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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 on the sidelines, is to appreciate what Lawrence said. “She is like a person walking a tight-rope. You wonder if she”ll get across.” The “tall stag of a thing,” as Lawrence called her in Aaron’s Rod, clearly saved herself, time and again, by not giving too much. Her genius was for “style”—elegance, economy, elision, that overriding sense of intervals, of what never to say, that belongs to the fiercest, proudest “individuality.”

Style was the great sign and achievement of those first twentieth-century self-emancipators who burned to exhibit their “newness.” No early modernist was more drawn than H.D. to style as “cut,” line, the look of verse on the page as the right silhouette. Just as initials became her name, so “H.D. Imagiste” (Pound invented the one with the other) became her trademark. Imagism was less the objectivism it proposed to be than an attempt to sound “new.” It did throw off a lot of dead rhetoric or poesy, but most of all it clamored for attention. H.D. came to resent the coupling of imagism with her name. Of course its novelty cut and sharpened her style forever. In the fashion of everything “new” just before 1914, it promised safety from all grossness.

That became her specialty. One of her famous early poems, “Heat” (1916):

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. 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.

She had a nervous collapse during World War I when a brother was killed in action and her father died of the shock. As late as 1944, in London during the Blitz, subject to death from the sky as she was not in 1916, she still could write, or grieve, only in secure and chiseled fragments.

the shrine lies open to the sky,
the rain falls, here, there
sand drifts; eternity endures:

ruin everywhere, yet as the fallen roof
leaves the sealed room
open to the air.

Of course such writing derived from the puritan “plain style” of her Moravian background and the “chill” abstractions of her astronomer father’s science. But you can see that baffled as she was by her bisexuality and her relative coldness in love, she did not believe in giving away too much in her poetry—she did not know how to. Internalizing her experience was virtually everything to her. Her infatuation with Greek and “Greekness” made her famous; she was perpetually busy with her ideal landscape. And what was she doing there? She was invoking it over and over again, positively praying to it, emphasizing the Greek “atmosphere” in a style that more or less eschewed everything that could not be said in her ritual of neo-Greek.

Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.

I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
all-healing herbs,
close pressed in calathes.

Late in life she could still, writing to Pound, sign herself “Dryad.” What she was addicted to was swiftness (to begin a line in lower case was overwhelmingly important to her, not a tease as it was for Cummings), the sway and appeal of terseness (direct from priestess to goddess), the lapidary effect that was to summon back the Grecian urn. No poet was ever less interested in writing anything so sustained as an ode. The ultimate point of so much “style” was to show the line wrested from life and still palpitating with the effort. And too often, as many indistinguishable poems show, she was less interested in writing a particular poem than in achieving the “poetic.”

H.D. seems to have known Greek better than Pound knew Chinese. But she knew it in company, so to speak, thanks to Englishmen with a classical education like her husband Richard Aldington. Aldington was a bit too dumpy and aggressive to please all her sensitive friends, but she remained emotionally dependent on him even when she was in bed with someone else. Aldington early in their marriage sought satisfaction elsewhere; she then had a daughter by the composer Cecil Gray. But Aldington, who said that “H.D. cannot afford to be anything less than perfection,” continued to look after her manuscripts and to check up on her profuse Hellenisms. Pre-1914 London was still the time of Isadora Duncan, when Greekism was in. For H.D. it remained not just an ideal but a working model, a costume never quite thrown off by a woman so beautiful, tall, lithe, attractive to women and men alike. She amassed photographs of Greek figures, pasted over their heads photographs of her own face.

It is to be suspected from the many relationships H.D. ran through that her emotions remained demi-vierge. She was so much a creature of literature that one young woman had to leave her bed just before dawn—as in medieval romances. The fascination she exerted was not easily reciprocated. She spent a lifetime trying to get “herself defined,” but hardly made it. Her poetry, all search, would not have admitted too much self-knowledge. In any event, she was perilously oversensitive, only externally in command. But she was less a priestess than a nymph, psychically forever the uncertain daughter, seeker, and jeune fille. It is hard to identify with the emotions in her poetry because they are so approximate—adolescent emotions usually are. Even when there is something definite to get hold of in the later poetry, as in The Walls Do Not Fall, the experience of reading her does not overpower.

