What’s in a name? H.D. would have said a lot: ‘Names are in people, people are in names.’ She was doyenne of the pseudonym. No other significant poet in English goes by initials. Hilda Doolittle also wrote under pen names – Delia Alton, Edith Gray, Rhoda Peter and Helga Dart – but she never published under any of them. Inscribing herself as H.D. (well before Ezra Pound ushered her into literary history as ‘H.D. Imagiste’) she wasn’t swerving from prejudicial gendering so much as ridicule – ‘Doolittle’ is a surname that invites teasing. Yet it was important to her, too, that the initials, H.D., ‘had no identity attached; they could have been pure spirit.’ ‘H.D.’ became her, a sigil, an emblem, an anchoring sign as she cycled among ancient Greek, ancient Egyptian and modern masks, a hieratic spondee of self-evident presence.
Many of her poems are incantations and permutations of names: vatic declarations, mythical unspoolings or metamorphic patternings under the sign of the eponym (‘Hermes of the Ways’, ‘Oread’). Other poems conjure up entire mythic narratives through names: she wrote poems titled ‘Circe’, ‘Thetis’ (twice), ‘Eurydice’, and most significantly, her late long work, Helen in Egypt (1961) – a psychomachia and revisionary epic taking up Stesichoros’ poem from the sixth century BCe, in which a blameless Helen goes not with Paris to Troy but to Egypt to wait out the war. Part of H.D.’s task in the poem is to integrate seemingly disparate plots and structures of desire, via a kind of psychoanalytic interrogation with Theseus, a Freud-figure.
H.D.’s several novels also ring variations on names, as if curled within the name were the entire unfolding of plot. Her autobiographical novel HERmione (written in 1927, published posthumously, and now reissued by New Directions) features a heroine who goes by the incredibly awkward yet grammatically suggestive ‘Her’. This leads to sentences such as: ‘Now why had Her let her catch her?’ (You soon get used to it.) Yet H.D.’s names do not so much delimit poetic or novelistic action as indicate a field of resonance. Hermione is both the name of Helen’s daughter in Greek mythology and the wronged mother/wife in The Winter’s Tale. H.D. was a writer, after all, whose mother was named Helen and who had a profound visionary experience of ‘writing-on-the-wall’ in Greece (Hellas) in 1920. This was a woman who named her daughter Frances in honour of an early (female) lover, who chose Perdita (after Shakespeare) as the baby’s middle name, and who gave the child the surname of her estranged husband, Richard Aldington, though he was not the father.
But let’s back up: Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1886, the only daughter and second child of the second marriage of Charles Doolittle, professor of astronomy and mathematics and Civil War veteran, and Helen Wolle, from a Moravian background, whose family had long been resident in the area. (Moravian Christians were heirs to the dissident, pietistic, communal ethos of the 15th-century reformer Jan Hus of Bohemia.) H.D.’s mythopoetic inclinations were later fed by such details: the Bethlehem birth, a sense of prophetic giftedness handed down the maternal line, an inheritance she also characterised as ‘Eleusinian’ as against the ‘Athenian’ (embodied by her father and older half-brother, also an astronomer). The Eleusinian Mysteries became a key motif in her work, which repeatedly stages scenes of initiation and decipherment: erotic, mystical, esoteric, divinely feminine. As a writer and an analysand, H.D. understood herself to be shaping and sustaining her ‘own LEGEND’. She was quite at home with Keats’s idea that a ‘life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of life.’ The terms she often used instead of ‘allegory’ were ‘myth’, ‘legend’, ‘signet’, ‘cryptogram’ and ‘hieroglyph’.
There was a lot of Pennsylvania shrewdness shining through the mythic mist. ‘Sylvania. I was born here. People ought to think before they call a place Sylvania.’ Trees are complicated, especially for women, as the nymph Daphne knew. So too H.D., whom Pound called ‘Dryad’. ‘She would never get away from Pennsylvania,’ the claustrophobic heroine of HERmione thinks, but Hilda Doolittle did. With no unilateral declaration of independence, no decisive break from home and hearth, and yet with incremental assuredness and bravery, the young Hilda got herself out (with a timely, complicated assist from Pound, her importunate suitor whom she first met at the age of fifteen). She exited the rounds of upper-middle-class suburban life, the expectations of conventional marriage and motherhood. Her first trip to Europe, in 1911, paved the way for her permanent residence there. A young woman who was intense and charismatic, who felt awkward in her lanky height, who rather incredibly failed English at Bryn Mawr, who went to Greece on the rebound with her friend and lover Frances Gregg after her engagement to Pound broke down, she saw herself, as she wrote in HERmione, ‘a disappointment to her father, an odd duckling to her mother, an importunate, overgrown, unincarnated entity that had no place’. Her choices often disclosed themselves to her in hindsight. She ‘could not then know that … her entire failure to conform to expectations was perhaps some subtle form of courage.’
