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Ursula Bethell



Introduction to Ursula Bethell: Collected Poems, VUP 1997.

Vincent O’Sullivan


An advertisement for Ursula Bethell’s first book of poems in 1929 asked the prospective buyer, with words taken from Kipling, ‘Won’t you greet a friend from home, / Half the world away?’   The sentiment was accurate.   As she had informed her publisher, ‘I am by birth and choice English, but I have lived in New Zealand a good deal and shouldn’t like to be impolite to it.’[1] Although she spent two thirds of her life in New Zealand, England was always ‘home’ to Ursula Bethell, Canterbury where she happened to live.

Her father Richard, son of a Bursar at Eton and brother of the owner of Watton Abbey and Rise Park in Yorkshire, had come to the colony in 1860. Both Anglican and from a landed background, his intention was to see his sense of social order firmly reproduced in the antipodes. Some years later he married Isabel Lillie, daughter of a former Presbyterian minister at Papanui. Their first child Ursula was born in Horsell, Surrey, on St Faith’s day, 6 October 1874. The young family soon returned to New Zealand, eventually taking up a property at Rangiora, a small settlement close to the River Ashley. It was there Ursula spent her childhood, in the comfort of considerable wealth, surrounded by an impressive landscape, and with England always in the background as cultural and moral touchstone. Her parents sent her to good schools in Canterbury, then better schools in Oxford and Switzerland. By the time she was eighteen she was travelled, at ease in French and German, and very aware that Christchurch was both remote and small when she was obliged to sail back. A true daughter to social responsibility, she then worked among the poor and the underprivileged young until she went for two years to study painting in Geneva, and music in Dresden. Back in London in the 1890s, she again took up social work, and at the end of the century joined the Women Workers for God, known as the ‘Grey Ladies’, an Anglican community engaged in parish service to the sick and disadvantaged. M.H. Holcroft’s monograph on Bethell suggests ‘This was probably a crucial point in her life, a moment when she decided that her vocation must be religious and social rather than with the arts.’[2]

Gifted with a natural rapport in working with young boys, she taught and advised until ill-health took her back to New Zealand for a year. She was then in Europe again until 1908. She kept house for her mother in Hampstead, she travelled widely on the Continent, and first met Effie Pollen, a young New Zealand woman who became the centre of her affections for the rest of her life. There were further years of social work in Christchurch, and England once more before the First World War broke out. ‘During the war she stayed in London, worked as a night waitress at the New Zealand Soldiers’ Club, and helped also at an information office near Westminster Abbey.’[3] After the Armistice a sense of duty brought her back to Christchurch, and within a few years she had built a home in Westenra Terrace on the Cashmere Hills. Remembering her connections with the gentry in Yorkshire, and perhaps with a touch of irony at the disparity in scale, she called her new home ‘Rise Cottage’. For the next ten years she lived there with Effie Pollen. On the slopes of the hills, with a fine view of the plains levelling out to the foothills of the Alps, she established a garden, and at about the age of fifty began writing poems.

After the death of her close friend and companion, Bethell moved down from the hills into the city, and from then on wrote little poetry. Almost all of the poems in this collection are from the decade 1924-1934. She was surprised that people admired her ‘garden’ poems, often written as casual messages to friends, or as modest celebrations of what occurred beneath her hands and in front of her eyes. By the late 1920s, she was also writing the more deliberate and intellectually adventurous poems which took their place in her later two books.

