H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle) was an American poet, novelist and memoirist known for her association with the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets such as Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington. The Imagist model was based on the idioms, rhythms and clarity of common speech, and freedom to choose subject matter as the writer saw fit. H.D.'s later writing developed on this aesthetic to incorporate a more female-centric version of modernism.
H.D. was born in Pennsylvania in 1886, and moved to London in 1911 where her publications earned her a central role within the then emerging Imagism movement. A charismatic figure, she was championed by the modernist poet Ezra Pound, who was instrumental in building and furthering her career. From 1916–17, she acted as the literary editor of the Egoist journal, while her poetry appeared in the English Review and the Transatlantic Review. During the First World War, H.D. suffered the death of her brother and the breakup of her marriage to the poet Richard Aldington, and these events weighed heavily on her later poetry. Glenn Hughes, the authority on Imagism, said of her 'her loneliness cries out from her poems. She had a deep interest in Ancient Greek literature, and her poetry often borrowed from Greek mythology and classical poets. Her work is noted for its incorporation of natural scenes and objects, which are often used to emote a particular feeling or mood.
She befriended Sigmund Freud during the 1930s, and became his patient in order to understand and express her bisexuality.
H.D. married once, and undertook a number of heterosexual and lesbian relationships. She was unapologetic about her sexuality, and thus became an icon for both the gay rights and feminist movements when her poems, plays, letters and essays were rediscovered during the 1970s and 1980s. This period saw a wave of feminist literature on the gendering of Modernism and psychoanalytical misogyny, by a generation of writers who saw her as an early icon of the feminist movement.
Hilda Doolittle was born into the Moravian community in Bethlehem in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. 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 1896, 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. She attended Philadelphia's Friends Central High School, at Fifteenth and Race streets, graduating in 1905. In 1901, 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, Pound presented her with a sheaf of love poems under the collective title Hilda's Book.
That year, Doolittle attended Bryn Mawr College to study Greek literature, but left after only three terms due to poor grades and the excuse of 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 The Comrade, a Philadelphia Presbyterian Church paper, between 1909 and 1913, mostly under the name Edith Gray. In 1907, she became engaged to 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, H.D. started a relationship with a young female art student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Frances Josepha Gregg. After spending part of 1910 living in Greenwich Village, she sailed to Europe with Gregg and Gregg's mother in 1911. In Europe, H.D. began a more serious career as a writer. Her relationship with Gregg cooled, and she met a writing enthusiast named Brigit Patmore with whom she became involved in an affair. Patmore introduced H.D. to another poet, Richard Aldington.
Soon after arriving in England, H.D. showed Pound some poems she had written. Pound had already begun to meet with other poets at the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Soho. He was impressed by the closeness of H.D. poems's to the ideas and principles he had been discussing with Aldington, with whom he had shared plans to reform contemporary poetry through free verse, the tanka and the tightness and conciseness of the haiku, and the removal of all unnecessary verbiage. In summer 1912, the three poets declared themselves the "three original Imagists", and set out their principles as:
Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective.
To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.
During a meeting with H.D. in a tea room near the British Museum that year, 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. However H.D. told different versions of this story at various times, and during her career published under a variety of pseudonyms. 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 her 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.
The early models for the Imagist group were from Japan, and H.D. often visited the exclusive Print Room at the British Museum in the company of Richard Aldington and the curator and poet Laurence Binyon in order to examine Nishiki-e prints that incorporated traditional Japanese verse. However, she also derived her way of making poems from her reading of Classical Greek literature and especially 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 Greek and Latin classics. H.D. worked on the plays by Euripides, publishing in 1916 a translation of choruses from Iphigeneia at Aulis, in 1919 a translation of choruses from Iphigeneia at Aulis and Hippolytus, an adaptation of Hippolytus called Hippolytus Temporizes (1927), a translation of choruses from The Bacchae and Hecuba (1931), and Euripides' Ion (1937) a loose translation of Ion.
She 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, utilising spare use of language, and a classical, austere purity. 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, illustrates this early style:
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
Before World War I, H.D. married Aldington in 1913; however, their first and only child, a daughter, was stillborn in 1915. Aldington enlisted in the army. The couple became estranged and Aldington reportedly took a mistress in 1917. H.D.
became involved in a close but platonic relationship with D. H. Lawrence. In 1916, her first book, Sea Garden, was published and she was appointed assistant editor of The Egoist, replacing her husband. In 1918, her brother Gilbert was killed in action, and that March she moved into a cottage in Cornwall with the composer Cecil Gray, a friend of Lawrence's. She became pregnant with Gray's child, however, by the time she realised she was expecting, the relationship had cooled and Gray had returned to live in London. When Aldington returned from active service he was noticeably traumatised, and he and H.D. later separated.
