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Thoroughly Modern Malory: Robin Hyde and Malorian Desire.

Megan Clayton.


This paper was presented at the ‘Designing Women and Willing Men in Medieval and Renaissance Texts’ conference in the English Department of the University of Auckland, 17 February 2001. It is derived from ‘Iris, Read and Written: A New Poetics of Robin Hyde’, Ph.D thesis, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, submitted June 2001.


I am delighted today to have the opportunity to talk about the writing of Robin Hyde outside its usual context of New Zealand literature. In my doctoral research I have investigated those aspects of Hyde’s writing to which I consider little attention has been thus far paid, and it is with this in mind that I would like to present a summary of my research on the importance of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur to Hyde’s poetics.

Robin Hyde died in 1939 at the age of thirty-three, so it is important that we bear in mind that the narrative she called Malory was not Vinaver’s 1947 edition of the Winchester manuscript, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, that has since become the standard edition for scholarly readers, but rather the various late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century revisions and abridgings of Caxton’s 1485 manuscript, Le Morte Darthur. The edition of Malory that Hyde seems to have owned in the 1930s was a Warner two-volume set published in 1911, complete with watercolour plates illustrating selected scenes. Thus, Hyde’s Malory was not the open, contested and potentially fragmented text Vinaver later revealed it to be, but rather a site of artistic confluence for Edwardian publishers.

At this point I should backtrack a little to my opening statement that Robin Hyde scholars have not paid much attention to the importance of Malory in Hyde’s writing. Hyde’s creative and critical contemporaries—people such as Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Charles Brasch, as well as later writers such as James K. Baxter or Hyde’s posthumous editor and advocate Gloria Rawlinson—saw their literary production as a national enterprise in search of local values, and were at best wary and at worst blatantly suspicious of a poetics like Hyde’s whose provenance was historical, distant and imagined rather than recent, immediate and apprehended. Hyde’s interest in Malory was an example of the way in which she was different from other New Zealand writers.

Due in no small part to the pithy turn of phrase and ardent editorialising of a number of these young writers, a temporally and spatially specific poetic which was quite different from Hyde’s concerns became the site of an interpretative consensus which, both in Hyde’s lifetime and in the years following her death, made her poetical interests seem not only different, but irrelevant. Thus, in 1945 Allen Curnow argues that ‘anyone capable of poetry, feeling his own land and people, his footing on the earth, to be in any way inadequate, unstable, unreal, is bound to attempt a resolution of the problems set by his birth’ (23), then goes on to assert that Robin Hyde ‘began to discover her country, and herself as poet, after she had left New Zealand’ (37). This assertion effectively shrinks the number of important verses among Hyde’s output of five hundred or more poems over fourteen years to those she wrote in the last twenty months of her life, between January 1938 and the twenty-third of August, 1939. Even Hyde’s literary advocate Gloria Rawlinson came to understand Hyde’s writing by this model. In her 1952 introduction to Houses by the Sea, her collection of Hyde’s later poems, Rawlinson mentions in passing how ‘in Le Mort d’Arthur especially [Hyde] found symbols of that visionary country she had long sought under so many names—Nirvana, Sarras, Camelot, Ultima Thule’ (16), going on to draw attention to Hyde’s shift away from her Malorian interests in her last poems.

It was my hunch that Malory must have been a source of more complexity for Hyde than simply offering a means of escape until she reached her poetic ‘maturity’ that started my research into Hyde’s use of Malory. My methodology was uncomplex but broadly-ranging: I made a close reading of all of Hyde’s published and unpublished poems with an identifiably ‘Malorian’ inflection, and considered critically the recurrent themes this reading raised. What I found was a highly integrated poetics, deeply resonant throughout Hyde’s poetry, prose and autobiographical writing. Summarised, my finding was that Malory’s Le Morte Darthur provides Hyde with a poetical and ontological structure of desire.

