(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Walls Do Not Fall opens in confusion: “An incident here and there,/ and rails gone (for guns)/ from your (and my) old town square.” The setting is London. Bombing raids during World War II were called “incidents” by the government and press, and iron railings were taken as scrap to make weapons. Yet the setting is also Karnak, Egypt, in 1923, when the tomb of Tutankhamen is opened; hieroglyphs—“bee, chick and hare”—decorate the temple and perhaps contain a prophecy. H. D. finds that war-torn London and timeworn Luxor are part of the same pattern; the traditional fog and mist of London mix with the musty air of the temple ruins.

This mirroring of place is only one example of her “search for historical parallels,/ research into psychic affinities.” H. D., or the voice of this work, then muses, “we passed the flame: we wonder/ what saved us? what for?” After surviving World War I and, so far, the incessant bombing of London in World War II, it would seem a natural question for any survivor to ask. H. D. explores the answer to this question.

Determining to whom the poet addresses this question—other than to herself—will also provide the answer as to the purpose of the poet’s survival. H. D. addresses or invokes a divine Presence throughout the poem, the Presence perhaps the spiritual savior. As London and Karnak merge, so do the personages Ra, Osiris, and Amen. Ra, the great sun god of the Egyptians, is equated with Osiris. As king of Egypt, Osiris taught his people, who were sunk into barbarity, the blessings of civilization. Murdered and dismembered by his brother, Set, who scattered his parts across the earth, Osiris was restored by Isis. Osiris in this poem is then equated with Amen, the Theban fertility god, whom, in turn, the Egyptians later identified with Ra. All are defined as “healers, helpers/ of the One, Amen, All-father.”

The poem also pays homage to female deities, to a composite all-mother. Astarte, the Phoenician goddess of fertility and love, is also the Egyptian Isis. Isis is also, by bringing Osiris back to life, mother. Astarte and Isis, therefore, are identified here with “Love, the Creator,// the original great-mother.”

These divine personages all relate to universal myths and patterns of rebirth and resurrection, death and rebirth. By invoking these myths, H. D. offers one answer to the question as to why the survivors of the war have been saved. She envisions the war in her midst as fulfilling this universal pattern of civilization; she “explains symbols of the past/ in to-day’s imagery.” In the closing of the poem, the dominating myth is of Osiris and Isis: “Osiris,/ the star Sirius,/ relates resurrection myth/ and resurrection reality/ through the ages.”

To answer the opening question of “what for” and why “us,” the poem undertakes a defense of poetry. H. D. claims that poets are like the ancient scribes; “we are the same lot.” Poets find the answers to combat the evils of the world and carry the keys to the mysteries: “we are the keepers of the secret,/ the carriers, the spinners/ of the rare intangible thread/ that binds all humanity/ to ancient wisdom.”

In short, H. D. defends the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. Despite the devastation created by the weapons of war, words are immortal, and “we take them with us beyond death.” She puts the sword in its place by lecturing that without language, “you would not have been, O Sword,/ without idea and the Word’s mediation.” She admonishes the sword to remember that “your Triumph, however exultant,/ must one day be over,/ in the beginning/ was the Word.” There is a triumph in this poem. The poet has affirmed that civilization can endure the worst, and the spiritual foundation on which she bases this claim has held up—the walls do not fall. Yet the triumph is tempered; London and the poet are still in the dark. How the historical pattern will be colored in is still left to be discovered: “we are voyagers, discoverers/ of the not-known,/ the unrecorded;/ we have no map;/ possibly we will reach haven,/ heaven.”

Tribute to the Angels begins where The Walls Do Not Fall leaves off, quoting for its epigraph “possibly we will reach haven,/ heaven”: This possibility seems a certitude in this poem, as it soon stages a celebration of love and rebirth. H. D. wrote this poem in the last two weeks of May, 1944, an optimistic time during the war. It was spring, a time for rebirth, the season itself manifesting the certain ascent from the hell of war: “surely never, never/ was a spring...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)