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Robin Hyde

about Robin Hyde
[Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Notes]

THE VICTORY HYMN 1935 - 1995


IV. Phantom poem

‘The Victory Hymn’'s history of detachments proliferates from this point. Holloway remembers receiving the corrected proof from Hyde just before she sailed from Auckland 18 January 1938, though why two years elapsed between typesetting and the return of the proof is not clear. During that time Hyde had assembled the manuscript of Persephone in Winter but ‘The Victory Hymn’ was not included although it may have been part of an initial Persephone selection that was scaled back in January 1937 for re-posting to the publishers.[21] Did she think of the poem in context of the play and discount its effectiveness as a discrete piece in a collection? This is unlikely in view of the four extant typings of it as a freestanding poem. It seems more likely that Hyde was standing by her initial commitment of publication rights to the Griffin Press.

Christmas 1938. The other four are published, this one not. That doesn't say this one isn't rotten too – Thanks for the party! [22]

By Christmas 1938, Hyde was in England; specifically she was in Middlesex Hospital at the instigation of James Bertram, debilitated and exhausted. She had just completed Dragon Rampant (published 1939), the record of her first-hand experience February-July of the Sino-Japanese war. The book was written at top speed in straitened circumstances after her arrival in England in mid-September. What the other four poems referred to in the inscription were, who was being sent the poems and thanked for what kind of party, and quite how this version of ‘The Victory Hymn’ is still in Hyde's papers, are questions which remain unanswered. We can however establish that this version was typed later than any of the others, on the typewriter bought in January 1937 and taken overseas in 1938; we know also that it was typed (as well as inscribed) in 1938 because its Waterton Bond 8 paper is a Wiggins Teape manufacture of that year.[23]

Why was Hyde retyping, inscribing and putting first of five a poem written almost three and a half years previously if she thought it was ‘rotten too’? Some wider contextualisation might help here, if we remember that by Christmas 1938 the Munich Agreement and ‘peace in our time’ were looking shakier than ever after three months of continued diplomatic aggression by Hitler. Mussolini, having successfully overrun Abyssinia 1935-36 and engineered the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936, had withdrawn from the League of Nations in 1937. Germany had been sending military aid to Spain since 1936 and at Christmas 1938, after a siege of almost twelve months, Madrid fell to Franco's forces and the headquarters of the International Brigade was crushed. In the Pacific war zone Japanese advances had captured Canton and Hankow in October; Hyde had been in both cities. Perhaps it is also useful to remember that, having made her own version of the godwit journey, Hyde was now close to one of the Melcheks from which ‘The Victory Hymn’ springs and that she, like many others, was conscious of the inevitability of another war. The ‘victory’ posited by the poem must have seemed impossible against the gates of this next Hell – and yet the poem and the play it is part of turn on the outcome of just such a historical moment. The peace-maker Chamberlain stopped the wheels of Hitler's war for as long and with as little success as the recurring peace-bringer in Hyde's play – but her character does not silence the chariot wheels by treating with the aggressor and by the end of 1938 Hyde is unlikely to have had sympathy or support for Chamberlain's action. After that bid for peace lay only despair: ‘nothing, nothing – The water of the wheels closes over them in an iron sea –‘ (Journal, 13 June 1935).

Hyde's annotating of this late typescript of ‘The Victory Hymn’ draws attention to certain continuities in her writing. Even without knowing what the other four poems were, it is possible to conjecture that the gathering as a whole reflected her preoccupation with finding ways toward collective understanding of the peril in which humanity stood. That she felt the poems were all ‘rotten’ reflects her despair at the widening gap between the maelstrom of contemporary events in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific and what she felt her writing could do to show up the impending horror of repeat genocide.

It is interesting to speculate that the epic poem she did not write in 1935 after completing Passport to Hell and the first version of The Godwits Fly eventuated early in 1937 as ‘The Book of Nadath’,  a prophetic text in the tradition of Blake and Nietzsche, written in scripture-like verses which examine the condition of humankind from a point of view that is cosmic and outside time (Nadath calls up the spirit of Hone Heke to walk over the killing fields of Flanders) and also particular to time and place. It begins:

The words of Nadath, the false prophet, written in the year 1937, in a house that stands on a bay of New Zealand : a house of wood, iron and glass, and with the sea outside.

