Poems by Katherine Mansfield
Hot on the heels of my discovery of George Orwell’s poetry came the discovery that the wonderful prose stylist Katherine Mansfield was also a versifier – thanks to the fact that Michael Walmer has reprinted a beautiful collection of her poetry from 1923 and he’s been kind enough to provide a copy for review.
Collected by Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, after her death, the book also contains an introduction by him; and interestingly he states that little of her poetry was published during her lifetime – which is a shame. The book is divided into sections, covering verses from 1909-1910, 1911-13, “Poems at the Villa Pauline: 1916”, 1917-1919 and what are listed as “Child Verses: 1907”. Apparently, some of the most beautiful were refused by editors because they didn’t rhyme, and Murry implies that they straddle the line between poetry and prose. Well, whatever you class them as, they really are quite lovely!
O waters – do not cover me !
I would look long and long at those beautiful stars !
O my wings – lift me – lift me !
I am not so dreadfully hurt…
(From “The Wounded Bird” – 1919)
If there’s a running theme in Mansfield’s poetry, it certainly is one of melancholy and nostalgia. The verses reflect her longing for her homeland; they evoke her early life and her relationship with her beloved brother, Leslie, who was lost in the First World War; and a strong feeling for nature. The sea is a constant presence in her work, along with fantastic creations like “The Sea Child” and the Earth Child who features in the poem “The Earth Child in the Grass”, both of which works feature striking imagery.
Through many of the poems run Mansfield’s memories of New Zealand, appearing as almost a magical place; family and heritage are obviously important to her, and in fact Murry chose to dedicate the collection to Elizabeth von Arnim, Mansfield’s cousin.
So, as with Orwell, the question has to be asked as to whether Mansfield is as good a poet as a prose stylist, and I have to say that I think that’s not something that should even be considered. Certainly Mansfield’s poetry is often very beautiful and if read in isolation without knowledge of her prose would stand up in its own right. However, her prose was so perfect that there’s no point in trying to make comparisons of such different types of writing.
Mansfield’s life was a short one, blighted by her ongoing illness and the search for a cure. The pensive quality of many of the lyrics here can’t help but suggest that they reflect a side of Mansfield that’s not so obvious in her prose. She’ll always be remembered for her remarkably fine short stories, but “Poems” is a valuable addition to the canon of Katherine Mansfield’s work and most definitely deserves to be back in print in this beautiful hardback edition.
(Many thanks to publisher Mike Walmer for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)