Hilda Doolittle (September 10, 1886, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – September 27, 1961, Zürich), prominently known only by her initials H.D., was an American poet, novelist and memoirist. She is best known for her association with the key early 20th-century avant-garde Imagist group of poets, although her later writing represents a move away from the Imagist model and towards a distinctly feminine version of modernist poetry and prose.
Doolittle was one of the leading figures in the bohemian culture of London in the early decades of the century. Her work is noted for its use of classical models and its exploration of the conflict between lesbian and heterosexual attraction and love that closely resembled her own life. Her later poetry also explores traditional epic themes, such as violence and war, from a feminist perspective. H.D. was the first woman to be granted the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal.
Early life and work
Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her father, Charles Doolittle, was professor of astronomy at Lehigh University and her mother, Helen (Wolle), was a Moravian with a strong interest in music. In 1895, Charles Doolittle was appointed Flower Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and the family moved to a house in Upper Darby, an affluent Philadelphia suburb.
Doolittle attended Philadelphia's (Society of) Friends Central High School, located at Fifteenth and Race streets, graduating in 1903. A year earlier, she met and befriended Ezra Pound, who was to play a major role both in her private life and her emergence as a writer. In 1905, he presented her with a sheaf of love poems with the collective title Hilda's Book.
That same year, Doolittle attended Bryn Mawr College to study Greek literature, but she left after three terms because of bad grades and poor health. While at the college, she met the poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Her first published writings, some stories for children, were published in a local church paper between 1909 and 1913, mostly under the name Edith Gray. In 1907, she engaged Pound. Her father disapproved of Pound, and by the time her father left for Europe in 1908, the engagement had been called off. Around this time, Doolittle entered into a relationship with a young art student named Frances Josepha Gregg. After spending part of 1910 living in New York City's Greenwich Village, she sailed to Europe with Gregg and Gregg's mother in 1911.
Pound had already moved to London, where he had started meeting with other poets at the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho to discuss plans to reform contemporary poetry through free verse, the tanka and haiku, and the removal of all unnecessary verbiage from poems. Soon after H.D. arrived in England, she showed Pound some poems she had written. He was impressed by their closeness to the ideas he had been discussing and introduced her and another poet, Richard Aldington, to the group.
In 1912, during a meeting with H.D. in the British Museum tea room, Pound appended the signature H.D. Imagiste to her poetry, creating a label that was to stick to the poet for most of her writing life. That same year, Harriet Monroe started her Poetry magazine and asked Pound to act as foreign editor. In October, he submitted three poems each by H.D. and Aldington under the rubric Imagiste. Aldington's poems were in the November issue of Poetry and H.D.'s poems, "Hermes of the Ways," "Orchard," and "Epigram", in the January 1913 issue. Imagism as a movement was launched with H.D. as its prime exponent.
Although the early models for the imagist group were Japanese, H.D. derived her way of making poems from her reading of Classical Greek literature and especially the recently rediscovered works of Sappho, an interest she shared with Aldington and Pound, each of whom produced versions of the Greek poet's work. In 1915, H.D. and Aldington launched the Poets' Translation Series, pamphlets of translations from lesser-known Greek and Latin classics. In total, H.D. published three volumes of translations from the Greek: Choruses from the Iphigeneia in Aulis (1916), Choruses from the Iphigenia in Aulis and the Hippolytus of Euripides (1919) and Euripides' Ion (1937), and an original play based on Greek models called Hippolytus Temporizes (1927).
H.D. continued her association with the group until the final issue of the Some Imagist Poets anthology in 1917. She and Aldington did most of the editorial work on the 1915 anthology. Her work also appeared in Aldington's Imagist Anthology 1930. All of her poetry up to the end of the 1930s was written in an Imagist mode, with a spare use of language, a rhetorical structure based on analogy rather than simile, metaphor or symbolism and a classical purity of surface that can often mask an underlying dramatic energy. This style of writing was not without its critics. In a special Imagist issue of The Egoist magazine in May 1915, the poet and critic Harold Monro called H.D.'s early work "petty poetry", denoting "either poverty of imagination or needlessly excessive restraint".
