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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 4 Number 4, 1975.H. D.
H. D. is one of the most elusive writers of the century, and she has in fact eluded many readers who might find pleasure in her work. Her work is scattered among a score of volumes, most of them slight. There is no Collected Poems; the volume so named dates from 1925 and most of her best work was done after that. The work itself is elusive, and the reader might easily wonder, when he has run some slim volume to earth, whether he has really caught anything. In fact he has, if he can hold it. It is tenuous but not absolutely a ghost. A living spirit, running like quicksilver among sparse verses.
The first poems H. D. published appeared in Poetry (Chicago) in January 1913. They had been sent there by Ezra Pound, an old friend from her days in Philadelphia; her father had been director of the Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. She had been under the tuition of Pound - we could be sure that his neighbourhood would involve tuition, for a near contemporary with a passion for literature, even if she had not recorded that he brought her '(literally) armfuls of books to read', including volumes of Renaissance Latin poets, and that one of her first printed verses was 'a transposition' from one of those poets. It may be assumed likewise that it was at the instigation - direct or indirect - of Pound that Richard Aldington, whom H. D. married in the autumn of 1913, published his prose translations from Latin Poets of the Renaissance, which later found their way, with translations from Meleager of Gadara and others, into the volume entitled Medallions (1921). There was no doubt a great awareness, among the more teachable in Pound's circle, of the web of interrelationship in Renaissance literature, Italian, French and English, and of their dependence on Greek and Latin originals. Aldington illustrates the point in his introduction to the Latin Poets. 'Navagero's "Lusus"',he says, 'were frequently translated by Joachim du Bellay in his "Jeux Rustiques". The same poet's "Antiquitez de Rome" (subsequently put into English by Edmund Spenser) were derived from the poems on Rome placed at the end of this volume.' This background is to be remembered in considering the work of H. D. People say 'Imagist' and they say 'Greek' when her name is mentioned. They should think also of the Renaissance - Pater's as well as Spenser's - and recall that T. E. Hulme, who was killed in 1917, had made a case for thinking that the significant work of the twentieth century would turn its back on that period. It is not to the anti-humanistic art which Hulme saw or foresaw that H. D.'s work belongs. Nor does it belong to that movement of taste which has put Donne so near the centre of our understanding of the seventeenth century and displaced the more pastoral Elizabethans, including Spenser himself.
In these earliest published verses of H. D. there is some remarkably finished work. She was not a child. A year younger than Pound, six years older than Aldington, she was twenty-seven in 1913. She already had the art of not dawdling. There is movement as well as economy in the verse:
For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
whom no god pities.
The verses in Poetry (Chicago) were signed - by Pound on the author's behalf - 'H. D., Imagiste', a kindness with the characteristic touch of the impresario about it - and it is as the Imagist that H. D. has remained in the mind of most of those who care about poetry, as far as she has been in mind at all. 'The Perfect Imagist', Glenn Hughes called her in his study of Imagism and the Imagists (1931), and no doubt Pound was glad to exhibit this talented and self-effacing person as living wholly within his definitions. However harmless, or even useful, when it was first applied, the label has certainly served to obscure the nature of H. D.'s development. There is, even in these early verses, a psychological as well as an objective element. The rapidity of movement answers to a breathless apprehension of the external world:
I saw the first pear
as it fell -
the honey-seeking, golden-banded,
the yellow swarm was
not more fleet than I,
(spare us from loveliness)
and I fell prostrate,
you have flayed us
with your blossoms,
spare us the beauty
H. D.'s early work is well illustrated - and readily accessible - in Peter Jones's Penguin, Imagist Poetry. It is evidence of the high degree of training of which her temperament made her capable. A person so fastidious as she was was no doubt glad of a formula which relieved her of the necessity of saying more than she had to say, and invited her to efface herself before appearances.