Close to the end of the war, H.D. met the wealthy English novelist Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman). They lived together until 1946, and although both took numerous other partners, Bryher remained her lover for the rest of H.D.'s life. In 1919, H.D. came close to death when she gave birth to her daughter Frances Perdita Aldington—although the father was not Aldington, but Gray—while suffering from war influenza. During this time, her father, who had never recovered from Gilbert's death, died. In 1919, H.D. wrote one of her few known statements on poetics, Notes on Thought and Vision, which was unpublished until 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 during this time, but he was suffering from the effects of his participation in the war, possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, and they became estranged, living completely separate lives, but not divorcing until 1938. They remained friends, however, for the rest of their lives. From 1920, her relationship with Bryher became closer and the pair travelled in Egypt, Greece and the United States before eventually settling in Switzerland. Bryher entered a marriage of convenience in 1921 with Robert McAlmon, which allowed him to fund his publishing ventures in Paris by utilising some of her personal wealth for his Contact Press.Both Bryher and H.D. slept with McAlmon during this time. Bryher and McAlmon divorced in 1927.
Novels, films and psychoanalysis
In the early 1920s, H.D. started to write three projected cycles of novels. The first of these, Magna Graeca, consists of Palimpsest (1921) and Hedylus (1928). The Magna Graeca novels use their classical settings to explore the poetic vocation, particularly as it applies to women in a patriarchal literary culture. The Madrigal cycle consists of HERmione, Bid Me to Live, Paint It Today and Asphodel, and is largely autobiographical, dealing with the development of the female artist and the conflict between heterosexual and lesbian desire. Kora and Ka and The Usual Star, two novellas from the Borderline cycle, were published in 1933. In this period, she also wrote Pilate's Wife, Mira-Mare, and Nights.
During this period her mother had died and Bryher had divorced her husband, only to marry H.D.'s new male lover, Kenneth Macpherson. H.D., Bryher, and Macpherson lived together and traveled through Europe as what the poet and critic Barbara Guest termed in her biography of H.D. as a 'menagerie of three'. Bryher and Macpherson adopted H.D.'s daughter, Perdita. In 1928, H.D. became pregnant but chose to abort the pregnancy in November. Bryher and Macpherson set up the magazine Close Up (to which H.D. regularly contributed) as a medium for intellectual discussion of cinema. In 1927, the small independent film cinema group POOL or Pool Group was established (largely funded with Bryher's inheritance) and was managed by all three. Only one POOL film survives in its entirety, Borderline (1930), which featured H.D. and Paul Robeson in the lead roles. In common with the Borderline novellas, the film explores extreme psychic states and their relationship to surface reality. As well as acting in this film, H.D. wrote an explanatory pamphlet to accompany it, a piece later published in Close Up.
In 1933, H.D. traveled to Vienna to undergo analysis with Sigmund Freud. She had an interest in Freud's theories as far back as 1909, when she read some of his works in the original German. H.D. was referred by Bryher's psychoanalyst due to her increasing paranoia about the rise of Adolf Hitler which indicated another world war, an idea that H.D. found intolerable. The Great War (World War I) had left her feeling shattered. She had lost her brother in action, while her husband suffered effects of combat experiences, and she believed that the onslaught of the war indirectly caused the death of her child with Aldington: she believed it was her shock at hearing the news about the RMS Lusitania that directly caused her miscarriage. Writing on the Wall, her memoir about this psychoanalysis, was written concurrently with Trilogy and published in 1944; in 1956 it was republished with Advent, a journal of the analysis, under the title Tribute to Freud.
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 1960 and 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). The opening lines of The Walls do not Fall clearly and immediately signal H.D.'s break with her earlier work:
An incident here and there,
and rails gone (for guns)
from your (and my) old town square.
After the war, H.D. and Bryher no longer lived together, but remained in contact. 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. Doolittle was one of the leading figures in the bohemian culture of London in the early decades of the century. Her later poetry 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.
Later life and death
During the 1950s, H.D. wrote a considerable amount of poetry, most notably Helen in Egypt (written between 1952–54), an examination from a feminist point of view of a male-centred epic poetry. H.D. used 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. Other poems from this period include 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.
H.D. visited the United States in 1960 to collect an American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. Returning to Switzerland, she suffered a stroke in July 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, 1961. Her epitaph consists of the following lines from her early poem "Let Zeus Record":
So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
one who died
following intricate song's
The rediscovery of H.D. began in the 1970s, and coincided with the emergence of a feminist criticism that found much to admire in the questioning of gender roles typical of her writings. Specifically, those critics who were challenging 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 have served as a model for a number of more recent women poets working in the modernist tradition; including the New York School poet Barbara Guest, the Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov, the Black Mountain poet Hilda Morley and the Language poet Susan Howe. Her influence is not limited to female poets, and many male writers, including Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, have acknowledged their debt.
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,
The mysteries remain,
I keep the same
cycle of seed-time
and of sun and rain;
lifted from the earth,
higher than my arms reach,
you have mounted.