Oread, one of her earliest and best-known poems, which was first published in the 1915 anthology, serves to illustrate this early style well:
- 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.
World War I and after
H.D married Aldington in 1913. Their first and only child, a daughter, died at birth in 1915. Shortly after this, Aldington went to serve in the war, and H.D. became involved in a close but platonic relationship with D.H. Lawrence. In 1916, her first book, Sea Garden, appeared and she became assistant editor of The Egoist, taking over from her husband. In 1918, her brother Gilbert was killed in action. Aldington and she became estranged after he took a mistress and H.D. moved in with a friend of Lawrence's, named Cecil Gray, and became pregnant with his child. When Aldington returned from active service, he and H.D. formally separated.
Also in 1918, H.D. met Bryher, who was to become and remain her companion for the rest of her life. They lived together until 1946. In 1919, H.D.'s daughter Frances Perdita Aldington was born, after H.D. had survived a serious bout of influenza, and her father, who had never recovered from Gilbert's death, died himself. At this time, H.D. wrote one of her very few known statements on poetics, Notes on Thought and Vision (published in 1982). In this, she speaks of poets (herself included) as belonging to a kind of elite group of visionaries with the power to 'turn the whole tide of human thought'.
H.D. and Aldington attempted to salvage their relationship, but he was suffering from the effects of his participation in the war. From 1920, her relationship with Bryher became closer and the pair travelled in Egypt, Greece and the United States before eventually settling in Switzerland. In 1921, Bryher contracted a marriage of convenience with Robert McAlmon, which enabled him to fund his publishing ventures in Paris by using some of her personal wealth for his Contact Press.
Novels, films and psychoanalysis
In the early 1920s, H.D. started to write three projected cycles of novels. The first of these, Magna Graeca, consisted of Palimpsest (1921) and Hedylus (1928). These novels use their classical settings to explore the poetic vocation, particularly as it applies to women in a patriarchal literary culture. The Madrigal cycle consisted of HERmione, Bid Me to Live, Paint It Today and Asphodel. These novels are largely autobiographical and deal with the development of the female artist and the conflict between heterosexual and lesbian desire. Possibly because of their closeness to H.D.'s own life and the lives of her friends and loved fetus, most of them were not published until after her death. Kora and Ka and The Usual Star, two novellas from the Borderline cycle, were published in 1933.
1927 was to be a significant year in H.D.'s life. As a writer, she completed the first of the Madrigal cycle novels, HERmione, based on the pull between lesbian and heterosexual love in her own life. In her personal life, her mother died and Bryher divorced McAlmon, only to marry H.D.'s new male lover, Kenneth Macpherson. In 1928, H.D. became pregnant by Macpherson, but decided on an abortion.
H.D., Bryher and Macpherson lived together in what the poet and critic Barbara Guest termed a 'menagerie for three'. They set up the magazine Close Up and formed the POOL cinema group to write about and make films. Only one POOL film survives in its entirety, Borderline (1930), starring H.D. and Paul Robeson. In common with the Borderline novellas, the film explores extreme psychic states and their relationship to surface reality. As well as her acting input, H.D. wrote a booklet to accompany the film.
World War II and after
H.D. and Bryher spent the duration of World War II in London. During this time, H.D. wrote The Gift, a memoir of her childhood and family life in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which reflects on people and events in her background that helped shape her as a writer. The Gift was eventually published in 1982. She also wrote Trilogy, published as The Walls do not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). This three-part poem on the experience of the blitz ranks with Pound's Pisan Cantos and T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding as a major modernist response to the war as seen from a civilian perspective. The poems also represent the first fruit of her new approach to writing poetry, with a much looser and more conversational tone and diction being used as well as a more inclusive approach to experience. The opening lines of The Walls do not Fall clearly and immediately signal H.D.'s break with her earlier Imagist poetic: 'An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square.'
After the war, H.D. moved to Switzerland where, in the spring of 1946, she suffered a severe mental breakdown which resulted in her staying in a clinic until the autumn of that year. Apart from a number of trips to the States, H.D. spent the rest of her life in Switzerland. In the late 1950s, she underwent more treatment, this time with the psychoanalyst Erich Heydt. At Heydt's prompting, she wrote End to Torment, a memoir of her relationship with Pound, who allowed the poems of Hilda's Book to be included when the book was published.
