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Robin Hyde

about Robin Hyde


Dream Brothers: Utopian vision in Robin Hyde’s Nadath  and Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton

Alison Hunt


In a letter dated 8 December 1937, New Zealand writer Robin Hyde (pseudonym of Iris Guiver Wilkinson (1906-39)), put a question to her friend, mentor and sometime employer, John Schroder, the literary editor of the Christchurch Sun:

Have you read a lovely book by a Russian, I think his name is Mershovsky, called Aukhaton, King of Egypt? He comforted me, by having one idea which I had reckoned exclusively my own in his book. To know these minds working they are my brothers, my beautiful dream brothers of humanity, not “comrades” I don’t like the word. (Docherty 267)

The novel was Akhnaton King of Egypt (1927), Natalie Duddington’s English translation of Messiya (1925), a historical romance and utopian visionary text written by the Russian Symbolist, philosopher and novelist, Dmitry Sergei Merezhkovsky (1866-1941). Merezhkovsky’s book is a fictional account of a period of insurrection late in the reign of Amenophis IV-Akhenaton, who was king of Egypt from 1353 to 1335 BC, during the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom (approximately 1550-1070 BC), which was the third and last period of pharaonic rule.1 Hyde sent her letter to Schroder at the end of 1937, the year in which she wrote her long poem The Book ofNadath (unpublished until 1999) and the autobiographical fragment A Home in This World (written in early 1937; published in 1984), and in which she finished her autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly (1938). All three texts bear the mark of Hyde’s fascination with Ancient Egyptian mysteries and show connections to Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton. Hyde and Merezhkovsky, authors geographically situated half a world away from each other, had each tapped into the early twentieth century popular enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt, when “In a fin-de-siècle world haunted by images of degeneration and decay, Akhenaten’s freshness and wholesome family life seemed to offer a vision of revitalisation, in the same way as the Utopian movements that flourished at this time” (Montserrat 3-4). Dominic Montserrat points out that Akhnaton supplies a “unique sign” for cultural manipulation, since, unlike iconic cultural signifiers from the ancient world such as Cleopatra or Sappho, he has “become a sign almost entirely through the medium of archaeology”, emerging from the tomb “unencumbered and ready to be reborn” in the early nineteenth century (Montserrat 1). As such, Akhnaton became, and still is, a site of struggle for those wishing to possess and profit by his image, including those fin-de-siècle archaeologists, who sought to fund their research by establishing themselves as authorities on the ‘real’ Akhnaton.

This essay will explore the ways in which Hyde’s and Merezhkovsky’s texts utilise Akhnaton and will identify the points at which their respective philosophies coincide, with a particular focus in Hyde’s case on Nadath and its utopian yearnings. From her letter, it appears that Hyde was unaware of whom “Mershovsky” was and hence was unlikely to have been familiar with his non-fictional works. Yet she appears to have grasped the philosophical framework of his seemingly light novel, the themes and imagery of which cohere with certain threads in Hyde’s own work. Though Hyde’s letter entices the reader to search for that “one idea” she found herself sharing with Merezhkovsky, it is difficult to identify a single primary connection. Nevertheless, an examination of the ways in which Hyde used Akhnaton in her writing helps to illuminate Hyde’s thinking, particularly with respect to her utopian ideals, her socio-political and religious attitudes and her perspectives on issues surrounding gender.

Merezhkovsky’s theory of eros and spiritual utopia

Though Dmitry Merezhkovsky is relatively unknown today in Western literary circles, he was prominent in early twentieth century Europe as a leading Russian Symbolist and decadent idealist, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Russian Literature in 1933. His best-known works were produced during Russia’s Silver Age, that period between “1898 and 1917 when Russia experienced a massive surge of creative activity” (Rosenthal 429). The Silver Age was an era of “classical Russian modernism”, which produced literature that was characterised by “elitism and aesthetic refinement” (Azadovski). Besides Merezhkovsky, the major writers of the time included Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. Whilst the literati of the Silver Age varied in style and outlook, the period is sometimes generalised as romantic or neo–romantic, and contrasted to the “classical” Golden Age, dubbed “the Age of Pushkin”, or to the entire 19th century, “the ‘Iron century’” of industrial and technical progress, pragmatic thinking, philistinism and the predominance of the bourgeoisie (Azadovski).

The major Russian Symbolists included Vladimir Solov’ev (1853-1900), whose seminal work was “The Meaning of Love” (1892-94), a “program of action for an ‘erotic utopia’”:

[Solov’ev] envisioned eros, which, he believed, was the only sign of divinity in the material world, as having transformative power, not a procreative function. Its goal was the creation of the new man who would transcend death by reclaiming divine androgyny. According to Solov’ev, the meaning of love emerged from a synthesis of opposites – the feminine and masculine and the spiritual and material. His summons to recover the union of the spirit and flesh in love, as well as in art, paved the way for the later Symbolist attempts to combine Greek paganism and Christianity. (Matich 26)

Those later Symbolists included Merezhkovsky. Drawing on Solov’ev, he proposed that the perfect synthesis of masculine and feminine in the androgyne would precipitate “the third and final stage of the religious evolution of humanity” ( Bedford 146). Merezhkovsky believed that the first stage of religious evolution was the pagan era of the flesh, in which all pagan religions were striving towards monotheism, by which the God of Israel was the absolute and only God (Bedford 145). The second, Christian stage was one of dualism in which the flesh (God the Father) was joined with the spirit (God the Son). The Christian stage was flawed, Merezhkovsky believed, because “it failed to surmount the contradiction of its two elements, flesh and spirit, and resulted not in a synthesis but in the absorption of the thesis by the antithesis, that is the flesh by the spirit. It was this that caused the duality which plagued humanity” ( Bedford 145). Still to come was the third and final Testament, the religion of the Trinity, “the kingdom of the Holy Ghost, in which the thesis and antithesis, the flesh and the spirit, would be synthesised, and in which the Three in One would be realised” (Bedford 146). The Holy Ghost would be the perfect “eternal Woman”, who united “Venus or divine beauty” with “eternal motherhood” ( Bedford 148). This eternal Woman would intercede to reconcile the destructive clash between thesis and antithesis represented by Father and Son, flesh and spirit. It was the introduction of woman as mother that distinguished Merezhkovsky’s theory of love from that of Solov’ev ( Bedford 148).

Olga Matich describes how Merezhkovsky and his intellectual circle adopted an existential approach, trying to create the Three in One in their personal lives. Thus, Merezhkovsky and his wife, the celebrated intellectual and writer, Zinaida Gippius (1870-1945), practised chastity, believing that their erotic energy should be channelled into art rather than procreation, in the cause of progress towards the Third Age. Further, they created a ménage à trois by inviting fellow intellectual, writer and painter, Dmitry Filosofov (1872-1940), into cohabitation. Gippius wrote: “We needed a third person to divide us, while uniting with us” (Matich 45). Merezhkovsky and Gippius were married in 1889 and spent every day together for the 52 years until Merezhkovsky’s death (Matich 41); Filosofov lived with them for fifteen years, from 1905 to 1920, until the relationship disintegrated and the couple allied with another sympathetic intellectual, Vladimir Zlobin (1894-1967) (Matich 46).

The ménage à trois with Filosofov revolved around “the romantic ideal of unrequited love and incompatibility”, since “Filosofov was homosexual and Merezhkovsky appeared to be asexual” (Matich 46). Gippius repudiated “all forms of physical union because they are founded on power and inequality”, preferring “androgynous love, which is unconsummated and egalitarian by definition” (Matich 34). Matich claims that for Gippius “the biggest love of her life was Filosofov”, a union with whom

would have come closest to the androgynous ideal as she understood it. Such a love could be described as the fusion of two androgynes, mediated by the mystical presence of Christ. She herself described this love as having elevated her to the status of the utopian new man (Matich 34-5)

Merezhkovsky wrote that eros was “the only possible flesh-and-blood ‘contact with other worlds’, with transcendental essences” ( Bedford 154), but, importantly, it was androgynous. It was only when male and female were united in one individual, that perfection was reached and the Third Testament would come. To this end, “Merezhkovsky cited Christ’s words (found in an apocryphal source, the writings of Clement of Alexandria) that His Kingdom would come: / when the two are one… /   male is female, / and there is neither male nor female” ( Bedford 157).

Merezhkovsky’s philosophical fusion of androgyny, love and apocalyptic Christianity was conveyed by him through his novels as well as in critical essays. His major and most well-respected work was Tolstoi as Man and Artist; with an Essay on Dostoievsky (1901-2; trans. 1902), “in which he represented the authors as seers of the flesh and the spirit, respectively. This type of antithetical thought is developed in his trilogy of historical novels entitled Christ and the Antichrist published from 1896-1905” (Columbia Encyclopedia “Merezhkovsky”). Merezhkovsky’s last work of fiction, the product of his mature philosophy, was a two-novel series of which the first volume was Rozhdenie Bogov’:   Tutankamon na Krit’ (which literally translates as “Birth of the Gods: Tutankhamon on Crete”), published in 1924 and translated by Natalie Duddington as The Birth of the Gods (1926).2 The second novel was Messiya (1927), translated by Duddington as Akhnaton King of Egypt (1927). The first volume, The Birth of the Gods, is set “at the end of the Bronze Age in the Late Minoan Period (c.1650-1450 BCE)” (Christensen 54). Christensen outlines the plot, which follows the path of Dio, the Cretan chief priestess of the Great Mother, from paganism towards monotheism. Dio faces immolation for having killed the sacred bull, which gored to death Dio’s intimate friend and fellow bull dancer, Eoia. But Dio is reprieved, when a Cretan merchant, Tammuzadad, confesses to having caused to bull to rampage by making it inebriated, because of his love for Dio and consequent jealousy of her bond with Eoia. Tammuzadad is burnt alive in Dio’s place and Dio, disillusioned with the barbarism of Cretan religion, decides to seek spiritual satisfaction in the Egyptian king Akhnaton’s new monotheistic sun-disc worship. As a means of achieving this goal, Dio leaves for Egypt under the protection of Akhnaton’s son-in-law, Tutankhamun, the Egyptian ambassador to Crete, whose motives with respect to Dio and Akhnaton are dubious.

Critics have complained that Merezhkovsky’s last works were “neither good fiction nor good history” (Christensen 53). Certainly, Merezhkovsky subordinated contemporary historical knowledge and exploited the lacunae within that knowledge for the purposes of his plot. Although Crete and Egypt were trading partners in the late Bronze Age (“Minoan civilization”), there is no evidence that Tutankhamun visited Crete. He is unlikely to have been an ambassador, ascending to the throne aged seven or eight and dying nine years later (Reeves Tutankhamun 24). Even today, archaeological knowledge about Tutankhamun is scant, to the extent that the identity of his mother is still in doubt, although the belief is that Tutankhamun was both Akhnaton’s son and his son-in-law, one of Tutankhamun’s wives being also a daughter of Akhnaton (Reeves Tutankhamun 24-5). Merezhkovsky also uses a collapsed chronology in The Birth of the Gods, making the Late Minoan Period, which was finished by 1450 BC, coincident with Akhnaton’s rule, which occurred between 1353 and 1335 BC (Christensen 59). Historical accuracy might not be considered to be relevant – these are, after all, novels – but Merezhkovsky was using the novel form to demonstrate his thesis of religious evolution. This aside, an examination of how he manipulates the historical evidence he had to hand is revelatory of his ideological drive. For example, Christensen claims that Merezhkovsky distorted contemporary beliefs about Minoan religion to demonstrate “a continuity between the mystery cults and Christian revelation and soteriology, implicitly downplaying the Jewish roots of Christianity” (Christensen 54).