Those who knew Ursula Bethell were struck by the breadth of her reading, her courtesy, her strong interest in social issues, the friendships in which she revealed ‘a nice sense of the degree of intimacy proper to each relationship’. [4] When Charles Brasch met her in ‘The barren complacencies of suburban Christchurch’, he found her ‘the centre of an astonishingly diverse circle of interesting people, many of the younger of whom were so close to her that she almost directed their lives—with them I believe she saw herself as a spiritual director of a traditional kind. I could imagine her hearing confessions, a tall gaunt severe woman a little bent as if with listening, with a fine aquiline nose for direction, a penetrating gaze when she turned it on you and a rare warming smile.’[5] Certainly she was neither prudish nor remote. Although ‘Being a Victorian,’ as she said, ‘I can never understand how people part with their privacy so readily,’[6] and enjoying Trollope’s fiction because ‘I recall the remnants of that society’,[7] she could speak frankly enough to those who sought her advice. ‘I don’t know how much of that sur-realist stunt you will have to scrap,’ she wrote to a young friend. ‘What do we do with all that surging unconscious but consecrate it? If persons don’t notice the surge they are either underdeveloped or advanced saints I think. The thing is not to be afraid of bogies and suggestions.’[8] Her religious certainty did not prevent her taking others on their own terms. She found the young philosopher Arthur Prior, once he declared himself a professing atheist, ‘much more honest in his thinking than when he was a professing presbyterian.’[9] And she made no bones about the New Zealand she lived in. After visiting an exhibition of Chinese ceramics, she found that on ‘Emerging into Chch streets the barbarity struck me more acutely than ever.’[10] In the same vein, she remarked ‘Doesn’t one learn to select in N.Z! To leave out the houses. I seldom saw those on either side of Rise C. but in photographs they cannot not be seen.’[11] On seeing the behaviour of young people at Mt Harper for the winter skating, she decided ‘We are rearing a race of barbarians.’[12] Although her painter’s eye took in a different perspective—‘I have thought at times how paintable some of these scarlet lipped skating girls would be in their various get ups.’[13]

When E.H. McCormick once taxed her with too insistent a loyalty to English things, she answered him ‘No, I don’t look back to England thru’ ‘rose-coloured haze’ —I look at it through tears, that’s all.’ She also warned him ‘You mustn’t take me as a sample of a Country (England) or a Class! I wouldn’t be a good specimen—I am too variegated…That’s one of the sad things about me!—I don’t belong anywhere in particular—I’ve dodged to and fro—my friends are of all sorts of classes and countries—I’m not a fair sample—I have not been able to settle, always there was some event, some frustration.’[14]

Perhaps there was a trace of uncertainty, then, as well as a natural reluctance for any kind of self-promotion, in her refusing ever to publish under her own name. She told her London publisher in 1929 ‘I clearly see that I must agree to anything that will from [the] publisher’s point of view help the book on but I confess to clinging with positive passion to private anonymity.’ Already she had appeared as ‘Evelyn Hayes’ in the Sydney periodicals The Home and Art in Australia, and insisted on the same name for From a Garden in the Antipodes.

Hayes—Sir Henry of Cork—my great great grandfather deported for life to Botany Bay for attempted abduction of a Quaker heiress. Built fine house and grounds (now public teagardens) with convict labour. Imported several tons of Irish Earth to avert snakes from garden—

    Evelyn—cowardly vagueness of gender (?perhaps sound association with Evelyn Hope)[15]

‘E.H.’ were initials she continued to use with poems that were published in the Christchurch Press. She again insisted that her name should not appear on her second and third volumes, although in a small community there was no secret as to who their author was. But ‘Evelyn Hayes’ disappeared from the title pages, making way for ‘By the Author of …’ in her last published book. Only late in her life, when she came to discuss plans for a Selected Poems, did she concede ‘My own name must appear this time “the grave’s a fine and private place”!’[16]

Ursula Bethell died in Christchurch the next year, on 15 January 1945.


D’Arcy Cresswell was not a man to resist exaggerations, but he makes a fair literary point with his claim that ‘New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered, in fact, until Ursula Bethell, “very earnestly digging”, raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before.’[17] New Zealanders, of course, had not been unaware of the presence or the beauty or the brooding ambiguity of the landscape they lived in. A good deal of early New Zealand verse is an attempt to say something about the landscape that confronted settlers, to describe what encompassed the colonial enterprise. It is generally disappointing and awkward. For the most part, it talks about something new, in a way that has only proved suitable for talking about somewhere else. This was perhaps inevitable. Language must be broken in as much as land itself, the local voice planted and adapted to specific ends. Bethell’s American contemporary, Robert Frost, saw this as a protracted business.

            The land was ours, before we were the land’s.
            She was our land more than a hundred years
            Before we were her people.
                                                (‘The Gift Outright’)

As one reads most verse written in New Zealand before Bethell, one suspects that whenever the country was looked at, whatever else the writer did apart from looking was forgotten. The settler, even the man or woman who was intimately at home with the place, reverted to the tourist when pen was taken in hand, and so tried to write a postcard.

When Bethell came to write about nature, about the alps or the plains she saw daily from her home on the Cashmere Hills, it was while she did other things as well; while she was gardening, while she carried on ordinary domestic life, while she thought as a devout Anglican, while she looked north towards where she grew up, yet thought too of other places she was drawn to; while she moved constantly in the presence of the person she loved, while she considered what language was best suited to the moment.

It is tempting enough, and a little too early, to line up a set of opposites in Bethell, and to read her verse as much as her personality at some point of tension between them. Between the immediacy and small activities of her garden, say, and the vast natural presences when she took in what existed beyond her hedges. Between a strong, and a strongly articulated faith, and the almost unsustainable grief that followed the death of her dearest friend. Between the particulars of day to day, and the fact that an individual life is played out against cosmic cycles and geological aeons. Those who knew Bethell recalled that at one end of her mantelpiece stood a statue of the Virgin, at the other a model of the Venus de Milo. And so too with her social views—a background of high Tory certainties, yet a large portion of her life spent in social work with the poor; the tug towards pacifism as her closest young friends in the 1930s became conscientious objectors, while even as a sixty-year-old she feared her family’s reaction to her views. Most obviously, at a time when post-colonial grids are applied to so much that we read, there is the polarity between the attraction of England, with London as the declared centre of life lived most vividly, and the persistent undertow of her Canterbury childhood, the wrench of specific and contrary landscapes in her moral as well as in her personal perception of the world.

Bethell may at first seem to offer a text-book example of the ‘colonial dilemma’ which pervades almost any settler community. It is a dilemma that finds a neat iconic moment in Mansfield’s short story ‘Millie’. Here a lonely backblocks wife, Millie Evans, moves about her kitchen, between the magazine pictures tacked to the wall of the Queen’s Jubilee and Windsor Castle, reminders of an imperial web she might lay some distant claim to, and her own wedding photograph, the couple posed against a painted majestic backdrop of Mt Cook and drooping ferns. Both the centre of Empire and the exotic nativism are equally distant from her life, yet are equally believed in as she lives, placed as well as displaced, between the two.

By the time the twenty-three-year-old Mansfield wrote that story, Bethell was already a woman of thirty-seven, and vastly more privileged than poor Millie Evans. She was at ease in the homesteads and huts of Canterbury sheep stations, and quietly alert to the fact that in a colonised country she was, as she put it in ‘Levavi Oculos’, one of the ‘foreign tribes (even ours, ours, the invaders)’. She carried her share of Cantabrian hauteur that her province’s replication was indeed a splinter of the real thing, and the certainty that what New Zealand had best to offer was best found there as well. But to imagine a ‘dilemma’ is not quite as Bethell would see it. The binding force, the constant guarantee that one might be as truly at home on either side of the world, was her religious faith. For to her there were two unchallengeable certainties: a very English brand of Christianity, and what in her view helped to sustain it, an education whose touchstones were fixed in the classics, and for the most part embedded in that same Englishness, that same Anglicanism, which underpins the tone of almost everything she wrote. Although we now tend to interpret ‘colonial’ as a necessary stumbling between appropriating what belongs to someone else, and the need for some kind of subsequent redefining, Bethell’s verse is hardly served by lining it up against such identity-kit assumptions. It is too intelligent, too closely contoured against the movement of an individual mind, to serve merely as illustration to a particular cultural moment.

‘Colonial’, in her case, primarily takes one to that common enough circumstance in any new literature, the need to be fed by two sources at once. As she made clear, she was emotionally committed to a tradition that was moving—however slightly—beyond her immediate grasp, and at the same time confronting a present which demanded not only a different eye, but attempts at a differently modulated voice. An assured order and significance to things is what she had moved away from in leaving England, and it is what she set herself to establish in New Zealand. Tension is inevitable between the complex certainties of ‘loved and lost London’, and the ‘small fond human enclosures’ of the kind she attended to in Canterbury. Yet it was the constant vividness of nature in her second country, and the play of her religious convictions between the near detail and the distant sweep of her life above the Canterbury Plains, that took her most deeply, and at her best even originally, into the great tradition of Anglican devotional writing. It was drawing on what she most valued in her Englishness, that prepared her so effectively to look straight in front of her:

