Monday, May 9, 2022

Ursula Bethell*

Ursula Bethell (1874—1945) is a New Zealand poet whose legacy lives on. She was born in England, moved to Christchurch in her childhood, and seemed to alternate her residence between New Zealand and England every few years. This was before such journeys were simplified by air travel. In the late 1890s she studied music and painting in Geneva, but chose instead a career in social work, particularly with the Anglican church.

Her poetry didn’t arise until her years of settled life beginning in 1924, when she and a friend bought a bungalow together, and she worked to establish its garden. She wrote a total of only three collections ― although for several years the work of another poet had been thought to be the early writing of Ursula Bethell.

Bethell’s poetry does live on. One of her clearer faith-declarations “At the Lighting of the Lamps” has been set to music by the “Ursula Bethell writer in residence at the University of Canterbury” Philip Norman for the Christchurch City Choir.
-----“Were you not wont, early illumined Christians,
-----To sing, at the time of lamp-lighting, hymns of confident praise?...
-----Because the All-wise, All-merciful, All-compassionate
-----Father of Lights, in whom is no shadow of turning,
-----Has laid the foundations of all universes secure…”

The following poem, which expresses her generation’s attitude concerning appropriate Sunday behaviour, appeared in From a Garden in the Antipodes (1929, Sidgwick & Jackson).


A fine day, but one for reasoned abstention.
Tempt me not sturdy mattock, nor you, cunning trowel,
Nor you, keen-edged secateurs!
Perhaps with finger and thumb one might venture?
But no! desist now, you scheming brain-cells,
And rest, hand, primeval tool.
Rather, recumbent on this sunny grass-slope,
My mind shall meditate upon divine husbandry,
And ponder emblems, allegories, parables —
The vine, the scattered seed, the threshing flail.
And think of peace flowing like that mighty river
And justice, standing fast like those great mountains,
And for similitude of the soft blue above me
Pitifulness. Tender mercy.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about Ursula Bethell: first post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.