Art. LXI.—Unwritten Literature.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 26th October, 1892.]
Is the expression “unwritten literature” a paradox? Only, I submit, when the literal structure of the word “literature” is allowed to veil its true meaning. The dictionary definitions, even, exclude the greater portion of what is written and printed from the category of literature. Just as music is independent of any system of notation, and existed long before such was devised, so is literature proper a thing apart from the altogether arbitrary and conventional means by
which it is perpetuated. The song, the proverb, the fable, or the history inscribed in set form of words upon the tablet of the human memory is as truly literature as if with an iron pen and lead it were graven in the rock for ever.
At a recent meeting of this Society some disparaging remarks were made on the subject of Polynesian poems and traditions. They were described as barbarous, the productions of savages, untrustworthy historically, and scientifically worthless. It is quite in the spirit of the nineteenth century to despise people who have not, like us, inherited the traditions of a remote civilisation. With some considerable knowledge of metals, it is easy to disparage those races who have had no more efficient tools than they could construct from stone or shell. But I am inclined to question whether this assumption of superiority is an evidence of the scientific spirit. The seeker after truth, no matter in what sphere, should hesitate before he assumes any fact to be worthless. The rejected materials of to-day may be the prized treasure of to-morrow; and, however little they may seem to bear upon the special pursuit of the inquirer, the various branches of science are so closely correlated that if one suffers the others must share the loss.
To the anthropologist, the language, the folk-lore, proverbs, and traditions of any people, however rude and primitive, are far from worthless; and their careful study has thrown, and must yet throw, more light upon the most fascinating of all studies, and one of the most important—the past history of mankind. Archæology has shown that many ancient traditions, long rejected as myths or fictions, are actual historic facts; and the oldest historians, once ridiculed for their credulity or branded as liars, are now treated with growing respect, as discoveries of buried cities and ancient inscriptions confirm their histories to the letter. It is no doubt the tendency of all traditional history to shade by imperceptible degrees into the mythical or the allegorical; and the Polynesian genealogies, reaching back to deities of the heavens and earth, or even to fabled saurians and sea-monsters, are paralleled by the classic traditions of civilised Greece and Rome.
It is not, however, to the historic value or otherwise of these traditions that I would specially refer. I would merely note that they must have descended from remote times with very little change, as they are in many cases the common property of races far apart, and have survived many changes of language and external conditions. The purpose of this paper is to inquire how far, if at all, these primitive peoples—the Polynesians specially—possessed what may be called literature.
It is first necessary to endeavour to place ourselves mentally in the position of the people whose inheritance of tradition
we are considering. This is not easy. We are, as a people, so vain of our material and external advantages, of our supposed moral, religious, scientific, and intellectual superiority, that we are apt to regard “savages” as on a different plane, and almost to overlook the fact of their common humanity. It must be as difficult for the primitive man to realise our superiority. It is quite possible that, regarding modern society critically, he would find what he might deem savagery in the relations, say, between labour and capital; he might even detect a want of decorum in the proceedings of our legislative and deliberative assemblies that would shock his sense of etiquette; while his finer feelings might be outraged by our contempt for objects and usages which in his eyes are extremely sacred. Though he learn to speak and read our language with some facility, we can scarcely expect him to appreciate the beauties of “Paradise Lost.” And, though we may have some superficial acquaintance with his native tongue, we may be equally unfit to criticize, and be equally blind to the force and beauty of, the traditional lore, poetical and didactic, which embodies the wisdom and the religion of his race.
In fact, to institute a fair comparison, it is necessary to exclude all such literary and other growths on our side as are due to difference of environment. If we do this, our claims as a people to intellectual superiority must be greatly reduced, and in some respects we may even find ourselves at a disadvantage. The man who is always surrounded with books has not the same incentive to cultivate his memory, or to master details, as he who has no such external resource. Few writers can quote correctly, even from their favourite authors, without reference. The “bad memory” of the civilised man is, like colour-blindness or myopia, a defect largely due to his artificial habits, and from which the unlettered islander is exempt. A man with such a verbal memory as was possessed by Scott or Macaulay is to us a marvel: in the case of the bookless Polynesian he is not the exception, but the rule.
