‘I believe I was at that time the only girl in all Taranaki who ever wrote a line.’
Emily Harris’s words, written years after the events they describe, are still electrifying. A young woman, writing poetry, in wartime Taranaki? Who knew. She goes on: ‘I did write some verses in the evening but never showed them to him.’ He was Captain Thomas Miller of the 12th Regiment, escorting Emily to the garden dell of the badly damaged house at Glenavon on the Waiwhakaiho River to pick flowers. She didn’t show him the poem she wrote but (hallelujah!) she wrote it out for us:
Lines Written on Visiting Glenavon during the War 1860. Oh! I could sit and gaze for hours, Musing alone Upon thy lovely blooming flowers Dreaming that fairies in their bowers First tinted them. Or on that tiny winding stream O’er grown with weeds That erst would gaily flash and gleam Like silver neath the golden beam Of summer’s sun. Or upward turn my wondering eye Above the trees, To watch the gauzy clouds float by A snowy veil athwart a sky Of deepest blue.
The poem continues, an elegy for Glenavon but also for her brother Corbyn, killed on the beach at Waitara three months earlier. No other 19th century poem we’ve come across uses a five-line stanza in which three lines employ identical rhyme and the other two lines do not rhyme at all. Are the short, percussive, unrhymed lines (‘O’er grown with weeds,’ ‘Of summer’s sun’) pointers to the unsettling effects of grief? She doesn’t say so, but the flowers picked in the dell are for Corbyn’s grave at St Mary’s in New Plymouth. The voice is lyrical, concentrated on its patterning of experience and what is to be taken from experience (‘Above the trees,’ ‘Of deepest blue’). We must realise for ourselves that the young woman in the dell with the red-coated soldier is dressed in deep mourning for her brother. Like the black edges on Victorian stationery for use by mourning relatives, the poem is edged with personal sadness though its sympathies are on the surface general and expressive of communal grief. Emily’s poem, singular and perfectly attuned to its occasion, comes to us across a gulf of almost 160 years as fresh and urgent as the day it was written. A young woman, writing poetry, in wartime Taranaki? Why not.
This is why we have dedicated ourselves to recovering Emily’s story and (if possible) more of her poems than the 10 presently archived in her papers. Two years ago we published the texts of her 1860-63 letters and diary excerpts to get her remarkable voice into the world again. Now, with a new set of contextual notes, we present the 11 letters and two poems on our research website. We’ve called it Writing Lines: Emily Harris Letters and Diary Excerpts 1860-1863. The notes benefit from our contact with other researchers who have given us access to valuable information. Ian leader-Elliott’s investigation of the life and works of radical feminist Eliza Mary King throws light on Emily’s glance at her employer’s sister. Who can doubt that of the ‘five venturesome women in a bullock cart’ headed for Glenavon that day in November 1860, it was Mrs EM King Emily was writing of when she told her aunt Emma Jane Hill in England: ‘Before leaving town it was rumoured that a large body of W— were advancing and we were entreated not to go, but we had grown so incredulous about reports that we paid no attention to it except one lady sent for her husband’s revolver and which I think she would have used with effect if necessary.’ (8 Dec 1860) Tony Marshall’s research into the Tasmanian and Melbourne years of Captain Henry Butler Stoney, 40th Regiment, is key to our better understanding of one of the other British officers who accompanied the women to Glenavon. When we discovered that Stoney’s 1861 novel Taranaki: A Tale of the War is a thinly disguised roman à clef featuring the Glenavon families, we realised that Emily was not the only writer taking in details of the ruined farm that day. These are the joys of unfolding research and the connections to be made. Emily’s lines bring with them a vanished world we are slowly coming to understand. Five venturesome women in a bullock cart. Why not.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis