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H(ilda) D(oolittle) 1886–1961

An American poet connected with the Imagist school, H. D. wrote poetry infused with the rhythm of emotionally charged speech. She was greatly affected by the terror of the Second World War, a fact evidenced in the tone of desolation in her poetry, notably the group of poems known as her "War Trilogy." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8.)

Denise Levertov

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Like so many others, I was for years familiar only with a handful of H. D.'s early poems, "Peartree," "Orchard," "Heat," "Oread." Beautiful though they were, they did not lead me to look further, at the time. Perhaps it was that being such absolutes of their kind they seemed final, the end of some road not mine; and I was looking for doors, ways in, tunnels through.

When I came, late, to her later work, not searching but by inevitable chance, what I found was precisely doors, ways in, tunnels through. One of these later poems, "The Moon in Your Hands," says:

       If you take the moon in your hands        and turn it round        (heavy slightly tarnished platter)        you're there;

This was to find not a finality but a beginning. The poem ends with that sense of beginning…. In "Sagesse" the photograph of an owl—a White Faced Scops Owl from Sierra Leone, which is reproduced along with the poem—starts a train of thought and feeling which leads poet and reader far back into childhood, by way of word origins and word-sound associations, and back again to a present more resonant, more full of possibilities and subtle awareness, because of that journey. The interpenetration of past and present, of mundane reality and intangible reality, is typical of H. D. For me this poem (written in 1957) was an introduction to the world of the Trilogy—The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), The Flowering of the Rod (1946). (pp. 244-45)

What was it I discovered, face to face at last with the great poetry of H. D.'s maturity? What was—is—the core of the experience? I think this is it: that the icily passionate precision of the earlier work, the "Greek" vision, had not been an end, a closed achievement, but a preparation: so that all the strength built up, poem by poem, as if in the bones, in the remorseless clear light of that world … was there, there to carry darkness and mystery and the questions behind questions when she came to that darkness and those questions. She showed a way to penetrate mystery; which means, not to flood darkness with light so that darkness is destroyed, but to enter into darkness, mystery, so that it is experienced. And by darkness I don't mean evil; not evil but the Other Side, the Hiddenness before which man must shed his arrogance; Sea out of which the first creeping thing and Aphrodite emerge…. (pp. 245-46)

The "style"—or since style too often means manner, I would rather say the mode, the means—is invisible: or no, not invisible but transparent, something one both sees and sees through, like hand-blown glass of the palest smoke-color or the palest water-green. And in this transparent mode H. D. spoke of essentials. It is a simplicity not of reduction but of having gone further, further out of the circle of known light, further in toward an unknown center. Whoever wishes a particular example, let him read part VI of The Walls Do Not Fall…. (pp. 246-47)

After I had begun to know the later poems I returned to the Collected Poems of 1925 and saw them anew…. The...

(This entire section contains 838 words.)

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poems I had thought of as shadowless were full of shadows, planes, movement: correspondences with what was to come. But I, and perhaps others of my generation, could come to realize this only through a knowledge of the after-work. (p. 247)

There is no poet from whom one can learn more about precision; about the music, the play of sound, that arises miraculously out of fidelity to the truth of experience; about the possibility of the disappearance, in the crucible, of manner….

Her last book, Helen in Egypt … is (like Bid Me to Live in its different from) a world which one may enter if one will; a life-experience that gives rise to changes in the reader, small at first, but who knows how far-reaching. The alternations, in Helen, of prose and poetry are not alternations of flatness and intensity but of contrasted tone, as in a Bach cantata the vocal parts are varied by the sinfonias, and each illumines and complements the other. Bid Me to Live and Helen in Egypt are neither of them works to be idly dipped into: one must go inside and live in them, live them through.

Indeed this is true of all her work: the more one reads it, the more it yields. It is poetry both "pure" and "engaged"; attaining its purity—that is, its unassailable identity as word-music, the music of word-sounds and the rhythmic structure built of them—through its very engagement, its concern with matters of the greatest importance to everyone: the life of the soul, the interplay of psychic and material life. (p. 248)

Denise Levertov, "H. D.: An Appreciation" (originally published in Poetry, Vol. C, No. 3, June, 1962), in her The Poet in the World (copyright © 1962 by Denise Levertov Goodman; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New directions, 1973, pp. 244-48.

Vincent Quinn

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["Hermetic Definition"] is an important revelation of [H. D.'s] understanding of the life of a poet. At the start of her career in 1913, by the act of adopting the pen name "H. D.," she had separated her identity as Hilda Doolittle from her role as poet. In this poem, written almost fifty years later, she offered a "hermetic definition" of what that separation had meant….

The poem consists of three parts—"Red Rose and a Beggar," "Grove of Academe," and "Star of Day"—and each part has a pair of dates appended to its title…. [By] including these dates H. D. calls attention to the importance of time in the poem. Her real subject, in fact, is the relationship between the timeless state in which completed poems exist and particular moments in the life of the poet, especially those involved in the writing of poetry. (p. 52)

Throughout "Hermetic Definition" [a young man H. D. had met only twice] is present as both human being and symbol; in the first part his symbolic role predominates, and [in "Grove of Academe"] his reality is stressed. In addition to their ages, H. D. gives several other personal details: his remark "'You look well'" when they last met "in a strange place / with others there,"… his promise to write to her, their exchange of letters, her fear that her "Notre Dame revelation"… may have seemed bizarre to him, his failure to write again, and her conclusion that "apparently, it was over."…

In this sad, resigned state of mind, she has been reading Perse, whose perception of vast cycles of time and nature appeals to her as an alternative to the anxieties of a personal relationship. His detachment is welcomed as:

            the exact emotional opposite,           your cool laurel, the olive silver-green,           to compensate or off-set the reddest rose,           this enigmatic encounter….

