For many years, H. D.'s critical reputation suffered, largely because her initial success as part of an early 20th-century literary movement overshadowed her later work and more important themes. The poems of her early career epitomize the tenets of the imagist school. In her middle career she was criticized for growing beyond that movement, despite a similar move away by its cofounder and staunchest advocate, Ezra pound; in her later years she was overlooked for maintaining within her poetry too many elements of imagism. However, over five decades of work, she provided a large scope and represented, as part of and in addition to an attempt to establish a voice for women, a truly modernist vision: a reaction against Victorian life, the recognition of a fragmented modern age, and a return to myth to establish meaning in that new age (see modernism).
H. D. was born Hilda Doolittle, the only surviving daughter of Dr. Charles Leander Doolittle and Helen Eugenia Wolle Doolittle, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her mother was a musician and was active in the Moravian Church. Her father was an astronomer and mathematician who was eventually appointed director of the observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. This combination of influences—art concatenated with symbols, rituals, and secrecy from her mother's side and with science from her father's—were perhaps the strongest forces working to create the poet H. D. would become. In Philadelphia she met Pound; the two were briefly engaged to be married, but the greater effect of Pound upon H. D. was to encourage her expression through poetry. H. D. was also introduced to William Carlos WILLIAMS during this time. In 1911 she sailed to Europe and never returned to the United States to live. Through Pound she met other poets and authors, including F. S. Flint and Richard Aldington; they soon formed the imagist movement. In 1912, while sending out her first three poems for publication, Pound launched Hilda Doolittle's new persona (and career) by scratching at the bottom of one page "H. D., Imagiste." She won the Guarantors Prize from Poetry magazine in 1915 and the Libre Prize from the Little Review in 1917. H. D.'s poems of these early years epitomized the tenets laid down by the imagists; "Oread" (1914), one of her more frequently anthologized poems, exhibits the concrete, concentrated, musical line of the imagist poem: "Whirl up your pointed pines ... on our rocks." It was by this standard that H. D. was judged— at first enthusiastically, but progressively less so—for
the rest of her career. At the end of her life, though, a new appreciation began after she received the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for poetry in 1959 and the Award of Merit Medal for poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1960. The ensuing feminist movement of the 1970s and increased critical attention in the 1980s cemented H. D.'s place in American poetry.
In addition to establishing H. D.'s renown, her early experience with imagism gave her the discipline with which to control the excesses of her emotions and distill them into a tightly crafted poetry that probably could not have existed without that discipline. In these and later poems, H. D. employs Greek myth to channel her emotional responses to nature and to attempt to unify a fragmentary modernist existence, but also as a poetic mask behind which the person/poet hides. Her poems of the 1910s, especially those found in her first volume, Sea Garden (1916), employ imagery from the natural world and Greek place-names and on H. D.'s memories of the gardens near the American home of her youth. They also explore the individual consciousness and are structured on polarities and dualisms, such as hardness and softness, darkness and light, land and sea, lightness and weight. These oppo-sites point toward the dualisms in H. D.'s own life and in the work that followed this period.
The years during and immediately after World War I brought an end to the formal imagist movement and the first phase of H. D.'s poetry. After a series of personal tragedies and traumas, she began to refocus upon the role of women and her own identity as a woman. "Helen" (1923) is representative of this period, presenting an alternate view of the woman who, according to misogynist myth, began the Trojan War. "All Greece hates" Helen, though they worship her beauty; they see only "God's daughter, born of love / the beauty of cool feet." Forgetting that she is not born of "love," but of Zeus's rape of Leda, these Greeks lust after her and wish her dead in the same moment. For the brutality of war, they blame the woman. Like some of H. D.'s earlier work, the poems of this period recall Euripides and Sappho, but they go further in masking the poet behind myth so as better to express the personal, albeit obliquely.
The collection Red Roses for Bronze (1931) was a personal and critical disappointment. H. D. turned to fiction and cinema in the early 1930s when the well of poetry dried up. These influences, combined with H. D.'s interests in the occult and psychoanalysis (she was a student and patient of Sigmund Freud), helped H. D. formulate her new destiny as a kind of poetprophet and provided her with the inspiration for a resurgence in poetry during the 1940s. The greatest expression of this new energy came in The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), an evocation of the horrors of World War II. In this long poem, the speaker, walking through bomb-ripped downtown London, must attempt to ascertain meaning—if it can be found— amid the destruction: "thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us / through gloom." Within this new wasteland lies a spirit of regeneration, perhaps analogous to H. D.'s own personal poetic flowering after the relative dormancy of the 1930s. Though battered, "Still the walls do not fall," and the possibility of transcendence for the poet and people lingers on the horizon: "we are voyagers, discoverers . . . possibly we will reach haven, / heaven." Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946) continued the theme of triumph over death through the power of love as a spiritual force for peace (these were collected together with The Walls Do Not Fall into Trilogy in 1973).
For H. D., survival and transcendence are found in the figure of the woman, and she continued to explore a new role for women in the myths that made up much of her poetry. To this figure she devoted much of her energy in the 1940s and 1950s, culminating in her epic poem, helen in egypt (1961). Based on an obscure alternative tale of Helen of Troy, H. D. weaves elements of her own life, including love, wartime experience, mysticism, psychological analysis, and the search for identity, into a tapestry that accomplishes a modern, feminist revision of the male-centered Greek epic story. Echoing her earlier poem, she begins with "Helena, hated of all Greece," the woman who is seen as the cause of so much misery and destruction. This Helen, though, is brought to Egypt by Zeus (rather than remaining in Troy), and the quest to understand why this has happened eventually becomes a search for self-understanding, an answer to the question—"Helena?
Who is she?" In the three sections of the poem, Helen begins by investigating temple hieroglyphs, enters into a liaison with dead Achilles, brought back by her power, and then relives her life with Paris. Discovering that "she herself is the writing," that she is the hieroglyph in need of deciphering, Helen eventually reaches that understanding of herself. Seemingly the poet H. D. has come to that point as well, reconciling the oppositions in her own life, and presents Helen as a model for all those persons (women in particular) who are engaged in such a search.
Today H. D. remains, closely identified with the imagist movement. However, much critical attention also is focused on the mature work that employs certain aspects of imagism but then goes beyond the single, concrete image to a more extensive exploration of the changing roles of women in the 20th century, the origins and meaning of the poet's and readers' identities and psyches, and all of our places within a fragmented, modern society For the most part, she accomplishes this through a thoroughly modernist recasting of the Greek classics. Her readers, especially women, other poets, especially American poets, and those exploring the dualities of their own identities can look to H. D.'s poems to find a kindred soul.
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