H. D. H(ilda). D(oolittle). (Vol. 8) - Essay

Hilda Doolittle

H(ilda). D(oolittle). (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

H(ilda). D(oolittle). 1886–1961

American poet connected with the Imagist school, H. D. wrote poetry possessing the rhythm of emotionally-charged speech. Greatly affected by the terror of the Second World War, H. D. reveals a tone of desolation in her poetry, notably the group of poems known as her "War Trilogy." (See also CLC, Vol. 3.)

The publication of The Flowering of the Rod brings to a close H. D.'s war trilogy…. "War trilogy" (the publisher's phrase) 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 of 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 (1945), 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.

              her book is our book; written
              or unwritten, its pages will reveal
              a tale of a Fisherman,
              a tale of a jar or jars.

The left side-panel, titled The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), 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 (to the Greeks, Hermes Trismegistus), 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 door stands a woman, frail and slender, wearing no bracelet or other ornament, with her scarf slipping from her head, revealing the light on her hair. ("I am Mary of Magdala, / I am Mary, a great tower; / through my will and my power, / Mary shall be myrrh.") The noble merchant with the alabaster jar is Kaspar, youngest and wisest of the Three Wise Men, transfixed in the moment of recognition, of prophetic vision, before he will present her with the jar containing "the myrrh or the spikenard, very costly." In the background he is seen again, making his earlier gift, also a jar, to the other Mary of the manger.

Much has been omitted in this simplified presentation, but enough has been given at least to suggest the materials of the poem and its psychological extensions out of the modern world into pre-history, religion, legend, and myth. "This search for historical parallels, / research into psychic affinities, / has been done to death before, / will be done again," writes H. D. in a self-critical passage. No hint of staleness or weariness, however, blemishes the page. On the contrary, the poem radiates a kind of spiritual enthusiasm. (The composition-period for two of the books is given: a fortnight apiece.) What H. D. is seeking for, what she has obviously found, is a faith: faith that "there was One / in the beginning, Creator, / Fosterer, Begetter, the Same-forever / in the papyrus-swamp, / in the Judaean meadow"; faith that even to the bitter, flawed Mary is given the gift of grace, the Genius of the jar; faith in the survival of values, however the world shakes; faith in the blossoming, the resurrection, of the half-dead tree. (pp. 204-06)

The modulations and variety of effects that H. D. achieves within [a] limited pattern are a tribute to her technical resourcefulness and to her almost infallible ear. Her primary reliance, orally, is on the breath-unit; aurally, on assonance, with an occasional admixture … of slant or imperfect rhyme….

Like Yeats, though with a different set of disciplines, founded on her Imagist beginnings, H. D. has learned how to contain the short line, to keep it from spilling over into the margins. For straight narrative or exposition she usually employs a longer, more casual line that approaches prose without becoming, in context, fuzzy or spineless…. (p. 207)

The lyric passages have, at once, purity and tension, delicacy and strength, seeming to rejoice in the uncorrupted innocence of the worshiping eye…. (p. 208)

One of H. D.'s innovations is a form of word-play that might be called associational semantics. "I know, I feel," she writes, "the meanings that words hide." She sees them as "anagrams, cryptograms, / little boxes, conditioned / to hatch butterflies." To a large extent her poem develops spontaneously out of her quest for the ultimate distillations of meaning sealed in the jars of language. ("Though the jars were sealed, / the fragrance got out somehow.") … Most of [the word-play] passages impress me as being too self-conscious, too "literary," in the bad sense, though I recognize their catalytic function.

Although the significant fusion, the mutation into a new kind of experience, a new large meaning, does not take place in the body of the poem, it would be wrong to say that this ingenious, admirably sustained, and moving work fails because it does not achieve monumentality. H. D.'s is not a monumental art. Her poem remains as precise as it is ambitious. It is like the vision seen by the Mage on the occasion of his meeting with Mary of Magdala:

       and though it was all on a very grand scale
       yet it was small and intimate.
                                         (pp. 208-09)

Stanley Kunitz, "H. D.'s War Trilogy" (originally published under a different title in Poetry, April, 1947), in his A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (© 1935, 1937, 1938, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1949, 1957, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Stanley Kunitz; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1975, pp. 204-09.

First published in 1944–45–46 in separate volumes, [Trilogy] is really one long poem in three sections, a working out of H. D.'s mystical and optimistic religious vision in the face of World War II and Freudian psychology….

Trilogy has many sections of delicate craftsmanship, where the imagist virtues of clarity, concentration and flexibility shine forth….

Trilogy is religious poetry without Yeats' "odour of blood." Written in free-verse couplets, the vers no longer seems very libre, but that's not the problem. The main problem is that there is little drama, little tension. The "essential harmony of all religions" and the compatibility of war with a good God are pretty much just given to us, not imaginatively rendered. (p. 33)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 16, 1974.

