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Ursula Bethell



A Painter's Eye: The Poems of Ursula Bethell

Gregory Treadwell

Essay excerpted from ‘A Painter’s Eye: The Poems of Ursula Bethell.’ MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1994.

Ursula Bethell was a writer who blurred the boundaries between art forms; a poet who could use 'words as a composer of music might use notes and chords, or a painter the pigments on a palette.'[1] Her eventual medium was the printed page, a field in which she had little training but her own writing and reading, and poetry became, in her fifties, the outlet for more than thirty years of intellectual and spiritual endeavour. Close behind her poems, however, feeding them in various ways, is always a sense of the painter. In a letter to M. H. Holcroft dated 1 March 1942 Bethell wrote:

You are I think the only reader who has seen what I owe to the English Bible! Constant attendance at the Liturgy & the offices during my years in the poorer parts of London had that influence – To that influence, to the good education I had in my teens, & to the suppressed desire to paint, I attribute whatever I have achieved in expression…[2]

Bethell's assertion that her 'suppressed desire' to paint was a major contributing factor to her poetry is an important revelation. As a young woman she spent a year in Geneva training in painting and her interest in the art form never died during her lifetime. Some 75 of Bethell's own paintings have survived and are kept with her papers in the University of Canterbury library.

Ursula Bethell's was an influential position in the artistic circles of Christchurch in the 1920s and 30s. Along with her interest in those involved in the literary arts she also had a profound interest in her painting contemporaries. Among others, the young Toss Woollaston was a close friend and their correspondence reveals a deep concern on Bethell's part for both his well-being and artistic success.

Bethell's interest in painting, however, extended further than the works of her friends. It reached deep into her own poetry and generated a uniquely painterly poetic. Bethell might be regarded as a poet who had a painter's shadow.

On its own the idea of Bethell as a poet whose interest and experience in painting had a significant influence on her poetry is like describing the brush-strokes of a painter but not their subject. Of greater interest is the way it combines with her spiritual and whole-hearted engagement with the natural landscape and it is this combination, the way her painter's eye and her love of nature come together to produce philosophical poems set against a pictorial landscape that is the focus of my analysis.

Take, for instance, the poem 'Detail' from Bethell's first published collection From a Garden in the Antipodes:

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.

Behind the image of the garden shed in the poem lies the title of the poem. The red shed on the dry bank is a detail from the poet's garden and the trees in the poem are a detail of the classical tradition to which it alludes. Ultimately the apparently unimportant shed is a tiny detail of the whole cosmos brought into sharp focus by the title itself. Bethell's success with such minute particulars was noted by Tony Kingsbury in 1968:

Just as a camera set with the smallest aperture will register the greatest depth of field, so Ursula Bethell . . . always seems to get Time and Infinity in focus too, in a way never achieved by those like Jessie Mackay, who made a frontal attack on such imponderables.[3]

I have since found that another aspect of the title of these two stanzas has emerged, and it is one which helps explain the image of the brick-red shed. It is not unconnected with the other shades of meaning in the title – indeed it seems to encapsulate them all. Bethell's choice of 'Detail' as her title is a small pointer to a whole side of her poems that has only been cursorily mentioned in previous criticism – the painterly side to her vision. It didn't seem to matter which interpretation of the title one chose to take, there was always a painter's detail involved. If her garden shed is a detail of the landscape then the whole landscape has become a painting. If her poem is a detail from the tradition of poetry, then the whole of that tradition is being likened to a tradition of painting. One cannot escape the visual nature of this poem. Bethell has focused on a tiny detail of the universal canvas, creating an illusion of enlargement, and explored the significance of the details revealed within it. She has also painted with great skill an apparently insignificant scene and given to it the mysterious feeling of a revelation. The image of the brick-red shed on the dry bank surrounded by the green of the trees stands for much of her enterprise and points clearly to both her desire and her ability to use painting as a mediating source of imagery.

To discover the connections between painting and poetry in Bethell’s work is a complex process. Her poems have been noted for the 'pictorial detail of her poetic world'[4] and this is certainly an important part of it. But, as with the work of any good poet, there are several layers to explore in this critical analogy. Her poetic certainly employs a surface visuality that can turn the flow of a poem into a still, canvas-like scene even without her characteristic use of vivid colour. An example of this lies in the first verse of one of her most famous poems, 'The Long Harbour':

There are three valleys where the warm sun lingers,
gathered to a green hill girt-about anchorage,
and gently, gently, at the cobbled margin
of fire-formed, time-smoothed, ocean-moulded curvature,
a spent tide fingers the graven boulders,
the black, sea-bevelled stones.

