Ds revisionist mythmaking

Where Lowell's brand ofImagism tended to produce poems that were more overtly personal and less rigorously crafted, it was H. D. who perfected the form of lyric Pound recognized as the ideal Imagist poem: a poem at once emotionally austere and highly concentrated in its use of language. H. D. and Lowell first met in 1914, and their literary paths were to cross on several other occasions: Lowell's Tendencies in Modern Poetry (1917) contained one of the first critical assessments of H. D.'s poetry, and H. D.'s companion Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) wrote an early critical study of Lowell's work. But as opposed to Lowell, whose literary sphere became increasingly American, H. D. was to become truly international in her life and contacts. Beginning in 1911, when she first sailed to London, H. D. spent most of her life in Europe. She gained her pen-name in a London tea-shop in 1912 (where Pound famously signed her poems "H. D., Imagiste"), she became a British citizen through her marriage to the poet Richard Aldington, and she had friendships at various points with such literary figures as Pound, Lawrence, Stein, Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach, Nancy Cunard, Dorothy Richardson, and Edith Sitwell in Europe, as well as Lowell, Moore, and Williams in the United States. She was psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud in Vienna (in 1933-34), and she died in Switzerland in 1961.

Though much of the critical attention that has been paid to H. D. has focused on her late long poems Trilogy (1944-46) and Helen in Egypt (1961), I will focus my discussion on her early poetry, especially that collected in her first volume, Sea Garden (1916). The poems of Sea Garden exemplify the Imagist mode at its most successful. For the Imagists it is the visual image that is privileged above all other modes of representation. Despite Pound's various directives about rhythm, word choice and subject matter, the main focus ofthe Imagists was on finding the closest possible connection between the words used and the objects being described. Ifpoetic language was ever to become capable of a concrete description of the world, the Imagists believed, it would need to show the world to the reader in terms that are free of all abstraction, banality, or sentimentality, and the most effective way of doing this was to present clear, unadorned visual images. H. D. grasped more clearly than any other Imagist (and perhaps more than any other modernist poet) the possibilities of the visual imagination, the faculty Pound called "phanopoeia." In the images of sand, bark, roots, wild flowers, leaves, and twigs that we find throughout the volume, H. D. conveys an "almost hallucinatory specificity"; in each natural fact she finds "the trace of a spiritual force."4

This suggestion of a spiritual force behind natural objects indicates the second level on which the reader can approach the poems in Sea Garden. The poems are evocations not simply of natural landscapes, but of a classical world inhabited by the gods, goddesses, and other human and mythological characters of ancient Greece. Like Pound, H. D. was strongly attracted to the Greek myths; but for her, it was the lesbian lyrics ofSappho, rather than the epics of Homer, that served as the central source of inspiration. As has often been noted, H. D. evokes Sappho as a mythic presence within the poems, adopting the Greek poetess as the authorizing muse whose example empowers her to write her own lyrics. The "sea garden" itself can be read as the island ofLesbos, Sappho's native land and a place from which H. D. feels freer to engage in what Alicia Ostriker has called "revisionist mythmaking."5 Revisionist mythmaking has been one of the primary strategies used by twentieth-century women writers to challenge patriarchal traditions and cultural standards. As Elizabeth Dodd puts it, revisionist mythmaking offered H. D. a method "whereby she could both rely on the cultural, literary foundations provided by mythology, and also provide a new - her own, female - view of those very foundations."6 Unlike the male modernists, women modernists like H. D. had no sense of nostalgia about the past as a repository of truth or of ideal social structures. The very myths that might connote heroism and moral strength to a male poet could be seen by women poets in light of their patriarchal narratives and their victimization of women.

The poems in Sea Garden can be read as early examples of the feminist strain that would be found throughout the writing of women modernists. In "Sheltered Garden," for example, H. D. uses the extended image of the garden to suggest two very different aesthetic choices for the woman artist. On the one hand, the "sheltered garden" of traditional femininity ("border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies") supplies "beauty without strength" and "chokes out life," while on the other hand the wild garden of "some terrible / wind-tortured place" can serve as the basis for a newer, more innovative, and more daring aesthetic. As Susan Stanford Friedman notes, H. D.'s "distaste for the 'sheltered garden' and her celebration of the wild, scraggly, stunted sea rose were images of escape into a modernist green world beyond the confines of Victorian respectability and femininity."7 H. D.'s persona "gasp[s] for breath" in the sheltered garden, which is also figured as a kind of hothouse enclosure for growing "fruit under cover." Instead, she chooses the more active, even violent world ofthe wild garden, where flowers are broken and borders are transgressed. Here, we move from a traditionally feminine ideal of beauty (sheltered, contained) to a more androgynous aesthetic in which categories are confused in the jumble of natural objects:

I want wind to break, scatter these pink-stalks, snap off their spiced heads, fling them about with dead leaves -

spread the paths with twigs, limbs broken off, trail great pine branches, hurled from some far wood right across the melon-patch, break pear and quince -

The upheaval of nature in these lines suggests the turmoil in the poet's own psyche as she seeks a poetic vision less dependent on inherited models of femininity.

