Imagist poet H. D. spent much of World War II in her London apartment, where, with her longtime friend, the novelist Bryher, she endured many nights of German bombings. The events of these years sent her back into the memories of her childhood in search of answers to the questions raised by the senseless horrors that surrounded her. The result of this quest into the past was The Gift, now edited and published in full for the first time by the author’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner, who has also contributed a moving introduction to the work describing the circumstances of its composition.
The book is one that works on several levels. It is first, and most obviously, a vivid memoir of a Pennsylvania childhood during the 1890’s, a reflection of life in the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and in a village outside Philadelphia, where the author’s family settled in 1895. The details of this period in her life, however, are carefully chosen and linked by H. D. to incorporate many of the themes that preoccupied her for much of her career—time and eternity, the nature of reality, religion, and mythology.
Young Hilda Doolittle’s life, as it is depicted here, was in most ways a happy one, filled with creative activities, memorable excursions, and the companionship of a large and affectionate family that extended beyond parents and grandparents to include aunts, uncles, and cousins. She was the only surviving daughter of Charles and Helen Doolittle, a fact that assumed considerable significance for her later. Her father was a distinguished astronomer, a professor at Lehigh University and then at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother, the descendant of generations of devout Moravians, centered her life on her husband and children. She seemed fulfilled as wife and mother, but she somehow conveyed to her daughter her sense of regret that she had given up the music that was once her special gift.
The other most important figures in Hilda’s life at this time were the two brothers nearest her in age—Gilbert, two years older, and Harold, a year younger—and her maternal grandparents, whom she called Mamalie and Papalie. Her grandfather, principal of a Moravian seminary in Bethlehem and a scientist like her father, introduced her to the wonders of life in a drop of water under a microscope and contributed to the magical feeling of the Moravian Christmas by modeling tiny clay sheep for the children’s manger scene. Though he died before the family moved to Philadelphia, when Hilda was about nine, he remained vivid in her memory. His wife survived, her mind clouded by age, long enough to share with her granddaughter her vision of an early spiritual pact between a group of Moravians and Indians, an episode that was to be crucial to the author’s understanding of her world.
The Gift brilliantly conveys the thought-patterns of the child, whose mind absorbs detail without analyzing and moves rapidly from one subject to another by a process of association. Using the same skills that allowed her to distill experience with perfect clarity in her Imagist poems, the author makes her memories live for the reader. Most striking, perhaps, is her re-creation of the Moravian Christmas, more an overwhelming sensation of happiness than an annual event, a feeling composed of the scent of the dried pine needles left in the paper wrappings around the glass Christmas tree ornaments, of the stumps of beeswax candles and Papalie’s clay sheep, of a treasured collection of wooden animals—polar bear, deer, lynx, camel. These animals became symbols both of the author’s love for her father and of the permanence of special moments in life. She returns throughout the book to the wintry evening, just before Christmas, when her father took her with Gilbert and Harold on an unprecedented shopping trip to a toy store and instructed them to choose a gift they could enjoy together. The happiness of this excursion crystallized for the author in a picture of snow swirling around a lamppost, one of the major images in the book.
H. D. conveys her childhood emotions equally effectively in her recounting of a far more traumatic episode, again one involving her father. Returning on the streetcar from Philadelphia one night, he had an accident of some kind and reached his home in a stupor, bleeding and unresponsive to his daughter when she went out to meet him. She led him to his study and began to wipe his bloody face with a wet towel, baffled and terrified by his blank expression. Her shock is evident in every line of this section, in her dissociation from her actions, her mechanical wringing out of the bloodstained towel, her awareness of isolated objects in the room, her sense that nothing was quite real: “The clock stood there and ticked and it was a clock that belonged to a story.” After what seemed to her an interminable time, adults came to help; what she later remembered was that no one praised her for her presence of mind or attempted to reassure the children about what had happened. Their father had had a concussion, someone finally told them. Hilda asked what “concussion” meant but received no satisfactory answer. The scars of this incident went so deep into her memory that this was the event that rose up in her mind in connection with the concussion of the bombs and heavy guns in London during the Blitz—the senseless, unexplained horror.
The third crucial incident described in detail is a conversation Hilda had with her grandmother on a summer evening when she had heard her parents and friends discussing shooting stars. Frightened by the thought of stars that might “fall on us and fall on the house and burn us all to death,” she asked her grandmother where shooting stars got their name. Her question aroused a train of reflections in the...
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