(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

H(ilda) D(oolittle) 1886–1961

American poet, novelist, dramatist, translator, memoirist, and editor.

H. D. is well known as an Imagist poet and her early free verse poems are credited with being the inspiration for Ezra Pound's formulation of Imagism. H. D.'s later poetry retained its clarity of image and free verse form but transcended the limitations of Imagism to include mythology, occult and religious themes, autobiographical material, psychoanalytic concepts, and symbolism. Her work in other genres also indicates that H. D. should be considered more than an Imagist poet. She is studied today not only because of the originality of her work, but also because much of it reflects her relationships with literary figures in England and America during the early part of the twentieth century.

Doolittle grew up near Philadelphia in an academic family with religious ties to the Moravian and Puritan faiths. She attended Bryn Mawr College and during this time met Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. At age nineteen she was briefly engaged to Pound and her intermittent involvement with him drew her to London in 1911. Although the marriage never occurred, Pound did establish her as "H. D. Imagiste" and helped get her poetry published in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine. Among the poets H. D. met in London literary circles was Richard Aldington, whom she married in 1913. Together they edited The Egoist, a literary forum for Imagist writers. Among the friends of the Aldingtons were D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Freida, an association which inspired novelizations by Aldington, Lawrence, and H. D. A series of tragic events, including the death of her brother, a miscarriage during her first pregnancy, and her own serious illness, led to the collapse of her marriage in 1919.

After her separation from Aldington, H. D. developed a relationship with the heiress and writer, Winnifred Ellerman, known as Bryher, which lasted until 1946. After travelling through Greece and other countries, H. D. and Bryher settled in Switzerland in 1924. In 1933 and 1934 H. D. underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud; this experience had an important influence on her work. H. D. returned to England during the Second World War and spent her last years putting her papers together and writing Hermetic Definition (1972). In 1960 she became the first woman to receive the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Sea Garden (1916), H. D.'s first book of verse, exemplifies her stark, specific use of imagery and the musical rhythm of her early poems. Another characteristic evident here and in H. D.'s other work is the classical Greek influence derived from her lifelong interest in Greek poetry and drama. "Oread" and "Heat" are two of her most celebrated Imagist poems. Two other volumes, Hymen (1921) and Heliodora (1924), were added to Sea Garden and published as Collected Poems (1924), a volume which established a firm foundation for H. D.'s reputation as the "perfect Imagist."

H. D. wrote two books based on her relationship with Pound: End to Torment (1979) and HERmione (1981). The first is a memoir of particular interest to Pound scholars for its inclu-sion of "Hilda's Book," a collection of poems Pound wrote for H. D. HERmione is a novelization of their early courtship which indicates that H. D. may have been bisexual. Bid Me to Live (1960) is a roman à clef about H. D.'s marriage to Aldington, his affair with Dorothy Yorke, and the platonic attachment H. D. formed with Lawrence. One of H. D.'s best prose works is Tribute to Freud (1956), variously termed a "prose love poem," a "psychobiography," and a novel. It describes the impact of the famous analyst on the young feminine protagonist's artistic and emotional development.

H. D.'s poetic work during the interwar period included Red Roses for Bronze (1929). This volume was faulted for its failure to fuse idea and emotion and for its lack of the brilliant images abundant in her early work. Two of the novels she wrote during this time, however, gained attention as experimental narratives. Palimpsest (1926) superimposes cultures and historical periods to present the parallel lives of three intellectual women in Rome, Egypt, and London. Each is seen as a "facet of H. D.'s total personality." The other experimental novel, Hedylus (1928), traces a young male artist's attempt to gain selfhood. Many commentators find the quest for self-identity a common theme throughout H. D.'s writings.

After returning to war-torn England from Switzerland, H. D. produced her major poetic work of the war years: Trilogy, comprising The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and Flowering of the Rod (1946). Here H. D. combines autobiographical material and Egyptian mythology with the historic particulars of the destruction of London. After the war she wrote her long poem Helen in Egypt (1961). Perhaps because it is an epic quest which centers on a woman, the poem has received much attention, especially from scholars of women's writing. Helen is a persona for H. D. and other mythological figures have been identified as having their counterparts in H. D.'s life. While H. D. may be best remembered as an Imagist poet, such later works as Helen in Egypt have earned her a broader classification.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 4.)

Harriet Monroe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The amazing thing about H. D.'s poetry is the wildness of it—that trait strikes me as I read her whole record in the Collected Poems…. She is as wild as deer on the mountain, as hepaticas under the wet mulsh of spring, as a dryad racing nude through the wood…. She is, in a sense, one of the most civilized, most ultra-refined, of poets; and yet never was a poet more unaware of civilization, more independent of its thralls. She doesn't talk about nature, doesn't praise or patronize or condescend to it; but she is, quite unconsciously, a lithe, hard, bright-winged spirit of nature to whom humanity is but an incident.