The continuity which Merezhkovsky seeks to establish is the same that links The Birth of the Gods and Akhnaton King of Egypt. Akhnaton has several sub-plots, though the main plot intertwines the stories of Dio and Akhnaton. Tutankhamun brings Dio to Egypt, where she eventually meets Akhnaton in his utopian city, Akhetaton,3 and progresses in his service, from dancer and servant to lover. Akhnaton is a Messiah-figure, whose religion of sun-disc worship has much in common with Christianity, though his drive towards utopia creates politico-religious division culminating in civil war. With disarming honesty and gentleness, Akhnaton faces assassins, political conspirators and those who accuse him of treachery, in a series of scenes drawing on such biblical stories as the trial of Christ before Pilate. Dio saves the king’s life by taking a knife wound as she shields the king’s body, but eventually Akhnaton temporarily escapes his enemies in the palace and wanders the land in the guise of a beggar-prophet. Persecuted and uncovered, he is returned to the palace, where Dio chooses to let them both die in an inferno, when the palace is fired by rebels. Out of this troubled time many prophets besides Akhnaton arise, both from the mixed-racial origin Egyptian and the persecuted immigrant Jewish communities, all preaching a brotherhood of humanity with a New Testament flavour. Two of these prophets, the Egyptian Judas-figure Merira and the Jewish would-be assassin of Akhnaton, Issachar, come to believe that Akhnaton is a Messiah, though it is not clear that he is the Messiah of the Apocalypse. It is significant, in view of a distinctly anti-Semitic tone in Akhnaton, that though both Issachar and Merira are present when Akhnaton reappears after his death, only the Egyptian is privileged to converse with Akhnaton. Though Akhnaton moves towards apocalypse, though it incorporates love-triangles, most notably between the androgynes, Dio, Akhnaton and Queen Nefertiti, the novel only progresses towards, and not into, the age of the Third Testament.

Archaeologists regard the historical Akhnaton to be particularly significant for declaring “the primordial god Atum, immanent in the solar disc, the Aten” (or Aton) to be Egypt’s single deity (Reeves Akhenaten 140) and for subsequently initiating a religious terror. Akhnaton’s particular target was the strongest rival cult, that of the worship of the Theban god, Amon (also spelled Amun). Akhnaton signified his rejection of Amon by erasing all record of the god’s name and by changing his own name from ‘Amon-hotep’ or ‘Amonophis’, meaning ‘Amon is content’, to ‘Ekh-en-Aton’ or ‘Akhenaton’, meaning ‘Spirit of the solar luminary’ or ‘Beneficent one of (or for) the Aten’ (Steindorff 59; Montserrat 21).4 Akhnaton did build a new capital city, Akhetaton, known today as el-Amarna and situated on the Nile, 320 km south of Cairo. He chose an undeveloped site, well away from the centres of religious authority at Thebes and administrative power at Memphis. Reeves describes Akhnaton’s move to Akhetaton as a political strategy aimed at consolidating his grip on Egypt, by distancing the throne from established power-brokers, particularly the priesthood of Amon. Akhnaton enforced the divine right of the king by instituting a divine triad, comprising himself, his queen Nefertiti, and the sun-deity. After Akhnaton’s death, Egypt gradually returned to its former religious practices and Akhnaton was denounced as a heretic.

Reeves’ late twentieth century interpretation of archaeological evidence, like the sceptical accounts offered in Merezhkovsky’s day, would have been antithetical to Merezhkovsky’s agenda, which relied on a heroic Akhnaton and religious continuity. In terms of early twentieth century archaeological debate, there were two prominent vocal enthusiasts for the heroic image of Akhnaton. The first was the American archaeologist James Breasted, a romantic who “famously called [Akhnaton] ‘the first individual in human history’” (Montserrat 3; italics in original); the second was the ex-archaeologist and Inspector-General of Antiquities for the Egyptian government, Arthur Weigall, who published the hugely popular The Life and Times of Akhnaton, Pharoah of Egypt (1922), whilst he was working as a journalist in Britain. The sceptics included Egyptologist Georg Steindorff, and the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, Wallis Budge. In 1905, Steindorff criticised the “view once widely held, namely that the monotheism of Israel was a theological legacy from the priests of Heliopolis; that the crude monotheism of [Akhnaton] exercised an influence over the Israelites” as being “idle conjecture” without historical support (Steindorff 168). In 1923, Budge, challenged those who sought to venerate Akhnaton:

This king was described as a reformer, an individualist, and an idealist and a pacifist; but he was a reformer who initiated no permanent reform, an individualist who diverted the revenues of the gods of his country to his own uses, an idealist who followed the cult of the material, and a pacifist who lost Egypt’s Asiatic Empire. (Budge xiv)

Budge added that evidence showed “that from first to last [Akhnaton] was a religious fanatic, intolerant, arrogant and obstinate”, and though Akhnaton was admittedly “earnest and sincere in his seeking after God”, his quest inflicted “untold misery” on Egypt (Budge 106). Merezhkovsky, however, interprets Akhnaton as spiritual but romantic, a gentle and often childlike king, and a family man. Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton is intransigent, but out of steadfast and disinterested goodness, rather than political guile. Merezhkovsky seems to have been one of those for whom Akhnaton’s reforms

struck a chord in today’s predominantly monotheistic world; and the fact that pharaoh’s revolution ultimately failed has seemed only to confirm his role as an early revealer of religious truth – a power for good. Such a spin, promoted almost a century ago by James Henry Breasted and Arthur Weigall and eagerly taken up [by] scholars and general public alike, is certainly wrong (Reeves Akhenaten 8-9)

According to Christensen, Merezhkovsky’s sources were Breasted and William Flinders Petrie (Christensen 77), which helps to explain Merezhkovsky’s positive interpretation. Flinders Petrie complemented Breasted’s enthusiasm for Akhnaton’s religious reforms with his own promotion of Akhnaton’s city, Akhetaton, as a centre of artistic revolution and creativity. Akhnaton acknowledges that the king’s reforms have fomented discontent and that the construction of Akhetaton city has emptied Egypt’s coffers, but Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton, though he expresses repentance, is less concerned with such material matters than he is with the metaphysical. Hence he abdicates his responsibilities and leaves his ambitious courtiers to their machinations. The fact that archaeologists even now “know virtually nothing” about the king’s last years (Reeves Akhenaten 173), opened up a space for Merezhkovsky to fill with Akhnaton’s wandering as a prophet and his dramatic death.

Hyde’s utopia in The Book of Nadath

Perhaps the most essential similarity between Merezkovsky’s Akhnaton and Robin Hyde’s The Book of Nadath is that each author was expressing a yearning for utopia out of their respective dystopian circumstances. Merezhkovsky used his version of ancient history not only to convey his philosophy, but also to implicitly criticise the progress of history in Russia. He researched Akhnaton in St. Petersburg before escaping to Poland on 24 December 1919 (Pachmuss 87), using his negative portrayal of the Egyptian uprising against Akhnaton as an allegory for the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 (Pachmuss 96). Merezhkovsky was “a socialist by inclination” (Pachmuss 15), but he opposed destructive revolution, calling Bolshevism “‘the cult of this bestialism’” (Pachmuss 19). Hyde wrote Nadath in early 1937, responding to the Depression years and the build up in international tension, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, prior to the Second World War. Like Merezhkovsky, Hyde was uncomfortable with party politics. She was left wing, but was uneasy about communism, writing to her friend Mary Smee in mid-1935 that it might be a necessary evolutionary step, but that putting power “in the hands of the few” was “not the best form, the ancient Christ form” of communism (Challis 306). Nadath expresses just such ambivalence towards the Russian Revolution in the section “The Far Flyers” (Nadath 39-42).

Akhnaton and Nadath both use prophet figures to signal the nature and meaning of utopia. Conventional utopian and dystopian texts function interchangeably, to expose society’s deficits, often by creating detailed utopian or dystopian societies, using didactic discourse and moral arguments and making analyses of the past or projections into the future to suggest alternatives to contemporary society (see Kessler xviii). Feminist critic Derby Lewes adopts a looser, post-modern definition, asserting that utopia has “multiple identity: it can be an imaginary place or a concrete social experiment, a literary genre or a textual exercise in social intervention” (4-5). Nadath operates to some extent within all of Lewes’ parameters: in terms of the imaginary, as Leggott puts it, Nadath offers “a swirl of local and phantasmagoric phenomena” (Nadathxi), at times crystallising into local detail offering fragments of the concrete. Hyde’s text cannot be comfortably categorised and yet it clearly can be identified as at times a utopian and at times a dystopian vision; it is certainly “a textual exercise in social intervention” (Lewes 4-5).

Richard Gerber identifies two main types of utopian text, the first being those written by utopian idealists who are “social reformers investing in a special programme. They are politicians setting themselves up as prophets proclaiming: ‘Such and such a thing should be done. If it were done, all this would certainly happen’” (Gerber 122). He contrasts such highly prescriptive texts with those produced by “the utopian moral philosophers who are not concerned with definite party programmes, but with the possibilities of human nature…. The politician’s utopia is a prophetic assertion, the moral philosopher’s utopia a speculative enquiry” (Gerber 122). The recognition that Nadath straddles Gerber’s definitions helps to show how slippery Hyde’s text is, how Nadath remains in contact with prescriptive texts, whilst eschewing their didacticism and rigidity in favour of a glowing but intangible moral philosophy. Sections of Nadath primarily identify specific deep-rooted social ills, such as: the oppression and restriction of women in “The House of Women”; the colonisation of New Zealand in “The Weavers and Dyers” and “The Greenstone Shadow”; poverty and social dissolution in “They That Answered”; the evils of war in “The Men in the Tower”, “The Iron Child” and “Nadath and the Master of Wheels”. The patterning of imagery across the poem as a whole means, however, that utopian and dystopian elements are carried over between sections. For example, the capitulation of woman to the prevailing social ethic is encapsulated in the image of woman as an inert and silent burden in “The House of Woman” (Nadath 12), and is met again in the figure of the frozen woman in “The Master of Wheels” (Nadath 58). Similarly, utopian qualities, such as stillness and space, and dystopian qualities, such as vanity and arrogance, recur throughout. Words, phrases and motifs accumulate to create a sense of the individual experience of utopian and dystopian qualities or states of being. This is not to say that Nadath entirely lacks the concrete. Hyde clearly identified and addressed faults in contemporary society, but the solutions she presented are changes in attitudes and ways of being, rather than the application of new rules or laws. Hyde’s belief that social revolution could be effected by altering individual behaviour is analogous to Merezhkovsky and Gippius’ belief in creating the conditions demanded by their subversive philosophy through establishing unconventional sexual unions.

