about Robin Hyde
THE VICTORY HYMN 1935 - 1995
I. ‘I am for peace against the gates of hell’
I can see – a poem to be called ‘Chariot Wheels’, all but the last of it in blank verse and rhyming verse. The theme, the age-long defence of the city named Melchek – Slaves in the stable-yards –
Robin Hyde was writing 13 June 1935 in her journal, still resident at the Grey Lodge in Avondale but properly embarked on the programme of writing by which she intended to become self-supporting outside the pressures of staff journalism that had contributed to her collapse in mid-1933. By June 1935 the manuscript of ‘Bronze Outlaw’, her book about the war experience of J.D. Stark (published 1936 as Passport to Hell) and the first version of her autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly (published 1938) were a month or so complete, and the manuscript that would later in the year be published as The Conquerors and Other Poems had been revised and posted back to Macmillans in London. Check to Your King, a biographical novel about Baron Charles de Thierry and the vicissitudes of British colonisation, was as yet unpublished but entered for a competition run by The Atlantic Monthly, and Journalese (reminiscences, published locally) had been out for six months to no financial gain, some pleasant reviews and James Bertram's good opinion in London.
In early March Hyde had received a letter of appreciation from Bertram with a flower from Katherine Mansfield's grave enclosed. The keepsake seems to have generated immediate connective tissue in the preface to The Godwits Fly where Hyde begins her evocation of the godwit condition: ‘Where is Katherine, with weeds on her grave at Fontainebleau, when what she really wanted was the dark berry along our creeks? (Don't you remember? We call them Dead Man's Bread.)’ She was aligning her project with that of her most significant predecessor, quoting as she did so Mansfield's well-known poem to her brother Leslie Beauchamp, killed near Armentieres in 1915. It was this death that triggered ‘Prelude’, ‘At the Bay’, and ‘The Doll's House’, based on recollections of Wellington childhood and among Mansfield's most luminous New Zealand stories. In early 1935 Robin Hyde was engaged in her first attempt at transforming autobiographical material into prose fiction; engaged also in a less successful struggle to produce saleable short fiction in the form of a collection of fantasy stories called ‘Unicorn Pasture’ which was sent to her London agent but never published.
Godwits, war-heroes and finances notwithstanding, she was by mid-1935 looking for an opportunity to address some pressing issues of recent times by way of their sinister repetitions in history. The journal entry of 13 June announces and then acts on its intention — the lines quoted there are also extant on a page of manuscript, untitled, which is the start and apparently all that survives of the poem first planned as ‘Chariot Wheels’, a total of sixteen lines.
And an old man who leads his tattered little host into the courtyard. They ask him if he is friend or foe – He answers ‘I am for peace against the gates of Hell.’
The poem fragment does not get this far, but the play in three acts that ‘Chariot Wheels’ soon became — unpublished, two typescripts now in the possession of Derek Challis — has a first act set in the ancient Near East that culminates in the arrival of the peace-bringer, an old man who momentarily stops the roar of war chariots getting ready to mount a last defence of the besieged city of Melchek.
The same in the Middle Ages – The chariot wheels suddenly commanded to halt. Men stop – they hear nothing but the beating of the human heart and the song of a lark threading its way into the abyss – nothing, nothing – The water of the wheels closes above them in an iron sea –
Dark Ages rather than mediaeval were Hyde's eventual choice for a variation on Melchek's disaster in Act Two; the city is relocated in Viking regions as a flourishing maritime power. There is no sound of chariot wheels but the peace-bringer, this time a blind skald, halts the carousing of a raiding party about to leave on an extended voyage under royal leadership. In the ensuing silence the dead heart of a woman victim of the Viking party seems to beat again and the bird song is heard a second time.
Item 6: My play. Have Watt's formal receipt that's all yet; it's got a wolf-hound in it and a barmaid and a victory hymn.