Trilogy republishes … three hermetic poems … in which destruction and the ripping open of life reveal the rebirth and renewal of spiritual life. However, the question—as with all poetry—is not what these poems are about, but what they are. The last of the three was dedicated by H. D. to Norman Holmes Pearson: he writes an introduction telling us that in these poems H. D. "made the not known known". That again isn't helpful, and has to be reduced, poetically, to how and what: "How does she make the not known known?"

Postponing the answer for a moment, one must say that experience of H. D.'s earlier (and later) poems, coupled with a general experience of the poetry of ancient wisdom (or of ancient wisdom made known in poetry) does not make one hopeful. H. D. wrote what was within her power. It would be wrong to say that she reduced verse to versicles. She wrote versicles, and then said that was the way verse should be, an hygienic, anaemic imagism, with all too little incarnation. Add to that limitation, that the esoteric uses words only because it must, reluctantly. The thought is its substance, the symbol conveys thought; and poetry can stand only so much philosophy if it is to remain poetry; and H. D. was no Yeats or Blake, no Spenser or Pontus de Tyard. She does not take possession of words, she only cuts down their number. If a poet of her kind takes to the ancient springs (though dabbling or paddling in them is safe enough), the result is likely to be the poetically dilute still further diluted; which describes Trilogy.

Each of the three poems consists of forty-three sections (4 + 3 = 7 = the Seven Planets = the Seven Planetary Angels, etc) or constituent poems, written in narrow couplets of unrhymed free verse. They are full of symbols. They are full of words and phrases adequate for a subject, but otherwise ordinary and inert—full of such lines as "So we reveal our status", "yet he was not out of place / but perfectly at home", or "we are at the crossroads, / but the tide is turning", or "here is the alchemist's key, / it unlocks secret doors", or "what new light can you possibly / throw upon them?"

In the first poem a section attacks the poetic for exactly what H. D. herself proffers, "disagreeable, inconsequent syllables … under-definitive"…. All in all, it is not that these poems are ludicrous, only that they are, as poems, colourless, tasteless, insensitive, unearthy, indefinitive, bare, and useless. They are only length and wordage.

"Maximum Dilution," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 15, 1974, p. 267.

Which phase of H. D.'s poetry one likes best is perhaps a matter of taste. All her work is of a very superior, possibly the most superior, order, transcending questions of merely technical success or failure; this much is clear. Hence one's judgment rests on intangibles and is subjective and variable. For my part her early poems have sometimes seemed too well written and too exactly conceived to be altogether convincing—since perfection of a kind does verge on preciosity—while her late poems, searching deeper into the configurations of her private spiritual and cultural vision, have seemed too specialized, though this last is surely a function of the literary epoch and not of the poems themselves: one has simply been subjected to more of these great mythological collocations than one can absorb, each with its new burden of the unknown and its straining for coherence. I have preferred her war-time poems. Now, having just reread them [in Trilogy], I feel justified in my preference, though I emphasize that it is not a point I should wish to insist on and that all her poems, when looked at from another angle of vision, undoubtedly do make a consistent progression from first to last, in spite of the gaps of time which occurred in her writing of them. (p. 308)

The three poems [The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod], written so closely after one another, written with great speed and in the heat of a particular moment of vision, make a complex but single thrust of the poet's imagination, and they are well enough integrated; if by nothing else, then by the quality of her writing. (pp. 308-09)

In short, writing under the pressure of war in London, the bombs falling around her, H. D. brought together all her powers in one marvelous synthesis: her verbal power in its superbly workable maturity, her spiritual and cognitive powers, the power of her concern for the humanity of the world. (p. 311)

Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974.

The genesis of Trilogy lies in the catalytic effect on H. D. of living in war-time London: in that sense, although the poems carry no impedimenta of that period at all in their imagery, Trilogy grows out of the threat of violence and the sense of a shared destruction, particularly with the civilisation of ancient Egypt. Her sense of living at a turning point in time led her to these meditations on the nature of the poet's role, the correspondences between Christian belief and the Egyptian pantheon, the presences of the spiritual world and the healing and unifying visions of reconciliation. She attempts to find answers, in her own symbolic terms, to the eternal questions: Where do we come from? What are we doing here? Where are we going? Her intensities move towards the unity expressed at the close of Little Gidding, where 'the fire and the rose are one.'… Technically [the first section, The Walls Do Not Fall,] is built, as the two subsequent sections are, out of a linked sequence of numbered lyrical passages. Each passage is written in unrhymed couplets or triplets and each wanders down to a final full-stop, usually its first. H. D. can handle this form with unmistakable power …, but too frequently the tensions drop, and the language falls into flat dogmatic statement or that vague abstraction of imagery which is the danger of symbolic discourse. Sword, word, cup, wheat, Lamb … such words, which seem to certain temperaments the basic vocabulary of spiritual wisdom, lose their numen if handled as counters and embodied in language itself flaccid. A further danger H. D. does not always escape is to write in the tone of the adept, the secret-sharer, the citizen of a world which issues few visas to travellers and where the poets (of her own persuasion) are the spiritual aristocracy. (pp. 40-2)