The poem "Garden" is a good example of this more challenging aesthetic. Here, H. D. uses the image of the rose - a traditional symbol of beauty - in order to subvert the flower's usual associations.

You are clear

0 Rose, cut in rock, hard as the descent of hail.

1 could scrape the colour from the petals like spilt dye from a rock.

If I could break you I could break a tree.

If I could stir I could break a tree -I could break you.

H. D.'s rose is an object that is at once inaccessible to the speaker ("cut into rock") and ambiguous in its physical properties. This ambiguity is conveyed by the very unusual similes used to describe the rose: it is described both in terms of an extreme event in nature ("hard as the descent of hail") and in comparison to an artifact of human production ("like spilt dye"). The speaker (here a thinly veiled version of the poet herself) wants to seize or possess the image, but is unable to do so. The attempts to capture the image or in some way control it become increasingly conditional and ineffectual. The speaker first imagines that she could "scrape the colour from the petals," but to do so would be to destroy the rose itself, to take only one part of the image - its "spilt dye" - rather than its entirety. She then realizes - using the conditional form of "If I could" - that breaking the rose would require superhuman strength ("I could break a tree"), and this realization in turn brings her to the point of admitting that she cannot stir herself enough to attempt such a powerful act of appropriation.

It is in this sense of powerlessness before the image that we see H. D.'s particular version of the Imagist aesthetic. As Eileen Gregory puts it, "poetry is the evocation and reenactment of the experienced power of the image," yet poetry cannot completely capture the desired object, which remains "beautiful but unyielding."8 The second half of the poem emphasizes once again the almost unbearable nature of the creative process: here the speaker implores the wind to "rend open the heat" which oppresses her. Yet it is the visceral force of the heat itself, and not the wind, that produces the most exquisite lines of the poem:

Fruit cannot drop through this thick air -fruit cannot fall into heat that presses up and blunts the points of pears and rounds the grapes.

In opposition to the cold, clear image ofthe rock-rose, we find here an image of the overheated garden where the air is so thick that the fruit cannot fall. Yet at the same time that the heat makes the world insufferable for the protagonist, it also gives form to the objects which become the poem's images: the blunted pears and the rounded grapes. The poetic process can only result from the intense pressures represented by such oppressive forces as the rock in the first half of the poem and the heat in the second half.

In the two volumes H. D. published in the early 1920s, Hymen (1921) and Heliodora and Other Poems (1923), she stretched her highly controlled Imagist idiom into longer narrative poems, many of them based on mythic female figures. In these volumes, H. D. revisits the lives and myths of such personae as Leda, Phaedra, Evadne, Demeter, Helen, Circe, Calypso, and Cassandra. These heroines - creators of life, consorts of mythic heroes, legendary beauties, sorceresses, and visionaries - are often transformed into works of art in H. D.'s poems and thus deprived of their power as living women. Helen, for example, in the poem "Helen," is imagined not as the mythic symbol of sexual beauty and illicit love, but as a wan, white, and static figure.

All Greece hates the still eyes in the white face, the lustre as of olives where she stands and the white hands.

all Greece reviles the wan face when she smiles, hating it deeper still when it grows wan and white, remembering past enchantments and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,

God's daughter, born of love, the beauty of cool feet and slenderest knees, could love indeed the maid only if she were laid, white ash amid funereal cypresses.

The lines "Greece sees, unmoved, / God's daughter" function to present both a voyeuristic Greek populace, unmoved by Helen's fate, and the fetishized mask of a woman who can only be loved in a state of virginal death. H. D.'s poem rewrites the myth of Helen, rejecting the adoring gaze projected onto the figure of Helen by male poetic tradition. In Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem "To Helen," for example, Helen is presented as a "statue-like" figure who can be contemplated almost voyeuristically by the poet, who praises her "hyacinth hair" and "classic face." Poe begins with a simile comparing Helen's beauty to ships carrying a voyager home to his native land, thus inserting Helen's myth into a more general structure of literary and cultural tradition. H. D.'s poem offers no such metaphorical construct, immediately challenging the reader with the powerfully direct assertion of the first two lines: "All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face." That Helen is hated and reviled by "all Greece" (repeated twice) suggests that Helen's fate is also a more universal one: just as she was blamed as the cause of the Trojan War, all beautiful women are seen as threatening to a male-dominated society which fears that their beauty may bring about "enchantments" and "ills." Helen can be safely contained only in the form of "white ash" strewn on a graveyard. The progression of the poem's three stanzas enacts a movement from life to death: in the first stanza, Helen is surrounded by the "lustre of olives," an image of vibrant life; in the second, her smile is replaced by a "wan and white" countenance, symbolic of an absence of vitality; and in the final stanza she is reduced first to her separate body parts ("cool feet / and slenderest knees") and then to "white ash."

Just as Lowell's "Venus Transiens" was a challenge to the male tradition of depicting women in art, "Helen" is is an implicit attack on the masculine literary tradition ofusing women as symbols. Helen is silenced in this poem just as she is in Poe's, but here she is silenced by the hatred of society rather than by the poet's controlling male gaze. The female poet is powerless to invest the figure of Helen with any kind of redemptive significance, since she herself shares Helen's fate as a woman.

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