Doolittle, Hilda 1886-1961

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DOOLITTLE, Hilda 1886-1961

(H. D., John Helforth)

PERSONAL: Born September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, PA; died of a heart attack, September 27, 1961, in Zurich, Switzerland; daughter of Charles Leander (a professor of mathematics and astronomy) and Helen Eugeneia (Woole) Doolittle; married Richard Aldington (a writer), October, 1913 (separated, 1919; divorced, 1938); children: Perdita (Mrs. John Schaffner). Education: Attended Bryn Mawr College, 1900-06.

CAREER: Poet, playwright, novelist, and translator. Literary editor of Egoist, 1916-17; contributing editor of Close-Up (cinema journal), 1927-31. Actress with Paul Robeson in film "Borderline," c. 1930.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guarantors Prize from Poetry, 1915; Levinson Prize, 1938, and Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, 1958, both for verse published in Poetry; Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal, 1959, for lifetime of distinguished achievement; Award of Merit Medal for poetry, National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1960.


under initials h. d.

Sea Garden (poems), Constable (London, England), 1916, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1975.

(Translator) Choruses from the "Iphigenia in Aulis" by Euripides, Clerk's Private Press, 1916.

The Tribute and Circe: Two Poems, Clerk's Private Press, 1917.

Hymen (poems), Holt (New York, NY), 1921.

Heliodora and Other Poems, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1924.

Collected Poems of H. D., Boni & Liveright (New York, NY), 1925.

H. D. (poems), edited by Hugh Mearns, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1926.

Palimpsest (novel), Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1926, revised edition, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1968.

Hippolytus Temporizes: A Play in Three Acts, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1927, revised edition, 1985.

Hedylus (novel), Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1928, revised edition, 1980.

Red Roses for Bronze (poems), Random House (New York, NY), 1929, reprinted, AMS Press, 1970.

Borderline—A Pool Film with Paul Robeson, Mercury, 1930.

Kora and Ka (novel), Darantiere (Dijon, France), 1934, Bios (Berkeley CA), 1978.

The Usual Star (poems), Darantiere (Dijon, France), 1934.

The Hedgehog (children's fiction), Brendin (London, England), 1936.

(Translator) Euripides, Ion (play), Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1937, revised edition, 1985.

What Do I Love? (poems), Brendin (London, England), 1944.

The Walls Do Not Fall (poems; also see below), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1944.

Tribute to the Angels (poems; also see below), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1945.

The Flowering of the Rod (poems; also see below), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1946.

By Avon River (poetry and prose), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1949, revised edition, 1986.

Tribute to Freud, with Unpublished Letters to Freud by the Author, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1956, enlarged edition, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1975, 2nd edition published as Tribute to Freud: Writing on the Wall, New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.

Selected Poems, Grove (New York, NY), 1957.

Bid Me to Live: A Madrigal (novel), Grove (New York, NY), 1960, revised edition, 1983.

Helen in Egypt (poem), Grove (New York, NY), 1961.

Two Poems (originally published in Life and Letters Today, 1937), Arif (San Francisco, CA), 1971.

Temple of the Sun, Arif (San Francisco, CA), 1972.

Hermetic Definition, New Directions (New York, NY), 1972.

Trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod, New Directions (New York, NY), 1973.

The Poet and the Dancer (originally published in Life and Letters Today, December, 1935), Five Trees Press, 1975.

(Contributor) Eric Walter White, Images of H. D., Enitharmon (London, England), 1976.

End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound, edited by Norman Holmes Pearson and Michael King, New Directions (New York, NY), 1979.

HERmione, New Directions (New York, NY), 1981, published as Her, Virago, 1984.

The Gift (memoir), New Directions (New York, NY), 1982.

Collected Poems, 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz, New Directions (New York, NY), 1983.

Notes on Thought and Vision and The Wise Sappho, City Lights Books, 1983.

Priest [and] A Dead Priestess Speaks (two poems), Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend WA), 1983.

Selected Poems, edited by Louis L. Martz, Carcanet Press (Manchester, England), 1989.

Richard Aldington and H. D.: The Later Years in Letters, Manchester University Press (Manchester, England), 1995, revised edition published as Richard Aldington and H. D.: Their Lives in Letters, 1918-1961, edited and with an introduction and commentary by Caroline Zilboorg, 2003.

Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H. D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, edited by Donna Krolik Hollenberg, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1997.

Pilate's Wife, edited and with an introduction by Joan A. Burke, New Directions (New York, NY), 2000.

Analyzing Freud: Letters of H. D., Bryher, and Their Circle, edited by Susan Stanford Friedman, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.

Hippolytus Temporizes [and] Ion: Adaptations of Two by Euripides, introduction by Carol Camper, New Directions (New York, NY), 2003.


(Under pseudonym John Helforth) Nights, Darantiere (Dijon, France), 1935.

Work represented in anthologies, including Des Imagistes: An Anthology, edited by Ezra Pound, A. & C. Boni, 1914; Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology, edited by Amy Lowell, Houghton Mifflin (New York, NY), 1915-17; and Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers, edited by Robert McAlmon, Contact Editions, 1925. Contributor to Poetry and other periodicals. Translator of Euripides's Hippolytus, 1919.

Collections of H. D.'s papers are housed at the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

SIDELIGHTS: As one of the founders of Imagism, Hilda Doolittle (known as H. D.) became known as much for her poetry as for her association with the group's distinguished writers. Yet her own stark and concrete poetry typified the demands of Imagism as set forth by Ezra Pound and a core of other avantgarde poets. By the mid-1920s, however, after a series of personal crises and the passing of the Imagist years, H. D. sought a more secluded life in Switzerland. But the events of her time—her psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, World War II, her advancing age and growing Christian faith—continued to be reflected in her writing. Although in many ways she wrote more productively and diversely than ever before, the influence she held early in her career has not been forgotten. H. D. remains known to many as "the perfect Imagist."

Clearly the most influential figure in H. D.'s early years was Ezra Pound. The two met when H. D. was fifteen, he sixteen, reported Melody Zajdel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and they were briefly engaged to be married until H. D.'s father broke up the relationship. Still, they continued to share their love of literature, classical as well as modern, with Pound encouraging H. D. by bringing books for her to read. Pound also introduced her to a close friend, William Carlos Williams. Pound, Williams, H. D., and H. D.'s Bryn Mawr classmate, Marianne Moore, as under-graduates discussed and developed the literary theories that would lead each of them to play a distinct role in changing the course of American poetry.

In 1906 H. D. left Bryn Mawr because of poor health. She continued to study on her own and began to write seriously for the first time. When Pound left the United States for Europe in 1908, publishing his first book in Venice and joining the literary circles in London, H. D. stayed behind, contributing poems, stories, and articles to a variety of newspapers and small journals.

She fell under Pound's influence again in 1911. She had left on a summer vacation to Europe, where she eventually settled permanently, and met Pound in London. There she was introduced to many of his literary friends, among them Ford Maddox Ford, William Butler Yeats, F. S. Flint, and Richard Aldington. But Pound, at first, remained most influential: "I had never heard of verse libre," she once noted of this time.

H. D., Pound, Flint, and Aldington formed the core of what became known as the Imagist movement. Living in Europe and publishing in the United States through Poetry, the group shaped the course of modern poetry. They abandoned the formalities of the poetry of the time as they set forth their Imagist tenets, calling for an economical verse in the language of common speech, composed "in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." Many saw the Imagists as innovators of poetic form. But to many readers, the new poetry was scandalous. In fact, the Imagists made poetry news and Poetry the subject of newspaper editorials and indignant letters.

Though H. D. wrote in the Imagist mode throughout much of her career, the movement itself was short-lived. Pound, who by some accounts invented the school solely to bring attention to H. D.'s work, drifted away from the movement's center and was replaced by Amy Lowell. (Disgusted with Lowell's influence in the group, Pound then dubbed the school "Amygism.") When the last of the group's collections, Some Imagist Poets, was published in 1917, it was accompanied with an explanation that its contributors could better establish their own direction as writers independent of the Imagist label. H. D. herself would later place the movement that had given her a name in a lowered perspective.

The highlight of H. D.'s personal life during these years was her relationship with fellow Imagist Richard Aldington. The two married in 1913, bonded by what Zajdel called a "mutual interest in classical literature, a mutual contempt of middle-class hypocrisy, and a mutual dedication to careers in poetry." They appeared to those around them as happy, but that joy was interrupted by World War I. Aldington went into service in 1916 while H. D. assumed his post as literary editor of the Egoist. Upon his return, however, their relationship began to deteriorate, leaving H. D. alone to endure a most difficult period of her life.

