James K. Baxter (1926-1972)

James K. Baxter was considered by many critics to be the foremost spokesman of the New Zealand wilderness and its metaphorical ramifications. His poetry and drama most often incorporated mythology, variously classical and Christian, to express his overriding concern with religion and its place in the modern world. Always present in his poems and in his life was the influence of his pacifist parents.


Vincent O'Sullivan observed that, to Baxter, myth symbolized sanity, and that logic, or the "formally educated" mind, was too superficial: "It is only the poetic mind which works deeply enough to touch the source of order." The "poetic mind" was the part of himself that Baxter liked to call the "dinosaur's egg," noted Charles Doyle, who also described the many metamorphoses of Baxter over the years from "boy prodigy of poetry" to "alcoholic rip-roarer" to "Catholic convert" and ultimately "to the final few years when he totally rejected urban materialist society and became the figure (barefoot, long-bearded, patched and baggy) whom many saw as saintlike." In his early years he often lived at variance with his poetic convictions, becoming at the end of his life "a living and vivid example of the full practice of the life of charity, the Christian life," Doyle elaborated.

Other writers have recalled Baxter's development as an artist and as a man. Peter Olds remembered, "The whole time I knew the man he was walking on a rocky road, and like any man, he took a few wrong turnings--but the words that `belched from this rotting body' were indeed worth their weight in gold." Bill Pearson recalled Baxter reading poems in bars and discussing poetry with his bookie. Baxter himself wrote in Landfall: "In my late teens I developed the habit of throwing up a job, drinking for a week or so, writing for a month or so, then taking another job.... The best poems I have written (those in Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness) were written in this way."

Basic to an understanding of much of Baxter's poetry is a consideration of the Hero Myth, whereby fertility and springtime, personified by a Youthful Quester, are made manifest in the land by the death of the spiritually and physically dying Fisher King. Rebirth of the heretofore barren land (winter) is now possible, and the cycle of the seasons is again able to proceed. O'Sullivan pointed out that Baxter's poems abound with "the figures of regenerated return, whether as Orpheus or Antaeus or Persephone or Christ," all of whom "return not to a new world so much as the old world seen freshly." It was O'Sullivan's assessment that Baxter used the seasonal motif in conjunction with the myth of rebirth in a manner unique to modern poetry and that, when he used the Christian interpretation of the myth, he focused on the events--pain and death--preceding the subsequent resurrection. For Baxter, poetry was the true means of determining a "pattern" basic to all happenings, and his most frequent poetic device was the metaphor, which O'Sullivan labeled "the closest that natural man is going to get to truth, the golden branch which he carried as a pledge from his journey into self-knowledge/human experience/the cyclic verities." Baxter's "mythologizing is exploratory, an attempt to locate and clarify his own archetypes," wrote Doyle, who described such a dilemma as basic to the typical New Zealander who was at once part of England as well as of New Zealand.

A closely related motif is that of the city versus the wilderness. According to O'Sullivan, the "wilderness" represented to Baxter that part of him that made him different, unique, and the "City" represented "convention [and] authority." Baxter deplored the materialism of New Zealand and advocated the Maori concept of aroha, or love, as a means of creating a modern Civitate Dei "where men are valued for themselves, where the dead and the living and the unborn are accounted for in a cultural certainty, or in terms of orthodox Christianity, where the service of Christ is placed in one's fellow men," explained O'Sullivan. To this end, and following the examples of his brother, a conscientious objector, and his father, who had written a book, We Will Not Cease, about a conscientious objector in World War I, Baxter founded a Maori commune named Jerusalem on the Wanganui River in 1969, and Doyle observed the Maori influence on Baxter's writings following the establishment of Jerusalem.

Baxter's plays voiced many of the concerns of his poetry. Again and again he made use of both classical and Christian mythology to express his concepts of life in modern New Zealand. Doyle discussed the Aristotelian elements in Baxter's dramas and declared that "Baxter was well aware of the subjectivity of his plays, the likelihood that many of his characters emerged, horned or hornless, from what he once called his `menagerie of interior selves.' " Both Doyle and Harold W. Smith found similarities between Baxter's works and Eugene O'Neill's use of ancient mythology to symbolize the contemporary world. It was Doyle's feeling, however, that more important influences were Sartre and Giraudoux and, to a lesser extent, Samuel Beckett. In a discussion of Baxter's thematic devices, Smith labeled Baxter "a Catholic Christian who is both moved and terrified at the plight of man in a world from which a transcendent God has withdrawn or been driven out." Doyle provided a list of frequent themes essential to an understanding of Baxter's plays: "Free will, death, religion, drunkenness, commitment, destitution, words, love, materialism, community, the lost garden, bureaucracy, marriage, existentialism." Smith discussed Baxter's effective use of satire and declared that, while Baxter's framework was, in many of his plays, Greek, "the rhythms of the language [were] uniquely those of New Zealand."


From: "James K(eir) Baxter." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2003.


  • Further Reading


    • Curnow, Allen, ed., A Book of New Zealand Verse, Caxton Press, 1945.
    • Doyle, Charles, James K. Baxter, Twayne, 1976.
    • James K. Baxter 1926-1972: A Memorial Volume, Alister Taylor, 1972.
    • James K. Baxter Festival: 1973: Four Plays, Victoria University Press, 1973.
    • Lawlor, Pat with Vincent O'Sullivan, The Two Baxters: Diary Notes, Millwood Press (Wellington, NZ), 1979.
    • McCormick, E. H., New Zealand Literature: A Survey, Oxford University Press, 1959.
    • McKay, F. M. New Zealand Poetry: An Introduction, New Zealand University Press, 1970.
    • McKay, Frank, The Life of James K. Baxter, Oxford University Press, 1990.
    • Oliver, W.H., James K. Baxter: A Portrait, G. Allen and Unwin (Sydney), 1983.
    • Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Penguin, 1960.
    • Reid, J. C. and G. A. Wilkes, The Literature of Australia and New Zealand, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968.
    • Smithyman, Kendrick, A Way of Saying, Collins, 1965.
    • Weir, J. E., The Poetry of James K. Baxter, Oxford University Press, 1970.



    • Islands, autumn, 1973, winter, 1973.
    • Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Number 4, December, 1967.
    • Landfall, September, 1948, autumn, 1953, March, 1959, March, 1960, December, 1960, December, 1967, March, 1968, March, 1969, March, 1971.
    • London Magazine, January, 1967, October, 1969.
    • Meanjin Papers, II, number 4, 1952.