Whirl up, sea -
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
Nobody's life is in fact passed in so religious a submission. H. D.'s life, during the first war, must have been at any rate intermittently eventful. She took over as assistant editor of The Egoist when Aldington went overseas. She also had a number of personal misadventures, some of which are recorded in an autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live (1958). The confusion of fiction and personal reminiscence can be a mark of a writer's undue interest in himself, and of a talent for lying. It is indeed a drawback about the genre, that one never knows just what is intended. H. D.'s book is certainly unusual in its kind. There is none of the fluttering and showing off of The Waves - if Virginia Woolf's book is to be included as another uncharacteristic member of the genre. There is none of the special pleading inseparable from D. H. Lawrence's recordings. Most of the book shows a quiet, almost withdrawn, observation. H. D. carries her fastidiousness into the midst of the most personal observation. There are many - all too many - books of reminiscences by women who have slept with or otherwise known writers of notoriety enough to make the reminiscences publishable. They are usually horrible, less for what they record than for the lack of perception they betray. It needs more talent to venture into a book than into a bed. One peculiarity of the H. D. book, which indeed makes it unique, is that the observer is herself a woman of original, and not merely reflected, literary talent. Her observation may be partial but it is veridical. Neither Aldington nor Lawrence, perhaps, was aware how much light he stood in. Nor indeed Pound, who however is at no disadvantage, for he appears as a helpful and encouraging friend. Whether or not it is a good idea to write such a book, the book is certainly to be used now that we have it. It does throw light on H. D.'s later work, for there is no doubt that her marriage to Aldington, which after a few years came to nothing, was the central event of her life and that brooding on it provided themes which interwove with others long after H. D. and her husband had begun to live apart.
Some of H. D.'s poems were published in the anthology, Des Imagistes, which appeared in 1914. A volume of her own, Sea-Garden, appeared in 1916 and in 1921 there was Hymen and Other Poems. The title poem of Hymen was helped out by some prose matter - stage directions, as for 'a temple service', rather than the sort of explanatory matter she used towards the end of her life to support the members of her long poem, Helen in Egypt. H. D. perhaps felt the lack of architectonics, beyond a certain scale, a common enough trouble and one that should not have worried her. On a small scale, much of the work in Hymen has considerable formal merit. There is the imagist trick, learned long before. There is also what is perhaps best described as a sort of rhetoric, elegant enough, but which leaves the reader in the end with a sense of emptiness.
What are the islands to me
if you are lost,
what is Paros to me
if your eyes draw back,
what is Milos
if you take fright of beauty,
terrible, torturous, isolated,
a barren rock?
Pound talked of 'Hellenic hardness' in connection with H. D.'s work. There is certainly a persistent use of Greek sources, and of Greek allusions - 'She Contrasts with Herself Hippolyta'. Behind this there was no doubt a good deal of work. She describes herself - or Julia - in Bid Me to Live, sitting with 'that Greek dictionary spread open on the low chair at her elbow'.
She was self-effacing in her attack on those Greek words, she was flamboyantly ambitious. The words themselves held inner words, she thought. If you looked at a word long enough, this peculiar twist, its magic angle, would lead somewhere, like that Phoenician track, trod by the old traders. She was a trader in the gold, the old gold, the myrrh of the dead spirit. She was bargaining with each word.
There is a profound subjectivity about this approach, far removed from anything that
could be conveyed by 'Hellenic hardness'. One cannot withhold one's sympathy from the effort, but it points inward rather than to the outer world which her imagism was supposed to capture. 'She was like one blind, reading the texture of incised letters, rejoicing like one blind who knows an inner light, a reality that the outer eye cannot grasp.' With 'inner light' we are back at the extreme Protestantism of her origins. There is an element of self-definition, by contrast, about all translation undertaken by a poet, but the impression left by much of H. D.'s earlier work is, after all, of a certain emptiness, as if not much was found in all this fumbling among Greek deities and Greek islands. The elegance of manner is often striking, and it is no small thing. But the twentieth century is not a happy time for a writer who has formal gifts but has to seek his material. So many conventions have become unusable. H. D.'s notes on Elizabethan and seventeenth-century poets, in the prose part of By Avon River, indicate where her sympathies lie. Her taste, sure in its way, veers from the more energetic poetry to the more formal celebration of beauty and death. There is, in her own work of this period, a lack of intellectual content.
There is a marked development in depth in the later poems, in particular the (second) wartime sequence of The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946) and the poems in Hermetic Definition (1972). The long poem Helen in Egypt (1961), has its place in H. D.'s oeuvre but is less satisfactory, truth to tell, partly on account of its length. There is a surging to and fro over the legend of Helen - that she was in Egypt and that only an illusion appeared on the walls of Troy. That the confusions of H. D. 's own past are as much in her mind as the fate of Helen could not be in doubt for anyone who has read her work at all extensively. There are passages between Helen and Achilles which are certainly not free of allusion to the personal history recorded in Bid Me to Live. The successful long poem is an extreme rarity, and one can say of H. D.'s attempt that it is creditably near to a style in which a long poem could be written in the twentieth century - the long poem conceived not as having, on an impossible scale, the quickening of the lyric but the combination of sobriety and movement which carries us on in Drayton or in Golding. But H. D.'s poem, as a whole, has not quite these qualities. The impression is often of a mulling over of old worries - and old Greeks - and the sense of direction is not sustained.
