Topic: ‘Deep in the Hills’ by Ruth Dallas (1947) by Debbie McCauley

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This analysis of the sonnet ‘Deep in the Hills’ by Ruth Dallas was written by Debbie McCauley on 27 August 2008 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

Ruth Dallas (1919-2008) was a well known New Zealand poet and children’s author who sadly passed away earlier this year. Her poems were first published in 1946. In ‘Beginnings’ (1965) Dallas talks about a connection with the land made when she was eleven years old, ‘I became aware of nature’s lavishness for the sake of lavishness, and of the earth’s living out its own life, whether or not there is any human being to see’ (p. 52). It is this deep connection with the land that seems to have guided much of her work, including the sonnet, ‘Deep in the Hills’.

‘Deep in the Hills’ is a traditional fourteen line sonnet, originally published in Landfall in 1947. There are two six line sestets, concluding with a two line closing couplet, totalling fourteen lines in all. The metre is iambic pentameter. It seems that a range of meanings can be found within the poem. On first reading the overall impression received was that perhaps this author was overseas and somehow felt disconnected from her home in the Otago landscape, but that the connection was being re-established in the second stanza. On the second reading of the sonnet, an inner journey was uncovered, one of growth leading to maturity. 

The rhyme scheme of sestet one is AABBCB, sestet two DDBBDB and the closing couplet is EE. There is much use made of repetition with the following choice of words repeated:

  • Land
  • Inmost self
  • Quiet room
  • Unfolded, folded (x 2)
  • Sea
  • Tree
  • Mountain
  • Valley
  • Beach
  • Stone
  • Exist (x 3)

This repetition serves to give the true sense of what the sonnet is about. There are the inmost self, quiet room, unfolding and folding and exist which describe what is going on inside the author. The other words; land, sea, tree, mountain, valley, beach and stone all describe natural New Zealand elements. They serve to reinforce this strong connection found within the meaning of the poem. This is a form of imaginative identification with landscape and a reflection on Dallas’s place within it.

The first stanza of the poem possibly represents the adolescent years when one is focused internally and self absorbed, therefore nature is just part of ones inner self. There is a progression from the use of the word ‘once’ at the beginning of the first stanza to show that this timeframe was in the past. It covers earlier thoughts about the land that once existed only inside of the author. She explored that land only when alone and feeling safe. The tree seems to represent her inner self, part of a larger hidden forest. All the other elements of nature are included and reside within her.

A caesura has been used in line two: ‘Lay curled in my inmost self; musing alone’. This semi-colon indicates a significant pause, giving emphasis to the last two words of the line. This serves to highlight a highly personal journey that must be taken alone.

Punctuation pauses are used throughout the sonnet, but at places they can appear to make the poem a bit ‘clunky’, interrupting its natural rhythm. The line, ‘Hill and mountain valley beach and stone’ could possibly be enhanced with the addition of a comma after the word ‘valley’ to enhance the flow of the poem.

The second stanza would seem to show that a growth and maturing has occurred, one that is usually lacking in adolescence. The word ‘but’ begins the stanza, indicating that a chronological development has taken place. ‘My inmost self is blown like a grain of sand’ contains a strong use of imagery which serves to evoke thoughts of how insignificant one is. This simile likens the innermost self to a grain of sand. The use of a grain of sand can be used to show how one is just part of a larger whole and how easily can be propelled along uncontrollably in any or every direction. There seems to be a realisation that the world does not revolve about oneself, but that humankind is just a small part of the world. A greater understanding has been reached by the author that she is but a small part of a larger scheme and the windy beach shows that she can be still be blown around. The author is able to safely explore nature externally, to touch and examine the natural elements because they are no longer restricted to her inner self.

Dallas also makes use of enjambement [the continuation of a syntactic unit such as a phrase, clause, or sentence from one line of verse into the next line without a pause], particularly in verse two. These lines seem to run into each other without pause:

My inmost self is blown like a grain of sand

Along the windy beach, and is only free

To wander among the mountains, enter the tree,

Although the words and imagery used are evocative, the use of enjambement here could be seen to interrupt the flow of the poem. Pauses in incorrect places could cause the reader to experience disorientation, however this was most likely deliberate on the part of the poet. 

The final couplet starts with ‘o far’, seemingly indicating that the author is at peace with the place that is now held within the larger scheme of things and that the journey is complete. It concludes with the realisation she can be touched by and at one with nature while still being deeply connected with the land.

This is a very imaginative and autobiographical poem by an icon of New Zealand literature. It is very descriptive of the Otago region and contributes significantly to New Zealand’s literary heritage and is typical of the ‘romantic’ movement. The connection of poet and landscape also places the poem firmly in the ‘cultural nationalist’ genre.



Dallas, R. (1965). Ruth Dallas. In R. Dudding (ed.). (1980) Beginnings: New Zealand writers tell how they began writing. First published in Landfall between 1964 and 1967. Wellington, New Zealand: Oxford.



Dallas, R. (2006). The joy of a ming vase. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago.

Dallas, R. (2003). Moving to Dunedin. In C. Johnston (Ed.). Dunedin: The city in literature. (pp. 110-117). Auckland, New Zealand: Exisle.

Dallas, R. (2000). Collected poems. (2nd ed). Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago.

Dallas, R. (2000). The black horse and other stories. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago.

Dallas, R. (1991). Curved horizon: An autobiography. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago.

Dallas, R. (1983). Holiday time in the bush. Auckland, New Zealand: Methuen.

Dallas, R. (1979). Shining Rivers. Auckland, New Zealand: Methuen.

Dallas, R. (1975). The house on the cliffs. Wellington, New Zealand: Hicks, Smith & Sons.

Dallas, R. (1972). The big flood in the bush. London, England: Methuen.

Dallas, R. (1971). The wild boy in the bush. London, England: Methuen.

Dallas, R. (1970). A dog called wig. London, England: Methuen.

Dallas, R. (1969). The children in the bush. London, England: Methuen.

Eng, S. (1994). Between the lines: A guide to reading and responding to poetry. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman Paul.

McQueen, C. (2000, July 1). The pleasures of poetry: Deep in the hills by Ruth Dallas. Listener, 42-44

Robinson, R., & Wattie, N. (1998). The oxford companion to New Zealand literature. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press

Ruth Dallas 1919-2008. (March 26, 2008). Southland poet saw meaning in landscapes. Retrieved August 17, 2008 from southlandtimes /4451455a16897.html

Stevens, E. (2007). Painted poems, one artist: 20 poets. Dunedin, New Zealand: Longacre.

The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2007). Block 1 supplement. In 74104 Introducing the Humanities. (2nd ed.). Lower Hutt, New Zealand: Author.

The Open University. (2005). An introduction to the humanities: Form and reading: Block 1 (2nd ed.). Milton Keynes, United Kingdom: Author.

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