Tuesday, August 24, 2010

'Time' by Ursula Bethell

‘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.’

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 tending to plants. But it was more than practical or aesthetic. Her interest was driven by a sense of the enormity of time and space. Her poems have the backdrop of the sublime. She stops gardening work every now and then to look at the mountains, serene and timeless, backdrop to 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 must be seen in the context of the time (late 1920s). Most of her contemporaries tended to the sentimental or bombastic nationalism. Unlike many of her generation 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 have 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 way. 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!

Is this a New Zealand poem? I think the last line indicates it is. It’s a pioneering land – deserted houses and gardens. It’s also a very Canterbury poem representing the values of my upbringing. Time has moved on since Bethell wrote it; but it still rings bells in my soul.

More on Bethell here

This week's editor Harvey McQueen is a New Zealand poet and memoirist whose work - including This Piece of Earth: A Life in My NZ Garden (Awa Press) - often focuses on domestic life and the pleasures of a garden. He is also the editor of innovative poetry anthologies. A retired teacher, Harvey blogs regularly including a poem every Tuesday.  

More poems from our Tuesday Poets are in the live blog roll in the sidebar. 


Helen Lowe said...

As a gardener, with a garden where "white wisteria" also bursts "in the sunshine, from its pale green sheath" this poem definitely resonates.

You ask: "Is this a New Zealand poem?"

Given that she lived and wrote the poem in NZ, I am surprised that the question is even asked; do not need to reflect before saying, trying not to sound surprised, "Yes, of course. And isn't it great that there can be so much variety to what it means to be a NZ writer?"

Mary McCallum said...

I love the repetition, the openess of the lines - the way they dash on and don't end neatly. The marvellous: 'For I am fugitive, I am very fugitive ---' following on from 'quickly, quickly...'

I agree with you Helen about the kiwiness of this poem- but I think Harvey means could it have been written anywhere else... by an English Lake District gardener poet, perhaps... I guess it could, but it doesn't matter because, as you say, we know her to be gardening here. We know the view she speaks of and thanks to Harvey's commentary see more than that ....

One of the joys of the Tuesday Poem is the way the poems speak to each other... This poem talks wonderfully to the Robert Frost poem on T Clear's blog.

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

This week, an order of roses from Tasman Bay Roses arrived on my doorstep (very late in the season) and so I had not dug out the old roses I planned to replace. My daughter-in-law arrived on Saturday from Seoul and so with great delight she joined me in my overgrown neglected "there must have been a pretty garden here once" garden - and together we weeded and Jude dug the holes for me for the new roses - her second-only gardening experience and first time actually digging into rich dark earth - she was fascinated that the rose plants were just roots and stubby prickly stems without flowers - I have promised to send her photos when they flower.

Claire Beynon said...

I appreciate the sense of cycles that comes through in this poem, the 'go fast', 'go slow' exhortation.

Re; its identity, it seems to me a fine example of expressing the universal via the personal. This might be Ursula's garden but because she knows it so well, it becomes a global garden, the pale green sheath, the sunshine and view becoming sheaths, sunshine and a view we might any of us recognize, nod our heads to? Thank you Harvey. You've timed the posting of this poem perfectly, too, for both our Northern & Southern hemisphere poets. ( Transition time.)

lillyanne said...

What a lovely poem! I'm surrounded by garden poems at present - I've just been introduced to a very good one called THE SEED SHOP, by Muriel Stuart - I've put it up in the shed at our community gardens for other gardeners to enjoy. I think I'll put this one up too, next spring, when the wonderful lines about the white wistaria will have particular resonance in the UK. And I'd add to earlier comments: if it's a NZ writer, it's a NZ poem. Thanks, Harvey - Belinda

Janis Freegard said...

I like the way this poem addresses the future - someone else will get to enjoy the results of the gardener's labours; eventually the garden will become neglected. But the gardening's worthwhile anyway. It's an impatient and sad and joyful poem, all at once.

Helen Rickerby said...

I've long loved Ursula Bethell's poetry, particularly her garden poems. They are at accessible, but also rich and deep. Thanks for posting one of her poems Harvey.

AJ Ponder said...

ok love the poem, but couldn't help but notice wisteria is spelt wistaria - 2nd line second verse -
(ps I'll put that I love the poem in another psot so you can delete this one)

AJ Ponder said...

What a gorgeous poem, very nostalgic -- and what fabulous use of repitition, it's so hard to do well.

Mary McCallum said...

I won't delete your first comment Alicia because it's an interesting point. It seems that 'wistaria' is an alternative spelling, and it seems that's how Bethell spelt it! but hey, watch that word repetition...

Jane said...

She's amazing!!!