Herself Defined

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Interest in the work of poet and novelist H. D. has grown dramatically since her death in 1961, as demonstrated by the posthumous publication of several works she left in manuscript, a new edition of her collected poems, and the appearance of several important articles and at least two full-length critical studies. It is clearly time for the kind of comprehensive, carefully researched biography Barbara Guest has written, and this book should be an invaluable resource for generations of students of H. D.’s work. Guest, herself a poet and artist, had the full cooperation of H. D.’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner, and access to many hitherto private letters and documents, as well as the assistance of a number of her subject’s acquaintances, including the biographer’s first husband, Stephen Guest; writer May Sarton, who met H. D. in London in the 1930’s and corresponded with her later; Silvia Dobson, a close friend to the poet from 1934 to her death; and Dr. Erich Heydt, the psychiatrist who was both her doctor and her confidant at the Küsnacht sanatorium in Switzerland where she spent much of her last years.

Guest’s book provides a fascinating portrait of an important segment of twentieth century cultural society as well as of one of its most enigmatic figures. H. D.’s path intersected at one time or another with the lives of many of the major writers and artists of the period—Ezra Pound and the Imagists, members of the Bloomsbury Group, the Sitwells, Marianne Moore, American expatriates in Paris, pioneers of filmmaking, Sigmund Freud and his disciples, rising young postwar American poets, the writers of the Beat Generation. Guest has immersed herself in the lives of dozens of these people to make her work, as the title suggests, a picture of a world as well as an individual.

Against this rich background of people and movements, Guest portrays H. D. as a paradoxically solitary figure. Her life was, in the biographer’s view, a perpetual quest for security, support, and affirmation that led her to many passionate friendships but never enabled her to transcend her sense of herself as an exile, an alien, perpetually in search of her identity. “The definition of self,” Guest observes in her preface, “the penetration into self, was H. D.’s preoccupation and obsession.”

At the core of the biography are the central events of H. D.’s life, most of them familiar to readers of earlier studies of her career: her birth into a Moravian family in 1886 and her childhood in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; her adolescent friendship with Ezra Pound, her move to England to be near him, and her emergence under his guidance as an Imagist poet; her unhappy marriage to British writer Richard Aldington shortly before World War I; her involvement with D. H. Lawrence and his circle, which led ultimately to the birth of her daughter, Perdita, in 1919; her long relationship with British shipping heiress and novelist Winifred Ellerman, who called herself Bryher; her venture into films with Bryher in the late 1920’s; her analysis with Freud in the 1930’s; her return to England from the Continent for World War II and the production of some of her finest poetry; and her last decades of illness and creativity, culminating in the publication of the long poem that some consider her masterpiece, Helen in Egypt, at the time of her death in September, 1961.

Throughout her account of H. D.’s life, Guest focuses on the intense relationships through which she sought self-definition. She had many lovers, both male and female, but her friends filled other roles as well. Throughout her adult life she turned to men whom she called her “initiators,” figures who influenced her development as a person and an artist. The first and perhaps the most crucial of these was Pound. It was he who introduced her to classical literature and culture when she was still a student, encouraged her to write, and submitted her early Imagist poems for publication. Even more important, perhaps, he created the image of her that is most familiar—the ethereal goddess, elusive “dryad,” figure of mystery and irresistible glamour. The image was to be upheld and enhanced by Pound’s successors, among them Aldington, Lawrence, Freud, and Heydt. Neither Guest nor other writers about H. D. have entirely succeeded in conveying the essence of her magnetism, but its effects are clearly visible in the devotion of her friends—and occasionally in the antipathy of those she abandoned. John Cournos, to whom she turned briefly toward the end of her marriage to Aldington, created a bitter caricature of her in the title character of his novel Miranda Masters (1926) and wrote a vituperative letter on the publication of her autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live (1960), some forty years after their last meeting.

For H. D.’s work, probably the most significant group of friends was the one that surrounded her for the brief years of her marriage: her husband Aldington, Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, Pound, musician Cecil Gray, Brigit Patmore, and Dorothy Yorke. Under various guises these men and women appear repeatedly in her work. Lawrence, it seems, exerted the most powerful emotional effect, though Guest finds no evidence that he and H. D. were ever lovers. It was Gray who was to have the most dramatic influence on her life, if not on her work. She went to Cornwall with him in 1918 while Aldington was serving in the British army, and Guest provides conclusive evidence that it was he who was Perdita’s father. She cites both H. D.’s testimony to that effect at her divorce trial and Perdita’s comment that on the only occasion when she met Gray, “seeing him was like looking at herself.” (Guest’s evidence should certainly be taken into account by anyone reading Janice Robinson’s 1982 study, H. D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, which strongly implies that Lawrence was Perdita’s father.)

As H. D. grew older, she attracted a succession of talented, devoted younger men. Among them were Norman...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, April 6, 1984, p. B9.

Library Journal. CIX, March 15, 1984, p. 579.

Ms. XIII, July, 1984, p. 16.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, March 29, 1984, p. 15.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, March 11, 1984, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, November 18, 1983, p. 66.

Time. CXXIII, January 16, 1984, p. 71.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Summer, 1984, p. 89.

Vogue. CLXXIV, January, 1984, p. 60.

Women’s Review of Books. I, May, 1984, p. 13.