            Gale raved night-long, but all clear, now, in the sunlight
            And sharp, earth-scented air, a fair new day.
            The jade and emerald square of far-spread cultivated
            All clear, and powdered foot-hills, snow-fed waterway,
            And every black pattern of plantation made near;
            All clear, the city set . . . but oh for taught interpreter,
            To translate the quality, the excellence, for initiate seer
            To tell the essence of this hallowed clarity,
            Reveal the secret meaning of the symbol: ‘clear’.
                                                (‘October Morning’)

Bethell was unmoved by the assumption made by many poets that the success of a poem is bound to how accurately it preserves the rhythm and vocabulary of ‘ordinary life’. From her own education, and her familiarity with the Bible and liturgy, she was aware of how vastly serviceable an English existed outside the confines of daily speech. The Hymnal, the Prayerbook, and the Scriptures are never far behind Bethell’s verse. They are the quarry for so many of her rhythms and phrases. She appropriates them with that same certainty of possession as did the seventeenth-century devotional writers she so admired. ‘What I owe the English Bible!’ she wrote near the end of her life. ‘Constant attendance at the liturgy & the offices during my years in the poorer parts of London had that influence. To that & the good education I had in my teens, & to the suppressed desire to paint, I attribute whatever I have achieved in expression.’[18] When Allen Curnow was putting together his 1945 Anthology of New Zealand Verse, she valued the fact that he was ‘familiar with prayerbook language’, and was ‘surprised and pleased that he chose some of what I might call the more Christian pieces.’[19]

She asserted other claims as well. She once wrote to a newspaper justifying the use of French and Greek and Latin words in her verse, claiming the example of past writers, and the expanded possibilities they brought with them. ‘Think how foreign words are roughened or softened and made over for English use, especially in verse.’[20] And there were a number of recent poets who assisted her in finding her own voice. The freshness and clarity of Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese were rare enough qualities when they appeared during the First World War. Those terse, irregular, clean-lined verse pointed the way to the restraint, the good manners one could almost say, of her first book. For one of the surprises still in reading From a Garden in the Antipodes is to realise how little Bethell gives away in poems that seem so personal. She shares her eye with her reader, and a selection of domestic detail. But the poems are quite deliberately contained. To write of a partly shared world is not at all the same thing as wanting to trade confidences. One feels she would greatly have disliked the ‘confessional’ verse that tends to equate intensity with the degree of self-exposure. A poem is always a careful communication, aware of tradition, and certainly not a piece of writing where spontaneity in itself would be thought any claim for attention. And she had problems with her younger fellow poets. ‘I have made a resolution,’ she wrote in 1942, ‘to read Mason, Curnow, Fairburn—I tried them & did not find them easy. Sometimes I found it hard to believe in them—their sincerity—but doubtless was mistaken.’[21] For the sixty-eight-year-old self-confessed Victorian, sincerity of feeling was where poetry still sank to its roots.

The poems in Bethell’s second book Time and Place (1936) were written at much the same time as the Garden pieces, but their ambitions are larger, their debt to traditional forms more obvious. Their diction is more diversely ranging than that in any New Zealand poet, as the seasons are followed through in their particular weathers, the confines of her garden give way to the vistas of plains and alps. Although the volume is dedicated to the memory of her close friend, the personal note is distant and austere. Seasons and views, one suspects, are ways of keeping it in check. ‘Always, it should be remembered, she is looking down from the hills: city and people are separated from her as if by a gulf, and what is remote will tend to be impersonal.’[22] Her intention in that volume, as much as anything, is to ‘estimate the influence/ Of mass, form, colour, on individual soul’ (‘Weathered Rocks’). It is a volume of careful observation, broad generalisation, religious sentiment, control. At its centre is the careful and discreet admission that the pattern of experience is also a puzzle, whatever the buttressing of faith.