Hyde was updating her longtime correspondent John Schroder on the year's literary progress sometime after late July which is when the journal reports completion of ‘Chariot Wheels’ as a play. The wolfhound (loyal, a protector) belongs to the Viking queen Gudrun of Act Two, whose twentieth-century incarnation in Act Three is a barmaid named Queenie living and working in a wartime Melchek that could be London. Gudrun and Queenie, played by the same actress, are twin degenerations of the warrior queen Azenor of Act One who is the play's fascinating but denatured principle of what one character calls ‘the eternal feminine’ as eater of life and death. Azenor is Melchek, to the death, and Gudrun personally spearheads its later punitive expeditions. But when Queenie speaks the recycled line about preferring to be dust in Melchek rather than a captive on foreign soil, her jingling patriotism backlights the covert xenophobia of her prototypes and poses for a third time the dilemma of those who choose to contract themselves to absolute sovereignty. ‘I have read the notebook of Rainer Maria Rilke,’ Hyde wrote 8 March 1935 in her journal, ‘after that nothing could lead me to the applause of one nation's savaging of another.’
But peace, as Hyde knew, was a limited-term option by 1935. Japan had been in Manchuria since 1931, out of the League of Nations since 1933 and was eyeing more Chinese territory. Tensions were mounting in Abyssinia after a December 1934 clash with Mussolini's colonial troops at Walwal oasis. Germany had walked out of the League of Nations in 1933, and Hitler's announcement in March 1935 of hugely increased conscription and the recreation of a German airforce was made in response to increased French and British expenditure on air armament. Hyde comments angrily in her journal (8 March 1935) on the lost opportunity for ‘peace causerie’ with Hitler which the recent British White Paper on airforce expenditure had cost. For nations officially reluctant to draw Europe into another war, France and Britain were giving Hitler plenty of pretexts for strengthening German security. ‘Chariot Wheels’, bleak and cyclical, was conceived as immediate commentary on the symbolic order of post-Versailles peace-keeping.
The victory hymn Hyde mentions to Schroder occurs at the end of the play as a choric poem spoken by two voices (a man and a woman) who recount the nature of Melchek's history and foretell the coming of its ultimate ruler, a Christ-like hero who loves the citadel of humankind. In one section of what is probably the first draft of the poem, copied into the back of the 1935 Journal, this custodial ruler is a woman. The victory sloughs off its martial overtones as the poem proceeds, echoing the bitter educative process of Melchek's rulers, and arriving finally at a settlement of the blood-price. It is a victory hymn in the tradition of those odes of Pindar's where individual glory backed by city pride afforded the poet a chance to scant his account of the actual sporting contest in order to philosophise at length on the implications of victory produced by a particular set of social and political contexts set about with the relevant legends.
The victory hymn in "Chariot Wheels" is hymnal in the sense that Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty", his translations of the Homeric Hymns or Hyde's own "Hymn to Io" all attempt praise-giving outside the conventions of religious orthodoxy while invoking its solemnity and sense of high purpose. If we are also reminded of Shelley's skylark and its ‘triumphal chant’ and perhaps of the choruses written for Hellas (ancient mapped against contemporary political struggle), Hyde's ambitions for the play and its poem are probably being met. "All the same, you go to Shelley for real inspiration", she observed two years later in A Home in This World, weighing up Moderns and Romantics. ‘I like his quality of moss and verdure tempered by thorns. 'The Masque of Anarchy'. I get my politics direct from Shelley and Shakespeare, with an occasional hint from the Holy Ghost’. Certainly some ghost factor superintends an etymological connection that links a hymn with the Homeric ‘web of song’ (hymnos, from a stem meaning to weave) when we consider the intricately worked rhyme schemes of ‘The Victory Hymn’ and the lark song repeatedly threading its way into the blue in the poem, into the abyss in the play.