In addition to her marital problems, H. D. faced other serious personal crises. In 1918 her brother was killed in action in France. Later that year, in poor health and pregnant for the second time—her first pregnancy had ended in miscarriage—H. D. separated from Aldington. Her daughter Perdita was born in 1919; but also in that year H. D.'s father died. H. D.'s despondency was broken only with the help of a new friend, Winifred Ellerman, known pseudonymously as Bryher.

H. D.'s relationship with Bryher was the "single bright spot" of the time, reported Zajdel. Bryher stabilized her friend during her emotional crises, and offered H. D. encouragement as a writer as well. The two had met after Bryher had sent H. D. a letter praising Sea Garden, and Bryher continued to compliment H. D.'s work. In her book The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs, Bryher called H. D.'s collection Hymen "a beacon to those who, in a destructive age, believe in life." H. D., in turn, provided Bryher the encouragement she needed to pursue her own writing, and Bryher eventually became a successful novelist. Between 1919 and 1923 the two also traveled extensively, to Greece, Egypt, and America, spending most of their time in London between travels. H. D. finally settled in Switzerland in 1924.

By that time, the publication of Hymen and Heliodora had given H. D.'s poetry a significant platform from which to be judged. Readers praised her work for its economy of language and its precision but also detected hints of emotion uncharacteristic of much Imagist work. Whether she chose as her subjects symbols from the Hellenic world or objects taken from nature, she fused her abilities to create and to control.

The publication of Collected Poems in 1925 is considered a watershed in H. D.'s career. The book helped establish her reputation by bringing into one volume all of her poems and translations. To some, such as William Carlos Williams, Collected Poems was warmly received for presenting all of H. D.'s work together. But at the same time, as Vincent Quinn suggested in Hilda Doolittle (H. D.),, the book did H. D. one particular disservice: "The title suggests the end rather than the beginning of her career."

Aside from the publication of Collected Poems, the mid-1920s was marked by several other shifts in H. D.'s career. During this time she abandoned the active literary life of the expatriate circles and moved to Switzerland, which would remain her "permanent" home. Also during the 1920s H. D. changed the focus of her writing, broadening into some different types of poetry as well as into drama and fiction.

Though H. D. impressed some readers with her first two books of fiction, critics at the same time found them lacking. Her three-story collection Palimpsest "is a repository for the themes H. D. would explore throughout the rest of her career," declared Zajdel. Specifically, H. D. was concerned with the artist's search for identity and the role of the artist in society. In her second work of fiction, Hedylus, she explored a mother-son relationship. Praise for these works centered around her "exquisite" prose and the beauty of her presentation. Reservations about them, on the other hand, pointed to their difficult and exclusive nature. For example, writing in the New York Times, Babette Deutsch called Palimpsest a book "for poets and patient intellectuals." Deutsch added, however, that "to dismiss it as caviar would be to emphasize its delicacy at the expense of its indubitable strength."

During the 1930s H. D. published little while living privately in Switzerland. A major influence on her during this time was the psychoanalysis she submitted to under the guidance of Sigmund Freud. H. D. first sought Freud's help in 1933 and visited him again a year later, and she published her recollections of the experience in her 1956 book, Tribute to Freud. "Essentially," said Quinn, "the work is a self-portrait brought into focus by her confrontation with Freud." Freud helped H. D. to understand her dreams, Quinn reported, but the two differed in their beliefs regarding immortality. As H. D. herself wrote, Freud's argument was that a "belief in the soul's survival, in a life after death … was the last and greatest phantasy." H. D., in contrast, longed "for the Absolute," said Quinn. "She clung to the faith that the shortcomings of time would be overcome in eternity."

H. D. regained some attention as a poet with the release of the separate volumes of her "war trilogy" in the mid-1940s. Her most recent major publication before that, Red Roses for Bronze (1929), had been noted for some stylistic innovations, but the volume had also, according to Zajdel, "marked the end of H. D.'s popularity with the public." While the trilogy did not bring her immediate fame, it was evidence of a renewed creative vigor.

