Writing Lines: Emily Harris’s Taranaki War

Writing Lines: Emily Harris’s Taranaki War
Michele Leggott

Presentation for The New Zealand Polymath: Colenso and His Contemporaries, a Stout Centre conference at Victoria University of Wellington, 16-18 Nov 2016. First publication Journal of Poetics Research 07 (Sept 2017). https://web.archive.org/web/20191224105736/http://poeticsresearch.com/article/michele-leggott-writing-lines/

1. Getting going

I was born in Taranaki and grew up there, living in Stratford, then Urenui and New Plymouth. I left home when I was 18 to begin an Arts degree at Canterbury, and the rest is history. But it troubles me that I knew so little of the bitter racial conflict that swarmed over the coastal plains of Taranaki in the 1860s and has never really gone away. Unsettled, bumpy ground beneath the surfaces we walked or drove over a hundred years later.

What to do? I constructed a dual drive work, imagining a female ancestor, Dorcas Carrell, reading accounts of the Taranaki war in newspapers that I was reading a century and a half later. Dorcas was the sister of my great-great-grandfather. She was 24 in 1860 and had recently arrived in Lyttelton from Dublin with her gardener husband. The couple had no children and I invented for Dorcas a rich life as the compiler of a herbarium and the maker of little booklets (fascicles) for her many nieces and nephews.

Dorcas understood war. Her father was a soldier in the British army before he was court-martialled for stealing company pay. Now in this new land the old spectres were rising again. What was that like? She couldn’t see the places described by the war correspondents, but I knew them, or thought I did. Waitara. Waireka. Puketakauere. Huirangi. Mahoetahi. Te Ārei. Pukerangiora. Places where men stood or fell, smoke wreathing above river valleys, the ground planted with lead.

Then there was my young writing self, just over the hills in Christchurch, on ground that would one day shake a city to pieces. Dorcas and I became a ghostly duo. She showed me the contours of her new life, its worries and disasters, her channelling of the conflict raging over the plains 500 miles to the north. I tried to imagine what she might have written in her little booklets, the ones she made for her own writing. I was thinking of Emily Dickinson, writing into hand-made booklets (fascicles) in Massachusetts in the 1860s, removed from but not unaffected by the Civil War raging in the south.

I found I couldn’t write poems for Dorcas, but I repurposed some of my own early writing from the Christchurch years, remembering a time when I stood on the Summit Road at dawn and knew I was dancing on the rim of an old volcano. It seemed like a fair exchange.

I made sure that one of Dickinson’s most celebrated poems was present in my phantasmagoric version of a colonial woman’s experience on the outskirts of Empire. It is a poem about art, about war, and about the terror of the woman artist who finds herself possessed by the eruptive violence of her art.

Here is a transcription of the handwritten text as it appears in Dickinson’s fascicle, sprightly with dashes, capitalisations and idiosyncratic line breaks:

My life had stood – a

Loaded Gun –

In Corners – till a Day

The Owner passed – identified –

And carried Me away –


And now we roam in

Sovreign  Woods –

And now we hunt the Doe –

And every time I speak

for Him

The Mountains straight – reply –


And do I smile, such

Cordial Light

Upon the Valley glow –

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let its pleasure through –


And when at night – Our

good Day done –


I guard My Master’s Head –

‘Tis better than the Eider –


Deep Pillow – to have shared –


To foe of His – I’m deadly

Foe –

None stir the second time –

On whom I lay a Yellow

Eye –

Or an Emphatic Thumb –


Though I than He – may

longer live


He longer must – than I –

For I have but – the power

to kill,

Without  –   the power    to die –

2. Enter Emily Harris

But I didn’t need to invent the witnessing Dorcas of 1860. She existed already, and closer to home ground than I could have imagined.

I was reading the old newspapers, looking at accounts of the death of Taranaki militiaman Hugh Corbyn Harris, 25, who was collecting firewood for the army kitchens when he was shot in ambush on the beach at Waitara on 28 July 1860. Harris’s body was brought back to New Plymouth not by the paddle-steamer that usually made the run but in a boat sent to Waitara for the purpose. The weather was unusually fine, and the town turned out to meet the returning boat and begin preparations for burial.

