Article abstract: The works of H. D., the first great modernist poet, formed the true core of Ezra Pound’s Imagist movement and exercised an extraordinary influence on modern poetics. She explored images taken from classical mythology from a profoundly feminine and personal perspective in spare, taut poems.
Hilda Doolittle—better known by the nickname “H. D.,” given her by Ezra Pound—was born September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, into a world of mystical pietism. Her father was a noted astronomer, her mother was artistic and musical, and the family as a whole was deeply involved in the social and religious life of Bethlehem, stronghold of the Moravian Brotherhood. The profound and eccentric Christianity of Moravianism was to remain an interest of H. D.’s throughout her life. In 1895, the Doolittle family moved to Philadelphia, leaving the close-knit world of the Brotherhood for the more cosmopolitan academic sphere: H. D.’s father became Flower Professor of Astronomy and founder of the Flower Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1901, H. D. met Ezra Pound, who was then a student at the university. She was fifteen and he was barely a year older, but he already cut a striking figure in his romantic green robe with his green eyes and golden hair. H. D. herself had, in the words of William Carlos Williams, “a loose-limbed beauty.” The relationship between H. D. and Pound, nourished by Pound’s suggestions for H. D.’s reading (William Morris, William Blake, Henrik Ibsen), led to their engagement in 1905.
H. D. published short stories in two newspapers between 1901 and 1905, but her account of her relationship with Pound was to come much later: “Mr. Pound it was all wrong,” she wrote in End to Torment. “You turned into a Satyr, a Lynx, and the girl in your arms (Dryad, you called her), for all her fragile, not yet lost virginity, is Maenad. . . .” In her account, the tone of their encounter is Greek, pagan.
Pound was, almost predictably, less than faithful to his dryad, and his 1908 trip to Europe resulted in a fascination with troubadour lyrics—and with the ideal of adulterous love that they embodied. By 1909, Pound had published A Lume Spento and Personae, and he was meeting William Butler Yeats, Ford Madox Ford, and other literary lights in London. In 1911, H. D. joined him there.
Since 1908, Pound had been discussing a new style of poetry, one that would cut away trite or stilted language by focusing on the “thing,” by using no word that fails to contribute to “the presentation,” and by writing “in sequence of the musical phrase,” not according to a metronomic beat. The new style was called “Imagisme.” H. D. was to be its avatar.
The January, 1913, issue of Poetry contained three poems by H. D., which Pound had sent to the editor with a warm commendation, after editing them slightly—and signing them for her “H. D. Imagiste.” His manifesto for Imagism (written with F. S. Flint) followed two months later. The Modernist era had begun.
Ancient Greece was the magnet of H. D.’s poetic mind: Her first published poem was entitled “Hermes of the Ways,” and it is a Greek simplicity that she strives for and that Pound turns to his own purposes by calling it Imagism. People thought that H. D. looked Greek: “her features were Greek, they suggested a hamadryad,” Louis Wilkinson wrote in The Buffoon (1916), and indeed her leggy beauty was admirably suited to the tastes of a world bent on escaping the confining corsets of its Victorian past. Her “Grecianness” was not, however, merely a myth woven about H. D. within her circle of friends; it was a serious (if not utterly scholarly) pursuit.
After H. D.’s marriage in 1913 to Richard Aldington, the couple spent time in Paris, where they met Henry Slominsky, a young philosopher who had recently published Heraclit und Parmenides, and spent many evenings with him (“noctes Atticae,” Aldington called them) discussing Homer and Aeschylus, Pythagoras and Plato. In the Diocletian Gallery in Rome, H. D. discovered a little statue of the Hermaphrodite, which she would visit each time she returned to the eternal city; and on a short visit to Capri—her first true taste of the Grecian world—she believed she saw the god Pan.
The result of this immersion in the Greek spirit was the invention or discovery of a peculiarly modern and personal mythic Greece that was to dominate her poems. More directly, she began work on translating some choruses from Iphigenia in Aulis. Her Greek was not scholarly: She once commented to a friend on the word “freesia,” saying it was an example of a beautiful Greek word, only to be told the flower had been named for F. H. T. Freese. Douglas Bush claims that her “self-conscious, even agonized, pursuit of elusive beauty is quite un-Greek.”
If H. D. indulged at times in false etymologies, that has always been the prerogative of a poet, and T. S. Eliot was to say of her translations of Euripides that they were, “allowing for errors and even occasional omissions of difficult passages, much nearer to both Greek and English” than those of Gilbert Murray, the dean of Greek translators. Writing...
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