American Poets of the 20th Century The Poets H. D. (1886-1961)

About the Poet

A critic, novelist, translator, mystic, and poet, Hilda Doolittle, familiarly known by the pen name H. D., overthrew traditional male domination of myth to voice the female perspective. She produced the "signet," her term for an evocative, many-layered verse that influenced a generation of writers, including Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov. At heart a flamboyant narcissist, rambler, friend-maker, and creator, she toured much of the world and more of the self. The poems that record her search of the self epitomize imagism, the tight, precise construction of verse that calls up multiple meanings and implications through sound, rhythm, word etymology, and free-form syntax.

H. D. was born on September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, a Moravian community in Pennsylvania. Her family moved to Philadelphia in 1895, when her father took charge of the Flower Observatory of the University of Pennsylvania. After excelling at classical and modern foreign language at Miss Gordon's School and the Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, she studied astronomy at Bryn Mawr for three semesters, from 1904 to 1906, before quitting. A three-sided romantic fling with poets Ezra Pound and Josepha Frances Gregg and the draw of London's literary circles superceded her interest in formal education. Her parents despaired of H. D.'s rebellion against home, school, and society, but allowed her to sail to Europe with the Greggs.

Before Ezra Pound introduced her to free verse, H. D. published children's stories in a Presbyterian magazine. At age 25, she resettled in London, cultivated literary friendships, and traveled before entering a twenty-three-year marriage to imagist poet and biographer Richard Aldington, editor of the Egoist, in October 1913. The couple collaborated on translations of Greek lyric verse until his departure with the British Army for France.

In 1913, Pound fostered H. D.'s career by issuing her verse in Poetry Magazine, under the pseudonym "H. D., Imagiste," and exhibiting her work in his anthology, Des Imagistes (1914). On her own, H. D. published Sea Garden (1916). When her husband went to war, she joined T. S. Eliot in editing the Egoist. The post-World War I period tried her stamina with grief over her brother Gilbert's death in combat, a miscarriage, her father's death, an affair with music critic Cecil Grey, and, in 1919, the painful birth of their daughter, Frances Perdita. About the time H. D. ended her marriage, she met a wealthy traveling companion, Annie Winnifred Ellerman, who named herself Bryher after one of the Scilly Islands. In 1920, H. D. and Bryher moved to Lake Geneva, which remained their home.

Mature verse colors H. D.'s collections: the life-affirming meditations in Hymen (1921), Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), and Collected Poems of H. D. (1925), the beginning of the poet's critical and popular success and literary independence. Subsequent publications display self-confidence and growing feminism: an experimental autobiography, HERmione (1927), a verse tragedy dramatically entitled Hippolytus Temporizes: A Play in Three Acts (1927), Red Roses for Bronze (1932), and a translation of Euripides's tragedy Ion (1937). Following Collected Poems (1940), she issued a pro-matriarchal trilogy — The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and Flowering of the Rod (1946) — and her last verse collection, Helen in Egypt (1961), an examination of necromancy through blended prose and epic poetry.

In addition to submissions to Life and Letters Today, H. D. flourished in long fiction, including an experimental three-part novel entitled Palimpsest (1926), the psycho-biographical comedy Hedylus (1928), The Hedgehog (1936), the Elizabethan-style By Avon River (1949), and Bid Me to Live (1960), which recaps her relationship with D. H. Lawrence and Aldington. Her tenuous mental state, worsened by her ambivalence toward bisexualism, required additional fine-tuning and shock therapy. In token of her treatment by the Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Sigmund Freud in 1933-1934, a collection of personal essays, Tribute to Freud (1954), explored occultism and Freudian analysis.

H. D. was more content in her last years following treatment for nervous exhaustion, and she maintained a satisfying relationship with Bryher. Later, she was paralyzed and aphasic for three months from a paralytic stroke and died on September 27, 1961, at the Klinik Hirslanden in Zurich. To the end, Bryher supervised her care. The poet's ashes repose under a simple, flat gravestone among the Doolittles at Nisky Hill Cemetery in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

H. D.'s influence extends to both sides of the Atlantic. She was the first female poet to earn the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal. The subjects of three posthumous titles — the power of feminine love in Hermetic Definition (1972), her ambivalence toward D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound in End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound by H. D. (1979), and The Gift (1969), a collection of Freudian self-analysis and remembrances of her grandmother — have deepened understanding of H. D.'s place in modern poetry. A more detailed work, Notes on Thought and Vision (1982), is an articulate statement of her aesthetic credo.

Chief Works

In 1924, H. D. ventured into minimalism with "Oread," a six-line practice piece that profits from compulsive word associations. The poem overlays a description of an evergreen forest with the shapes, color, sound, and motion of the sea. In giving life to the Greek nymph of mountains and forests, the poet draws on geometric shapes of points, whorls, and rounded pools to end on a pun, "fir," which suggests a furry pelt covering the land. The skillful blending of glimpses, like impressionist art, relies on minute sense impressions to dazzle the eye and mind with potent connections.

By 1916, H. D. was wrestling with issues of feminism and artistic worth that dominated her later writings. In "Sea Rose," she contrasts the stereotypical long-stemmed beauty, emblem of idealized womanhood, with its homelier alter ego, the stunted blossom flung onto the shore. Having weathered the buffeting of tide and wind, it travels at the whim of nature. In the last of the sixteen-line poem, the poet proposes a paradox: how the spicy scent of the stereotyped rose fails in comparison with the bitter aroma of a blossom hardened by experience.

In 1924, a more mature poet produced "Helen." In three five-line stanzas (cinquains) linked by pure rhyme (stands, hands), sight rhyme (words that share elements of spelling but not pronunciation, such as unmoved and love), and assonance (feet, knees), she epitomizes the love-hate relationship between the famed Spartan queen and Greece, the nation she betrayed by eloping with a Trojan prince and triggering a twenty-year war. To move beneath historical details, the poet first characterizes the impeccable complexion with two evocative sight images — lustrous olives and whiteness, a suggestion of opposites — meant to symbolize bloodless cruelty and innocence.

The second cinquain replaces "white" from stanza 1 with "wan." The poet-speaker contrasts Helen's smiles with the revulsion of Greeks, who hated her charm and loathed even more the fallen queen's bold actions. The choice of "enchantments" suggests both a winsome female and the tradition that Helen worked magic through a knowledge of healing herbs and poisons. The severity of personal, political, and financial loss from the Helen-centered war worked a lasting hardship on Greece, which Homer and Virgil reconstructed in epic verse.

In the concluding cinquain, the poet defends Helen, a singular figure who bore the human qualities of her mother, Leda, and the divine elegance and grace of her father, Zeus. Implicit in her lineage is a conception that resulted from Zeus's trickery and rape of Leda by appearing to her as a male swan. H. D. acknowledges that such a dangerous beauty can't be appreciated in life. Only in death — reduced to "white ash amid funereal cypresses" like the burned city of Troy — does the goddess-like Helen acquire the nation's adoration.

The Walls Do Not Fall, which was written in seclusion during the closing months of World War II as the first installment of her war trilogy, highlighted the poet's final creative period. The verse cycle, which is a belated thank-you to Bryher for their 1923 trip to Karnak, Egypt, exults in the cyclic nature of writing, research, and self-study. The first canto explores the paradox of human effort, which survives the ravages of war and ruin to emerge in another incarnation, like Luxor's temple, centuries after its fall from greatness. A former patient of Freud, who characterized intelligence as a fusion of conscious and subconscious energy, H. D. depicts the subconscious workings of the mind, which, "unaware," draws meaning from the spirit.

Like the Pythia, one of a series of Apollo's priestesses who prophesied to seekers in obscure and rambling visions, the artist creates from fragments, which H. D. describes as the slow outpouring of lava from the split surface of a volcano. She exalts inspiration as "Apocryphal fire" and links it to the vicissitudes of history, the dipping floor and swaying earth that bewilder and bedevil the individual. Bemused by creativity, she questions why she survived the challenge of purification to become a spokesperson for the arts. Cantos 2 and 3 continue the poet's immersion in mythic figures with a contemplation of the duality of inspiration. By "[searching] the old highways," the seeker contrives "the right-spell" and retrieves the good from history that "brings life to the living."

The intricacy of the self-limiting shell — a metaphor for H. D.'s periods of seclusion — leads to an assumption that, however self-contained, it must draw nourishment from the greater environment. In overt confession, she admits, "I sense my own limit," but relishes a sustaining inwardness, which ultimately creates "that pearl-of-great-price," a reference to the reward mentioned in Matthew 13:46. In Canto 5, she notes that recent self-discoveries outdistance her years "in the company of the gods," an allusion to an impressive circle of literary friends. The cultivation of an inner muse has rewarded her much as the Magi brought myrrh to the Christ child. Both precious gifts and foreshadowing of death, myrrh, a burial ointment, reminds the poet of her mortality.

Canto 6 enlarges on the notion of mortality as the poet rejoices in a fearless exploration of time and place. Undeterred by the calamities of two world wars, she learns from both nature and history, symbolized in the ravelings of gem-encrusted banners. Fed on good and bad, the leaf and the worm, the poet-speaker boldly profits from artistic opportunism while simultaneously "[spinning] my own shroud." The italicized finale, Canto 43, opens with the title image, "Still the walls do not fall." The final reach for excellence is a luminous paradox — a collapse into death as the floor and walls crumble and the air thins to a tenuous state too insubstantial for wings to ply. In a courageous statement of purpose, she acknowledges, "we are voyagers, discoverers / of the not-known." The daring of the artist's quest reaches toward the ultimate "haven, / heaven," a mystical, redemptive reward for fearless perseverance.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast H. D.'s "Leda" with William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan." Note images of dominance and fruition, which preface the birth of Helen of Troy, a dominant subject of H. D.'s poetry.

2. Summarize H. D.'s concept of infectious ecstasy and fulfillment in The Walls Do Not Fall, "Pear Tree," "Sea Poppies," and "Heat."

3. Characterize the longing for personal and artistic freedom in H. D.'s "Sheltered Garden" and similar works by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

4. Discuss H. D.'s view of World War II in The Walls Do Not Fall. Is the war a major force in the poem? Why or why not? What does the phrase "The walls do not fall" mean?

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