The change in the character of H. D.'s later work, as compared with the earlier, may be related to her exploration of those distresses which took her to Vienna as a patient of Freud in 1933-4. In Bid Me to Live Julia had said that she 'was not analysing herself in the new mode of the Bloomsbury intellectuals, with half-baked misapplied theories from Vienna'. She felt, however, that 'somewhere, somehow, a pattern repeated itself, life advances in a spiral.' People attach more or less meaning to such utterances, but we are here in a subjective territory. H. D. 's interest in Greece took her back to Egypt and muddling among the pattern of ancient mysteries, so obscurely known as to allow more room for fantasy than Christian theology, with its vulgar links with rationalism and the crudities of social structure. H. D. carried her interest in magic and ancient mumbo-jumbo into the world of her analyst. In Tribute to Freud the Professor 'translated' the 'series of shadow- or of light-pictures' which H. D. had seen on the wall of a hotel bedroom in Corfu, which she had visited with Bryher in 1920, after a breakdown. The associations of the occasion took her memories back to her childhood, to her father and mother, to Ezra Pound when she was fifteen and he sixteen. Dominating it all, of course, was the father-analyst Freud himself, whose dramatic character was not lessened by the Nazi floods beginning to lap his doorstep. 'One day he said to me, "You discovered for yourself what I discovered for the race."' At moments he looks a gruesome, vain old man, in spite of or through all H.
D.'s admiration of him. He fondles his priceless Greek statuette like any rich collector. ' "The trouble is - I am an old man - you do not think it worth your while to love me."' Is the fame, the science, the stirring of ancient pots, the discretion of the consulting-room, more than a cover for this appetite? H. D. does not see it that way. The little book is a masterpiece of its kind, accurate and inconclusive, the work of an observer immensely gifted and profoundly trained to record her impressions. It is a little classic in its own right, however one may rate the contribution it can offer to the understanding of H. D.'s verse.
The verse of the later period is continuously concerned with interpretation of experience by the dark help afforded by ancient cults. There is, however, much of a more overt and accessible character. The wartime sequence presents vivid snatches of London then.
as the fallen roof
leaves the sealed room
open to the air.
In this scene H. D. thinks of Egypt:
Take me home
where the heron
has her nest:
where the mantis
prays on the river-reed.
She reverts to what is no doubt the Christian scene of her childhood:
the bare, clean
early colonial interior,
without stained-glass, picture,
image or colour.
Amen is Christos, the Holy Ghost is the Dream. The theme of the whole sequence is really the opposite of that of Milton's hymn 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity'. In that poem the old gods are routed; H. D. seeks to bring them back, by suggested identifications. It is perhaps her way of repairing the abstracted Puritanism of her youth. One of the most impressive parts of the sequence is that in The Flowering of the Rod, in which, not without a measure of self-indentification, H. D. re-tells, with elaborations from legend and imagination, the story of Mary Magdelene anointing the feet of Jesus.
The poems in Hermetic Definition take up a number of themes scattered throughout H. D.'s later work - Christian, Greek and Egyptian. They also contain vivid flashes from her last years - her room in Zurich-Küsnacht, or in New York, where she met Saint-John Perse and was understandably over-impressed by the award to her of a gold medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But the life of these poems
- what makes them unique, perhaps - is the delineation, with the precision her long
training allowed her, of the reflections of an old woman, still thinking of love, still with her habitual lack of restraint as to what needs to be said, and complete restraint as to what does not.
Why did you come
to trouble my decline?
I am old (I was old when you came);
the reddest rose unfolds,
(which is ridiculous
in this time, this place,
even slightly scandalous),
the reddest rose unfolds; [. . .]
Where does one place H. D.? It is perhaps imprudent to try to place her firmly in relation to her contemporaries. Her preoccupations, as well as the superficial severity of her verse, have kept her out of the main flow of interest. The Greek carapace may seem forbidding. But it should not be. In her essence H. D. is a slight, extremely feminine figure, whose battles are all inward, and who scarcely sought to link her thought with the public preoccupations of the age. She lived obscurely with the illusion - which is not entirely an illusion - that if the artist gets on with his art all will be well. For her this was not a personal thing, but a thing which took her, through and beyond current social necessities - as she saw it - to the permanent concerns embodied in the ancient religions, including our own. The connections she established were exploratory, not dogmatic. The point for the prospective reader is merely that H. D. offers far more than the formal virtues which are usually allowed to her work, and that that work abundantly repays the not very strenuous labour of reading it.
Hermetic Definition, Carcanet, 1972.
Triology (The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod), Carcanet, 1978.
Tribute to Freud, Carcanet, 1971.
This article is taken from Poetry Nation 4 Number 4, 1975.