To write about H.D in a biographical key presents a challenge, as Donna Krolik Hollenberg observes in Winged Words: H.D.’s novels, several unpublished in her lifetime, mostly romans à clef, show the poet working and reworking her biographical material. Her work offers its own highly charged life-writing as mythopoesis. A biographer runs the risk of seeming a dry-as-dust factologist or stolid demystifier, studiously pulling back the veil on the profusion of mysteries. Barbara Guest’s Herself Defined (1984) is still unsurpassed for flair and poetic acuity. Hollenberg’s book is thorough, but at times pedestrian. Does it really matter that H.D. had goose for Christmas dinner, or that she went to a café ‘twice a day, for coffee at 10 a.m. and for tea at 3 p.m.’? Hollenberg notes the older H.D.’s ‘apparent refusal to do a journalistic type of autobiography’. She had good reason: she was attuned to ‘the feel of things rather than what people do’. One wishes for more sense of the acerbic, ironic H.D. whom one finds in her fiction and letters. The heroine of HERmione says of her exasperating sister-in-law: ‘Minnie was like some fraction to which everything had to be reduced.’
H.D. can seem a kind of Zelig of international modernism: she knew or met almost everyone, cut a strikingly beautiful figure, became Exhibit A for Imagism. In The Man Who Died, D. H. Lawrence figured her as the Priestess of Isis. Follow as she travels to Greece on a boat with Havelock Ellis, finds herself in Egypt just when King Tut’s tomb is opened, gets photographed by Man Ray, has sherry with Elizabeth Bowen, runs into Arthur Waley at Iseult Gonne’s, becomes Freud’s analysand in 1933, reads her poetry before the future Queen Elizabeth II during the Second World War. One wonders why there has been no biopic, or at least a mini-series. (Please, no one do this.)
The fact is, for all the intermittent glamour and the baroque succession of ménages erotic and quasi-familial, H.D.’s life was one of intense discipline amid sometimes overwhelming psychic difficulty: Guest rightly emphasises this, and Hollenberg also makes it clear. Her remarkably sane daughter describes (in various essays on her mother’s work) her childhood resentment of H.D.’s work discipline, her rigidly maintained routines of writing and study.
Once H.D. settled in London, she fell in with a group of young writers and artists. In 1913, she married Aldington, a fellow poet in Pound’s short-lived Imagist band, and later author of the much-praised First World War memoir Death of a Hero (1929). H.D.’s crucial decade had begun, the events and traumas of which she would revisit in numerous prose works, in her analyses (with Freud and others), in dreams and in some poems. Various episodes from these years could read like a sex farce except for the pain and wreckage involved. In 1915, H.D. suffers a stillbirth and retreats from sex; Aldington begins an affair. In 1916, he enlists (though both he and H.D. were appalled by the war); while on leave he takes up with another woman, someone H.D. is sheltering in their home. The marriage comes to a further crisis. H.D., living provisionally in Cornwall as the war continues, takes up with a musicologist, Cecil Gray, and finds herself pregnant; Aldington, away at the front, first agrees to legitimise the child and then balks. Gray more or less disappears. Then a young English admirer arrives, having memorised H.D.’s first collection, Sea Garden (1916): enter Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman, heiress to a shipping fortune).
Bryher is less the Alice B. Toklas to H.D.’s Stein than a peculiarly stabilising force – peculiar because the younger Bryher was herself (a gendering she wished to elude) vulnerable, volatile, sometimes suicidal, desperate to free herself from her family, idealising of art and artists. Soon after they met, the pregnant H.D. caught the Spanish flu, which turned into pneumonia; without Bryher’s interventions and care, H.D. would probably have died. As it was, both H.D. and her child lived, and with Bryher they formed a makeshift (though fabulously supported) family unit, with various husbands-of-convenience (for Bryher) and lovers (mainly for H.D.) drifting through, baby Perdita sometimes farmed out to nursemaids and later erratically home-schooled. H.D. and Bryher’s early relationship, only briefly sexual, seems to have been one of complex mutual aid and rescue, and developed into something lasting and loyal, if not untroubled. Aside from the last years of the Second World War, they almost never lived together, but they travelled together extensively, sometimes in the company of a third person, usually a man: the kind of triangle H.D. often engineered. They shared interests in poetry, novels, film; they wrote.