Though Nadath’s most strongly utopian segment is “The House of Woman”, it is more fruitful to think of Hyde’s epic in terms of a cluster of utopian elements, than it is to attempt to clarify a schematically unified vision. Nadath’s episodic and fragmented poetic form brings it into contrast with Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton, which is a dystopian novel, unified in terms of plot and driven by its chronological narrative. Yet Akhnaton speaks to Nadath strongly, because of an underlying coherence between Merezhkovsky’s and Hyde’s philosophies.5 It is particularly significant that when Hyde was first working on draft material for the long poem, in the form of the manuscript entitled “The Roots and the Crown” (Nadath xxxvi), she reached back, like Merezhkovsky, to a central creed in Akhnaton’s sun-disc worship, “The Great Hymn to the Aton”, thought to have been written by Akhnaton himself (Reeves Akhenaten 141).6

“The Great Hymn to the Aton”

According to Miriam Lichtheim, author of an authoritative modern translation of “The Great Hymn to the Aton”, there are “countless translations of the hymn” in existence and, naturally, many of them are alike (Lichtheim 96).7 But Duddington’s translation of Merezhkovsky’s version is particularly similar in content to and uses the same spelling of ‘Aton’ as that of James Henry Breasted (Weigall 130-4). However, the spelling of the king’s name is at variance: Breasted persisted in calling Akhnaton ‘Ikhnaton’ (Montserrat 99) and Merezhkovsky’s other source, Petrie, used the ‘Aten’ spelling (see his Religious Life in Ancient Egypt (1924)). The Limbakh publishing house has made fragments of Merezhkovsky’s original Russian text available on the internet (“Limbakh Messiah”), from which it can be seen that Merezhkovsky used the Russian form ‘Ахенатон’ (“Messiah fragment”), which transliterates literally to ‘Axenaton’, approximating ‘Akhenaton’. The suffix ‘Aton’ is spelled after Breasted, but it is Duddington who substitutes ‘Akhnaton’, for the king’s name, after the spelling used by Arthur Weigall in The Life and Times of Akhnaton, Pharaoh of Egypt (1922). If Merezhkovsky did not read Breasted’s “Akhnaton’s Longer Hymn to the Aton” in the latter’s Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (1912), the Russian writer was highly likely to have encountered Breasted’s hymn in Weigall’s book, which was an instant best-seller, although its popular style brought the book’s “scholarly weight” into question (Montserrat 104). A reviewer in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1910 identified in Weigall’s Akhnaton “the apostle of naturalness, of the simple life and of domestic joys, […] a patron of art and a poet” (Montserrat 104), just that Akhnaton who is to be found in Merezhkovsky’s novel. As shall be explicated below, these are also the qualities in Akhnaton’s reconstruction, which Hyde found appealing.

Hyde referred to the “Great Hymn” in her unpublished early draft material for Nadath (Nadath xxxvi), “The Roots and The Crown”:

Since the hymn of Aton was made, few have seen it : the cities died, the desert was an a leopard that crouched, and the cities his prey, white kids and lambs beside the river.

Only the hymn of Aton could not die, and spoke again in its season. It came from the cliffs, a pilgrim who travels with yearning on his long journey homeward : and if men or trees had ears, in this day, the hymn of Aton might have saved the world. (“The Roots and the Crown” 16-17)

Hyde was alluding to the neglect of Akhetaton after the king’s death and the erosion and eventual burial of Akhnaton’s city in the drifting desert sands (Reeves Akhenaten 193). Urbain Bouriant brought the “Great Hymn” back to life in 1883/4, when he copied it down from the walls of a tomb in cliffs outside the ruined city (Reeves Akhenaten 141), so effecting the resurrection of Akhnaton’s voice to which Hyde refers in A Home in This World:

But teach them, Pharaoh, my master, you the son of Tiy, taken these years ago from a tomb in the rocks and let loose with all your hymning of peace on this world, teach them at last that cruelty is no way towards their ends. Teach them the deep security of birth and of death, and surely then, unless they live like beasts in a sty, they will forget to belabour one another for slighter causes. (AHome 71-2)8

Since Hyde knew that Tiy was Akhnaton’s mother and that the “Great Hymn” was found in a tomb, she must have had a source other than Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton. Merezhkovsky only mentions Tiy twice in passing and not specifically as Akhnaton’s mother (Merezhkovsky 263; 331) and he has Dio write Akhnaton’s “Great Hymn” onto a scroll and bury it under a tree (Merezhkovsky 200-4). Hyde may have found further information in a book of Egyptian mysteries referred to in A Home in This World, a volume that the narrator looked at with Dr. Geranty (AHome 14):

I shall never forget how once, while I still hated him, he looked at the frontispiece of a book on the mysteries of ancient Egypt; it showed the head of   an Egyptian priest. ‘These savage people all had those pointed heads,’ he said. I stared at him, too engulfed in fury to get a word out. My beautiful Egyptian priest.     (AHome 14)

If Geranty is a pseudonym for Dr. Gilbert Tothill, Hyde’s doctor and “‘very best friend in this world’” at Avondale Hospital (Nadathxx), the incident in A Home in This World would date from some time early in their acquaintance, which began under stress in June 1933 (Challis 218-20), but had progressed towards trust by early 1934 (Challis 234). In her reaction to Dr. Geranty’s comments, Hyde’s narrator reveals a reverence for Ancient Egyptian culture, from which we can infer that Hyde herself felt strongly about the subject, although it is important to respect and maintain a gap between Hyde and her narrators. In his biography of Robin Hyde, A Book of Iris, Derek Challis ignores the gap entirely, perhaps because the distance between narrator and author is easy to elide and difficult to determine, particularly in highly autobiographical texts such as Hyde’s The Godwits Fly and A Home in This World. As Leggott puts it: “It is impossible, as Hyde well understood, to determine an exact boundary between autobiography and fiction, autobiography and poetry” (Nadath xxvi). All texts, even those written solely for their authors, are written for a particular audience at a particular moment, but it is valid to assume that opinions expressed by a character with whom Hyde obviously has a deep sympathy and sense of identificationcan illuminate Hyde’s opinions or feelings at the moment of writing. The narrator in A Home in This World is one such characters, as is Eliza in Godwits. The clash between Dr Geranty and his patient may reveal Hyde’s painful perception, recorded some four years later, of a chasm between her perspective and that of Gilbert Tothill.

It is impossible to know to which book A Home in This World alludes; many books about Egypt of the period, including Akhnaton, have frontispieces fitting Hyde’s description. In terms of the “Great Hymn”, Merezhkovsky’s text is the only one that Hyde records seeing and it follows Breasted’s famous translation, so it seems appropriate for the purposes of this essay to quote from Akhnaton (see Appendix). What is certain, is that Hyde was receptive to the positive image of Akhnaton presented by Weigall and his adherents, rather than the negative portrayal preferred by Budge. Like Merezhkovsky, Hyde appropriated the spiritual, poetic Akhnaton for her own purposes, as is exemplified by an address entitled “The Writer and His Audience”, which she delivered in New Zealand Authors’ Week in April 1936. There, Hyde grappled with the misunderstanding she thought existed between New Zealand’s writers and their readers, using Akhnaton as an allegorical example of the lack of acclaim afforded to writers:

In Egypt once a lonely king, a peace-lover after many generations out of the loins of war, made a hymn of peace that shall last until the iron gates of Time are as dust, until the Sphinx is level with the sands. […] Yet the Egyptian king was dishonoured after death, and his temple and country became the place of jackals. (Boddy and Matthews 323-4)

Hyde’s claim for the historical Akhnaton’s seminal role in bringing peace to Egypt is inaccurate, because it was in his father’s reign that Egypt’s empire had reached stability and war was no longer an imperative (Reeves Akhenaten 62). Moreover, Akhnaton’s religious reforms caused civil war. His reign was peaceful with respect to foreign relations, Reeves claims, largely because “he cared little for affairs beyond the Nile valley” and consequently weakened Egypt’s empire by failing to support his outlying territories militarily (Reeves Akhenaten 152-3). But Hyde worked in relation to history exactly as Merezhkovsky did: “Merezhkovsky’s recreation of the past is symbolic; he appears to communicate with it through sign and myth” (Pachmuss 101). Merezhkovsky took the symbol that is Akhnaton and made it vivid, significant and contemporaneously relevant, but, in order to do so, he had to empty out the pharaoh’s Ancient Egyptian contextual significance. As Dominic Montserrat argues convincingly in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt (2000), the true significance of Akhnaton has become the ideological purposes to which his image has been put.

Though Hyde participated in this process of appropriation, her writing claimed to be aware of how an image could be used. In A Home in This World, Hyde wrote of the vital force or spirit believed by Egyptians to inhabit both people and statues, the ka “come back out of the soft dark air of the tombs; not the pompous resurrection, indeed, of something mortal that glittered and strutted under the sun, but the old significance” (AHome 94). Nadath is concerned with resurrecting such old significances as living traditions, fusing the Maori, Egyptian and Indian mythological and historical pasts with Nadath/Hyde’s own inheritance, cultural, biographical and literary, to form a statement of significance for New Zealand’s future. Hyde was fully cognisant of the ways in which writers could abuse the past, as is evident from her satire on a New Zealand poet in Nadath’s “Singers of Loneliness”:

One sang, whose heart was full of an olden shore. She sang, “Oh where are you fled, my purple companions?

Where is it moored, that ivory barque whose sails drip honey, and what air do its perfumes sweeten today? For my soul remembers its voyages, I am sick to set out. (Nadath 15)

The barque and the perfumed air recall Mark Antony’s first sighting of Cleopatra on her barge of “beaten gold” with purple sails “so perfumèd that / The winds were love-sick with them” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.197-200). The singer yearns for “an island wind, where the vines run full of grapes” (Nadath 15), in a reference to the Mediterranean realm of Dionysus, wherein Hyde connects Greece and Egypt, evoking Merezhkovsky’s Cretan-Egyptian link in the person of Dio. Nadath’s singer declares herself to be the questing “child of a royal tomb”, disturbed from death (Nadath 15), but Nadath replies:

Liar of loneliness, you seek only praise.

You are the harlot of words: as a cunning woman draws the silks over her limbs, you have drawn words over your thought,

But I fear what I may find beneath, oh you who rob the dead: who have no heart for living in the abundant world, yet lie not with the entombed.

Finding your lovers of today ignoble, you have stolen a dead Pharaoh’s thighbone: and not for love, but that you might boast him before the world: but the place was tapu. (Nadath 15-16)

Nadath accuses the singer of concealing her ideological positioning beneath rhetoric and using the past to glorify her own present in contravention of ancient tapu. As Leggott points out, “aspects of Hyde’s own practice come under fire” in the “Singers of Loneliness” (Nadath 64). Though this excerpt evokes the use and abuse of Maori heritage under colonial rule, particularly through Nadath’s reference to ancient burial sites and their tapu, it can also be read as Hyde’s painful awareness of the use she makes of historical figures such as Akhnaton.