To understand the way in which this structure of desire is manifest in Robin Hyde’s writing, it is useful to work our way into the centre of this idea from its margins, and look first at the way in which Hyde finds in Malory a useful narrative for understanding her political times. Hyde chose to understand the social and economic instability of the 1920s and 30s in terms of the inexorable systemic failure of the Arthurian world that Malory describes in Le Morte Darthur. Robert Merrill has suggested that Malory’s text demonstrates an awareness of the inherent self-destructiveness of ideologically conditioned systems, both the hierarchy of the Round Table and Malory’s own fifteenth century society which depended on the moral authority of the king and the complicity of the nobles and gentry, and we can see in a number of Hyde’s poems how she uses this lens of the valiant but doomed knight, both in his Arthurian and late-medieval incarnations, to consider the collapse of the old understandings that followed the Great War and led to the Great Depression. In ‘The Paladins’, from Persephone in Winter we can see how what seems like a general imagining of the loss of young knights errant is specifically related to the experience of young soldiers in the Great War.

In this poem, the central conceit is Death as a benevolent but fatal mother-lover, who draws the young soldiers to her to prevent them—literally in the case of the young man wearing a gas mask—from seeing the social ruin and moral collapse brought by the war, here symbolised by the rape of the soldiers’ young women:

Death gathered in the paladins
For very shame, lest they should see
What next chill phalanx of revenge
March in the plumes of chivalry;

Lest men who fought beleagueréd
Run mad and utter blasphemies
To hear rent womb and maidenhead
Answer, ‘Here lie thine enemies!’ (1-8)

The complexity of images here, and the density of ideas in this short poem, is typical of the way in which Malory fuels Hyde’s thinking. There is a moral ambivalence about this poem which matches Malory’s own treatment of the death of Arthur, whose right-hand man Sir Bors almost rejects Arthur’s request that he return Excalibur to the lake whence it came, in order to retain something of his king and friend. Just as Bors’s hesitation mirrors the transition from the corporate medieval community to the early-modern individual, as Merrill has suggested, so Hyde’s poem ‘The Paladins’ connotes the modern subject’s shift from affiliative and imperial, or late-colonial world, to the cynical, individuated modernism that characterised the politicised poetics of the 1930s, and, which we see here, is the eastern nations’ apparent abandonment of organised military affiliation:

Lest Omdurman, Arabia,
Bewildered fling their weapons down
To aid the trapped and choking tide
Penned in the phosgene’s taken town.

Death took a starveling peasant lad,
And hid blue eyes and beardless chin
Behind a gas-mask: ‘Be thou glad,
My darling and my paladin!’ (9-16)

The Paladins are not only victims of Death; their loss to a phosgene attack is a reminder of the fallen, transgressive condition that exists, for Hyde and Malory, at the heart of human endeavour, of the centrifugal forces of chaos and dissolution which mean that systems, structures and societies contain from their inception the seeds of their own destruction: the soldiers suffocate to death; Arthur’s usurper Mordred is a child of incest; everything is flawed.

If this were the sole lesson which Robin Hyde took from Malory’s Le Morte Darthur then there would be nothing particularly remarkable about her insight; the sentiments expressed in a poem such as ‘The Paladins’ are identifiably modernist, and indeed pacifist, and were repeated by other poets and through other analogies throughout the 1930s. But there is, I am pleased to assert, more to Hyde’s use of Malory than simply a recognition of a cynical spirit marking the turning of a social era. Out of the fallen nature of Malory’s heroes and heroines Hyde makes an allegory for her own experience of desire, appropriating and transforming multiple moments of transgression into an impressive poetic structure whose referents are medieval but whose sensibility looks towards the postmodern.

The heroes of Malory’s narrative have reputations which rest on their embodiment of the knightly code, yet all of them trespass against this code in some important way. Lancelot and Tristram, who win the most worship of all the knights as exemplars of prowess and of chivalry, both conduct adulterous relationships that threaten the stability of their respective kingdoms. Their lovers, the queens Guinevere and Isolde, are recognised, contradictorily, as ideal queens and ideal lovers. Palomides, the unbaptised Christian proselyte, loves Isolde and is consumed with jealousy towards Tristram, who is also his best friend. It is in the company of Tristram and Isolde that Palomides is simultaneously the most happy and the most wretched. Arthur’s nephew Gawain murders his mother, Arthur’s sister, for her relationship with Lamorak, himself a knight of celebrated abilities. Thus, the vaunted heroism of Arthur and his knights is built on a foundation whose structure, as Elizabeth Edwards has noted, is adultery, and transgression:

While the medieval romance reveals a set of aristocratic values quite different from those found in the novel, social structures are nonetheless maintained by marriage there too; but the structure of literature, especially of plot, is that of adultery. I am suggesting that for the Arthurian cycle, adultery is the structure of structure. It is what sustains the court, and what drives the plot towards its ending on Salisbury Plain. (47)

It is this hybrid of moral virtue and sexual disarray from which Hyde derives a structure of desire that underpins some of her best poetry. Her writing is conditioned in this by two relationships on which she predicated much of her emotional life, both of which were non-conformist and informed by an understanding of herself that was based on transgression. A friend, Harry Sweetman, with whom Hyde had a teenage relationship before he left for England without her, where he died shortly after his arrival, becomes in Hyde’s Malorian framework a knightly companion who has betrayed the bonds of chivalry. Hyde plays out her lament for this lost relationship in poem after poem, in which the speaker is variously the deserted and the deserter. The persistent sense of betrayal and bereavement over this relationship which dogged Hyde into her thirties is transformed in her poetry into a series of lapses in the Arthurian system of chivalrous conduct. In ‘The Wayfarer’ (AU 155), the speaker, a knight errant, is betrayed by the unexpected departure of his companion:

You were a poor companion. Did you guess
How many burdens I had borne for you,
But that the fingers of your loneliness
Thrust us apart? Perhaps, you never knew....
And now my dark-tressed pines will shut away
Hills and hill-goers. I can only pray. (9-14)

In ‘The Traitor’, from The Conquerors, the speaker is a vassal who has deserted his lord yet claims that the final disloyalty lies not with him but with his knight, who has emotionally deserted his companion in favour of a woman:

It is you who were traitor, not I.
You who turned
From the wet knife-edges of pain,
From dull red hours, that burned
To flickering dawn in the sky
And a steady falling of rain
To an infinite starlit meadow,
To Her who stood in the shadow,
Waters of comfort deep-cupped in her quiet hands;
To the fragrance hid in her hair
And her tender mouth bent near,
And the gentle glimmering ways of her ghostly lands.
How shall I conquer, knowing not you at my side? (1-13)

Important too is the way in these two poems that gender is flexible: Hyde speaks as a young man who sounds like a young woman, or writes like a young woman who sounds like a young man. She thus both parodies and makes a pastiche out of the conventions of systemic homosociality, which govern the Arthurian court until their subversion brings about its collapse. We see in these extracts how the Malorian framework of affiliation and transgression enables Hyde to write originally, with imaginative distance and sophistication, in response to an event whose significance for her was deep and private.

In preparing a poetical response to this lost relationship, whose memory she returns to repeatedly in her private writing, Hyde uses a homosocial model derived from the master-vassal pairings of Le Morte Darthur to express her thwarted aspirations towards sexual equality and what might be called intellectual intimacy. The frustrated, bewildered love that binds a character such as Palomides to Tristram, or conditions Gawain and his brothers not to reveal to Arthur the adultery between the queen and Lancelot, is the imaginative source of Hyde’s work here, and the complexity of the two poems I have referred to matches the contradictory clingings of Arthur’s knights to systems, and to loves, which will fail them. Hyde similarly uses this Malorian model of affiliation and desire to write about her relationship with another man, a relationship which, for reasons which will become obvious, was never consummated, and thus was as necessarily predicated on absence and the idea transgression as her memory of her lost friend. This second relationship was between Hyde and her psychiatrist Gilbert Tothill, who took on the responsibility of her care while Hyde was resident at the Lodge of the Auckland Mental Hospital in the mid-1930s. Hyde’s love for Tothill is a fulcrum on which rest both her thinking about Malory’s narrative and the shaping effect this narrative has on her poetry. In a sustained project of disciplined self-scrutiny, Hyde contains the chaotic potential of her feelings within a literary project whose source is Malorian structure of desire. In a variety of poems she explores the possibilities Malory’s narrative provides for her to exploit the transgressive, secret and potentially explosive resonances of her love.