In these lines most of the adjectives are verb-formed: 'time-smoothed, ocean-moulded' and so on. And yet the overall effect is that of a stilled scene. It is as if the poet is standing back from a painting and describing it. Bethell tended to see the world as a finished painting ready for appraisal. The implication here is, of course, that God is seen as an artist, his creation the perfect work, and human art an attempt at a communion with the Lord. In one of her most celebrated pieces, 'At the Lighting of the Lamps,' the fifth section opens with an acknowledgement of this:

Praise, praise to thee, Almighty Artificer, Architect,
Poet, whose pure inexhaustible spring eternally flows,
Artist, whose marvellous works eternally are made manifest,
Eternally making, in making, eternally finding repose.

The result of this on her poetics is apparent in 'Autumn Afternoon' when she describes a cluster of trees:

So placed and disposed, as if for an artist,
     As if for a master to trace and portray
The design of their limbs, the spring of their arches,
    In glowing repose at the close of the day.

This tendency to see the scene in front of her in terms of a tradition of painting provides for the visuality that we saw in the lines from 'The Long Harbour.' When Bethell incorporates this with her fascination with form, colour, and the various effects of light and shade, the poems often become paintings themselves, as the second stanza of 'Grey Day' reveals:

Sudden to right hand
on mournful east sky,
steel-grey sky, gun-metal sea,
image of hidden light
lying in level lines,
beyond the lowland,
on dun sky and sea.

Yet there is another level to the analogy between painter and poet; that of a poet who draws upon a field of imagery that seems, at first, to be that of a painter. This is more prevalent in Bethell's third book, Day and Night. In this volume there is often a sense of pictorial construction akin to a painter's method. The poem 'Rose-wreath' begins with suggestions of this:

                    Once again, roses,
we see you painted on the screen
of trees and azure-shadowed plain
and faintly purpled mountain-chain,
         as in past years beholden.

In Day and Night there are signs of yet another side to the painter in Bethell when she constructs her poems in contrasts of light and dark. All of these painterly qualities –   the pictorial, the sense of form and colour, the imagery, the method of composition and contrasts of shade – are to be discovered in the poetry. But one feels she did not see her work in such analytical terms. Rather, she had an instinct for painting which manifested itself in her writing.

While she may have had 'more words at her command than any other New Zealand poet'[5] Bethell also had an astonishing array of colours and sounds at her fingertips. In her poems the signification of colour is a process akin to the careful mixing and blending of watercolours. Though colour is by no means the only aspect of Bethell's writing that relates to a tradition of painting it is the one that catches the eye first. Here is the second stanza of '14th August, 1930':

Softly the drifts of mist-grey into lilac,
To purple turn, to umber, shell-rose and vermilion,
Passing on the sea-breeze slowly and dissolving
Into the periwinkle dome of noble daybreak.

Sunrise, one of the most important natural scenes in the poems for its symbolic suggestion of eternal life, is made up, for Bethell, of light and colours and so these must be rendered accurately if their effect on the poet is to be conveyed. Holcroft described Bethell's ability to see things in nature 'as a painter sees them.'[6] Her use of words on paper, not paint on canvas, to portray her startling landscapes meant that she would go to all corners of her vocabulary for the mot juste, for the word that could do what paint could do and more – express not just the form of the object but outline its significance as well. The reader could not turn to the tussocky hills provided for the viewer visually if the scene had been painted until they had as rich a picture of the hills before them as Bethell had herself.

The intensity of the poet’s relationship with the land began in her garden. It provided a close-up foreground for her pictorial exploration of 'the vividness of nature,' from where she began 'the play of her religious convictions between the near detail and the distant sweep of her life above the Canterbury plains.'[7]

It should be noted thatgardening was not a pasttime for Bethell; it was a way of life that concurred with her religious feelings and was essential to her consciousness of God. It was also an expressive art form in its own right. Often, for Bethell, words were the way she could express on paper what she could do in the garden but could not with paints.

In 'Perspective', another poem with shades of painting in its title, Bethell confronts, with a certain pride, her interest in form and colour that set her apart from the 'right-minded person.' Vegetables she finds 'fatiguing' while the colour patterns of the garden – white, red, purple, yellow, pale and dark violet, gentlest pink interspersed with lilac and sapphire blues are 'rich and rejoicing' to the spectator. The right-minded, however, quickly lose interest:

Yes, very nice, very nice indeed…
How well your beans and cabbages are coming on.

