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…