Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Trilogy brings together in one poetic sequence three volumes of poems, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). Each of the three volumes in turn consists of forty-three numbered poems.

The poems of The Walls Do Not Fall were written during World War II while the bombs fell on London: “but when the shingles hissed// in the rain of incendiary,/ other values were revealed to us,// other standards hallowed us.” They are war poems, but the war in question is not only World War II but also the war of the biblical book Revelation—apocalyptic war when that which has been hidden is revealed: “over us, Apocryphal fire,/ under us, the earth sway, dip of a floor.” The Walls Do Not Fall is also about Egypt, and specifically Karnak, which H. D. had visited with her companion Winifred Ellerman, known by the pen name Bryher. The tombs of the Egyptian dead opened to the air by archaeology resemble the rooms sliced open in London by German bombs: “we pass on// to another cellar, to another sliced wall/ where poor utensils show/ like rare objects in a museum.” Still the walls do not fall. Visionary experiences, a kind of ecstasy in the heart of wartime London, and the uncovering and assimilation of memories thread through the poems of this sequence until, at the last, some hope of reaching safe “haven, heaven” can be found.

H. D. called Tribute to the Angels a...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

H. D.’s style, from the beginning, sat well with Pound’s call for a modern poetry that would avoid unnecessary words and stick to “the thing”—so well, indeed, that at times she seemed almost invisible: the perfect Poundian, rather than herself. Yet her voice is a woman’s voice, her vision a woman’s vision. As Trilogy appeared, first volume by slim volume during the war years in England, it must have given succor to many women whose male counterparts were finding it in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943). With the reemergence of feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s, her voice was an exemplary woman’s voice, heard alongside those of her contemporaries, Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore.

Yet H. D. was more than a woman poet: She was a seer, a visionary. Louis Martz, in his introduction to H. D.: Collected Poems 1912-1944, calls The Flowering of the Rod “a new myth of redemption.” She was, herself, the carrier of “a book” that “is not/ the tome of the ancient wisdom,” whose pages “are the blank pages/ of the unwritten volume of the new.” It is a specifically feminine myth that H. D. is not only writing herself in Trilogy but also proposing as her poetic solution to the troubles of a world. In Dianne Chisholm’s terms, she “resets the stage . . . for the uncanny return of the mother of prehistory, the mother from whom Freud withdrew in horror and despair, the mother who brings with her a song even more ‘originary’ than that of the prehistoric father.”

Thus she is the precursor of that specific tradition in feminism which draws more on her disliked Carl Jung than on her beloved Freud, a feminism which sees in a return to the goddess its root and flower. Hers was neither the loudest nor the first voice of postwar feminism, but she was far ahead of her times.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Trilogy is a poem in three parts that in the collected edition is slightly more than one hundred pages long. Each of the three parts consists of forty-three poems that are written primarily in unrhymed couplets, though there are occasional stanzas of triplets and single lines. The first part, The Walls Do Not Fall, addresses the need H. D. (Hilda Doolittle used these initials rather than her full name) feels to refashion the old myths of monotheistic patriarchy so that they may come to include myths of female creativity and power. Her sense of this need arises from seeing all around her the devastation of World War II. H. D. situates the possibility of transformation away from the routine of war, at the very level of language itself. She sets out to reveal the hidden power of language to make and unmake the way human beings perceive and experience the world. Her tendency to explore the etymological and poetic possibilities in words accounts for her sometimes unfamiliar and arcane choice of words. The Walls Do Not Fall opens H. D.’s Trilogy in the same way that Dante initiates The Divine Comedy (c. 1320)—with a vision of the Inferno. In both poems, the reader experiences the destruction of human community as a result of a spiritual or imaginative failure. Part 2 of Trilogy, Tribute to the Angels, opens up the possibility of a new version of Revelation. H. D. requires that the pagan, typically feminine, figures of fertility and generation that Judeo-Christian civilization erased be restored. The transformation, so fully detailed in part 1, begins to take place. Tribute to the Angels corresponds to Dante’s Purgatory. Here H. D. presents the possibility of purification in an alchemical fire. The final part of the poem, The Flowering of the Rod, pays tribute to the power of the suffering and pain of war to transform bellicose, masculinized mythologies of the past into the benign and generative possibilities of the procreative and peaceful feminine. It corresponds to Dante’s Paradise (c. 1320).

The title of the first part, The Walls Do Not Fall, refers to the threat against London posed by the German air raids in 1942. The walls of the city were literally at risk, and H. D., who voluntarily spent the war years in London, links the modern city...

(The entire section is 965 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like the great medieval poem that Trilogy resembles, The Divine Comedy, H. D.’s meditation on the spiritual and cultural consequences of World War II is imaginatively based on a cosmological vision of analogy. H. D. shares with Dante (and with many more recent and more skeptical thinkers, such as Freud) a view of the world and history as a totality made up of nesting correspondences and interconnections, and a sense that no cultural or spiritual imagining is ever really lost. The potentiality of the past is not only still present but also can be restored or caused to be reborn.

H. D. affirms the interconnectedness of the things in the world by means of what she calls the “palimpsest.” A palimpsest is a manuscript or paper on which writing has been totally or partially erased to make space for new writing. It is important for H. D., however, that the old writing is still present as a trace or a suggestion and remains to somehow color one’s reading of the new text. A simple example of the palimpsest is the “sword,” a weapon or means of destruction that contains within it the “word,” which for H. D. is infinitely redemptive. While it is erased by and enclosed within the sword, the “word” is always there, waiting to be reread by the poet. To achieve this rereading, the poet must “search the old highways/ for the true-runes, the right-spell,/ recover old values.”

In her search along the “old highways,” H. D. finds “Isis, Asete or Astarte.” These are Semitic or Egyptian goddesses of fertility and reproduction who have been diminished by the prevailing monotheism to harlots, deprived of their force and charisma. The trace or palimpsest remains, however, and the goddesses have the power to reassert their power. Those who consign them to the “flesh pots”...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chisholm, Dianne. H. D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Examines H. D.’s later poetry, of which Trilogy is the centerpiece, in the light of her relationship with Freud. Requires some knowledge of standard Freudian terminology. Extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index are provided.

Dickie, Margaret. “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. A sensitive essay that covers H. D., Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein. Dickie argues that all three women were almost a century ahead of their overshadowing male contemporaries—and thus required that much time to find their audience.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. London: Collins, 1985. A biography of H. D. which analyzes the complex life of a woman whose work was always autobiographical but which contained symbolic and mythic themes. A bibliography and an index are included.

H. D. Tribute to Freud. Boston: D. R. Godine, 1974. H. D.’s own account of her psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, which provides an entrance into the understanding of her life and mode of work. Crucial to understanding of Trilogy and the works that were to follow. Widely recommended as the first of H. D.’s books to read. With an appendix of letters from Freud to H. D.

Robinson, Janice. H. D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. An excellent, introspective biography of H. D. Notes, a bibliography, and an index are provided.