Beans and cabbages were comparatively mundane things in which Bethell 'found no poetry.'[8] She was interested instead in the plants that flowered because of their possibilities of colour, of a visual wonder, rather than anything they might provide to eat. She saw her garden's colour patterns as a creative act akin to, and sometimes more demanding than, painting. In a poem entitled 'Water Colour' she wrote:

This joy is only for the gardener.
The water colour painter of his visions
Wash upon wash at length achieves expression.
But would your aquarellist be kept waiting
One, two, three years for their accomplishment?
Would he be waiting for more years even,
Because he has made one false stroke?

In 'Nomenclature,' a poem in which the naming of plants gives way quickly to the naming of their colours, Bethell delights in the opportunity for some alliteration:

Your colour is strange and lovely, seedling gladiolus,
Is it prune? or petunia? or peradventure puce?

That 'petunia' signifies both a plant and a colour adds to the game. The same occurs when the gladioluses are finally named as 'purple, nankeen yellow, and heliotrope.' As Holcroft says: 'The painter manqué was still around.'

The ability of art to mirror nature, and more importantly, to look beyond nature for the hand of God, was always at the forefront of Bethell's poetic. In 'Kakemono,' one of the poems in From a Garden in the Antipodes, this is the subject of the poem itself. The 'beautiful lines,’ delicate patterns' and, significantly, the 'tenuous colours' of the flowers in her garden seemed to be beyond the reach of the artist, though, of course, it was essential that she should try. The final lines of the poem outline the distance between nature and the subjective attempts of the artist:

Lives there still a Japanese artist
Who, with his paint brush, could make us tremble
To see those lines, those tenuous colours
Spring again vibrant as I now see them springing
In their fugacity?

Importantly, it was not just the attempt to copy nature that interested Bethell – it was the attempt to render in words her vision of it, the garden as she now sees it. This was ultimately tied up with how she saw herself. She too was a temporary inhabitant of the garden. She experienced her own 'fugacity.' The irony in the last words of the poem 'Erica' is clear as she refers to a nurseryman's description of Irish heather as suitable for 'small gardens, for rock gardens, and for graveyards.'

Bethell's desire to record her visual experience becomes in her poetry an imperative that requires a picture-like response. The urgency for the pictorial is stressed in the first lines of 'Primitive' where the poet tells the reader:

It is positively necessary that your imagination should depict
A portion of my herbaceous border,

For help she turns instinctively to paintings, to the 'scarlet of Crimean battle pictures,' to 'Sheer vermilion, ultramarine, cadmium.' She traces her figurative brushes across a dazzling landscape in an attempt to provide for the reader her attempted point of access beyond the realities of her vision.

The combination of Bethell's remarkable vocabulary and the depth of understanding of the physical qualities of Canterbury led her to a phenomenal visuality. Her instinct for the pictorial and her struggle to represent her scene as intimately as she could while remaining faithful to her intellect produced poems closely tied up with the discipline of painting. Toss Woollaston had this to say of Bethell's poetic vision of the Canterbury landscape:

Perhaps I have never had to work out a way of seeing Canterbury for myself. The gift her poems confer is a view of the landscape, so wide and precise, that to catch up with her vision of it is still to outstrip my own.[9]

Bethell's obvious enjoyment of colour is the most noted aspect of her poetry's connections with painting. She can delight in the purity of the colour names in a box of water paints, or she can mix the colours on her palette, not only to discover the exact colour for the poem but also, if required, to merge the pigments and give a sense of a graded wash of colours. This technique is evident in the poem 'At the Lighting of the Lamps':

As the sky's ebbing harmonies
Die down in modulations
Of gold and red to red-gold,

Old gold, pale gold, gold-veiled
Lingering pearl-greyness,
Grey silence of sleep.

Sometimes, like the effect of these lines, words seem to outstrip the possibilities of paint itself. In 'Rainy Morning' Bethell captures, in some astonishing lines, the effects of the rain and light on the hills by turning deliberately to her box of paints:

Early in the morning I stood pondering
Intricate interchange of shadow on the dreaming hills.
Soluble colour, moss-green by purple-grey penetrated,
Brown into blue turning, brief gleam of gorse gliding

The element of surprise and wonder in the rhythms of 'by purple penetrated' and '[b]rown into blue turning' presents, in the movement of the line, the breathtaking nature of the scene. The solubility of watercolours, described a few lines later as 'Ephemeral coloration,' is perfectly captured in words.

