Printer Friendly

David McKee Wright, Maorilander.

David McKee Wright arrived in Australia for the second time in May 191o. He had first visited in 1887, an Irish youth direct from school in London on his way to an uncertain future in New Zealand. The official cause of his emigration was the diagnosis of a lung ailment, although Wright's own early verse accounts of his situation would suggest that he was exiled as the result of a misdemeanour involving an unnamed young woman whom he associated with memories of Naples. The romantic explanation to himself and the world may not have been entirely mythical; he was in other ways a scapegrace and cause of disquiet to his family.

An ailing uncle of Wright's, the Reverend David McKee (1838-1880) of Dublin, had gone to New Zealand in 1879 and dismayingly died at Christchurch within a short time of his arrival. Wright had numerous McKee relatives in Christchurch, where his uncle had been foundation minister of Knox Church. Wright was himself a son of the manse, and his father, the Rev Dr William Wright was to exert some effort to induce his son to enter into the family profession. (1)

By 1910, when Wright came to Australia, his future was more promising than it had been in 1887; he was in superb good health, and had a literary reputation which extended to other countries. He was to rise rapidly through journalistic and editorial circles, becoming literary editor of the Sydney Bulletin during the Great War until 1926, and a poet admired by many outstanding contemporaries and reviled by a number of influential others. The aim of this essay is the shed some light on Wright's 'missing years', from an Australian point of view, and to suggest that his New Zealand achievement has been greatly underestimated in both countries.

On his first arrival in Christchurch in 1887, Wright visited his McKee relatives at their house in Hawthornden. Sarah Jane McKee, widow of the Rev David McKee, had been left with nine children on the death of her husband, and was bringing them up with the assistance of her mother-in-law, Rebecca McKee, who had emigrated with the family. Wright had been brought up by Rebecca McKee following the death of his own mother in 1876, and the reunion was joyful for the entire family. Wright regarded Rebecca McKee in the light of a 'second mother', and he paid tribute to her character and influence on his life in 'Fern Fronds and Mountain Daisies', a sonnet-sequence of 1893.

The poems reflect Wright's debt to Tennyson in their lushness and close observation of nature. At the time of Rebecca McKee's death in November 1892, Wright was working as a rouseabout and rabbiter at Puketoi and contributing stories and verses to the Weekly Press and Otago Witness. Wright's sonnets were more orthodox in their note of Christian consolation than the Laureate's later elegies; Wright was firmly convinced of immortality beyond the grave. The sonnet-sequence is like much of Wright's early output, in its conventionality of form and occasional derivativeness. For all that, the sequence presents a dramatisation of a friendship or love that has seen several crises. The poems recount early memories of life in Ireland, particularly the scenes of Wright's childhood. The poems are interesting for their experimentation with length of sentences within the sonnet-format. The first sonnet establishes the theme in an opening sentence of ten lines; the second sonnet, introducing recollections of early days, consists of a single sentence. The stanza-structure of Wright's earliest poems gravitated, as a rule, against such sustained expositions, but in his narrative and meditative works Wright often maintained the meandering and parenthetical sentences which distinguished Tennyson's (and Milton's) verse. In the last sonnet of the 'Fern Fronds and Mountain Daisies' sequence, the greatest number of breaks occurs as Wright recapitulates the arguments of several preceding poems:
 The trees will soon be breaking into bud,
 The flowers will soon be breaking into bloom;
 Nature her winter sorrow will forget,
 And joy and sorrow work alike for good.
 Forget the past? Nay, but forget its gloom:
 Remember all its beauty shining yet
 Through the long cypress glades from the white tomb.
 Pure lilies, ye are emblems of her heart
 Pure daisies, ye are emblems of her love;
 And ye green ferns of Immortality:
 Yet all shall fade and wither into dust.
 But her pure virtue ever lives above,
 And it may chance that sometimes she may see
 A glimpse of those she crowned on earth with love. (2)


Wright had composed verse while in his early teens; by his own estimation his first real poem was on the subject of Milton, written when he was fourteen years old. Milton remained a passion with Wright; he had first read Paradise Last at the age of twelve, and could recite entire books of the poem at fourteen. In the 1920s, Wright was to argue with Hugh McCrae that Milton was a fit book for young readers; he revelled in the graphic and narrative qualities of Milton's verse. As a boy, Wright had been prevented by illness from sharing the life of his brothers and sister; it is well to review briefly his early education.

EARLY DAYS

Wright was born in the Ballynaskeagh Manse in County Down in 1869. His father, the Rev William Wright, was a Presbyterian missionary who was serving in Damascus, where the child was conceived. Wright's mother, Annie, was the daughter of the Rev David McKee, a notable controversialist and apostle of Temperance (though not averse, as an acerbic critic pointed out, to taking a drop himself). (3) The Rev McKee lived for 9o years, dying two years before Wright's birth. Rebecca McKee, second wife to the old minister, relayed stories of her husband's career, including his presence at the Battle of Ballynahinch in 1798, to young David McKee Wright.