 Hyde recognised, then, that contemporary poets could be propagandists, an art of which Akhnaton himself may have been a master. Reeves admits the beauty of the “Great Hymn”, but points out its unoriginality, regarding it less as a literary masterwork than as promotional literature for Akhnaton’s special relationship with the deity (Reeves Akhenaten 145-6). However, Lichtheim notes its originality in one sense, asserting that it “expresses the cosmopolitan and humanist outlook of the New Kingdom [18 th-20 th Dynasties; 1550-1070 BC] at its purest and most sympathetic. All peoples are seen as the creatures of the sun-god, who has made them diverse in skin colour, speech and character. Their diversity is described objectively, without a claim of Egyptian superiority” (Lichtheim 100). The passage to which Lichtheim refers corresponds to the following lines from Akhnaton’s translation:

Thou [the Aton] didst create Syria, Nubia and Egypt,
Setting every man in his place.
Giving him all that he needs,
His measure of food and his measure of days.
Their tongues are diverse in speech,
Their forms are diverse and their skins,
For Thou, divider, hast divided the peoples. (Merezhkovsky 203)

The sentiment expressed here would have found sympathy with Hyde, whose idea of global community can be gleaned from the well-known passage from A Home in This World, in which the speaker desires an ideal home that is a state of mind and a way of living, rather than a physical construction:

As often as not […] four walls and a roof get in the way, are the very point where one is fatally side-tracked from ever having a home in this world.

I want a sort of natural order and containment, a centre of equipoise, an idea – […] a place from which one can advance: a place from which I can stretch out shadowy hands, and make a road between two obscure villages in China, teach the Arab and the Jew how to live together in Palestine, tidy up the shack dwellings and shack destinies of our own thin Maoris. (AHome 10)

Conventional utopianism often attempts to reconstruct society through a revolution in the physical manifestation of society, focussing on the impact of architecture on lifestyle. This was what the historical Akhnaton tried to do by creating Akhetaton city, the layout of which was dictated by the strictures of Aton-worship (Reeves Akhenaten 115-37). But Hyde recognised that society was comprised of discrete beings and that the idea of social utopia can only be achieved if the internal space, the mind of the individual, is revolutionised. In a sense this is the realisation Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton makes when he abandons Akhetaton for the road. Although Hyde used a dwelling-place to site utopia in Nadath, her House of Woman is a metaphor for a utopian state of mind. It is a place of belonging and refuge not only for the woman, but is “sanctuary also for the seekers of this world, the fugitive and the oppressed: for all who cry out, and are unappeased” (Nadath 12). The house in Nadath is like the place inhabited by Eliza Hannay’s poetry, which is “the house of her mind” (Godwits 210), and its situation is symbolic of the mind’s potential. It stands beside the sea, which represents a point of departure and return, an invitation to journey and adventure, but which, importantly, is subject to tidal flow, in turn ruled by the moon. Here, the symbolic female flip-side of Aton-worship is exposed, in the lunar influence on natural cycles and rhythms. In and of the mind, Hyde’s vision is imaginary, but not transcendent. Though Nadath is shot through with biblical imagery and allusion, the divine is immanent and the ideal touches on the inner spirit of the human being: “This has nothing to do with Heaven, this home and hospitality. It is all of earth and man” (AHome 11). Nadath believes that the house can only be established if society revises its priorities and, importantly, if men and women revolutionise their mutual relationships; he grieves that “none would give to the house” (Nadath 13). But the house is already there and the crucial step towards recognising it is a simple act of mind, that is, to remember instead of finding “dignity in defeat” by “forgetting” (Nadath 14). Hence it is “the sand of forgetting” that threatens to bury the head of this newly established social consciousness (Nadath 14). And here Nadath speaks to Hyde’s draft text, which recalls Akhnaton’s “Great Hymn” which was lost in the desert sands and forgotten, “and if men or trees had ears, in this day, the hymn of Aton might have saved the world” (“The Roots and the Crown” 16-17).

The House of Woman is an aged, utilitarian and uncomplicated structure in a rural setting, “little and old” with “wooden walls”, “set down on the edge of the sands” (Nadath 14). It is as close to nature as a human construction can be; the key to Nadath’s utopian space is not the political imposition of complex social systems, but an abandonment of such artifice and a celebration of that which is “natural” (AHome 10). Aton-worship is also concerned with nature, in the form of the sun’s regulation of the natural cycles of life:

When thou settest in the west
Men lie in the darkness like the dead.
Their heads are wrapped up, their nostrils stopped
Stolen are all their things that are under their heads
While they know it not.
Lions come forth from their dens,
Serpents creep from out their holes:
The Creator has gone to rest and the world is dumb.

Thou risest and bright is the earth
Thou sendest forth thy rays and the darkness flees. (Merezhkovsky 202)

Merezhkovsky with his religious agenda and Hyde with her Anglican inheritance (see Challis 18-19) would both have recognised in the “Great Hymn” echoes of the following passages from Psalm 104:

He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep [forth].
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening. (Psalms 104:20-23)


Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth. (Psalms 104:29-30)

Authorship of the Psalms is traditionally attributed to the Hebrew King David, who reigned from approximately 1000 to 962 BC (“David”), but these biblical poems are “regarded by modern scholarship as mostly anonymous compositions of various dates” (“Psalms”). The “much discussed resonances” between the Great Hymn and Psalm 104 (Reeves Akhenaten 145) are less likely to be due to an interconnection, than they are “to be the result of the generic similarity between Egyptian hymns and biblical psalms” (Lichtheim 100), which conclusion is a brick pulled from the wall of Merezhkovsky’s theory of religion. Montserrat argues that the assertion that biblical texts are a Judaeo-Christian inheritance from Egyptian religious writings contributes to an anti-Semitic strain in Breasted’s writing (Montserrat 107) and that Breasted and Merezhkovsky “sought to diminish the Jewish contribution by making them passive feeders off Akhenaten’s ideas” (Montserrat 108). Such an argument makes some sense of the end of Akhnaton, where the ambivalence as to Akhnaton’s status as Messiah is puzzling to a reader cognisant of Merezhkovsky’s theory of the Third Testament and its relationship to Christianity. Merezhkovsky’s novel drives towards a unified religion of Judaeo-Christian form, but does not privilege Christianity, instead emphasising points of agreement between Christianity and traditional Egyptian belief. Thus Akhnaton is likened both to the Messiah and to “Quiet-Heart” (Merezhkovsky 47). Quiet-Heart is Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife, who was resurrected after death and is the form into which Egyptians believed they would be reborn (Steindorff 129-30).9Akhnaton’s characters continually wrangle over whether Akhnaton is the Messiah or “a shadow of the One to come” (Merezhkovsky 237), after Colossians 2.2.17, the same biblical allusion found in Hyde’s “The Shadow of Christ” (Nadath 5). The novel plays on the pun between ‘Son’ and ‘sun’, deepening the ambiguity surrounding the nature of Akhnaton’s significance. Akhnaton reads very much as though the text hesitates to step away from the enigmatic and charismatic Egyptian individual towards a Judaeo-Christian epoch, despite Merezhkovsky’s convictions.

The “Great Hymn”, like Psalm 104, is concerned with the divine regulation of the natural cycles of life, though not straightforwardly “the deep security of birth and of death”, as Hyde described it (AHome 72), since the religious texts express a fear, which is induced by the absence of the force of creation. Nevertheless, security is imbedded in the reliability of the sun and Akhnaton’s followers publicly acknowledged its control over the natural world at a multiplicity of altars in the historic Akhetaton city (Reeves Akhenaten 124-7). Akhnaton describes how the rising of the sun is celebrated as the first rays strike a raised altar on which a fire is perpetually burning: “The king mounted the pyramidal altar once more and threw a handful of incense into the fire. The flame blazed up, turning pale in the sun, clouds of rosy-white smoke rose into the air” (Merezhkovsky 136). In the utopian space over the hill in Hyde’s “The House of Woman”: “Sunsets burn and die there, like roses cast into the embers of a fire upon the altar. The dawn rises again, and her hair of roses enwraps her feet” (Nadath 13).10 Hyde’s chronology of the cycle reproduces that of Merezhkovsky; the sun sets, symbolically dying, and then rises, that is, the emphasis is placed on resurrection, new life, the utopian beginning.

The triad and the Third Testament in Hyde’s writing

If the strongest utopian statement in Nadath is expressed through the trope of the House of Woman, then the realisation of utopia is dependent on a recognition of that which is already in existence, that is, the “little and old” house constructed of “wooden walls” (Nadath 14). The image of this ideal dwelling reaches back to the origins of New Zealand’s Pakeha settler society, apparently standing in contrast to a somewhat more complex and industrialised contemporary state, which is the “house that stands on a bay of New Zealand: a house of wood, iron and glass, and with the sea outside”, in which Nadath writes his words, specifically dated “in the year 1937” (Nadath 3). The contrast may be superficial, since any old wooden settler dwelling in New Zealand is likely to have an iron roof and glass windows. The simplicity of the utopian house evokes elemental social relationships on a Pakeha family model, such as Augusta Hannay describes in her epiphanic exclamation, “‘Man, woman and child; man, woman and child’”, amongst “the old houses dazed with peace and the sunset” at Day’s Bay (Godwits 119). This fundamental triangular relationship invokes the world-wide regard throughout history of three “as a fundamental number, expressive of an intellectual and spiritual order in God, the cosmos or mankind”, which is in some cases derived from the synthesis of “the three-in-one of all living beings” (Chevalier 993).

Hyde’s text speaks to Merezhkovsky’s emphasis on the triad, expressed in Akhnaton’s interpretation of the symbolism of Egyptian pyramids: “The eternal triangles, rising from the earth to one point in the sky, proclaimed to men the mystery of Three: ‘I began to be as one God, but three Gods were within me’” (Merezhkovsky 295). Hyde used the triad in “The House of Woman”: “A garden, a garden and a garden: three spaces held between the seas, // Triple as all things are triple, partaking of the nature of the body, the mind and spirit, // Which are three, but one; and from which men have echoed their creeds” (Nadath 8). The notion of three gardens fits a settler image of New Zealand, as three islands, North, South and Stewart, which comprise a farmer’s paradise, but it is also suggestive of the Eden represented by Akhetaton city. In the early twentieth century, the British popularly conceived Akhetaton as a garden city, likening it to the idealistic garden suburbs, created in Britain as an antidote to squalid urbanisation (Montserrat 76). Merezhkovsky’s description of Dio sailing to Akhetaton up the Nile reads like a rebirth from a poor, parched desert region into a green paradise, symbolic of Eden regained:

after passing through a rocky gorge that seemed like a dark and narrow fortress gate, the ship suddenly came out into a sunlit expanse of water. […] in the west green meadows stretched as far as the Lybian Hills that melted into rose and amethyst in the light of the setting sun; in the east [between] the river and the desert there was a long and narrow streak of palm groves and gardens. White houses were scattered among them like dice and a huge white temple towered above them.   (Merezhkovsky 107)

Hyde used the triad, but was not awed by it, asserting that divine triads are based on the philosophical conclusion that the human being is constituted of “the body, the mind and spirit” (Nadath 8). In doing so, she suggested that all creeds are mythological, thereby unmasking dogmatic religions, eschewing transcendental orthodoxy as an ideological construct, and, like Merezhkovsky, conflating all beliefs that depend on the triad. By rejecting the transcendental in favour of an earthly basis to belief systems, Nadath, like Merezhkovsky and his Third Testament, is driving towards heaven on earth, that is, utopia in the here and now.