Corbyn Harris was the only son of Edwin Harris, one of the original Taranaki settlers, and his loss was the latest in a string of ruinous events that dogged the Harris family throughout their colonial existence. Edwin was also an artist and surveyor. Some of his work survives in the collections of Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth. The same museum holds paintings and manuscripts by Emily Cumming Harris, Edwin’s daughter and Corbyn’s sister, and it was while rummaging through an inventory of Emily’s papers that I saw something that brought me up short.

Art historians are aware of Emily Harris’s contribution to botanical painting in the 1880s and 1890s, and plenty of attention has been paid to her lively, insightful journals from the same period. But there is an item at Puke Ariki described as ‘family letters 1860-63.’ A 23-year-old Emily might be something to look at, I thought.

When the material arrived from Puke Ariki Emily stepped into focus. ‘New Plymouth, Dec. 5th 1860. My dear Mamma,’ she began:

I have just returned from spending the evening at the Standishes with papa who has been paying a farewell visit, he expects the Airedale in tomorrow. I hope not, I should like to have him one day longer. I think I shall be very desolate when he has gone, the last link of the family chain so roughly severed, but do not think I am giving way or repining, I am more likely to take the other extreme and effect a gaiety I do not feel or drown care in dissipation, for Mrs Des Voeux has been very gay lately and as I am like the active verb to be and to do, I am too necessary an appendage to be left out.

Emily is in New Plymouth, writing to her mother and sisters in Nelson, where her father expects to join them when the mail steamer Airedale departs next day. She is behind the lines of the entrenched town, employed as lady companion to the rather unlikeable Mrs Catherine Des Voeux and as general dogsbody to the Des Voeux family. The letter goes on to outline a recent excursion Emily, Mrs Des Voeux and others have made to the Des Voeux property at Glenavon on the northern side of the Waiwhakaiho River. ‘Five venturesome women in a bullock cart,’ as she tells it, escorted by Captain Des Voeux and some dashing officers from the British ranks.

Emily doesn’t make too much of the officers in her letter home, dwelling instead on the details of picnicking in the partly destroyed houses and gardens at Glenavon. But she tells the story again in a letter to her aunt Emma Hill in Cornwall dated December 8th 1860, prefacing her account of the visit with its grim context: ‘In war time we feel very acutely every thing is so uncertain. You part perhaps from a friend with a careless smile and a few hours after you may look upon his lifeless corpse.’ Her writing is vivid and attentive to detail: ‘It was a lovely day and only those who have been shut up for months in a town almost in a state of siege can imagine how delightful it was to breathe again the pure air of the country.’ Beyond the letter to Aunt Emma is a long passage headed up ‘Notes’ and beginning: ‘I add a few notes from memory. I did not see Glenavon again for many years and then it was a perfect ruin so that I look back with interest to every incident connected with that visit.’

Several factors interrupt the flow of data from this other place (Taranaki) and time (1860). First, I am reading Emily’s letters from images of two hand-bound booklets she has made for the purpose of copying out her wartime writing. Second, she has just announced a long perspective on the events of that springtime day. Third, she now gives another and much fuller account of the ramble to Glenavon and the impact it made on her. Into frame comes the handsome Captain Miller, who accompanies her to the garden dell to pick flowers before the party leaves.

I had often [been] warned [by] Mr Des Voeux not to go into the dell, for fifty natives might be in ambush there, but now all thought of danger had flown. I went on very quickly because I wanted to go all over it. Picking a flower here and there making a few remarks and lamenting the weeds that had grown so high, we came to one small open space, in the middle of which grew a pink hawthorn in full bloom. I had often seen the tree but not the flower, my exclamations of surprise and delight and efforts to reach the blossom made my companion smile, he got some of the flowers for me, we stayed a few minutes it was a lovely spot, beautiful ferns and native shrubs growing all round.

You should have brought a pencil and paper and written some lines here, he said. Strange to have said that to me, I believe I was at that time the only girl in all Taranaki who ever wrote a line.

I did write some verses in the evening but never showed them to him.

This is ground zero. Emily Harris writes lines behind the lines about going beyond the lines. She knows she is singular and will not show her verses to just anyone. Now, years after the events it describes, she copies out the poem she wrote that day, and we, her audience, catching up at last, have all the contexts we need to read it.

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.


But now my stay so short so brief

                   I may not pause,

To linger o’er one bud or leaf

Or twine one fair or fragrant wreath

                   With thy sweet flowers.


One rapid glance around me cast

                   Noting the trace

Of River’s step I onward passed

With painful thought that t’were the last

                   For years perchance.