David McKee Wright was the second son of the Rev William Wright; an older brother, William, remained in Damascus, with an older sister, Rebecca Jane. David's mother returned to the mission after David's birth, leaving him in the care of his grandmother, and the future poet spent much of his early life with older people as a result. Wright's mother, plagued with ill-health, died when he was seven years old, and the Rev William shortly afterwards took up residence in London with his family--now counting four sons and their sister Jane. The Rev William's fortunes improved with his engagement as superintendent of translations at the British and Foreign Bible Society, and his marriage in 1880 to Sophia Davison, daughter of a wealthy (though deceased) London solicitor.

Wright attended a local school (the Glasgar School) in Down before his family moved to London; there he was educated first at Pope's school, a preparatory institution, and the Crystal Palace Engineering School. His early days in Ireland made a lasting pleasurable impression on the boy; He recalled conversations with fisherfolk and other workers, and he collected a store of local expressions, history and legends. Towards England, Wright entertained ambivalent feelings all his life; he recalled his education there with some nostalgia on occasion, and he thought late in life of returning to London to further his literary success. He disliked the divisiveness of class in Britain as time went on, and from the start harboured some resentment against his father's remarriage. Three daughters increased the family from the Rev William's second marriage, and David did not altogether get on with his stepmother, who was regarded by the younger boys as 'English of the English' from the point of view of their self-styled 'wild Irish' temperaments and habits. The Rev William was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Glasgow in 1882 for his ecclesiastical efforts (he was to supervise 150 translations of the Bible), and he was elected to the Royal Geographical Society in 1886 for his researches into the ruins of the ancient Hittite capital in Syria. A correspondent of Gladstone's and a familiar of many notables in civil and ecclesiastical life, the Rev Dr Wright was a friend of Sir Richard Burton's and wrote under the penname 'Salih' on archaeological and theological matters. In London, the Wright family occupied a stately gentleman's residence staffed with servants and governesses. The other boys attended Dulwich College, two of them, William (born 1867) and Robert (born 1873) following their father in the ministry. Charles, born 1876, became headmaster of the King's School in Lagos after a distinguished career in several English Public Schools. David's sister Jane was educated at the Crystal Palace Engineering School, where she studied art; she later married a Dulwich College old boy, Claude Paine, and removed to South Africa.

Wright was enrolled in the 'Colonial' section of the Crystal Palace school after some years of education by tutors at home. Wright's family recounts that he was sickly as a child, and Wright recollected being on the point of death on occasions in his youth. This information sits uneasily with his record of escapades; he ran away from home to make his way to Ireland on at least three occasions, once reaching 'to the wilds of Connemara' to escape his London situation. These adventures provided Wright with additional legends and tales for inclusion in his 'Irish' poems, plays and fictions written from around 1914. The area in which he had grown up was rich in oral tradition; in classical times it had been the site of the Ulster cycle of legends concerning Fionn, Cuchulainn and other heroes; it included the ancient capital of Ireland and the landing place of Saint Patrick. Wright's interest in the locality was not only romantic. At fourteen he tore down a Unionist election poster at an Ulster rally, and he recalled his first sight of flesh blood on the ground where a man had been killed in a sectarian brawl.(4) Wright's family on both sides appears to have been anti-Unionist, and were all distressed by attempts to partition the country. For Wright, Carson and Haig came to represent the ruin of the country's hope, and after 1919 Wright was distressed by the Civil War. Wright was proud of his Irish heritage, drawing consolation during his life in Australia from the fact that his adopted country was 'one-third Irish in race'. Among his literary remains, a letterhead souvenir suggests his association with Sinn Fein. He was not likely to advertise political affiliation of this sort while engaged at the Bulletin however. In New Zealand, Wright's colleagues among the rural workforce and, later, the clergy and journalistic circles, were predominantly of Scots descent, and he felt himself indebted to them for their hospitality and support. Wright's sole Australian collection of poems, An Irish Heart (1918) was dedicated 'To a Scotchman for Ireland's Sake'. His first patron in New Zealand, a hawker who subsidized Wright's Station Ballads (1897), was Robert McSkimming ('Crockery Bob'); another Otago friend was Archie McFarlane.

The Irish sympathies and associations of the Rev Dr William Wright's family in general were not encouraged by William's wife. Of all the children, David was most afflicted with homesickness for Ulster, and his removal to New Zealand may have come as some relief to his father and stepmother. The Crystal Palace school was formally a school of art, science, and literature, and comprised Ladies' and Gentlemen's Divisions. The former focussed on visual, written and performing arts and skills and the latter upon 'Practical Engineering' and the 'Artistic and Economic Improvement of Estates'. Wright's brother Robert remarked in later years of David's abilities: 'Needless to say, he knew as little about practical life as Shelley or Byron and cared as little; and all the engineering ever came to was to teach him to pitch a tent and boil a billy and live the life of a rabbiter in the backblocks. From 1887 to 1896, he was doing that kind of thing and, I do believe, as happy as a king'. (5) Robert was correct in estimating that his brother loved the outback life in Central Otago; he was not correct in assuming his brother lacked a practical streak. Wright revealed his talents repeatedly, in the construction of cabins and gardens and furniture throughout the rest of his life; his final home in Australia was built by him, and remained standing until 1989 when it was demolished in the course of housing development. Wright was impractical in one notable respect: like his grandfather and uncle (both David McKees), Wright was incapable of managing finances. Just as it had been said of the old minister in Down, and of his son in Christchurch that they had literally given their clothes to the poor, David McKee Wright could not hear a story of distress without emptying his pockets. Till the end of his life, this fecklessness with money rendered Wright an easy touch; his generosity to indigent journalists in Sydney was legendary, and constituted a large element of his charm.