Nadath also privileges monotheism, as is evident in the statement that the first of the heroes of the progress towards Indian post-colonial racial harmony in “The Three Who Come” is “the unifier of the gods” (Nadath 23). Here, the resolution of India’s interracial strife is used by Hyde as a utopian model against which to measure the relationship between Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand, just as “The Greenstone Shadow” uses a future New Zealand colonised by the Japanese to critique the effect of Pakeha colonisation on both Maori and Pakeha. Hyde opposed isolationism, seeing New Zealand in an international context, both in terms of its internal post-colonial situation and its foreign relations. Hyde also prioritised race relations: Nadath describes the final point of India’s ideal progress out of colonialism to be “an end to enmity between the dark and the white” when “the third comer shall reign” (Nadath 25), again invoking the mystical number three and the drive towards a third age.

Merezhkovsky’s Third Testament can be regarded as the result of an Apocalyptic neo-Christian evolution and the same progression is evident in Nadath. Hyde’s long poem concludes with new life and a new era springing from the scene of the crucifixion:

the young man on the cross opened the lids of his eyes and smiled.
And the grasses waved down the fields, the yellow flowers sprang up.

There was life in every branch: the cross put forth new shoots.

The wheels were broken in the great cities: they fell asunder and were
broken: their sides were given to rust. (Nadath 60)

Nadath strikes a blow at the patriarchal construct of the church, embodied in part in the figure of “the master of wheels” (Nadath 59), who represents the God who sacrifices his son on the cross, but also the father who allows his son to be consumed by the industrial and war machines. The image of spring-time awakening is an orthodox Christian metaphor for Christ’s resurrection, but, because Hyde used a trope that embraces both the divine and the earthly father and son, she reached wider, criticising both established religion and established social politics. Nadath tells us that the origins of religious and social ideologies are buried in the sands of forgetting and so have come to appear natural: “And the master of wheels answered, I know that which I do, but I know not how I may cease. // If ever there lay a road into peace, which is my desire, I have forgotten it” (Nadath 60). The poem intimates that the cycle of violence is broken at the end of Nadath, but the significance of the sacrifice is unclear. Nadath tells the master of wheels that “again thou has nailed him to the cross” and “You have shed the blood in vain: nothing have you bought with that price of rubies” (Nadath 59). The earthly sacrifice is made when the older men who control diplomacy and politics send generations of young men to war; early on in Nadath, Hyde wrote: “Vain sacrifice and arrogant, that out of fear you should band together to destroy what God has already destroyed” (Nadath 4). But what of the divine element in the master of wheels? Was this crucifixion necessary to break the iron wheels? Hyde may have been suggesting that sacrifice is crucial and cannot be rationalised, that it was, as Merezhkovsky believed after Nietzsche, “beyond reason, an act of divine madness” (Christensen 73). But Nadath accuses the master of being the “cruel one, that does all for gain: thou with the streets of gold and the huckster’s Heaven: thou with the ancient lust for blood” and describes him as “the god of exactions” (Nadath 59). Divinity here acquires an Old Testament characteristic and it seems that this is what Nadath rejects. The rejection of Old Testament values is similarly to be found in Nadath’s criticism of “The man in the pulpit”, the fire-and-brimstone preacher in “They That Answered”: “Cry on as you will: but never seek for me, lost eyes: Nadath is not a man of God, but a man among men” (Nadath 48).

War machines and the dystopian Age of Iron

Nadath ’s “They That Answered” is a dystopian vision of an period of brutality signified by its being the age of the Iron Child, which is a central metaphor in Nadath and one that impinges on several other of Hyde’s texts of this period. In A Home in This World, “England has today three hearts”:

The third heart is iron. Hear it clang, pulsating today in the shipyards where work has begun again, in the great armament factories. Steel is steady … steel is up…. Hear its beat flicker and stir in dead Jarrow […]. A dead man up and walking, revived by the adrenalin of threatened war. […]

But yet, of these three hearts, not one is the heart I want to hear” (AHome 41)

In Godwits, when John Hannay meditates on Eliza’s poetry, the narrative (seemingly in John’s voice, though rather poetic for his style) describes how “the poet and the iron age of to-day crept together – one to make the clamouring iron hands, one to teach the iron hands that, even yet, they were the thought and means of flesh” (Godwits 229). The syntax is confusing, but it seems that John is thinking about language and how poetry can speak to all, like music, death and “even machines” (Godwits 228), as a means of putting machines and factories in perspective. In Hyde’s writing, iron signifies materialism and economics as a basis for war, violence and the antisocial qualities of the individual.  

Anxiety about mechanisation, about dictatorship and war are common topics in utopian/ dystopian literature of the early decades of the twentieth century.11 In women’s utopian writing after 1920, Darby Lewes observes:

texts began to take on a considerably darker tone: dreams became nightmares, technology an enemy, progress an illusion, and feminism a forgotten issue. The chaos, brutality and barbarism of the First World War seemed to prove incontrovertibly that humankind was not ready for (and perhaps not worthy of) utopia, and women’s long-sought enfranchisement did not bring about long-anticipated change. (Lewes 107)

Those marching into war in 1914 had been possessed of a “sublime innocence and self-assurance […] in a world where ‘glorious’ and ‘death’ were not necessarily oxymoronic” (Lewes 107-8). Lewes quotes Paul Fussell’s description of England in 1914: “‘Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun’” (Lewes 107). Some of that innocence is expressed in John Hannay’s faith in the power of poetry to render the machine world more human. Following the shock of the Great War and the misery of the Depression, “women’s optimistic nineteenth-century utopias, hopelessly naïve by postwar standards, were replaced by anti-utopian satires mocking flawed humanity’s futile struggle after the ideal and by dystopias offering grim views of a future world in the hands of barbarism, socialism, or fascism” (Lewes 110-1). In Nadath, Hyde managed to transcend this prevailing mood of pessimism and conservatism, acknowledging the existence of social dystopia, but fixing on a drive towards a feminist and communal ideal.

Hyde spoke to her era through the trope of the iron child, but her metaphor also transcends the 1930s, because of the ancient roots of the literary metaphor on which she leaned, that of an iron age. Although many ancient civilisations used a mythological structure of time which divided history into ages of mankind, the specific association with metals and the trope of an iron age of man is attributed to the classical mythologists and thereafter to the Book of Daniel (“Myth”). The OED attributes the origin of the phrase as a metaphor for “The last and worst age of the world” to Greek and Roman mythology (“Iron Age”). In Works and Days, the Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 8 th century BC), divides the ages of man into five, of which the last was his own era. Hesiod described “a terrifying picture of the cruelty, perfidy and bloodthirstiness of the fifth race of men, the Iron Age. In his apocalyptic vision they symbolize the rule of materialism and of regression towards brute force and the unconscious” (Chevalier 544). A similar characterisation of “The Iron Age” is to be found in the history of the world written in the Metamorphoses by Ovid (43 BC-AD 17), quoted here in Ted Hughes’ translation from the Latin:

Last comes the Age of Iron.
And the day of Evil dawns.
Go up like a mist – a morning sigh off a graveyard. […]

                       So now iron comes
With its cruel ideas. And gold
With crueller. Combined, they bring war –
War, insatiable for the one,
With bloody hands employing the other.
Now man lives only by plunder. […]

Who ought to love each other
Prefer to loathe.   (Hughes 11-12)

These schema can be compared with that found in the biblical Book of Daniel, which is believed to date from 164-167 BC (“Daniel, Book of”). The Book of Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue composed of gold, silver, brass, iron, and iron and clay, which Daniel interprets for the King of Babylon as a metaphor for the ages of humankind (Daniel 2:31-43). Here, the fourth kingdom is “strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all [things]: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise” (Daniel 2:40). The mode of operation of such schema is one of chronological decay and concomitant nostalgia. As the world becomes increasingly dissolute, humankind longs for the preceding ages; the further back, the more desirable. The energy of desire for golden times is redirected into an apocalyptic urge to sweep the world clean and start again. In an analysis of Merezhkovsky’s The Birth of the Gods, the novel preceding Akhnaton, Christensen identifies the “kindly” pacifist Dio as representative of “the late Bronze Age in Crete” and Tammuzadad as symbolising “the iron age and the warfare that comes with it. He receives no sustenance from religion and appears to be almost a nihilist. He is impelled by a masculine, aggressive force, whereas Dio […] has an androgynous beauty and manner” (Christensen 57). Tammuzadad dies on Crete, but Dio survives until Tutankhamun rebels against Akhnaton. Like Tammuzadad, Tutankhamun is characteristic of the iron age, and it is he who will rule Egypt after Akhnaton’s death, hence the iron age prevails and the Third Testament has not yet arrived.

An echo of Hyde’s specific metaphor of the “iron child” in Nadath appears in the Apostle John’s prophecy in Revelation 12:5: “And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and [to] his throne”. The “man child” in Revelation is Jesus; the mother is the nation of Israel (Guzik); the era is that of millenial rule, which is the thousand-year rule of Christ on earth. The thousand-year rule is defined in Judaism as the period between the end of the four ages of mankind and the advent of the everlasting kingdom of God (“Myth”), when sin is still present and Christ uses the “rod of iron” or strict discipline (see Rev 2:27; 19:15). The alliance of Christ and iron has those Old Testament overtones rejected by Nadath, which are to be found in Deuteronomy, where Moses prophesies: “Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all [things]: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee” (28:48). In Revelation, it is only in the last two chapters that utopia is established, sin has been eradicated, and Jesus can relinquish the rod of iron (Stedman). Hyde’s use of the metaphor clearly accords with its occurrences in Hesiod and Ovid, and in the Old Testament. Nadath presents a population suffering under the iron yoke of capitalism, of materialism and of brutality. The words of “The man in the pulpit” at the opening of “They That Answered” concur with those of Moses: “The people are punished by God, because they have sinned” (Nadath 48). But the preacher is “pleading”, unable to find that his words are truthful, and Nadath refuses to capitulate to his doctrine (Nadath 48).

Parallels can be drawn between the tropes in Nadath and the modes of suffering and survival exhibited by the community condemned to the iron yoke in Akhnaton. One of Merezhkovsky’s prophet figures, a slave named Yubra, leaves his rich master and travels the land prophesying the coming of the second Osiris, who is associated in the novel with the Jewish Messiah.12 Waiting to meet a friend in Thebes, Yubra sees a dog and a beggar woman:

An emaciated dog, with ribs that stood out under the skin…. its tail between its legs, its teeth bared in an angry growl, its body shaking with hungry envy.