Yet she cannot accept this impersonal alternative. Perse has transcended human emotion so far that even her plea to him for pardon for her "deflection" would go unheard. She sees his detachment as part of his greatness, but she cannot share in it. Her place is with ordinary humanity, fearful and pious, hoping against hope that wishes may be fulfilled…. (p. 58)

[Part Three, "Star of Day"] brings the poem to its climax with the announcement that the young man has died "in the winter, / … in the depth of night, just as my Christmas candles had burnt out."… Her reaction provides the key to the deepest meaning of the poem.

The significant fact is that she expresses no grief at all. The physical reality of the young man, which has hung in unsteady balance with his symbolic role, now almost completely vanishes. Instead of lamenting the death of a man, H. D. at once absorbs herself in the supportive implications of the myth of the Egyptian goddess Saïs, whom she associates with Isis and Notre Dame, the childbearing archetypes she has invoked throughout the poem. H. D. introduces her at this point because "They say, Saïs brought forth the Star of Day, / at midnight when the shadows are most dense, / the nights longest and most desperate."… Patterning her situation upon this myth, H. D. transforms the death of the young man at the winter solstice and Christmastide into a birth by which he has been "integrated with the Star of Day."… (pp. 58-9)

Looking back upon her relationship with him, she sees in it a sequence that is now complete. Their first meeting took place in April, they met once more in May, and he has died in December. From their first meeting to his death, nine months elapsed. This detail supports her intuition that she has given birth to a spiritual child in what appears to be the death of a man. Like Saïs, Isis, and Notre Dame, she has played the role of mother….

As a consequence of their nine-month relationship, H. D. has written a poem resurrecting the young man in art; he now has a "life" in poetry. The stages of this "childbearing" are charted in some detail. H. D. says that when in August she became aware of her "'condition,' / you were five months 'on the way'."… It is now clear that the statement "the reddest rose unfolds," which is repeated throughout Part One, refers to the swelling caused by the growth of the poem within her. (p. 59)

She now understands Part Two, "Grove of Academe," in the context of her "pregnancy." Meeting Perse had strengthened her commitment to art. Momentarily, as we have seen, she was attracted to his poetic world of "transhumance," his "iles de promesse," but she had recognized the error of following a way "not mine but another's."… (pp. 59-60)

Having created a poem which transforms a death into a birth, H. D. feels that her role as artist-mother has been completed. Her potentiality has been realized, and she is ready for her own death. She has met the responsibility of her "condition"; through art she has shared in the life-giving power of Isis and Notre Dame. The "hermetic definition" of her nature has been found and realized in the poem, which ends with a reference both to herself and to the young man whose fate became entwined poetically with her own….

The process of transforming life into art is, then, the "hermetic definition" of the artist. The metamorphosis of Hilda Doolittle into the poet H. D. is paralleled by the metamorphosis of the events in H. D.'s life into the material of art. (p. 60)

Essentially, the poem is not about the young man. Regardless of his physical reality, his main function here is to be a figure of speech for the process of writing a poem. H. D. has succeeded in using the apparent subject of her poem to represent the stages she went through in writing it. The young man's first appearance germinates the creative impulse: the mysterious conception of a poem within the poet. The completion of the poem is the Poet's delivery of her child, noted explicitly by H. D. as occurring nine months after they met. Ironically, this poem is born in the old age of its poet mother at the same time as the death of the "father" who inspired it. This concurrence shows both the kinship of art to the process of natural creation and its separateness from nature's ordinary time-cycle. (pp. 60-1)

H. D. wrote this poem at the close of her career; she died the year the poem was completed. Nearing the end of her life, she was perhaps better able to understand and accept the paradox of art. She knew that the artist is a creator (the word "mother" is her recurrent image), but she also knew that art is totally independent of the life that bears it. The self-sacrifice demanded of the poet might be too painful to choose, if a choice were given, but her deepest perception is that there is no choice. To those born to be poets, writing is the only condition on which they can live at all…. (p. 61)

Vincent Quinn, "H. D.'s 'Hermetic Definition': The Poet As Archetypal Mother," in Contemporary Literature (© 1977 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 51-61.

Margaret Newlin

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How to satisfy the needs of both woman and poet without betraying either is the major theme of [H. D.'s] work and must surely have been the cause of her breakdown as well. Over and over she expresses the struggle between her longing for love and her equally great desire for freedom and solitude. (p. 223)

Margaret Newlin, "'Unhelpful Hymen!': Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, July, 1977, pp. 216-30.∗

Susan Gubar

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One of H. D.'s most coherent and ambitious poetic narratives, her war Trilogy, explores the reasons for her lifelong fascination with the palimpsest…. H. D. presents herself as an outsider who must express her views from a consciously female perspective, telling the truth, as [Emily] Dickinson would say, "slant." Inheriting uncomfortable male-defined images of women and of history, H. D. responds with palimpsestic or encoded revisions of male myths. Thus …, she discovers behind the recalcitrant and threatening signs of her times a hidden meaning that sustains her quest by furnishing stories of female strength and survival. In the Trilogy, through recurrent references to secret languages, codes, dialects, hieroglyphs, foreign idioms, fossilized traces, mysterious signs, and indecipherable signets, H. D. illustrates how patriarchal culture can be subverted by the woman who dares to "re-invoke, recreate" what has been "scattered in the shards / men tread upon."

While there is never any question for H. D. that she can avoid reinvoking or re-creating, such a posture implies that she never expects to find or make a language of her own. It is significant, I think, that H. D. sees in her famous vision at Corfu a tripod, symbol of "prophetic utterance or occult or hidden knowledge; the Priestess or Pythoness of Delphi sat on the tripod while she pronounced her verse couplets, the famous Delphic utterances which it was said could be read two ways" [italics mine]. Throughout her career, H. D. wrote couplets which have been read only one way. Placed in exclusively male contexts, the poetry of Freud's analysand, Pound's girlfriend, and D. H. Lawrence's Isis has been viewed from the monolithic perspective of the twentieth-century trinity of psychoanalysis, imagism, and modernism. While none of these contexts can be discounted, each is profoundly affected by H. D.'s sense of herself as a woman writing about female confinement, specifically the woman writer's struggle against entrapment within male literary conventions. Furthermore, the fact that H. D. wrote her verse so it could be read two ways demonstrates her ambivalence over self-expression: she hides her private meaning behind public words in a juggling act that tells us a great deal about the anxieties of many women poets. Reticence and resistance characterize H. D.'s revisions in the Trilogy, where we can trace her contradictory attitudes toward communication: in The Walls Do Not Fall, H. D. demonstrates the need for imagistic and lexical redefinition, an activity closely associated with the recovery of female myths, specifically the story of Isis; in Tribute to the Angels, she actually begins transforming certain words, even as she revises apocalyptic myth; finally, H. D. translates the story of the New Testament in The Flowering of the Rod, feminizing a male mythology as she celebrates the female or "feminine" Word made flesh. (pp. 197-99)

The title of the first volume, The Walls Do Not Fall, reveals the primacy of spatial imagery in H. D.'s analysis of a splintered world where "there are no doors" and "the fallen roof / leaves the sealed room / open to the air."… All of civilized history has failed to create forms that can protect or nurture the inhabitants of this wasteland, and the "Apocryphal fire" threatens even the skeleton which has incomprehensibly survived. The poet is especially vulnerable in a world that worships coercion, for the sword takes precedence over the word. (p. 199)

It is only in the context of her psychological and physical dispossession that H. D.'s famous poem about the spell of the seashell can be fully understood. In her first attempt to "recover the Sceptre, / the rod of power" associated with the healing powers of Caduceus …, H. D. portrays herself in the image of the "master-mason" or "craftsman" mollusk within the seashell…. Hidden and therefore safe, the mollusk is protected in precisely the way the poet craves asylum: neither fully alive nor fully dead, half in and half out, the mollusk in its shell becomes for H. D. a tantalizing image of the self or soul safely ensconced within the person or body, always and anywhere at home.

But the fascination goes much further because the "flabby, amorphous" mollusk not only protects itself with such impenetrable material as "bone, stone, marble" but also transforms living substance into formal object, and thereby mysteriously creates the beautiful circular patterns of its house and also the perfectly spherical pearl. Shells are associated traditionally with art because the shell is a musical instrument expressing the rhythm of the waves…. (p. 200)

The self-enclosed, nonreferential completeness of pearl and shell recalls H. D.'s own earlier imagistic poems, but the limits of imagism are what emerge most emphatically since the mollusk can only combat the hostile powers of the sea by snapping shut "shell-jaws."…. H. D. has spoken of the power of her verse to "snap-shut neatly," and the analogy implies that these tidy, enclosed poems may be unable to communicate or unwilling even to admit a content. Imprisoned within what amounts to a beautiful but inescapable tomb of form, the mollusk will not be cracked open or digested, but instead remains "small, static, limited," just as H. D.'s early poems refuse any interaction with the external world when they reproduce images that seem shaped by a poet rigidly and self-consciously in control of herself and her material. Far from representing the ultimate statement of her poetics, the seashell poem is a very limited statement, altered and superseded by transformations of this image as the Trilogy progresses.

While H. D. discusses her craft in terms of the crafsman mollusk, clearly she was drawn to the shell and pearl because of their feminine evocations. Associated iconographically with Venus and the Virgin, the shell is also said to represent the female genitals. It may represent pregnancy, since the pearl is a kind of seed in the womb of the shellfish, or a hope of rebirth, as in the traditionally termed "resurrection shells."… H. D. was careful to elaborate on these aspects of her initial self-portrait in succeeding images of female artistry. But as the poet progresses in her identification with overtly feminine forms of creation, shells become associated with "beautiful … yet static, empty // old thought, old convention" … as she draws her old self around after her like a "dead shell."… She wants not a shell into which she can withdraw but, on the contrary, an escape from entrapment…. The locked-in image of female sexuality and creativity provided by male culture, complete with its emphasis on purity and impenetrability, is finally a "jar too circumscribed,"… and the poet renounces "fixed indigestible matter / such as shell, pearl, imagery // done to death" … in her attempt to forge more liberating and nourishing images of survival.

In her next attempt to recover the scepter of power that is Caduceus, H. D. wittily decides not to become the rod itself, which is transformed into an innocent blade of grass, but the snake/worm which travels up the rod in a circuitous spiral toward heaven. (pp. 201-02)

It is significant that Denise Levertov centers her discussion of H. D.'s poetry on [the sequence of worm poems in The Walls Do Not Fall, see excerpt above], voicing her appreciation for poetry which provides "doors, ways in, tunnels through." (p. 203)

Of course, women from the Fates to Madame Defarge have traditionally been associated with the spinning of fate, the weaving of webs, the ensnaring of men with serpentine allies or embodiments. But H. D. and Levertov reinvent the Lamia-Eve, testimony to modern defilement of Isis, in the innocuous form of the lowly worm who recalls the speaker of Psalm 22: after crying out, "I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people," the petitioner in the Psalm asks that the God "who took me out of the womb" provide a loving substitute for that loss. Both H. D. and Levertov emphasize the ways in which the worm, like the woman, has been despised by a culture that cannot stop to appreciate an artistry based not on elucidation or appropriation but on homage and wonder at the hidden darkness, the mystery. Both emphasize the worm's ability to provide another womb for its own death and resurrection. With visionary realism, both insist that the only paradise worth seeing exists not behind or beyond but within the dust. While "the keepers of the secret, / the carriers, the spinners" of such "Earth Psalms" are surely men as well as women, they are all associated with traditionally female arts of weaving, with uniquely female powers of reproducing life, and with a pre-Christian tradition that embraces gods (like Ra, Osiris, Amen) who are "not at all like Jehovah."… (pp. 203-04)