There is a kind of mandarin spirituality here which opposes itself to worlds of utility and common sense, and which hardly cares to be fair to them…. Trilogy could, at times, do with more of the H. D…. and rather less of such tricksy etymological juggling in the name of spiritual correlation as the identification of the Egyptian Amen-Ra with the Hebrew Amen.

The second section, Tribute To The Angels, combines the arcane and the simple; the arcane element derives largely from the Book of Revelation, and elaborates on John's angelology and the themes of guardianship and power. More beautiful and direct are H. D.'s own images for a world poised between death and resurrection. (pp. 42-3)

The final sequence, The Flowering of The Rod, which brings the work to reconciliation, is the strongest and most coherent. The dedication to spiritual truth is imaged in the action of Mary Magdalene in anointing Christ's feet. Her myrrh comes from Kaspar, who as Mage had brought his other jar to Bethlehem. In the interplay and resolutions of this fable comes, unlooked-for, a redemptive vision for Kaspar and an interlocking of ends and beginnings…. Trilogy grows purer and more concentrated after a rather quirky and shaky start, and there are passages of grave and fluent beauty. Perhaps the major failing is that H. D. shows little concern with changes of pitch and tone, and the lack of technical variety leads to a kind of crystalline monotone throughout.

Archibald MacLeish, writing of St-John Perse, said that '… the farther a poet lets himself go into the world of the mysterious—the farther he follows … those paths which lead by analogy, by association of ideas, by the echo of one word with another, into the undiscovered and yet ancient continent—the farther he penetrates that country, the greater becomes his need of memory and will.' Trilogy is a map of such a country, but the world discovered there is a world of silences, cut-glass, embroidery and enamelling: a world where a drink is distilled too pure to quench thirst. The roughness and intractability of life is worked in silk. Antaeus could, perhaps, have taught her more than Osiris. (pp. 43-4)

Peter Scupham, "H. D.," in Agenda, Autumn, 1974, pp. 40-4.

H. D. is one of the most elusive writers of the century, and she has in fact eluded many readers who might find pleasure in her work. Her work is scattered among a score of volumes, most of them slight. There is no Collected Poems; the volume so named dates from 1925 and most of her best work was done after that. The work itself is elusive, and the reader might easily wonder, when he has run some slim volume to earth, whether he has really caught anything. In fact he has, if he can hold it. It is tenuous but not absolutely a ghost. A living spirit, running like quicksilver among sparse verses. (p. 85)

There was no doubt a great awareness, among the more teachable in Pound's circle, of the web of interrelationship in Renaissance literature, Italian, French and English, and of their dependence on Greek and Latin originals…. This background is to be remembered in considering the work of H. D. People say 'Imagist' and they say 'Greek' when her name is mentioned. They should think also of the Renaissance—Pater's as well as Spenser's—and recall that T. E. Hulme, who was killed in 1917, had made a case for thinking that the significant work of the twentieth century would turn its back on that period. It is not to the anti-humanistic art which Hulme saw or foresaw that H. D.'s work belongs. Nor does it belong to that movement of taste which has put Donne so near the centre of our understanding of the seventeenth century and displaced the more pastoral Elizabethans, including Spenser himself. (pp. 85-6)

However harmless, or even useful, when it was first applied, the [Imagist] label has certainly served to obscure the nature of H. D.'s development. There is, even in [the] early verses, a psychological as well as an objective element. The rapidity of movement answers to a breathless apprehension of the external world….

H. D.'s early work is well illustrated—and readily accessible—in Peter Jones's Penguin, Imagist Poetry. It is evidence of the high degree of training of which her temperament made her capable. A person so fastidious as she was was no doubt glad of a formula which relieved her of the necessity of saying more than she had to say, and invited her to efface herself before appearances. (p. 86)

[Bid Me to Live, her autobiographical novel,] is certainly unusual in its kind. There is none of the fluttering and showing off of The Waves—if Virginia Woolf's book is to be included as another uncharacteristic member of the genre. There is none of the special pleading inseparable from D. H. Lawrence's recordings. Most of the book shows a quiet, almost withdrawn, observation. H. D. carries her fastidiousness into the midst of the most personal observation. There are many—all too many—books of reminiscences by women who have slept with or otherwise known writers of notoriety enough to make the reminiscences publishable. They are usually horrible, less for what they record than for the lack of perception they betray. It needs more talent to venture into a book than into a bed. One peculiarity of the H. D. book, which indeed makes it unique, is that the observer is herself a woman of original, and not merely reflected, literary talent. Her observation may be partial but it is veridical. (p. 87)