There have been rare cases in which a man has been able to repeat the entire text of the Scriptures. In the most celebrated case of the kind the development of this faculty of memory was at the expense of the other mental qualities. But a capacity of memory equal to this must have been quite a common thing among the Polynesians. The parallel holds good not only as to the quantity of lore stored in the memory, but to a great extent as to its form and quality. Within the compass of the Scriptures we find every kind of literature—traditional, historical, genealogical, philosophical, proverbial, moral, and devotional. The large section of our modern books which are unrepresented there—such as treatises on the exact sciences, natural philosophy, and theoretic science—do not
properly come into the category of literature. That these ancient writings are of a high literary standard is universally admitted. It is acknowledged, for example, that no metrical translation of the Book of Psalms does justice to the original. In the earlier portion of Genesis we have a document of unknown antiquity, which many critics hold was preserved in the form of tradition before it was committed to writing. The same view is held with regard to the ancient epics attributed to Homer. In each instance we have work of a very high literary quality—in fact, many would say, of the highest. In their particular sphere they are unequalled. The Duke of Buckingham's eulogy is well known:—
Read Homer once, and you will read no more,
For all books else appear so mean, so poor;
Verse will seem prose: but still persist to read,
And Homer will be all the books you need.
Whether Mr. Gladstone would agree with such unqualified praise, I cannot say; but, omnivorous reader though he be, he is said to read Homer daily, with an assiduity greater than many devout folk give to their Bible. Yet I must say that the offhand criticism which would reject Polynesian poetry as worthless must, to be consistent, pass a similar verdict on the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” As giving an insight into primitive society, one is as valuable as the other; and, apart from the difference that in one case we have a knowledge of metals, we find a remarkable parallel. In the light of the civilisation of to-day, one people appears as savage as the other. There is the same interweaving of the natural and supernatural, of history and myth; the same exhibition of the fiercer aspects of human nature; and the resemblance is not only general, but can be followed in details. The egotistical vaunting and taunts with which Homer's chiefs go into battle have their exact parallel in Maori legend and history.
There are good reasons against quoting from poems and proverbs already on record in the Transactions; and to adopt such a course would unduly expand this paper. There is the less need, as in two separate papers read at last meeting several highly poetical fragments were brought forward by gentlemen well qualified to deal with the subject.
I have already referred to the remarkable powers of memory displayed by the chiefs and priests who were the depositories of the national lore; and this is evidenced by the literal accuracy with which genealogies, incantations, songs, or proverbs were handed down from generation to generation. This is proved by the retention of archaic words and forms of expression; by the fact of the same narratives being the property of peoples remote and long separated, and having survived great changes in language and conditions.
One cause of this scrupulous accuracy was, that the omission or change of a single word in a powerful charm was sufficient to destroy its efficacy, and lead to dire disaster. This regard for verbal accuracy is commonly supposed to be characteristic of a somewhat advanced stage in literature. Loose quotation seems to be a feature in all old writings, and is common enough still with hasty and slovenly writers.
It is easy to disparage the quality of native lore on the ground that it is elliptical, obscure, and at times when literally translated wholly unintelligible. The difficulty which meets the translator or collector on the very threshold of his work is the allusiveness characteristic of all the songs and sayings. The most brief and pointed proverb may embody some reference to an old hero, a national custom, the habit of some obscure plant or animal, or to some well-known fable or story. Before it can be understood, a great mass of native lore must be mastered, and if literally rendered it is meaningless without annotation.
This quality may be readily illustrated by a little consideration of our own proverbial expressions, which in numberless cases owe all their force to their allusion to some familiar story, native or exotic. Nearly every one of æsop's fables has crystallized into a proverbial phrase, as for example: “to cry ‘Wolf!”' “to nourish a viper in one's bosom,” “to bite at a file,” “to grasp at a shadow,” “sour grapes,” &c. Leaving out the Scripture references and phrases with which common conversation and literature abound, we could collect innumerable every-day phrases from the “Arabian Nights,” from the works of the masters of fiction, and from nearly every work which has made an abiding mark on our literature. Shakspeare is quoted unconsciously in the most ordinary conversation. And not to old writers alone does this rule apply. The pointed sayings of living men have passed into the literary currency, and the great poet whose loss we all mourn has left us no small store of “jewels five words long, that on the stretched forefinger of all time sparkle for ever.” As the same rule is of universal application, foreign proverbs and phrases, conveying no idea to us, may be full of meaning to those by whom they are in daily use. I have already referred to Milton's “Paradise Lost.” No one can appreciate or even understand the greater part of that work without some acquaintance with classic fable, Scripture history, rabbinical tradition, and the vocabulary of architecture and other arts. A work of a much simpler and more popular kind, the “Pilgrim's Progress,” is so saturated with Scripture phrases and references that a very thorough acquaintance with the Bible is necessary to follow its allusions. To those who can appreciate the references, they add a great charm to
the work. What therefore is considered to be a beauty in our own literature can scarcely be a blemish in the lore or literature of other peoples whose habits of life and thought differ from our own.