The "other side, the Hiddenness" which H. D. and Levertov seek to penetrate consists precisely of those experiences unique to women which have been denied a place in our publicly acknowledged culture, specifically the experiences of female sexuality and motherhood. (p. 204)

[The need for self-transformation leads to] H. D.'s confusion when she feels ready "to begin a new spiral"… but finds herself thrown back on outworn vocabularies and the terrible feeling that she has failed to achieve metamorphosis….

Perhaps she has failed because she has tried to evoke Ra, Osiris, Amen, Christ, God, All-father and the Holy Ghost, all the while knowing that she is an "initiate of the secret wisdom, / bride of the kingdom."… Specifically, she recalls now that the spinners who keep the secret that links humanity to the ancient wisdom are aspects of the female goddess, Isis. She must remain true to her own perspective…. (p. 205)

Seeking the "one-truth," to become as wise as "scorpions, as serpents,"… H. D. can now read her own personal psychic map to find the external realities…. [The stars toward which the worm moves in its slow spiral toward the sky] contain a promise of revelation not very different from shells and cocoons, which can also disclose secret treasures. Modern words, too, may reveal hidden meanings, thereby relinquishing their alien impenetrability, if the poet can somehow perceive their coded, palimpsestic status…. H. D. learns how to decipher what that other H. D.—Humpty Dumpty—called "portmanteaus," words which open up like a bag or a book into compartments. By means of lexical reconstruction, she begins to see the possibility of purging language of its destructive associations and arbitrariness. Viewing each word as a puzzle ready to be solved and thereby freed not only of modernity but also of contingency, H. D. begins to hope that she can discover secret, coded messages. Surely these must be subversive to warrant their being so cunningly concealed by her culture. (pp. 205-06)

Although the walls still do not fall, continuing to testify to the divisions and barriers between people, between historical periods, within consciousness itself, they also preserve remnants of written messages—anagrams and cryptograms—which, by providing the link from the present back to the past, allow H. D. to evade the destructive definitions of reality provided by those who utilize the word for modern mastery.

The poet's response in the subsequent volumes of the Trilogy to the shattered fragmentation of her world is stated in the first poem of Tribute to the Angels: dedicating herself to Hermes Trismegistus, patron of alchemists, H. D. undertakes not merely the archeological reconstruction of a lost past, but also a magical transfiguration not unlike Christ's creation of the sustaining loaves and fishes or the transubstantiation of bread and water into body and blood. Since alchemical art has traditionally been associated with fiery purification that resurrects what is decomposing in the grave into a divine and golden form, even the destructive lightning and bombs can now be associated with melting that fuses a new unity, heat that transforms the contents of the dross in the alchemist's bowl into the philosopher's stone. The seashell of The Walls Do Not Fall becomes a testimony to such displacement, reappearing as a bowl which is cauldron, grave, and oven, yet another womb in which a new jewel can be created. Now the poet sees the function of the poem/bowl as the transformative redefinition of language itself…. Seeking a noncoercive vocabulary, a new language that will consecrate what has been desecrated by her culture, H. D. tries to re-establish the primacy of what masculine culture has relegated to a secondary place as "feminine." (pp. 207-08)

The miraculous transformation in the alchemical bowl and the equally mysterious flowering of the rod find their culmination in [a] revelation of the muse who is not only the veiled goddess, Persephone, the Sanctus Spiritus, Santa Sophia, Venice, Isis, and Mary, but most importantly the female spirit liberated from precisely these mystifications…. (p. 209)

As she evokes and thereby reinterprets the inherited signs of her culture which are said to contain the secret wisdom necessary for the attainment of paradise, H. D. implies that "the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). It is life that she sees finally created in the crucible "when the jewel / melts" and what we find is "a cluster of garden-pinks / or a face like a Christmas-rose."… In the final book of the Trilogy, the escaping fragrance of such flowering within the pristine glass of a jar represents the poet's success in finding a form that can contain without confining. No longer surrounded by splintered shards, H. D. makes of her jars symbols of aesthetic shape not unlike those of Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, beautiful and complete objects but also transparencies through which a healing content is made manifest. Purified of their opacity, shell, bowl, and box are now ready to reveal their previously secret and therefore inaccessible hoard. This promise of release is realized fully in The Flowering of the Rod: dedicated to the Lady who has escaped conventionally defined categories, the poet readies herself for flight as she asks us to "leave the smouldering cities below,"… the place of deathly skulls, to follow the quest of Christ, who was "the first to wing / from that sad Tree" … and whose journey is similar to that of the snow-geese circling the Arctic or the mythical migratory flocks seeking paradise.

Not only does H. D. move further back in time in this third volume of the Trilogy, but her initial focus on seemingly insignificant animals and her subsequent naming of angelic powers seem to have made it possible for her to finally create human characters as she retells the story of the birth and death of Christ from the unexpected perspective of two participants in the gospel—Kaspar the Magian and Mary Magdala. Furthermore, after two sequences of poems progressing by allusive associations, complex networks of imagery, and repetitive, almost liturgical invocations, the final book of the Trilogy embodies the emergence of the poet's sustained voice in a story—if not of her own making—of her own perspective. She takes an unusual stance toward the ancient story to distinguish her vision: claiming to see "what men say is-not," to remember what men have forgot …, she sets out to testify to an event known by everyone but as yet unrecorded…. (pp. 210-11)

Like Christ, who was himself "an outcast and a vagabond,"… and like the poet who is identified with the thief crucified by His side, both Kaspar and Mary are aliens in their society. (p. 211)

Only after we have recognized the seemingly antithetical wise man and the whore as common representatives of reverence for the ancient principles of female fertility and creativity does H. D. … fully describe the vision granted to Kaspar through the intervention of Mary. Here, at the climax of the Trilogy, Kaspar recalls the poet's experience with the Lady, for he is graced with a remembrance of "when he saw the light on her hair / like moonlight on a lost river."… In a fleck or a flaw of a jewel on the head of one of three crowned ladies, Kaspar discovers "the whole secret of the mystery."… He sees the circles of islands and the lost center island, Atlantis; he sees earth before Adam, Paradise before Eve. Finally, he hears a spell in an unknown language which seems to come down from prehistorical times as it translates itself to him:

                Lilith born before Eve                 and one born before Lilith,                 and Eve; we three are forgiven,                 we are three of the seven                 daemons cast out of her….

This is an extremely enigmatic message, but it does seem to imply that a matriarchal genealogy had been erased from recorded history when this ancient female trinity was exorcized as evil, cast out of human consciousness by those who would begin in the Garden with Eve. Since Lilith is a woman who dared pronounce the Ineffable Name and who was unabashed at articulating her sexual preferences, her presence among the crowned or crucified queens seems to promise a prelapsarian vision quite different from that of Genesis: Lilith, Eve, and the unnamed daemon are three of the seven who establish a link back to Kaspar's pagan daemons; together they promise a submerged but now recoverable time of female strength, female speech, and female sexuality, all of which have mysteriously managed to survive, although in radically subdued ways, incarnate in the body of Mary Magdala. As a healer, a shaman of sorts, Kaspar has in a sense recaptured Mary's stolen soul, her lost ancestors; he has established the matriarchal genealogy that confers divinity upon her.

Reading Mary like a palimpsest, Kaspar has fully penetrated the secret of the mystery. H. D. then reverses the chronology of his life, moving backward from his confrontation with this Mary over the jars of myrrh to his delivery of the gift of myrrh to the Virgin Mary. (pp. 211-13)

Dramatically ending at the beginning, moving from Apocalypse to Genesis, from death to birth, from history to mystery, H. D. illustrates the cyclical renewal she personally seeks of dying into life. Calling our attention to her own narrative principles, H. D. proclaims: "I have gone forward. / I have gone backward."… [Her] point is precisely the need of going backward in time to recover what has been lost in the past, for this justifies her own progress backward in chronological time throughout the Trilogy: proceeding from the modern times of London in The Walls Do Not Fall to the medieval cities of Tribute to the Angels and back to the ancient deserts of Israel in The Flowering of the Rod, she dedicates herself to finding the half-erased traces of a time "When in the company of the gods / I loved and was loved."… Such a discovery, as we have seen, involves not a learning but a remembering. However, instead of moving backward in a linear, sequential manner, she chooses three time bands that seem to be relatively self-contained, like ever-narrowing circles enclosing some still point of origin. Furthermore, she calls our attention to the disconnectedness of her three time spheres by isolating each within a book of the Trilogy. These three distinct periods in time, when taken in themselves, are senseless and directionless, each repeating the other…. (p. 213)

The poet who understands the palimpsestic symbols of the past in today's imagery can interpret the "mysterious enigma" that merges "the distant future / with most distant antiquity."… Similarly, seeing down the "deep, deep-well // of the so-far unknown / depth of pre-history," Kaspar realizes "a point in time—// he called it a fleck or a flaw in a gem" on a circlet of gems on a lady's head…. Since historical time is envisioned as a series of circles enclosing a prehistoric center, H. D. can describe how Kaspar heard "an echo of an echo in a shell,"… a language he had never heard spoken and which seems translated "as it transmuted its message // through spiral upon spiral of the shell / or memory that yet connects us // with the drowned cities of pre-history."… (p. 214)

In Tribute to Freud, H. D. returns to the image of the echoing shell when she describes how her unspoken expressions of gratitude go on singing

like an echo of an echo in a shell—very far away yet very near—the very shell substance of my outer ear and the curled involuted or convoluted shell skull, and inside the skull, the curled, intricate, hermit-like mollusk, the brain-matter itself.

Clearly the spiraling echoes of the shell are a way of recognizing the intimate yet convoluted relationship between a central origin and its distant reaches. (pp. 214-15)

Echo, we should remember, was punished for her only "failing," her fondness for talk, by being deprived of the power of speaking first. In this respect, she serves as a paradigm of the secondary status of women who have traditionally been reduced to supporting, assuaging, serving, and thereby echoing the work, wishes, and words of men. Specifically, she serves as a model for H. D.'s sense of her own belatedness as she repeats the warped words she experiences as prior authorities on her own spiritual and psychic experiences. Echo does manage, however, to express her desires, even as she mocks the speech of those she mimics. Like Echo, H. D. felt cursed because she was denied control over her own speech, destined to repeat the language of another's making, and therefore hidden, if not obliterated, from her own creations. However, just as Echo manages to express her desires, even making sexual advances by dropping certain words and altering her inflection, H. D. manages to get her secrets sung, making of her echoes a personal response to the literary and linguistic conventions she inherits. Moreover, as a symbol of retreat from the danger of meaning into protective obscurity, the echoing shell is an understandably attractive image for H. D., who can define her art as "merely" derivative. Using the language of another's creation is, after all, a foolproof defense against being defined by one's verse and thereby confined within the prisonhouse of language. H. D.'s story is always "different yet the same as before,"… and therefore "only" a repetition. Herein lies both the strength and the weakness of her art, as well as the reason why the echo is yet another infinitely decipherable (and therefore indecipherable) palimpsest.

