Reading the Bard with Harry Holland

By Dr. Dougal McNeill, VUW Senior Lecturer School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies [February 2017]

In February 2017 I had the pleasure of speaking to VUWSIG about Harry Holland and his work on Robert Burns.

Holland (1868 – 1933) was the New Zealand Labour Party’s first leader, and spent his life in Australia (the land of his birth) and New Zealand amongst the radical and dissenting sub-cultures of the labour movement, radical socialist journalism, and trade union activism. The poetry of Robert Burns was a constant through all of this tumult of agitation and political organizing.

Poetry figured prominently in the life of the early twentieth-century labour movement. Its journals, the Maoriland Worker here and the International Socialist in Sydney in particular, regularly printed verse, both from famous British poets and from their own reader-contributors. Holland had no formal education but was an avid reader and seems to have had an interest in almost everything: science, theology, history, literature, economics, family planning, geology. In this he was like Burns, himself a restless and curious reader and thinker. Burns could slip details from the most innovative scientific investigations of his day into his most delicate love lyrics (‘till all the seas gang dry my dear’), and Holland in turn slipped Burns in at every chance to his political speech-making and article-writing.

I had a vague sense of all of this literary culture before I started my work on Holland in particular, but three years of living with the material has given me a sense of greater appreciation of just how thoroughgoing his engagement with Burns was, and what it involved. How the men and women of the early labour movement must have read, and how they must have listened! As I was working through Holland’s papers I noticed all sorts of minor errors in his quotations from Burns. These seemed curious at first – a line transposed from one poem to another here, a stanza placed out of order there – until I realized, with a start, that he must have been quoting from memory in all of his work…

Holland published a series of articles on Robert Burns in the New Zealand Worker, Labour’s weekly newspaper, in 1926. But he kept tinkering at these for the rest of his life and had hoped to publish a full-length biography of the Scottish poet. This work, incomplete at his death, was widely anticipated by his contemporaries. John A. Lee mentioned it in his obituary for Holland in 1933, and many contemporary newspaper accounts at the time of Holland’s death referred to his love of Burns and poetry. But, in the years since then, the cultural and literary life of the Labour Party has been little studied, and this Burnsian dimension has been neglected.

A generous tip from the novelist James Robb sent me to Canberra, where the Australian National University archives hold Holland’s papers. These show the workings of a frantically busy political man snatching literature in the moments he can. His Burns work is written on scraps of parliamentary letterhead, the reverse side of policy documents, fragments of paper from railway journals, and more. There are over one hundred and fifty sheets in Canberra of what must have been at least a dozen years work on Burns. And, astonishingly for a man who kept up such a demanding schedule of political commitments, the drafts show careful engagement with currents of debate amongst Burns scholars and critics from the 1920s and 1930s as well as classic accounts. The scale and dedication of Harry Holland’s reading I find Robert-Burns-Harry-Holland-covercontinually astonishing.

I have prepared an edition of Harry Holland’s study – Robert Burns: Poet and Revolutionist – to try and bring some of the life and energy of this early Burns-reading labour-movement community to life for modern day readers. I have been moved and encouraged by the response Holland’s little book has received, from the general public and Burnsians across New Zealand as well as by reviewers. It’s a sign, perhaps, that Burns could find a wider audience outside of the ranks of those of us already committed to Scottish literature again!

Harry Holland: Poet and Revolutionist is published by Steele Roberts.


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