The Life and Work of H.D.by Kay Cosgrove
he poetry of Hilda Doolittle—dubbed 'H.D.' by Ezra Pound—was, until the 1980s, overlooked in relation to the poetry of her contemporaries (Pound, Eliot, Williams, Lawrence, et cetera). H.D. referred to her outsider status as "uncanonically seated" (Hickman 9), and though her 1925 publication of Collected Poems established her reputation, during her lifetime she never enjoyed the same level of fame as her notably male colleagues. This outsider status was partially inherited by virtue of her femininity and partially cultivated, as Miranda Hickman and other scholars have noted, to become a great source of power and unconventional knowledge in her poetics. Admired today for her use of lucid imagery, intense brevity, and reimagining of Greek myths, as well as for her keen awareness of the particular 20th century moment in which she was writing, H.D.'s poetry creates a new world for readers whose subject is neither male nor female but somehow both and neither, an it who writes as though a prophet living among us.
Hilda Doolittle was born September 10, 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Charles and Helen Doolittle. Hilda was the sixth child and only living daughter born to the Doolittle family. From his first marriage, Professor Doolittle—a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Lehigh University—had a daughter Alice who died as a baby, and two sons named Alfred and Eric. After his first wife died in 1875, Professor Doolittle moved from Michigan to Bethlehem, and in 1882 he married Helen Woole, Hilda's mother (Quinn 16). Helen and Charles had three children together: Hilda, a sister who died as a child, and a son named Gilbert who died in World War I. In Bethlehem, H.D. was raised in the Moravian community, a "mystical Protestant order" (Quinn 15) of which her mother was a direct descendent. When Hilda was ten years old, her father accepted a job at the University of Pennsylvania as a professor of astronomy and the director of the Flower Observatory in Upper Darby, moving the family from Bethlehem to Philadelphia and thereby replacing the Moravian church with the Quaker meeting house (Barnstone 202) as the family's place of worship.
Hilda was known as the favorite child of the professor and the only one who was allowed to play quietly in his study. But the poet remembers her father as austere and cold, "like New England, though he does not live there and was not born there" (Quinn 16). None of the children were allowed to touch the items on their father's desk, or to disturb him while he was resting on the couch during the daytime. William Carlos Williams, in his Autobiography, remembers Professor Doolittle as uncommunicative and severe, presiding silently but forcefully over the family (Firchow).
Helen Woole Doolittle was warmer but equally as remote. Artsy and more spontaneous than her husband, Mrs. Doolittle was nonetheless the quintessential housewife, deferring to her husband and famous for quieting anyone present when the professor made a motion indicating he had something to say (Firchow). Mrs. Doolittle was a constant presence, but one that H.D. found inaccessible because "she knows so many people and they come and interrupt. And besides that, she likes my brother better" (Quinn 16). H.D. felt in constant competition with her siblings for her mother's attention, especially with her brother, Gilbert, a competition that resulted in steady insecurity about her mother's affections. Later in life, Mrs. Doolittle became a representation of feminine conventionality against which H.D. was fighting as an artist and a woman—both at home and in the larger world—surrounded by men.
In 1904 Hilda enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, met and befriended Marianne Moore, but was forced to withdraw from college after only a year and a half due in part to poor health, and in part to her failing grades in Algebra and English (Quinn 17). She recalls that her "essays were held up as samples of the very worst description" ("H.D."). Her education did not stop with her withdrawal from college, however, and H.D. continued to study on her own at home until 1910. She also cultivated her education through her friendships, most notably with poet Ezra Pound, whom she had met in 1901 at a Halloween party when she was just fifteen years old (Barnstone 202). Although only one year older, Pound nonetheless acted as a tutor for Doolittle, culling reading lists and commenting on her earliest poems. The pair was engaged in 1905, though the marriage never came to pass due to Professor Doolittle's disapproval, Pound's move to Europe in 1908, and H.D.'s own anxiety over the concept of marriage ("H.D."). It is noteworthy that during her affair with Pound, she also began a relationship with the poet Frances Josepha Gregg, "an intense young woman" ("H.D."), who inspired Hilda to write some of her earliest love lyrics. Barbara Guest has explained that the relationship with Gregg was also poisonous and deteriorated quickly when Doolittle discovered that Gregg was engaged in an affair with Pound as well. This three-way relationship was important for H.D.'s development as an artist and remained a constant theme in her life and work: the love of both man and woman. By choosing neither side, per se, she cultivated both a personality and a poetics that resisted category at every turn.