I have referred to the Scriptures as embodying every form of literature in the true sense of the term. This being admitted, there is very little which may not be paralleled in Polynesian lore. There is the most ancient portion, containing a cosmogony and genealogies, no longer accepted as literal history. To the rationalist it is pure myth; to the theologian it is a Divine allegory, for which each school of thought has a different interpretation. Parallel with this, we have the native cosmogony, beginning, as all others do, with Night and Chaos. For aught we know, allegorical meanings may lie concealed in these traditions, which have been handed down for so many ages—at all events they are highly poetical in form. It may be that the outward shell, still preserved and venerated, has outlived the forgotten esoteric meaning it conveyed to generations long past. From the mythical we come to the firmer ground of the tribal and national chronicles; then we have the prophets and the psalms. These are to a certain extent paralleled by the poetical lore of the natives. Some of this was prophetical; some devotional; much of it consisted of charms and incantations; and, again, we have the deeds of heroes, fables and apologues; love-songs, not only of the erotic order, but often expressing pure and tender affection, in refined and graceful language. This poetry constituted what, if committed to writing, would certainly have every claim to be called a national literature; that it was highly prized is evident from the enormous pains taken to commit it accurately to memory. In the Rev. W. Colenso's paper on the Ideality of the New-Zealanders, in which he gives typical examples of Maori poetry (Trans., vol. xiii.), he states that Sir George Grey had collected between five hundred and six hundred songs, and that to these he could add an equal number collected by himself. This does not by any means exhaust the whole.
From poetry we pass on to proverbs. This is a subject which has received a good deal of attention from contributors to the Transactions. The Rev. W. Colenso (vol. xiv.) has written largely on Maori proverbs, and has quoted freely from a store of twelve or fourteen hundred which he has systematically classified. It is not too much to say that in practical worldly wisdom, in their recommendation of virtues and condemnation of vices, and in sententious force, they will bear comparison with any other collection, sacred or secular.
In drawing these parallels, I am not claiming for the native lore the high spiritual character of the Hebrew canoni-
cal scriptures, though it may fairly take rank with many of the puerile apocryphal writings and rabbinical commentaries. The Hebrew prophecies and psalms, where the Eternal is supposed to speak, rise to a sublimity unparalleled elsewhere. Without this lofty ideal, it was not possible for the religious utterances of the Maoris to approach them in dignity. Nor, in the absence of written records, could we reasonably expect to find sustained argument or systematic connection, such as mark the principal Scripture books. Such a production as the Book of Job, for example, with its symmetrical form, its dramatic power, and its philosophical treatment of the deepest problems of life and providence, is wholly unlike anything in the literature of an uncivilised people. But this particular book—of vast and unknown antiquity—is unique. It stands absolutely alone in literature.
If, then, the substance of the native poetry and proverbs is to be commended, the question remains as to their form—whether it is rude and barbarous, or sufficiently finished and symmetrical to bear critical examination from a literary standpoint. To this there can be but one answer. The language itself is flexible, expressive, and exact; and the songs and proverbs were arranged, like the Hebrew poetry, usually in a dual form, the two lines being either parallel or antithetical in sentiment. Rhyme was not known, but regular measure and cadence were observed, and each song had its proper rangi or melody. In the absence of letters, such an artificial refinement as the acrostical form of the later Hebrew poetry was impossible; but, as Mr. Colenso has shown, even this was in a measure paralleled by the device of beginning many consecutive lines with the same word or short phrase—a very characteristic feature of Maori poetry. Attentive readers of his paper will have noticed one point which some of the pieces quoted possess in common not only with Hebrew poetry, but with the ballads of northern Europe—a perpetually-recurring burden. In the very curious “soothing charm” used to allay the pain of tattooing, the burden, recurring some nine or ten times, is “Pirori e!” and Mr. Colenso says that he finds great difficulty in finding a satisfactory rendering of so brief and elliptical an expression. I imagine that an equal difficulty would be found in interpreting the “burdens” of many old English, Scottish, or Danish ballads. Most of them, at all events as regards the narrative they interrupt, are as meaningless as the chorus of a music-hall song. But they are often remarkably quaint and curious, and it is worthy of note that they are so closely paralleled in Maori poetry. Before leaving this subject, I cannot refrain from an allusion to a wonderful and beautiful native poem, one of the most ancient and curious in existence—the song or charm of Paikea.
