H.D. — Hilda Doolittle — lived from 1886 to 1961, which means she lived through the emergence and high times of Modernism. Considered one of the first Imagists, she was friends with Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and other prominent literary figures of her time. Born in Pennsylvania, she moved to London as a young woman. Her mother was a Moravian, a member of a particular branch of the Protestant faith that focuses on simplicity and service, among other things. (To learn more about the Moravian Church and its tenets & history, go here.) H.D. is also known for being unapologetic about her bisexuality, and for her admiration for and friendship with Sigmund Freud.
The book I’m writing about here does not cover all of H.D.’s work, by far. She wrote a good deal of poetry after 1944, which is obviously not in this volume, and she also wrote plays and prose. However, I think this collection gives some interesting insight into her development.
I’ll be honest with you — I didn’t spend as much time on some parts of the book as I did on others. There are a good many poems, especially in the earlier and middle sections, that rely on the reader’s familiarity with Greek myth and drama, and while I’m somewhat familiar with the main figures, I decided to skip over some of those poems because they did not grip me. (I guess I’m spoiled after readingChristopher Logue’s War Music!) I also speed-read the last few poems in the collection, which deal with Christian spirituality. I did this not because I’m not interested in the subject, but rather because the other poems were technically, linguistically, and emotionally more interesting to me.
The book traces a fascinating development from a strong focus on looking back (typical of the poetry of the late 1800s and early 1900s) to classical examples, via a direct, immediate response to World War 1 (and later World War 2), to a focus on Christianity. Now, this may be the result of the editor’s decisions on what to include, but at least some of this development seems to be there, since the pieces are largely in chronological order.
The early poems are full of hyacinths, violets, asphodels, and other flowers, which then reappear in the later poems. H.D. has a keen eye for color and uses flowers to describe them. She seems particularly fond of blue and violet, two color groups that permeate the body of the work collected here. In this fascination with color, she reminds me a little of Elizabeth Bishop. Every now and then, her use of repetition and adjectives also reminds me of Bishop. Take this snippet from “Halcyon” for example:
“Oh why, why, why / am I fretful, insecure; / why am I vague, unsure / / until you are blown, / unexpected, small, quaint, unnoticeable, / a grey gull, / into a room” (270-1). A similar example can be found in the first stanza of “Red Roses for Bronze” (211).
There’s an abundance of water images in Doolittle’s poetry, and this imagery is largely oceanic. What really struck me, however, was her accuracy of description / mention. H.D. chooses the right words — not just in a poetic sense (“the right words in the right order”), but in a scientific sense. I can’t say that I’ve come across the word “stratosphere” in many (or any?) poems so far, and to be honest I didn’t expect it in hers, after reading all the poems about Greek statues and flowers.
H.D. has her own poetic vocabulary that has its own logic, especially from the 1930s (Red Roses for Bronze) onwards. She writes of planets, magnetic fields, shell shock in words that are (as the Imagist tenets demand) exact and non-repetitive. While some of her poems are long (especially later sequences, which can run into 30+ sections), the words are chosen parsimoniously, and an attentive reader would be hard-pressed to find any spare or superfluous words.
I was excited to see that H.D. plays with some of the Sappho fragments — they are so enticing in their incompleteness! — and it was interesting to see how her approach differed from the one I took in the five parts of love.
The poems I particularly enjoyed were those that were straight-forward, tangible. When I first read about Imagism and what it envisions for poetry, I thought those tenets would make for some dry stuff, but H.D. uses this focus on the image, on the thing (tangible or emotional) very effectively. In “Chance,” the speaker explains: “apart from you, / I fear / wind, / bird, / / sea, / wave” (293). The poem is skinny on the page, most lines have just one or two words. It moves like waves down the page. This is a deliberate choice, not just a habit, as H.D.’s poems take a number of forms.
H.D. is also very aware of what Annie Finch calls “word music” — yes, she uses direct rhyme and pair rhyme, but her words also echo each other in other ways. From “Projector II”: “wondrous creatures leap / from tree to tree / or creep / sinuous / along / the river-bed / and freshet; / blest / with rare suppleness / we bound / aloft” (354).
When H.D.’s poetry gripped me it was because of its depth of responsiveness and engagement with the outside world, be it nature or people (or their absence). There is an exuberance that resonates with me, a sort of euphoric response to beauty. Take, for example, this section of “The Helmsman”:
“We wandered from pine-hills / through oak and scrub-oak tangles, / we broke hyssop and bramble, / we caught flower and new bramble-fruit / in our hair: we laughed / as each branch whipped back, / we tore our feet in half buried rocks / and knotted roots and acorn-cups” (6).
This same immediate, intense response is what makes her poems about the experience and effects of war, as well as her “Child Poems,” so very chilling. The “Child Poems” and “R.A.F.” are truly heart-wrenching!
In her (previously unpublished) 1919 poem “I Said” (322, 325), the speaker argues that this exuberance and euphoria is a means of defense and self-preservation, an alternative to the fear and despair that, at this point / in the face of the horrors of WW1, is all too easy to feel. Another unpublished poem (“Ariadne — from a lost play,” section II) contains a passage that could easily serve as an ars poetica:
“See, / I am weaving here; / the colours glow / with blue, sea-blue and violet; / I have dipped deep my thread / it will not fade, / I have long practised stitch and counter-stitch; / the frame is firm; / the pattern clear but spaced / with subtlety / and symbol / those will know, / who have faced at last / the ultimate, / ultimate fear; / […] / the woven tale / […] / to hang from pilar / to exquisite / wrought pillar, / so that men stop, / astonished / at its colour, / its gods / outlined with delicate woven contour, / men stop — men speak — men stare –” (334-5).