In addition to Pound and Gregg's influence, H.D. also kept in touch with Williams and Moore, establishing her place among the poets who would become the high modernists. During this time Doolittle also immersed herself in the study of Greek and Latin literature, reading and later translating canonical texts. H.D. scholars link her fascination with ancient Greece to her unstable family life, believing that Greece presented a possible security and an "evocation of a distant world, more lovely than the one she knew" (Quinn 17). Much later in life, during her extensive analysis with Freud, Doolittle was told that she was always looking for her mother, both in visiting Vienna in the first place, and in her preoccupation with female deities and the figure of Helen in ancient Greek myth (Firchow).
In 1911 H.D. traveled to Europe with Frances Gregg and Gregg's mother, but did not return home, choosing remain in Europe where she would spend the rest of her life. Gregg declined Hilda's invitation to stay with her in Europe, a devastating blow followed closely by the announcement of Gregg's engagement to Louis Wilkinson ("H.D."). Once settled abroad, H.D. reconnected with Pound and the community of writers with whom Pound surrounded himself, including Richard Aldington, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, May Sinclair and others. In 1913 H.D. and Aldington were married, the year of her first publication as an Imagiste in Poetry (Blau Duplessis xix). In 1916 her first book—Sea Garden—was published in London with Constable & Co. and in Boston and New York with Houghton Mifflin (Barnstone 203). When Aldington enlisted in the army during World War I, Doolittle took over as the editor of the Egoist, a position she held until Eliot replaced her in 1917 (Barnstone 203).
In 1915, however, H.D.'s personal life had begun to come undone. She suffered a miscarriage that put a strain on her sexual relationship with Aldington (Blau Duplessis xix). The couple became involved in a three-way affair with a woman named Dorothy Yorke, which ultimately led to the destruction of their marriage and a separation in 1919 (Barnstone 203). Earlier that year her beloved brother Gilbert died in combat in World War I, and was followed closely by the death of her father. In 1918 H.D. moved in with Cecil Gray and became pregnant with his child, giving birth to her daughter Frances Perdita Aldington in 1919 (Blau Duplessis xix) after a terrible battle with the flu that almost killed both the poet and her new daughter.
During this turmoil, H.D. met and befriended the woman who would become the most important figure in her life. Winifred "Bryher" Ellerman, a rich, independent woman who also happened to be a writer, helped Hilda with her newborn child and became a constant companion, a figure she relied on financially and emotionally for the remainder of her life. Bryher invited H.D. and Perdita to accompany her on a trip to Greece in 1920, a trip that would prove to be monumental for Doolittle both as a poet and a quasi-prophet, receiving a premonition in Greece that warned of another world war (Firchow). Bryher, H.D., and Mrs. Doolittle traveled to Egypt in 1923, a trip that would later influence the long epic poem Helen in Egypt (1954). Shortly after their trip to America, Bryher married a friend of Williams' named Robert McAlmon as a formality; she sought to escape her family ties and could do so only through marriage. Because of this newfound freedom, Bryher was able to live with H.D. in London and Switzerland, and the two would continue to live together until 1946 when Doolittle suffered a severe breakdown.
H.D. was prolific during this time period, publishing not only poetry, but novels as well. Palimpsest was published in 1926, followed by Hedylus in 1928 and Red Roses for Bronze in 1931 (Barnstone 204), among other publication credits. She officially divorced Aldington in 1938, though earlier she had begun an affair with Kenneth Macpearson whom Bryher married (after she divorced McAlmon) in 1927 in order to provide financial support for the lovers. H.D. began to star in several of Macpearson's films, and co-wrote, produced, and starred in Borderline with Paul Robeson (Blau Duplessis xx). She also underwent psychotherapy during these prewar years, first in London 1931 and two years later in Vienna under the direction of Sigmund Freud. Her 1956 book Tribute to Freud outlined her experiences with psychoanalysis.