It abounds with obsolete words and archaic forms, and is most difficult to translate, but is a marvel of poetic genius. In force and vigour, in imaginative power, in beauty of diction, it is unequalled in its own particular line.
The natives fully recognised that a poem of this class was a piece of work of no common order; and they had their own theory about the Divine afflatus. According to the authority I have already quoted, “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.” Like the ancient Greeks, they firmly believed in Naiads, Dryads, and Nereids, and made them conciliatory offerings. Rather than grieve the gentle wood-nymphs, the old Maoris would trudge long distances in quest of dead timber and drift-wood, so as not to break or destroy the graceful shrubs by river-side or estuary-shore. What a contrast when the civilised European made his appearance! In this belief in sylvan divinities we have one of those touches of nature which make the whole world kin. Milton and Shelley to the contrary, Christianity has not expelled the guardian spirits of the woods and streams—it seems merely to have changed their titles. Ever and anon, in some French or German village, the Naiad still appears to some wandering maiden, the healing fountain breaks forth where her foot has trod, and another sect is added to the thousand-and-one already in existence. It is true that the vision appears in the form of some venerated picture, and is given a New Testament name; but she is one of the nymphs that the Hellenes revered of old, and that the Maoris knew so well in the woodlands before the destructive pakeha came and ravaged them with fire and steel. Science has tried even harder than religion to exorcise the guardian spirits of land and sea; but it cannot expel them from literature. Who can say that it may not yet have to recognise them in Nature?
Is it possible for the man who has his own library, and access to still larger collections of books, to mentally place himself in the position of the intelligent Maori, with only the book of Nature and the other book of ancestral tradition inscribed upon his memory? The Maori was schooled to verbal accuracy, and had little, if any, external mnemonic aid. In his power of correctly reciting song, proverb, and genealogy he is, compared with the reference-hunting pakeha, a strong-limbed man beside one on crutches.
It remains now to inquire how far this “savage” literature affected life and character. The natives possessed alert intellect and vivid imagination, with the power of swift and accurate observation; and this traditional lore, we have to remember, was to them all that is represented in our case by Bible,
library, and newspaper. It was the sole storehouse of mental food possessed by an intelligent race. In their songs relating to departed and sometimes deified ancestors, in their prayers and charms, they felt the presence of the unseen, and must have realised, if only in a vague degree, some of those truths underlying all religions, and which holders of more advanced and systematic creeds claim to have been made known by direct revelation. They had a very real and abiding sense of the existence of a world of spirits. If we are inclined to scoff at their belief in witchcraft, we have but to look back three hundred years to find the whole of Christendom on the same mental level. If we find fault with their necromancy, we may see exactly the same thing revived to-day in the “spirit circles” in our own communities. The lore of the Maori was exactly appropriate to his mode of life and his surroundings. It afforded him just the mental exercise that he required. His songs cheered many an hour of privation and weary toil; his potent charms inspired him with hope and courage; his wise and pithy proverbs urged him to diligence; and thus his mental and moral faculties were strengthened.
Poetry, some would persuade us, is the outcome of an imperfect development; and certainly, with the advance of material science the higher forms of literature seem to be less appreciated. This applies to art of every kind. We may yet find that there is something to admire in the uncivilised man, and even something to be learned from him. As a typical example of the ghastly side of human progress and science, we have only to look at the desecrated Manawatu Gorge, where Nature is taking effective revenge for the outrages inflicted upon her. Primitive man lived nearer to Nature than we do to-day, and understood her better than we. Primitive man has left us from remote ages a legacy of literature that we cannot now surpass.
There are some who hold that poetry, the loftiest of the arts, is doomed to perish with the progress of material advancement. The illustrious Darwin was, by his own account, an example of the “atrophy” of the æsthetic faculties induced by too exclusive a devotion to physical science, and appears to have been to some extent afflicted with atrophy of the faculty of spiritual insight as well. But, whatever the general tendency of the age may be, modern progress has not succeeded in quenching the poet's inspiration. The two great men on opposite sides of the Atlantic who have just departed have proved that the highest poetic gifts may co-exist with a very sordid and materialistic condition of society; that the art of printing, though it has been the means of overwhelming literature with a deluge of rubbish, has not quite killed it; and that, though primitive man is not without his poets and
prophets, it is not for us to forget or disparage our own, the highest of whom may fairly rank above statesmen or men of science, and who are—it is not too much to say—a century in advance of the great body of their fellow-men.