Thus she carries English poetry back to the Greeks more instinctively than any other poet who has ever written in our language. Studying Greek poetry, she finds herself at home there, and quite simply expresses the kinship in her art. (p. 268)

It would be an interesting speculation to consider how much H. D. owes to the pioneers whom all Americans descend from more or less. The pioneers took a shut-in race out of doors, exposed it to nature's harsh activities, and thus restored a certain lost fibre to its very blood and bones. H. D., eastern born and bred as she was, has inherited from them rather than from the barons and earls of England's past. And her poetry is more akin to that of our aborigines than it is to the Elizabethans or Victorians, or any of the classicists or romanticists between them….

Her technique, like her spiritual motive, is lithe and nude. The free-verse forms she chooses are not even clothing, so innocent are they of any trace of artificiality; they are as much a part of her spirit, they complete it as essentially, as harmoniously, as the skin which encloses and outlines the flesh of a human body.

One may follow her flight from worldliness in all her poems, but perhaps it is most explicit in two of them. Sheltered Garden is a protest—observe that even her protests are uttered out-of-doors…. (p. 269)

There is a bold and trained athleticism in such...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Stanley Kunitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The publication of The Flowering of the Rod brings to a close H. D.'s war trilogy, which has received less attention than it merits. "War trilogy" … requires some qualification. It is true that the poem, which will be considered here in toto, begins amid the ruins of London, in the flaming terror of the Blitz, but it is equally true that it ends in an ox-stall in Bethlehem. The war was the occasion, it is not the subject-matter of the poem. Neither is "trilogy" wholly satisfactory, since it implies more of temporal continuity and progressive narrative line than the three parts possess. The relation between the parts seems to me more that of a triptych than of a trilogy, each book being a compositional unit, though conceptually and emotionally enriched by association with its companion units; each composition, furthermore, embodying a dream or vision. This formal arrangement is particularly suited to H. D., whose art has unmistakable affinities with the pictorial.

Pursuing the triptych analogy, we find the second book, "Tribute to the Angels" …, falling naturally into place as the central composition; in the background "a half-burnt-out apple-tree blossoming," in the foreground the luminous figure of the Lady, who carries, under her drift of veils, a book. (pp. 36-7)

The left side-panel, titled "The Walls Do Not Fall" …, shows the ruins of bombed-out London. They have an Egyptian desolation, like the ruins of the Temple of Luxor. The ascendant Dream-figure is Amen, not as the local deity of Thebes, ram-headed god of life and reproduction, nor even in his greater manifestation as Amen-Ra, when he joined with the sun-god to become a supreme divinity incorporating the other gods into his members, but the Amen of Revelation … with the face and bearing of the Christos…. The background figure recording the scene is Thoth …, scribe of the gods, in whose ibis-head magic and art married and flourished.

The interior of an Arab merchant's booth is represented in the foreground of the right side-panel "The Flowering of the Rod." Half-turned towards the...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

David Daiches

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["By Avon River"] has a charm and delicacy not often found among the tougher ironies of our modern poets and critics. It is in two parts: the first a series of lyrics evoked by the contemplation of Shakespeare's "Tempest" and of certain aspects of his world and art and their sources in earlier currents of thought. These poems have a clear, yet slightly muted, tone, pleasing though occasionally slightly monotonous to the ear; they show a restrained, classical skill.

The second part, which occupies the bulk of the book, is a prose essay on Elizabethan poets, in which quotation of their lyrics falls naturally. The essay works up to a discussion of Shakespeare himself. H. D. thinks of him sitting on that last convivial evening with Drayton and Ben Jonson … and follows his imagined reminiscences on this occasion to present aspects of his life and thought.

It is a strange and interesting essay. H. D. chats and speculates in an almost dreamlike wandering among men and ideas of the period, with a fine delicacy of phrase and a slightly distracted air. There lies scattered in these impressions of years of wandering among earlier English poets a new and subtle theory of the relation between the themes and images of the great Elizabethan writers on the one hand and the medieval world of religion and courtly love on the other. The essay is a fascinating text for meditation and discussion.

David Daiches, "Shakespeare's World," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, September 11, 1949, p. 3.

Horace Gregory

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The following notes on the poems of H. D. are written to pay tribute to an American poet whose writings have yet to receive full measure of critical attention in the United States….

