The Colonial Inheritance

It was the poet Allen Curnow, in his most considered foray into poetics, the introduction to his anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), who articulated most persuasively the notion of a 'historical divide' separating the first eight decades of the country's 'literature' (1840—1920) from the subsequent three or four decades (1920/1930—60), asserting that this was 'the most significant fact to be regarded in any realistic retrospect' on the country's literary history (Curnow, 1987, p. 137). The historical divide marked a huge social and cultural shift, 'away from colonialism and on towards the island nation of the past three or four decades' (ibid., p. 135). It also involved a redrawing of boundaries, an anti-colonialist breaking of New Zealand's direct cultural line to England and a nationalist redrawing of that line as a circle around and containing 'New Zealand', the demarcation of an internal space whose characterizing feature — the signature of the national — is geographical, loca-tional and historical 'difference': 'peculiar pressures . . . arising from the isolation of the country, its physical character, and its history' (ibid., p. 133).

Curnow's reading of colonial poetry focused on the destructive psychic effects of colonial dislocation and dependence, and on a growing split between 'imagination' and 'culture' on the one hand (the province of what had been formed in England, and become increasingly fossilized) and on the other the practical work of colonization and settlement which by the early twentieth century had hardened into an obstinate, philistine materialism and conformism. Few of the scores of colonial poets who inhabited New Zealand's first significant national anthology (Alexander and Currie's New Zealand Verse, 1906) escaped critical scrutiny. What survived was, rather, a handful of poems, read as in some way avoiding the general cultural malaise and offering glimpses of the real experience of colonization: accurate reflections of the strangenesses of landscape and seascape, renderings of sensibility less strident or sentimental than the standard rhymed genuflexions to Empire and colonial Destiny. In this respect at least Curnow's project was entirely successful. Neither of the two national anthologies which appeared after the 1960 Penguin — a new Penguin anthology, edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen, in 1985, and The Oxford Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O'Brien and Mark Williams, in 1997 — included more than a handful of nineteenth-century poems.

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