Whether derivative or transmuted sound, however, the spiraling echo of the shell makes all of the enclosures of the first two poems comprehensible as metamorphoses of the circle. The shell with its spherical pearl, the bowl containing the gold, the boxes hatching butterflies, even the jars are circles surrounding a magical potent center…. The poet seeks this center because it can serve as an escape from the repetitions of history and because it is an entrance to creative stasis. Such a center is neither temporally nor spatially bound: its potential for unfolding gains it extension in space as detemporalizes the present into an emblem of both the past and the future. (pp. 215-16)

Participating in a mystical literary tradition that extends from Dante to Roethke, H. D. evokes the unbroken, unfolding circle to satisfy her longing to "equilibrate"… the antagonisms between desert and arctic, spring and winter, silence and sound, to heal the struggle between father and mother, thereby establishing a harmony dramatized by the recognition of commonality between Kaspar and Mary Magdala and by the image of the androgynous center of the flower. Seeking to be drawn into the center, H. D. finds in resurrection "a sense of direction" taking her "straight to the horde and plunder, / the treasure, the store-room, // the honeycomb" to "food, shelter, fragrance."… While H. D. never denies the place of men in such an origin, she does end the Trilogy with an emphasis on the feminine that extends Kaspar's consciousness of prelapsarian time as a time of woman worship: she celebrates the baby or myrrh cradled in the arms of a woman whose sex is represented as a circle on a stem ♀—the sacred ankh which is the symbol of life in Egypt. The medieval definition of God as the sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere has been radically feminized by a writer who sees the outstretched wings of the butterfly or the beauty of the "lunar rainbow" … as alternative examples of the "arc of perfection."… Here again H. D. serves as a paradigm for other women writers…. (p. 217)

H. D. would not and does not deprive the center of its inaccessible mystery or the circumference of its distance from origin. On the contrary, as one of Jung's precursors, she testifies to the continued need for approaching the center, for retelling and rewriting and adding to a palimpsest even as she realizes that such an approach is a regression, and that—as the word "re-cover" implies—she hides what she seeks to reveal. Denise Levertov celebrates just this reverence for the unknowable in H. D.'s poetry when she explains that H. D. went "further, further out of the circle of known light, further in toward an unknown center." This center is the secret; for example, the final transaction between Kaspar and Mary Magdala which is never represented in the Trilogy or even adequately explained. If in some ways Kaspar the Magian was right that "no secret was safe with a woman,"… he nevertheless failed to realize that the woman who models her speech on that of Echo or Sibyl, or (less hopefully) Cassandra or Philomel, would be telling a secret that retains the power of its hidden mystery. Singing a spell which conforms to none of the words she had ever heard spoken, H. D. reveals the ways in which one woman mythologizes herself and her gender, asserting herself as the center of the universe in a radical reversal and revision of the inherited images she so brilliantly echoes. (pp. 217-18)

Susan Gubar, "The Echoing Spell of H. D.'s 'Trilogy'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1978 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 196-218.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2957

In her life's work, H. D. returned constantly to a pattern of personal relations that she found perplexing and felt to be damaging to herself and other women: thralldom to males in romantic and spiritual love. In her later writing, she invented a number of strategies to transform this culturally mandated and seductive pattern of male-female relations. Romantic thralldom is a feature of many literary plots because of conventions surrounding love and marriage, quest and vocation, hero and heroine. These conventions could be termed "Scripts" for both literary plots and personal relations. In order to transform these psychocultural scripts, H. D. had to invent in her works patterns for male-female relationships less damaging than, but … as satisfying as those she and other women had experienced.

Romantic thralldom is an all-encompassing, totally defining love between unequals…. Viewed from a critical, feminist perspective, the sense of completion or transformation that often accompanies thralldom in love has the high price of obliteration and paralysis, for the entranced self is entirely defined by another. (pp. 178-79)

Female thralldom occurs with startling, even dismal frequency throughout H. D.'s published and unpublished works. In particular, H. D. was vulnerable to the power of what she termed the "héros fatal," a man whom she saw as her spiritual similar, an artist, a healer, a psychic. Again and again this figure that she conspired to create betrayed her; again and again she was reduced to fragments from which her identity had once more to be painfully reconstructed. She states, for instance, that one famous "Héros"—D. H. Lawrence—"conditioned me to deception, loss, destruction," and that another, "Lord Howell," "was the perfected Image" of this former lover. Though H. D. lived for many years as the companion of Winifred Bryher, her work returned obsessively to the "héros" figure and to the damage she suffered in her relations with him. Whatever personal and sexual arrangements she made could not obliterate the culturally reinforced plot of thralldom. She had to remake this psychocultural pattern in her writing in order fully to break with it.

The impact of sexual subordination on H. D. as woman and artist can be seen in two autobiographical novel-memoirs written about her early adulthood: the unpublished Her (c. 1927), an ungainly but interesting work which justifies H. D.'s decision not to marry Pound, and the more serious and desperate Bid Me to Live (1960), a roman à clef about the London Bohemian set during the First World War. In tandem, these works describe the situation of a woman of artistic leanings and achievements within a male-dominated society in the early part of this century. In every role in which she is cast, the woman is unsatisfied and tormented: as courtesan, as deceived wife, as muse, as consort. She is prevented from claiming the end to that torment: equality. (pp. 179-80)

[Her] concerns a classic dilemma for woman: the necessity to choose between being a muse for another and being an artist oneself…. The heroine's authentic identity, indicated in the image of a tree which recurs throughout the novel, and … in the contrast between austere Greek and sensual Roman pantheons, is mirrored and intensified by Her's relationship with Fayne. Fayne represents self-love, self-identification, and a twinship between spiritual sisters. Through Fayne, Her makes contact with herself and her vision. Instead of being George's muse, she takes Fayne as her inspiration.

