Making it new: "Modernism" in B.E. Baughan's New Zealand poetry (1992)
AuthorsHarris, Nancy Mayshow all
This thesis examines one woman's attempt at revolution in New Zealand poetry. It will suggest that we may need to re-assess our perception of Blanche Edith Baughan - as a nascent "modern", rather than a "colonial" poet. The generally accepted view is that significant modern poetry emerged in New Zealand in the nineteen-twenties, and came to full flowering in the nineteen-thirties, and that Blanche Baughan was a "forerunner". She has achieved a modest reputation as an innovator in New Zealand poetry, perhaps as our first "true colonial voice ". This thesis proposes that Baughan was more than simply a "forerunner", that she had in fact, by 1908, introduced many of the changes currently credited to New Zealand poets of the succeeding generation. The title "Making it New" alludes to the catch-cry of Modernist poetry ("Make it New!") as expressed by Ezra Pound. Although Baughan is in no way connected to the Modernist movement, her directive to creative colonials, "Be thou new!" (from "Maui's Fish") has obvious Parallels. Two major factors account for the difference between Baughan and her New Zealand literary contemporaries - her mysticism and her freedom from the prevailing "Anglophilia". Baughan was reluctantly English at a time when pro-English sentiment was pervasive in both the life and the literature of the colony. This significant pre-condition of her "modernism" has been barely touched on, and the reasons behind it unrecorded, by literary historians and critics. A short biographical background will account for her attitude and reveal some hitherto unpublished facts. Baughan considered herself a mystic. Her mysticism, her classical education, her interest in philosophy and in social reform, together gave her a close empathy with the writings of the American Transcendentalists and of Thomas Carlyle. Their influence, which may be traced both in the message, and (occasionally), in the style of her texts, is supported by her possession of personal copies of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, his On Heroes, Emerson's Essays and Representative Men, and Walt Whitman's Democratic Vistas and Other Papers. The significance of Baughan's transcendentalism - indeed its very existence - has been over-looked by critical comment to date. This thesis views it as a key factor in her empathy with the American Transcendentalists, and flowing from that, it sees in Whitman's "New Worldism" as defined in his "Democratic Vistas", Baughan's main stepping-stone to "modernism". Accounting for Baughan's markedly different outlook and its effect on the matter and method of her poems required the inclusion in this thesis of four inter-related themes: her biographical past; her mysticism; her education (in the broadest sense, including the influences, particularly of the American Transcendentalists, on her poetic thought); and, finally, her conversion of transcendentalist concepts and precepts to the "modern" elements in her work. The thesis is organized in two related halves. Part A (chapters one to three), deals with the influences on her work. It includes, as well, an examination, from hindsight, of Baughan's "modernism" in relation to that of the main New Zealand poets of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Part B (chapters four to eight), consists of an exploratory study of her major poetic texts, the five very long works I have termed "colonial allegories": "ShingleShort", "A Bush Section", "Maui's Fish", "Burnt Bush" and "The Paddock". In Part B, I will seek out the poems' transcendentalist underpinning, their debunking of "Anglophilia" - and of conservative attitudes in general - and the practical spinoffs of Baughan's emphasis on change and newness at the level of the text. This study is confined to the allegories. Baughan's other works, whether in poetry or prose, are mentioned only where necessary either to illustrate her development or to clarify some point in the thesis.