POET TO PREACHER

Wright's reputation in New Zealand rests on his ballad poems of station life. They are chiefly contained in two collections, Station Ballads and Other Verses (Dunedin 1897) and Wisps of Tussock: New Zealand Rhymes (Oamaru 1900). An earlier pamphlet, Aorangi and Other Verses (Dunedin 1896), contained eleven poems, none of them ballads, although several were related to Wright's outdoor occupation. The small pamphlet New Zealand Chimes, issued privately in Wellington as a Christmas souvenir at the end of 1900, contained six poems, none of which are ballads: the collection reprints an early Christmas Carol and includes several patriotic works. This last New Zealand collection represents the genteel parson-poet whom several contemporaries (like Johannes C. Andersen) believed to be incapable of maintaining former standards of discernment.

Wright began to contribute verses to the Otago Witness from April 1890, when he despatched a loco-descriptive poem, 'Manipouri', from Otautau. His career as shepherd and rabbiter began in the Southland district before he moved to Puketoi and Table Tops (in the Hakataramea Valley)--the locales of his balladry. The earliest poems, represented by more than 100 publications (many of them poem-sequences) in the Otago Witness, and sporadic publications elsewhere before 1896, exhibit the range of a young poet experimenting in a plethora of lyric and narrative forms. Wright knew his Wordsworth and Tennyson well, and traces of their influence are advertised in many titles and stylistic effects. Wright never repudiated the fact of influence, nor sought to hide it; he believed, like Shelley, that poetry might be written about the experience of poetry itself, and that 'influence' authorized his own work--enrolled him in the canon, in fact. Wright's facility with conventional forms appears early in his output, and may have recommended him to the editors of the Dunedin paper: his work appeared regularly throughout 1891, and from 1892 was often featured on a weekly basis. In a 1920 article 'Facility', Wright defended the constant practice of writing which resulted in fluency within received forms. (6) His flair with received forms--odes, sonnets, short lyrics, and blank-verse narratives on historical and biblical themes--sharply distinguishes him from many contemporaries in the Otago Witness and other provincial papers. Wright was well-known as a result of his copious contribution of verse to the Dunedin paper and short stories after 1892 to the Christchurch Weekly Press, and several replies and tributary verses were written in response to his work. Thus, after the appearance of 'The Poisoner's Lament' in the Otago Witness on 7 July 1892, 'John Plod' responded on 28 July with 'The Rabbit's Refrain'. Wright's poem was a remarkable prolepsis of his later balladeering style, and it is worth contrasting a stanza of Wright's with the opening stanza of the reply:
 With fingers dirty and rough,
 With debts contracted, unpaid,
 A rabbiter toiled o'er the shingle-strewn hills
 Plying his penniless trade.
 Walk, walk, walk,
 In eternal changeless round,
 Forever sticking up useless marks
 For the rabbits that can't be found.
 Stones, and tussock, and scrub,
 Scrub, and tussock, and stones,
 Skins so scarce that the job can't pay
 Entrails, and blood, and bones.

 ('The Poisoner's Lament')

 With paws both weary and sore,
 With fur bedraggled and wet,
 We scamper all day o'er the fern-clad hills
 Shunning the rabbiter's net.
 Jump, jump, jump,
 Forever we're on the hop,
 Dodging the dogs and rabbiters' traps
 As into our burrows we pop.
 Boys and dogs and traps,
 Traps and dogs and boys,
 We live in a state of perpetual ferment
 And taste but few of life's joys.

 ('The Rabbits' Refrain to the Poisoner's Lament')


Wright's early reputation was built on his lyric skill and on his short stories. In Dunedin, Wright was represented primarily as a poet; in Christchurch, he was highly regarded as a clever writer of short fiction, as a result of a series of yarns about life in the Otago and West Coast mining regions. Wright located many of his stories in a fictional 'Barravle' near the Rough Ridge where be worked as a rabbiter. He adopted the name 'Cleggs' for his fiction, from 1892 until 1895, when such tales as 'Fair in Love or War' and 'Mignonette' (7) demonstrated a sophisticated control of plot and dialogue and a high degree of self-conscious awareness in the writing. Wright demonstrated a broad sympathy for his fellows, including women employees and identities, in such stories. 'Mignonette' is unusual for its casting of a Chinese worker (Min Let--the 'Mignonette' of the title) as hero: Wright traces the doomed love-affair of Min Let for Agnes, a servant-girl on Barravale Station, to conclude the story with
 We in New Zealand are willing enough to assent 'that all men are
 born equal and free', but then we can never quite bring ourselves
 to think that Chinamen are men.


