W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso

A Story of Old, of a certain Drowned Boy, whose Spirit returned to trouble the Living

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9. A Story of Old, of a certain Drowned Boy, whose Spirit returned to trouble the Living.

This lad went with the water-calabash to fetch water to drink, being sent by his parents. He went, he got to the place where the water was, and on his pressing down his big light calabash under the water in the deep pool to fill it, it slipped suddenly away out of his hands. He then (as it was supposed), went into the water after his calabash, which was being carried away floating before him, and in doing so he sunk, and his belly was filled with water. After some time his parents went to look for him, but though they found the calabash floating they did not readily find him, because all over the surface of that water was overspread with spiders’ webs; at last, however, they found the body and dragged it to the shore, and carried it to their village and mourned over it, and when the usual funeral lamentations were over they buried it in the earth. Then the spirit (wairua) of that boy appeared here in this habitable sphere, bewildering the living, and (it) dwelt [56] in Ihurahirahi to be a medium for it, who came to Tokomaru that is now, his principal place of residence being at Orangikupa, and there he dwelt. That village (pa) was on a high steep cliff, from which he went right off into the sea, and thus it came to pass; the poor bewildered one was walking, when the evil demon (atua) said to him: “It is all solid land there below, that he would not get bogged577 in that water.” The people of the place were on the look out and saw him walk right away from the top of the cliff, when he was lost to their eyes. On his sinking down, however, he was at the depths of the sea following his great chief (or leader),578 near the mouth of the codfish (hapuku) who was being snapped at continually by the hapuku, so he followed his great chief; there he saw the multitude of fishes, food for man, scuttling about in all directions. His big chief was very courageous, and so was he through him, and he at last re-appeared above on the surface of the sea. Then he looked about, fastening his eyes on the land, its mountains, and hills, and cliffs, and he knew that shore and that land, and at length reached the strand at a place called Te Poroporo. There he told what he had seen in the sea to the people of that place, who were all highly delighted at his relation to them. In the morning they embarked in their fishing canoes, and paddled away out to sea to the spot rich in fishes which had been described to them, which they also found by its bearing signs on the land. There they fished with hook and line, and soon filled their canoes with fish. They named that rock “Kapuarangi.” Their fishing over they paddled back to the shore, landing at Te Poroporo. The chief, Te Haratau, who lived near by, hearing of this, went also out to sea, to that very rock, to Kapuarangi, but he took with him to sea his weapons for fighting. The other chief, Ruatona, being informed of this, went also out to sea in his canoes, taking also with him his fighting weapons, to show his anger against Te Haratau. On Te Haratau looking up from his fishing towards the land, he saw the canoes of Ruatona paddling out towards him, so he left off fishing and came to meet him. They met full drive! They fought at sea, and then they all paddled to shore. On landing they recommenced their warfare, and behold! Te Haratau was killed by Ruatona. Then it was that Ruatona’s friends and helpers said, “Let the body be [57] buried.” When Ruatona replied, “What, wilfully throw away the bit of (food obtained by extra exertion in) the scarce summer season?” And so that hand-to-hand fight ended in favour of Ruatona, who kept possession of Kapuarangi.


1880 Contributions towards a better Knowledge of the Maori Race (continued.579).
Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 13: 57-84.

[Read before the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute, 8th November, 1880.]

—“For I, too, agree with Solon, that ‘I would fain grow old learning many things.”‘ —Plato: Laches.

On the Ideality of the Ancient New Zealander.

Part III.—On their Poetical Genius.

It may truly be said that with the New Zealander poetry is, or was, part of their daily life. Whatever differences in taste may have existed among the various ancient tribes (iwi) composing the Maori people, in this matter they were pre-eminently as one,—all used it, all were moved by it, all enjoyed it. Indeed, I have very good reasons for believing that poetry—in one shape or other—was much more commonly used than even their proverbs were,—which formed the subject of my last paper read before you under this head. Is it not true, that under much of poetry, as well as of proverbs, there lies a philosophy? With nursery ditties and jingles they strove to amuse and quiet their young children, and with longer legendary and historical rhythmical recitals the old informed their youth, and dissipated the ennui of wet days and long nights. With smart songs of encouragement, sung alternately and in full chorus, they eased the heavy labour of their most laborious works,—such as dragging the hulls of their large canoes from the forests—often over many miles of the roughest country, without any road—to the sea, and also the large totara timber for their chiefs’ houses; and often whole trunks of trees to form the outer wall of fortification around their town (pa). They paddled their war-canoes to suitable inspiring songs, which were regularly chaunted by their chiefs, or fit men,580 often two, if not three, in each large canoe, to which song the paddlers kept time, both in paddling and in occasionally slapping the blades [58] of their paddles against the sides of the canoe, accompanying the same, at regular intervals, with their united voices, which arose together more like the voice of one man!581