            Rock, thorn, cryptogram, each has significance,
                 Each makes contribution to eternal parabole;
            And we are kin, compounded of the same elements,
                 Alike proceeding to an unknown goal;
            And they are secret to themselves as I am secret to myself
                                                                        (‘Weathered Rocks’)

One picks up the relief almost as she turns to vast scenic panoramas and the stretch of geological time. It is as though, for a time at least, God is more comfortably apprehended through the natural world than through scrutiny of human feeling. ‘I never could slur over things, or take anodynes, I want to know it all—and this death and destruction that I saw, must be lived through and known . . . The consciousness of God came to me, as to many, chiefly in the solitudes of Nature. Face to face with horrors in East London, in the war, that wasn’t enough . . .   And now that everything is broken up and I am starting out again alone, I begin to wonder, am I to learn what that ‘and’ really implies. “This is eternal life to know God and”’;[23] It was Nature then, ‘earth’s angel, man’s antagonist’, that offered confirmation, and in the best sense, distraction. The awesome scale of ‘this planetary decoration’ was quite literally filling in time, until it too is ‘dismissed by a most high command’ (‘Burke’s Pass’).

Perhaps it was their shared debt to the Bible that first drew Bethell to so different a mind as Walt Whitman. Certainly he showed more clearly than any other recent poet how assertive biblical rhythms might serve the ends of secular verse. It was Whitman, surely, who gave her the confidence for the cataloguing of ‘Homage’; for her risking the pile-up of Latin names in ‘Catalogue’; for the irregular length of her lines in a poem such as ‘Glory’, where spoken rhythms (a different thing from the narrower concept of spoken diction) direct the verse far more than metrical formalism. He may have helped her to trust herself as well with personal idiom. There are times when what she takes form the grandly egotistical American curiously dovetails with the movement of her own convictions:

            Rather, recumbent on this sunny grass-slope,
            My mind shall meditate upon divine husbandry,
            And ponder emblems, allegories, parables—
            The vine, the scattered seed, the threshing flail.

            And think of peace flowing like that mighty river
            And justice, standing fast like those great mountains,
            And for similitude of the soft blue above me
            Pitifulness. Tender mercy.

Ursula Bethell bridled when she spoke of a reviewer of her last collection who ‘brings in G.M. Hopkins—but it can’t be an influence from his work because I did not know it (except bits seen in anthologies) when those things were written!’[24] But there is no doubting that she found Hopkins the most congenial of recent poets. His late poems, especially, drew her; ‘that great sonnet . . . which has so often spoken for me these years “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee”’[25] Perhaps he was simply a far stronger presence than she was consciously aware. For there is no question merely of pastiche. From her reading of Hopkins she took a deep impression that altered the cast of her sentences, and the rhythms she attempted. In parts IV and V of ‘At the Lighting of the Lamps’, in ‘Twinkled to Sleep’ and ‘The Small Hours’, he is behind the new sense of compression, the compound epithets, the repetitions, the increasingly adventurous vocabulary, the drive of language to replicate the energy that she, like Hopkins, felt sustaining the world her senses revelled in:

                                                            ah, thy heart-beat
            Origin, Signification, dread Daysman, Consummator.

Her own temperament clearly responded to that straining of tradition she found in Hopkins, as it did to his balancing spiritual certainty against the more visible certainty of natural decay; what Bethell calls

            The pitiless clutch, the fearful down-hold,
            the fierce, the final assertion of physical mastery,
            sobbing and stifled endeavour of fugitive breath.
                                                            (‘Waiting for Dawn’)

Hopkins’s discovery of total metrical freshness assisted Bethell towards an effective reshaping of her own sense of line. It is there in her punctuation, her more insistent use of the mid-line comma and colon as an obvious rhythmic factor. In poems such as ‘October Morning’ or ‘Summer Daybreak’ the conventional pentameter moves in a way that would not be likely without Hopkins’s tutelage.