On a small scale, much of the work in Hymen has considerable formal merit. There is the imagist trick, learned long before. There is also what is perhaps best described as a sort of rhetoric, elegant enough, but which leaves the reader in the end with a sense of emptiness. (p. 88)

Pound talked of 'Hellenic hardness' in connection with H. D.'s work. There is certainly a persistent use of Greek sources, and of Greek allusions…. Behind this there was no doubt a good deal of work…. [The] impression left by much of H. D.'s earlier work is, after all, of a certain emptiness, as if not much was found in all this fumbling among Greek deities and Greek islands. The elegance of manner is often striking, and it is no small thing. But the twentieth century is not a happy time for a writer who has formal gifts but has to seek his material. So many conventions have become unusable. H. D.'s notes on Elizabethan and seventeenth-century poets, in the prose part of By Avon River, indicate where her sympathies lie. Her taste, sure in its way, veers from the more energetic poetry to the more formal celebration of beauty and death. There is, in her own work of this period, a lack of intellectual content. (pp. 88-9)

There is a marked development in depth in the later poems, in particular the (second) wartime sequence of The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod and the poems in Hermetic Definition. The long poem Helen in Egypt (1961), has its place in H. D.'s oeuvre but is less satisfactory, truth to tell, partly on account of its length. There is a surging to and fro over the legend of Helen—that she was in Egypt and that only an illusion appeared on the walls of Troy. That the confusions of H. D.'s own past are as much in her mind as the fate of Helen could not be in doubt for anyone who has read her work at all extensively. There are passages between Helen and Achilles which are certainly not free of allusion to the personal history recorded in Bid Me to Live. The successful long poem is an extreme rarity, and one can say of H. D.'s attempt that it is creditably near to a style in which a long poem could be written in the twentieth century—the long poem conceived not as having, on an impossible scale, the quickening of the lyric but the combination of sobriety and movement which carries us on in Drayton or in Golding. But H. D.'s poem, as a whole, has not quite these qualities. The impression is often of a mulling over of old worries—and old Greeks—and the sense of direction is not sustained.

The change in the character of H. D.'s later work, as compared with the earlier, may be related to her exploration of those distresses which took her to Vienna as a patient of Freud in 1933–4…. H. D.'s interest in Greece took her back to Egypt and muddling among the pattern of ancient mysteries, so obscurely known as to allow more room for fantasy than Christian theology, with its vulgar links with rationalism and the crudities of social structure. H. D. carried her interest in magic and ancient mumbo-jumbo into the world of her analyst…. [Tribute to Freud] is a masterpiece of its kind, accurate and inconclusive, the work of an observer immensely gifted and profoundly trained to record her impressions. It is a little classic in its own right, however one may rate the contribution it can offer to the understanding of H. D.'s verse.

The verse of the later period is continuously concerned with interpretation of experience by the dark help afforded by ancient cults. There is, however, much of a more overt and accessible character. (pp. 89-90)

The poems in Hermetic Definition take up a number of themes…. But the life of these poems—what makes them unique, perhaps—is the delineation, with the precision her long training allowed her, of the reflections of an old woman, still thinking of love, still with her habitual lack of restraint as to what needs to be said, and complete restraint as to what does not. (pp. 90-1)

Where does one place H. D.? It is perhaps imprudent to try to place her firmly in relation to her contemporaries. Her preoccupations, as well as the superficial severity of her verse, have kept her out of the main flow of interest. The Greek carapace may seem forbidding. But it should not be. In her essence H. D. is a slight, extremely feminine figure, whose battles are all inward, and who scarcely sought to link her thought with the public preoccupations of the age. She lived obscurely with the illusion—which is not entirely an illusion—that if the artist gets on with his art all will be well. For her this was not a personal thing, but a thing which took her, through and beyond current social necessities—as she saw it—to the permanent concerns embodied in the ancient religions, including our own. The connections she established were exploratory, not dogmatic. The point for the prospective reader is merely that H. D. offers far more than the formal virtues which are usually allowed to her work, and that that work abundantly repays the not very strenuous labour of reading it. (p. 91)

C. H. Sisson, "H. D.," in Poetry Nation (© Poetry Nation 1975), No. 4, 1975, pp. 85-91 (the full text of this essay appears in C. H. Sisson's Collected Essays, Carcanet Press, Manchester, England).