But a still greater envy glittered in the eyes of a starving beggar woman… (Merezhkovsky 63)

The woman has a baby:

She put her wrinkled, black, charred-looking breast to the lips of the baby perched in a wicker basket behind her. It was biting and chewing it furiously with its toothless gums but could not suck out a single drop of milk, and, no longer able to cry, it only moaned.

‘Bread, please, sir; I have had no food for three days!’ the beggar woman moaned in a voice as small as her baby’s, stretching out her hand to Yubra.

‘I have none, my poor woman, forgive me,’ he said, and he thought ‘soon the hungry will be filled.’

He got up and walked on. The woman followed him at a distance as a stray dog follows a passer-by with a kind face. (Merezhkovsky 63-4)

Later, Yubra feeds the woman and her baby and she “followed him as a dog follows the man who has given it food” (Merezhkovsky 78). In Hyde’s text, Nadath meets “an old woman, thin as withered leaf, and a bitch dog” (Nadath 49); the dog has suckled puppies in the past. The attributes of woman and dog are then conflated: “they looked at Nadath with their faithful eyes: the lamps of their love shone out” (Nadath 50).

Yubra finds a multi-national community in the tavern where he meets his fisherman friend. They eat, drink and talk, whilst “tipsy scholars” sing and “All sorts of men of different races sat on the matting on the floor listening to two girls playing the kinnar and the flute” (Merezhkovsky 66). Such an image of community also appears in Nadath:

And in the eating-houses, men huddled closely for warmth, and sought the smell of their kind, and out of the taverns they came, laughing and singing, and the young girls walked before them, like flowers strewn in the gutters. (Nadath 48)

In Nadath, warmth is to be found in community, but spiritual solace is to be found in “the rain and the swimming lights”, which offer comfort to the people “As a faithful dog follows the nightbound steps of his drunken master” (Nadath 49). Here Nadath draws on Revelation, where God’s sinless space is “the holy city, New Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2), a city lit by “the glory of God” (Rev 21:23) and watered by “the river of water of life” (Rev 22:1). Leggott observes the occurrence in Nadath of the “Constant figure of lamps bringing light, warmth, illumination and community in conjunction with the figure of a saviour” (Nadath 79). Hyde wrote: “only the rain and the swimming lights: these understood […] and were a solace” (Nadath 49), and “we are not alone: one comes up the street, with the rain a veil upon his face. The lamps are lit up: there is not in imprisoned Heaven anything so beautiful” (Nadath 50). The root of the word ‘revelation’ is the Latin revēlāre, meaning ‘to unveil’; in Nadath, the saviour is still veiled, the people are still suffering. Michele Leggott points out the connection to the Latin for sail, vēlum, and that it is a sail for which the woman waits in “The House of Woman” (Leggott, E-mail, 5 Sep.). The sail is awaited, like the lifting of the veil covering the saviour’s face, which is the rain; the rain also occurs in Nadath as “a fine robe of silver and grey” and a “fine garment” (Nadath 48; 50), like the “fine linen, clean and white” that in Revelation is the “righteousness of saints” (Revelation 19:8; 19:14). Hyde’s city is the fallen Babylon, rather than the new Jerusalem, and yet “there is not in imprisoned Heaven anything so beautiful” (Nadath 50). If this city and “The House of Woman” are intermediate stages prior to the time of some ultimate utopia, they are nevertheless desirable, perhaps more so than an “imprisoned Heaven”, which is suggestive of limitation and even over-correctness. The prophet Nadath rejects the rod-of-iron rule that would lay waste to populations with heaven-sent plagues;   The Book of Nadath rejects a hellfire-and-damnation doctrine and supports a vision of the immanent spiritual beauty of the suffering people. Poverty is regarded neither as a sin nor as a punishment for sin, but simply as an enduring state of being: “The rain is the rain, the wind is the wind, and poverty is poverty” (Nadath 50). The note is fatalistic, perhaps ringing with an echo of Lear’s misery or of Feste’s pessimistic epilogue to Twelfth Night. The transcendent divine is not the solution. That is earthly, as Hyde’s speaker tells us in A Home in This World: “perfected man, innocent and clean, is my God, what else? And he wears Christ’s sandals and has Shelley’s eyes” (AHome 33). Here Hyde evokes a figure who is very much in accord with positive literary constructions of Akhnaton as the divine poet-prophet shining out of a past so ancient that it appears pre-lapsarian.

Gender ambiguity, the poet’s mask and utopian relationships

Contemporary archaeological constructions of the historical Akhnaton enabled Merezhkovsky to read into the figure of the pharaoh just that androgyny which the Russian believed was necessary for utopia to be realised. Merezhkovsky drew on archaeological interpretations of art found at Akhetaton, which suggested to some in the early twentieth century that Akhnaton might have been either hermaphrodite or a woman. That he was a woman has since been discounted, since he was most definitely a father, and those royal statues without male genitalia are now thought to represent Queen Nefertiti (Reeves Akhenaten 150-2; 166). Merezhkovsky’s novel admits Akhnaton’s status as a biological father, but the text elides gender and even age difference in its descriptions. When the Cretan dancer, Dio, first sees a bas-relief of the adult king, she is “dumbfoundered [sic]”:

Who was it? What was it? A human being? No, it was some unearthly creature in human form. Neither a man nor a woman, neither an old man nor a child; a eunuch, a decrepit still-born baby. The arms and legs were so thin that they seemed to be nothing but bone; narrow childish shoulders and wide, well-covered hips; a big belly; a huge head shaped like a vegetable-marrow, bent down under its own weight on a long thin neck, flexible like the stem of a flower; a receding forehead, a drooping chin, a fixed stare and the smile of a madman. (Merezhkovsky 46-7)

As Dio remarks, this representation is “unearthly” and might well be recognised today as being akin to that of the alien E. T. from Stephen Spielberg’s film, E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).13 Though Merezhkovsky exaggerates, his description is basically true to certain surviving portraits of the adult Akhnaton, whose physical characteristics are similar to those exhibited by sufferers of the genetically inherited condition, Marfan’s Syndrome (Reeves Akhenaten 150-1), although Marfan’s does not induce madness or intellectual disability. Montserrat argues that such realist interpretations of Ancient Egyptian representation are contemporary misunderstandings by Western art theorists. Instead such portraiture should be read as iconography with religious and political functions, hence portraits of Akhnaton combining male and female characteristics might be seen to be “a symbolic gathering of all attributes of the creator-god into the body of the king himself” (Montserrat 48).

Montserrat’s reading of Egyptian representation coheres with Merezhkovsky’s thesis of the androgyne as divine being. For Merezhkovsky’s purpose, Akhnaton’s appearance serves to emphasise his Otherness, his spirituality and his androgyny. Dio recalls a childhood sculpture of Akhnaton, which resembled “a boy looking like a girl; an oval, egg-shaped face, childishly, girlishly charming, quiet and gentle as that of the god whose name is Quiet-Heart”, that is Osiris, god of the afterlife (Merezhkovsky 47). When Dio sees another portrait of the adult king, this time naked, his difference becomes beautiful: “The neck, the shoulders, the hands, the calves and the ankles were slender and narrow like those of a boy of ten, but the hips were wide like a woman’s and the breasts too full; neither he nor she – he and she at the same time – a marvel of god-like beauty” (Merezhkovsky 115). Dio recalls “the prophecy: ‘the kingdom of God shall come when the two shall be one, and male shall be female and there shall be neither male nor female’” (Merezhkovsky 115). Dio alludes to the apocryphal saying of Christ, attributed by Bedford to Clement of Alexandria (Bedford 157), but which is also found in the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings attributed to the Apostle, Thomas, also known as Didymus or the Twin (Chambers “Thomas, St.”). Thomas Didymus echoes Paul in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. Dio’s reaction to her revelation is to kneel and declare: “‘My brother, my sister, the two horned moon, the double-edged axe, my lover’” (Merezhkovsky 115).

Dio herself, dancing naked, has an “innocent body, neither masculine nor feminine – at once masculine and feminine – a marvel of godlike beauty” (Merezhkovsky 132). She has “narrow hips, […] curls of bluish-black hair cut much too short, the colour in the cheeks, dark-skinned like a boy’s and girlishly tender, […] and the darkish down on the upper lip – an absurd little moustache!” (Merezhkovsky 6). Michele Leggott has pointed out the similarity between Dio and Attica, the dream-daughter of Wednesday Gilfillan in Hyde’s novel, Wednesday’s Children (1937) (Leggott, E-mail, 5 Sep.). Attica is one of Wednesday’s fictitious children, supposedly fathered by a Greek athlete and fish-fryer called Constantine (Wednesday 38). Like Dio, Attica is artistic and sensuous: Attica loves music and singing; she is an aspiring sculptor, expressing her tactility in working with clay (Wednesday 22); she values “touch, taste and smell” over sight with its appeal to “reason” (Wednesday 127). In an echo of Dio’s adoration of Aton-worship, Attica adopts “a sun-cult” (Wednesday 126). Attica is “a rather gauche and coltish goddess, with dangerous eyes” (Wednesday 127), whose mother garbs her in a crimson-black toga and bronze tights, shears her black hair into a page-boy style and anoints her with Attar of Roses (Wednesday 193-4), perfectly evoking the antiquity, the androgyny and the fragrance of Dio. Like Dio, Attica is independent and free-spirited, searching for utopia and fulfilment, though the same could be said of Wednesday Gilfillan, who dreams of a band of children fathered by men of different nationalities, living together on an island in a house called ‘L’Entente Cordiale’. When Wednesday realises her illusion is about to be unveiled, she commits suicide, just as Dio dies rather than submit to Tutankhamun’s iron age. But, as Leggott notes, it is the figure of Attica, which provides the last image in the book, “the hope for whatever future comes next” (Leggott, E-mail, 5 Sep.). Hyde left the reader with the sound of Attica’s “defiant voice, fleet and nymph-like in its age of gold” and the picture of “a young girl running. She wore nothing but a tattered bathing-suit, which failed to conceal the sweet curve of her breasts, and the fine down like golden mail, on her long, slender legs and thighs” (Wednesday 286). Attica is only a vision: “No footprint set its beautiful shapely seal” where she ran on the beach (Wednesday 286). Hyde’s text gives Attica life, then shatters the illusion, effectively killing her, but she is finally resurrected as a vision of that which is to come. Wednesday’s Children was published in late October 1937, two months before Hyde sent her letter about Akhnaton to Schroder, although the novel was started in the latter half of 1935, eventually going to the publisher in September 1936 (Challis 297); thus the question of exactly when Hyde read Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton is complicated.15

Most of the main male and female characters in Akhnaton fall in love with Dio, though the novel only explicitly describes heterosexual desire. Dio becomes the helpmate and companion of Akhnaton with the approval of Queen Nefertiti. Of Dio and Akhnaton together, a courtier observes that “‘there are two in him, two in her; an eye – a hook, a hook – an eye; once they catch there will be no disentangling them’” (Merezhkovsky 134). Yet the same can be said of Nefertiti and Akhnaton, who are half-brother and sister, and are so physically alike as to be “hard to distinguish” (Merezhkovsky 134). Contemporary archaeology held that Nefertiti was Tiy’s daughter (Budge 76), though this has now been shown to be misguided (Reeves 88-9). Those lovers in Akhnaton who are not siblings are still described as brother and sister, including Dio and the king. Dio and Akhnaton declare their love, though it is not apparent that they consummate their relationship, despite the following passage, which describes their final embrace as they are burnt to death:

With furious roaring laughter red tongues of flame shot up on all sides through the white coils of smoke, as though the hell let loose had leapt up to heaven.   