Sweet Peace we little knew how dear

                   Thou wert to us.

Until we mark’d the widow’s tear

And saw extended on his bier

                   One gone for ever.


Oh! we may learn to wear a smile

                   And heedless laugh

Twill but the careless eye beguile

For still we feel beneath the wile

                   A mournful heart


One hour can loosen War’s red hands

                   And set him free

But grey exiles in many lands,

Can tell how hard to clasp the bands

                   Strife once has severed.

3. Noting the trace

There is something very interesting going on in this poem. Each of its eight stanzas rings one persistent rhyme. Hours, flowers bowers. Stream, gleam, beam. And so on, darkening as the buried grief begins to surface. But it’s what is going on in the other lines of each stanza that should make us stop and listen again. For those lines, second and fifth of each five-line stanza, do not rhyme. They are short, two-beat phrases that punctuate or puncture or otherwise interrupt the sweet chiming of the four-beat lines around them. I’m not an expert on 19th century prosody, but I’ve never seen a poem with this percussive, unrhyming pattern breaking out from its tetrameter form. When I look again at the short, two-beat lines, I hear some of them straining to become three beats, another breaking of pattern and form. When I reach the fifth stanza, I encounter a two-beat line that seems to express what Emily and her poetry (and poets before and since) do best: noting traces of time past in time present:

One rapid glance around me cast

                                    Noting the trace

            Of River’s step I onward passed

            With painful thought that t’were the last

                                    For years perchance.

She is not Dickinson, but she is our Emily, writing as many women did on folded pages that became letters, taking it further as perhaps other women did in making small booklets (fascicles) for their personal writing. And perhaps more women than we suspect wrote poems in this way and in such fascicles. Dickinson sent her poems to friends and family, copying a poem from her manuscript books and selecting from the variant words and phrases on view at the foot of the fair draft. We could say that this was the publication she desired, an audience with all the clues and contexts. We could say that Emily Harris exhibits a similar behaviour and start looking for the letters she sent to friends and family in order to find more of her poems. If those letters have disappeared, at least we have this singular, carefully archived instance of her young poetry and can be sure that it was one of many that reached its intended audience.

I want to end with part of a homage to Emily Harris, whose writing is helping me understand more about female inscription of the place I come from. The piece is called ‘Emily and Her Sisters,’ and is full of voices from her archive, voices that will (I hope) lead to further discoveries as we continue our searches. This section of the poem commemorates the baby girl who was born and died on the Harris’s journey to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1841. It imagines the lost child escorting her dead brother from Waitara to New Plymouth on that bright winter morning in July 1860.

A fine girl

She is always there, the fine girl born on the boat and taken from them five days later. There, did you not hear, they are conveying our darling to the deep. Back she swims and never leaves off calling to us, mirthful, tantalising, one who knows the next step and the one after that. One who was on the beach at Waitara and when he wouldn’t listen flung herself between his head and the bullet. A fine girl following the shell back to town through rippling winter sunlight, crying like a gull in the jade green waves. She is another watercolour. She is a covered cup. Bindweed, mānuka, native bluebell. Mama temporises. I long to take a walk with the dear children. The forest is behind me and the sea in front, but I dare not venture in the former for fear of losing myself and the beach is often too exposed to high winds making us almost blind with the iron sand and the great waves dashing against the rocks. Then she has more courage. I have seen a beautiful waterspout and the whales sometimes but not often. She is always counted, the fine girl lost on the outward voyage.


‘Continuation of Journal of Events.’ Taranaki Herald. 4 August 1860: 2. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TH18600804.2.4 Web.

Dickinson, Emily. Poems: Packet XXIV, Fascicles 40 (part) and 34 (part). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862-1864. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. (131a) My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -, J754, Fr764. http://www.edickinson.org/editions/2/image_sets/75410 Web.

Harris, Emily Cumming. Manuscript copies of letters and diary entries Sept 1860-Mar 1863. Copying date unknown. Puke Ariki Museum and Libraries, New Plymouth, NZ. ARC2002-190. Box 2, folder 5.

Leggott, Michele. ‘The Fascicles.’ Cordite Poetry Review 51 (August 2015). Trans-Tasman Issue. http://cordite.org.au/chapbooks-features/the-fascicles/ Web.

‘Emily and Her Sisters.’ Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 3 [Issue 51] (2017): 122-26. Print.