They broke up and prepared their extensive tribal kumara plantations, working regularly together in a compact body, chief and slave, keeping time with their songs, which they also sang in chorus. When visitors arrived, the open talk was invariably commenced with a suitable song, which was responded to by the visitors in a like manner; which, indeed— and especially whenever the meeting was an important one—often indicated both their feelings and determination. They took up arms and went to war with songs; they sung them before engaging with the enemy; the watchers within a besieged fort kept on announcing the passing hours, and the movements of the stars and planets, with short suitable songs. They taunted and sorely galled their foes with songs; they gave loud utterance to their most deadly and revengeful feelings in songs; they closed their battles and feuds, and made peace with songs; they bitterly mourned over and bewailed, and finally deposited their dead, with parting songs and dirges. Their many and varied spells, charms, counter-charms, invocations, ceremonial calls and demands, and propitiations, mostly took the poetical form. On entering a forest for the first time to fell a tree, they invariably prefaced their operation with a pleasing song of deprecation to the presiding deity, genius loci, or guardian of the place;582 on their finishing (or opening for reception) of a chief’s large or tribal house, that was done always with a poem or song (kawa); so, also, on their first casting of one of their immense seine nets—originally made in separate pieces (or nets) by each family, and now put together—they used the proper chaunts or songs. Sufferers by calamity,—as by floods, by drought, or by fire,—the sea, and war,—through theft and slander,—each and all expressed their griefs, and consoled themselves [59], with songs. While the young men and women were undergoing the painful and protracted operation of tattooing, the females sang a suitable song of encouragement and hope. The females, also, courted and covertly indicated their tender feelings in songs; the disconsolate lover sought to assuage his melancholy with songs;583 and not unfrequently the suicide (especially when a female, and about to throw herself from a precipice) sang her last words, like a dying swan,—or after the example of Sappho—in a song!

Their handsome forest pet, the tuii, or parson-bird, (Prosthemadera novœ-zealandiœ), was taught with much pains a very long song, though they might have more easily taught him to whistle.584 Children sang or trolled songs in summer to lessen the power of the sun’s rays, also to cause the rain to cease, and to lull the fierce winds, etc. The chiefs sang suitable songs to their pretty paper kites while flying them, and the young women did the same to their light stuffed and ornamented hand-ball while engaged at their pleasing and dexterous game of poi; the women also extemporized their joyous songs over a plentiful haul of fish, or an abundant snaring of birds, and, also, had their semi-humorous songs for their big gourds or pumpkins, in cutting or breaking them up for cooking. The old Maoris even professed to have heard songs, of a highly curious character, sung by the spirits of the dead! and by fancied atuas, supernatural beings, while engaged in fishing far out at sea.585 These latter they responded to and sang their replies. [60]

When the New Zealanders were first taught to read and write by the missionaries, and for (at least) twenty to thirty years after, they almost invariably in writing a letter or note, began it, after the introduction, with a few words from a song, which also served to indicate (especially to themselves) what was about to follow, or what was particularly meant. As this peculiarity had not been in any wise taught them by Europeans, it is highly characteristic of their strong abiding national taste.

No doubt their common practice of using songs when at their various works and labours, especially the very heavy and continuous ones, originated with them as a means of beguiling their length and wearisomeness, and was wisely and politically used and encouraged by their chiefs.

During the first ten years of my residence in New Zealand I resided in the Bay of Islands, where almost every visit from home had to be made by sea in a boat; and not unfrequently either in going or returning up or down the long tidal arms or rivers (as Waikare, Kawakawa, and Kerikeri), or in visiting the shores of the outer bay (Paroa), I should be many hours at a time in my boat,—sometimes nearly all night,—owing to head wind, or strong adverse tide. At such times, and when my faithful Maori rowers were nearly exhausted, for one of them to strike up a simple canoe- (or boat-) song, would act as a charm upon their spirits, and give them fresh vigour.586 I am sure that by such means—the wonderful powers of simple song—we have sometimes overcome, or passed through, no small difficulties and even dangers.

