American writer Hilda Doolittle made her reputation in the years during and immediately after World War I as the Imagist poet H. D., author of beautiful, crystalline lyrics and friend of Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, D. H. Lawrence, and other well-known literary figures. By the time of her death in 1961, however, her name had almost faded from public view, except for a sentence or two in literary histories and an occasional poem in an anthology. Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in her work. End to Torment, her memoir of Pound, was published in 1979; HERmione, a novel, in 1981; The Gift, recollections of her childhood, in 1982. Several volumes of her poetry, including her World War II poems collected in Trilogy (1973) and her epic, Helen in Egypt (1961), were reprinted during the 1970’s. Scholars have paid increasing attention to her work in the last decade, and feminist critics have begun to examine her career as a model of the struggle of the woman artist in a patriarchal environment.
Janice S. Robinson’s book draws on this feminist approach to H. D.’s life and work, but it is much more than an account of a writer’s attempt to achieve independence in the face of attacks from oppressive men. Robinson has read the work of H. D. and her contemporaries extensively; the book is the product of twelve years of research. It is neither a conventional biography nor a survey of H. D.’s literary career, though it contains elements of both. What Robinson has done is to explore the interrelationship between H. D.’s poems and novels and the significant events in her life. In the process, she makes considerable demands on her readers. Much of this book consists of close analysis of passages of prose and poetry, and Robinson’s style can be opaque at times. This is not a volume for a reader interested in a little literary gossip, pleasantly presented.
Robinson’s approach to H. D. rests on the assumption that there is in all her work “a buried level of experience coming through the surface writing.” She uses H. D.’s own image to illuminate this concept: the palimpsest, the piece of parchment that is used, erased, and used again. It may thus contain several stories, even though only the top one is visible. Throughout the book, Robinson tries to search out and explain, in the light of her knowledge of H. D.’s life, the hidden meanings of her work. Then, in turn, she uses the submerged messages she has found in the work to expand her understanding of the life.
Robinson suggests that H. D.’s use of this kind of symbolism was a natural outgrowth of her upbringing in the Moravian church, which provided her with “a mystical love language as well as a form of religion, social and familial organization . . . a community of shared experience, of shared symbolism, of a common language about the experience of life.” Having grown up within a tradition that stressed truths hidden beneath symbolic words, H. D. found this a congenial technique for writing about the most significant experiences in her life.
The critical years for H. D. as woman and artist were, in Robinson’s view, those between 1905 and 1920. The poet was eighteen in 1905, the year in which she became engaged to Ezra Pound, then a student and an aspiring poet at the University of Pennsylvania, where her father taught. Their engagement continued, somewhat tenuously, for the next six years, with H. D. living at home, reading and writing under Pound’s guidance. He, meanwhile, began to travel in Europe and form close friendships with several other women as he developed his own career. H. D. finally joined him in England in 1911, expecting to be married, but she found that he was also engaged to Dorothy Shakespear, who eventually became his wife. H. D. stayed on in London, maintaining her friendship with him, and began to concentrate on her writing—the first of many times she would find in her art a way of fighting back against masculine desertion and betrayal.
Her professional career as a poet began in August, 1912, in the British Museum Tea Room, where Pound took one of her poems, crossed out a few phrases, signed it “H. D. Imagiste,” and sent it off to Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry. H. D. was also working at this time with Richard Aldington, a young English poet who was also a member of the group who called themselves Imagists. The two were married in 1913. Their marriage foundered within three years, perhaps as a result of basic incompatibility, but also because of the stillbirth of their child in 1915 and H. D.’s fear of another pregnancy. Aldington’s experiences as a soldier and his wife’s lack of understanding of them also apparently contributed to their difficulties. Although they stayed together for a time, both turned to others. H. D. entered into a relationship with the man Robinson is convinced was the single most important influence on her life, D. H. Lawrence. The Aldingtons separated in 1919, when H. D. became pregnant with someone else’s child. She never identified the father, even to her daughter, Perdita.
At this point in her life, H. D. was virtually abandoned by the men to whom she had been close. Aldington, Lawrence, and Cecil Gray, whom some scholars have identified as her lover, removed themselves from...
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