Temporal blather, Iain Sharp

Iain Sharp raises an eyebrow at the ghosts of reviewers past.

Thanks to the National Library’s splendid Papers Past website, forgotten follies are now at our fingertips. In June and early July 1909, for example, every edition of the Ashburton Guardian carried a small advertisement for a volume of poetry simply titled Offerings by one John Christie, alongside notices for A L Zouch’s dental surgery, Mrs Curtis’s dancing and deportment classes and Alfred C Jonassen’s “magnetic” treatment for sleeplessness and nervous disorders.

Christie probably incurred no charge for this publicity because he was the Guardian’s editor at the time. Originally from Perthshire, he had arrived in New Zealand aged 14 in 1861 and thereafter worked on newspapers up and down the country.

His hubris did not extend to commissioning some sycophant to write a glowing appraisal of his book for the Guardian, but he triumphantly reprinted in his own journal the rave reviews that appeared in other broadsheets. “Nature, fresh and virginal as a bride, touched the eyes of the man who wrote these rhymes,” the Otago Witness averred. The Canterbury Times deemed Offerings “a book to please the quiet woman at the fireside, and a book to fire the impetuous young man as he wakes to the mingled joy and bitterness of the medley we call life.” The Wanganui Herald proclaimed it “a book that all lovers of true poetry should secure, for it is essentially a book of the heart, one to be kept and turned to again and again as the years slip by.”

Alas, Christie’s virginal naturalism did not survive much slippage. Look for him in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature and you will find the alphabetical listing leaps straight from China to Hubert Church. None of Christie’s poems was chosen by Walter Murdoch for the 1918 Oxford Book of Australasian Verse or by Quentin Pope for Kowhai Gold in 1930 or by Harvey McQueen, six decades later, for The New Place: The Poetry of Settlement in New Zealand, 1852-1914. A little of his journalism, simultaneously supporting female suffrage yet insisting on traditional gender roles, turns up in the 1986 Hocken Library booklet Women and the Vote, but nobody today has any use for his poetry.

I have no enthusiasm myself for reviving Christie’s poetic status. I collect stories like his principally as a corrective to my own hubris. They help ground me whenever I am at risk of succumbing to inflated notions of the reviewer’s task and begin to fancy myself as an arbiter of taste, a canon-maker, a sapient literary stockbroker or something equally preposterous. Sure, reviews play a part in the establishment or withholding of literary reputations, as does authorial talent, but other factors are also continually at work, including publishers’ budgets, entrepreneurial push, word of mouth, luck and fashion.

I also collect historical instances of reviewers haughtily denouncing masterpieces. Assessing Wuthering Heights for the August 1849 edition of the North British Review, James Lorimer wrote, “All the faults of Jane Eyre are magnified thousand fold and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” Boy, did you get that one wrong, James! But, salutary though it is to ponder such overturned denunciations, nothing shrinks my reviewer’s ego so effectively as reflecting on occasions when critics were on their best behaviour, acting on generous impulses, free from spleen and spite, yet time still exposed their judgments as tosh.

John Christie is just one exhibit among many in my museum of talent scouts’ failed favourites. I could have picked instead “Mrs C Fulton of Tuapeka”, whose “charming verses and pretty conceits”, according to the Daily Southern Cross of 15 June 1867, are “certain to minister to the pleasure of many appreciative readers”. Or I might have chosen Louis H Victory, who in April 1916 sent a letter to the New Zealand Truth claiming, “I am a poet of 25 years’ standing, the author of seven volumes of poetry, published in London, and recognised by the leading critics as work of the very first rank.” OK, authorial self-delusion deserves a separate category, but in 1916 Victory also published a little book on Thomas Bracken, calling his subject “a genius whose contribution to our poetic wealth must be more and more esteemed with the passage of years”. ’Fraid not, Louis.

Closer to our own time, there is a strange sentence I treasure on the last page of Charles Doyle’s generally sane and helpful 1970 book on R A K Mason (part of the once prestigious Twayne’s World Author Series): “The kind of poetry we have at the moment, from our youngest ‘wave’ of poets, exemplified perhaps in the toughness, lightness and wit of Brian Wigney’s work, is a far remove from Mason’s romanticism.” Exemplified by Brian who?

I thought at first Doyle was perpetrating a droll hoax, but Wigney, I have since learned, was a bona fide poet of the 1960s who published a few poems in Landfall, then disappeared. Perhaps he is currently planning his comeback with a magnificent collection that will make me look as silly, in my disbelief, as James Lorimer.

Let us return for a moment, though, to John Christie. While not, to my eye, a rewarding poet, he is seldom downright ridiculous, whereas his contemporary Hubert Church often is. Yet Church has fared better at the hands of anthologists and encyclopaedia-makers. Why?

In my heartless youth I considered the whole period of literary activity in New Zealand from 1860 to 1910 a waste of energy. It did not occur to me back then that critics of the future – of the 2080s, say – might regard my own stretch of history with similar scorn. The sole reason to glance at the New Zealand verse of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, I believed, was to remind ourselves of the sort of crap written on these shores before the emergence of Bethell, Mason and Hyde and the advent of modernism. If I conceded to Hubert Church any pre-eminence, it was only insofar as I thought him the most egregious crap artist of his day.

In recent years, however, literary historians have moved towards a more sympathetic view of pioneer writers and their difficulties in describing a half-alien landscape – and I have moved with them. This tender-hearted socio-historical approach works more to Church’s posthumous advantage than to Christie’s. Whereas the latter contented himself with fey love lyrics set nowhere in particular, sub-Burnsian whimsy in ersatz Scots dialect and sub-Tennysonian medievalism set in a vaguely British never-never land, Church wrote poems with titles like “Bowen Falls, Milford Sound”, “Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound” (in which he ruminates on the possible survival of James Cook’s “tortive hieroglyph” on a tree-trunk) and “Lowry Bay” (yes, the Lower Hutt locale). However feebly, he at least tried to grapple with what his friend and admirer Jessie Mackay termed “our Zealandian own”.

As I gradually recede into sentimental senescence, I am inclined to grant Church some extra points for being rendered quite deaf at age 12, poor chap, by a cricket ball to the head. Another biographical tidbit I enjoy is that the late Leigh Davis was not the first New Zealand poet to work at the Treasury; Church preceded him by more than a century. In newspapers of his era, Church was known as “the sweet-singing Wellington civil servant”. Singing sweetly, though stone deaf, is quite an accomplishment.

The main reason Hubert Church’s name retains some flickering recognisability today, however, is that in 1945 his adoring widow Catherine bequeathed money for a commemorative prize, which is now presented annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors to the best first book of not poetry, curiously, but fiction. The most recent recipients, working backwards, have been Pip Adam, Anna Taylor and Eleanor Catton. Church himself wrote a dodgy-sounding novel called Tonks: A New Zealand Yarn, which I confess I am yet to read and modern publishers are reluctant to reprint.

Clearly, if you want to achieve literary immortality – or what passes for it: being remembered for a few generations –  the surest method is to bypass reviewers’ temporal blather, dig into your wallet and establish a memorial gong, or encourage your spouse to do so.

But I should beware of exaggerating how familiar Hubert Church’s name actually is. At the 2004 book awards, when she picked up her prize for Bloom, Kelly Ana Morey announced onstage she had no idea who the hell Hubert Church might be, but she thanked him anyway.

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