Between 1916 and 1924, H.D. published five books of poems and was generally well reviewed. Over the years, she made brilliant translations from the Greek, taking wing from Sappho, but also translating several choruses from Euripides as well as his play Ion. The poems after Sappho, and some of those in various personae (Pygmalion, Circe, Phaedra, Thetis, Eurydice), are dramatic monologues of extraordinary emotional power – a continuation of the possibilities suggested by Browning and Swinburne. Her poem ‘Fragment XXXVI’, first published in Poetry in 1921, is a superb incantation of erotic suspense, as the speaker hovers over the sleeping beloved, wondering whether to break their sleep:
I know not what to do.
strain upon strain,
sound surging upon sound,
makes my brain blind;
as a wave-line may wait to fall,
yet (waiting for its falling)
still the wind may take,
from off its crest,
white flake on flake of foam,
seeming to dart and pulse
and rend the light,
so my mind hesitates
above the passion
quivering yet to break
will the sound break at last
as the wave hesitant,
or will the whole night pass
and I lie listening awake?
H.D.’s poetico-erotic trajectory could be described as a series of infatuations, affairs and catastrophes which – alchemised, sublimated or otherwise transformed – fuelled her work. So too did her long and sustained study of Greek, psychoanalysis and anthropology, the occult, esoterica and astrology. Her immersion in film in the 1930s, alongside her lover (and Bryher’s then husband) Kenneth Macpherson, led to her involvement in the journal Close Up, and in 1930 she acted alongside Paul Robeson in the film Borderline. Her traumatic experience of pregnancy and childbirth, which Hollenberg explored sensitively in H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity (1991), also had a generative effect on her work. Helen in Egypt, published in 1961, the year she died, is a weird, arresting, feminist meta-epic (a description she would probably have disavowed), which assesses and resists patriarchal emplotments. Her artistic trajectory takes us from early modernism through experimental film to the mid-century long poem, from Victorian-era America to the dust and ash of postwar Europe, from the 19th century to the height of the Cold War.
If it is the job of a poet to cast spells, H.D. was very good at it. She was a master of the striking launch, the bravura speech act, sustained intensity. Her work can seem like a high-wire performance, a hierophantic authority balancing over the abyss of kitsch; what’s amazing is how often she pulls it off. Many of her opening lines are surcharged with an insouciant fiat:
Whirl up, sea!
Egypt had cheated us
What are the islands to me
All Greece hates/the still eyes in the white face
Give me all mountains
But there are spells and there are spells, and H.D. was no fool. Her early poems often station themselves on the brink of violent disenchantment. Take ‘Sheltered Garden’: ‘Why not let the pears cling/to the empty branch?//All your coaxing will only make/a bitter fruit.’ And later: ‘If I could stir/I could break a tree –/I could break you.’ Or consider the great moment in ‘Eurydice’, her bitterly triumphant address to Orpheus:
for all your arrogance
and your glance,
I tell you this:
such loss is no loss
my hell is no worse than yours
though you pass among the flowers and speak
with the spirits above earth.
Behind various mythological scrims, she wrote some wonderful, tormented, fuck-off/fuck you/fuck me poems, most of them inspired by the anguish of her deteriorating relationship with Aldington. If moderns are fated to be (as Schiller argued) ‘sentimental’ (disabused, disenchanted, governed by a secondary consciousness) as opposed to the ‘naive’ first flowerings of ancient Greek poetry, part of H.D.’s gift was to evoke naive force through sentimental consciousness. Everything happens to us at least once for the first time.
H.D. wrote a cascade of semi-autobiographical novels in the 1920s, addressing in particular the traumatic events of 1914-19 and what she called her ‘actual personal war-shock’. Some were published, some shelved. By the late 1920s, her poetry had largely stalled. Her writing and her emotional life blocked, she eventually sought analysis with Freud; Bryher, with her connections, made this possible. H.D. later wrote a memoir of this analysis, Tribute to Freud, a book which also registers with precise horror the Nazi encroachments in Vienna and atrocities in Berlin. The sessions with Freud were part of a complex, successful recovery of poetic purpose by the end of the 1930s. As she wrote in her poem for him, ‘The Master’, ‘it was he himself, he who set me free/to prophesy.’ He also helped set her psychosexually free – or freer. H.D. veiled or excised most lesbionic elements from her published work; in her analysis, she directly confronted the enigma of her sexuality. She and Freud argued over gender, sex roles and sexuality: ‘I was angry with the old man/with his talk of the man-strength.’ It is something of a wonder that it was Freud himself who gave H.D. a definitive, exhilarating benediction, declaring her (as she wrote to Bryher) ‘the perfect bi–’.