When W.B. Yeats edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, he rather deprecated Hopkins, speaking of his ‘slight constant excitement’,[26] and was irritated by his influence in taking English metre from being a matter primarily of accounting for syllables, to counting simply stresses. Yeats might well have gone a good deal further back and placed the blame at Coleridge’s door, who in his prose preface to ‘Christabel’ asserted that his metre was ‘founded on a new principle: namely that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables.’ One of Bethell’s definite achievements was to take the hexameter, the least attractive of lines to work with, and turn it to her purpose. In several poems she took up that metre, and brought off exactly what Yeats found so disruptive—to work with the patterning emphasis of stress alone, and even breaking out, as she does in the last line of ‘Summer Afternoon’, into what pretty much defies traditional metre altogether. Put a poem like that against those of her younger contemporaries that Yeats chose for his anthology, and there are surprisingly few with a comparable metrical adventurousness. It was Hopkins who liberated her from the expectations that she herself, as well as her ‘advising’ friends, would have imposed on her verse. This in its turn allowed her fresh entry to the largest themes: God, his world, her business with both. There are a fair share of failures among her attempts, poems in which ‘Words are too dense, too dull, too blundering, / Pigments too turbid’ (‘Summer Daybreak’). We sometimes feel with those pieces where theology and geological fact dispute for precedence that we are looking into a natural history display case, with the captions drawn from Hymns Ancient and Modern. Most readers are relieved to come back to more familiar territory, to the particulars of a garden rather than the Movement of the Ages.

            Between the purple canopy of cloud-mass
            And the indistinguishable density of earth-form
            A space, at evening, of pale yellow, sunlit;
            Inscribed most delicately upon it
            The black reticulation of a naked hawthorn.
                                                            (‘Nor’-West Evening, Winter’)

Yet usually part of Bethell’s craft was to balance the frank naming of her belief with the aesthetic checks that prevented evangelising. She is a writer who can make clear a lifetime’s convictions through where her senses at that moment happen to be lodged, or where her mind is engaged.

            In the ark of thought I abide,
            Lattice-wrought of experience,
            Faith-pitched for bitumen,  
            And apocalypse to guide,
            Riding on the tide of consciousness,
            On waves of pleasure, pain;
            Responsive microcosm, alive
            And free upon the great main,
            Out of this musical enclosure,
            This ringing cage of rain.
                                    (‘Night Rain’)

The best of Bethell is so often double-edged, speaking both for the perceptive woman inside ‘this ringing cage’ of the present, and for the devout Anglican in the ark of her abiding belief. The milieu from which most of her work sprang, those ten years of happiness with the person she most cared for, in a place which for that reason was so precious to her, provoked what in a sense are love poems expressing themselves as something else. It is partly their technical elaborateness that draws them back from what Bethell would have thought too intrusively personal; partly their declaring a committed religious stance. When she chose to write in a directly autobiographical way, as she did in the unpublished and largely unrevised sequence By the River Ashley, how simply she does it. Those poems were meant to set firm her memories of childhood, to offer vignettes of places and personalities. Yet in their small way they too are experimental. There is nothing quite like them in New Zealand writing before her, no poems that so casually take up the mundane into an attempted longer sequence. There are few poems either that so forcefully and directly face the wreckage, the enduringly inconsolable fact of the sudden death of a person deeply loved, as do the six elegies, among that handful of poems Bethell wrote after 1934. Copies were sent to a few close friends, but the poems were not published until they took their place in her Collected Poems, five years after her own death. Each year, as Effie’s anniversary came round, Bethell would enter a time of renewed distress, ‘the darkness that rises up & quenches every thing is terrible sometimes.’[27] It was to Eileen Duggan, a woman she liked and admired but seldom met, that she wrote most directly of how she saw her poetry, and her love for Effie, so intimately bound. ‘I must explain that T & P. [Time and Place], tho’ it appeared so much later, is made up of things written about the same time as the Garden pieces—in the same burst of excitement—of joy . . . Now I am a tree struck by lightning—dead. I can think things but not feel them . . . All joy is lost.’[28]


There is a poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘A Pastoral Nun’, that considers the life of a religious sister. Stevens is not concerned with whether the woman’s faith is true, but with how her conviction underlies fulfilment, with how it allows her to say, and us to accept her saying, ‘I live in an immense activity.’ Bethell’s poetry puts me in mind of that. The immediacy of an engaged and active life, its religious assumptions, its habitual responses, help pack her verse with an attentiveness of a particular kind, even as most of her poems direct us precisely, ’Attend’.

What defines the life of such a person, and what largely defines the poetry as well, is the quality that attention brings to bear on whatever occupies her, whatever for the time being seems properly to be her business. It is both her garden, and then what lies beyond it, that engages her so fully in that well-known poem where she sets an ordinary enough sequence of events.

