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Ursula Bethell



Note to Mary Ursula Bethell: Collected Poems (Christchurch: Caxton, 1950)

Helen M. Simpson

MARY URSULA BETHELL. Born in England, 6 th October, 1874; died in Christchurch, New Zealand, 15 th January, 1945.

Most of these poems have appeared before in three volumes – From a Garden in the Antipodes (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1929), Time and Place (The Caxton Press, 1936), and Day and Night (The Caxton Press, 1939). These are here reprinted without alteration, in their original groups, and under those titles.

The poems in the earliest volume were for the most part written without thought of publication. They ‘bubbled up,’ to use the author’s own description, as she worked in her garden on the Cashmere Hills in Christchurch, and were afterwards written down; and many were enclosed in letters to a friend in England. By this friend in England and by others in New Zealand they were warmly approved; and as the quiet of the hillside garden continued to be ‘vibrant with words’ in time a considerable number accumulated. Ultimately a selection was sent to England to Mr. Arthur Mayhew, C.M.G., the brother of the original correspondent (Ruth of the poems, Lady Head), and by him submitted to Mr Frank Sidgwick, who agreed gladly to publication by his firm. For private and personal reasons which seemed to her sufficient Miss Bethell insisted on the use of a pseudonym, and decided to keep to the one she had already used for the twelve poems which had appeared in two Australian periodicals – Evelyn Hayes. Hayes was chosen in pleasant memory of a great-great-grandfather, Sir Henry Hayes of Cork, whose character and career had always interested and amused her; and Evelyn, she felt, provided a further cloak in the ambiguity of its gender. Poems which appeared later in local journals were signed simply E.H.; Time and Place bore the indication ‘by the Author of “From a Garden in the Antipodes.”’ Day and Night that of ‘by the Author of “Time and Place.’’’ But by this date the authorship was an open secret, and long before her death Miss Bethell had given up her desire for pseudonymity.

The small volume Time and Place was dedicated to the memory of her friend Miss Effie Pollen (the ‘Raven’ of the Garden poems), who had lived with her for many years, and whose death after a brief illness, in November 1934, was a severe and bitter shock. The title is a reminiscence of Browning; and the poems celebrate times, places, thoughts and experiences shared with ‘the loved ones.’

Day and Night covers similar ground but without the particular poignant reference. Many of the poems, written between 1924 and 1934, are a continued attempt to express in living words the New Zealand, and especially the Canterbury, landscape, and what for the author lay at the heart of it, its implications in geological and in temporal history, in time and in eternity. This, from the moment she was persuaded of possessing some poetic gift, was I think her main purpose and ambition in writing.

The poems hitherto unpublished are in three small groups. The five in the first group cover the whole period of the author’s writing life, some having been begun early, some late, and most of them completed in the last year.

The Six Memorials were written in the six years from 1935 to 1940 for the succeeding anniversaries of Miss Pollen’s death. They speak for themselves.

The poems grouped under the heading By the River Ashley represent a volume long projected but undertaken too late and never finished. It was to have illustrated and commemorated the author’s childhood in Rangiora by vivid recollections from that time mingled with and glossed by experiences in a later and wider life. The volume was intended to be dedicated to the author’s brother and sister.

 © Helen M. Simpson

Last updated 22 May, 2005