Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2180
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...
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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 her life; Pound offered sympathy but no concrete help. She was rescued by a wealthy young Englishwoman, Winifred Ellerman, who called herself by her pen name, Bryher. She and her father, shipping magnate Sir John Ellerman, took in both mother and child and provided financial support for many years afterward.
Robinson’s account of the remaining forty years of H. D.’s life is much less detailed than her discussion of the preceding decade. She devotes surprisingly little attention to H. D.’s relationship with Bryher, apparently because she believes it had a less significant effect on her work than her friendships with others. The critical encounter of the second half of H. D.’s life, in Robinson’s view, was that with Sigmund Freud, who helped her to come to terms with her past in many sessions of psychoanalysis in 1933 and 1934. Freud’s appreciation of her as an artist compensated for the earlier betrayals; Robinson says that he “restored her . . . as friend and teacher, he was in touch with the whole secret of the mystery.” Building on the strength he gave her, H. D. produced much of her finest work during the 1940’s and 1950’s: the war poems, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946); the autobiographical novel Bid Me to Live (1960); and the long poem on a little known variant of the Helen of Troy legend, Helen in Egypt. She continued to write almost to the end of her life. One of her last works was End to Torment, her memoir of Pound, with whom she kept in touch through all his political and mental problems during and after the war.
Inevitably, the aspect of Robinson’s book that has attracted the most attention is her assertion about H. D.’s relationship with Lawrence. Her thesis is not altogether new. Bid Me to Live was widely recognized to be a roman à clef about H. D., Aldington, Lawrence, and his wife, Frieda, but scholars have generally assumed that the unconsummated, broken romance depicted in the novel was the full account of the H. D.-Lawrence relationship. Robinson is convinced that it was not. She devotes approximately one-quarter of her book to detailed analysis of works by the two writers to show that they were in fact lovers, and to suggest strongly that it was Lawrence, not Gray, who was the father of H. D.’s child.
Robinson finds the strongest support for her thesis in Lawrence’s The First Lady Chatterley (1944), John Thomas and Lady Jane (1972), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), three versions of the same novel. She believes that Lady Chatterley, her impotent, insensitive husband Sir Clifford, and her game-keeper lover, are portraits of H. D., Aldington, and Lawrence, and that Lady Chatterley’s pregnancy by a man not her husband is based on H. D.’s situation. Lawrence accepted in his fiction, she implies, the responsibility he denied in life.
She also points out striking similarities between H. D.’s unpublished novel, “Paint It Today,” written in 1921, and the Lady Chatterley stories. The heroine of H. D.’s work, clearly autobiographical, meets her lover in a “little house in the woods,” a place very much like the trysting place of the lovers in John Thomas and Lady Jane. In both works, the woman sits on the porch of the hut, seeking peace and calm; in both, she stands nude and examines herself in a mirror; in both, the couple make love on an old blanket. There seems to have been no possibility that either writer saw the other’s manuscript; if the details are as close as Robinson says they are, the works must have derived either from a common experience or from remarkably close imaginative processes.
Robinson also makes an exhaustive comparison of images and themes in two other works to illustrate her point. H. D.’s “Pilate’s Wife,” another unpublished novel, was written between 1924 and 1929 and revised in 1934. Lawrence’s The Escaped Cock began as a short story published in 1928. The complete novel was printed in Paris in 1929 and reissued as The Man Who Died in 1931. In this case, it is possible that the final version of H. D.’s work was influenced by her reading of Lawrence’s story, but Robinson is certain that the two writers began independently. Both novels deal with a Jesus who did not die after the Crucifixion but recovered from his wounds to enter a new life. Lawrence’s Christ figure becomes the lover of a priestess of Isis; H. D.’s, of Pontius Pilate’s wife Veronica, a devotee of the cult of Isis. Robinson finds many common images as well as similar details of plot in the two works, demonstrating fairly conclusively that whatever the two writers’ personal relationship may have been, they certainly shared artistic insights.
Robinson analyzes a number of H. D.’s later works in the light of the Lawrence relationship, showing how she told the same story again and again, in different settings, with characters of different names. It is most richly interpreted in Helen in Egypt, Robinson suggests, with the poet characterized as Helen, Aldington as Paris, Lawrence as Achilles, Pound as Odysseus, and Freud, now incorporated into H. D.’s private mythology, as the wise teacher Theseus. Once again, the H. D. persona and the Lawrence persona are brought together to conceive a child.
Robinson’s argument is, on the whole, persuasive, but because it is based almost entirely on interpretation of literary texts, most readers will want to reserve final judgment. As she recognizes, the absence of corroborative evidence is a weakness in her case. For this lack, she blames Aldington, whom she discusses with considerable hostility throughout the book. She accuses him of deliberately suppressing evidence of H. D.’s relationship with Lawrence, not to protect her privacy as he claimed, but out of jealousy and resentment. Robinson may be right, but the passages from his letters and H. D.’s that she quotes to justify her accusation generally seem open to a kinder interpretation than she gives. It is clear that H. D. had many opportunities to reveal whatever details she chose in the thirty years she survived Lawrence; perhaps Aldington was following her wishes in asking Lawrence’s biographers to minimize her role in his life. Is it, in the last analysis, really necessary to answer the question Robinson raises at the end of the section on H. D. and Lawrence: “To what extent did the realities described in these works occur somewhere, somehow, in historical time at a particular place or location, and to what extent was the H. D.-D. H. Lawrence vision conceived and born within the temple of twin minds?”
Whatever the validity of Robinson’s theory, her book should be an indispensable tool for all future students of H. D.’s work and perhaps for Lawrence scholars as well. It does not satisfy all needs. A less thesis-dominated, more comprehensive biography of H. D., directed to a wider audience, would still be welcome. There is also room for more detached, evaluative discussion of the works Robinson treats with such intensity. Her immersion in her subject seems at times to limit her ability to stand back from the works and assess them objectively, but her book adds much that is new and important to an understanding of H. D.’s life and work. Her provocative interpretations and the quality of the writings from which she quotes copiously should do much to confirm H. D.’s reputation as an important figure in the history of twentieth century poetry.