Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

‘Fond Human Enclosures’: Gardening and Belonging in Bethell’s from a Garden in the Antipodes

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

‘Fond Human Enclosures’: Gardening and Belonging in Bethell’s from a Garden in the Antipodes

Article excerpt

Ursula Bethell's unassuming collection of poems, From a Garden in the Antipodes, depicts a literature and nation in flux through the central image of the garden. This will not be surprising to anyone who has owned a garden; they exist always in a state of transition, changing from and into. Gardening is a way of negotiating a relationship with an environment, but writing about gardens has also tended to involve negotiating what Benedict Anderson has described as the nation's 'imagined political community'.1 This article views the garden image as part of a wider colonial effort by early New Zealand poets to characterise the landscape, and considers how the tropes involved in that effort are, in the poetry of Bethell, turned towards a more personal politics of belonging. Breaking new ground in the fledgling identity of early twentieth century New Zealand, Bethell's garden institutes a new relationship with, and language of, antipodean home.

The cultural tradition that saw Shakespeare represent England as an island garden in Richard IFs John of Gaunt's 'sceptred isle' speech,2 and which Lynn Staley has traced back to Gildas in the sixth century,3 persisted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the belief that gardens were a part of what it meant to be English. Anxieties about industrialisation, and a fast-changing English landscape, led to the garden figuring as an image of retreat or as a utopian alternative.4 Moving from Richard II, to William Mason's 1772-1781 The English Garden, to examples in Kipling and Ruskin, Anne Helmreich argues that 'the notion that the garden embodied Englishness reverberated at the turn of the [twentieth] century'.5 The Empire seemed to present an opportunity to make this utopian vision a reality by preserving the integrity of an ever-more crowded Britain, while also, in the words of contemporary historian James A. Froude, allowing to 'grow up, under conditions the most favourable which the human constitution can desire, fresh nations of Englishmen'.6

Green fingers were part of Britain's cultural legacy to New Zealand and, in the new country, they found regular use. Early settlers to some parts of the country were struck by the emptiness of the landscape, others by its astonishing variety and the density of the bush. Lord Lyttleton noted that for early settlers 'fond of the picturesque' the Canterbury landscape 'often at first sight seemed exceedingly repulsive', while others found the plains 'monotonous in the extreme'.7 To mitigate this, and to impress a specifically English mark on the colony, settlers turned to gardens. By putting their hands into the soil, they imposed order upon it. Gardens were a way of taming the land, appealing 'to biblical injunctions to improve and restock the earth with useful plants'.8 For other gardeners, and chroniclers, like New Zealand settler Adela Stewart, gardens fulfilled 'the need to wall herself off from the vast ferny lands and her fear of the "practically unlimited Pacific ocean, quite lifeless" by enclosing herself in a highly charged, private world of European and British-style beauty'.9 The garden could thus offer an escape in its enclosure or, in its cultivation, a means of ordering the alien landscape of early New Zealand into something more familiar. In each case, gardens became inscribed with British settlers' ambitions, their doubts and fears.

This inscription is also seen in the effort of literary-minded settlers to shape national narratives through poetic gardens. In the nineteenth century, poets tended to take one of two tacks: depicting the country as primitive and in need of being brought to heel, or emphasising its exoticism. The former is exemplified by William Golder's 1867 poem 'The New Zealand Survey', which made the case for colonial expansion on the basis of Māori failing 'to improve / In cultivation's art, or ev'n t' extend / Their labours more than served a present need'.10 While Golder's poem has earlier prototypes,11 his focus on the land, and his choice of its cultivation as the barometer of civilisation, reflects the legal basis of New Zealand's colonisation as well as presaging early poets' enthusiasm for garden images. …

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