back toJacket2

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Michele Leggott - Introduction to

Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde,
edited by Michele Leggott
Auckland University Press, 2003

You can explore links to a vast range of poems, photographs, essays and other research material relating to Robin Hyde at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre Internet site at


This piece is 1,600 words or about four printed pages long.

But remember

Robin Hyde is a supreme calibrator of distances; her poems are always measuring proximity or calculating the remove at which a word is spoken, a line written, an echo heard. ‘Not here our sands, those salt-and-pepper sands’ means not here in Auckland where the poem is being composed, starting the long trek back into family memory and travelling to the last poem of the sequence which begins: ‘Now, in this place, I remember Faraway.’ This place was Hankow, itself a long way from the known and familiar, where Japanese bombers making nightly raids were being chased off by a Russian airforce whose pilots were receiving English lessons from Hyde’s host, Edith Epstein. Edith and her guest watched the aerial drama from the Epsteins’ small balcony while the war-correspondent husband was away in the field at Taierhchwang. In the place where poems and prose put one thing beside another, I am thinking of Hyde and Nelly Wilkinson flying into Wellington on 2 December 1936. The mother was unconcerned (‘These modern parents!’); the daughter thought she might die on the sinister, unfed teeth of the hills leaping up to meet the plane. She reported recovering her composure some time after the (perfect) landing:

You feel so relieved that, standing in the ’drome shed, you want to be nearly honest with somebody. You say to unhearing ears, ‘Do you know, I was a bit scared, just when we were coming down. Of course, not when we were over the sea — the sea looks so soft to fall on.’ Nobody takes the slightest notice; unless, perhaps, your travelling companion says brightly. ‘Scared? What is there to be scared about?’ and parks her gum where later it is bound to cause social complications.

You look back at the silvery hornet, up-ended there on the grass, so placid and innocent. ‘One day I’ll come back and get the better of you,’ you think. ‘One day I’ll pay you out for this. Wonder if Jean Batten turned a hair, first time up?’ (‘The Stone in the Centre’, 43)

Robin Hyde in 1932 at the time of her lady editorship of the New Zealand Observer

Robin Hyde in 1932
at the time of her ‘lady editorship’ of the New Zealand Observer

There is an unpublished short story called ‘Pity’ that must have been written soon after returning from the South Island because it is set in Nelson. Orange blossom scents the air (as in the piece for the Railways Magazine) but the two women, mother and daughter, who are walking along a leafy road are having one of their difficult times, literally observed by the eye (and ear) of God. They have come into view as ‘two New Zealanders’, tiny toy-like figures to the zoom lens in the sky. The mother is remonstrating with her daughter who is disfigured by lameness and in more pain than usual because of a recent misguided attempt to climb a mountain. She insists on walking further to show her mother the flowering bush rata and on the return journey they meet a mob of fat lambs being driven to the stockyards nearby by men and dogs. In the eyes of a lamb and later a terrified dog, the daughter understands the interlocking of blood sacrifice and dumb faith, but God’s compound eye has flicked away to a more compelling view of munitions workers somewhere in Asia. The tableau of mother and daughter in difficulty reverberates suddenly against the opening scene of another story called ‘Six Pomegranate Seeds’, where Ceres, who has fine red-gold hair like ripened corn, is trying to persuade Persephone that she does not have to keep her promise to return to the Underworld. They are on a beach that is both ageless and curiously specific, by an ocean that is variously a fairytale and the south Wellington coast on a morning going into winter:

She walked a few steps forward on the honey-brown rocks, which had been swept by wind and weather into the strangest wave-like formation. This last day glittered as dazzling white and cold as the sea-salt, where it lay marking the spent curves of receding waves on the narrow flat marches of the sands. A pink sea-daisy stared up at Persephone, with its blind little sun-brightened face. She felt for a moment that it had understood every word they had said, and indeed, it grew almost in the mouth of the tunnel, so that often the cold secret air from beneath must creep out like a viper to stir its petals. (‘Six Pomegranate Seeds’, 1)

Persephone is torn. She runs back when her mother calls her name one last time, but she has eaten the six seeds in the land of the dead and wants to go under the earth again. The mother’s distress as she watches her daughter enter the tunnel is not diminished by her knowledge of the pattern they are both part of. It is mirrored at the other end of the story in Dis, who must let the child wife leave but holds in his hand another pomegranate. He has been playing solo chess on a board with squares representing ‘the countries of the earth and the stars in the sky’ (5). She runs back to him and bites the pomegranate, ensuring her return to the deep caverns, one of them the blue cave of oblivion where a jewelled snake knots itself around her waist.