When a sick man's reason leaves him, then his dreams

and visions go in and out, mingling with the people who enter his room : and who shall say which of them has substance? [24]

Nadath is a self-declared false prophet because nobody wants to listen to his truths; he is (anagrammatically) at hand but without power, an observer (seer) and a seeker. In the section entitled ‘Nadath and the Master of Wheels’, the prophet and the phantom Heke seek out the warmakers of 1914-18 who are the warmongers of the near future. They question the dead in moonlight on a battlefield that doubles as charnel house, and Heke discovers a hell reaped neither for mana, utu, muru nor tapu (p. 31):

Then said the Maori to Nadath, I fear.
For the battle without cause is without honour, and the tapu is too great.
We had battles and we loved valour : but we did not slay the earth, who fed us. And this place has been slain.
Then Nadath answered, The battle was fought because there was no hand to stop the wheels.

When they find the wheelmaster he is blind with weeping (‘It is a little thing to set the wheels in motion, but a greater thing than I dare to stop them’, p. 34) and has nailed his son to a cross on the battlefield, not for the first time. When the young man opens his eyes and smiles the earth puts out new life (yellow flowers spring up in the field) and the wheels are broken. In the next section of the poem Nadath's quest for the House of Woman is unsuccessful until he turns around and discovers it already built – wooden-walled, little and old, set down at the edge of sands that mount up above yellow flowers, with a woman standing in the doorway sweeping out the sand. There she is, saving grace of that ‘crystal desolation of a world with nothing but sands and tides’ (A Home in This World, p. 38), sweeping the sands of forgetting from her threshhold.

‘The Book of Nadath’ was composed March-April 1937 after Hyde had completed the final version of The Godwits Fly in a bach on Whangaroa harbour and returned to Auckland. She seems to have written ‘The Book of Nadath’ at the same time as A Home in This World and just before writing the second Starkie book, Nor the Years Condemn (published 1938). The three works were written in a progression of baches at Waiatarua, Castor Bay and Milford. [25] This pattern – autobiography rubbing shoulders with the biographical-historical, inspiring in the same nexus a poetic work of elevated form and purpose – repeats the production of early 1935: Passport to Hell, The Godwits Fly (first version), and ‘Chariot Wheels’ the play that was to have been a poem. The difference is that by 1937 Hyde was adept in all three genres to which she was promisingly apprenticed in 1935; the writing years of 1935 and 1936 look more and more like professional baptisms of fire. It is ironic, then, that the autobiography remained unpublished for nearly fifty years and ‘The Book of Nadath’ longer still, so that even now it is difficult to assemble a fully coherent view of Hyde's development as a writer across her chosen genres.

T O  T H E  M E M O R Y  O F
A T  T H E  R A W L I N S O N S'
5.30-6.30 THURSDAY 31: vii: 39 

This card was printed at the Griffin Press for Rosalie and Gloria Rawlinson after news of Hyde's death 23 August 1939 reached New Zealand.[26] But ‘The Victory Hymn’ could not be printed because the corrected proof was lost and without it, or another copy of the typescript, Ron Holloway could not be sure that the Linotype operator’s errors had been caught. They, or the transpositions that may result from handling of the type metal in the Griffin printery over fifty nine years, are the stutterings of this version's particular history.

In the years after Hyde's death the project lapsed: the Griffin Press was closed mid-1942 until 1945 while Holloway served with the Royal New Zealand Airforce. Gloria Rawlinson, busy collating Hyde's papers in the early 1940s, could have helped once the poetry manuscripts had been rationalised, but ‘The Victory Hymn’ broadside was not revived after the disruption of the war.

The poem finally appeared in Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde, edited by Gloria Rawlinson and ready for publication in 1947 although delays at the Caxton Press meant the book did not come out until 1952; Denis Glover disliked it and undertook its publication only as a duty and a favour to John Schroder.[27] ‘The Victory Hymn’ did not attract much attention, its choric nature unexplained and at some disadvantage surrounded by shorter lyric poems. It was not reprinted in the Selected Poems of 1984. Its connection with Hyde's other literary productions of 1935 has gone unnoticed, thereby obscuring an important link in the politically engaged writing which led to ‘The Book of Nadath’, Nor the Years Condemn and ultimately to Dragon Rampant and the poems and prose written in China.


Last updated 15 January, 2003