Our Featured Poem this week brings us to the Cashmere Hills of Christchurch, New Zealand with Ursula Bethell’s Pause.
Born in Surrey in 1874, Bethell’s family moved to her father’s native New Zealand when she was just a year old although she would later return to Oxford as a student. She also attended a Swiss finishing school before returning to New Zealand and devoting herself to charitable work in 1892.
She later studied painting in Geneva and music in Dresden, working for a time as a social worker in London with the Anglican organisation Women Workers for God, or the “Grey Ladies” as they were known.
Bethell returned to New Zealand permanently in 1919, settling in the Cashmere Hills near Christchurch with Effie Pollen, thought to be her lover.
It was not until after Pollen’s death in 1934 that Bethell began to write poetry in earnest. Much of her work is inspired by her garden and the landscape in which she lived. The poet Vincent O’Sullivan recalled that Bethell seemed surprised that people admired her “garden poems”.
Poet and journalist Walter D’Arcy Cresswell claimed that in literary terms, “New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered … until Ursula Bethell ‘very earnestly digging’, raised her head to look at the mountains.”
Although much of her work appeared under the pseudonym Evelyn Hayes (inspired by a great-great-grandfather from Cork, who was deported for life for attempted abduction of a Quaker heiress) Bethell was very influential.
By the 1920s, she was writing more deliberate, intellectually adventurous poems and surrounded by a circle of interesting people including artists, poets, the crime writer Ngaio Marsh, essayist MH Holcroft and the musician Frederick Jospeh Page.
Bethell passed away in Christchurch in 1945.
When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing
I think how freely the wild grasses flower there,
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges,
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps,
Pioneer plants on those uplands find their own footings
No vigorous growth, there, is an evil weed:
All weathers are salutary.
It is only a little while since this hillside
Lay untrammelled likewise,
Unceasingly swept by transmarine winds.
In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,
The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.