Wright's stories attracted sufficient following the Christchurch Weekly Press to advertise Wright's previous tales as part of the by-line when they appeared. The Christchurch paper did not, however, entertain such a high opinion of his poetical works. On the appearance of Aorangi, the Weekly Press observed that Wright was capable of 'splendidly sonorous lines' in such works as the title-poem, but that 'here and there we come upon a slipshod verse which would have been polished by a poet who took his vocation seriously'. Wright suffered from a divided allegiance, according to the reviewer, who astutely observed that Wright's prose was remarkable for its 'lucid clearness of style, and its forceful simplicity', qualities aided by his practice of verse. The reviewer recommended against the publication of an enlarged edition of poems, on the grounds that it was preferable 'to see its author concentrating his energy and ability upon the more popular literary form' in which he had already achieved 'a distinct and integral success'. (8)

The Christchurch Press already had a reputation as 'the most Conservative and, at the same time, the most progressive paper' in the country (9), and was in the process of modernisation of its works by mid 1892 under the guidance of G. G. Stead, owner since 1890. Whether the paper considered itself progressive or not, it was correct in seeing itself less Liberal than its chief local rival, the Lyttehon Times, whose outstanding literary talent was perhaps Jessie Mackay. Wright appears to have agreed with the Weekly Press's estimation of his own work; he withdrew his first volume from circulation, and did not, in later years, refer to it again except to include it in brief bibliographical notes for other editors.

Wright's New Zealand politics were initially Conservative; he appears to have effectively distinguished between Liberalism in England and Ireland and Liberalism in Neck Zealand. His earliest commentaries on New Zealand politics took the form of satire, in poems like 'Demos and the New Zealand Liberals'. (10) Here, Wright presents a summary of complaints against the Liberal Ministry from the time of the 'fall from grace' of the common man in 1891 until his debasement as 'Seddon's slave' in 1893 and 1894. Wright scorns Seddon's murdering of the English language, and his secret borrowing. Wright's 'Demos' spurns the Cabinet members in brief character sketches, lingering particularly on John MacKenzie, the enemy of Wright's Dunedin patron Scobie Mackenzie:
 Ay, truth and purity are dead and gone--
 Our faiths been shaken in that 'honest John'--
 Big Jock Mackenzie--freedoms deadliest foe,
 In spite of all his ignorance and blow.
 Oh, never shall the link be loosed again
 That shackles Pomahaka to his name,
 Or men forget the night he ran away
 From facing Scobie e'er election day.
 But now the worst of all is come to pass--
 New Zealand's press has written John an ass,
 And Jock has sworn the press must bend the knee
 To Liberal despotism or cease to be.
 O big, weak, foolish Minister for Lands,
 Our free-voiced press is not yet in your hands.
 Strike at our education, homes destroy;
 Encourage dummies, honest worth annoy;
 Lie, brag, blow, bluster how you can and may;
 But touch our press and you will rue the day.
 Yes, Jock! believe me, this shall come to pass--
 New generations still will write thee 'ass'.
 When all thy greatness is forgotten quite,
 As one who tried to curb the people's right,
 Thine epitaph in history shall be:
 A tyrant born behind his time was he.'


Wright's opinion was not in the long run the prevailing judgment on the Minister for Lands; Wright owed some favour to Scobie Mackenzie however; the latter had commenced as a station hand and overseer in Otago, to work his way to manager of an estate and ownership of Kyeburn Station. He entered politics on the Conservative side, and retained popularity and loyalty among his employees and fellow-pastoralists. He held the Mt Ida seat from 1883 until 1893, when his namesake, the older John MacKenzie defeated him; the Mt Ida electorate was swallowed up in the new Waihemo seat. John MacKenzie had more followers in Waihemo than Wright's patron could muster in Mt Ida, and the poem refers to an occasion on which 'Big John' failed to encounter Scobie Mackenzie on his own terms. Wright clung to his Conservatism until around 1905, when he left the Congregational Union over the issue of a blanket endorsement of Prohibition. Throughout the 1890's, Wright held out for individualist values, and roundly condemned Trade Unionism in its rural and urban manifestations. It was not until the establishment of his own newspaper in 1906 that Wright began actively to support unionism, and effectively campaign for Labour in New Zealand. His frustration with the slowness of the pace of progress after that time was instrumental (with other causes) in directing him to follow his career in Australia.