            When I am very earnestly digging
            I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
            And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.

From the earnestness of close attention, to the relaxation of musing on what is distant—a process Wordsworth guarantees to kick-start both philosophising, and if one is lucky, poetry. The contrast that flows into Bethell’s mind, between the way the hillside lives under her care, to the way it was before such attentions began, opens further to the time when ‘the Mother of all will take charge again’, a benign erasing of ‘Our small fond human enclosures.’ But there is no necessary melancholy in apprehending this, no large canvas scaling-down of the human, no scaling up to the sublime, as there is in the far more elaborate poem, ‘By Burke’s Pass’. For this is quite literally what the poem’s title insists, a ‘Pause’, a gap as one kind of attention moves to another, and then returns to what is there, enclosed, again to be taken up.

When Bethell once more looks up in her later ‘Levavi Oculos’, what she takes in of distance and vastness, the lines of the hills, the flanks of the nearby cattle, is ‘Composed of the same lineaments in one design.’ This is not the mind imposing its design, as Coleridge feared our response to Nature might primarily be, but perception itself as part of the overarching cohesion of things. It is this grounding certainty that underlies ‘the genial effulgence of here and now’ in ‘Summer Afternoon’, however alert she may be to the brevity of that effulgence. And so her most confident definition of what poetry does, its precise procedure line by line, as well as its place in the total activity of being:

            Poetry is a music made of images
                 Worded one in the similitude of another,
Chaining the whole universe to the ecstasies
                 Of humanity, its anguish and its fervour.
                                                            (‘Weathered Rocks’)


In Bethell’s celebratory expansiveness so long as that seems to be appropriate, and her direct, courageous stance when it does not, that bracket the poems collected here; pretty much, perhaps, what she would expect from the phrase that best describes her, a Christian humanist.

1. Letter to Sidgwick and Jackson, her London publishers, July 1929.

2. M.H. Holcroft, Ursula Bethell, 1975, 8.

3. Ibid., 10.

4. The Revd. Merlin Davies, quoted in Holcroft, Ursula Bethell, 45.

5. Charles Brasch, Indirections, 1980, 302-3.

6. To Rodney Kennedy, 14 Sept. 1936.

7. To Rodney Kennedy, 1944.

8. To Rodney Kennedy, 15 Nov. 1937.

9. To Rodney Kennedy, 9 May 1943.

10. To Rodney Kennedy, 24 June 1937.

11. To Rodney Kennedy, 16 Oct. 1935.

12. To Rodney Kennedy, 5 August 1937.

13. To Toss Woollaston and Rodney Kennedy, 22 July 1936.

14. To E.H. McCormick, 1940.

15. See note 1. ‘Evelyn Hope’ is a poem by Robert Browning.

16. To Lawrence Baigent, 2 June 1944. The quotation is from Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

17. ‘Ursula Bethell, Some Personal Memories’, Landfall 2, December 1948, 283.

18. To M.H. Holcroft, 1 March 1942, Ursula Bethell, 54.

19. To M.H. Holcroft, 6 May 1944. Curnow chose nineteen poems to represent Bethell, more than any other   

    poet. He wrote, An Anthology of New Zealand Verse 1923-45, 1945, 50-51, that ‘A proportioned view,

    so that in all her verse a steadfast personality is observing, describing, discovering, exclaiming,

    distinguishes Miss Bethell among New Zealand poets. …the best part of her originality, and no doubt the

    least conscious, is in the rhythmic forms …impressed on this material of self and nature.’

20. The Press, 19 March 1932.

21. To M.H. Holcroft, 10 March 1942.

22. Holcroft, Ursula Bethell, 26.

23. To M.H. Holcroft, 3 Jan.1935 (wrongly dated in Ursula Bethell, 39).

24. To M.H. Holcroft, 17 Dec. 1939, ibid. 54.

25. To Rodney Kennedy, 24 June 1937.

26. W.B. Yeats, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1936, xi.

27. To Rodney Kennedy, 26 Sept. 1936.

28. To Eileen Duggan, 24 June 1937.

 © Vincent O'Sullivan

Last updated 22 May, 2005