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Poem of the week: Hymn of Hymns by John Rodker


Rodker's eclectic denunciation of religion's repressions, written after the first world war, is funny and unexpectedly sympathetic

Don't believe the title of this week's poem. "Hymn of Hymns," by John Rodker, is an anti-hymn, psalm-like in some of its structures, but owing nothing to the pieties of church or synagogue. "God damn" is its motto and mood, yet, for all its angry denunciation, it's a bracing, funny, and unexpectedly sympathetic poem.

Novelist, publisher and conscientious objector, Rodker was one of the "Whitechapel Boys," a casual affiliation of Jewish artists and writers which included Isaac Rosenberg and the artists Mark Gertler and David Bomberg. They formed an important battalion of British Modernism in the early years of the 20th century.

Rodker's Jewish emigrant parents, originally from Poland, moved from Manchester to London in 1900, when he was six. His formal education was limited, but after leaving school at 14 he studied French, German and science at evening classes. The French symbolist poets, particularly Verlaine, influenced his later writing.

Rodker produced a varied but relatively small body of poetry before turning his energies to publishing. Some of his work is online but, for a comprehensive introduction, Andrew Crozier's edition of the poems, dramatic pieces and short fiction put together for Carcanet in 1996, Poems & Adolphe 1920 is indispensable.

"Hymn of Hymns" appeared in a collection called Hymns, published by Rodker's own Ovid Press in 1920. Not all the poems are "Hymns," but the opening sequence of six establishes the collection's key signature. They mount an attack on various shibboleths and the "Hymn of Hymns," a kind of synthesis, concludes the sequence.

In tune with the Poundian enterprise of stripping poetic language of Victorian frills and padding, Rodker sieves through poetry's epiphanic experiences to find their grimy residue. If physical disgust is sometimes part of the procedure, his ultimate target is a moral one: hypocrisy.

The title, "Hymn of Hymns," may allude ironically to the "Song of Songs," but Rodker's anti-psalmist is as unimpressed by the human body as by divinity. The human odour is "like old clothes", the flesh "white mushroomy flaccid". These descriptions of "man" and "woman" might remind us that Rodker's father was a corset-maker by profession. What the poet scents here is unwashed, ill-fed city poverty.

Rodker's style is eclectic. A Joycean spritz enters the diction through neologisms like "Cosmoses"and "prurulent". In "woman's heirs and assigns" the use of "assigns" as a noun summons a variety of enriching echoes: signs, assignations, designs, commands.

"All that galley" is the professional publisher's bright revision of the cliche, "all that jazz." The placing of compound adjectives before the noun, "… smelling of old clothes … Man!", hints at a non-English language structure – Yiddish, perhaps – which energises the line. The syntax sometimes shares a rhetorical tone, though not a philosophy, with DH Lawrence: "Futile cunning man – [By cunning overcoming the life-inertia]."

The parade of cliched "sea" adjectives in the fourth stanza mocks Whitmanesque celebration, emphasising the point with a finely judged pause before naming names. Rodker is on a roll, denouncing both water and its inhabitants, besides the oceanic visions of Walt. From the elemental to the man-made, the anti-psalmist then turns to "the twilight labour of water works". Is this another Victorian shibboleth under attack – the sewage system? Perhaps the reference to the "satyriast's beatitude" indicates a symbolic, and Freudian, treatment of the water works. Masked by the faux pastoral of "geometric ponds/ fringed by willows," they represent the evils of repression.

The speaker seems at one moment to be jokingly exaggerating, and, at another, connecting to the fine, hard grain of realism. The last stanza turns from Whitman and water works to the social context: slums, disease and poverty. The compression and repetition have a flattening effect: it's as if we can feel the tenement walls pressing on the inhabitants of those "streets … / whose mean houses hold mean lives,/ wallpaper, flypaper,/ paperfaced brats."

The final reversal, "God be with you, Reader," is a parodic blessing. The God of the poem is a false God, one of pomposity and cover-ups, a God who has made a damnable creation. Such, no doubt, is the God of the imagined Reader, who prefers polite literary convention to Modernist challenges. Rodker might as well be saying, "Go to hell."

While not dealing directly with the first world war and the poet's pacifism, "Hymn of Hymns" plainly reveals a mind repelled by heroics. In the Hymn's most memorable lines, Rodker's speaker detonates the hubris of "Attacking the stars/ from eyes five feet above ground". At the same time, he's undoubtedly exhilarated by the surge of his iconoclasm. The traditional psalmic devices – strong rhythms, incantatory repetition – underlie the force of this hymn against hymns. Although not apparently designed as such, it would have made a rousing performance poem.

Hymn of Hymns

God damn Cosmoses –
Eternities, infinities
and all that galley.

God damn
white mushroomy flaccid
and smelling of old clothes
Whether Homeric
or after
Born between excrements
in death returning:
Futile cunning man –
[By cunning overcoming the life-inertia.]
Attacking the stars
from eyes five feet above ground.

God damn
mushroomy flaccid
and smelling of old clothes woman.
Her heirs and assigns
for ever.

God damn
the prurulent pestilent wind,
and the pullulating sea.
The eternal infinite, cosmical, blue,
deep, unfathomed, boundless, free,
racing, wild, mysterious sea –
its argus-eyed, winged and lanthorned dwellers.
And you; Walt.

God damn the swift fiery wind
the close comfortable clouds.

God damn
and eternally destroy
the twilight labour of water works,
where in the pumping room
sure pistons work –
[satyriast's beatitude.]

God damn
the incredible tragedies of their geometric ponds
fringed by poplars.

God damn streets
whose dust sends up syph and flu
diarrhoea and smallpox,
whose mean houses hold mean lives,
wallpaper, flypaper,
paperfaced brats.

God be with you, Reader.

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