In a 1935 ‘Journal’ entry addressed to Tothill, Hyde wrote ‘I love you, with all the stupid useless love of which I am capable. […] If I could only be a man, and your servant. You’re my captain, which is more than any other man has ever been—it’s not only that I will do what you tell me, but that I can do what you tell me’ (59). This wilful surrendering of her agency, an active adoption of passivity, becomes one speaking position from which she writes her poetry, a voice as helpless as any of Malory’s damsels who seek succour from knights errant. In a poem such as the unpublished ‘The Captive’ (AU 99), it is this wilful submission that gives the text its erotic charge:

If you had found me in a ransacked town
Its old grey church defiled, its stilly wood
Hacked for pure sport … and, ’midst spoilt wine and food
A woman with wild eyes yet cowering down,
Dared you have understood? (1-5)

Yet, even within the poem, the moment of confrontation is only imaginary, and the wilful submission that the speaker seeks to make to her lover is revealed in the final stanza as impossible, since the lover will not ‘fit [his] sword’; he will not take the role of the active agent and emotional ruler of the speaker:

But you have found me otherwhere..... in Life,
Which is a goodly place of mirth and song,
Not soiled with wine, nor offering weakness wrong,
Nor undermined by secret tides of strife....
Here can be no abuse..... My lord, my lord!
That you were man enough to fit your sword! (6-11)

We see then how there is within transgression a feeling for Hyde of immense safety and fulfilment, an emotional space in which, perhaps because the relationship she is describing can never be realised, there is safety and nurture and the return of the lost innocent self. In the poem ‘Astolat’, from Persephone in Winter, Hyde nonetheless makes clear the suffering that the transgressive female subject endures:

I am weary of listening for a sound on the stair,
For a step without, and a man’s voice, steadfast and low;
No man does well to conquer a woman so
That blind and still she waits for him, russet hair
Spread in defeated glory over the white
Pillows from which she dare not lift her head;
Stilled is the room; for the tide of her being is fled
To ebb unseen round his going, come day, come night.

Sometimes she dreams, ‘I am rich. I shall see him great....
Mine are the slender hands shall fasten well
His golden armour, what time he strives with Fate,
And a sleeve of pearls for the tourney at Tintagel.
Maid Elaine for the knight Sir Launcelot
In her ancient Astolat towers, made offerings such....
She died at the last, for he loved a Queen o’ermuch....
Yet haply her childish fingers were unforgot.’ (1-16)

Her speaker in this poem faces her misery with the same unforgiving insight that Malory’s Elaine of Astolat demonstrates when she says to Lancelot, ‘Alas […] then must I die for your love’ (XVIII.19, 1911 390) (and with rather more earthiness than Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, who goes to her death after seeing the sexual symbols of the opening water-lily, the helmet and the plume (III.5)). As we see in this poem’s first stanza, Hyde’s speaker knows the emotional cost of the game she is playing. Like lost Elaine, her only hope of emotional continuance lies in the happiness of her lover and the legend of her own devotion.

Ultimately, it is in the making of this legend that Hyde is able to find an exit from the poetical and emotional misery that is the final outcome of the unlimited and unrequited devotion to Tothill that preoccupied her imagination during her time at The Lodge. Just as her eulogising, in poetry and prose, of her friend Harry Sweetman seems to have worn out his memory, so the transfer of Tothill from Auckland to Tokanui and Hyde’s own departure for a subsistence existence on the North Shore, seems to have given her enough mental reprieve to redirect her poetical focus. Whereas Malory’s Arthurian kingdom eventually collapses into war and anarchy when the adultery of that ‘flower of knighthood’ Lancelot is exposed by Gawain’s brothers, after which the homosocial, affiliative relationships that sustained that kingdom cannot cope with the inverse moral pressure exuded by the transgressive relationship at their centre, Hyde in her poetry forestalls such a collapse by a change of direction, in which she seems to recognise that the figure her speaker calls ‘My Lord’ in ‘The Captive’ will never be ‘man enough’ to ‘fit [the] sword’(11) she has assigned him. In ‘The Page-Boy’s Song’, from Persephone in Winter, a young male speaker disavows heterosexual romance in favour of a less complicated life of combat, apparently unfettered by the affiliative confusion Hyde touches on in the poetry where she alludes to Sweetman. This poem acts as a kind of ‘farewell to love’, offering an alternative to the misery to which Hyde’s other speakers may yet return, an oasis among the emotional travail of poems such as ‘Astolat’, reminding the reader that in poetry at least, there is always another imaginative possibility:

Women are all the same,
Liege, and my lord—
Swift white falcons grown tame,
(Look to your sword!)
And the ware old fox Ulysses
Knew best what comes of their kisses,
Of the serpentine rill that hisses
Clean through their hearts, my lord.
Women are lotus lands,
My questing lord,
Delicate resting hands,
The first frail snowflake ignored.
There’s a dungeon behind their eyes,
And it’s oh, for the windswept skies!—
You were safer with enemies,
My trusting lord. (1-8, 17-24)

In poetry too, a woman may play at being a boy, as we see in ‘The Page-Boy’s Song’, and in Hyde’s poems concerned with knight-vassal relationships. However, Hyde is ultimately political enough to posit an imaginative scenario whose setting is more like her setting and gender more like her gender, an act which relieves the poem of the emotional sexual tension we see in the works already discussed. The speaker in ‘The Dwelling’, also from Persephone in Winter, remains in the forest like a Malorian damsel, but has accepted the absence of her loved one as a tenet of her existence. She locates her happiness in a position of emotional compromise, continuing to live her own life and carry out her own activities while keeping her home, whose humbleness resembles the baches and huts that Hyde lived in on the North Shore after 1937, ready to host her desired guest:

There stands the dwelling. Though you never come,
See how I set the doorway just so wide
That it may frame the changeling trees outside
You would love best, slim truants from the green
Strong-kelp of bush, half frightened to be seen
So near lit windows, blur of cobalt smoke.
And all you would have loved, but may not own,
Crude earthen vessels, weaving stealing soul
From hands that made them, ancient blue of delft,
Copper’s flushed flags—I set them on the shelf
Ordered for you. (1-6, 15-19)

She is not, like the speaker in Astolat, self-deceived, caught in the moment of her misery, but has turned the absence at her life’s centre into a spur to action. It is as if Guinevere, bereft of Lancelot, has not gone to a nunnery but built a church instead, in which she now preaches.

In real life, Tothill did pay at least one visit to Hyde after their departures from Avondale; Michele Leggott has suggested that Hyde’s poem ‘The Seaward Road’ (AU 576) anticipates that visit, including some possibility of a romantic, if not sexual, connection between the two. My concern today however has not been so much with the facts of Hyde’s life as she lived it, but rather the detail of her poetics as she writes it. By detailing the way in which she uses the ideas, emblems and relationships of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur to inform her imaginative understanding of her own emotional experience, I hope I have shown that we do badly to neglect the role that Malory has played in Hyde’s poetics. I hope too that my analysis has piqued the interest of those of you who know the intricacies of Malory’s narrative better than I. And to those renaissance scholars among you who may wish to read Hyde in conjunction with writing from that literary era, may I suggest Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. For myself, I am proceeding from Hyde and Malory to Hyde and Gnosticism, of which I can only say, watch this space. Thank you.


© Megan Clayton

 Works Cited.

Curnow, Allen. ‘Introduction’. A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-45. Ed. Allen Curnow. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945. 13-55.

Edwards, Elizabeth. ‘The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur’. A Companion to Malory. Eds. Elizabeth Archibald and A.S.G. Edwards. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1996. 37-54.

Hyde, Robin. ‘The Traitor’. The Conquerors and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1935: 45-46.

———. ‘Journal 1935’. Ts. NZMS 837. Special Collections, Auckland Central City Library, Auckland.

———. ‘The Captive’ (AU 99), ‘The Wayfarer’ (AU 155), ‘The Seaward Road’ (AU 576). Poetry Manuscripts ca. 1925-1937 (AU 1-610). Iris Wilkinson Papers. Mss and Archives 97 / 1. University of Auckland Library, Auckland.

———. ‘Astolat’, ‘The Dwelling’, ‘The Page-Boy’s Song’, ‘The Paladins’. Persephone in Winter: Poems. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1937: 40-41, 92-93, 98, 43.

Leggott, Michele. ‘Introduction’. The Book of Nadath. By Robin Hyde. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1999: vii-xl.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte Darthur. Ill. W. Russell Flint. London: Philip Lee Warner, 1911. 2 vols.

Merrill, Robert. Sir Thomas Malory and the cultural crisis of the late Middle Ages. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. American university studies, Series IV, English language and literature; vol. 39.

Rawlinson, Gloria. ‘Introduction’. Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde. Christchurch: Caxton, 1952: 11-34.

Tennyson, Alfred. ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Poetical Works. London: Macmillan, 1928: 28-29.

Last updated 01 November, 2001