Singer in a Songless Land (1992)

Landfall 181 (March 1992)

K. R. Howe, Singer in a Songless Land: A Life of Edward Tregear, 1846-1931 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1991), 241 pp, $39.95; The Verse of Edward Tregear, ed. K. R. Howe (Nagare Press, Palmerston North, 1989), 140 pp.

Kerry Howe: Singer in a Songless Land (1991)

Tregear was a significant New Zealander, not just as an archetypal figure for the themes in New Zealand history alluded to in the Prologue, but as a contributor, a shaper, a singer, notably in the two, and perhaps only two, substantive socio-intellectual traditions we have given the world: interpreting Maori/Polynesian culture and history, and conceptualising and administering the moderate, paternal state. Those who ponder, if only briefly, developments in these traditions will quickly come to the name of Edward Tregear.

This passage, taken from the Epilogue to Kerry Howe’s new life of Edward Tregear, Singer in a Songless Land (the ‘major biography’ promised on the back of his earlier edition of Tregear’s Verse), already gives us a number of different ways of assessing both the book and its subject. For the literary reader, there is Tregear the ‘singer’, author of the much-anthologised ‘Te Whetu Plains’ and a number of other poems resurrected from obscurity by Howe. For students of early New Zealand welfare legislation and labour relations, there is Tregear the civil servant and Wellington insider. And, finally, for those interested in the European scholarly tradition of ‘interpreting Maori/Polynesian culture and history’, there is Tregear the co-founder and editor (1892-1900) of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, as well as author of The Aryan Maori (1885), The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (1891), and The Maori Race (1904). Howe is, however, careful to say in his Prologue that he hopes ‘readers will not simply focus on any particular chapters which, for purely organisational reasons, are devoted to some of these specific interests. Tregear’s activities can readily be compartmentalised, but to examine them as discrete items divorced from the whole is unsatisfactory since one all-embracing theme seems to run throughout his life, and it is central to this study’. He goes on to specify that this theme is Tregear’s struggles ‘with a series of emotional and intellectual colonising processes – I mean colonising in the sense of discovering, defining, examining, interpreting, understanding, occupying, organising, possessing, controlling; in a word, domesticating’.

That is rather a lot of different meanings for ‘colonising’. Along with Miles Fairburn’s ‘already indelible historical paradigm [from The Ideal Society and Its Enemies (1989)] of the “atomised” and “bondless” colonial society, characterised by physical isolation and loneliness, and its eventual replacement ... of [by?] a centralised, bureaucratic “State” community and mass culture’ – the ‘themes in New Zealand history’ referred to in the quotation above – Tregear’s life seems to be taking on almost too great a weight of significance. Happily, the body of the biography is largely free of such rigid schematization – the mercurial Tregear’s activities and achievements take up quite enough space on their own. Nevertheless, the question of the audience for whom all this admittedly fascinating information is intended still remains unanswered.

As a literary figure, Tregear certainly does not justify attention on this scale. His verse is interesting and, in its way, accomplished, but it is too naked an account of his emotional life to be finally separable from the individual who composed it (this Howe seems to acknowledge by presenting the texts of Tregear’s poems in as ‘archaeological’ a fashion as possible – with the original erratic capitalization, punctuation and spelling – despite the fact that a nineteenth century writer like ‘E. T.’ would have expected them to be tidied up even for posthumous publication). As a labour legislator and administrator, whether justly or unjustly, he stands in the shadow of William Pember Reeves and Dick Seddon. As a Polynesian scholar and linguist, John White, Percy Smith, and Elsdon Best have all achieved greater recognition: Howe quotes at length from A. S. Atkinson’s hilarious 1886 review of Tregear’s The Aryan Maori, entitled ‘The Aryo-Semitic Maori’, where Tregear’s own techniques of comparative philology are used to trace the origin of the expression ‘a cock and bull story’ to the Maori word kakapo. The attack may not have made Tregear retreat into silence on the subject of the Maori race’s ‘Indo-European’ origins – one of the best things in Howe’s book is, in fact, the way in which he has demonstrated his subject’s emotional dependence on establishing some such link between his native Cornwall and this new-found ‘songless land’ – but it has had a bad effect on his subsequent reputation. He has indeed, as Howe puts it, ‘long since faded from the collective memory of the nation’.

If, however, the principal intention of Howe’s biography is to reinstate this ‘forgotten man’ (the title of Basil Clarke’s 1961 radio documentary on Tregear) in the ‘collective memory of the nation’ – as opposed to the ‘footnotes of scholars and the theses of students’ – then he has chosen a perhaps unduly academic tone of voice. This common reader, at any rate, would have welcomed a more expansive account of Tregear’s early life (the latter half, as scholar and civil servant in Wellington, is documented in almost wearisome detail). One certainly appreciates the difficulty of the task. The Tregear family’s ‘years in total obscurity at Warkworth’, referred to in the Introduction to the Verse, prove (when one turns to the biography), to be exactly that – ‘Why the Tregears went there is unknown’ (p.15). Nor is there much information to be found on his life as a pioneer land surveyor (Howe informs us in the notes to Chapter 1 that much of the material on Tregear in C. A. Lawn’s Pioneer Land Surveyors of New Zealand (1977) is ‘suspect’). The acknowledged importance of these years for the formation of his character might, however, have justified more of a ‘Life and Times’ approach, along the lines of the very useful account of mid-century trends in comparative mythology and linguistics given by Howe in Chapter 2. One feels both for Howe and his subject as the long litany of fires (the 1906 Whitcombe and Tombs Building Fire, destroying the archives of the Polynesian Society (p.156); the Hope Gibbons Building fire, destroying the archives of the Department of Labour (p.86)), and dispersals of papers weakens Tregear’s hold on history – ‘You would never, dear one, unless you became a millionaire ... and could employ a corps of secretaries – be able to gather together even a part of your poor Dad’s literary work’, he wrote to his daughter in 1918. But more licence in speculation and provision of background might have filled in at least some of these gaps.

Enough of carping, though. The merits of this book, as it stands, are so undeniable that it risks attracting a chorus of indiscriminate praise. I have therefore thought it permissible to question whether it is not really, in essence, too ‘popular’ an account of Tregear’s career to justify the list of theoretical claims made in Howe’s Prologue and Epilogue; and – by the same token – whether it is enough simply to provide a Bibliography of works which would provide background on Tregear’s experience of the New Zealand wars, pioneer land surveying, and the early settlements he lived in, when many of the book’s potential audience (including myself) do not have these details at our fingertips. Singer in a Songless Land will rapidly become a Bible for students of Tregear and the two ‘substantive socio-intellectual traditions’ of nineteenth century New Zealand – its only failing, in fact, is that it is too short. One doubts that there is much more to discover about Edward Tregear himself, but his milieu remains exotic and intriguing.


Landfall: A New Zealand Quarterly 181 (1992): 122-25.

[1261 wds]

Landfall 181 (March 1992)

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