The name "Her" has a particular meaning bound up with the image of Fayne. Whenever H. D. writes "Her realizes" or "Her says," she is using the wrong form of the pronoun in subject place; and every time this ungrammatical usage occurs, one is jarred into a recognition of the situation of generic woman. Though "Her" is the object form, the very ungainly quality of the name used as the subject of a verb ("Her does," "Her realizes") suggests that we are in the presence of some resistant, stubborn matter which will not be captured. The contradictory features of this striking nickname are brought into focus and then resolved as Her strokes Fayne's forehead with "healing hands" and says, "I will not have her hurt. I will not have Her hurt. She is Her. I am Her. Her is Fayne. Fayne is Her. I will not let them hurt HER." By identifying with another wounded woman, the heroine perceives her own hurt and her own capacity for self-protection. The heroine must love herself through another woman as a sign of selfhood. However, the novel does not deal directly with the alternative loves which are so clearly delineated within it. In any case, thralldom to males has been only temporarily rejected. Her is a first skirmish in the almost endless battle of H. D.'s psychic life.

At the end of her life, H. D. returned to this formative World War I period in her novel Bid Me to Live. The title epigram, from Herrick, wittily presents the life of the emotions as a playful religion of love:

                 Bid me to live, and I will live                    Thy Protestant to be:                  Or bid me love, and I will give                    A loving heart to thee….

The poem refers to the time in a relationship when adoration is mutual and commands are not burdensome. The novel explores the attempt by Julia and Rafe Ashton to sustain such a "blithe arrangement." But equal comradeship and romantic love appear to be contradictory states. The circumstances faced by the couple—the war, the birth of a dead child—make it difficult, even impossible, to sustain equality and interdependence. She becomes vulnerable, neurasthenic, needy; he is bluff, willful, callous. They fall into stereotypic behavior, their needs at cross-purposes. Therefore the woman in Bid Me to Live feels completely inadequate—a sexual failure and a professional anomaly within the group of male artists that surrounds her. (pp. 180-82)

In Julia's encounters with Rico and Rafe, we confront the unedifying spectacle of male poets compelling a female poet to curtail her ambition, to dissolve the complete world she strove for, to concentrate on the item, not on the oeuvre…. Bid Me to Live shows male poets limiting the shape and force of a woman's material by using sexual and personal acceptance as a weapon. Julia's response reveals the internalization and acceptance of these demands, which diminished her ambition and limited or negated her power. The issue is larger than the relationship of these three writers. The encounter raises the question whether male writers, in complicity with prescribed roles for women, have helped create poetesses where there could have been poets. This is the issue underlying the censorship with which H. D. grappled. The stakes were poetic achievement itself. Thralldom to male power had to be attacked; yet it was the most difficult thing to attack. For the pain of thralldom seemed to fire H. D.'s creativity even as it undercut the conditions necessary for her fullest, uncensored flowering.

While resistance is one solution to thralldom, H. D. also tries to articulate a creative and psychic power transcending the claims of romantic love. (pp. 185-86)

H. D. was trying to construct some perspective that avoided the constant subordination of the woman to the man in normal sexual and cultural life. In her view, men and women are equals in the spiritual realm, not seeking the distinctions of fixed sex roles, but rather a mutual suffusion of insight and wisdom. (p. 187)

H. D.'s profound psychic damage from sexual and spiritual thralldom continued to torment her. The kinds of rejections she suffered were coupled in her mind with the First World War as linked aspects of that destructive force which shattered the possibility of a cultural life. Yet the themes of the first war recurred to be resolved during World War II, which H. D. spent, by choice, in the London of the Blitz. In her inner patterning of these events, the first war was death, and the second was rebirth. The long-awaited consummation of her poetic force did occur; the evidence can be seen in the brilliance of Trilogy, for its symbols of resurrection, its vision of a new city, and its invention of the role of Mary Magdalene constitute the materials of a psychic and cultural reconstruction. At the same time, however, H. D. returned to the forms of sexual polarization and entrapment represented by the thralldom of women to men. (p. 188)

The strategy of outright resistance and confrontation of male by female forces is not paramount in H. D.'s poetry. The transposition of conflicts to a spiritual area beyond conflict … sometimes makes H. D. lose contact with her materials. I surmise that these exits from the script of thralldom do not wholly succeed for H. D., although the transposition of conflicts into a spiritual area of unification remains an important end in her writing. The first option represents conflict and defiance, the second represents sheer resolution, unity by the suppression of conflict. Only in the final solution to romantic thralldom—what I term the sufficient family—do both conflict and resolution exist in a complex and nuanced balance, with a full account both of the engendering conflict and of the transpositions that create resolution. This solution, paramount in Helen in Egypt, builds a new structure of relationships to substitute for thralldom. (pp. 189-90)

H. D. wrote this poem in the aftermath of strong spiritual and psychic attraction to men on whom she had depended for some kind of self-justification. She suffered rejection; her response is the poem. But although the poem was provoked by rejection, within it the pattern of thralldom is broken: the same needs are met by different relationships, and nurturance and vision are achieved without sexual or spiritual damage from men.