The espousal of individualist virtues was typified in the stories by the actions of a young man bent on making a career in a new country. Some of Wright's fictive protagonists were scions of bourgeois English families; rarely were they offshoots of the older aristocracy. Wright provided his heroes with upright intelligent women with whom they could fall in love, although the limits of women's independence and intelligence were revealed in their acquiescence into wedded bliss at the conclusion to several of such 'Romances' of pioneering life. Wright underscored his awareness of the conventionality of such tales of true grit and true love by subtitling several tales as romances, and the structure and resolution of these fictions may properly be seen, I believe, as a reflection upon editorial taste and readership expectation as upon authorial invention. This is not to say that Wright could do no other than fall in line with editorial direction; several of his tales inverted expectation, or exploited comic situation and plot denouement for their effect. Wright appears to have revelled in the opportunity to work variations on romantic or comic themes, and he occasionally essayed tragic themes and brief impressionistic 'sketches' of up-country life for his town dwelling readership.

So far as Wright's poetic output in the 1890s is concerned, we can identify several recurrent themes. From the commencement of his appearance in print, Wright celebrated pictorial New Zealand. The poems seldom transcend verse-travelogues in the years 1890-93, as Wright strives for effects of sublimity and awe, drawing upon Wordsworthian epithets, or offering observations from the point of view of one who has experienced an epiphany while going about mundane tasks. Such visionary moments occur in 'Aorangi', first published in the Otago Witness on 3 September 1891, or in 'Waitangi', published on 7 April of the following year. In both poems, Wright takes up a story of travellers ('we') in the mountains, who are overwhelmed by the grandeur or antiquity of the scenes before them; in 'Waitangi', Wright engages in a fantasy of ancient Atlantis, only to be appalled at last by the power of his vision and the awareness that--like Keats in the Nightingale Ode--he is being drawn to a forlorn fairyland; Wright's poem concludes
 Nature, dear friend, thy winds are growing colder,
 Dark clouds hang round thy far south-western hills,
 I dread the feathery snow cloak I have longed for;
 Downward I fly to mingle with my kind,
 Good friends, and loving they are there to meet me,
 Thinking me lost amid the gathering gloom.
 On to bright lamps and happy, ruddy, firelight,
 Where great Waitangi pours his mournful song,
 I follow where they lead me,--coward mortal,
 Thy friend and yet afraid to share thy glory.


Wright was aware of his tendency to egregiousness; he appreciated the exotic element in his new surroundings after Ireland and England, and on occasion contrasted the dynamic New Zealand landscape with the flattened monotony (as he saw it) of the Australian bush and desert. Throughout his residence in New Zealand, the face of 'nature' engaged him to attempt specific local descriptive poems, and to project universal significance into the objects of his contemplation. He was not, of course, limited to reading altogether Eurocentric messages into the sights surveyed. In 'Maniototo' (23 February 1893), Wright played on the legendary 'field of blood' significance of the location, to note with an oblique glance at the present and future:
 Field of blood--ah! whose the savage glory?
 Thousands fell to make thy cornfields wave;
 Every tea-tree tells the dreary story;
 Every silver tussock shows its open grave

 Yonder fell a nation: wild winds dying
 Bear the fated spirits of the slain--
 Through the long, sad ages crying, crying
 Vengeance on their" foes--not all in vain.


As a rule, Wright's poems which are triggered by landscape contain genuine elements of sublimity, as like Wordsworth he reflects upon human transience and impotence. Wright was to return frequently to 'nature' for renovation of his spirit. Nor, for the first ten years of his New Zealand life, was it necessary for him to return in spirit only. His verse contains pointers to particular events and familiar sights. When he moved to Dunedin to study for the ministry in 1898, Wright recalled his outback days with nostalgia for a cleaner and simpler existence than the industrial city afforded. His attitude in this respect was undoubtedly naive; so was Wordsworth's in overlooking the realities of the Lake District society in England. (11)

Wright addressed topics other than the landscape and seasons of Central Otago in his early verse. From the beginning he wrote of exile, with an element of self-dramatization heightened by reference to a separated loved one. In 'Sea Dreams', written at Puketoi on 4 September 1891, he wrote
 The roses now begin to bloom at home,
 And lilies whiter than the white sea foam.
 It seems as if their fragrance met mere here
 Where summer's glory brightens all the year.

 Beautiful rosebud of the lawn of love,
 Lily whose brightest flowers may bloom above,
 Forgive me if in day-dreams on the sea
 The murmuring waves forever speak of thee. (12)


In 'Nell', written some two months later, Wright strikes a more extreme pose; the repining lover longs for extinction with his beloved, as the poem concludes,
 I am standing by the streamlet where we used to meet of old,
 'Neath the drooping willow branches in the dell,
 But my steps are getting feeble and my heart is growing cold,--
 Would to God that I were laid beside thee, Nell. (13)


The poem is theatrical, in the manner of a music-hall tear-jerker, and may bear little reference to a specific death of one of Wright's early loves: he was to compose several works on the conventional theme of a lover's remorse for the death of an absent partner; in November, 1892, an extended narrative poem 'By Marion's Grave' offers a reprise of this situation. In a number of personal lyrics, however, Wright draws attention to his own melancholy, to the extent that Marie R. Randle, who at times vied with Wright for quantity if not always quality of verse in the Otago Witness, was provoked to write of the characteristic sadness of the admired poet. (For his own part, Wright paid tribute to Randle in a graceful sonnet in May 1894.)

