new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell


Secrets of Felicity: Letters of Ursula Bethell

selected and introduced by Peter Whiteford

Introduction | Contents


To Merlin & Kathleen Davies – January 1-4 1944[110]

47 Webb St. ChCh.

Jan. 1. Early. Saturday.

A wonderful morning for that fiction of New Year – Happy New Year, darling. It promises well for another “ann. mir.” [111] for you doesn’t it. I can’t see out much because of headache.


Head was BAD last night – odd how this affliction has revived – think it must be Nature’s revenge for too much emotion during latter days! I have a fancy that if I could cry it would ease this headache! but I cried so much when Effie died. I can’t any more – except for something very piercing like Xmas Eve [...] I looked out at the stars – a clear night for ChCh. & thought how much brighter they wd. be at Kaikoura. Perhaps you sleep on the verandah. Slept till 2. head still bad – fell asleep again later but not refreshing sleep – & head’s all buzzy this morning. Eyes, too, affected – wearisome not being able to read. Prayer too is difficult.

Sunday evening.

Such a change since I put aside this “cronocle” [112] Established myself in garden [...] suddenly, (I’d been there about an hour) a sort of whirlwind struck the garden & soon declared itself as a cool southerly with soft rain – the heavy throbbing in my head stopped, everything lightened [...] I had a lovely rest on my bed after that, quite free from pain & very happy & thankful. [...] These days have seemed like a hundred years – For you no doubt they have gone all too quickly. [...] You have come alive again now, my darlings, but rather far away. I have been looking back over the past months & thinking how rich & wonderful it has been. Yes you are alive in my prayer & I shall be near you tonight I believe. I don’t want to start the head again & will now close my eyes.

Jan. 3. Monday Morning


To come back thus to our intimate affairs – this is the “week’s mind” of the wedding-day! I wished there had been some opportunity of speaking about it – There hardly was – It was all so beautiful, simple – inevitable – I have never felt so deeply the drama of a marriage. Deep to the roots of creation & the purposes of God! And the benediction of the Holy Spirit of God. Can’t put it into words. Queer that it should be thought of as something to be funny about! A way of dodging the awe, perhaps.


Since the pressure in my head lightened you have become alive & near again, both of you – and you especially my precious treasure – Never, never, never shall I forget you nestling here early last Monday – & your little yawns – you seemed so small & so dear – so truly my child. And all so easy – nothing catastrophic about the ceremony to come! All easy & natural – just a seal on the acceptation & betrothal – But I must say that veil did frighten me a bit! I have been thinking over the last six months. I believe that Merlin must apprehend better now my anxious cares for you. Perhaps I should have taken him in more rapidly! But I had much to impede understanding. Not that I ever really obstructed him! I’m quite clear about that. On the contrary! When I longed for marriage for you how little I could know how it would come about – “Made in Heaven” – how little I knew that it would bring a shattering revelation of what I had missed in life – all the more devastating because so perfect. Not for one moment could I wish to have been spared that knowledge – (I have looked on sympathetically at courtship & marriage before but not been drawn right within the orbit!) It is part of Beauty & my transient pain will I believe be merged in your experience. Oh no, I prize that revelation! But how mysterious it all is. I was so angry with A. [113] when he said he couldn’t forgive himself for having “spoilt my life” – (a current Victorian phrase). It just wasn’t going to be spoilt! But now I wonder was it? Not that any sort of marriage would have made things right! Of course not – a part of one’s nature might have been satisfied at the expense of so much else – But I have never realised so clearly before the fundamental deprivation. (There’s no envy, darling! be sure of that.) Not that its everything, this two sided sexuality. I think my poetry shows that pretty clearly, don’t you. There was peace & happiness (for all the blemishes) at Rise Cottage, and fun, such fun! & you don’t have fun without peace – Lots of anxiety too, & therein perhaps the maternal constituent was having its day. The haves and have nots – one must accept that – Perhaps the parable of the wages has some bearing – ‘Shall I not do what I will with my own?’ [114]

I came upon these lines in my Commonplace book yesterday, in fact I looked them up, to see how far they were true:–

It is to sit & want & not to have,
To sit & want with the whole heart & soul,
To know that what you want & only that
Will make you happy, & yet not to have.
To think of what you want & have it not;
To see it in your thoughts & not to have it,
To hear it always, whosoever speaks,
Whatever sounds there are, yet not to have.
To dream you have it, happy, then awake
And call to it & know you have it not.
And other things you might have – and at times
Can wish for, and the other wish seems dead.
And when you have them, & should be content,
Back comes the other wish and speaks to you,
And you are bound to hear, and in your heart
All liking dies away for what you have,
And you are dead, alive, for what you have not,
And where you were before, there you are now,
Captive and miserable, and again you sit,
And want with all your heart and have it not.

