Collected Poems, 1912-1944 Analysis
by Hilda Doolittle

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Collected Poems, 1912-1944 Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The whole of H. D.’s work can be seen as the solving of a great cryptogram, her life. It is a life that includes relationships and betrayals, dreams and visions, travels and readings, and memories. It encompasses ancient Greece and Egypt, Philadelphia and London, Pound and Lawrence, lovers male and female, war and the varieties of peace.

H. D.’s personal version of Greece is the first locus of her attempt at self-definition, as it had been of her relationship with Pound, “satyr” to her “dryad.” Her early Imagist poems can be read as essays after the pithy style of the Greek Anthology. “Come, blunt your spear with us,/ our pace is hot/ and our bare heels/ in the heel-prints—” recalls not only Pound’s own “The Return” but also the decorations on amphorae, visual icons of the Greek myths.

With the passage of time, H. D.’s poems shift from exemplary Imagism toward something perhaps closer to the “pansies” of D. H. Lawrence. There are utterances of a high or deep truth in a language so simple that it is hardly poetry at all, if one expects of poetry a worked musical surface of the sort exemplified by John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas. Lawrence used the word “pansies” to describe his own works in this vein because he believed that they had much in common with the Pensées (1670) of Blaise Pascal—themselves prose meditations of a high poetic order. H. D.’s close association with Lawrence no doubt included some influence in each direction. Yet H. D. is after something more than pansies: she hopes to be remembered (“Epitaph”) as “one who died/ following/ intricate songs’ lost measure.”

Freud, H. D.’s poem “The Master” tells us, understood and was able “to explain// the impossible”: that is, H. D.’s duple sexuality. Freud called her a perfect example of the bisexual and declared she had “two things to hide, one that you were a girl, the other that you were a boy.” H. D. was not satisfied, however, with the standard Freudian reduction of her visions to diagnostic insights, and at Freud’s own behest, she proceeded to re-vision them.

It is with the great sequence of poems in Trilogy that H. D. comes finally into full voice—for it is after her analysis with Freud, charged with his encouragement to her to prophesy, in the act indeed of carrying her analysis forward in his absence to conclusions she had been unable to reach while with him, that she comes into that reconciliation with herself which gives her later poems their strength. Under the impact of the bombing of London—recalling, as it does, her terrifying experiences during World War I—a great ecstasy holds her.

With the poems of Trilogy, H. D. sets out to write the myth of those mysteries toward which Freud had steered her: “No man will be present in those mysteries,” she had written in “The Master,” “yet all men will feel/ what it is to be a woman,/ will yearn,/ burn,/ turn from easy pleasure/ to hardship/ of the spirit.” It is, then, with woman’s vision that she will write, and “men will see how long they have been blind,/ poor men/ poor man-kind/ how long/ how long/ this thought of the man-pulse has tricked them.” Lawrence, surely, is among those who are being reproved here.

The poems of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first part of Trilogy, start from the bombed-out houses of war-torn London, double back on the excavated ruins of ancient Egypt, then turn to the walls of “our own house of life,” in which “outer violence” touches “the deepest hidden subconscious terror.” Their theme is H. D. as scribe of the gods. Tribute to the Angels, the second part, contains a vision of Mary as Psyche—the soul, the seer, H. D. herself—and the proclamation of a book of feminine wisdom yet to be written.

The Flowering of the Rod, the final sequence of poems in Trilogy, deals overtly with the understanding of the cryptogram of life. The major thematic figure here is jars with “sigils and painted figures” on them—jars that recall the vases in Freud’s collection, as also the amphorae of classic Greece, but also the hidden contents of a dream or a life. These hidden contents cannot remain hidden: “though the jars were sealed,/ the fragrance got out somehow.”

Yet this myth that H. D. creates is not one that rejects the male: It is a myth of Kaspar, one of the Magi, passing to Mary Magdalen the alabaster jar from which she pours ointment onto the feet of Christ. Finally, however, Mary alone remains: “Kaspar knew the seal of the jar was unbroken,” that is, hermetically sealed. Yet “he did not know whether she knew// the fragrance came from the bundle of myrrh/ she held in her arms.”

The Flowering of the Rod is, as Louis Martz comments, a “universal myth of forgiveness and healing” in which the Magdalen is reconciled with the Virgin, the male with the female, and H. D. with herself. In that final image, H. D. portrays herself as simple woman while at the same time all women, a lover—in the sense of Dylan Thomas’ lovely phrase—with her “arms/ round the griefs of the ages,” finally at peace with herself.