Friday, 19 February 2010

Ranulf and Amohia: "an embarrassment that no one knows what to do with"

Alfred Domett's epic poem, Ranulf and Amohia, exists as a curio in New Zealand literature, a monumental work penned by an intimate contemporary of Robert Browning that gathered fulsome praise when published in its various editions, but is these days more likely to be referred to in tones of sarcasm or exasperation.

Patrick Evans, in the 1990 Penguin History of New Zealand Literature, described it as being like "a stranded whale, the poem lies rotting on the beach of New Zealand literature, an embarrassment that no one knows what to do with". This judgement can be seen as indicative of how those interested in modern literature regard the style adopted by those poets of the mid-Victorian period and Ranulf and Amohia is these days often regarded as highly anachronistic, as Chris Hilliard observes, being supplanted in the 1930s by a literature that "entailed a triumph over the soporific effects of the old-world inheritance."

Ranulf and Amohia takes almost 100,000 words (excluding footnotes) to extemporise on the vicissitudes of the relationship between two lovers, an inter-racial couple dealing with the restrictions and conventions of their respective cultures, and does so in language that we today would euphemistically describe as "flowery" or "ornate."

However, when published it was often reviewed very favourably, with one critic going so far as to call it "the principle achievement of Australasia in poetry." We should recognise that, as impenetrable as it may seem today, it can be regarded as very much of the ilk of the mid-Victorians, and as Jane Stafford points out in her chapter on Domett in Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, Ranulf and Amohia was similar in a number of ways to Browning's Sordello, the difference being that the first was received warmly by the critics while the latter was not.

At least up to the point of his departure for New Zealand, where he was eventually to rise to the office of Premier in 1862, Domett can be regarded as the more successful of the two poets, having had his poem 'A Christmas Hymn' anthologised and favourably compared to Milton. Browing, in contrast had been eviscerated by the critics for Sordello, as was perhaps envious at the success of his friend.

In its tone and treatment of Māori, Ranulf and Amohia is idealistic and romantic, which was at odds with Domett's policies in government. Domett can be considered to be racist, even by the standards of his time, and although making much indirect recourse to Māori culture in preparing his epic (Domett made much use of the work of his friend, Governor George Grey, notably his Polynesian Mythology), his interpretation of Māori attitudes and beliefs was viewed strictly from a reactionary standpoint. This is perhaps interesting in that Domett and his literary contemporaries thought of themselves more as liberals rather than as nationalist imperialists.

As to its continuing importance, some regard Ranulf and Amohia, as having more relevance to the tradition of British literature than the local equivalent, though it is certainly notable as one of the most ambitious of poetical works connected with New Zealand.

We are happy to be able to make this work freely-available for study online and for downloading, and hope that this helps to facilitate the debate about the place of this work in our national literature.

For a much more thorough treatment of Domett and his work, I'd suggest consulting Jane Stafford's essay The Encyclopedic Fantasy of Alfred Domett in Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, as well as Jane's literary biography of Domett in Kōtare.