But remember, eyes darker than dream

‘Six Pomegranate Seeds’ explores what poems like ‘Homage to Dis’ and ‘Persephone in Winter’ imply; that the daughter belongs to and has agency in both worlds. Again and again in Hyde’s poetry a scent sealed up in stone, alabaster or crystal is broken free; the girl wakes up, synapses jolt, the secret spills:

Be very quiet, young earth; be on your guard,
Lest a sudden colour or cry break through her ease.
Remember what spells he taught her underground —
The rocky petals, music of little sound,
And the loose-haired rivers shaken about her knees.
Softly with delicate hues and a faint scent woo her,
Hang on her throat white bells of your flowers first-found.
Later the burning flagons, the rose and anemones —
But remember, eyes darker than dream, lips colder, pursue her. (‘Awakening’ 242)

Robin Hyde and her Australian friend Kay Brownlie (Brownie) in Sydney, January 1938

Robin Hyde and her Australian friend Kay Brownlie (Brownie) in Sydney, January 1938

‘Awakening,’ written in 1937, is one sequel of ‘Persephone in Winter’; around it are ranged a host of others: ‘The Seaward Road’, ‘In the Doorway’, ‘The Encompasser’, ‘Dreaming, I knew the vigil years were gone’, ‘The Clover Field’, ‘The Miracle of Abundance’. But pain never leaves because it is the most powerful agent of memory. The poem Hyde typed up in 1939 as ‘Image’ finishes: ‘Only from a still water looks back the perfected bud.’ But it was the second stanza of an untitled draft that cuts deep into the past, one self addressing its other:

Walk off, alone, a little silent, making a moment’s silence
Like shawl or rain about you, in the loud confusion of all our days.
Be resolute, keep your head and pride; set your teeth in taut lip; never
Be lost in looking back at the left door, open or shut.
You would find there what you have known: in streets, from stars,
Someone may salvage you, my essence of lilacs:
You may find courage: a stranger, finding you tremble,
May pick you up, break on a word your small flagon of self.
In a dark church you may be broken, like alabaster.
Not for us the quiet house. How wronged you are!
How word, look, gesture, intention, pulled like dogs at your dress!
How everything said was a whip to cut you, and silence
A final indifference! Half-true: if you ever forgave,
Ever stopped from hugging this wax-doll magic to breast,
Pretending it was our child, you loved and I killed it,
How could you face the shadowy two in the mirror?
Those were our selves, you and I: our words half killed them.
Let them creep off, unpaired. Don’t ask that they look. (‘Walk off, alone’ 357)

My essence of lilacs. Hyde said of Robin’s death: ‘I cannot write of it, only such foolish details. The red lilac in the waiting-room, the long-faced night sister who talked about the Via Dolorosa’ (1934 Auto, Ch 14 ‘She Is Far From the Land’). There is a story from 1934 or early 1935 about a woman who gives her stillborn first child a name and carries his memory through the years and the four live births that follow:

But Mamie got over it and got to her feet all right, though for a long while she couldn’t bear the smell of lilac, because someone had stuck a brand of it in the room where that baby was born. (‘One Came Back’, 1).

Years later the farm fails, forcing Mamie and her husband to leave their land for the doubtful benefits of relief work in Auckland:

The last night, she went up to the trench where that baby was: and she hadn’t an idea where he was really, for of course they don’t mark off plots in trenches like that, but she picked piles of those big white moon-daisies out of the grasses, and wrote his make-up name all along, with the heads of the flowers making the letters against the soil: Olaf, Olaf, Olaf, Olaf — like that. (‘One Came Back’, [11])

Robin was buried in an unmarked plot in a vast metropolitan cemetery that Hyde’s friend Kay Brownlie christened ‘the daisy home’ because of the multitudes of white defiant daisies lifting their heads from ‘that awful red soil, which is like an open wound’ (1934 Auto, Ch 14). Moon-daisies and marguerites recur throughout the poems; like spring blossom, flowering chestnuts or twilight-coloured wistaria, they make a decent covering for bloodshed and devastation, or self torn apart by the smell of lilacs. ‘I cannot write of it’ (she wrote). She is Persephone; she is a writer.

Jacket 25 — February 2004  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Michele Leggott and Jacket magazine 2004
The URL address of this page is