new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robin Hyde

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[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Notes]

THE VICTORY HYMN 1935 - 1995


II. Against the purple wind

While the procession files past, and after it has vanished, voices (the speakers remaining unseen,) speak the Victory Hymn. This should be delivered by a man's voice and a woman's, the man speaking first. When the procession is finished, the remainder of the hymn should be delivered with faint light resting on the tunnel and on the figures of the two buried men.[17]

‘The Victory Hymn’ summarises the events of Melchek's history without being specific about who is speaking. The voice rhetorically producing information about the past is also, near the end of the poem, a citizen or another holder of the city: ‘Tell me who won this place, / What son of an iron mother / Turned to the west his iron face, / And held against another / My city Melchek, unto the equal dark?’[18] The poem is not specific about who is speaking precisely because the stage directions at the end of the play resonate with dramatic options. Two voices, male then female (in unison or antiphonal?), four distinct parts to the poem, speakers unseen but not necessarily unidentifiable – what price the reconstruction offered, for example, by using the Azenor-Gudrun-Queenie actress opposite a Phaedros, a Viking Renulf, or a brave-heart Companion?

Whatever combination of choices a director may light on, certain conditions persist: the collapsed tunnel is under No Man's Land, and the two soldiers will die for Melchek utterly remote from her – a modern literalisation of the same old sacrifice. The half-light at the end of the tunnel is possibility (not redemption), a conclusion borne out by the emphasis in the poem on the yet-to-come:

And the hand of the child unborn
Launches its mighty ships
To his charter. His are the songs of the unborn lips
And your womb, O listening woman, is his defence.

This connects with two of several epigrammatic paragraphs after the journal entry of 13 June 1935 that gives rise to the project. The paragraphs are consecutive parts of an entry dated 29 July:

I have two arguments against war : they are my two hands. While I can use them to build, I am pledged against destruction –

But though the hands be maimed and the eyes blinded, yet every woman has one argument against war, and it is deeper within her than words. For this is her womb. While she can bear a child into this world, how shall she say, ‘Slay on?’

There is a passage in A Home in This World (p. 38) which seems to elaborate this:

And yet without me, oh God, how will you find life? And not only through the articulate, but through all, woman and beast, bird and plant, who suffer the growth and bear the pangs. Then because I am necessary – unless you want the crystal desolation of a world with nothing but sands and tides, and that indeed I could well understand – do not let me be disgraced. Man cannot be so great, since I by whiles confine him in my womb . . . .

The baby born dead in The Godwits Fly is a powerful comment on a world that wants to disgrace its women as a sign of its own wider failure to regenerate. The son born live and dearly held against conventional morality (‘I don't think conventional women should have illegitimate children, preferably they shouldn't have any children at all’; Journal, 20 February 1935) is a counterpoint strategy narrated in A Home in This World, a text which for all its anguish defies certain bleaknesses The Godwits story has no protection from or answers to. At Godwits time, compositionally encompassing ‘Chariot Wheels’ time, answers may have been discernible to Hyde but they were also some way off realisation.

So the slayer's knife will go on cutting down the people and rulers of Melchek until the peace-bringer's impossible gift is taken up by one victor prepared to risk everything. His conversion to the cause (rather than causerie) of peace comes after devastating conflict when he is led apart (by whom?) into a grove of glimmering (or shimmering, or shining) trees to be reunited with the natural earth which has been wronged. There ‘Ash-tree and moss, and the wind-borne butterflies’, all redolently silent after the din of warfare, are first elements in a new covenant and ‘a shaft of the quivering sun / Is the spear-haft plunged in his side’. The death of his warrior self is Christ's death, and the poem plays on the paradox of staking one life against an order intent only on taking away life:

But he who takes his life
And sets it, a lamp in a casement, against the purple wind,
Leaning there, deaf and blind
To all save the voices of night,
And to all save the dappled morning's first thrilling lark,
He is the holder of Melchek.

Only this holder binds ‘sky and mountain’ (those crystal desolations) to his domain, only this holder can be ‘sealed upon Melchek's heart’ – where ‘Melchek’ is at last congruent with ‘heart’.


Last updated 07 September, 2001