Today, and in view of her later poems, it seems somewhat strange that most people still associate her writings only with the cause of "free verse" and "imagism," "the School of Images," that Ezra Pound in 1912 so cheerfully announced held the future "in their keeping." In 1956 H. D. remarked, "One writes the kind of poetry one likes. Other people put labels on it. Imagism was something that was important for poets learning their craft early in this century. But after learning his craft, the poet will find his true...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Harry T. Moore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Bid Me to Live"] evokes the England of the Imagists and of World War I, those times when, as she says, "Jocasta danced with Philoctetes." H. D.'s central character, Julia Ashton, is a poet whose marriage to another poet is disintegrating. Her husband Rafe, home on leave from the Western Front, becomes involved with a girl who lives in a room above the Ashtons' Bloomsbury flat: "I love you, I desire l'autre," Rafe tells Julia, who drifts into a love affair with a musician. But all the while she is magnetized by a writer named Frederick (Rico), who cannot easily be magnetized away from his "great Prussian wife."

Rico is very plainly D. H. Lawrence (Lorenzo), and his physical as well as his...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Kathryn Gibbs Gibbons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps this is a time not so much for an evaluation of H. D.'s art as it is an appropriate time to acquaint ourselves with just what H. D.'s art is. (p. 152)

The most common adverse criticism of H. D.'s early poetry was that it made no social protest and that it was not journalism…. Keeping the elements of style for which she was praised early, H. D. has developed a poetic structure that is clearly unique and yet one could say that it is in the tradition of the best meditative lyricists (Herbert, Donne, Dickinson), and of the best elegists (Milton, Wordsworth, Whitman). For H. D. writes directly to the hugest problem of our time, that of life against destruction. Her answer may not be new in all...

(The entire section is 1068 words.)

Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems in ["Hermetic Definition"] date from circa 1960, when [H. D.] was 74. She had been inserted into literary history at 26, when Ezra Pound invented "Imagism" to supply a context for five poems of hers….

Unhappily the invented movement that was meant to float her reputation encapsulated it, and though she lived many more decades and extended her self-definition through many volumes, she has remained totally identified with the very little she had done when she was first heard of….

The first section of "Hermetic Definition" addresses a comer who is partly angel, partly several remembered men, partly the head of the Paris Bureau of Newsweek, who catalyzed the poem by...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Susan Stanford Friedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in College English, March 1975.]

Why is [H. D.'s] poetry not read? H. D. is part of the same literary tradition that produced the mature work of the "established" artists—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence…. Like these artists, H. D. began writing in the aestheticism and fascination for pure form characteristic of the imagists; and like them, she turned to epic form and to myth, religious tradition, and the dream as a way of giving meaning to the cataclysms and fragmentation of the twentieth century. Her epic poetry should be compared to the Cantos, Paterson, the Four...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Emily Stipes Watts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among Imagist poems, the verse of H. D. stands apart. Although she has been called "the perfect Imagist," she was never really an Imagist, as Pound defined that term anyway. Although she is credited with being one of the formulators of the three Imagist principles, she was hardly any more a "follower" of them than Guiney, Cather, or Reese. (p. 152)

If we examine the three original principles of Imagism as stated by F. S. Flint in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, we find that H. D.'s verse is related to, undoubtedly should stand as the original inspiration of, Imagism, but is in fact something else besides. The first principle is "1. Direct treatment of the 'thing,' whether subjective or...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)

L. M. Freibert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While one might hesitate to classify Hilda Doolittle with the great poets, even though she is the best of the Imagists, one could hardly deny the radical transformation and new direction she has given to the genre by creating the neo-epic Helen in Egypt (1961), which explores the evolution of woman as person and as artist. The poem adheres to the epic conventions in that it is basically a quest which carries its protagonist into war, through the gates of ecstasy, into an underworld experience which includes a meeting with parent figures, and eventually into a new life. The poem departs from the genre pattern in two ways, as do its twentieth-century counterparts The Waste Land, The Bridge, Paterson, the...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Bernard Duffey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

H. D.'s "memoir" of Ezra Pound [End to Torment] is somewhat mistitled since written late in her life, it is more an exploration of her feelings about Pound, and about others, than a detailed recollection of the poet. Their relationship had originated in a youthful and ardently romanticized love affair during Pound's graduate year at the University of Pennsylvania, albeit one strictly supervised by H. D.'s father. By the time H. D. betook herself to London in 1911 the romance was over, and she was quickly drawn to Richard Aldington and to others in the London international set.

Students of H. D. should find more of interest in the work than students of Pound. The latter, perhaps, will be most...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Judy Cooke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Hedylus] is a poet's novel, rich in metaphor and meaning.

