Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday Poem: NZ Poetry Day: The Charge At Parihaka


Yet a league, yet a league
     Yet a league onward,
Straight to the Maori Pah
     Marched the Twelve Hundred.
`Forward the Volunteers!
Is there a man who fears?’
Over the ferny plain
     Marched the Twelve Hundred

`Forward!' the Colonel said;
Was there a man dismayed?
No, for the heroes knew
     There was no danger
Theirs not to reckon why
Theirs not to bleed or die,
Theirs but to trample by:
     Each dauntless ranger.

Pressmen to right of them,
Pressmen to left of them,
Pressmen in front of them,
     Chuckled and wondered.
Dreading their country's eyes,
Long was the search and wise,
Vain, for the pressmen five
Had, by a slight device,
     Foiled the Twelve Hundred.

Gleamed all their muskets bare,
Fright'ning the children there,
Heroes to do and dare, Charging a village, while
     Maoridom wondered.
Plunged in potato fields,
Honour to hunger yields.
Te Whiti and Tohu
Bearing not swords or shields,
Questioned nor wondered,
Calmly before them sat;
     Faced the Twelve Hundred.

Children to right of them,
Children to left of them,
Women in front of them,
     Saw them and wondered;
Stormed at with jeer and groan,
Foiled by the five alone,
Never was trumpet blown
     O'er such a deed of arms.
Back with their captives three
Taken so gallantly,
     Rode the Twelve Hundred

When can their glory fade?
Oh! The wild charge they made,
     New Zealand wondered
Whether each doughty soul,
Paid for the pigs he stole:
     Noble Twelve Hundred

Jessie McKay

I’ve taken a liberty with the brief. Rather than put up a poem about New Zealand I’ve taken a particular event. Dated verse, it tells its own history.

Parody is rather rare in Kiwiland. So are political poems. Many Pakeha of my vintage claim now that they went through our education system with out knowledge of events at Parihaka. In my case Bill Oliver talked about it in university history honours. But there was no mention of it at school or earlier in university.

After the land wars of the mid 19th century here, calamitous for Maori, the iwi at Parihaka attempted passive disobedience to assist their cause. In 1881 the Government used overwhelming force to arrest the leaders and tried to prevent reporters describing the scene. Dick Scott’s 'Ask That Mountain' is a good account of the event.

Well-known activist - women’s rights, Scottish and Irish nationalism, prohibition – and supporter of the underdog, McKay used Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade as a model to poke the borax. It’s a good example of the power of the pen, mockery and laughter used to deflate pomposity and grandiose behaviour. It also reveals contemporary difference of opinion over the seizure. Indeed, it shows that the late 19th century literary scene is, as well as the political establishment, more complex and diverse than common accepted wisdom allows.

1 comment:

  1. Great choice Harvey - it was a live issue at the time and Jessie McKay's bitter satire (stolen pigs, how glorious) shows not all Pakeha at the time were blind.