In The Walls Do Not Fall, the first volume of the trilogy, H. D. asserts her idealism—her belief in man's union with God—in the face of war. Tribute to the Angels follows that same theme, focusing on the conflict between faith and war. With her faith firmly established, H. D. then seeks in Flowering of the Rod to achieve a mystical vision, "a transcendental union with God." This section of the trilogy has been criticized for being too mystical; but, as Quinn noted, "although the reader may be dismayed by H. D.'s theology, his sympathy is almost certain to be aroused by the candor and intensity of her quest for a religious experience."

Corresponding with the power of H. D.'s vision was an equally strong poetic presentation. In A Short History of American Poetry, Donald Barlow Stauffer remarked: "There are in these poems the same qualities found in the verse written more than a decade earlier, precision of image and word, directness of statement, but with a sureness and evenness of tone that show how firmly she was in control of the world she had chosen to re-create."

After World War II H. D. returned to Switzerland, where she wrote her third major work of fiction, Bid Me to Live. The novel is her roman à clef about life in London in the 1920s. "I am Julia," she told Newsweek interviewer Lionel Durand of her connection with the novel's protagonist in 1960, "and all the others are real people." Specifically, "all the others" include D. H. Lawrence, his wife, and Aldington. In the novel Julia's marriage dissolves and she becomes involved in a platonic relationship with another man. When that man withdraws from her, Julia's solution, said Zajdel, "is a dedication to her life as an artist and an affirmation of her identity as a creator and poet. As a result, the theme of artist as hero who will prevail if the artist remains dedicated to his or her art is prevalent throughout H. D.'s work."

H. D. offered a different sort of optimism in her last major poetic work, Helen in Egypt. A book-length mixture of poetry and prose composed in three parts, Helen in Egypt is the author's recreation of the Helen-Achilles myth. Her theme, said Quinn, "is stark and transcendental: the perfect love that she and Achilles seek is to be found in death: 'the dart of Love / is the dart of Death.'" Horace Gregory reinforced this notion in his introduction to the 1974 edition of Helen in Egypt when he said "her overlying theme … is one of rebirth and resurrection." Helen in Egypt is also important as a representative display of the themes and techniques H. D. employed throughout her career. Many critics agreed with Emily Stipes Watts who wrote in The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 that "Helen in Egypt is the climax of H. D.'s career both intellectually and poetically."

Interestingly, a novel H. D. had written around 1930 but never published was finally made available in 2000. Pilate's Wife tells the story of Pontius Pilate from the viewpoint of his wife, Claudia, who H. D. calls "Veronica" in the novel. Bored with her life in the Roman court, Veronica has various lovers and intrigues. When she finally seeks the help of a seer, her life is changed to the point that Veronica determines to help Jesus escape execution. Library Journal contributor Melanie C. Duncan noted that, "Although the story would have been shocking had it been published in its time, today it will interest only H. D. scholars at best." Writing on the Elima Books Web site, B. Renner noted, "The novel, much less a reinvestigation of Christian origins than a character study, moves as Veronica herself moves, languidly, with dignity, detachment, and an ironic suspicion of the ineffable."

Though few would argue about H. D.'s importance as an influence on modern poetry, there continues to be debate regarding the lasting merits of her work. Readers have been deterred from much of H. D.'s writing because of the preciousness of her language, the abundance of mythology, and the limited world of her focus. And though she did broaden her subject range after World War II, she did so at the expense of the clarity and conciseness that had been her trademark. Still, her technical achievements, her poignant portrayals of her personal struggles, and the beauty of her work continue to earn her poetry and fiction a significant amount of praise.

To many, H. D. will be remembered as "a poets' poet." "To be 'a poets' poet,'" said Gregory, "has few tangible rewards, for this means that the poet who holds that title must often wait upon the future for true recognition." For the time being, however, H. D.'s achievement has been measured in comparison with the "major poets of the twentieth century," asserted Hyatt H. Waggoner in American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, "or at least with those in some sort of second category, like [Conrad] Aiken or [Archibald] MacLeish or [John Crowe] Ransom." And in the process of gaining her stature, "the notes she made in her journey, in her poems, compose one of the really distinguished bodies of work of this century."



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Edmunds, Susan, Out of Line: History, Psychoanalysis, and Montage in H.D.'s long poems, Stanford University Press (Palo Alto, CA), 1994.

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