H. D. Essay - H(ilda) D(oolittle) (Vol. 3)

Hilda Doolittle

H(ilda) D(oolittle) (Vol. 3)

H(ilda) D(oolittle) 1886–1961

H. D., an American poet, was a highly-regarded member of the Imagists.

Until the horrors of the second world war broke in upon her, [H. D.'s] subjects were limited to the toll demanded by a rigorous art, the agony of physical passion, a seascape or an orchard as these laid upon the beholder the burden of natural beauty. The narrowness that makes for intensity gives to some of her poems a feverish quality not to be found in the most ardent of Sappho's fragments. Un-Greek, too, is her care for the minute detail, the sharpness with which she outlines flower and fruit, the "cyclamen-purple, cyclamen-red" of the last grapes, the crisp line of a shadow at evening, the hot color of a petal, the texture of cliff grass. She did not fully exploit her limited vocabulary and her work displayed no glint of ironic wit. But her sensitiveness to tone-color is unquestionable….

H. D.'s rhythms are almost the rhythms of speech, but speech at its most passionate, restrained by the very emotion with which it is charged. She has the classical scholar's sense of quantity. The lines are short, often monosyllabic, yet slowed for emphasis. Rhyme is used sparingly and not always effectively, but only in the longer poems and the verse dramas are the insistent repetitions felt as a flaw. Elsewhere, the frequent spondees, the recurrence of certain phrases, the parallelism of others, produce an effect of symmetry….

The poems with which H. D. emerged from a silence of nearly two decades point up her early work alike by their resemblance to and their departures from it. As before, she relies largely on the short, heavily loaded line, on incantatory phrasing, on pure luminous color. But the old altars were veritably shattered by fire from heaven. The poet left ancient Greece for the rubble-strewn London of the Blitz. The sense of miracle felt by the survivors is symbolized by the flowering of a charred tree in the city. The compelling passages are those which, in a few bare words, present desolation.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 106-07.

To say that Hilda Doolittle (Mrs. Richard Aldington), H. D. as she preferred to sign her work, was by far the best poet among the Americans included in Pound's Des Imagistes is at once to say too much and too little. It is to say too much because to anyone who has even just dipped into the works of all of them—H. D., [John Gould] Fletcher, and Amy Lowell—it is too obvious to need saying that she towers over the other two like a mature sugar maple over the undergrowth of moosewood and hobblebush, which do not have it in them to grow very tall, no matter how long they survive. It is to say too little because the comparison is fundamentally inapt; sugar maple, and moosewood or striped maple, are both of the genus acer, to be sure, but no useful conclusions are likely to emerge from a comparison of acer saccharum with acer pennsylvanicum. We can take H. D.'s measure only by comparing her with the major poets of the twentieth century, or at least with those in some sort of second category, like Aiken or MacLeish or Ransom.

The label "the perfect Imagist" was applied early and still continues in use, even though it describes—so far as it is apt at all—considerably less than half of her work….

Even her earliest, most clearly Imagistic poems usually transcend the limitation of Pound's "instant of time" definition…. If there is a feeling of stasis in them, and I think there is, it results not from anything so abstract as a "principle" but from a feeling of being caught in a time when all meanings are gone and so any movement would be directionless, any growth impossible. It is not, for H. D., as it had been for Robinson, that we find ourselves "the children of the night," groping in darkness. H. D.'s poems are filled with light, but a light too brilliant to be endured….

H. D.'s journey from the barren land where the light was so insufferable that it made her seek shelter in the crevices of rocks was of course the typic journey of her generation. She made it at her own speed, in her own way, seeming not to move at all for several decades but arriving, late, as at a station on the way, at a cracked and crazy-angled house where there was shadow as well as light and where, though "we know no rule of procedure," still the walls do not fall, we "do not know why." At the end, in Helen in Egypt, she was still searching the many meanings of "the question that has no answer," pondering "the ultimate experience, La Mort, L'Amour," and exploring, as Emerson had before her, the meanings of the image of the wheel, or circle, that brings the "ever-recurring 'eternal moment.'" The notes she made in her journey, in her poems, compose one of the really distinguished bodies of work of this century.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton Mifflin, 1968, pp. 358-64.