Bethell, (Mary) Ursula

Bethell, (Mary) Ursula



In Brief

The poet (Mary) Ursula Bethell was born in England and moved to New Zealand as a child. She returned to London as an adult, but settled finally in Christchurch. Described by Vincent O’Sullivan as ‘the most firmly, traditionally Christian’ of New Zealand poets, her preoccupation with time and the natural world perhaps owed more to religious considerations than Romantic ones. Her Collected Poems was published posthumously in 1950, and included the intensely private sequence of ‘Memorial Poems’ for her friend and close companion Effie Pollen.


Bethell, (Mary) Ursula (1874–1945), poet, was born in Surrey, England, on St Faith’s Day, October 6—a day whose religious significance was later recalled in the name she gave to a ‘House of Sacred Learning’ in Christchurch. Her parents, who had both spent some years in New Zealand before their marriage in London, returned eighteen months after her birth.

They settled in Christchurch, and then Rangiora, near Richard Bethell’s large sheep station, Pahau Pastures. Rangiora, with the Ashley River in the foreground and Mount Grey in the background, quickly became a significant element in Ursula Bethell’s imagination, her affection evident in the long, unfinished sequence ‘By the River Ashley’, published in full for the first time in her Collected Poems (ed. Vincent O’Sullivan, 1985; new edn 1997).

On her father’s death in 1885, the family moved back to Christchurch, where at Christchurch GHS she came into contact with the principal, Helen Connon, maternal grandmother of James K. Baxter. The next phase of her education was in England at Oxford High School for Girls, then a finishing school near Nyon in Switzerland.

At Oxford she met the Mayhew family, with whom she remained very close friends-in particular, Ruth, to whom many of the ‘Garden’ poems were addressed, and Arthur, who was influential in their publication. Though she then returned briefly to New Zealand, Bethell spent twenty of the next twenty-five years out of the country, before finally settling in Christchurch, at Rise Cottage in the Cashmere Hills.

On one European trip she studied painting in Geneva, but her talents in that direction were only modest, and when she returned to England she engaged in social work and joined an Anglican community popularly known as the Grey Ladies. Although she did not remain, and in fact expressed some strongly negative opinions about the community, she did maintain strong connections with formal institutions within the Church of England, and continued to perform social work within a broadly religious context.

In New Zealand, too, during her several trips back, she displayed the same enthusiasm for social work and educational work within religious contexts. Throughout these years, another side to her religious character emerged, which, while not genuinely contemplative, did reveal that she had an attraction towards some form of withdrawal from secular society. Her intellectual growth was also coupled with an interest in philosophy and theology which she developed throughout her life.

Most of Bethell’s verse-all that she published in her lifetime-was written during her ten years at Rise Cottage with her close companion, Effie Pollen. She seldom spoke of their relationship, but a letter to Monte Holcroft describes Pollen’s death as ‘a complete shattering of my life … from her I have had love, tenderness, and understanding … and close and happy companionship.’ Later, she described the relationship as ‘prevailingly maternal’, a bond of mutual protection and support, and revealed, to Holcroft and others, the difficulty she had writing poetry after her friend’s death.

The first of Bethell’s collections, From a Garden in the Antipodes, is her best-known work, and contains some of the most frequently anthologised pieces, but it is not the volume she most valued. Time and Place (Caxton, 1936) was deliberately a memorial to Effie Pollen, although it owes something of its selection and arrangement to D’Arcy Cresswell, who wrote to Bethell with a fine certainty about his own judgment of her verse.

Denis Glover objected to the title, but it accurately suggests the subject matter, with its attention to seasonal cycles and focus on mutability; and it is accurate, too, in its less concrete overtones, for the poetry of Time and Place is quite deliberately writ larger, and attempts more by way of generalisation. Day and Night (Caxton, 1939) included several pieces for which there had not been a place in the earlier work, but in many ways it demonstrates similar interests and formal properties, and like the earlier volumes it preserved the anonymity she valued.

Like the earlier volumes, too, it includes some poetry that celebrates the beauty of the natural world, though such celebration is not her characteristic note, nor is it her most significant, for she is not a Romantic poet. She is, as O’Sullivan suggests, ‘the most firmly, traditionally Christian’ of New Zealand poets.

Her preoccupation with time and the natural world owes more to religious considerations than Romantic ones. Her first volume had displayed a constant awareness of her separation from ‘loved and lost London’, but the sense of exile is not confined to that volume of verse letters; rather, the sense of exile takes on a traditionally religious dimension, and informs much of her writing.

After Pollen’s death, Bethell sold Rise Cottage and moved to a flat in the house she had gifted to the Church of England, known as St Faith’s House of Sacred Learning, which was intended as a centre for training Anglican deaconesses. Despite indifferent health, she maintained an extensive correspondence and a wide circle of friends. Persuaded by some (including Lawrence Baigent, Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow), she agreed to the preparation of a new selection of her poetry, to be published under her own name.

Interrupted by her final cancer, her Collected Poems was published in 1950. It brought together all the poems from the three published volumes, together with a number of others, including the intensely private sequence of six ‘Memorial Poems’ which record, year by year, the anniversary of the death of Effie Pollen. PW


Updated April 2022.