Thursday, August 26, 2010


As I was guest editor for the Tuesday Poem I selected this one two days ago from among my favourites. I put it and my commentary up today on my own blog now for the record's sake.


‘Established’ is a good word, much used in garden books,
‘The plant, when established’ . . .
Oh, become established quickly, quickly, garden
For I am fugitive, I am very fugitive – – –

Those that come after me will gather these roses,
And watch, as I do now, the white wistaria
Burst, in the sunshine, from its pale green sheath.

Planned. Planted. Established. Then neglected,
Till at last the loiterer by the gate will wonder
At the old, old cottage, the old wooden cottage,
And say ‘One might build here, the view is glorious;
This must have been a pretty garden once.’

Ursula Bethell

From a Garden in the Antipodes (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1929)

This poem is very representative of Ursula Bethell, (1874-1945), New Zealand’s foremost garden poet. She knew first-hand the enjoyment and satisfaction of digging the soil, of cultivating and tendering plants. But it was more than practical or aesthetic. Above all, her interest was driven by a sense of the enormity of time and space. Her poems have the backdrop of the sublime. In her poems she stops work every now and then to look at the mountains, serene and timeless, backdrop for her labour.

A contemporary D’Arcy Cresswell said, ‘New Zealand poetry wasn’t truly discovered until [she], “very earnestly digging”, raised her head to look at the mountains.’ For a brief spell – ten years - the serenity and comfort of Rise Cottage on the Port Hills above Christchurch inspired Bethell to create many fine poems. Cresswell’s comment reflects the fact that unlike many of her contemporaries she searched for meaning and identity in New Zealand. The tensions between her English origins and her antipodean existence were resolved by her stewardship of her small spot of soil. Unfortunately, when her companion, Effie Pollen, suddenly died, her ‘small fond human enclosure’ was destroyed and her poetic voice became silent.

The poem is aptly titled ‘Time’, which has been a poetic theme down the decades. Sometimes it’s the enemy. Keats’ ‘when I hbe fears that I may cease to be’ springs to mind. But he’s a Romantic. Bethell’s a convinced Christian. Unlike Baxter or Hopkins her poems are not about spiritual wrestling. They rest in a certainty I envy but do not possess. Time is usually approached metaphorically. The rise and fall of nations is one. More common is the human life span – Shakespeare’s seven ages of man from ‘As You Like It’ from ‘mewling and puking infant’ to adult who procreates, plans, works hopes, prays and fights before the person fades away ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans everything’. This process makes room for new generations – the continuity of the species, the rule of nature. The seasons are another. obvious measurement of time.

Bethell in this poem uses the garden to present the passage of time. I love the use of the word ‘fugitive’. It’s so apt. It puts us in our place. Then the lovely ‘ripeness is all’ of the white wisteria in the sunshine. And so to the abandonment and the suggestion that someone else will restart and remodel the garden. All in good time. Much has happened since Bethell wrote this poem in the1920s. But it still rings bells in my soul.

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