Bethell's painterly instinct is highlighted further in the poems that make up her third published collection Day and Night. The first stanza of 'Out on a Spring Morning' makes explicit the use of a painter's technique to capture the shifting surfaces of 'this glory, this morning jubilee.' In the first lines the reader is struck by the remarkable contrast between the textures of the 'grey, time-patinated towns' and the 'polished new-sprung leaves.' Along with such tactile images as these Bethell's vivid consciousness of light is employed, '[g]iving to plain-spread dwellings definition.' It is light as a true painter would be aware of it, giving shape to objects that otherwise would be formless:

                  this scintillant early sunshine
Playing upon polished new-sprung leaves,
Playing on subtle-shadowed tussock bosses
And stippled spring-grassed slopes of gorse-trimmed hills,
Giving to plain-spread dwellings definition,
Lighting to emerald willow-bordered fields,
Painting lapis-lazuli the wandering mountains,
Shining to diamonds the far mountain-snows.

In these lines, as in much of her poetry, light is an essential ingredient. There are always shades of a biblical meaning, the light of understanding and the revelation of God, but it is also the light cast on the actual scene that gives the poet the primary materials she is working with. The landscape changes with every moment in which the light on it changes and Bethell, blessed with a painter's sensitivity to this, makes of her poems a poetic parallel.

The study of colour depends upon light. Without it there is no colour. Even when light and colour are not part of the subject of the poem, or painting seems to be the last thing on her mind, we are aware, because of stanzas like this, that the poet is always trying to capture a momentary state. The vocabulary used in the imagery of this stanza, however, makes it even clearer that in writing 'Out on a Spring Morning' Bethell had painting at the front of her mind. The hillsides are described as 'stippled spring-grassed slopes.' The sunshine is seen as '[l]ighting to emerald willow-bordered fields' and '[p]ainting lapis-lazuli the wandering mountains.’ The final six lines show how the concentration on light in the first stanza turns to the creation of colour and how the spiritual reaction of the poet to the morning light becomes the final subject of the poem:

But let me not forget, but lifelong be recorded
Upon my registering eyes' memorial screen
This brilliancy of green, blue, white, and again blue,
The Spring-purged sky's dazzle,
The first sun's brightness, the golden lightness,
This glitter, this glory, this morning jubilee.

Throughout Day and Night it is easy to find poems that owe something to Bethell's eye for and interest in painting. In 'Rose-wreath' there are the roses painted on the screen. There are the first and last stanzas of 'Nor'-West Evening, Winter' in which Bethell constructs her picture of the hawthorn as a painter might fill a canvas. In 'Midwinter Dawn' there is an invocation of the Greek moon goddess while, at the same time, the poet sees yet another dawn as if it were a finished painting:

a world of pallid blue with flecks of gold;
Blue-white snowy ranges wintry-cold;
Eastward a minim wraith of silver light,
Forspent Selene in July night.

There are the innumerable linguistic experiments in colour evident, for example, in the last couplet of 'July 23. 1930. 6 a.m.':

Coral and amber clouds in turquoise blue sky
And opaline snow mountains.

In the poem 'Summer Daybreak' there is the poet's sense of the failure of painting to help poetry 'limn' the intricacies of dawn, where music seems to provide an alternative but the poet turns back to her skills with tone and colour:

Words are too dense, too dull, too blundering,
Pigments too turbid; yet it must be limned
This scene, it must be hymned, this hour;
I am constrained to join the waking choir,
To ease mine eyes of their acknowledgment.

Now, before sunrise, the sky is a great pearl
Of bluey sheen, but eastward flushed with fire,
With forecast fire; no starry dart impales
This soft suffusion, nor pallid moon
Flecks the sheer candour of this crepuscule.

I would like now to consider in detail a poem from this collection in which Bethell has not just allowed her painting instincts to contribute to its method or imagery but has created a poem which relies for its very existence on her ability to see and think as a painter does. 'Decoration' begins with a rarity in Bethell's poetry, an indoor scene. It is a superb poem that has incorporated the traditional workings of a poetic conceit and a modernist interest in a merging of two disciplines. It operates in that indefinable area of life where the past seems to intrude on the present and the poet finds herself at a metaphysical crossroads between the eternal and the fleeting nature of time. This strange, unsettling vision stems from a pictorial scene in the first lines of each of the two stanzas and a mysterious connection between them. In this case it is two still-life scenes that have provoked the poem:

This jar of roses and carnations on the window-sill,

Crimson upon sky-grey and snow-wrapt mountain pallor,

(Sharp storm's asservation of cold winter's on-coming,)

How strange their look, how lovely, rich and foreign,

The living symbol of a season put away.