When the war broke out in 1939, H.D. and Bryher returned to London to live, and remained there throughout the war years, even during the extensive London bombings. Her experience in the war was transformative, and provided inspiration for The Gift (1941-1943) and Trilogy (1942-1944), whose themes center on war and rebirth. These later poems are much different from her earlier Imagist work, most notably for their couplet form and their colloquial diction (Quinn 89). Following a breakdown and hospitalization, H.D. decided to move to Lausanne without Bryher in 1946 (Barnstone 205). Recovering from electric shock treatment and depression, she published still more work, including By Avon River (1949), Selected Poems (1957), Helen in Egypt (1957), End to Torment: A Memoir of Pound (1973) and Bid Me to Live (1960), a novel based on ex-husband Richard Aldington (Barnstone 205). In 1960 H.D. returned to America twice, once to visit her grandchild Valentine and to be honored at Yale University, and another time to receive the Gold Medal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters—the first woman to receive this honor (Barnstone 206). H.D. suffered a stroke in July 1961 and died the following September in Switzerland. H.D. is buried on Nisky Hill Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
"—There has to be somewhere else, I tell myself. And everyone knows that to go somewhere else there are routes, signs, "maps"—for an exploration, a trip.—That's what books are. Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds."—Hélèn Cixous
In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur is quoted as praising H.D.'s "special form of the mode of Imagism—cold, 'Greek,' fast, and enclosed" that has "become one of the ordinary resources of the poetic language" (Norton 409). Blackmur acknowledges that H.D. was one of many 20th century poets experimenting with a "thin diet" (409) for poems, seeing how far a poem might stretch in its meagerness, but Blackmur lands on the notion that H.D. stands out among the group in her dedication to the Imagist movement. Indeed, she seemed to work toward "the effort to discover how few words are required to make a poem" (409), even in her longer work, where the lines remain rather short and fragmented. Take for example H.D.'s "Oread":
Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
An oread is "a nymph of the mountains" (Norton 412), a relatively 'free' female deity in Greek mythology, especially in comparison with the status of women in ancient Greece. Mythical lore is taken on by H.D. and retold to suit her purposes, and it is certainly no coincidence that H.D. chooses the female deity to speak on her behalf. The oread, like the poet herself, transcends the historical reality, living differently (both physically and theoretically) than the other women of her day.
It is the last two lines that are quintessentially Imagist, that say so much with so few words: "Hurl your green over us, /cover us with your pools of fir" (lines 5-6). The separation apparent just a line above ("our rocks" as distinct from "your" rocks) has suddenly disappeared. Now the ocean is hurling green, a color that is more readily associated with the forest, but one that has become a symbol of both the forest and the ocean, one that speaks to a blurring of the two central images in the poem. The last line further strengthens this connection; the "pools of fir" (line 6) is a literal merge of the ocean with the sea. The two seemingly irreconcilable images have become one. Here we have a coming together of sea and land, a hostile relationship that has blended into mutual understanding and care. If the ocean were society and the woods representative of the female, the two have come together by the end of the poem in a way that Hélèn Cixous would dub l'ecriture feminine, or "women's writing." L'ecriture feminine is gender-less writing that takes what one might consider uniquely female, individual, and often erotic experiences and transforms them into something universal and available to everyone, a blurring of experience, of image, which H.D. manages to embody in only six small lines.
H.D.'s early sparse poetics are fundamentally anti-heroic. Although "Oread" certainly contains large, heroic subject matter—gender, history, nature and binary power structures, to name a few—the physical space in which these large subjects are being discussed is shockingly small. In six lines (and a number of repeated words), H.D. manages to embody a feminist theory that will not be 'invented' for years to come. "Oread" invites the question: how many years of (female) oppression are being condensed into just twenty-five words?
Even in H.D.'s epic poetry, such as the Trilogy poems, her lines are fragmentary, short and meditative. The epic, canonically bound up with the masculine, is turned on its head by H.D. In writing both short and long poems, H.D. allows the silence that is traditionally (and ironically) 'silenced' to 'speak'. From section 39 of "The Walls Do Not Fall":
We have had too much consecration,
too little affirmation,
too much: but this, this, this
has been proved heretical,
too little: I know, I feel
the meaning that words hide;
they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies...
