H. D. H(ilda). D(oolittle). (Vol. 14) - Essay

Hilda Doolittle


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Vincent Quinn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Margaret Newlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2957 words.)