Set in the classical world, the story explores the predicament of Hedylus, the young son of the beautiful Hedyle and, indeed, her mirror image; he is dazzled by her presence, yet longs to find his own identity. She stands for the intellect and Athens; he is for the imagination, Alexandria, India. The psychological tension between the pair can be resolved only by their separation, deathly though this will be to Hedyle. Inevitably, events are precipitated by a young girl (in some ways, the theme parallels Sons and Lovers) but the mother's antagonism seems certain to blight the match. Enter a stranger, Demion—a god, a lost...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Susan Stanford Friedman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hilda Doolittle's emergence on the pages of Poetry magazine in 1913 as "H. D., Imagiste" heralded the beginnings of a writer whose canon spans half a century and the genres of poetry, fiction, memoir, essay, drama, and translation. This achievement was firmly rooted in H. D.'s central participation in the imagist movement, a short-lived moment in literary history, but one whose experiments changed the course of modern poetry with its concept of the "image" and its advocacy of vers libre. (p. 1)

Sea Garden, published in 1916, was the poet's culmination of her early apprenticeship in London, and it won for her the reputation of being the best of the imagist poets. Her poems avoided the...

(The entire section is 3416 words.)

Lucy M. Freibert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[HERmione] is remarkably engaging. Completed in 1927 at the height of the modernist period, the novel has a surprisingly contemporary ring. Its vitality, arising in part from H. D.'s experience, depends upon the bisexual nature of the relationships involved and the emergence of the protagonist as an artist. (pp. 93-4)

[The] sensitive nature of the novel's content prevented its publication during the lifetime of the principals…. Though all of H. D.'s work contains deeply personal material, careful encoding and a willingness to risk exposure allowed her to publish much of it during her lifetime. Not so with HERmione….

By its very nature H. D.'s poetry, especially the...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Albert Gelpi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

H. D. always wrote her own personal and psychological dilemma against and within the political turmoil of the twentieth century, the toils of love enmeshed in the convulsions of war. Her marriage to and separation from Richard Aldington turn on World War I, and that concatenation of private and public trauma stands behind the poems of Sea Garden, which sum up the Imagist concision of her first phase. The sequences of Trilogy, written through the London blitzes of World War II, usher in the longer, multivalent and more associative poems of her later years. The travail of aging and illness in her last years did not issue in the stoic silence which made Pound leave incomplete his life's work in the...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)

Carol Camper

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As the title suggests, HERmione is about a young woman divided against herself (Her and Hermione Gart are the same person) and against a certain perception of the world. Although this is the autobiographical narrative of a future poet, the handling of these divisions is unlike anything you will encounter in other portraits of young artists. An intensely personal narrative voice demands that you follow her on her terms and in her language only. The voice confides her universe of desire, drawn with emblems of a troubled, idealized beauty…. The voice is "overwrought" … and the symbolism extravagant, even a little too self-consciously Jungian. Hermione is engaged in a war with precise, sane, emotionally...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Alison Tartt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Gift, a] previously unpublished work, written in 1941 and 1943, re-creates fragments of H. D.'s childhood in Bethlehem and Upper Darby. Each chapter develops a mosaic of incidents … associated in the author's remembrance by the logic of the subconscious. Combining symbols, images, remembered words and phrases, and bits of family history into patterns of highly rhythmic prose, H. D. evokes the impressionism of childhood and the amalgam of memory. The final chapter brings the reader back to the present time and place—London under seige during World War II—and unifies many of the earlier motifs in a tour de force that shows H. D.'s control of her material. A moving and engrossing piece of...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Janice S. Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her early poems H. D. expressed a particularly feminine viewpoint in relation to the poetic tradition. As time went on this stance became more and more clearly defined; today we would call it feminist. It is important to understand how H. D.'s particular poetic sensibility, which she expresses in a metaphorical or palimpsest way of thinking and writing, differs from the more masculine poetic thrust.

What we must first come to understand in H. D.'s poetry is what we might call a figural or allegorical interpretation of nature. Every natural occurrence, in all its everyday reality, is correspondingly a part of a spiritual world order, which is also experiential and in which every event is related to...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

Lucy M. Freibert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Gift] is a novelistic memoir of H. D.'s childhood. Like her epic trilogy, it issued from H. D.'s creative burst during the period of chaos (1941–1943) following the Battle of Britain: The final chapter of The Gift, in fact, dramatizes Hilda's efforts, between air raids, to write the memoir.

H. D. casts The Gift in a haunting, mystical, yet childlike, voice which matures as the memoir unfolds. She employs the mythical method throughout the work, overlaying fact with religious, literary, and cultural parallels. In the opening chapter, "Dark Room," Hilda charts her Moravian ancestry. She begins with the death by fire of a young girl at the Moravian seminary in Bethlehem,...

(The entire section is 293 words.)