When in the company of the gods,
I loved and was loved,

never was my mind stirred
to such rapture,

my heart moved
to such pleasure,

as now, to discover
over Love, a new Master.

The “Master” was Freud, who analyzed her in Vienna between March and May 1933, and about whom she wrote a wholly surprising memoir, Tribute to Freud, glorifying what went on at 19 Berggasse as

His, the track in the sand
from a plum-tree in flower

to a half-open hut-door,
(or track would have been

but wind blows sand-prints from the sand,
whether seen or unseen):

His, the Genius in the jar
which the Fisherman finds,

He is Mage,
bringing myrrh.

These pretty lines identify Freud’s famous collection of archaic objects with H.D.’s belief that mythologizing is the only language for thinking. Tribute to Freud turns Freud not only into a fellow-mythologist but also into a frustrated lover. The old Jew who at seventy-seven sometimes “frightened” her she hymned as “midwife to the soul. He is himself the soul.” That is the way she naturally thought. The mannish, brisk, and decisive Bryher, though younger than H.D., supported her in every sense, took her over. Freud—equally infatuated according to H.D.—also took her over. The transference was perfect. Her father, the celebrated astronomer, was forty-three when she was born, as fanatical in his work as Freud. He once got so carried away looking at the stars in winter that his whiskers froze to the telescope.

Here is H.D. in Vienna, 1933. Austrian Nazis are chalking swastikas outside Freud’s door. Apart from their common interest in mythologizing, H.D. and Freud were not exactly on the same wavelength. Freud in 1933, ridden by cancer of the jaw, perfectly aware of what the Nazis in Germany were doing to Jews, ever fatalistic about a political world that H.D. soulfully ignored, admits to H.D. concern about his grand-children. His daughter Sophie was dead. Death was in the air. H.D.:

It worried me to feel that he had no idea—it seemed impossible—really no ideal that he would “wake up” when he shed the frail locust-husk of his years, and find himself alive…. It was so tribal, so conventionally Mosaic…. It was Genesis but not the very beginning. Not the exciting verses about the birds and the reptiles, the trees, the sun and moon, those greater and lesser lights. He was worried about them (and no small wonder), but I was worried about something else…. It seemed the eternal life he visualized was in the old Judaic tradition.

Precious as this is, you have to admit that only the extraordinary internalizing of literature in H.D.’s psyche could have made possible so much assertion of literature over reality. It is astounding. And although she plainly knew less about Freud than she thought she did, she was also, and characteristically, sure that he was in love with her. The most lasting passage in all of H.D.’s prose output may well be the famous outburst by doctor to patient:

he is beating with his hand, with his fist, on the head-piece of the old-fashioned horsehair sofa that had heard more secrets than the confession box of any popular Roman Catholic father-confessor in his heyday…. Consciously, I was not aware of having said anything that might account for the Professor’s outburst. And even as I veered around, facing him, my mind was detached enough to wonder if this was some idea of his for speeding up the analytic content or redirecting the flow of associated images. The Professor said, “The trouble is—I am an old man—you do not think it worth your while to love me.”

That rascal Norman Douglas, never in doubt about his emotions, paid a more amusing tribute to Freud. “Just as we were all getting over this Jesus Christ business, trust another Jew to come along and upset all our calculations.” Of course we know H.D.’s effect on Freud mainly from H.D. A few letters to her show him playful, gracious, for once respectful of a patient; there is no doubt that with his passion for literature he was Impressed with the beautiful way this beautiful woman could tell her story. “You are a poet!” he roundly told her. With his fine knowledge of Hamlet, he might well have recalled, observing H.D. on the couch, “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered.” Is Tribute to Freud as much about Freud as it is about H.D.? Not possible. Psychoanalyzing H.D. was one of the rare occasions on which “the Professor” did not have the last word.

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