Having already in a former paper587 written on their various kinds, or classes, of poetry, I shall not again repeat the same. Such, however, may be easily inferred from what I have just mentioned; as, of course, their poetry and its music ever varied with the subject:—

“From grave to gay, from lively to severe.” 588 [61]

Nevertheless, I may here observe that their rude poetry, while mostly dithyrambic and generally destitute of what a European would term rhyme and metre, wonderfully abounded in strong natural sentiment,—in pleasing and suitable utterances,—and in fit, and often beautiful, imagery; proving again, even here at the Antipodes, that mere rhyme is not poetry. Indeed, some of its imagery would compare with that used by the best poets of the Old World. But while it was natural and simple, it was all rough, forcible, telling, convincing, gushing, impassioned, affecting,—highly suited to the Maori character. Very much of it was ancient, handed down orally from the olden times, and often ingeniously altered and extemporized (improvised) to suit the present occasion; a knack in which the Maoris greatly excelled.

Some few pieces, however, have tolerably regular strophes, and many possess both solo and refrain, or chorus. Often one meets with a startling abruptness of transition; very natural in lyric poetry, especially among a rude and warlike people; by the slightest modification the author’s skill fixes the strongest contrasts. Sometimes the maker or singer of the song is both subject and object; again, comparison would be implied with the omission of the particle of comparison; while pronouns, apparently pleonastic, and not unfrequently omitted, would be used emphatically. Inanimate objects, as well as abstract subjects, are very commonly and naturally personified in bold and highly figurative language. Many common things also possess mythological names, as in their myths and legends, this alone being a sign of antiquity.

A few of the more striking peculiarities of the composition of their poetry may also be briefly mentioned, as I think them highly characteristic, if not unique: (1) They sometimes have several consecutive lines589 (three or more), each line beginning with the same few words; and this may occur three, four, or five times throughout the piece. This reminds one of the alphabetical form of some of the ancient Hebrew poetry. (2) Sometimes they have a single word (often an imperative or a passive verb) forming a line, which is followed by two or three other such words, making so many lines, agreeing in syllables and in emphasis, and almost in measure. (3) Not unfrequently the first two or three sentences, or lines of the piece, are again taken up at the end to form the conclusion. (4) Sometimes each line (distich or hemistich) of the whole song or piece ends with the same word or particle. (5) And sometimes, though not frequently, the short concluding [62] and terse ending of every alternate line, containing three to five words, is repeated,590 so making that line long and the next one very short.

The Maori bards, in their natural imagery, occupied but a short time in description; often transitional it was generally done too rapidly to allow of any detail. More frequently the particular and suitable natural simile was merely seized, mentioned, or alluded to, together with one or two of its more striking points, to be followed in quick succession by moving, natural appearances in preference to stationary ones: e.g., the setting of the sun, the red evening sky, the twinkling of a star, the rising of the moon, the breaking of the dawn, the glistening of the sunbeams, the sudden darkness, the rising of the evening star, the passing of the night hours, the flashing lightning, the hooting of the owl, the blowing of the summer breezes, the light flying clouds, the flowing and the ebbing tides, the billowy sea, the noisy surges, the falling rain, the flowing tears, the joyous seasons past, the various flying birds, the gliding canoe, the moving branches of the forest, the waving of the long leaves of the kawharawhara,591 and of the shining plumy heads of the graceful Arundo reeds, the thistle-down borne away by the winds, the raging fire consuming the forests, the sulphur-burning crater at White Island, the running brooks, the swift currents both of river and of ocean, etc., etc. And I think that it is in their proper and skilful use of those two great poetical means—namely, simile and living moving nature—that they not only excel, but show their fair claim to Ideality, and to rank as poets, for it is to their excelling in those two particulars that our own great British poets owe their justly-earned fame.

We also often meet with this love of familiar natural imagery, and the use of it as similes, in the oldest poets of various nations—as in Homer, Hesiod, and Callimachus; in Virgil and in Ovid; in the Hebrew bards, and also in their prose writers; and, particularly, in the Scotch bard, Ossian. Much of the common natural imagery embraced and used by Ossian is just exactly what an old Maori loved to use, and used in his way too! and some of it we shall yet find in our few examples (infra). It was owing to this in great measure, that the early translation (a.d. 1837–8) into Maori of the Hebrew Psalms, and other Old Testament poetical pieces, found such universal acceptance among the Maoris. There is a beautiful ancient passage by the Son of Sirach, (though, perhaps, but little known,)—Ecclus. 50, 1—21,—abounding in such natural and pleasing metaphors as the Maori poets commonly used, and all, too, applied to one man! as, the morning star, [63] — the sun shining,—the moon at the full,—the rainbow giving light,—the bright clouds,—the flowers,—the branches of trees,—the time of summer, etc.

