Young Knowledge: the Poems of Robin Hyde, edited & Introduced by Michele Leggott. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003. ISBN 1-86940-298-7. RRP $49.99.
Michele Leggott, ed.: Young Knowledge: the Poems of Robin Hyde (2003)
I dreamed your book was written, and that the great
So praised it. [p.343]
These lines, from ‘Fragments from Two Countries’ (written in China in 1938), encapsulate some of the complexities in coming to terms with Michele Leggott’s massive new edition of – if not Robin Hyde’s collected poems – at any rate the most substantial selection to date. Let’s try and unpack them a little.
The notes, available online at Leggott’s New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre, quote from a 1936 journal fragment which implies that the ‘book’ in question would have been Harry Sweetman’s (nicknamed Haroun), generally assumed to be the original for Eliza Hannay’s Byronic lover Timothy Cardew in The Godwits Fly (1938):
… to read Haroun’s letter is to realise how much I have lost, how much gold has gone out of the world. This literary success, he’d have enjoyed it so much more than I. But he had not my malleability … and most of all, he didn’t live long enough, and was just too busy living, while he lasted, to turn into ink. [Notes, p.74]
The fragment of verse continues:
… In my green room, facing the hills,
Outstaring the cold Karori tombstones, the blinded moon,
Your eyes laughed, your two close hands were warm.
I was rested, after a long and weary running,
And leaned my head. …
There’s no competing with the dead – nothing in their subsequent career can contradict the bright promise of youth. He was always too busy to ‘turn into ink.’ That meagre reward was left to the industrious and prolific woman he left behind.
Recently I published a poem by Michele Leggott in brief, the literary journal I edit, in a special issue dedicated to the late lamented poet / playwright / publisher Alan Brunton. That poem was entitled ‘I dreamed your book was written and the great So praised it.’ It plays ingeniously on Wallis Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Brunton’s Flaubert play The Excursion (1982 / 2001), reprinted in that issue, and the circumstances of his own untimely death (‘You’re eating cakes at the captain’s table. You measure the speech of other hearts. You rewrite an old script’):
You are ambiguous, a hummingbird in a nest of sand. Wild Rose, you are a production in yourself.
Let my heart be with me in the House of Hearts. Let my heart-case be with me in the House of Heart-cases. I wear you in a silver ring about my neck. I listen for your call.
I had no idea that the title was a (slightly edited) quotation from Robin Hyde until I read Young Knowledge. In this case, the ‘book’ might be interpreted as Brunton’s posthumously published Fq (2002), or perhaps some projected future edition of the collected works.
Iris (as Robin) on Harry (as Haroun) is one level of the poem, then. Reapplied (as Leggott did previously with a medley of lines from Robin Hyde and various other New Zealand woman poets in ‘Blue Irises’), it becomes Michele Leggott on Alan Brunton.
And so? What point am I making? I guess that there has been a certain tendency, especially observable over the last couple of years (since the appearance of the Gloria Rawlinson / Derek Challis joint biography The Book of Iris in 2002), for others to write themselves into Robin Hyde’s story. I’m doing it myself, I hope more obliquely, by mentioning my first publication of Leggott’s Brunton poem.
Scholars and critics always do that to some extent, of course. Editors shape the destiny of the poets and writers they work on. T. S. Eliot helped to create the climate of opinion which canonised the metaphysical congeries of John Donne, shortly after Herbert Grierson had completed his painstaking edition of the Poetical Works. Nevertheless, there used to be a certain ideal of invisibility apparent in these matters (one of the comments quoted on the blurb of Geoffrey Keynes’s Oxford Standard Authors edition of Blake’s Complete Writings claims that it ‘might serve as a model of how a great editor is able to efface himself from his work’).
Robin Hyde studies, to date, have been dominated by personal agendas. On the one hand there was the desire of Gloria Rawlinson, editor of the posthumous Houses by the Sea (1952), to write herself and her mother more centrally into the Robin Hyde story than the facts may have justified (‘.. in 1938 the Rawlinsons in fact received seven letters from Iris, but the text of the introduction to Houses by the Sea suggests that they received twenty-four…. Some of the reputed letters were not in fact letters at all but were reconstructions of articles written by Iris for a variety of … publications’). Then there is her co-biographer Derek Challis’s rather more understandable aim to do justice to the posthumous reputation of the mother he hardly knew.
