Oliver, W.H.

Oliver, W.H.

In Brief

W. H. Oliver was a historian and poet. Much of his non-fiction writing focused on New Zealand history, and he also published several collections of poetry. Oliver worked for many years as a history professor, and on his retirement in 1983 he was appointed general editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, a position he held until 1990. Looking for the Phoenix was Oliver’s reflection on the decades of his own life and the history that shaped him.


Oliver, W.H. (1925– ), besides being one of New Zealand’s foremost historians, is the author of three books of poetry. He was represented in the Oxford (1956) and Penguin (1960) anthologies of New Zealand verse, and the various updatings continue to include his work.

Born in Feilding, he graduated from Victoria (1951) and Oxford (1953) universities, and lectured at Canterbury and Victoria (1954–63) before becoming professor of history at Massey University (1964–83).

On his retirement he was appointed general editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography till 1990, when the first volume was published. The best-known poem in Fire Without Phoenix: Poems 1946–54 (1957), which won the Jessie Mackay Poetry Prize, is ‘In Fields of My Father’s Youth’, in which a journey to his ancestors’ English home county provokes sustained, elegiac meditation on migrant dreams, his own political attitudes and New Zealand’s future.

English locations inspire the other most striking pieces. In particular, ‘In Radcliffe Square, Oxford’ describes a quarrel, on a ‘wet and wintry’ evening, between a soldier and his girl, while, as church bells ring out, the ancient monuments to piety and learning observe ‘the decline of their love’: ‘Heaven was everywhere / Present, everywhere mourned their loss.’ Incident and setting combine to create resonant ironies. The poem takes a God’s-eye view of youth’s intensities.

Out of Season (1980) includes a tribute to Robert Lowell, and in this collection Oliver makes frequent use of Lowell’s form of unrhymed sonnet. Diction and rhythms have become somewhat harsher. Fastidious in phrasing, carefully measured, the poems make their firmest claim on the imagination when the abstract and the introspective give way to dramatisation, as in ‘Waitomo’ or some of the fairy-tale parables in the third section.

The title sequence of Poor Richard(1982) is about New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, ‘King Dick’ Seddon: lively and detailed, it gives an historian’s perspective on this symbolic figure. ‘Dear kanga’ uses A.A. Milne’s creatures for social satire, while in a series of pieces under the heading ‘Leave Report’ the poet and academic again visits Britain and wryly reflects on places, people and events.

Bodily Presence: Words/Paintings (1993) contains reproductions of paintings by Anne Munz together with seven poems by Oliver in the genre that goes under the technical name of ‘ekphrastic’: each represents a response to a painting, or (as Oliver says) ‘a parallel text’.

Oliver’s other contributions to New Zealand literature include The Story of New Zealand (1960), which traced ‘a history of adaptation and improvisation’; Challenge and Response (1971), seeing the history of the Gisborne East Coast as furnishing ‘a set of variations upon a New Zealand theme’; and James K. Baxter: A Portrait (1983), a fine illustrated biography. He was co-editor of the Oxford History of New Zealand (1981), and founding editor of the quarterly review Comment (1959–63, 1978–82). He edited Landfall (Nos. 42 and 43) for six months in 1957.


Looking for the Phoenix was W.H. Oliver's reflection on the decades of his own life and the history that shaped him. Vincent O'Sullivan writes: 'This is a book that frankly concedes how difficult it may be to "get things right", even one's own personal history, and yet, for the reader, it manages to do so as clearly, as subtly, as unequivocally, and as unsensationally, as any autobiography I can think of.'

Looking for the Phoenix was longlisted for the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction Biography for the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Poems 1946-2005 was published by Victoria University Press in 2005.

Oliver received the 2008 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Non-Fiction, worth $60,000.

W. H. Oliver died in September 2015, aged 90.

Updated January 2017.