Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the first Moravian community in America, on September 10, 1886. Her mother, Helen Wolle Doolittle, was artistic and musical; her father, Charles Leander Doolittle, was professor of mathematics and astronomy at Lehigh, later director of the Flower Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. Hilda had a rich childhood in a setting of mystical Moravianism that exerted a lasting influence on her poetry.
At the age of fifteen, she met Pound, the first of several extraordinary figures who profoundly influenced her life. Pound, then a precocious graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, encouraged her to become broadly read, and together they studied Latin, Greek, the classics, yogic texts, and a great diversity of authors. Pound, according to their fellow student William Carlos Williams, “was wonderfully in love with her,” but their relationship was somewhat stormy. In 1908, he proposed that they elope to Europe, but her family ties and her suspicions of his other romantic liaisons deterred her. This estrangement was equivocal, however, and in 1911, Hilda joined Pound and his literary circle in London, never again to live in the United States. Her first Imagist poems were published in Poetry (January, 1913), under the signature that Pound suggested, “H. D., Imagiste.” Active in the Imagist movement, she published her first collection, Sea Garden, in 1916.
The intense experiences of the World War I years forever after dominated H. D.’s life and art. Although still attached to Pound, in 1913, she married fellow Imagist Richard Aldington. Their marriage, initially happy, was troubled by infidelity and the turmoil of war. In 1914, H. D. met D. H. Lawrence. Their strong mutual attraction persisted through the war years, and their relationship was ever afterward present in H. D.’s life and work. In 1915, her first child was stillborn; in 1916, Aldington enlisted and at the same time began an extramarital affair. In 1917, H. D.’s favorite brother was killed in France, and in 1919, her father died. In 1919, gravely ill with pneumonia, she gave birth to her daughter, Perdita; H. D. never revealed who the father was, and she and Aldington separated. Distressed by these events to the point of collapse, she was aided by a young woman from a wealthy English family, Winifred Ellerman, known by her pen name Bryher. For a time they lived together, and traveled to Greece, America, and Egypt. In 1922, H. D. settled near Zurich, with Bryher nearby, to rear her daughter and write. Her literary reputation established by the 1925 publication of Collected Poems of H. D., she lived an active though secluded life, dedicated to her art.
In 1933, dissatisfied with her imperfect understanding of the events of her life and how they related to her art, she entered analysis under Freud. This experience, together with her experiences in London during World War II, permitted her to crystallize her own “legend,” to expand on the multiple meanings in her writing. She wrote much during the last fifteen years of her life, including her most ambitious long poem, Helen in Egypt, and the autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live (1960). Following a brief visit to America to accept an award for her poetry, she was disabled by a stroke and died on September 27, 1961, at a clinic near Zurich, at the age of seventy-five.
H. D. was perhaps the best known of the Imagist poets. Her creative life spanned half a century, from 1905 to 1961. Her mother’s family, the Wolles, were Moravians, and her father, Charles Doolittle, was a distinguished astronomer, a somewhat distant figure whom Hilda Doolittle adored. H. D. grew to be a tall woman (5 feet, 11 inches), awkward but very handsome. Her looks remained striking, elegant, and memorable into her old age. She spent one year, 1905, at Bryn Mawr College as a day student but did not do well academically and dropped out—though not before meeting both William Carlos...
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