Where does Michele Leggott fit in?
Some aspects of the book’s design offer us a hint. ‘Donne’ and ‘Blake’ are in large capitals on the covers of the Oxford texts; ‘Grierson’ and ‘Keynes’ in far-smaller lower-case letters below. Michele Leggott’s name appears in the same size and style as Robin Hyde’s on the spine, front cover and title-page of this Auckland University Press paperback. In her introduction, Leggott further describes the work she has done as a ‘chronological presentation [my emphasis] of Robin Hyde’s poetry … derived from the 500-plus poems in her literary papers’ [p.6]. My own count of the poems included in the text runs to 337, or roughly two thirds of the material available. This number is, however, misleading. Many (perhaps most?) of the poems exist in multiple texts, and often (as Leggott’s notes make clear) the text presented is neither the one previously published in a periodical, nor one of those from Hyde’s own three volumes of poems (which themselves contain various repetitions and overlaps). Leggott’s dismissal of these books sounds a little brusque:
Hyde’s published books of poetry, The Desolate Star (1929), The Conquerors (1935), Persephone in Winter (1937) and Houses by the Sea (1952), have not been used as structural determinants here. The books are interesting artefacts, and are being digitally archived by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre …, but there is too much indifferent material in them to justify a complete reprint when space is at issue and there are many uncollected poems that deserve attention. [p.7]
She concludes by remarking that: ‘A different configuration is needed to transmit the excitement of Hyde’s poetry and its relevance for a contemporary audience.’
The assumptions in that last sentence deserve further comment. First of all, we have the fact that Leggott believes that Hyde’s poetry is exciting, and thus justifies a careful and strategic ‘presentation’ to transmit that excitement (of course, it’s hard to imagine working for almost ten years – Leggott’s interest in ‘producing a substantial collection of the poems began,’ she tells us, ‘around 1994’ [p.6] – on a poet whose works did not excite one). Secondly, that the most crucial thing is to communicate that poetry’s ‘relevance for a contemporary audience.’
In other words, Leggott’s work on Hyde’s poems is not intended primarily as an archaeological presentation of the literary remains, but as a polemical argument in support of their continued relevance to modern readers. To return to our analogy with John Donne, Leggott’s attitude is closer to T. S. Eliot’s than Herbert Grierson’s (perhaps fittingly, given her own status as one of New Zealand’s finest contemporary poets).
Isn’t this getting perilously close to another famous editorial coalition, though – Alexander Pope’s eighteenth-century edition of Shakespeare, notorious even at the time for the poet’s tendency to choose whichever readings sounded best to him, regardless of textual evidence? Well, no. That description would (unfortunately) apply much more closely to the work of Gloria Rawlinson, editor of Houses by the Sea, and previous custodian of Hyde’s main poetic archive (now divided between Auckland University Library and Derek Challis’s private collection). Leggott provides a hair-raising account of Rawlinson’s apparent forgery – on her own typewriter – of a textual lacuna in the typescript of The Book of Nadath, and her list of mistranscriptions and ‘corrections’ in the poems of Houses by the Sea would in themselves justify this new edition of those poems:
For this edition, [Leggott assures us] every effort has been made to present the poems of Houses by the Sea as Hyde wrote them. Notes on the text … give textual and bibliographical details of each poem in Young Knowledge and provide descriptive commentary. [p.30]
The decision to post these notes online rather than including them in the book itself has (inevitably) raised some eyebrows. Are they so dispensable? Am I alone in wanting to read the two texts side by side? Time will tell whether other publishers follow the precedent that Leggott and Auckland University Press have set here, but one has to note in their favour that the notes, while bulky (they ran to 89 pages when I printed them out late last year, and further additions are promised) are easy to access and download. It is in fact far simpler to read them in this way than by leafing backwards and forwards in a doorstop-shaped text. It’s also exceptionally useful to have the complete texts of Hyde’s own three books of poems available in electronic form – a convenience that few publishers would have felt economically justified in including in a more conventional collected poems.
