The poet Hilda Doolittle, born into a Moravian family in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was living in England when her first book, Sea Garden, was published. Restless by nature, she had left Bryn Mawr College after one year as a student and proceeded to educate herself in classical literature. Her former fiancé, the poet Ezra Pound, had helped initiate her attraction to the Greeks, and she soon followed him to London, where he was making a name for himself in bohemian and literary circles. It was Pound who, reading Doolittle’s first poems in a London café, signed them at the bottom, “H. D. Imagiste,” thus founding the Imagist movement in poetry and launching his friend’s career under the more aurally pleasing pseudonym of her initials.
The principles of Imagism, as set forth by Pound, emphasize great concentration of language and subject matter. Like a Japanese haiku, the Imagist poem eschews verbiage and gives the reader a concrete and discrete image—or series of images—on which to focus. H. D.’s particular brand of Imagism blends her fascination with the world of classical antiquity and mythology with a drive toward both passion and austerity. The speaker is always a presence in her poems, and the speaker’s relationship to the thing described is what the poem primarily conveys.
Sea Garden collects H. D.’s early Imagist poems. A slim volume, it is highly cohesive in its theme—enough so as to be an Imagist long poem. The predominant motif is the meeting and mating of contrary elements on an unearthly middle ground “where sea-grass tangles with/ shore-grass” (“Hermes of the Ways”). The emblems of this encounter are the flowers whose names and descriptions fill the book: “Sea Rose” (the first poem), “Sea Lily,” “Sea Poppies,” “Sea Violet,” and “Sea Iris.” Along with the flowers are invocations to mostly unnamed gods, goddesses, and godlike mortals, and poems describing the destructive and regenerative powers that natural forces (wind and water, primarily) have over natural objects such as trees, cliffs, and especially flowers.
The two powers, destructive and regenerative, are synonymous in H. D.’s philosophy and throughout Sea Garden. An example of the book’s pairing of these two opposite ends of one thing is in a poem near the center of the volume, “Sheltered Garden.” In this poem, the speaker “gasp[s] for breath,” trapped in a mazelike garden of “scented pinks” that she likens to “pears wadded in cloth” or “melons smothered in straw.” “It is better to taste of frost,” she continues,
the exquisite frost—than of wadding and dead grass.For this beauty,beauty without strength,chokes out life.
“O to blot out this garden,” the poem ends, “to forget, to find a new beauty/ in some terrible/ wind-tortured place.”
Critics and biographers of H. D. have focused extensively on her bisexuality and on the powerful influence of Sigmund Freud, a patriarch of psychoanalysis, who treated her in 1933 and again, briefly, in 1934. Sea Garden predates her analysis, and the reader can find in these poems the intense quest for an authoritative voice and the effort to recover the fragments of a more unified self that would bring H. D. to Freud nearly two decades later. As did Freud, H. D. had archaeological interests. Much of her poetic career was occupied with the attempt to invoke and inhabit the lost voices of an ancient past. Freud theorized that a matriarchal civilization once existed, predating the patriarchal world of history. The traces of this matriarchal world are all but lost. H. D. gestures toward such a civilization in poems such as “The Shrine,” addressed to an unnamed, neglected goddess, a goddess of the sea whom “landsmen” call “useless” and blame for shipwrecks. “The Shrine,” whose narrator could be female or male, reads at points like a protest against men’s denigration and trivialization of female strength.
The motif of resuscitation informs virtually all the poems, which repeatedly address themselves to some neglected, nearly extinct iconic figure. The first such figure is the sea rose, “marred and with stint of petals,” but far more “precious” than the ordinary garden rose or spice rose. “Can the spice-rose,” asks the ending, “drip such acrid fragrance/ hardened in a leaf?” Questions like these hint that the speaker—and, by...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)