For a long while – I remember this from my graduate school days – H.D. was slagged off as a minor artiste who degenerated from a brief Imagist efflorescence into a decadent occult mishmash, the latter associated with her status as the kept woman of Bryher. This was the kind of often homophobic and misogynistic contempt that writers such as Guest and Hollenberg (and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan Stanford Friedman and Susan Gubar) did much to dispel. Yet one does want to know just how things were paid for: did H.D. have any money of her own? It turns out she had an allowance from her parents, and that a brother managed some of her money. Bryher’s wealth obviously sustained many ventures and secured relative ease; she ultimately settled an annuity on H.D.
It is also true that H.D. was fortunate in those who admired and promoted her work, from Pound and Aldington onwards. And regarding the once-prevalent assessment of H.D. as a coterie poet, it’s worth noting that ‘coterie’ is a pejorative unless it’s not: The Beats. New York School. Language Poets. The fact is, after the 1910s, H.D. didn’t much go in for branded aesthetic or poetic groups. She chafed at the confines of what she came to see as the prison house of Imagism. As she complained in the late 1950s, ‘even now, they speak of “verse so chiselled as to seem lapidary”.’ The feminist recuperation and revaluation of her work widened our sense of her achievement. What is striking is how much early acclaim H.D. won on broader grounds. Boni and Liveright brought out a Collected Poems as early as 1925, when she wasn’t yet forty. Marianne Moore reviewed the book favourably in The Dial.
Bryher said H.D. ‘had a gift for friendship’. Guest writes in her feline way of H.D.’s ‘courtesan’ vibe. Both ring true. Among H.D.’s most significant attendants in her later life was Norman Holmes Pearson, later a professor at Yale, but during the war an agent of the OSS and head of counterintelligence in London. Pearson urged her to revisit various works written and set aside in the 1920s, serving as her de facto agent in the US, and midwifing H.D.’s later productions, including Tribute to Freud, End to Torment (her memoir of the Pound years) and the long poems that became Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. One might say that the late H.D. was – like Abstract Expressionism – brought to you in part by psychoanalysis and the US military-industrial complex. Yet this extended later efflorescence was also brought about by ongoing study, weekly séances, Bryher’s support, and H.D.’s increasing sense of her powers of prophecy in the midst of world-historical crisis. Reconnecting with her childhood and her Moravian heritage, she manifests in her later work a quasi-religious, mystical dimension of vocation.
H.D. met the war with a deeply, if idiosyncratically, prepared mind. Her poetics of translation and immanence transforms in the 1940s into a full-blown mythographic mode, co-ordinating historical and personal specificities, mythic templates and cosmic patterns. The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), the first of her three long war poems (collected in Trilogy), proffers
symbols of the past
in today’s imagery
it merges the distant future
with the most distant antiquity
A flexible line and a conversable rhyming ease appear in this poem, which H.D. dedicated to Bryher, ‘for Karnak, 1923/from London, 1942’:
An incident here and there,
and rails gone (for guns)
from your (and my) old town square:
mist and mist-grey, no colour,
still the Luxor bee, chick and hare
pursue unalterable purpose
in green, rose-red, lapis;
they continue to prophesy
from the stone papyrus:
there, as here, ruin opens
the tomb, the temple; enter,
there as here, there are no doors
The Walls Do Not Fall undertakes an inventive co-ordination of terrestrial and heavenly orders. How to avoid paralysis, annihilating fear? H.D. offers homely yet cosmic prospects for metamorphosis: ‘Anyhow,/we have not crawled so very far// up our individual grass-blade/towards our individual star.’ Surveying the devastated spirit of the age, she indicts both her peers and herself, ‘stumbling toward/vague cosmic expression,//obvious sentiment … jottings of psychic numerical equations,/runes, superstitions, evasions,//invasion of the over-soul into a cup/too brittle’.