Robin Hyde, one should stress, is not Shakespeare. The time may come when an edition of her complete poems is considered desirable, but not yet. In any case, the materials for this now exist in the form of Leggott’s ‘comprehensive inventory of all known Hyde poems, their variants, physical locations and publication histories.’
This inventory, which updates and supplements Rawlinson’s 1959 lists, will eventually be made available online. [pp.6-7]
Michele Leggott, then, must certainly be seen as a bold and opinionated editor, one whose name and picture stand appropriately side-by-side with Robin Hyde’s on the cover of this painstakingly-compiled book. But then, so (for all their apparent self-effacement) were Herbert Grierson and Geoffrey Keynes. Both made controversial decisions (particularly when it came to the then almost standard practice of repunctuating the texts they were editing). All three (unlike Pope – or, alas, Gloria Rawlinson) have done their best to put on record the information on which they based their decisions. It would, in fact, be hard to fault Leggott’s practice in this respect (except by those unfortunate souls who neither possess nor have access to an internet connection). Having settled that point, however, the end result of her work, Young Knowledge itself, still needs to be assessed.
Does Robin Hyde seem a better poet now that so much more of the evidence is on display? Does this opportunity to see the bigger picture enable us to understand her better? My own answer (not to keep you in unnecessary suspense) is an emphatic ‘yes’.
The archaisms (‘But I am bowed like a reed, whose leaf is holden / Deep beneath the waters of troublous things’ [p.144]), the inversions (‘in twain was broken the sword of bitterness’ [p.80]), the florid lists of adjectives (‘The young stubborn smokes beneath old altars exuding’ [p.232] … in short, the imprecise wordiness of her poetry are still there, and are still irritating to those of us weaned on Modernist bite and precision.
While reading Young Knowledge, though, I also had the interesting experience of looking through the latest (2003) Library of America edition of Ezra Pound’s collected Poems and Translations, and some of the lamentable prentice verses included there made me think twice about directing too much harshness towards Hyde. True, Pound learnt more quickly than she did, but he had the help of Joyce and Eliot and even Ford Madox Ford, who once – allegedly – rolled on the ground on encountering the phrase ‘dim lands of peace’ in an early poem (‘that roll saved me three years’). Pound’s diagnosis of the central problem for early twentieth century English language poets: ‘After Browning and Swinburne – what?’ remains a valid and useful one. Browning had carried tangled thought, crabbed syntax, morbid psychology seemingly as far as it could go. Swinburne had done the same for euphony and word music. Which should one follow? And if the task was to combine them, how?
I suppose if I had to see Young Knowledge as having a plot, it would be how one goes from Walter de la Mare-ish verses about flowers and fairies to the sinewy, luminous word-pictures of ‘Houses by the Sea.’ The journey was clearly a difficult one, aided little by the Georgian-sympathising editors (John Schroder and Charles Marris) who had most influence on her. Fortunately it seems to have gone in parallel with her evolution of a flexible and vivid prose style. Towards the end, after the intensely instructive prose-poetry experiment of The Book of Nadath, her last poems from China and England do indeed show a poetry ‘as well written as prose’ (to adopt Pound’s famous definition).