That is only true part of the time – & I don’t know whether the writer was thinking of mating – it might have been some other satisfaction! – (He was ordained at age 64 & vicar of St Mary Magdalen Oxford when he died.) [115] It is a good description of flatness and apt for a good deal of my time in my thirties. “Other things” loom much larger than he reckons in reality – anything active & ‘creative’ to use Johnny’s word. (This diary-letter is uncommonly like him! but unlike him I do not look for an answer to it! It shows however that its an outlet to put down one’s vagrant thoughts when one can’t do much else.) No, its not quite everything on this planet & one has a fumbling sense that in some way, one can’t think how, the miss will be made up “afterwards”. According to this bit of Emily Dickinson’s (who could not righteously have the man she loved) which I have just transferred to the said common-place book – from a scrap of paper. [116]

Is a piercing virtue –
The letting go
A presence for an expectation –
Not now.

The putting out of eyes
Just sunrise,
Lest Day Day’s great Progenitor

Renunciation is the choosing
Against itself
Itself to justify
Unto itself;
When larger function
Make that appear
Smaller, that sated vision

In the worst darkness of deprivation God is still there, & even when He seems to be cruel, & even seems to be gone, & the body seems to overcome the Spirit, that turns out to be a lie. But when the body, the vehicle of the Spirit, has been dissolved – how can the losses & the misses of the bodily life be fulfilled – In the Resurrection does that oracle “in heaven no marriage” [117] proclaim, not a doom, but a glorious emancipation? I should say an inclusion “that nothing be missed”. On the other hand one can’t feel that St John of the Cross or St Teresa missed anything! Its all very difficult. They too were bounded by the body – could they yet understand everything by sympathy, not experiences? Its true that those saints were enduring hideous physical sufferings & illnesses most of the time – they were all engaged in killing the body! Should one say that sexuality is available for spiritual growth, not essential? Its essential for life on the planet! the “bringing of more love into the world” – Are some, not all, meant to be drawn into that dance of matter – and spirit! I do feel that for Merlin the experience was needful, that he should “understand the world aright” – I feel that you darling K. were given to him just in time (how perfect he is for you was only disclosed bit by bit!) And sometimes I feel that you two who have, on this planet, been the instruments of such pain, as well as joy, to me – (holding the last dregs of that cup of individual loss to my lips as it were!) – may also be, on this planet, the instruments of pacification.

Tuesday. Jan 4. 1944. 8 a.m.


Enclosed are fragments of a sort of diary-letter which has been a relief to my feelings but wearisome reading for a voyage de noces! [118] I couldn’t read or sew, or make the effort to write other letters, and the summary of the days since Thursday is that I’ve been laid low with a very bad head & on my bed mostly. Now quite on the mend.


Saturday evening must have been my gloomiest hour! I had been rather disappointed that there wasn’t a postcard from my dear vampires on Friday & knew I must wait till Tuesday (to-day) Were they too tired by journey – was everything at Mrs. McI’s [119] all right etc etc. After the headache came on I seemed to lose touch with you (tho’ I know you are there all the time really). The gates of the senses swung to! I could not hear your voices or see your eyes or feel your touch –

Just like Effie I felt you K. were being absorbed into happiness a great distance away. So often I’ve lifted up my eyes being in torment & wondered what her happiness is! Can’t imagine her disembodied – couldn’t picture her. I could picture you to some extent & I know what your happiness is! Comforted, I thought, while I was tormented! (& longed for little Effie to put a cold rag on my forehead – then remembered her pain & thanked God I was beside her then, tho’ I couldn’t do much – so much worse to watch another suffer than to be hurt ones-self –) Often you dwindled to little pinpoints on the horizon – or moving about the village – figures without significance! & M. almost a myth! These were waking nightmares & the result of the headache I know. I could not make that leap of the Spirit which kept me near you on Monday night. A sort of identification with you both – should I say that God had withdrawn that liberty of happiness? It was so good that you used the word “holy” speaking of it Darling K – it was a holy night for me too.

Not the headache but the ensuing desolation mattered. The mystical books say that desolation is God’s chief discipline – “we must kill our senses & be stripped of them, their destruction means the reign of faith” (That’s S. François de Sales) – “God instructs the heart by means of sufferings & contradictions not by ideas.” “It is only by mortifications of all sorts, by trials & deprivations of all kinds, that we can be established in pure love.’ “It is love which entering into a soul to make it happily die to itself alive to God, bereaves it of all human desires.’’ “To detach ourselves from creatures & abandon ourselves entirely to God.” [120] I have perhaps a notion of this – but those saints chose it as their way. Perhaps they had a much stronger love of creatures to start with – I had to discover love of creatures as individuals – always loved creation I think!

