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Robin Hyde


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[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, footnotes ]

Opening the Archive
Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the persistence of record
 

Michele Leggott

From Williams and Leggott, eds, Opening the Book.  Auckland: Auckland UP, 1995: 266-93.
An earlier version appears in Hecate (Queensland), 20. 2 (1994): 56-87.

 

1  Matrix 

Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde may between them lay the foundation of a New Zealand literature.Jessie Mackay[i]

When Gillian Boddy in 1991 quotes Pat Lawlor in 1935 quoting Jessie Mackay several years previously on the subject of her younger contemporaries Eileen Duggan and Robin Hyde, the voice on the wind seems impossibly distant. To ground Mackay's statement and its original context is one search among many that might alter the sense we presently have of all three writers as peripheral to the founding of a canon of New Zealand poetry. Jessie Mackay — poet, journalist and critic herself — also announced in 1930 that Eileen Duggan had written poems 'to lay up in heart's lavender for ever'.[ii] Somewhere between the desire for foundation (public, communal, conditional) and the individual, partisan act of preservation lies the story of what happened to women poets and their work as literary codes were altered just before mid-century by a cultural nationalism inimical to previous competences.  

But don't forget the girl is a genius — Pat Lawlor[iii]
Lawlor finished his 1935 cameo of Robin Hyde with a flourish of affectionate territorial droit (the book was Confessions of a Journalist, published a year after Hyde's Journalese). Like Mackay, Lawlor was pinpointing a hope poetry had for its constitution in the 1930s that sounds odd now. We did forget. Or rather, the forgetting was carefully arranged and now seems like natural consequence, an outworn mode giving way to newer forces. But ghosts rise, and that word genius may still draw the fire Lawlor intended for it. 'The girl' was in 1935 a single woman of twenty-nine, author of one published prose work, two collections of poetry and a substantial body of journalism. She had also had two children, two breakdowns and two years' residence in an extramural ward of the mental hospital in Avondale — the same institution that claimed Eve Langley in the 1940s and Janet Frame in the 1950s. What price genius in such contexts?
 

Where are the words that broke the heart with beauty?
This is the age of the merely clever. — Eileen Duggan[iv]

There is a lost matrix of women poets whose presence in our literature needs urgent reappraisal. How it was lost, and why, are absorbing questions; but more important still is the matter and nature of matrix, with its suggestions of support, nurture, and numerousness. Jessie Mackay (1864-1938), Eileen Duggan (1894-1972), and Robin Hyde (1906-1939) were prominent figures in an earlier version of generational descent in New Zealand poetry, and they were conscious of the role. They knew and corresponded with each other and with the literary editors of the day who promoted and published them — notably John Schroder, Alan Mulgan, Charles Marris, and Pat Lawlor. They were vigorous reviewers and they were eloquent in their support of a wide range of causes that had in common a compassion for the outcast, dispossessed, or disempowered. Rights for women and children, the temperance movement, reform of discriminatory legislation against Maori, the loyalist cause in Spain, Scottish and Irish Home Rule, or unemployment problems closer to home were variously part of their brief. As unmarried, educated women supporting themselves in part — or wholly in Hyde's case — by journalism, they were culture workers who believed also in a code of social service. Blanche Edith Baughan (1870-1958) and Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945) span the generational gap after Mackay and before Duggan and Hyde, and suddenly we are looking at a capacity for shaping New Zealand poetry in the first half of the century as a politically alert, humanitarian enterprise, diverse in its subjects and styles but run on sympathetic and highly reticulated energies that took as their point of departure the socially progressive atmosphere of the late colonial perod.[v]

These women made deliberate choices about what they wrote and who it was aimed at. Their poems became well-known to readers also interested in the emergence (their patronage assisted it) of local literature and in its links with British tradition. The same readers could admire Hardy, Housman, Yeats or de la Mare, and find similar emotional engagement and stylistic clarity in the work of Duggan, Hyde and the others. They were not populists though they shared pubishing venues (mostly newspapers) with popular verse, for which there was a flourishing audience. In December 1935 Whitcombes had in stock 750 copies of The Perfume Vendor by seventeen-year-old Gloria Rawlinson. Hyde liked the poems and had written an introduction to her friend's book, but she was dismayed to find that only a dozen copies of The Conquerors had been ordered by the same bookshop.[vi] However, Duggan's readership in the 1930s was large — second editions of her Poems (1937) were printed in England and America — and Hyde's audience was certainly bigger than the 1935 anecdote implies.[vii] Both poets were capable of the kinds of simplicity that earned them casual readers as well as those who took their work more thoughtfully.

But such distinctions are at best arbitrary in the face of the powerful effect their poetry had on individuals in its contemporary audience. I am fascinated by the trace of a recurrent story which has it that the poems of Duggan and Hyde were carried to the 1939-45 war by the fathers, uncles, brothers or friends of those who also remember that such poems were often recited from memory and/or that the book is still about at home somewhere. Physical, literal distances the poems travelled, the memory of how and why they travelled signals a most interesting kind of endurance: passionate and totemic.  

I, too, read the moderns. They are clever — particularly Auden, whose work comes near genius: but great art is democratic. They don't catch the breath. The difference between cleverness and magic. — Eileen Duggan[viii]
Can the genius of Duggan, Hyde and the others touch us, a readership long since trained in the pleasures (and prestige) of formal difficulty? Duggan can mention democracy and magic in the same breath, sensing strategic wisdom leaping through its beholders as a set of fiery transmissions. Her scholarship is consequently tactical, blended with consciousness of a vocation almost in the tradtion of the Catholic teaching orders, and (like that tradition) astoundingly reflexive. Who is Maro of Toulouse in the title of the poem where Duggan carves up Modernist predilections for obscurantism not long after excusing herself from Allen Curnow's 1951 Caxton anthology? Who is L'Écrivisse Mère of her typescript poem, saying: 'We have not feasted and we have not basked. / We had the work / And asked no quittance — / We had the work'?[ix] These two, esoteric Latinist (father) and enigmatic (writing?) mother face each other across the gulf between publication and archive, teacher and savant, presence and waiting. Who are we of L'Écrivisse Mère covenant? And what are we taught outside of it, reading and thinking about that wait?

  Our doubt is is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. — Henry James[x]
I am working in the dark, trying to bridge the distance between their tradition and my standpoint, convinced these women have something to say that I need to hear. I am moving by a kind of textual infra-red, looking for places that make light of historical distance or heat up connections to the present. Already we are leaving exposition for the condition of poetry, its partiality, its ability to leap the abysses it opens. 'Ah not as plains that spread into us slowly,' Duggan wrote, 'But as that mountain flinging at the skies / And not as merchantmen which trundle in the offing / But as a privateer that boards a prize, / Let song come always at me and not to me.' The title of her poem pointedly conflates beauty with 'Booty' so that its final lines realise the inherent structural pun: 'For beauty like heaven by violence is taken / And the violent shall bear it away'.[xi] Or there is Hyde's coincidental gesture, written in cold and contemplating a durable fire: 'Flames shall be my jongleurs, / Flames my minstrel wights . . . I shall be their mad master . . . / Shriller, fiercer than words / Out of my golden aviary / Shall cry my burning birds.'[xii] The madness of art. The difference between cleverness and magic. I want to attend to the metamorphic, control-eluding figures Hyde and Duggan put before us as first principles of their art.

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Last updated 19 July, 2001