A letter-sheaf, bound up by time-frayed filament,

I found; laid by; youth's flowering….

The exotic words blazed up blood-red against death's shadow,

Red upon grey. Red upon grey.

The poem opens with a simple observation reminiscent of 'Detail.' There is, Bethell declares plainly, a vase of flowers on her window-sill. This simple outline of form is followed by a characteristic filling-in with colour, the importance of which lies in the contrast, in the laying of the crimson upon the sky-grey. The third line gives the meteorological reason (another storm) for the 'snow-wrapt mountain pallor' of the second and perhaps points to an irresistible tendency of Bethell's to always relate the poetic moment to the exterior landscape. Then, true to the still-life tradition, we are given the first hint of a complexity that lies behind the apparent simplicity of the vase of flowers. Their 'look' is described as strange, lovely, rich and foreign as they begin to take on a significance beyond their outward appearance. This is confirmed in the next line – they are a 'living symbol of a season put away.' The flowers, we can assume, are the last of the autumn's bloom and now seem strange against the wintry background of 'snow-wrapt mountain pallor' seen through the window behind them. This sense of strangeness, of not truly belonging to their time, makes them seem rich and foreign.

The second stanza brings a heightened sense of strangeness when the poet turns to consider another still-life image, that of a forgotten letter-sheaf she has supposedly rediscovered somewhere in her house. The age of the sheaf is stressed by its binding, a 'time-frayed filament' whose brittle nature is extended by association to the letters themselves and then, perhaps, to their content, the nature of which seems both important and yet somehow remote. It is simply described as 'youth's flowering….' The ellipse creates an echo of sorts connoting both the distance in time between the origin of the letters and the poem's present, and their importance in the life of the poet. But time can make the familiar strange and, despite their significance, she feels distant from them – the lettering on them is 'exotic' and it flares up 'blood-red against death's / shadow.' The fact that they are letters from her youth that now seem strange has made her feel old and acutely aware of death's imminence. Again, this is an ancient subject for poetry, yet Bethell has produced, from a close-up study of two common household objects, a startlingly modern and highly successful poem. The final line is perhaps the most remarkable. Its repetitions of the colour contrast, red and grey, emphasise that this very contrast is emblematic of the whole issue of the poem. The meditative quality of its rhythm represents the thought patterns of the poet as she seems to consider the whole of her life in nine simple lines.

Bethell published her third collection of poems when she was 65 years old. Day and Night represents the culmination of her attempt to express her intense relationship with the land around her and confirms, as Vincent O’Sullivan claims, that she was among 'the first in the country . . . to set language and place so easily together.'[10] Further than this it discloses how that language came from a mind that was significantly influenced by painting. In Day and Night that influence was at its most complex and most fruitful.

Ursula Bethell is usually regarded as a painter manqué, as a writer who made some use of her painterly instincts but this, I believe, is a narrow view. Painting for Bethell was an essential part of her poetry. A grounding in the classics in a mind as perceptive and determined as hers would inevitably emerge in an artistic form of one kind or another. Her success lay with words yet Bethell's artistic training was in two other disciplines, painting and music, both of which would make their appearance in her poetry decades later. The result was a poetic that drew imagery from the literary traditions she saw herself associated with but also from the fields of music and painting. Were it not for Ursula Bethell's attempt at poetry, prompted by these other fields of interest, the self-expression of one of New Zealand's great artists might not have extended beyond her immediate circle of friends.


1. MacD Jackson, 'Poetry: Beginnings to 1945' in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature. Auckland: Oxford UP, 1991, 372.

2. M.H. Holcroft, Mary Ursula Bethell. Wellington: Oxford UP, 1975, 54.

3. Tony Kingsbury, 'Poetry in New Zealand 1850-1930.' PhD thesis. University of Auckland, 1968, 271.

4. Jackson, 370.

5. Allen Curnow, Introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45. Christchurch: Caxton, 1945, 51.

6. Holcroft, 29.

7. Vincent O'Sullivan, Introduction to Ursula Bethell Collected Poems. Auckland: Oxford UP, 1993, xiii.

8. Holcroft, 15.

9. M. T. Woollaston, The Far-away Hills. Auckland: Auckland Gallery Associates, 1962, 33.

10. O'Sullivan, xviii.

 © Gregory Treadwell

Last updated 22 May, 2005