In the volume of Maori poetry printed and published several years ago by Sir George Grey, while Governor here, there are collected between 500 and 600 songs and other poetical pieces; to which, I suppose, I could add nearly an equal number,—or (say) about 1,000 in all; and there are, or were, many more, unknown to or uncollected by Europeans. Now, all these were only retained by the old Maoris in memory, and from memory dictated to others, or (in a few instances) written down by themselves. Here, of course, as in the case with their proverbs, there could not be much room for variation; and the oldest and best songs, etc., are much the same, whether rehearsed among the northern or the southern tribes. This, together with the collateral fact of their many ancient myths and legends and fables, and their numerous semi-religious and ceremonial chaunts and recitations, also agreeing in the main, as well as their long ancestral genealogies, is a most wonderful instance of the prodigious memory of uncultivated unlettered man! and certainly to the philosophic mind must ever speak strongly in favour of the ancient Maori. This high faculty, together with those of sight and hearing, which they also eminently possessed, always, when prominently exhibited (as I have known striking instances of) struck me with astonishment.592

Their poetry (as far as it is known under the various names of waiata, tangi, haka, ngeri, umere, tau, keka, pana, peruperu, apakura, oriori, to, tuki, whakaaraara, tukeka, pihe, karakia, mata, hari, whakamohio, whakatapatapa, whakaoriori, kawa, etc., etc.) may be conveniently and briefly classified as follows:—(1) lyrical: (2) historical and legendary: (3) ceremonial, or semi-religious. 1. Their lyrical poetry contains martial, vengeful, taunting, satirical, melancholy, wailing, dirge-like, love, humourous, nursery, and inciting songs. 2. Their historical and legendary—though, with them, it was all alike historical, all equally believed!—included much of the prowess and doings of their forefathers; which they also recited in their traditions [64] and legends. 3. Their ceremonial comprised a large and varied amount of strange and yet often simple utterances and recitations (mostly spoken in a whisper or undertone), which we almost want a new English word fully to express; such being neither charm, spell, nor invocation, neither prayer, request, nor supplication; but, as it were, a little of each, with not unfrequently more or less of a command, and sometimes even a threat.

Some slight—yet it may be painful—attempts have been from time to time spasmodically made to render a few of their songs into English; but those who have attempted it, as far as I know, have greatly failed; and that, among others, for two chief reasons:—(1.) They have attempted to do so in the fetters of both rhyme and metre, such too, above all, as the C.M., L.M., etc., of English hymns! or in the equally unsuitable cadenced jingle of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” (2.) They have thought more of themselves as “poets,” than of their subjects—if indeed they in every case clearly understood them, which I greatly doubt; for in some instances they do not seem to me to have comprehended the Maori, or, at all events, to have caught the leading ideas in the piece before them; for some (and that not a little) of the Maori poetry is as difficult to be understood by a foreigner—even if he be a tolerably good linguist at common colloquial Maori—as parts of the English translations of Homer and of Dante, of Milton and of Shakespeare would be to an uneducated Englishman; while in the Maori language they would also have the very great disadvantage of not having any good lexicon, or historical work of reference, to aid them. Foreign languages may be usually translated in three ways:— (1.) By a literal version; (2.) By a free translation; and (3.) By a paraphrase. But in the poetry of the New Zealanders, in order to give the true meaning of the original, something more than a mere verbal rendering is often absolutely required; for their whole style is exceedingly elliptical, and often abounds in allusions and aposiopesis, and the gaps need to be filled up. Then there is the common want of distinction in gender, both in nouns (proper names) and pronouns, which, where there is so much of personification, often including inanimate things, creates another difficulty; while not unfrequently the song begins and ends with a bold emphatic denial of its true and pregnant meaning. Besides, to translate clearly into English one Maori song or poetical piece, might require a large amount of knowledge of their legendary lore and of historical facts and events, and of their general natural history. Indeed to perform this work well, a person should bring to it not knowledge merely, but sympathetic imagination, and there are few, if any, among us who possess those highly necessary requisites. Moreover the idioms and the whole structure of the two languages are so very dissimilar. But on this head I shall not now dwell, concluding [65] this part of my subject by observing—that those great difficulties should ever fairly be borne in mind whenever we meet with any of those so-called translations of Maori poetry into English metre; far better it would be to translate it into good English prose, accompanied with notes.

I will now proceed to give a translation of a few examples from their poetry, in support of what I have already stated. The first will be a portion of a justly-celebrated Lament, alluded to by me in my last paper.593

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