At the end of November, on Saint Andrew’s day, the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies held Dead Man’s Ember: a symposium to explore James K. Baxter’s imaginative engagement with the poetry and personality of Robert Burns. It was an encounter of two national bards: one confirmed as the national bard of Scotland with a legacy of several hundred years; the second, his successor and inheritor of his legacy, the closest equivalent in the literary tradition of New Zealand. This blog entry is a summary of my thoughts. It may prove to be inconclusive.
Professor Liam McIlvanney’s inaugural lecture several weeks previously had explored the idea that the Scottish emigrant diaspora had drifted away from its Calvinist roots (or perhaps it could be a Calvinist graft) where it had kept to a Christian faith. Burns and Baxter was part of that movement. I attended with the interest to explore with interest how this movement is described It is evident in the history of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand where callings of new ministers from Scotland, Ireland and England shifted from calling strict Calvinists to ministers of a more Evangelical or social-minded perspective.
Robert Burns was identified as Scotland’s national poet. Baxter is seen by some as having stepped into the same position for New Zealand. Moreover Baxter was raised learning the poetry of Burns from an early age, memorizing the poem Tam O’Shanter. Both railed against the small-minded hypocrisies of their age. Baxter accepted the position of Burns Fellow at Otago University with reluctance. He had a suspicion of academics. It was not until after the seminar that I was told that Burns Fellows need to apply for the position. Baxter retaliated against the position by writing bawdy poems in his books which Pr. McIlvanney is now discovering and interpreting with glee, erotica for Presbyterians and Pig Islanders.
Pig Island in Baxter’s poetry was his name for a mythical and colonised New Zealand. In an age of ‘civilised darkness’ the poet acts in a rearguard action as a subversive; or even as a terrorist?
It was during this period as Burns Fellow at Otago University that Baxter wrote the Ode to Mixed Flatting, his protest against the University’s position of keeping the sexes separate. The original cover shows the twin ancestral spirits of Dunedin: Calvin raises an admonishing finger, and Burns replies by giving him a two-fingered salute.
Baxter disliked Dunedin’s statue of Burns. The good citizens of Dunedin had Burns sitting on a stump waiting for the muse to inspire him. One speaker compared this to the statue of Burns at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney where Burns stands with his back to the embrace of his plough. Burns put together poetry as worked on his farm, inspiring the pace of his metre. In hindsight this may not be fair to the Dunedin statue as in the Archives Photograph Gallery No 20: “A Tourist’s View of Victorian London” includes a lantern slide image of the original statue by John Steell at the Victoria Embankment Gardens. According to a description on the Otago Sculpture Trust website he is composing the poem Thou Lingering Star to his lady love. No wonder he is looking to heaven for the right words.
He adopted of the language of the hippy generation, now anachronistic, to connect to a younger generation from whom he was becoming estranged. It reminded me of the essay Lurching Toward Jerusalem: Baxter and the Curse of Promise by Sam Tyler-Smith in the late journal Push: Occasional Papers in Theology and Religion Vol. 1 No. 3 November, edited by Mike Grimshaw of Canterbury University. The latest in a succession of cottage industry journals to do theology that the Archives Research Centre holds. In the essay Tyler-Smith argues that Baxter adopted the language of the Beat Poets without appreciating the self-destructive hold that addiction had over their lives.
Looking around it was ironic that the audience was made up of mostly poets, Presbyterians and academics. While Baxter’s poetry is still being uncovered and read it rescues him from becoming remembered only as the counter-cultural aesthetic of Jerusalem and his prayer Lord, Holy Spirit. He followed the drift away from Presbyterian church and found a spiritual home in Catholicism, a tradition that allows that if humanity is fallen it has not fallen into the total depravity of the Calvinists, instead allowing for human beings to find in themselves the means of grace. A brief look into the baptismal registers of Saddle Hill, Green Island and East Taieri finds no mention of the family names. Perhaps the family were already on a generational journey extracting themselves out of a spiritual tradition.
Baxter looked back to a Gaelic and Scottish identity, he did not find a niche for himself in urban Pakeha identity of his age; it is questionable if later generations have begun to find one. Instead he began to find his way into Maori culture and language, the tangata whenua. Burns may have been Scottish, he also saw himself as part of Britain, and part of a liberating heritage that was spreading across the world.
History is an inconclusive product. We do not look back to a golden age of a special province, nor to a dark age of Christian theocrats. Neither is our current secular age an age of enlightenment or hostility to religion. We are not a part of a struggle between conflicting principles, rather we have the opportunity to hold them together in a creative tension.
by Andrew Smith