Wright did not remain the melancholy lover depicted in his early verse of separation; he embarked on lighter amatory verse from 1892, progressing rapidly from hackneyed expressions ('Dear, will your love be true': March 1893) to more assured effects of tone, incorporating domestic detail:
 When daylight was sleeping under the sea
 And the star of the morning shone,
 I left my love by the garden gate
 For I kissed her lips and was gone.
 When the dew-pearls sparkled on lawn and lea,
 I knew that my sweetheart was weeping for me.

 When daylight was brightening the earth and sea
 And the broad sun shone on high,
 I stood on a distant shore alone
 'Neath the blue of a southern sky,
 Where the flax blossoms waved on meadow and lea--
 I wondered if Ethel was thinking of me.

 When daylight was setting under the sea
 And the star of the evening shone,
 I kissed my love by the garden gate
 Where the sweet of the rose was blown;
 And the sunset was brightening lawn and lea-Ethel
 I knew had been waiting for me. (14)


In time, Wright composed numerous amatory verses, though they contained little of Cavalier abruptness for all the Carpe diem that was signalled to the reader. In the mythology of Wright promulgated by John A. Lee and others, Wright has been portrayed as something of an agrarian Casanova, and while there is some element of truth in their accounts, Wright's manner of describing encounters is curiously restrained. The verse is not passionless, but kept within the light-verse bounds of taste and decorum.

In similar manner, his verse expressing doubt, personal extinction or notions of catastrophe on a wider scale are restrained. This is not to say that they fall short of their mark. Wright was cleverer than many of his contemporaries in avoiding the pitfalls of easy sentiment: practice made him so. In 'Once Again', a lyric of early 1892, he contemplates the surprise approach of feelings of love and attendant daydreams of bliss; he hauls himself from this state to his present circumstances with a tough sureness:
 Oh that thus in some far island
 You and I might ever rest,
 Idly love and dream forever
 With perpetual sunlight blest.

 Sunlight? No, the clouds are sombre,
 And our paths are far apart--
 Life's an everlasting struggle
 Of the mind to crush the heart. (15)


In 'Passing Vesuvious' written in June 1892, Wright describes the placid departing voyage of a ship from the doomed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in a tour de force of controlled mood. The poem is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The City in the Sea' for its sense of impending doom, and for the superb concluding atmosphere of peace and even 'normality':
 A wail of pain, a cry of agony,
 And all is o'er. The fair twin cities lie
 Crushed in the very noontide of their frame,
 An awful monument of Nature's might,
 And the loud blazing cone sends up to heaven
 A bonfire of rejoicing for the doom
 Old earth can heap upon her boasted lords.
 The day is dead, the stars have set their watch,
 And the swift vessel keeps her stately way
 Amid their shadows o'er the placid sea. (16)


In the majority of his verse, Wright projects a mood of optimism, which, in the Station Ballads and Wisps of Tussock manifests itself as a cheery form of muscular Christianity. He was not always so single-minded, as the poem on Vesuvius suggests. Wright was a product of contradictory and often conflicting views of eduction, religion and patriotic allegiance. His father's Presbyterianism reflected a Liberalism of outlook which encouraged wide experience of men and books; his grandfather McKee represented one of the straitest channels of Ulster Presbyterianism, and Wright was drawn to the passional elements in his Irish past as well as to the rational arguments adduced for a doctrine that emphasised personal commitment and action to a righteous manner of living. Like Byron, another product of straitened Calvinsim and conflicting indulgence, Wright was 'antithetically mixed' as a character, and his poetry reflects the division in himself. The acceptance which his poetry initially found was based on editorial encouragement by his patrons in Dunedin and Christchurch newspaper circles, and, increasingly; in Dunedin ecclesiastical quarters. His darker lyrics and narrative verses were not collected; his balladry was promoted, after the appearance in the Otago Witness of the individual poems, and their collection in Station Ballads in 1897 by Rutherford Waddell and others as exemplary 'New Zealand verse.' The qualities which Wright's supporters emphasised included the manly subject matter and a cheerful embracing of the outdoors in contrast to the lowering melancholy of such Australian contemporaries as Henry Lawson and Barcroft Boake. The age, one might say, demanded such a response to the gloom of the 1890s as Wright provided.

One might go further. At the end of 1896, Wright removed to Dunedin, to embark on studies for the Presbyterian ministry. Here he continued to publish verse in the Otago Witness, and indeed, contributed nearly a poem per week for the entire year, until he removed to Alexandra and Clyde at year's end to assist the Rev John Lothian in pastoral duties. The poems of 1897 rework themes of 1896; Wright hoped to recapitulate the success of the station ballads with a series of 'Tussock and Asphalt Rhymes', thirty-two of which appeared in the Otago Witness. Few of them are distinguished for their tension or resolution as verse; at the same time, the series possesses some capable ballads and is of interest for the light it sheds on Wright's still-developing political consciousness: he was twenty-eight years of age, new to city life, and possessed of a near-mystical attachment to the mountains and plains which had sustained his verse and fiction for ten years. He was genuinely horrified at the extent of vice in the city's slums and higher echelons of society; and was at a loss to understand the mentality of the unemployed or the members of trade unions. Wright's career as a verse-journalist dates from this period: he was to remain a commentator on the social scene in New Zealand and Australia for the remainder of his life, and he would lament, throughout this period, that he could not give up his entire time to his craft. His entry into the ministry was not his unaided decision; his father, according to his later partner Zora Cross, paid for him to undertake study at the Theological Hall.

