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Classics listBlanche Baughan   Selected Writings
Edited with an introduction by Damian Love
RRP NZ$29.99
ISBN 978-0-473-30943-5
176 pp, poetry, fiction, nonfiction
Paperback 198 x 129 mm
Series: Erewhon Classics
Date of publication: March 2015

I’m delighted to announce that the first Erewhon Classics title is due out in March. Expect the print edition to hit the bookshops towards the end of the month, and check out updates on this site over the next few weeks for an option to order the PDF and ePub editions.

Blanche Edith Baughan (1870-1958) was one of the first gifted poets in New Zealand’s history. Her best poems still have a secure place in national anthologies a century after she wrote them.

She was also an outstanding and colourful character. Born in England, she was the first woman ever to gain a first in classics at Royal Holloway, London. After graduating, she soon found that teaching Greek to duchesses did not suit her, and instead devoted herself to social work in the East End slums throughout the 1890s. She travelled to New Zealand in 1900, eventually settling on Banks Peninsula, where she threw herself into a writing career.

Baughan’s significant verse was written over the next decade. Her long poem ‘The Bush Section’ has been highly regarded ever since Allen Curnow acclaimed it:

No earlier New Zealand poem exhibits such unabashed truth to its subject. The vivid density of her language, the rapidity of her exposition, the dramatic shifts of scene and standpoint which are parts of the success of this poem have been strangely overlooked in New Zealand hitherto.

Influenced by Whitman, she broke away decisively from Victorian poetic diction in this work, and her open unpredictable rhythms still carry conviction. Here’s a brief extract:

The splinters stand on the hills,
In the paddock the logs lie prone.
The prone logs never arise,
The erect ones never grow green,
Leaves never rustle, the birds went away with the Bush,—
There is no change, nothing stirs!
And to-night there is no change;
All is mute, monotonous, stark;
In the whole wide sweep round the low little hut of the settler
No life to be seen; nothing stirs.
Yet, see! past the cow-bails,
Down, deep in the gully,
What glimmers? What silver
Streaks the grey dusk?
’Tis the River, the River! Ah, gladly Thor thinks of the River,
His playmate, his comrade,
Down there all day,
All the long day, betwixt lumber and cumber,
Sparkling and singing;
Lively glancing, adventurously speeding,
Busy and bright as a needle in knitting
Running in, running out, running over and under
The logs that bridge it, the logs that block it,
The logs that helplessly trail in its waters,
The jamm’d-up jetsam, the rooted snags.
Twigs of konini, bronze leaf-boats of wineberry
Launch’d in the River, they also will run with it,
They cannot stop themselves, twisting and twirling
They too will keep running, away and away
Yes; for on runs the River, it presses, it passes
On—by the fence, by the bails, by the landslip, away down the gully,
On, ever onward and on!
The hills remain, the logs and the gully remain,
Changeless as ever, and still;
But the River changes, the River passes.
Nothing else stirring about it,
It stirs, it is quick, ’tis alive!
‘What is the River, the running River?
Where does it come from?
Where does it go?’
Listen! Listen!…

You get a sense here of the spiritual restlessness that made Baughan herself an avowed mystic and, from about 1915 onwards, a devotee of Hindu Vedanta philosophy, which she visited India to study. This was a period of religious flux and experimentation in the Western world, a period of transition, and for her this merged with the dramatic changes in New Zealand’s society and landscape in that fluid colonial era of destruction and development. There is an interesting essay on Blanche Baughan’s Spiritual Nationalism in Mark Williams and Jane Stafford’s Maoriland.

Capturing the rapid changes in New Zealand society was important to Baughan, and in her Brown Bread stories she sought, rather modestly, to do just that:

The reason why I want to put into book form efforts so fugitive and meagre is, that, with all their faults, they do yet seem to me honestly to delineate in some degree a phase of New Zealand life that is already passing, and that, in so far at least as I have been able to gather, lacks not only an abler chronicler, but any chronicler at all.

She is not a deeply compelling prose writer, but she manages to convey something of the texture of life in that period more effectively than others, and this selected edition includes five of her stories.

Baughan’s appetite for the particular made her a gifted and popular journalist. Her series of tramping essays brought New Zealand’s landscape to an international readership. She knew much of her adopted country intimately and had a naturalist’s eye for geological and botanical phenomena. This edition includes extracts from her Studies in New Zealand Scenery. Here she is, for instance, writing about the Thermal District:

“The little blue pool, some two feet perhaps in diameter, that lies upon the bank of the tawny creek, has an extraordinary setting. The most beautiful mosses, the tenderest of ferns, embosom it in soft green, and the whole gully below it and above is filled with the graceful boughs of manuka, feathery and waving; but the pool itself appears to be sunk within a crumpled cushion of bright tomato-red plush, and the little stairway, as it were, that leads from it down into the creek, is of the same startling hue, and ends, moreover, in a vivid splash of strong orange-chrome. It is all a bit of barbaric beauty; its aspect is positively sensational. But its aspect is not the most sensational thing about it. As you stand looking, all of a sudden the shining sky-blue water of the pool turns to white, snow-white; the richly-coloured incrustation now surrounds hillock upon hillock of struggling foam, first climbing, climbing up out of it, next apparently pulled strongly back from below: while, down that unbelievable stairway, a spasmodic cascade of the clearest water begins to pulse and spring towards and into the creek. Next moment, the hillocks subside, the cascade ceases; a veil of white vapour hangs gauzily before the face of the pool, then, rising, floats away among the manuka-sprays; and the green glen about the blue pool and glaring streak of colour is quiescent as before. Until, at the top of the cliff just across the creek—a cliff apparently composed of bosses of rose-pink coral—something else begins to happen. Out of a sideway fissure, first great fumy blue breaths come fitfully volleying: next, in the midst of them, sprays and fountains of clear water are tossed up, six feet perhaps into the air: they sparkle in the sun—they dwindle, fail—next they have vanished.”

Baughan’s muse deserted her after the first decade of the century. Never one to be idle, she threw herself into social work for the rest of her life, concentrating in particular on prison reform. She played a major role in the founding of the New Zealand branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform in 1924. Her extraordinary commitment extended to using her own home and income to shelter and assist ex-prisoners and other misfits. Her book People in Prison gave characteristically humane and affectionate portraits of some of the inmates she met, and scathingly criticized the retrograde stupidity of New Zealand’s penal system. Selections from People in Prison are included in this edition.

There has never been a selected edition of Baughan’s writings before. I hope this one will become the standard introduction to one of the exceptional personalities in our literary history.