Charles Brasch belonged to a generation of New Zealand poets who, rising to prominence in the 1940s, expressed anxieties that, while personal and pākehā (non-Maori), seemed endemic to both the nation and the century. They saw themselves as forging, through self-discovery, an identity for their colonial society.

Brasch was also a key figure in the development of the creative arts in New Zealand, through his founding (in 1947) and editorship for twenty years of the literary quarterly Landfall and his generous patronage of writers, painters, and musicians.

Born in Dunedin, into a prosperous commercial family, he spent decades evading a business career to find his own true mètier. His private quest – described in his memoir Indirections – took him to Egypt as a cadet archeologist; England as a history student at Oxford, teacher in Buckinghamshire, and wartime intelligence worker for the Foreign Office; and, for briefer periods, to Italy, Germany, and Russia.

Brasch’s early poems were among those forming the staple of Allen Curnow’s Caxton (1945, 1951) and Penguin (1960) anthologies of New Zealand verse. Predominantly elegiac in tone, they were freighted with white-settler consciousness of isolation and rootlessness in a land where “Lives like a vanishing night-dew drop away.” The longing was for a shared history, culture, and mythology, and for the less “shallow occupation” of the landscape of the Maori who “before us trod first the soil.” Through beautiful evocations of South Island settings, Brasch weds the human to place and time.

During the last decade of his life Brasch stripped his poetic style of any floridity, achieving a new directness, gauntness, and frankness. In concise language and tight structures, he celebrates physical love and anatomizes an aging self.

The one poem for which Brasch’s patrician voice is available to be heard is “Ben Rudd”, divided into ten sections, mostly in short rhymed and half-rhymed lines, but expanding into longer unrhymed lines in sections 6, 7, and 9. “No hermits have hallowed the hills”, Brasch had lamented in “The Silent Land”, but here a half-crazed Otago solitary, in a high-country hut, is given legendary status. Savouring the empathy in Brasch’s eloquent, measured delivery, the listener senses that in the reclusive old Ben, former gardener, farmer, and builder of stone walls, is invested something of the poet himself.

Recording from the Waiata New Zealand Poetry Sound Archive 1974.

Poems by Charles Brasch

Ben Rudd: Part 2 - Charles Brasch
Ben Rudd - Charles Brasch

Books by Charles Brasch