H. D. is best known as an exemplar of Imagism, the first important movement in twentieth-century poetry and a precursor of literary Modernism. As formulated by Ezra Pound, Imagism rejected conventional verse forms and upheld the image as the primary source of poetic expression. While H. D. gradually abandoned the movement's principles to accommodate her interest in mythology, occultism, and psychoanalysis, critical attention during her lifetime remained focused on her Imagist works and their revelations concerning her association with such prominent intellectuals as Pound, Richard Aldington, D. H. Lawrence, and Sigmund Freud. In recent years, however, scholars have more fully explored H. D.'s quest to define herself as an artist and to create in her later works a female mythology based on classical sources.
Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to an academic family with ties to the Moravian and Puritan faiths. She attended Bryn Mawr College for two years, during which time she became friends with the poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. In 1907 H. D. became engaged to Ezra Pound, whom she had met at the age of fifteen. Although they did not marry, their intermittent relationship drew H. D. to London, where Pound had settled in 1908. She actively participated in the city's literary scene, associating with D. H. Lawrence, May Sinclair, W. B. Yeats, and Richard Aldington, whom she married in 1913. That same year Pound arranged for the publication of several of H. D.'s poems in Poetry magazine. Submitted under the name "H. D., Imagiste," the poems "Hermes of the Ways," "Priapus," and "Epigram" embodied Pound's concept of Imagism, which incorporated elements from classical Greek lyrics, Japanese haiku, and French symbolism. Following the appearance of these poems, which were hailed as revolutionary by reviewers, H. D. assumed a leading role in the Imagist movement. During World War I she replaced Aldington as the literary editor of the Egoist, a forum for Imagist writers, and was a major contributor to Des Imagistes: An Anthology, a collection of Imagist poetry edited by Pound and published in 1915. When Pound abandoned Imagism following the publication of this volume, H. D. and Aldington, in conjunction with Amy Lowell, led and further developed the movement, arranging the publication of three succeeding Imagist anthologies.
In 1918 H. D. separated from Aldington and began living with the novelist Winifred Ellerman, who wrote under the pseudonym Bryher. They traveled extensively after the birth of H. D.'s daughter in 1919, visiting Italy, Greece, and Egypt before settling in Switzerland. In 1933 and 1934 H. D. underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, a process that proved pivotal in her artistic development. She resolved many of her feelings concerning her bisexuality and her difficulties with writer's block. Psychoanalysis also prompted her to view her personal experiences as part of a universal pattern that linked her to women throughout the ages and to regard her poetry as the key to understanding that pattern. In 1956 she published her recollections of this period in Tribute to Freud, which Vincent Quinn characterized as essentially "a self-portrait brought into focus by her confrontation with Freud." H. D. later developed an interest in mysticism and esoteric religions, particularly those which emphasize the strength and independence of matriarchal figures. The poems she wrote during World War II while residing in Great Britain reflect these concerns. After the war she returned to Switzerland, where she wrote her third major work of fiction, Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal) (1960), a semi-autobiographical account of her life in London in the 1920s. In 1960 she became the first woman to receive the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died in 1961.
During the 1920s H. D. established herself as an important Imagist poet with the publication of the collections Hymen (1921) and Heliodora, and Other Poems (1924) and began to experiment more widely with different genres and techniques. For example, Palimpsest (1926) and Hedylus (1928), nominally considered novels though they defy easy categorization, evince H. D.'s development of her narrative voice, particularly her use of flash-backs and stream-of-consciousness monologues. H. D.'s verse, especially that collected in Sea Garden (1916), Hymen, and Heliodora, epitomized the practices of Imagism, which included the use of concrete, sensual images, common speech, concision, and the creation of new rhythms, intended to produce, according to the Imagist credo, "poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." Her poems of this era, including "Oread" and "Garden," have been widely anthologized, and the publication of her Collected Poems in 1925 inextricably linked H. D. with the Imagist movement. H. D., however, once observed: "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 direction."
H. D.'s experimentation beyond the tenets of Imagism has drawn increasing attention from critics, particularly feminist scholars. In the verse following Collected Poems, she employed increasingly complex rhymes and rhythms and ultimately rejected the predominantly visual imagery characteristic of her early work in favor of phonetic and rhythmic effects to recreate moods and objects. Her "war trilogy," which includes the volumes The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), was inspired by the realities of living in war-torn London during World War II and presents the "Goddess," or mother-symbol, as a means of transcending the horrors of war and attaining spiritual wholeness and self-realization. H. D.'s last major work, Helen in Egypt (1961), is a book-length combination of poetry and prose that embodies the philosophical and aesthetic concerns that dominated her later work. Rejecting the traditional male focus of such epics as The Iliad and The Odyssey, H. D. concentrated on Helen of Troy and her efforts as an exile in Egypt to come to terms with her past and to forge an independent self-identity. Many commentators contend that this work and those that followed the Collected Poems are her best, although a few maintain that she broadened her range at the expense of the clarity and conciseness that had been her trademark as the quintessential Imagist poet.
H. D. has been recognized as a leading figure in the movement of Imagism and an important influence on modern poetry. Yet despite her prominent position in modern letters, several feminist critics have asserted that the critical neglect of her work is due to her gender and the fact that she wrote poetry about the struggles and concerns of women. Such scholars have praised her efforts to rescue women's stories from a masculine literary tradition, her questioning of masculine definitions of women, and her challenging of established gender roles. Commentators have also lauded her exploration of her own identity as a woman and author and her attempts to redefine literary traditions with a women's voice. In recent years, there has been increasing critical attention to H. D.'s oeuvre, particularly from feminist commentators. She has earned praise for her technical achievements, her poignant portrayals of her personal struggles, and the beauty of her work. H. D. has often been referred to as "the perfect Imagist" and is viewed as one of the major poets of the twentieth century.