Dio rushed to the king, looked into his face that was like the sun and recognized Him Who was to come.

“Is it Thee, O Lord?”

“It is I!”

He embraced her as a bridegroom embraces a bride and in a fiery storm of love raised her to the father. (Merezhkovsky 343-4)

This might well be interpreted as a sexual metaphor, but it would be in better agreement with Merezhkovsky’s thesis of the sublimation of erotic desire to read it as a reference to spiritual transcendence fired by the united erotic energy of Dio and Akhnaton. Thus, Dio and Akhnaton realise the triad with God the father, in which Akhnaton represents the son, the spirit, and Dio the female principle of the Eternal Woman and Mother. Shortly before they die, Akhnaton recognises the mother-spirit in Dio, when, putting his cheek against hers, he says:

“Ma, Ma, how lovely it is! Don’t be afraid, I am not raving, I know you are not Ma.”

Ma was the Cretan goddess, the Great Mother of gods and men.

And he added, after a pause:

“You and Nefertiti and Tiy [Akhnaton’s mother], all three of you are One.”   (Merezhkovsky 330-1).

Veneration of the mother principle would have had strong appeal to Hyde. Nadath reiterates throughout the centrality of the relationship between mother and, particularly, son, as a force that should be used for good, primarily against the system of the iron child. In A Home in This World, the narrator recognises that women’s reproductive capability is not only essential to any divine plan, but is a source of female power: “And yet without me, oh God, how will you find life? […] Man cannot be so great, since I by whiles confine him in my womb” (AHome 38). Hyde herself had a complex history of motherhood. Both her sons were illegitimate, the first, Christopher Robin Hyde, dying shortly after his birth in Sydney in the spring of 1926 (Challis 76-8), the second, Derek Challis, fostered out, whilst Hyde attempted to earn enough to contribute to his support (see Hyde’s letter to John A. Lee, dated October 1937 (Docherty 259-61)). Hyde refused to abort her second pregnancy; her narrator in A Home in This World says: “From the beginning I had made up my mind, since I was going to have this infant, to want it” (AHome 50). But it is not conventional legitimate motherhood towards which Hyde yearns, as perhaps is exemplified by her protagonist, Wednesday Gilfillan.

Although Hyde neither married nor cohabited, she drew emotional and professional support from a variety of close relationships, such as those with her school-friend Gwen Mitcalfe (née Hawthorn) and four “literary men” (Docherty xv), who were the aforementioned John Schroder, the Labour politician John A. Lee, the retired politician Downie Stewart and the journalist Pat Lawlor. Lisa Docherty has collected and edited Hyde’s correspondence with these men, from which it appears that these important relationships each had a different character and function. However, it seems, too, that Hyde was always at a remove, never the sole focus of any correspondent’s affection or attention. As can be deduced from Hyde’s texts and from Challis’s biography, the same can be said of Gilbert Tothill, Hyde’s Avondale doctor, of the fathers of Hyde’s babies, who were both in committed relationships with other women, and of Hyde’s first love, Harry Sweetman, who had other girlfriends when he was seeing Hyde. I want to argue that Hyde was in a sense a third party in these relationships, and that, like Merezhkovsky, she appreciated the value of unconventional and non-sexual connections. On 16 March 1937, around the time she was writing Nadath, she wrote to her friend, the owner of Griffin Press, Ronald Holloway:

I’ve been reading Shakespeare again, and am struck by the freedom with which love is permitted – not just hero-and-heroine love, but all kinds; look here’s Enobarbus saying
                 I’ll yet follow / the wounded chance
                 of Antony, though my reason
                 Sits i’ the wind against it –
Love between master and servant, mistress and Charmian, but no servility; love between Lear and Cordelia but no suggestion of incest; love between Beatrice and Hero and nobody neighs, ‘Look out, they’re Lesbians’; love and fidelity to the death, in all sorts of common every-day relationships (Challis 412)

Here Hyde mentions Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a text to which she often alluded and one which wheels us back round to Ancient Egypt. In Godwits, when John Hannay meditates with a Marxist consciousness on “older, bitterly beautiful civilisations; slave-civilisations”, he conflates Nefertiti with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, gazing at the picture of Nefertiti given to him by Eliza: “often he stared at the delicate little high-bred face, the slender eyebrows like wings, the lips which a thousand centuries could not stale to desire” (Godwits 81). Later in the book, at the very moment when Eliza tries to persuade John to risk his wife Augusta’s disapproval and realise his ambition of opening an antique shop, the portrait of “Nefertiti the Queen, looking down calm and bitter-sweet over John’s shoulder” may represent a shadow of Augusta and her stoic disappointment in their marriage (Godwits 155) or, as Michele Leggott points out, may represent that other world closed off to John by Augusta (Leggott, E-mail, 24 Oct.). Augusta’s name, after all, alludes to the Roman conquerors, who swept away the glory of ancient Egypt, personified by Cleopatra. Father, mother, and daughter form a triad, in which Eliza, like Merezhkovsky’s Holy Ghost, is trying to intercede for her father’s good. In A Home in This World, Hyde wrote of “the last resort, when honesty is Antony’s sword and Cleopatra’s asp” (AHome 52), a double suicide which echoes Dio’s decision to die with Akhnaton, by pushing away the ladder down which they could have escaped the flaming tower.

Dio and Akhnaton’s brother-sister relationship finds a parallel in Nadath’s “The Weavers and Dyers”, in which Nadath meets a Maori woman, a dancer like Dio, and his “heart called the maiden his sister” (Nadath 33). They go together to “a place of cliffs” where “The sea was a pulse of darkness and the throbbing of ancient things” (Nadath 34), which is identified as a West Coast New Zealand setting by Michele Leggott (Nadath 73). The episode also has echoes of Akhnaton Part II Chapter X, when Dio journeys with Akhnaton to talk near the royal tombs and the desert cliffs to the west of Akhetaton city. The “throbbing of ancient things” is undoubtedly important to Nadath, which values the traditional Maori culture, those “ancient ways” endangered by colonialism in the allegorical section, “The Greenstone Shadow” (Nadath 45). The androgyny that characterises Dio and Akhnaton features in Nadath in the form of gender ambiguity, most clearly exposed in “Nadath Speaks to His Love”. This is the episode in which Leggott claims that “The question of Hyde’s shifting relationship to the figure of Nadath is best answered” (Nadath xvii). In a passage which draws on the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, Hyde elides the distance between author, narrator, prophet and Nadath’s love:

Nadath heard the footsteps of one who came behind, walking the seaward road: and he said, These are the footsteps of Nadath’s love.

The shadow of the unseen comer fell on the road, and touched the shadow of Nadath: they mingled and were one: before the shadow behind grew longer, on the sunlit highway, and a stranger overtook me and passed, a stranger, not Nadath’s love. But the sound of the following footsteps, and the shadow that had been one with Nadath’s shadow, dwelt all day long in my heart. (Nadath 52)

The confusion here is grammatical and on two counts. Firstly, it is difficult to interpret the shadow sequence. Secondly, how many people, or shadows, are present? Is there a first person, “me”, Nadath and a stranger? Or does the poet slip her mask and reveal herself to be Nadath? Leggott makes a convincing argument that Nadath’s love is a representation of Hyde’s Avondale doctor, Gilbert Tothill (Nadathxvii-xxiv). Scrutinised on that basis, it does seem to be that Hyde lifted the mask for an instant and in the process Nadath was, as Leggott puts it, “gender-inverted” (Nadath xx). If confirmation were needed, it is to be found in the “stunning moment in the poem where distance between persona and author evaporates” (Nadath xvi), when Nadath’s father, like Hyde’s, is identified as being born in India, metaphorically “in the shadow of the Taj Mahal” (Nadath 23).

But Hyde’s Nadath is only androgynous to the extent that Hyde’s self stands behind him, and the question can be raised as to why Hyde used a male persona. Even the Bible offers female prophet role models, to one of which Nadath may make an allusion in “The Men in the Tower”: “There is not a date-palm on all earth that shall forget you: she shall give toll of her fruit, and a thought out of her shadow” (Nadath 4). Leggott notes that the date-palm is the “Traditional symbol of Mary, mother of Christ” (Nadath 62), but it is also associated with Deborah: “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. / And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in Mount Ephraim” (Judges 4:4-5). Other biblical female prophets are Miriam (Exo 15:20) and Huldah (2Ki 22:14). Yet Hyde afforded power to a male prophet, where for ‘prophet’ we can interchangeably read ‘poet’, in the Romantic tradition; this, perhaps provides part of the answer, since the iconic Romantic prophet-poets are men, such as Shelley and Keats. The prophet has the power to speak and the power to wander, to freely inhabit those spaces available to “the birds flying in their airy houses” (Nadath 5). In other words, he has physical and intellectual freedom. In Godwits, Eliza is denied the freedom of Timothy to journey to England, unless, fantastically, she agrees to invert her gender and adopt the persona of Timothy’s thievish “cabin-boy” (Godwits 165). When Eliza does make an overseas trip, it is circumscribed by the nature of and the hostility towards her pregnant female body. The chapter is “Alien Corn”, alluding to Keats’s lines on the biblical story of the exile, Ruth: “the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn” (Keats 1058). Contrast this with Timothy’s thoughts as he sets off on his trip: “Timothy laughed. […] He was going to like this voyage, this little dandy, Martin Eden voyage” (Godwits 183).

Martin Eden is the protagonist in Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), who, like London, lives rough in an attempt to experience life and become a writer. The attitude in Hyde’s writing to the Martin Eden figure remains ambivalent. John Hannay regards Jack London as merely a flâneur, remarking that London “‘was the journalist. He had his sovereign ready, he could climb out when he pleased. That’s the trouble with his work. It’s sincere as far as it goes – power, insight, but always the bus-fare home. He wasn’t really involved’” (Godwits 85). John’s opinions (and his reading matter) are treated with some irony in Godwits, but his criticism of London can be seen to have an implicit target, that of Timothy, who is yet to be introduced to the novel, but who will turn out to be doggedly loyal to Jack London’s example. But Timothy’s “bus-fare home” to England is the working sea passage, which he takes at the expense of the striking New Zealand seamen (Godwits Chapter Sixteen). A second target might be Eliza, Godwits’ journalist, behind whom stands Hyde. Godwits closes on Eliza walking along the road with a homeless man, listening to his footsteps, in the city, in the rain, experiencing their shared humanity, in a parallel to Nadath and the beggar woman in “They That Answered”. The counterpoint to that image is John’s criticism, that to walk the streets with a homeless man is not to be that man, not to truly know his experience.

