What influence did Sappho have on imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, pen name H.D.?

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huntress | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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Sappho, a Greek poet born on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century BCE, was renowned for her lyric poetry. Lyric poetry is ancient, and just like the name implies, was intended to be sung to musical accompaniment. Its goal was to express emotion, and it was usually delivered in the first person (where the poet/narrator/singer) is the "speaker." Sappho's style, however, was unique in that she was an proto-Imagist.

The Imagist movement came into being in the early 20th century, and it favored absolute focus on images with no wasted words. Ezra Pound, one of its founders, is probably best known for his short Imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro": 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough. 

The images portrayed are intended to not just paint a picture, but convey the feeling of the poet, the sense of being there (in the metro, in this case) and the melancholy and loneliness the poet feels, even within the crush of people. 

Here is a fragment--for such is all we have left--of Sappho's poetry: 

Leave Kriti and come here to this holy temple with your graceful grove of apple trees and altars smoking with frankincense. Icy water babbles through apple branches and roses leave shadow on the ground and bright shaking leaves pour down profound sleep. Here is a meadow where horses graze amid wild blossoms of the spring and soft winds blow aroma of honey. Afroditi, take the nectar and delicately pour it into gold wine cups and mingle joy with our celebration.

Note the intense focus on images. It would be easier to say, "Leave Crete and come to me in Paradise, where Aphrodite herself will pour our wine," but we wouldn't feel the peace and romance we get from her images, in which "leaves pour down / profound sleep" and "soft winds / blow aroma." 

Compare, then, to H.D.'s work (from "Sea Poppies": 

Amber husk
fluted with gold,
fruit on the sand
marked with a rich grain,

treasure
spilled near the shrub-pines
to bleach on the boulders....

Again, instead of regular meter and constrained (often unnatural) styles and obscure images, favored by Classical Poets and to a lesser extent, the Romantics, H.D.'s work was focused almost entirely upon clarity of image, and the feeling those images evoke. Here, we are with her on the seashore observing that sea poppies are "fluted with gold"--the look rich, evoking the words of Jesus ("Observe the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!"); they are "fruit on the sand" with a "rich grain"--"treasure" that most people don't even notice. We are thus conspiring with her, having discovered, with her, a hidden treasure. 

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