In this section we receive just enough information to understand that she is talking about life for 20th century Europeans and Americans. "We" are pushed toward a culture of capitalism, "we" are surrounded by too much, the "this, this, this" (line 3) that comes without explanation. And, H.D. hints, even poetry cannot do this historical moment justice because words hide meaning. Poems, like war propaganda, often obscure the truth, and given that "The Walls Do Not Fall" was written in London in December 1944 (Martz xvi), it makes sense that H.D. was concerned with the (ab)use of language being enacted through war rhetoric and campaign slogans across the globe.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this otherwise unremarkable section is that final image of a box made of words and "conditioned/to hatch butterflies..." (lines 8-9). How can one read this image except as some kind of symbol of hope among death, greed and despair? Such moments demonstrate that H.D. is writing her time and place in history, her lived experience. She is a poet with an "acute sensitivity to contemporary events" (Martz xvi). But she is also a poet who understands the past, and she calls on the wisdom of the Greeks to inform her understanding of herself and her world.
The form indicates a gravity felt by the poet for the current state of the world. The distich form used in Greek and Latin poetry was meant to evoke the elegy, and H.D.'s use of this form informs the reader that this poem is not a celebration of what we, the citizens of the world, have become; it is an ode to what we have lost. The couplet has natural built-in spaces for silence—the 'call and answer' mode of the couplet allows readers space to reflect between each stanza. What is being left out in this small section, this fragment, speaks volumes: "I feel/the meaning that words hide" (lines 5-6).
In H.D.'s poetry there is both the regret of loss and the potential for hope. Many of her poems use images that call for a new Europe, a new place where the Hegelian promise of making us "at home in the world" ("Hegel") might come true. Her use of myth brings together a desire for not only a liberated woman, but also a liberated mankind, as in an early Imagist poem, "Helen":
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the luster as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.
All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.
Greece sees unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.
Modeled after fragments of classical verse, this poem, like so many in H.D.'s oeuvre recalls a myth our culture can recognize quickly—the familiar, traditionally masculine epic trope of Greek myth. Those "white hands" (line 5) of this Helen are what we remember, that haunting image of a woman so beautiful that she supposedly inspired men to start a catastrophic war. In the final stanza the image returns again, the white hands becoming "white ash amid funereal cypresses" (line 17)—so beautiful, apparently, that they must be destroyed. This early poem, published in January 1923 (Norton 398), set the stage for the later book-length poem, Helen in Egypt. In "Helen," Doolittle again reduces the epic to an Imagist poem, subverting expectations for the epic mode. Placing Helen as the title-character further subverts the epic, making this version of the myth decidedly more female-oriented. And later, when H.D. places Helen in Egypt instead of the more common Greece, there is yet another challenge of accepted cultural troupes in poetry—and society.
Such a subversion of the epic and myth creates space for the reader to reimagine the role of Helen—and, by extension, mankind, and certainly, one of the prominent themes in H.D.'s poetry is a promotion of the equality of women. But it would be reductive to leave her work at that, to label her a feminist and to set her aside. The genius of H.D.'s poetry arises from her ability to transcend gendered discourse. Her poetry—much like her personal life—is a blurring of lines and sexes, and it insists on being many things at once: it is mythic, it is imagistic; it is political, it is personal; it is of the moment, it is prophetic; it is real, it is abstract.
According to Pound, the image is "a radiant node or cluster...a vortex, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing" (Martz vii). Her work, which so relies on images to make meaning, does not lie flat but is constantly in motion; it is, as Pound suggested, "a radiant....cluster...a vortex" (vii), where "there is zrr-hiss, / lightning in a not-known" ("The Walls Do Not Fall," section 43, lines 3-4). She is an image-maker, yes, but also a truth-seeker. H.D. wanted to uncover and solve the problem of the 20th century in her poetry, to create a space in which there is no us vs. them or he vs. she, but an Elsewhere, a new world, the place Cixous promised would not be "economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise" (72). H.D.'s poetry creates just such a world where no he overpowers she, but both, neither, all, each of us exist and are invited:
we know no rule
we are voyagers, discoverers
of the not-known,
we have no map;
possibly we will reach haven,
("The Walls Do Not Fall," section 43, lines 25-32).
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