The wanderer, Nadath, though underscored by the irony of his status as a false prophet, is stamped from a positive construction: “Hyde’s healing saviour template”, as Leggott phrases it (Nadath xxiv). Nadath’s other wanderers, the godwits, are themselves healers, dropping their feather messages over Russia. Hyde surely chooses Nadath’s gender because it enables him to wander, because healing is in the hands of male authority, and because poet-prophets in the Romantic canon are most obviously men. The male persona represents a desire on the part of the female poet to enjoy the liberty and power afforded to the man. The irony in Godwits, of course, is that poetry is created not from Timothy’s godwit flight (Godwits 216), which ends in his ignominious death, but from Eliza’s bitter experience of delivering a child who dies (Godwits 210). A gender divide exists, too, in Akhnaton. Though power and freedom is available to Dio, she is always ostensibly subordinate to Akhnaton, as conventional sexual politics subverts Merezhkovsky’s attempt to rewrite gender relations in terms of androgyny. But Dio finally controls Akhnaton’s destiny. So, too, the shadow of Nadath’s female creator, Hyde, is always behind him, and there is a sense then in which brother and sister are merged, in which the androgyne exists in the conflation of writer and persona, working together like Dio and Akhnaton.


Russian Silver Age texts vanished from ordinary circulation in the post-revolutionary period from 1920 to 1950 and were scarcely more available during the “Kruschev ‘thaw’” of the late 1950s, but they have flooded the market since the breakdown of communism in 1987-88 (Azadovski). In 1987, an active campaign began in Russia to recover Merezhkovsky’s literary and philosophical legacy (Pachmuss 1). This is the context in which Merezhkovsky’s Akhnaton was republished in 2000 under its Russian title, Messiah, by the Limbakh publishing house, which was established in 1995 in Merezhkovsky’s home city, St. Petersburg. Limbakh resurrected Messiah just a year after the first publication of Hyde’s Nadath, for which Merezhkovsky’s work was a crucial source. It seems apposite that Hyde should find so much of philosophical and stylistic value in the work of a man whose life, like hers, was unconventional and whose work, like hers, was long the subject of “a negative tone” from critics (Pachmuss 2). The texts of both writers have defied simple genre categorisation. Pachmuss claims that “Merezhkovsky did not tolerate the division of literary genres and wished to shatter their limits” (Pachmuss 29). Hyde often wrote across genre, sometimes allowing one genre to flow into another, but perhaps her most challenging text to classify is Nadath. According to Leggott, Hyde herself was aware of Nadath’s “formal oddity, poem doing prose work, resolutely unmodern in its address to the modern condition, a thoroughly hybrid production” (Nadath viii). The publication of Nadath was certainly, for whatever reason, less of a priority in the period following Hyde’s death than the collection of less formally odd poems published in Houses By the Sea (Caxton, 1952). Compare the attitude to Nadath with Bedford’s citation of a contemporary reviewer of Merezhkovsky’s inter-war texts, who remarked that the bulk of them could be regarded as “incomprehensible”, “daring” and “either too far in the past or still only in the future, but not in the present” (Bedford 150). Two years after Hyde died in London, half a world away from her home country of New Zealand, Merezhkovsky would die in exile from his homeland, Russia. Both writers were engaged in urging revolution on their respective societies; through Akhnaton King of Egypt, Hyde had met in Merezhkovsky a dreaming brother. Half a century later, each writer is in the process of being returned to the attention of their home audience, making their godwit journeys through their texts.


University of Auckland

First posted February 2003. Updated March 2005



Texts by Robin Hyde

  • A Home in This World. Intro. Derek Challis. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1984. (AHome).

  • The Book of Nadath. Ed. Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1999. (Nadath).
  • The Godwits Fly. 1938. Ed. Patrick Sandbrook. Auckland: Auckland UP, 2001. (Godwits).
  • "The Roots and the Crown". Pages 11-31 of a two-part unpublished draft manuscript also containing "If a man whom I know for a liar says to me". In the collection of Derek Challis.
  • Wednesday’s Children. 1937. Intro. Susan Ash. Auckland: New Women’s Press, 1989. (Wednesday).

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  • Breasted, James Henry. Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912.

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"The Great Hymn to the Aton"

Rendered in Russian by Dmitri Merezhkovsky and translated from the Russian by Natalie A. Duddington

Source: Merezhkovsky, Dmitri. Akhnaton King of Egypt. Trans. Natalie A. Duddington. London & Toronto: Dent, 1927. 202-4.

Glorious is thy rising in the east
Lord and giver of life, Aton!
When thou risest in the sky
Thou fillest the earth with thy beauty.
Thy rays embrace all created things,
Thou has carried them all away captive.
Thou bindest them by thy love.
Thou art far but thy rays are on earth,
Thou art on high, thy footprints are the day.
When thou settest in the west
Men lie in the darkness like the dead.
Their heads are wrapped up, their nostrils stopped
Stolen are all their things that are under their heads
While they know it not.
Lions come forth from their dens,
Serpents creep from out their holes:
The Creator has gone to rest and the world is dumb.

Thou risest and bright is the earth
Thou sendest forth thy rays and the darkness flees.
Men rise, bathe their limbs, take their clothing,
Their arms are uplifted in prayer.
And in all the world they do their work.

All cattle graze in pastures green,
All plants are growing in the fields,
The birds are flying over their nests,
And lift their wings like hands in prayer.
Lambs leap and dance upon their feet,
All winged things fly gaily round.
They all live in thy life, O Lord!

The boats sail up and down the river,
Every highway is open because thou hast dawned.
The fish in the river leap up before thee
And thy rays are in the midst of the great sea.

Thou createst the man-child in woman,
And makest the seed in man,
Givest life to the child in its mother’s womb,
Soothing it that it may not weep
Ere its own mother can soothe it.

When the chicken cries in the egg-shell,
Thou givest it breath to preserve it alive
And the strength to break the shell.
It comes forth from the egg and staggers,
But with its voice it calls to thee.
How manifold are thy works, O Lord!
They are hidden from us, Thou only God whose power no other possesses!
Thou didst create the earth according to thy desire,
While thou wast alone in eternity,
Thou didst create man and the beasts of the field,
All the creatures that are upon the earth,
And fly with their wings on high.

Thou didst create Syria, Nubia and Egypt,
Setting every man in his place.
Giving him all that he needs,
His measure of food and his measure of days.
Their tongues are diverse in speech,
Their forms are diverse and their skins,
For Thou, divider, hast divided the peoples.

Thou makest the Nile in the nether world
To fill with goods thy people here;
Thou has set a Nile up in the sky,
That its waters may fall down in floods,
Giving drink to wild beasts on the hills,
And refreshing the fields and the meadows.
How excellent are thy works, O Lord!
The Nile in heaven is for the strangers,
And the Nile from the nether world is for Egypt.

Thou feedest each plant as thine own child,
Thou makest the seasons for all thy creatures:
The winter to bring them coolness
And the summer to bring them heat.

Thou didst create the distant heavens
In order to behold all that Thou didst make.
Thou comest, thou goest, thou comest back
And createst out of thyself, the Only One,
Thousands upon thousands of forms:
Cities, towns and villages
On highways and on rivers.
All eyes see thy eternal sun.
When thou hast risen they live, when thou settest they die,
When thou didst establish the earth
Thou didst reveal thy will to me,
Thy son, Akhnaton, who lives for ever and proceeds from thee,
And to thy beloved daughter,
Nefertiti, the delight of the Sun’s delights.
Who flourishes for ever and ever.
Thou, Father, art in my heart
And there’s no other that knows thee,
Only I know thee, thy son,
Akhnaton Uaenra,
Joy of the Sun, Sun’s only son!



1. ‘Akhnaton’ is a variant spelling of ‘Akhenaton’, ‘Akhenaten’ or ‘Ikhnaton’. For the sake of simplicity, Akhnaton will be used in this essay throughout, except in direct quotation.

2. Duddington’s translation should not be confused with Merezhkovsky’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, published in 1900 and cited under the Russian title Birth of the Gods by Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal (443).

3. The name of the city Akhetaton is sometimes spelled ‘Akhetaten’, and means ‘Horizon of the Aten’ (Reeves 103).

4. For a discussion of the inherent puns in the king’s name and their political and religious import, see Montserrat (21).

5. Some agreement might be expected on the basis that Merezhkovsky owes a great deal to Nietzsche (see Rosenthal), and Leggott points out Hyde’s fascination with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (Nadath 69). This connection warrants further investigation, though the space cannot be afforded in this essay.

6. Michele Leggott points out that there is “no clear date” for the two pieces of writing forming draft material for Nadath: “They could be discarded sections, drafted at any time during the composition period” (Leggott E-mail, 24 Oct.).

7. Lichtheim’s translation, published in Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings (1976), is available on-line at <>. Breasted’s translation is at <>.

8. All abbreviated titles used here are in accordance with the guidelines for Hyde’s texts available at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre web-site: <>.

9. The Greeks identified Osiris with Dionysus (Steindorff 32), which finds another connection between Merezhkovsky and Nietzsche.

10. Hyde’s character, Attica, from the novel Wednesday’s Children, has a ritual of burning “rose-leaves at Christmas and New Year for the people who loved roses”, all of whom are poets (Wednesday 196).

11. Gerber’s list of “English Utopian Fantasies 1901-51” in the appendix to Utopian Fantasies includes several texts expressing fear of a mechanised future, for example, E. M. Forster’s story, The Machine (1928) (Gerber 150) or S. Fowler Wright’s The Adventure of Wyndham Smith (1938) (Gerber 154). Texts expressing the reverse, that is, describing utopias achieved by creating a world without machines, are also common. One example is J. D. Beresford’s What Dreams May Come (1941) (Gerber 155). Many of the texts Gerber lists are concerned with the nature of society under totalitarian dictatorship of either the socialist or the fascist persuasion.

12. Before leaving, Yubra offers his master the following description of Osiris’ punishment of a rich man in the afterlife: “‘And they put him under a door so that the door hinge entered his eye and turned in it each time that the door opened or shut’” (Merezhkovsky 33). The painful image bears some similarity to Hyde’s well-known metaphor for her own tortuous position as a woman: “It seems to me now that I am caught in the hinge of a slowly-opening door, between one age and another” (AHome 28).

13. It is a commonplace to use the trope of the alien from outer space to represent the divine on earth. Reviewers have observed an overt spiritual message and plenty of Christian symbolism in Spielberg’s film. See Peter Bradshaw’s review on the Guardian Newspaper website at <,4267,675541,00.html>, or Christian websites at <> and <>.

14. Several translations of the Gospel of Thomas are given at <>.

15. To date, lack of evidence confounds the establishment of when Hyde read Akhnaton. Tantalisingly, the Auckland Public Library still holds a copy of the book, acquired on 28 October 1927, but which appears from library stamps inside the book to have been held in reserve, that is, to have been available only for use in the library, on request, until 16 September 1937. Hyde wrote her letter to Schroder mentioning Akhnaton in December 1937, which might imply that it had been brought to her attention recently. Further research is needed to establish the lending history of Akhnaton at the Auckland Public Library.


Last updated 11 March, 2005