back garden,
It is made of corrugated iron,
And painted all over with brick-red.
But beside it I have planted a green Bay-tree,
– A sweet Bay, an Olive, and a Turkey Fig,
– A Fig, an Olive, and a Bay.

At the most basic level this is a masterful example of word-painting (Bethell’s early artistic training is everywhere apparent in her poetry) but it is also immediately apparent that the olive (the tree sacred to Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom), the bay (sacred to Apollo and therefore the traditional crown of poets) and the fig (so rich in biblical associations) represent the legacy of the European tradition, in its philosophical, literary and religious aspects. The poignant contrast between this wealth and the poverty of the colonist/ gardener’s “structure of excessive plainness” and “dry” (implying infertile) “bank” is moving and it nicely balances its colonial confidence (look, we are becoming established!) with an ironic debunking of colonial pretensions (we dream of classical Greece but all we achieve is a tin shed).

But this is not all. As with “Grace” and so many of these poems, the key to the poem is in the title. “Detail” here is an artistic term. It refers to a part of a larger picture. In the most obvious sense this is because the poem describes a “detail” of the garden considered as a whole. But we come across “details” most often in art books which reproduce “details” of paintings under discussion (and which transport the “parent” culture to the “colonial” context). The fig, olive, and bay are merely a “detail” – a part that stands for the whole – of the European culture the colonial enterprise attempts to establish in New Zealand. But Bethell also acknowledges that this “detail” is a mere reproduction, a copy. The inauthenticity of this colonial graft puts a question to the whole colonial endeavour. Perhaps this decontextualised copy should prompt us to revalue the “excessive plainness” of the garden shed as an honesty and integrity we had not at first appreciated.

In the reaction of the 1960s against the supposed myths of encounter and settlement in the poetry of Curnow, Mason, Fairburn, et al, Bethell’s distinctive contribution to this area tended to be overlooked. Her contribution to the poetics of colonisation still remains to be fully explored.

Hugh Roberts teaches English at University of California, Irvine.

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