The rock bounces in front of the car, a visiting card from the Gods. The rock is a text. It is also good copy. [p.6]
This passage, from Leggott’s introduction, gives us some useful hints on how to interpret the constant interchange between Hyde’s inner and outer worlds, on one side the “morphing array of autobiographical reference,” on the other the region of “authorial control” [pp.6-7]. It refers to an article she wrote for the Railways Magazine, describing a drive through the Buller gorge and the falling boulder which narrowly missed their service car:
… the boulder was a sizeable Might-Have-Been .. you know, one of those cost-free, pain-free adventure-without-tears incidents of which you can talk with pride. [p.3]
It’s a real event, subject to multiple interpretations (‘a text’), but it also helps to provide a central metaphor for her journey. The title of the article is ‘The Stone at the Centre’ – the surveyor’s stone set up in Nelson, but also this stone, not to mention the Greenstone of the Arahura tribes. This 1936 journey, combined with details from Charles Heaphy’s 1846 diary of a trip down the West Coast, went on inturn to inform the fragile, threatened paradise of the poem ‘Young Knowledge’:
There standing on the clifftops weighed his knowledge –
The thin precarious weight of early knowledge –
And staring in a sun, half steeled his heart
To tell the cities there was no such world. [p.207]
This contrast between inner and outer worlds (and the dangerous, yet necessary, passage from one to the other) is, then, the central subject of her poetry. Reality – real people, places, journeys: to the South Island, Sydney, China, England – provides the copy; Imagination – the inner world of symbols, dreams, fantasy, personal history – provides the motivating force; Language – increasingly subtle and adept control of her various media – is the bridge between the two. It is (no doubt) a familiar prescription, applicable to virtually any poet, but the results of her increasing control over these three regions were anything but familiar and commonplace. In a late poem like ‘The Verb,’ for example, she displays an almost post-modern sense of the Word as structural determinant:
Hooded, magnificently snake,
the Verb made rigid hissed their fate:
said he was God: divided and ruled
pronoun and noun by predicate,
viziered all cities under the sun
to turbanned Have, Known and Done:
(subject craving its flesh the object
cried to be nothing, or be one).
‘But the Verb loved them out of pride …’ [p.359]. The Verb represents the domination of tense, of time. In her poem, however, Hyde looks forward to a millennial revolution (‘like a guerrilla smile waiting’ [p.360]) restoring what simply is: the noun.
Seer here reaching one with seen,
flood-gates are done: down rips the green
triumph of sense through dry-boned valleys
where no Verb prompts us what we mean.
This spare, almost Blakean diction, leading to a celebration of ‘humanities: the stripped rivers of God,’ is both a vindication of and a natural outgrowth of her earlier stylistic experimentation. What she had evolved was not Modernist – in the sense that word might have been understood in the 1930s – but it was clear and direct (and thus ‘modern’). The complexities of ‘The Verb’ are complexities of thought and feeling, not language. Hyde, in 1939, is enlarging on themes adumbrated in the ‘Analysand’ dream poems of the early 30s [pp.135-45], but with far greater technical dexterity and address.
The real tragedy of Robin Hyde is that she stopped when she did. Her last poems are indeed her best. It seems dangerous to interpret her suicide too symbolically, to see her as a kind of proto-Sylvia Plath, heroine of the Resistance. Emotional fragility was indeed an important part of her personality, but what comes across far more often is emotional strength. Both as a writer and as a human being, she should be seen as a role model for life, not death.
To sum up, then, I see this as a most valuable book, and one which largely achieves Michele Leggott’s aim of persuading us both of the excitement and the continuing relevance of Robin Hyde’s poetry. The selection and the editorial apparatus are exemplary. What’s more, I feel a certain personal gratitude for being forced – somewhat against my will – to see the merits of Robin Hyde as a poet (I never felt any doubt about her abilities as a prose-writer). Together with the notes, which are certainly worth printing out and binding up with it, it deserves to become one of New Zealand’s few indispensable literary classics, along with the Collected Stories of Mansfield and Sargeson, the Collected Poems of Baxter and Curnow, and Janet Frame’s Autobiography.
1. All page references to Young Knowledge: the Poems of Robin Hyde, ed. Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003) are given in square brackets only, thus: [p. 343].
2. All page references to Notes for Young Knowledge: the Poems of Robin Hyde, ed. Michele Leggott (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), available online at http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/hyde, are given in this form: [Notes, p. 74].
3. Michele Leggott, ‘I dreamed that your book was written and the great So praised it’, brief 28 (October 2003) 103-4 (p.104).
4. Michele Leggott, DIA (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1994), pp. 9-39.
5. Blake: Complete Writings with variant readings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 1966 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
6. Derek Challis, ‘Introduction.’ In The Book of Iris, by Derek Challis & Gloria Rawlinson (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2002), pp. xiv-xxii (p.xix).
7. Letter to Harriet Monroe (1915) – The Letters of Ezra Pound 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (London: Faber, 1951), p.91.