Pacific's triple star

Those three words are sung before every test match that the All Blacks play—in grounds throughout the rugby-playing world. Many New Zealanders have sung them more than once themselves. What exactly do they refer to? Let’s begin with their author.

Born in County Meath, Ireland, in 1841, Thomas Bracken spent most of his life in New Zealand, where he became a Member of Parliament and the popular poet who wrote the verses that are now our national anthem, ‘God Defend New Zealand’. The Auckland Central City Library’s Sir George Grey Special Collections contains the only manuscript in Bracken’s own handwriting of this ‘National Hymn’, as he entitled it. It is dated 9 July 1876. Also in the Grey Collection is the sole surviving autograph manuscript of John Joseph Wood’s musical setting of the anthem. Bracken's manuscript and Wood's sheet music, held by Auckland Libraries, are inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand register.

Ref: Original words and music to God defend New Zealand, 1878,
GNZMS 296, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

The history of ‘God Defend New Zealand’ is entertainingly told in Max Cryer’s meticulously researched 'Hear our voices we entreat: the extraordinary story of New Zealand’s national anthem'. Cryer corrects previous accounts of Bracken’s date and place of birth. The wrong date, 1843, was even inscribed on his tombstone. Cryer devotes a chapter to ‘one abiding mystery’. That is the meaning of ‘Pacific’s triple star’ in the lines:

Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.

The topic has aroused a good deal of debate. Cryer lists thirteen explanations of the phrase that have been put forward at various times, most of them connected with stars on flags. In particular, in Bracken’s day three stars featured on prominent Māori flags and on a coat-of-arms devised by Bishop Selwyn.

Ref: Thomas Bracken. Musings in Maoriland, 1890.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Nobody, however, seems to have approached the problem with Bracken’s special characteristics as a poet in mind. They can best be gleaned from his 'Musings in Maoriland' of which Sir George Grey Special Collections has several copies. The volume contains illustrations and a preface by Sir George Grey himself. But although he gained applause while living, Bracken was not a very good poet and ‘God Defend New Zealand’ is not a very good poem. 'Musings in Maoriland' and Bracken’s other books of verse do, however, display some distinctive tricks of style. One of these is periphrasis, a roundabout way of referring to things that was favoured by the English ‘Augustan’ poets of the eighteenth century. They would notoriously call fish ‘the finny tribe’. When Alexander Pope wrote ‘The wooden guardian of our privacy / Quick on its axle turn’, he meant ‘Shut the door’. Bracken revelled in this poetic device. The sun, for instance, may be ‘glorious king of light’, ‘the golden shield of God’, ‘day’s bright pendant’, ‘old Sol, the gilder’, or ‘God’s golden limner of our planet’s days’—a ‘limner’ being one who paints or draws. When it is just the sun, it ‘climbs up the mountain side at morn, / To ope the lily’s breast with golden key’. The sky is ‘the azure arch’, ‘yon starry slope’, or ‘the jewelled dome / Which frames the world’.

‘Pacific’s triple star’ takes its place in this repertoire. It is clearly a periphrasis for New Zealand. God is entreated to guard her from strife and war, to make her praises heard afar, and defend her. This much has been generally recognized. But crucially, the ‘triple star’ that is New Zealand is ‘Pacific’s’. It belongs to the ocean. So it can only be the North Island, the South Island, and Stewart Island, which several nineteenth-century writers called the Northern, Middle, and South Islands, as Cryer notes. Bracken’s phrase cannot stand primarily for any sort of insignia. Suppose the silver fern were now adopted as our sole national emblem and featured on a flag, it would make no sense to ask God to ‘Guard Pacific’s silver fern’. We might use ‘the silver fern’ as metonymy for (as something ‘standing for’) New Zealand, but we would not speak of ‘Pacific’s silver fern’.

Ref: Thomas Bracken. Musings in Maoriland, 1890.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

We can find traces of the ideas behind ‘Pacific’s triple star’ in some of Bracken’s other poems. They provide significant clues to correct understanding of the phrase. In ‘Hurrah for New Zealand’ Britain, as mother land, tells Freedom to pick ‘loyal hearts’ who will ‘make my fair daughter a Queen of the Sea’. In his ‘In Memoriam’ Bracken stellifies this daughter and potential queen: New Zealand is ‘Star of the South – our dear adopted land’. And in ‘Address’ he evokes ‘Proud Australasia, cluster of fair isles / And favoured islets in Pacific set’. In the anthem these images merge. It was the combination of New Zealand as ‘star’, ‘of the sea’, and ‘isles . . . in Pacific set’ that created the periphrasis ‘Pacific’s triple star’.

Baptised a Catholic, Bracken would have known that the Virgin Mary was ‘Stella Maris’, Star of the Sea, and, writing a ‘National Hymn’, would have approved of any religious overtones contributed to his phrase in this way and through vague suggestions of the ‘triple’ godhead of the Christian Trinity. Cryer points out that, according to historian Judith Binney in her book 'Redemption Songs' the three stars on Te Kooti’s flag symbolized the three islands. So the existence of such flags may conceivably have helped provoke Bracken’s periphrasis of New Zealand as ‘Pacific’s triple star’. But what the phrase ‘means’ is the three islands themselves. At a time when writers could allude to the Northern, Middle, and South Islands, no inhabitant of Waiheke Island or Sir George Grey’s Kawau Island, for example, would have complained that Bracken had miscounted.

Author: Mac Jackson