In 1898, Wright's brothers William and Robert came to New Zealand: William was suffering from a similar complaint to the one which had carried off the younger David McKee in 1880, and which had driven David McKee Wright to New Zealand; at the same time, Robert, also undertaking study in England for the ministry, conducted a mission with Wright in Oamaru, as if to strengthen the resolve of the poet turned preacher. It is not, I think, a coincidence that Wright did not publish new poetry between 1897 and 1905. Throughout these years his attention was engaged in making a fist of what he came to see as a vocation, but finally rejected as a false direction.

The manner of Wright's ministry changed through these years. His studies at the Theological Hall did not reflect an academic bent. His passes in English and English Composition and Rhetoric were Third Class, and the award of the Stuart Prize for a poem on Victoria's Jubilee did not disguise his struggles with other courses. Like other theological students, he undertook the summer outreach duties designed to relieve ministers in the field, but did not pursue study for the Presbyterian ministry upon his return to Dunedin early in 1898. The Presbyterian Christian Outlook for 28 May 1898 recorded that Wright had resolved to join the Congregational Union and take up the Emmanuel Church charge at Oamaru.

Wright remained at Oamaru until early 1900, when he transferred to Wellington to take charge of the Newtown Congregational Church. His carer at Oamaru is notable, of course, for the publication there by his friend and bookseller Andrew Fisher of the collection Wisps of Tussock, towards the end of Wright's ministry. The poems in this volume were not new; Wright was popular as a reciter and lecturer, but his energies were directed into two other areas which are of more interest for his development as a writer and controversialist. Wright was undoubtedly a popular preacher; in Alexandra and Clyde his experience among country people stood him in good stead; he spoke the language of his congregations, and his services and lectures (on popular poets of Australia and New Zealand, besides his idol Tennyson) were well-attended. Wright had turned his versifying talent to good use there, composing new words for old hymn-tunes, and providing printed copies of the new hymns in the churches where he spoke. (17) Wright continued this practice at Oamaru, and later, Wellington and Nelson. At Oamaru he commenced to campaign as a Prohibitionist, conducting sermon-services and speaking-tours in neighbouring districts and inviting missioners from Dunedin and Christchurch to his Emmanuel Church. Wright's sermon-style was trenchant and colourful; he had much in common with the revivalist preachers like his brother Robert, and others, including General Booth, who visited the town. To enhance the appeal of his message, Wright commenced to compose sermonstories in the style of the American Congregationalist preacher-novelist Charles M. Sheldon, whose ecclesiastical romances In His Steps; What Would Jesus Do? (1896) and the earlier Robert Hardy's Seven Days (1892) provided models for Wright. Sheldon's novels were initially given out as individual chapters on consecutive Sundays at his church in Topeka, Kansas, and had proved runaway successes as improving texts. Wright composed two 'novels' along the lines of Sheldon's works, and drew large audiences to his evening services. This exercise in composing sustained fiction led to Wright's later series of 'Maori Mac' stories on Maori subjects--stories published in New Zealand journals and notably in the Sydney Bulletin after the turn of the century. Wright also attempted a story for boys, and wrote a four-part novel, The Lost Prima Donna, a story of love and adventure turning on the self-exile of a beautiful singer who believes herself racially tainted by her 'dark' blood. If Wright appeared to have ceased composing poetry, he was busy from 1898 writing prose fiction, and actively campaigning as an agent of moral reform.

When Wright's zeal extended to taking a high stance on new Zealand's participation in the Boer War, he alienated some of his congregation in Oamaru through his outspokenness, and notably estranged one of the editors of the North Otago Times. Wright had created a furore on his entry into Oamaru by denouncing the city's vice and complacency, and was assailed in the columns of that paper. The opposition Oamaru Mail proved supportive, however, and Wright's sermons and actions were closely reported throughout his ministry.

When Wright removed to Wellington at the beginning of 1900, he found himself among a different class of parishioners. His ministry was involved with workers rather than bourgeois elements, and his alienation from the church set in even before he was transferred to Nelson in 1901. In Nelson, Wright continued to draw apart from the church's formal programme, until in 1905 he gave notice of his resignation at the annual meeting of the Congregational Union in Christchurch. The trigger for the separation was the proposal by certain delegates that the entire Union should support national Prohibition; Wright was the first of a small minority to firmly oppose the resolution, on the grounds that other churches were not unanimous in their opposition, and that it was in any case not the function of the church to identify itself with political movements; he proposed that 'The evil did not lie in drink but in the heart of man'. (18) From this point, Wright began to devote himself to social reform outside the church. He established his own newspaper in Nelson, calling it Te Rauparaha, with which is incorporated the Nelson Times, and conducting a pro-Labour campaign for the next two years, at the conclusion of which became regular Parliamentary reporter for the New Zealand Mail, running a column called 'The House of Talk', under his old pen-name, 'Cleggs'.

