H. D. was a lyric poet with one overarching dramatic theme: a heroine’s quest for love and spiritual peace. Her poetry about this one central drama, although written in concise and crystalline images, is an evocative and often enigmatic reworking of scenes, a retelling of tales, where new characters fuse with old, where meanings subtle shift with the perspective, and where understanding interchanges with mystery.
The early poem, “Oread”—one of the most often anthologized of H. D.’s poems—has been celebrated as the epitome of the Imagist poem. First published in February, 1914, this deft six-line poem not only illustrates the essence and freshness of the Imagist approach but also foreshadows and reflects many of the themes to which H. D. would turn and return in her art. The six lines of the poem rest on a single image:
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.
The image in this poem is a “presentation,” not a representation; it is a tangible, immediate manifesting of a physical thing, not a description of a scene or an abstract feeling. On the immediate level, the poem is an image of a stormy sea whose wave crests are like forest pines as they crash against the shore and recede, leaving rocky pools in their wake. The image evokes a complex picture suggesting color, the beating of waves on a coast, sounds crashing and hushed, and even fragrance.
“Oread” has, as the Imagists insisted free verse should have, a rhythmic and linguistic development that is musical rather than metrical, corresponding to the sense of the poem. The first three lines describe an active, thrashing sea advancing on a rocky coast, and the last three suggest a lessening forcefulness, still powerful but withdrawing. The rising and falling movement is created in part by emphatic, initial-stress spondees and trochees in the beginning lines of the poem, which then give way to the more yielding dactyls, anapest, and iambic of the last two lines. These prosodic modifications are paralleled by the vowel and consonantal sounds: rough plosives and fricatives dominate the first half; the last half employs liquid continuants to suggest waning flow and submarine calm. This shift in tone is also underscored by the appearance of back vowel sounds in the last three lines only, giving the lines a more sonorous and less frenzied sound.
Various devices give unity to the poem. It is set as one sentence, in lowercase. The imperative mood of the verbs that begin all but the fourth line emphasizes the thrusting force of the waves. Internal rhymes subtly reinforce the central metaphor, fusing sea and forest: the aspirated h and the liquid r and l of “whirl” are repeated in “hurl”; and the last word, “fir,” is a partial assonantal echo of the first word, “whirl,” and “green” similarly echoes “sea.” Consonants are repeated with like effect. For example, the h, l, p, and s of “whirl up, sea” are forcibly compressed in “splash,” and quietly recapitulated in “pools of fir.” Line 4 (“on our rocks”), which introduces character and location, is distinguished from the preceding lines by its lack of a verb, its use of back vowel sounds, and its triseme (or anapest); yet it is yoked to line 3 by enjambment, again subtly sustaining the fusion metaphor.
“Oread” has an elusiveness that is typical of H. D.’s poetry: The identity of the speaker is obscure, the location of the seacoast is unspecified. Who is “us”? Why are the rocks “our rocks”? The answers lie hidden in the title, which contains much that is enigmatic and unspoken. An oread is a nymph of Greek myth—in particular, a mountain nymph. Like naiads, nereids, dryads, sylphs—the nymphs of rivers, the sea, woods, air— oreads were usually personified as beautiful young girls, amorous, musical, gentle, and shy virgins, although occasionally identified with the wilder aspects of nature and akin to satyrs. The oread is one of the multiple forms that H. D. used to develop the central feminine consciousness in her writings. The oread inhabits the lonelier reaches of nature, rocky places of retreat; as H. D. put it in her children’s novel, The Hedgehog (1936), “The Oreads are the real mountain girls that live furtherest up the hill.”
Mountain nymphs were especially identified in myth as companions of the goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress associated with the moon; Artemis guarded the chastity of her nymphs as jealously as her own. It is one of the finer aspects of H. D.’s poetry that she can evoke the presence of things that are not mentioned yet shimmer ghostlike somewhere just out of poetic range: The goddess Artemis is an offstage presence in this poem, as in others. Her figure, white, distant, cold, virginal, yet passionate, is another of the complex manifestations of consciousness that appear in odd guises throughout H. D.’s poetry. In Helen in Egypt, for example, the moon goddess is symbolized by the white island in the sea where Helen encounters her lover Achilles. Artemis is embodied in the form of another island in “The Shrine” (subtitled “She Watches over the Sea,” and dedicated to Artemis when initially published); it is an island whose difficult approaches can wreck mariners but can also reward those who reach “the splendor of your ragged coast”: “Honey is not more sweet/ than the salt stretch of your beach.” There is a sexuality, even a bisexuality, about this Artemis apparent in such lines as these, or as in the opening lines of “Huntress”: “Come, blunt your spear with us,/ our pace is hot.”
The classical world
The title “Oread” is an allusion to both the moon goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress, and her nymph-companions, wild and free in the mountains. This allusion is but one of many in H. D.’s poems to the Greek world, which was, along with Egyptian, Roman, and other civilizations of antiquity, a frame of reference and an abiding source of inspiration for her. A reader with only a slight familiarity with H. D.’s writings will thus recognize in a title such as “Oread” resonances of the classical world. Virtually all her poems and prose writings allude to it, either directly or by implication. Many of her early poems are explicitly set in the ancient world; others, such as “Sea Iris” and “Sea Lily,” are located there only by reference to “temple steps” or“murex-fishermen,” or, like “Oread” and “Lethe,” have their settings implied solely by their titles.
In the classical world, H. D. found a metaphor for her own loneliness; as she once wrote to Williams, “I am, as you perhaps realize, more in sympathy with the odd and the lonely—with those people that feel themselves apart from the whole. ....
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