A Nymph of the New

Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World

by Barbara Guest
Doubleday, 360 pp., $18.95

This full and fascinating biography of the poet Hilda Doolittle—her early and bossy boyfriend, Ezra Pound, on his own turned her into “H.D.”—reads as if the poet and her “world” excite Barbara Guest more than the poetry itself does. (The poems are used to document passions, breakdowns, travel, and events that the poems rarely make public.)

I may be underestimating Guest’s feeling for the poems. H.D.’s poetry, so “rare,” breathless, elegant, full of entreaty to the “goddess world” with which she first identified herself as suppliant and priestess, does not easily invite me to prolonged identification with the emotions in the poems themselves. H.D. used bookish mythology to make her first approach to practically anything; this was her way of elevating herself from common experience. Even when she disclosed a more candid and moving figure of suffering in her trilogy from wartime London—The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod—she still seemed to write poetry at some remove from experience, to be engaged in some throbbing labor of translation. This time it was not from Greek and the Greeks but from astrology, angelology, tarot cards, the literature of spiritualism, her mother’s Moravian piety, and the science of her astronomer father. “Rarefy,” says my dictionary—“to expand without the addition of matter; to make more spiritual, refined, or abstruse.”

Barbara Guest’s notably good book about a woman writer stands out just now; it is not academic and does nothing for the “movement.” The excitement that clearly went into its research and writing is of course testimony to H.D. and a very American life—in Europe—devoted to “self-expression.” But free of H.D.’s own idolatries, it is both sympathetic and ironic about a great beauty who seemed all talent and poetic fervor, was as spell-binding as Garbo, but perhaps understood very little.

Still, it was not necessary for early-twentieth-century modernists to be as intelligent as present-day critics. They who had the good sense to be born at the end of the nineteenth century understandably thought that they had closed the door on everything provincial and repressive. The twentieth would be theirs and the world’s great age, forever “new,” quirky, liberated like themselves. They were “les jeunes,” as Ford Madox Ford said—the “haughty, proud generation.” Insistence on some larger experience took H.D. to Europe in 1911, left her to roam Europe for the rest of her life—with her birth-place, the pietistic town of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, always in mind. She was accompanied by her fiancé and mentor Pound, soon tangled with D.H. Lawrence, whom she charmed and exasperated. She married not Pound but Richard Aldington; her great love and life companion was Winifred Ellerman, daughter of Britain’s wealthiest shipowner, who called herself Bryher (after one of the Scilly Islands off Cornwall) and became a historical novelist. H.D. had a breakdown after World War II, moved to Switzerland, and died in a Zurich hospital in 1961.

To follow H.D.’s progress through friends and lovers, her many adorers, and unfriendly witnesses…

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