Significant Archibald Baxter poetry find

University of Otago student Caitlin Duff (19) holds a book of poems by Dunedin conscientious...
University of Otago student Caitlin Duff (19) holds a book of poems by Dunedin conscientious objector Archibald Baxter. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
A Dunedin student’s discovery and publication of poems by World War 1 conscientious objector Archibald Baxter is shedding new light on previous little-known parts of his life.

University of Otago English and linguistics student Caitlin Duff was researching poet James K. Baxter’s notebooks for a humanities internship when she found poems by the poet’s father, Archibald Baxter.

The discovery included a previously unknown work, which may also have been written by Baxter senior.

"I recognised the significance of the poems as soon as I discovered them."

She knew that Baxter senior was not renowned as a poet, so to find the first poems copied into his son’s notebook was "quite exciting”.

Most of the works had earlier been discussed by a University of Canterbury researcher, Jennifer Johnston, in a 2001 thesis, but Miss Duff wanted to complete a collection of his work.

Archibald Baxter had been mostly known for being James K. Baxter’s father, and as a conscientious objector whose experiences were detailed in We Shall Not Cease.

However, she had enjoyed highlighting other achievements by this "phenomenal man".

The 13 poems by Baxter senior — a Brighton farmer and ploughman — were sprinkled through his son’s 28 notebooks held at the university's’s Hocken Collections.

Undated and written in "simple but effective language", the Archibald Baxter poems ranged widely, some praising literary figures such as Robert Burns, or discussing pacifism and war.

One work, titled Gorse strikes an anti-authority note, and focuses on the requirement to clear the weed, also called "whins", that blighted many farms:

"Beautiful blossoms on needles and pins:

‘Tis the man on the mattock that pays for his sins:

If the men who make laws had their knuckles and shins

All bloody with spikes, they’d know something of whins."

Miss Duff discusses the challenges of determining the authorship of the previously undiscovered In December Days in the explanatory notes of the collection she edited and handprinted at the university central library’s Otakou Press Room.

She had never before bound a book or used a printing press, but was keen to make the poems readily available "to those who want to read them".

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