I remembered when little Effie went I suddenly realised I could never now do anything more for her again – were you K. darling being detached from me like this? Common sense said that there wd. still be scope to be useful to you but was it fundamentally the same event – you were given to another to cherish according to my prayer! Out of work so to speak, ‘désoeuvrée’ [121] is a good word. I found myself wondering whether God would send another to be cherished now that you are fixed up & then remembered that my strength is spent now. Rather I should pray for someone to cherish me! Unreasonable. The end is solitude in the nature of things. But I could do with someone to put a hand on my forehead & rest me to sleep – to wake refreshed – out of the body perhaps would it have to be? The Creator taking the creature back – Then I thought: this notion of resting in strong arms is too like the psychologist’s “back to the mother’s womb”! Better to be revived to individual activity! You must pray, Merlin – I thought – for me to “recover some strength before I go hence” [122] so as to clear up all this litter of letters etc – I should hate to go leaving a litter behind – but Katsy no doubt would push all those letters into the incinerator & no one would know that all the love & wit I had withheld from burning was now consumed!

I wondered, again, whether these days were a sort of rehearsal for when you go away to England. It won’t be easy & I must be better prepared by then.

Such were my gloomy thoughts & I want you to know them – but they are better in the past tense! I am better enough now to post this without making you anxious. There is a good deal of neuralgia about the eyes still & I must not use them when I get tired or in the evening but head pressure stopped. Nose has been bleeding freely – it had conveniently almost stopped on Mon & Tues! Is there any connection I wonder? If so, I wouldn’t use Dr O.B’s adrenalin ointment I havn’t begun yet. Such a collection of gory hankies to be washed! Tooth ached with the rest but that is easing too & I am not so tired. The inactivity has been very trying, but I can pick fruit today.


This letter flows on like Johnny’s! I quite see what a resource it is when you can’t do much else. There was another from him last week – dated still well before the airgraph in reply to news of engagement. He plans to buy typewriter on return & keep the family by his pen! I fear there will be a downfall. I told Connie to say that I am not well enough to write, wh. is more or less true – but I don’t know what to write!


Oh what a lovely day – perhaps I shall be able to enjoy it? Mt Grey is clear again – yesterday veiled. Certainly that mountain says something!

I feel free to post this, whether I hear from you or not, because I am certainly better – the first day I have felt really on the mend – but I am going to be oh so cautious. Now it can be a good Retreat, that I have a clear head. I feel you both there & its the more remarkable, this conviction that M. is always close interiorly – that it hasn’t come slowly as with you my treasure – we had time to grow together, hadn’t we?

Oh Merlin what volumes I could write to you about our darling! – but you don’t need to be told. (May I say “our”? I don’t think I have yet, tho’ I’ve often said “our M.” to K.)

End of letter at last! I’m afraid a great deal of my talk herein would sound very extravagant & absurd to the ‘outside world’ – but not to you. But its quite rational! There may be discrepancies & contradictions, with the vibrations of feeling & in agitation – like any picture in the making – but the fin des fins [123]is quite rational!

Darlings what rows of symbols there wd. have to be to be adequate! You must sort them out xxxxxxxxx!

Your old friend

Macmillan Brown Library. MB 572. A.

110. Bethell met the young schoolteacher, Kathleen Taylor, in June 1941, and they became very close friends; indeed, on several occasions, Bethell compared her relationship with the younger woman to that that had existed with Effie Pollen. Merlin Davies came to New Zealand as chaplain to the Student Christian Movement in 1940. The following year he became Precentor at Christchurch Cathedral, in addition to teaching theology and Scripture at College House. Bethell began a long letter to the newly married couple on Dec. 31, adding to it over several days before posting on Jan. 4. The various 'notes' are sometimes addressed to one or the other, or to both.

111. Annus mirabilis. Lat. 'Marvellous year.'

112. The spelling recalls Effie Pollen; see letter to Sidgwick, Dec. 30, 1934.

113. Bethell does not name him in any of her letters. See Introduction to Vibrant with Words.

114. See Matthew 20: 15.

115. I have not found these lines in any published form. However, the author may be Arthur Gilkes, who had retired as headmaster of Dulwich in 1914 and fretted at being inactive during the war. He was ordained in 1915, and became vicar of St Mary Magdalen's in 1917, where he died in 1922. There is no record of his having written verse (though he did publish prose works), but he is the only likely candidate given the very advanced age of ordination. I owe this suggestion to Rev. Hugh Wybrew and Alan Palmer of St Mary Magdalene's, Oxford.

116. Almost nothing of Dickinson's poetry was published in her lifetime. Bethell is quoting here from an early edition. The version included in most modern editions (see Johnson, No. 745) shows some differences of wording and lineation. The 'man she loved' is often identified as a married clergyman, the Rev. Charles Wadsworth.

117. See Matthew 22: 30. The other quotations in this paragraph may be from their letters to Bethell (which have not survived).

118. Fr. 'honeymoon.'

119. Mrs. McIver, the Davies's landlady in Kaikoura, with whom Bethell had stayed for some months in the winter of 1941.

120. The quotations are drawn from The Treatise of the Love of God (by St. François de Sales) and Jean-Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence.

121. Fr. 'at a loose end.'

122. See Psalm 39: 13.

123. Fr. 'final outcome.'



Last updated 4 July, 2005