Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Homely Ghost by Marjory Nicholls

I shall come back
Very quietly, very softly,
A little brown shadow.

I shall not come
When the moon is white like a bone,
And the house-dogs howl.
Not on a dark night
With uneasy winds,
When the ivy scratches the window,
And the paper stirs on the wall.

I shall come back
In the Autumn,
In the early twilight.
I shall wear a russet cloak
And have a basket on my arm
With red apples and brown nuts in it,
And golden honey-comb.

I shall watch the children playing
And they will not be afraid.
The old woman will just walk past and nod;
Walk past, and into the beech-wood
With its coppery leaves on the ground,
And down by the pond, and the fields
With their big yellow ricks.

I shall pass the cottage-windows –
Those with red curtains and glinting with firelight.
I shall watch the blue smoke from the chimneys
And think of the groups around the fire.
Will any be thinking of me?
I don’t mind –
I am just a little brown shadow, flitting past.

Must I leave it?
Cold and alone, must I go
Through the wilds beyond Earth
To the courts where the white angels stand
August, majestic?

Be certain, I shall come back.

This Tuesday’s poem is a classic New Zealand poem by Marjory Nicholls from her collection Thirdly.

Born in 1891, Nicholls published three collections (A Venture in Verse, Gathered Leaves and Thirdly) and had poems published in The Spike, The Reporter, C.C. Review, the New Zealand Freelance, iThe Old Clay Patch anthology under her married name Marjory Hannah, and in Quentin Pope’s Kowhai Gold anthology. She lived and travelled widely overseas to England, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, New York and India, and married John Hannah. She died in a bus stop accident in 1930. Her last published poem appeared posthumously in the New Zealand Mercury, No. 1, 1933.

Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (PANZA) archivist Niel Wright, who republished her complete poems in two volumes through Original Books in 2009, says that ‘Nicholls was a leading New Zealand poet of the decade 1910-1920’. She was mentored by J H E Schroder who influenced among others Robin Hyde, Ruth Gilbert and Wright himself.

S. Eichelbaum stated in his foreword to Nicholls’s first volume: ‘Imaginative without being turgid, facile without being slovenly, Miss Nicholls’s verse has above all the rare distinction of a freshness and thoughtfulness, without which all verse is but body without spirit. These qualities should assure for it the warm welcome and appreciation which it certainly deserves.’

Nicholls was adept with the various rhyme schemes and dominant forms of the period, including the sonnet. She wrote beautiful poems on the changing seasons, New Zealand landscapes and the native flora and fauna of the bush. Her other subjects included domestic life, the Great War, fairy worlds, love, translations, local places she had been to (Mana, Wainuiomata) and dedications to, and observations of, people she had met. 

Some of her more memorable poems are only four lines: ‘Love in your life has flashed / Like water white down a fall - / Laughing, vivid and bright / But passing – and that was all.' (‘A Fleeting Gleam’, Wellington, 1913).

The poem I’ve selected here is ‘The Homely Ghost’ - a haunting poem that struck me at once. It almost seems prophetic in that the person in the poem, much like the poet, may come back. It certainly lives up to George Barker’s famous dictum that ‘Therefore all poems are elegies’. It seems fitting to publish it here as an introduction to her work.

Mark Pirie is Guest Editor for Tuesday Poem this week. He is an internationally published New Zealand poet, anthologist, literary critic, writer and publisher with a special interest in cricket poetry and 100 titles in the National Library. In 2010 he edited and published 'A Tingling Catch': A Century of New Zealand Cricket Poems 1864-2009.' Mark's anthology of New Zealand Science Fiction poetry, Voyagers (IP, Brisbane), co-edited with Tuesday Poet Tim Jones, won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Collected Work 2010. His publishing company is HeadworX Publishers. Mark also helped organise the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa (PANZA), and is responsible for updating the PANZA catalogue that has around 4,000 titles including the work of Marjory Nicholls. 

Publications by Marjory Nicholls:
A Venture in Verse (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1917).
Gathered Leaves (Whitcome and Tombs, 1922).
Thirdly (H.H. Tombs, 1930).
Complete Poems in two volumes (Original Books, 2009).

Further reading:
A reading of the Aotearoa poet Marjory Lydia Nicholls (1891-1930) : an essay by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Cultural and Political Booklets, 2001.
Notes on Marjory Lydia Nicholls complete poems by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Original Books, 2009.
J H E Schroder and the poetry of E. S. and Marjory Lydia Nicholls in C.C. Review : a report on research plus some original poems by F.W. Nielsen Wright, Cultural and Political Booklets, 2010.


Jennifer Compton said...

i have come upon this poem before and liked it but hadn't noticed or remembered who it was by so thanks for giving me another chance at it

Harvey Molloy said...

I love this poem, Mark. Revenants are fascinating. As you know, I have a particular interest in gothic and horror themes in poetry. I think that collections such as the SF poetry collection you edited with Tim Jones are valuable for allowing us to see the wide range of subjects in our poetry. What we need is an NZ gothic-horror poetry collection. Good choice.

Helen Lowe said...

Thank you for introducing me to this NZ poet, Mark, who I am ashamed to say I had not heard of before! Despite the strongly English flavour of the imagery and 'landscape'--I would not have guessed she was a poet from NZ if you had not said--the poem has considerable emotional power and is almost contemporary in feel with that abrupt last line.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is lovely - archaic, but not excessively. And a poet I hadn't come across before.

Poetry of the Day said...

i know this is a bit off, and random, but i was in the middle of reading this, and my media player started playing, Bob Seger - old time rock and roll. and like it took this eerie moment that i was deep into and added a kind of sideways humour to the piece. I chuckled to myself because it was just so opposite of what i was reading, as if the poem came to life and this song was playing on a woodgrain jukebox in some dark corner.

Poetry of the Day said...

would it be alright if i use this poest and link to it from my page. i really really liked it. ill give you the backlink for discovering it first!

- <3 Famous Poetry about life

Mary McCallum said...

Poetry of the Day - love your Bob Seger moment! We're happy for you to link to this post, and as the poet's work is now in the public domain you can use it on your blog too. She died in 1930, well over 50 years ago (the limit in this country.) If you quote Mark, you'll need to say so, and lovely if you could link to the Poetry Archive as well. (TP curator)