The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1931
Seaforth Simpson Mackenzie
The position of Seaforth Mackenzie in New Zealand verse is a matter of individual judgment and taste, and in these matters one need not blush to differ from all the anthologists. His position, however, in New Zealand University song is not open to dispute. In that sphere, at any rate, his position is secure. In one department, the purely topical, he is, indeed, seriously threatened by another early "Victorian"—Siegfried Eichelbaum—but taken all in all he stands supreme. It is not inappropriate that "The Spike" should seek to revive his fame, for Mackenzie was an associate editor of 1903 and 1904, and he remains its brightest star. The foremost of three decades, decades which include Marjory Hannah and Eileen Duggan, is surely worthy of commemoration. It is a curious—and somewhat tragic—fact that, as far as one can discover, it was at Victoria College that all the best of Seaforth's work was done. The Editor-in-Chief of those days certainly not without egotism, claims more than his share of the glory. Day by day, in "Spike" and "Extravaganza," he drove the lotus-eater to transmute his poppy-petals into cloth-of-gold. That Editor was, in fact, wise enough to see that the reflected glory of "S.S.M." was more to be desired than any gold of his own alchemy. When Seaforth publishes his collected verse it is to be hoped he will be given grace in his dedication to return thanks for the importunities of nearly thirty years ago.
Seaforth's boyhood belongs to Canterbury; his School was the Timaru High School; his love—the wide spaces; his "country"—the Mackenzie Country; his favourite occupation—dreaming. From School he came to the Civil Service in Wellington, and so to Victoria College, then so new and all, with the whole of its life before it. Like Horace he was appointed to the Treasury, but he soon transferred to the Public Trust. The Public Trust Office in its pride to-day possibly forgets the years when its legal department was conducted by one old man and an appreciative boy, who answered to the name of Mackenzie. That boy, however, had one over whelming hatred, a dragon called "Routine," whose hours were 9 to 5, and it was this dragon which chivvied him into the practice of the law and thence to Australia and the farther horizon. What allurement drew him to the Crown Law Office of Victoria Pallas alone knows, but he was there when the first Expeditionary Force sailed for New Guinea. A law officer was wanted, and Seaforth stepped abroad, a full ready-made Colonel, Advocate-General of the troops. With Routine far astern and war his trade, the poet without doubt proved that the pen was as mighty as the sword. His service included a term as Chief Justice at Rabaul. It may be conjectured that he was the one Colonel of the whole army who served for the "duration" and never attended a parade or suffered a moment's discomfort. In due course, after demobilization, he became one of the team which wrote the story of Australia's part in the Great War. But Routine, following after—"deliberate speed, majestic instancy"—at last took him by the throat, and now, day by day, he sits dictating his obiter dicta—the practice and procedure of suits and pleas—Registrar of the High Court of Australia. "Sic transit musarum gloria."
Biographical details can only lie about such as Seaforth. Anyone might have become a junior clerk in the Public Trust Office in those days, anyone might have acquired merit by enrolling at Victoria College. Anyone, in fact, did. But there was only one Seaforth, and he was—perfectly unique. Did you want the latest story concerning the "uniqueness" of the Public Trustee? Seaforth knew it. Did you want a song for Capping? Nothing was simpler. You dogged him to his room; you told him what you wanted; you stoked his fire for him. You put pen and paper within reach. In fact, all you had to do was to make it easier for him to sir and write than to do anything else, and the task was done. Next morning you had "The Champion of Cram-0" or "The Sports' Chorus." I showed him the first verse of "The Final Chorus"; next morning Victoria College had a song which has already survived a quarter of a century. Did you want a verse for a "Heading"? Again yon sleuthed him with your line-block, page 30 murmured "Notes from other Colleges," and waited with a sure and certain hope. It might run like this:
"When the task is grey in the doing,
And heavy the load on the wain,
It heartens to see a yoke fellow
Brace shoulders that bunch to the strain,
To know the team's work is divided,
That taut is the leading-chain."
Great days for an editor when such things could be.
Of course, it was not all plain sailing. As no evening over the logs was complete without him you had to make the pathway to the hearthstone easier than some possible alternative. No trouble and no eloquence, however, was more richly rewarded. He would, perhaps, during a winter's night, give birth to four dicta, but each time his word would be the last. When Seaforth had sifted the talk of its wit and wisdom there was nothing more to be said. It was his genius for the right word, the inspired truth of his descriptions of men and things, which made memorable his Capping Songs and his topical prose and verse. His epithet was inevitable, like Eichelbaum's—and final. Things always seemed to come perfect from his loom. Time—nightime—meant little to him, and his critical faculty, on the literary side, never faltered. His criticism was devastating; his praise was generous; his condemnation—the finish. Seaforth knew.