The Little Man: ‘Now see 'ere. If that little dawg of mine was to turn around and take a piece out of you, I could be 'ad up, couldn't I? [. . .] But what I asks is, who are we to go setting in judgement on scrapping dawgs, when we can't control ourselves? Who are we to call a dumb brute savage, 'cos it acts upon its nature, when it's our own nature to tear one another to bits, to shoot lead into one another's innards. to poison wells, to fly over 'ouses at night and drop down bombs on sleeping women and children? Who are we to call ourselves human, to make laws and ask other people to act on them, if the first quarrel we 'as among ourselves, we fly off the 'andle and behave dirtier than the lowest beast or savage that ever crawled? And if so be we aren't properly human yet...., if we're just, in a manner of speaking, performing dawgs taking orders from other performing dawgs.... then what I want to know is, who's the bastard at the back of the whole show? Who's the one giving the orders?
The Little Man, a conscientious objector in Queenie's Melchek, has just given his white poodle orders to perform for the crowd which is not interested in his message though willing to be entertained. His dog, female but answering variously to General, Admiral, Colonel and (most tellingly) Winston, is a shadow of Gudrun's wolfhound. Melchek now resembles 1914-18 London, we have to assume, because the play was written for a prospective British audience – which could also conclude the significance to its own multiply invaded ancestry of action set in quasi-Alexandrian and Viking times. The Little Man is not a copy of Azenor's slave-general Phaedros in Act One though each man capitulates to his Melchek queen in the face of her threatened extinction. In doing so, and against his better judgement, each abandons the city of man to fight for Melchek and against men. At the end of the play the Little Man is underground in a war zone, trapped with one Companion (‘a soldier with a brave heart and a pleasant voice’) beneath a mined hill, listening in the dark to the sound of an artillery advance overhead. A big shell bursts, a shadow vision of the old peace-bringer appears in the brief glare, then the rumble of wheels is silent.
The Little Man: ‘No, I ain't dead. I'm a deal more alive than I was before that bleeding row stopped. I'm going to put on me ear-phones. Before we got blocked up 'ere, I used to listen to the sappers on the other side tapping away with their picks. Makes you wonder who'll get there first and blow the other chap up.... you or them...
Once the ear-phones are on, the human heartbeat and the singing of the lark (‘It must have been the concussion’) become audible. The play concludes with the sappers still buried while a ghostly procession of Melchek's defenders through the centuries moves overhead and the victory hymn begins.
The ear-phones incident has a co-text in the account of the mining of Messines Ridge in Passport to Hell. J. D. Stark's experiences in France, recounted for Hyde February-April 1935 as she planned and wrote the book, provided a fertile base for the symbolism she then extended in the last (hell) scene of ‘Chariot Wheels’. Its ingredients are already present in her ghosting of Starkie's narrative:
Canadians are a queer crowd and it seems they don't mind living in the dank green pools of water, working day-long in the slimy tunnels where, listening through the ear-phones, you can hear the little tap-tap-tap of the frantic German picks, racing to finish their countermines. [. . .] when you hear it under the earth, tunnelling below Messines Ridge, it means, "I'll get you, I'll get you, I'll get you!" – and it isn't even just a threat – it's a sort of crazy, clicking panic in case the other chap should touch off his mine first [. . .] When you started handing in the boxes of explosives, that little far-away tap-tap-tap became something like the way a man's heart throbs and bursts when he struggles to wake himself from a nightmare, You didn't need to hear it unless you put on the ear-phones, but the temptation and fascination of putting them on again was too much.
Passport to Hell is an important progenitor of ‘Chariot Wheels’, which also attempts to hear the voice of a common man negotiating his historical consciousness. As in the Starkie book, beauties comedies and terrors commingle; unlike Passport to Hell, ‘Chariot Wheels’ allows itself the coda of a perfect other place, Melchek of the lark song reached by way of the beating human heart – the chance of peace against the gates of Hell. Because it is a coda the victory hymn is by nature detachable, a possibility easily lost to circumstance or another set of compromises. Like some of the other places of grace Hyde constructed in her writing, this one lies over the edge of a world that burns, buries or maims its inhabitants.