H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1886-1961)
Contributing Editor: Susan Stanford Friedman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Like much modernist poetry (e.g., Pound, Eliot), H.D.'s poetry is "difficult" for students. Mythological and biblical allusions are common in her poetry. Her imagist poetry is "impersonal" (like Eliot's)--that is, its relationship to human emotion is often deeply encoded. Her epic poetry is vast and complex in scope; its linguistic, religious, and psychological dimensions are sophisticated and multi-layered. Her perspective as a woman is quite different from the modernist male poets with whom she shares a great deal.
I have found students very responsive to H.D. when I have used the following strategies. Contextualize H.D.'s work in relationship to (1) modernism (students often expect a male poet to be "difficult," but resist having to work hard to read a woman poet); (2) women's poetry and feminist theory--especially feminist concepts of revision of patriarchal myths and traditions; (3) the mythological allusions (get students to relax and see that without footnotes, H.D. provides all the information they need); (4) the musical and syntactic structures of her poetic language. Her imagist poems can be read as poems about the (female) self resisting stereotypical femininity (they are not "nature" poems). I have had great success in teaching Trilogy as a poem about war from a pacifist perspective akin to Virginia Woolf's in Three Guineas.
Students are intrigued by the following: (1) Gender. They are fascinated by H.D. as a window into the problems and achievements of women's creativity. They love, for example, to read her famous "sea garden" poems (e.g., "Sea Rose") as encoded statements of female vulnerability and rejection of a suffocating femininity. (2) War and peace. Students are very interested and moved by her response to war. They are intrigued by the goddesses and matriarchal religions. (3) Initially, students are afraid of H.D.--real "poetry anxiety." They think they won't be able to understand it because it has so many allusions. But when they are given a framework for thinking about the poetry, they are very responsive.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The headnote summarizes the major themes. To summarize, I think H.D. should be taught with emphasis on the following themes:
1. her attempt to understand the roots of cataclysmic violence and propose a revision of renewal and peace
2. the intersection of the historical and the personal in her stance as a woman
3. her characteristically modernist sense of quest in a shattered and war-torn world
4. her sense of the sacred, manifested in both female and male forms
5. her exploration of language--its magic (as logos), its music, its power as something women can claim to reconstitute gender and a vision of the cosmos
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
H.D. is best taught as a modernist and a woman writer. The selections give you the opportunity to show her development from an imagist poet in the teens to an epic poet of the 1940s and 1950s. Her imagist poetry--represented here by two poems from Sea Garden ("Sea Rose" and "The Helmsman") and her most frequently anthologized poem "Oread" (often discussed as the "perfect" imagist poem)--was highly innovative in its form and a central influence on modern poetry. Imagism, however, became a craft in the service of larger visions after 1917. "Helen," published in the 1920s, is characteristic of a large number of revisionist myth poems that she began writing in her post-imagist phase and that have had a strong influence on contemporary women's poetry. In writing epics (some critics prefer the term "long poem"), H.D. went against the engrained masculine conventions of the genre to forge a woman's epic form. The selections from The Walls Do Not Fall and Tribute to the Angels (the first two volumes from Trilogy) emphasize the poet's placement in history (literally, in London, during the nightly bombing raids of World War II) and the syncretist mythmaking of the modernist poet-prophet. These sequences can be taught in the context of religious poetry, but students should be encouraged to compare her female-centered vision with those traditions that she transforms. In teaching any of H.D.'s poetry, its strong musical quality can be emphasized. Within the vers libre tradition, she nonetheless established complex patterns of sound based on assonance, dissonance, occasional rhyme (including internal and off rhymes), rhythmic and syntactic patterns, and repetition.
H.D.'s work should always be grounded in its historical period. H.D.'s imagist verse was written in the exhilarating prewar world of the avant-garde and then during the devastating Great War. Her epic poetry was written in the forties and fifties after another great war. Her audience during these years was in effect primarily the avant-garde that was "making news" in all the arts. She was not a "popular" poet, but has often been known as a "poet's poet." Since the second wave of feminism, she has been widely read by women and men who are interested in women's writing.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
1. Male modernists: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Hughes, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence. Like these men, she experimented with poetic language. Like them, she increasingly wrote quest poetry in which the poet figures as a central mythmaking figure creating new meanings in a world whose symbolic systems have been shattered.
2. Female modernist writers: Marianne Moore, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and Djuna Barnes are modernist women writers with whom H.D.'s reconstructions of gender share a great deal-- thematically and linguistically.
3. Fruitful comparisons can also be made with William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Dante, and Homer.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Explication assignments work well with H.D.'s imagist poems. But the best papers I have received from undergraduates ask the students to examine how H.D. engages in a gender-inflected revisionist mythmaking in her poems. The students trace the conventional myth H.D. invokes and then examine thematically and linguistically how she uses and transforms the tradition.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: H.D. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Especially essays by Morris, Friedman, Gubar, Martz, and Gelpi.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. H.D.: The Career of That Struggle. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1986.
Edmons, Sussan. History, Psychoanalysis, and Montage in H.D.'s Long Poems. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Especially 56-59, and Chapters 7 and 8.
--. Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Introduction and Chapter 1.
Friedman, Susan Stanford and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, eds. Signets: Reading H.D. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Especially essays by Morris, Pondrom, Gregory, Laity, Gubar, Gelpi, and Ostriker.
Laity, Cassandra. H.D. and the VIctorian Fin de Siécle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." In On Lies, Secrets, and Silences: Prose. New York: Norton, 1979. 33-49.
Showalter, Elaine. "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness." In The New Feminist Criticism. edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 243-70.