We discovered him when he won the "Macmillan Brown" Essay Prize. Read again, ye who belong to the Clay Patch, "The Song of the Merchant Navy," read his "Ballad of the Golden Hind." Is it Kipling you hear? Perhaps. He was too receptive, too appreciative, too young, not to give back echoes of the great exemplars. Even in these early efforts it was Seaforth with an echo of Kipling, not Kipling with a suspicion of Sea- forth. In "Wanderlust" we see how quickly he was coming to his maturity, the maturity of his style. Even in 1904 he had written "An Appeal," which showed how finely his muse could adapt itself to a great moment. "An Appeal" was Sea- forth undiluted, without the "echoes" which belonged to 1903; 1904 was also the year of the "Ode" on the laying of the Foundation Stone of Victoria College. This is the most ambitious thing he attempted, and, if there is the touch of real greatness, it is there. He did catch the vision of a great University, a University belonging to and enriching a nation's life, a University whose "climbing spire" yearned towards truth alone. He saw it beautiful with the quiet beauty of common things; he saw it beautiful in the splendour of great tradition; he saw it beautiful above all with the beauty of young and glowing life:
"We will be of the world and feel its heart
Beat, and our own will beat in sympathy;
But we will keep a little space apart
And sown with rosemary, for our abode
Within the windows opening on the sea.
And if the dust be all about our tread
And white the glare along the climbing road,
Clear thought will come of how the East was red
With promise, and the lanes with blossom rife,
And fresh the dew upon the lawn of life."
I venture to think that if there are any great lyrics indigenous to New Zealand, this "Ode" is one of them. Its initial restraint, its breadth of movement, and its ordered rhythms swing together to a great ending. Its omission from the anthologies seems to proclaim limitations placed upon their compilers. Three pages is too much for any of them. "Idas," a rendering of one of the Eclogues of Calpurnius, is a little gem—perfect of its kind.
The years 1905 and 1906 found him more and more painting his canvasses from the life about him. These years are the critical ones—the fateful—and fatal—years. It is still possible that Victoria College shall have nourished at her bosom one of the great, a great interpreter of its county's beauty, an inspiration pointing her to ever-expanding greatness. "Lake Pukaki" reveals his power, "A Leaf from a Fly Book" reveals his devotion. Will this lover of our streams, our lakes, our mountains, this maker of dreams reach through them the spiritual altitudes which alone can raise him to the seats of the mighty? It is still possible. Who can interpret more perfectly the ideals of school and University? Who can sing braver songs? He is equipped with wide reading and quick intelligence. He has self- criticism and humour. Whither?
It was all decided by 1907—or before. "The Quest of the Sancgreal" tells the story, and "Carpite Florem," written a little earlier, hammers it home. Sir Galahad "shall not find the Grail." Don Quixote lies slain. Not "Altiora peto" is the chosen legend and Omar sits enthroned.
"Pluck the blowing flower
Before blown petals wilter past your power."
He can still write "A Ballade of the Year's End," but his poems are poems of "escape":
"Routine clogs fancy like a weed.
Unrest grows as a wind-sown seed
In places set for pleasantry."
The sterility of a double life has come upon him. Through youth you may sing, on winter nights, songs of battle from an armchair, but life demands that great thoughts shall have their counterpart in action. Intelligence to have true greatness must march with character. High art means high sincerity. Seaforth as an artist was sincere. When he decided that the mountain tops were, on the whole, uncomfortable, his selfcritical faculty, his humour, and his sincerity destroyed him. Seaforth as Sir Galahad was, in fact, absurd. It remains true that there are none among his contemporaries whose lives mean, and will mean; more to Victoria College than his. Such is the virtue of "a leaved rhyme." Considered, however, on the highest plane, we may, for a moment, mourn our own dreams of what-might-have been.
There still remained "The Crossroads" and "The Blue Waters of Forgetfulness," sonnets of disillusion, but very redolent of the old Seaforth we loved.
"If in the leisure that will fill thy life
Some turn of old-time speech should touch thy thought,
Bid it go by—unless it should bring thee
The sense of summer, when the bees were rife
Among the wild flowers . . . ."
When Miss B. E. Baughan read "The Old Clay Patch" she exclaimed, "How delightfully young."
Perhaps it is as well for Seaforth that he did not "grow up." For us he remains like Peter Pan, always young. And what greater gift can anyone give to his generation than the gift of eternal youth? One thing only. Youth is beautiful, not me re/y for its perfection, but for its promise. Promise implies purpose, and faith. When purpose and faith fail the petals wilter. Alas! Where are we to find the great—those great enough for life and happiness among the peaks?
It cannot be claimed of Seaforth Mackenzie that his "carnival" poetry was original in a high constructive sense. In the Extravaganzas with which he was associated, however, his work was superlatively good. He saw and seized the idea presented to him with the whole dramatic situation, and when his interpretation was complete it possessed the higher attributes of a glorious resurrection. The "Opening chorus" of "The Golden Calf" is a great example of the height which Carnival literature may attain. In his treatment of nature, however, there was something peculiarly his own, something of the originality which borders on genius. How high does this place him on the roll of fame? Certainly he must bow before the inspiration and purpose of Jessie Mackay. Miss Baughan has a greatness of soul and a mastery of characterisation which makes her place secure upon Olympus. Seaforth I would place above all the rest. He has a quality which compels the listener, a quality of note which transcends, it seems to me, that of all the songsters except Jessie Mackay. However his talents may be rated, however, they were expended generously for Victoria College, and his contribution to our corporate life has brought more honour to our name than all the examination lists of thirty years.