Helen in Egypt is engaged with one particular literary "order of reality," a prominent myth of Western culture. H. D. has not precisely displaced the Iliad or the story of the war following an abduction; that tale is taken for granted as the plot that precedes this new alignment of characters and actions. But criticism of the epic realm is present, if indirect. Before the poem begins, H. D. has replaced the sexually centered woman and her bellicose lover with two liminal figures, wavering between worlds of fragmentation and wholeness: Achilles, the vulnerable "New Mortal," and an incubating psyche, still in chrysalis but nonetheless fully winged (Helen-Thetis). H. D. chooses her characters not because of their capacity for sensual love or savage war but because of their visionary ability to crystallize the dissolved or latent meanings hidden in the former story. The characters act as catalyzing precipitants of nonepic material already "dissolved" in culture. By postulating that another shape to traditional stories occurs necessarily, H. D. mutes the critique she is making. In her view, stories are not created but recovered; they are not new-made but really old. Helen in Egypt is the archeological site where those recovered stories are found…. H. D., like other women writers, had difficulty establishing an authority sufficient to remake a culturally sanctioned story. So the story is "the same"—the old legend—when she felt her own authority most weakly, and "different"—the "flame of thoughts"—when she could plumb the depths of her desire for critique and transformation. (pp. 191-93)

The form of Helen in Egypt also dramatizes the question of the poet's authority to remake this story, and that question becomes part of the strain of remaking it. There are prose passages preceding every poem which summarize the contents of that section. This is helpful, because the material is difficult and obscure. But the prose also has the effect of making the events seem more elusive, challenging both their place in time and their reality. Sometimes the prose passages make a statement implying that something has happened, while the poetry which comes later poses the same fact as a question. After having read the two statements, the reader is unsure whether or not something has occurred. While generally the prose and poetry are simple retellings of the same events, at other points a degree of difference is emphasized: the event is first present, then absent or obscured.

The poem concerns the parallel quests of Helen and Achilles which are not journeys to each other, but quests for access to the unifying mother. Helen's quest is emphasized, but both have found Thetis at the end; this is what finally unites them. (p. 193)

[All] the males in Helen in Egypt—Achilles, Paris, and Theseus (the figure of Freud)—have begun to form a postheroic personality, and all give Helen permission to make her quest, which must include understanding herself as a post-romantic woman. The granting of permission by all three males is a female fantasy, based on extraordinary need for male approval and fear of male judgment. All the male characters know of and approve of her desire for reintegration within Thetis, the mother: all instruct her in one way or another to "call on Thetis."… Yet they want different Helens. She must avoid the polarized roles which the two lovers give her while at the same time retaining their approval…. [Her] multiple identities indicate her own lack of inner integration. This dilemma is solved when she transcends these opposites through the healing mediation of Theseus in Part II, who "reparents" her, acting as both mother and father and healing the divisions found in the traditional nuclear family. She becomes Helen-Thetis in Part III, uniting Troy and Greece and uniting her own torn consciousness in love and death.

Making Achilles and Helen into fellow questers is the first move in H. D.'s strategy for breaking the script of romantic thralldom. The lover and woman are imagined as brother-sister questers, so that totally spiritual, not sexual, forces define the relationship. The quests of Helen and Achilles are finally not journeys toward love for each other, but a single quest to identify the source: the mother. Further, Helen avoids a replay of the drama of sexual thralldom by asking Paris, too, to join her on a brother-sister quest. Paris then emerges as Helen's child by Achilles; for the lover, displaced from dominance in the plot of thralldom, can return in the role of a child. (pp. 195-96)

The "child-mother, yourself" is a way of moving beyond both war and romantic love, beyond the strains of the heroic and romantic scripts. Helen is both the Great Mother, avatar of Thetis, and the baby in her mother's arms. "Helen in Hellas forever" is the climactic, reverberating phrase which suggests an ongoing exchange of force in the closed circuit of mother-child-mother…. This closure solves for H. D. the needs and themes of her major work—the needs for undamaging nurturance and undamaging powers. Helen is the complete family represented by the petals of the nenuphar, but most particularly she is "the child in the father, / the child in the mother," the child-mother herself….

By this set of solutions, H. D. was attempting to end her submission to male power, constructing from available male and female roles, especially from parent and child roles, some set of relationships that would be less emotionally damaging to her as a woman than those she had actually experienced with men. To do this she creates a female quest whose final answer is the central revelation of mother and child, flanked by father and brother; "the thousand-petalled lily" contains and presents all the relations of the sufficient family…. (p. 201)

Through the superficially bizarre connections among her characters, H. D. constructed an answer to thralldom to male power, inventing relationships that would make specific kinds of transformations of that damaging script. In the hieroglyph of the sufficient family, a strict division of sexual roles is often retained, but female insight is approved of and assisted as if it were a valued cultural and personal resource. Under the system of romantic thralldom, love, care, and nurturing come with a very high price: sexual bitterness and despair. But in the system of the sufficient family, the father or mother figure, and more rarely the brother, give care and nurturing to the female character without exacting the debilitating price which the male lover always seemed to extort.

Further, in the system of thralldom which H. D. experienced, male power always stood first, and female power was unequal to it. This meant that a man expected a woman to be subsumed under him and to experience a loss of identity, as in Her, while the woman at once desired to be equal and experienced guilt about that desire. Certainly it is an old story. Within the sufficient family, rather than being subsumed in an unequal power relation, the woman has two special sources of force—in biological creation (as the mother through the child) and in self-creation, as the child through herself as mother—on the psyche quest.

While the sufficient family composed of brother-sister questers, reparenting fathers and mothers, and the psyche madonna is not the product of any social or political analysis, this family could nonetheless be taken as an accurate postulation of all the relationships that would have to be transformed in order for a new kind of male-female sexual and spiritual relation to exist; that is, in order to end romantic thralldom. Some sense of the enormity of the task of cultural reconstruction is revealed by the immense changes that H. D. makes in her poetic family. Since psychocultural patterns are learned within the family, it must surely be recast in order to change our images of women, culture, and society. (pp. 202-03)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, "Romantic Thralldom in H. D.," in Contemporary Literature (© 1979 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 178-203.


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