In the war poems, H.D. found a way to move from critique into lyric, from analysis into song. She was at times the best critic of her own syncretic tendencies: ‘This search for historical parallels,/research into psychic affinities,//has been done to death before.’ And yet, this ‘will be done again;//no comment can alter spiritual realities.’ And thus she urges: ‘Let us substitute/ enchantment for sentiment,//re-dedicate our gifts/to spiritual realism.’ She proposes a counter-enchantment: against fake sentiment, easy political posturing, utilitarian calculation. And so, repeatedly, after critique, song:
Take me home
where the heron
has her nest:
where the mantis
prays on the river-reed:
where the grasshopper says
Amen Amen Amen
A typically syncretic affirmation here, the grasshopper’s Abrahamic Amen also the name of the Egyptian god Amen-Ra (or Amun-Ra). These are poems of resurrection and return: difficult, incremental, communal. A choral ‘we’ often appears:
we are forced to confess to
malaise and embarrassment
we are these people,
wistful, ironical, wilful
we who have no part in
And in Tribute to the Angels (1945): ‘We saw the tree flowering;/it was an ordinary tree/in an old garden-square.’
As the bombs rain down she registers a contemporary scene divested of its old enchantments. In ‘Christmas 1944’: ‘The stratosphere was once where angels were.’ Yet amid the ruin, flowering. An ordinary tree, not a dryad. Here the mythic and the actual are interfused. There is a feeling of euphoric fluency in the poems of the war years, along with the sense of duress; they are anchored in solidarity with other Londoners, with those who insisted on staying in London during the war – as H.D. did, despite several invitations and opportunities to leave. In ‘May 1943’ she veers uncharacteristically into a communal demotic, eulogising a young woman ‘in the news/ for half a second’: ‘Goldie had her little job,/ambulance?/mobile canteen?/extra fire-girl?’ – Goldie who wouldn’t leave her post, though the fireman urged her to move to safety:
he might push her out of it …
it’s no use Frank, that’s Goldie –
what of it? she’s a kid,
she’s too young – shut up,
all the kids are in it.
she was found sitting upright
at the wheel of her emergency car,
This is quite far from the ‘chiselled’ verse for which H.D. was originally, and for a long time exclusively, admired. For those unfamiliar with the scope of her work over the decades, published and unpublished, in multiple modes, such passages induce vertigo, as if a marble Aphrodite suddenly started speaking in the vernacular idiom of the talkies. And in fact – this is H.D. after all – the poet soon assimilates Goldie to Goldilocks, Gretel and Saint Catherine. What is different in poems like these is the clear traction with ‘the bread-queue,/the meat-shop,/the grocery’. The poet presents herself as undertaking something akin to the work of a carpenter (one she saw on 14 May 1943): ‘He has his chisel,/I have my pencil://he mends the broken window-frame of the orangery,/I mend a break in time.’
Trilogy marks H.D.’s most distinctive, sustained ars poetica in boldly relaxed announcements such as this:
but my mind (yours)
has its peculiar ego-centric
to the eternal realities,
and differs from every other
in minute particulars
as the vein-paths on any leaf
differ from those of every other leaf
The book is sometimes read as a kind of alternative to Pound’s Pisan Cantos (not fascist! less obscure!). If Pound ultimately lamented that he could ‘not make it cohere’, H.D. occasionally over-pressed her materials into a mythic-syncretic coherence, every figure made to resonate across multiple iterations – as in the permutations of Mary in the final war sequence, The Flowering of the Rod (1946). Mary of Bethany become Mary Magdalene become Stella Maris and so on. ‘Marys a-plenty’, as H.D. semi-ironically writes. One can sometimes feel browbeaten by such enforced reverberance. A saving grace is that the poet knows this and sometimes winks.
It is perhaps time to confess it: I generally hate literary biographies. I appreciate as much as anyone the details, the Bildung, the psychodramas, the higher and lower gossip, the contextualisation, the ‘who knew?’ of it all, but in the case of a writer like H.D., the gulf between conventional biography and the work is almost comically ludicrous. Not that her poetry wasn’t hooked to the events of her life, but H.D.’s work at its best has the peculiar power of evanescing the contingent into something shimmering, a ‘continual allegory’ in Keats’s sense, both immanent and renewable. Hers is a poetry close to ritual invocation, resistant to the one-damn-thing-after-another offered by conventional biography. As Susan Howe wrote, in a tribute to H.D. on the centennial of her birth, ‘ecstasy is outside time.’
H.D., like Whitman, imagined herself and her work as absorbed into futurities, and into the surround we used to call nature. Whitman writes in the last verse of ‘Song of Myself’:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
H.D. looked more to the skies than to the earth. In ‘Sigil’, she becomes one of Keats’s or Shelley’s ‘spirits of the air’, or perhaps a queer divinity, an unlocalisable yet suddenly palpable presence:
That will be me,
and wild and free
That will be me
to send a shudder through you,
through an aspen tree
I’m free but I’ve gone;
I’m not here,
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.