During this decade, she wrote a considerable amount of poetry, most notably Helen in Egypt (written 1952–54), a feminist deconstruction of male-centred epic poetry which uses Euripides's play Helen as a starting point for a reinterpretation of the basis of the Trojan War and, by extension, of war itself. This work has been seen by some critics, including Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, as H.D.'s response to Pound's Cantos, a work she greatly admired.
The other poems of this period are "Sagesse", "Winter Love" and "Hermetic Definition". These three were published posthumously with the collective title Hermetic Definition (1972). The poem "Hermetic Definition" takes as its starting points her love for a man 30 years her junior and the line 'so slow is the rose to open' from Pound's "Canto 106". "Sagesse", written in bed after H.D. had broken her hip in a fall, serves as a kind of coda to Trilogy, being partly written in the voice of a young female Blitz survivor who finds herself living in fear of the atom bomb. "Winter Love" was written together with End to Torment and uses as narrator the Homeric figure of Penelope to restate the material of the memoir in poetic form. At one time, H.D. considered appending this poem as a coda to Helen in Egypt.
In 1960, H.D. was in the U.S. to collect the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. Returning to Switzerland, she suffered a stroke in July of 1961 and died a couple of months later in the Klinik Hirslanden in Zürich. Her ashes were returned to Bethlehem, and were buried in the family plot in the Nisky Hill Cemetery on October 28. Her epitaph consists of the following lines from an early poem:
- So you may say,
- Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
- reclaims forever
- one who died
- following intricate song's
- lost measure.
The rediscovery of H.D.'s work from the 1970s onward coincided with, and was assisted by, the emergence of a feminist criticism that found much to admire in the questioning of gender roles that is so typical of her writings. Specifically, those critics who were working to challenge the standard view of English-language literary modernism, based on the work of such male writers as Pound, Eliot and James Joyce, were able to restore H.D. to a more significant position in the history of that movement.
Her writings also have served as a model for a number of more recent women poets working in the modernist tradition. Examples include the New York School poet Barbara Guest, the Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Susan Howe. Her influence is not limited to women poets. Many male writers, including Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, have acknowledged their debt to her.
- Sea Garden (1916)
- The Tribute And Circe: Two Poems (1917)
- Hymen (1921)
- Heliodora and Other Poems (1924)
- Collected Poems of H.D. (1925, new edition 1940)
- Red Roses for Bronze (1931)
- The Walls do not Fall (1944)
- Tribute to the Angels (1945)
- The Flowering of the Rod (1946)
- By Avon River (1949)
- Selected Poems of H.D. (1957)
- Helen in Egypt (1961)
- Hermetic Definition (1972)
- Trilogy (revised single-volume edition, 1973)
- Collected Poems, 1912–1944 (1983)
- Palimpsest (1926)
- Hedylus (1928)
- HERmione (written 1927, published 1981)
- Nights (1935)
- Bid Me to Live (written 1933–1950, published 1960)
- Paint It Today (published 1992)
- Asphodel (published 1992)
- The Hedgehog (1936)
- The Gift (written 1941–1944, published 1982)
- Tribute to Freud (written 1944, published gradually from 1945 to 1985)
- End to Torment (written 1958, published 1979)
- Images, Old and New (with Richard Aldington, 1915)
- Choruses from the Iphigeneia in Aulis and the Hippolytus of Euripides (1919)
- Euripides' Ion (1937)
- Hippolytus Temporizes (1927)
- Notes on Thought and Vision (1919, published 1982)
- Blau Duplessis, Rachel. H.D. The Career of that Struggle. (The Harvester Press, 1986). ISBN 0-7108-0548-9
- Chisholm, Dianne. H.D.'s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. (Cornell University Press, 1992).
- Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. (Collins, 1985) ISBN 0385131291
- Jones, Peter (ed.). Imagist Poetry (Penguin, 1972).
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- H.D. at Modern American Poetry
- The H.D. papers with a timeline
- Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey . Seaward: H.D.'s 'Helen in Egypt' as a response to Pound's 'Cantos.' in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1998