Wright's fortunes changed a great deal after he left the ministry. He lost his personal effects through an action for reclamation of debt, and left his wife of six years, Elizabeth Couper, whom he had met in Dunedin. Elizabeth and David were never reconciled, and Wright saw his son David McKee Wright only until the boy was ten years old, when Wright left New Zealand for Australia. The parting of husband and wife was acrimonious; their son later observed that 'there could, I am convinced, hardly have been a more unsuitable union than that of my parents'. (19) Wright removed to a Crown Lease in the Baton Volley near Nelson, and constructed a cabin for himself; efforts to persuade his wife to resume living with him were in vain, and he left for Wellington to make a living as a free-lance writer before emigrating to Australia. From 1907 until 1910, Wright returned to versifying; he became an adept observer of the political and social scene, and his satirical talent, as much as his facility and wit in composing editorials and leading articles recommended him to the editors of the Sydney Sun, Bulletin, Fairplay and The Worker in his next adopted country. During the period 1908-1910 Wright submitted journalistic 'paragraphs' to the Bulletin; together with satires and squibs in verse on New Zealand social life and conditions. Wright's 'parsonical' background was occasionally remarked upon by Sydney journalistic colleagues, who noted that Wright never swore nor expressed personal animosities. Another pointer to his new background was his adoption of the 'psalm' format for some of his satires: he began submitting these while still resident in New Zealand, and continued to adopt the form whenever moved to comment on affairs in Ward's (and later, Massey's) 'paradise'.

Wright's 'serious' verse from the Australian period of his life is the subject of a lengthier study (currendy in progress). That he was committed to 'serious' poetry in New Zealand is beyond doubt; there is the evidence of several hundred works in numerous New Zealand journals, newspapers and anthologies. Much of his output was ephemeral--juvenilia or trivial exercise written simply because he knew he had an organ of distribution at hand. He could with some justification say, however, on his arrival in Sydney in 1910 that
 In the interests of truth I cannot afford to be modest. I have
 written poetry. It was rather small for its age, and rather thin,
 but two or three who knew said it was it. (20)


There is little room to demonstrate Wright's range of stylistic experimentation or subjects in a brief account of his New Zealand years; I have avoided discussion of the ballads for which he was justly famed, and tried to suggest the outlines of research in other areas.

Notes

(1.) Anon, Knox Church 1880-1955 (Christchurch: Simpson & Williams Ltd, n.d. [1955]), 2-7: Zora Cross, Note on David McKee Wright, Zora Cross papers, Fisher Library.

(2.) Otago Witness, 3 August 1839, 39.

(3.) J. Ramsden, The Bronte Homeland, Misrepresentations Rectified (Westminster: Roxburghe Press, 1897), p. 86.

(4.) 'Pat O'Maori' [David McKee Wright], 'The Place Where I Was Born', The Lone Hanad, July 1919, 18.

(5.) Robert J. Wright, Letter to David McKee Wright (Jr), June 1931, in D. M. Wright, 'The Family Background', unpublished folio, 11.

(6.) Bulletin, 11 March, 1920, Red Page.

(7.) Weekly Press, 2 May 1895, 6; 31 October 1895, 4.

(8.) Weekly Press, 12 March 1869, 6.

(9.) Anon, The Press 1861-1961, The Story of a Newspaper (Christchurch: Christchurch Press, 1963), p. too.

(10.) Otago Witness, 1 November 1894, 43.

(11.) See, for example, Harriet Martineau, 'Town-Evils at Heart of the Mountains', in Norman Nicholson, ed., The Lake District: An Anthology (London: Penguin, 1988), pp. 312-13.

(12.) Otago Witness, 17 September 1891, 37.

(13.) Otago Witness, 5 November 1891, 41.

(14.) 'Song', Otago Witness, 24 May 1894, 39.

(15.) Otago Witness, 21 January 1892, 37.

(16.) Otago Witness, 30 June 1892, 37.

(17.) Dunstan Times, 4 March 1898, 18 March 1898, 25 March 1898.

(18.) Lyttelton Times, 1 March 1905, 3.

(19.) David McKee Wright (Jr), 'The Family Background', 1970 (unpublished record in my possession), 17.

(20.) 'Poetry and--Joy', Bulletin, 8 September 1910, Red Page.
COPYRIGHT 1992 University of Waikato
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:A GATHERING ON IMMIGRANT AND EMIGRANT WRITERS
Author:Sharkey, Michael
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:7566
Previous Article:Rob Jackaman: an introduction to the poetry and the poet.
Next Article:'Strangled by a bad tradition'? The work of Eve Langley.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters