“Sea Rose,” written by Hilda Doolittle, more commonly referred to by her pen name, H.D., was first published in 1916 and was included in H.D.'s Sea Garden, her first collection of poetry. This poem is one of the most popular poems in this first collection and has been frequently anthologized. In “Sea Rose,” H.D. rejects the traditional image of the rose as a symbol of feminine beauty and love, and instead provides an image of a flawed and stunted rose enveloped in the sea. This reversal of expected images also suggests why H.D. is regarded as important in any discussion of modern feminist poetry. Her poem suggests that neither the rose, nor a woman, must be perfect to be appreciated. H.D. is perhaps the best known of the Imagist poets, who were followers of Ezra Pound's ideas about a new style of poetry that was direct, concise, and relied mostly on imagery to communicate its message. Indeed, H.D.'s “Sea Rose” is representative of how concise language can be used to create images from words. “Sea Rose” is also included in a collection of her poetry, H.D. Selected Poems, published in 1957. The third edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, published in 2003, contains a selection of H.D.'s poetry, including “Sea Rose.”
H.D. was born Hilda Doolittle on September 10, 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She was one of
six children and the only daughter to survive infancy. Her father, Charles Doolittle, was a professor of mathematics and astronomy, and her mother, Helen, taught art and music at a local seminary. H.D. studied classical and modern language in high school and attended Bryn Mawr only briefly before leaving college in 1906. While at Bryn Mawr, she became friends with poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. As a teenager, H.D. had been romantically involved with the poet Ezra Pound, to whom she was briefly engaged. Although the two did not marry, H.D. later followed Pound to London, where he introduced her to a literary circle of friends, including D. H. Lawrence, May Sinclair, W. B. Yeats, and Richard Aldington, whom H.D. married in 1913. Several of her poems were published in Poetry magazine in 1913, in large part thanks to Pound's efforts. These poems were published under the name H.D. Imagiste, a word coined by Pound to describe H.D.'s Imagism poetry, in which a concise and precise selection of words is used to create images. H.D.'s earliest published poems were very popular and she became the best known representative of the Imagism movement.
Her success as a writer did not, however, ensure happiness in her private life. H.D.'s first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth in 1915, a year before the publication of her first collection of poetry, Sea Garden, in which the poem “Sea Rose” appears. H.D. and Aldington separated in 1918, just before the birth of a daughter in 1919. After her marriage ended, H.D. began to live with the novelist Annie Winifred Ellerman, who used the pseudonym, Bryher, for her novels. The two women moved to Lake Geneva in 1920, which continued to be their home throughout the remainder of H.D.'s life. Several collections of poetry published in the 1920s enhanced H.D.'s reputation as an Imagist poet. In addition, Hymen (1921), Heliodora, and Other Poems (1924), and Collected Poems of H.D. (1925) also firmly established H.D. as an important figure in modern feminist poetry. In the 1930s, H.D. began an extended period of psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, during which she lived in seclusion in Switzerland.
Although she published infrequently in the 1930s, in the mid 1940s H.D. began a period of more intense work, with the publication of a war trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). H.D.'s last major poetic work was Helen in Egypt, published a month after her death in Switzerland on September 27, 1961. During her career, she published poetry, novels, and drama. H.D. won the Guarantors Prize from Poetry magazine in 1915, the Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal in 1959 for lifetime achievement, and the Award of Merit Medal for poetry from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1960.
“Sea Rose” begins with a contradiction of both literary and romantic custom. Traditionally, roses are emblematic of romance and beauty. Countless poets have compared a woman's beauty to that of a rose. H.D. reverses the expected and begins her poem with the line, “Rose, harsh rose.” Rather than softness and velvety delicacy as would be expected of the rose, this sea rose is hardened, rough, more austere than its cousin, the long-established English rose. This rose is “marred,” imperfect and spoiled by its “stint of petals.” Rather than a glorious flower with abundant petals, this rose has been blighted and is lacking in its allotment of petals; instead, a “meagre flower” results. H.D. uses only a few words to paint a picture of the sea rose, with its “thin” flower and “sparse” leaves. Rather than the perfect rose of literary tradition, the sea rose is described by words that create an image of blooms too paltry and scanty to fulfill the expected icon of the rose as a symbol love, feminine beauty, and fragile loveliness. This first stanza also suggests that the poet's idea of beauty is not the traditional English garden, of which the rose is the centerpiece, renowned for its beauty. Instead, this poet's rose is wild, stunted, and totally resistant to the severity of life that batters it.
To the poet, however, this sea rose, though flawed and seemingly incomplete, is “more precious” for its imperfections. The contrast in the next two lines is the customary long-stemmed beauty, which so many lovers embrace as a tool to woo young women. This is the “rose” encased in water and a vase, the “single on a stem” beauty so vividly associated with romantic love. In contrast, the sea rose is “caught in the drift” of the sea, floating in the water and churned by the sea. Its survival in the harsh sea reveals its strength. This is no delicate rose, unable to survive when buffeted about. This sea rose, defined by its lack of beauty and its ability to survive being tossed by the sea is a metaphor for the poet, who is able to withstand life's painful challenges. The year before the publication of “Sea Rose,” H.D. was pregnant with her first child, but the pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Rather than the image of fragility and delicate beauty that is expected in a poem about a rose, H.D. embraces strength and an ability to survive painful events, no matter how difficult the process.
The third stanza begins the second complete sentence of the poem with the observance that the sea rose is “stunted,” having been flung from the sea upon the sand. With its “small leaf,” it is easy prey for the coastal winds that lift the sea rose and “crisp” grains of sand, with ease. The rose, now wet from being carried in the sea, is contrasted with the sand, whose crispness describes both the cold of the sand and its crusty, often brittle nature. The rose is able to endure even when buffeted by strong winds. The use of the word “drives” suggests the fierceness of the wind that tosses the rose, which was “flung” from the sea in which it floated onto the sand, with its abrasive ability to wear down whatever touches it. Sandpaper derives its name from the feel of sand on a beach, and yet sandpaper is capable of wearing away even hard wood. The poet juxtapositions the rose, as victim of the rushing sea and the harsh sands, and still it survives, with its meager petals and small leaves intact.
In the final three lines, the poet does not waste a single word. With the same brevity of language that offered only sharp words of description, such as “harsh,” “marred,” and “meagre,” the poet returns to the comparison between the sea rose and the romantic rose of poetry. The smell of the perfect lover's rose is one of the most cherished aspects of this flower. The rose smell is so essential that the rose given by a cherished lover is often pressed between sheets of tissue paper, preserved as a memory forever, its “spice” scent intensifying as it dries. The rose smell is so valued that its scent is often duplicated in perfumes. In contrast, the sea rose with its “acrid fragrance” is even more valued. Its scent did not come easily, a gift from a generous nature that imbues the lover's rose with its sometimes cloying scent. Instead, the scent of the sea rose emerges from its “hardened” existence, a byproduct of its survival. This same rose was “lifted” by the sea, whose strength carried it ashore. Its scent is “acrid,” pungent, perhaps bitter. All its strength goes to surviving. The sea rose lacks the safety of the lover's cherished handling, the perfect vase to protect and nurture its “spice-rose” beauty. Instead, the sea rose has no extra vigor to give to values of beauty and scent. The sea rose, like H.D., is a survivor. Although buffeted by waves and wind, the rose survives the challenges it faces. In the last line, it becomes clear that the sea rose is a “hardened” victor, that has survived.
The beginning of the twentieth century and World War I brought about the end of Romantic sentimentality in literature, which had lingered even through the Victorian Age. World War I changed the face of literature. H.D. lived in England during this period, where the impact of war was keenly felt. The events of World War I brought about a period of disillusionment and pessimism. The glory of fighting for the Empire was replaced by the reality of dying in trenches. The brutality of war was made significantly worse by the use of airplanes, which made aerial bombing more commonplace. The use of mustard gas and the torpedoing of the Lusitania led to huge numbers of casualties. H.D.'s husband, Aldington, volunteered for the army, and her beloved brother, Gilbert, died during World War I. World War I made clear that the heroism of war was only an ideal that did not exist in modern warfare. H.D. captures this rejection of sentimentalism in “Sea Rose.” The sea rose is not the lover's gift of sweet scent, nor is it an offering of seduction to woo a woman. Instead the sea rose is a flawed beauty that, though harsh and acrid, marred and meagre, still survives being buffeted by the sea and wind. This rose is no fragile sentimental beauty to be pressed between tissue paper and saved for lingering daydreams. In this poem, H.D. rejects the sentimental view of a world so obviously flawed by pain and hatred. Although lacking the sentimental beauty of the garden rose, the sea rose proves able to withstand the reality of life, which is often cruel and filled with pain, just as war proved to be even more cruel than could be imagined.
Rejection of Feminine Perfection
In “Sea Rose,” the poet rejects the notion that a flower must attain perfection to be valued. Rather than an exacting number of petals and leaves, with glorious fullness and a scent that adds to its beauty, H.D.'s sea rose is described with a series of adjectives that rebuff the established ideas about floral beauty. H.D.'s rose is “harsh,” “marred,” “meagre,” “sparse,” and “stunted.” The rose is also a time-honored representative of feminine beauty. The literary tradition in poetry has a history of describing women as willowy as a long-stemmed rose, with cheeks that blush like the pinkest rose, of lips that are full with the crimson color of roses, and even bosoms that are pale like the whitest rose. H.D.'s rejection of this idealism suggests that images of feminine perfection can be similarly rejected in favor of the realistic depiction of beauty. The freedom of the sea rose to go where ever the sea or winds take it is a freedom lacking for women. With this poem, H.D. rejects the conventional ideas that govern women's lives. There is no need to be perfect and no limitations to rule women's lives. Though wild, women are “more precious” than their domestic counterparts. Real women can be imperfect and they can have value, even when they lack the “spice-rose” of the protected and carefully cultivated garden rose.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- One of the best ways to learn about poetic form is to write poetry. Place yourself in H.D.'s poetic tradition, and using her poem as a guide, write at least one or two poems that imitate both her style, language use, and content. When you have completed your poems, write a brief evaluation of your work, comparing it to H.D.'s poems. In your written critique of your poems, consider what you learned about the difficulty of writing Imagist poetry.
- Visual artists are often inspired by poetry. Spend some time looking through art books in the library and try to select a picture or illustration that you feel best illustrates H.D.'s poem. Then, in a carefully worded essay, compare the art that you have selected to “Sea Rose.”
- Women's lives were undergoing a period of transition in the second decade of the twentieth century. Indeed, women were striving for more freedom and in some cases rejecting traditional patriarchal expectations. Research the suffrage movement (in which women sought the right to vote) that defined this historical period and prepare an oral presentation that focuses on the women who were essential to this movement.
- Many scholars compare H.D.'s poetry to that of the Greek poet, Sappho. In an essay, compare H.D.'s poem to one of Sappho's poems. Include quotations from each poet's work and be prepared to discuss how each poet uses language to create images.
“Sea Rose” is a poem whose brevity of language still manages to create an image of survival and strength in sixteen very short lines. Although the sea rose lacks the beauty of the conventional garden rose, the poem still suggests that the sea rose has value separate from the more conventional domestic rose. The sea rose is “lifted” by the blowing sand, rather than lying battered on the shore. This symbol of survival parallels H.D.'s own survival of the stillbirth of her first child in 1915. H.D. rejects the fragility of a world where the rose is perceived as a delicate symbol of love and beauty. In its place, she embraces a world where a “stunted” flower can be pounded by waves and wind and still survive. The sea rose is strong enough to be “lifted” by the blowing sand and still retain a sense of self, clearly defined by the label: rose. Like H.D., herself, the sea rose will survive no matter how battered. The sea rose is “hardened” by all that it has experienced and its scent, though acrid, is still preferred over the scent of the domestic rose, whose endurance has not been tested.
Avant Garde refers to writing that reveals new and innovative ideas and style. The term can be used to refer to either form or subject. The term derives from a French military metaphor that designates a frontal attack. In literature, then, the term suggests that the writer is attacking literary traditions and creating something inventive and original. H.D.'s poem is Avant Garde because of the poet's reliance on Imagist techniques and because the subject rejects traditional ideas about roses as iconic symbols of femininity and romantic love.
Free verse is verse with no discernable structure, rhyme scheme, or meter. Free verse allows the poet to fit the poetic line to the content of the poem. The poet is not restricted by the need to shape the poem to a particular meter but can instead create complex rhythm and syntax. Free verse is not the same as blank verse, which also does not use a rhyme scheme. Blank verse almost always adheres to iambic pentameter, while free verse relies on line breaks to create a rhythm. Free verse is most often associated with modern poetry, as it is with H.D.'s poem. There is no pattern of rhyme or meter to “Sea Rose.” Instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem more of a sing-song rhythm that is best appreciated by reading it aloud. In this poem, H.D. does not adhere to any standardized meter; nor are the stanzas exactly the same. H.D. creates her own meaning using concise, clear language that does not waste words.
Imagism is a style of poetry that was created by a group of poets during the second decade of the twentieth century. H.D. was one of the originating poets who created this style. The Imagist style uses common ordinary language and exact, concise word choice to create an image. Imagist poets reject formulaic language and conventional topics, as well as fixed rhymes and meter. Imagists also embraced the notion of exact imagery that was harsh and unexpected. “Sea Rose,” is an example of Imagist poetry. The sparse use of language, with exacting descriptive word choice that create images that are unexpected, such as the “harsh,” “meager” rose, captures the Imagist principles. H.D.'s poem also rejects established ideas about rhyme and meter that had long governed poetry. “Sea Rose,” contains no rhyme scheme or fixed meter to define it.
The label, modern poetry, like modern novels and other forms of modern literature, refers to the poet's strong and conscious effort to break away from tradition. Modern poetry attempts to create a new world by changing perceptions of the old world. Modern literary works identify the individual as more important than either society or social conventions and privileges the mind and the poet's inward thoughts. The imagination of the poet often prefers the unconscious actions of the individual. H.D.'s poetry suggests that poets can be free of conventional ideas about romance and beauty. Her poem moves beyond typical definitions of what is pretty to privilege strength over fragility, just as modern poetry values the freedom to challenge traditions.
Early Twentieth-Century Feminism
In “Sea Rose,” H.D. rejects traditional ideas about feminism and embraces a definition of feminism that is untamed and imperfect. The sea rose is free to go where ever the sea or winds take it. This is a freedom lacking for women, who in the early twentieth century are constrained by a society that places great value on women as delicate creatures in need of restraint. H.D. had moved to England in 1911 and continued to live there throughout World War I. The world in which she was living was still caught up in traditional values that limited women's lives. Prior to the beginning of World War I, women in England still lacked equality in many areas. Women still had limited opportunities to work. Domestic service continued to be a common avenue of employment open to women. Women were still not permitted to vote in national elections. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters had formed the Women's Franchise League in 1889 and quickly won the right for women to vote in elections for local office. By 1906, Pankhurst had established a London office, where her efforts in the suffrage movement became increasingly militant. She was repeatedly jailed and used hunger strikes to bring attention to the suffrage movement. During World War I, Pankhurst and her followers agreed to stop their protests, and the suffragettes who had been jailed were released. During this period there was little progress in the suffrage movement; however, by 1917, the British government needed to have an election. The history professor Joanna Bourke points out in her article “Women on the Home Front in World War One” that only men who had been residents for twelve months were permitted to vote. But with so many men in Europe fighting the war, there were not enough men to vote. In order to provide enough voters for a national election, women over the age of thirty who owned land were given the right to vote in a general election. Bourke estimates that about 8.5 million women received the vote in 1918. This was the first step in granting women any rights at all. The suffrage movement that was put on hold during World War I never really regained its prewar momentum after the war ended. It would be 1928 before all women in England had the right to vote.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1910s: The British Parliament gives women over thirty the right to vote in national elections in 1918.
Today: The hard fought effort for suffrage has been forgotten in England and the United States, where the right of women to vote is now taken for granted.
- 1910s: Women in Great Britain are used to recruit men to join the army and fight in the Great War. Women tell men that joining is a matter of honor.
Today: Women are no longer used to recruit their fathers, husbands, and sons to go to war. Instead of recruiting their loved ones, women now serve as soldiers and sailors in the military.
- 1910s: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse debuts in Chicago in 1912. It is one of the first magazines devoted to poetry. H.D. publishes some of her very earliest poems in Poetry, and other poets published in the magazine around this time include Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and Hart Crane, all of whom are now very well known and were brought to public notice through publication in Poetry.
Today: Though there are now many magazines, journals, and websites that publish new poets, Poetry is still known for introducing new poets that go on to achieve lasting fame.
Women and War
World War I did offer some opportunities that freed women from the domestic sphere. Women took the jobs vacated by men, who had gone to fight the war. They worked in factories, manufacturing goods needed for the war effort. They worked farms and harvested crops, and of course, they worked as nurses to care for the wounded, both in England and near the front lines in Europe. In her article, “Women and the Military during World War One,” Bourke explains that the Women's Defence Relief Corps helped to place women in men's jobs, so that men could join the war effort. Women were also trained in a semi-military fashion to defend the home front, and they were used to recruit men to volunteer for the war, as a matter of honor. As was the case during past wars, women had more freedoms during time of war. By assuming men's work, they also assumed the freedoms that accompanied the male sphere. These working women were not paid men's salaries, though. Bourke claims that many employers divided men's jobs among several women or changed job descriptions to circumvent union rules that governed wages. Women who were active in women's rights in England thought that the Great War would change women's lives. In a sense that did happen. After the war, it was difficult to convince women to return to the lives they led before the war. Bourke claims that half of the first group of recruits for the London General Omnibus Company were former female domestic servants. Women also took clerical jobs or began working for the Civil Service. Women earned better wages than they had as domestic servants and they had more independence. However, for most women, the great hopes that World War I would lead to greater equality dissipated after the War. Women who were able to work found that they were paid less than men. The jobs that men held prior to the war were returned to men when the war ended, and most women returned to their traditional roles as wives and mothers.
When H.D. died in September 1961, her obituary in the New York Times celebrated her accomplishments by recalling the many books of poetry that she had written throughout her life. It was, according to this obituary, the publication of Sea Garden, H.D.'s first collection of poems, that established her reputation. The obituary writer refers to H.D.'s work as “exquisite in its deftness,” and notes that she was “rated by some recent critics as the most accomplished of the Imagists.” The critical comments about her work that are voiced in H.D.'s obituary were not always so flattering during her lifetime. In fact, a New York Times review of Sea Garden upon its publication in 1916 was certainly less appreciative of H.D.'s talent as a poet. Indeed, the critic writing in this review comments: “There is genuine beauty in Sea Garden, but it lacks
laughter.” The reviewer suggests that H.D. should relax “her taut soul.” According to the critic, H.D. is too much the Puritan, too strict in her depiction of nature as hostile. She would benefit more, according to the reviewer, if she were a hedonist, since the self-indulgent pursuit of happiness takes “more strength and more courage” than being a Puritan, which is too difficult to do on a consistent basis. Nevertheless, the negative opinions expressed in this 1917 review are generally uncommon. Usually, reviews of H.D.'s poetry are more mixed, with comments that both flatter and criticize.
Reviewing H.D.'s 1932 collection, Red Roses for Bronze, Percy Hutchison, also writing in the New York Times, calls H.D.'s poems “rejuvenating and magical.” Hutchison refers to H.D. as a “rare lyric genius” whose “work is sculptured with all the care of a worker in marble.” However, he quickly shifts to a more critical stance in comparing H.D.'s work to that of one of her contemporaries, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Hutchison claims that H.D. neglects melody in her poetry, and thus, while both Millay and H.D. will enjoy longevity as poets, Millay's poems will be read, while H.D.'s will remain on library shelves. H.D. is a poet, he says, whose technique is too “carefully studied.” Regardless, Hutchison feels that H.D.'s poems can rise above their limitations and become “exquisite.”
In 1957, with the publication of H.D.'s Selected Poems, the critical reception of the poet's work had changed dramatically. Reviewer Babette Deutsch, writing in the New York Times, points out that tastes in poetry changed from when H.D. first began writing. H.D.'s earliest works, once so criticized by reviewers, had since become a staple of poetry anthologies. Where earlier critics had complained that her work lacked melody, Deusch celebrates this very feature of H.D.'s poems, referring to “her lyricism” as her most “salient gift.” According to Deutsch: “the reader hears a melody not only in the lines themselves but suggested by them.”
Deutsch is not the only critic to celebrate H.D.'s poems. After her death, Horace Gregory's tribute, published in the New York Times in 1961, sought to remind readers of her talents as a writer. Gregory admires the Imagist quality of H.D.'s work, referring to her poems as “clean and direct.” He also states that her “mature achievements” fulfill the “early promise” of her first poems. It is clear from both her obituary and Gregory's tribute, that after her death the critical ambiguity that had once plagued H.D.'s earlier work was replaced by admiration. Further proof of H.D.'s well-deserved place in the canon of modern poets was evident when a 1969 edition of the journal, Contemporary Literature was devoted to essays examining her work. Although not every essay in this issue celebrates H.D.'s poetry, the authors do have a common belief that her poetry remains relevant and worth additional study.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature. She teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. Karmiol is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay on “Sea Rose,” Karmiol examines H.D.'s poem as a celebration of unique poetic interpretations.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- H.D.'s Notes and Thought and Vision & the Wise Sappho (1969) is a meditation on the sources of imagination and the creative process.
- Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction (1991), by Susan Stanford Friedman, is the study of H.D.'s prose work.
- Winter Love: Ezra Pound and H.D. (2003), by Jacob Korg, is a comparative study of their lives and influence upon one another's work.
- Imagist Poetry: An Anthology, reissued in 1999 and edited by Bob Blaisdell, was originally edited by Ezra Pound. This anthology is a collection of the poetry written by members of the Imagist movement.
- Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing (1982), by Kate Farrell and Kenneth Koch, is a collection of poetry selected from the works of twenty-three modern poets. In addition to a collection of wonderful poems, the authors also provide guides to help the fledgling writer create his or her own poems.
- Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (2nd edition, 1996), by Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, is a good basic text to help the student understand form and function in modern poetry. One strength of this book is its emphasis on metrical structure and stanza forms.
- Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A History of World War I in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There (2004), by Max Arthur, provides firsthand accounts of World War I. H.D. lived in London during the war, and her poetry and prose writings were influenced by the suffering that the war caused.
“Sea Rose” might well serve as a metaphor for H.D., whose own life rejected conformity and tradition. Just as the sea rose is an unconventional adaptation of the domestic garden rose, H.D. was not representative of young women at the turn of the nineteenth century. She just did not fit well into the traditional role created for women in early twentieth-century America. She left Bryn Mawr College at age twenty without completing a degree, and she did so because she did poorly in math and English, but she did not leave to marry as so many other young women did during that period. Nor did she choose to marry in the five years after her return home. It is in her poetry that H.D. finds her identity as a poet and as a woman. As a woman poet, she transcends ordinary definitions of a woman as daughter, wife, and mother. Her poetry, like her personal life, reflects an effort to reject conventionality. “Sea Rose” rejects the expected and embraces the uncommon opportunities that present themselves, just as H.D. did in her own life.
When H.D. dropped out of college in 1906, she joined a swelling population of unmarried women, who had no real means of support beyond that provided by their families. Unmarried middle class women like H.D. were rare, though that was quickly changing. By the early twentieth century, women like H.D. were, in fact, becoming far more common in the United States. There were so many unmarried women—as many as one in four by some estimates—that society began to take notice. Indeed, women were beginning to challenge their traditional roles, and this is represented in “Sea Rose.” Instead of the domestic rose with its abundance of flowers and lush smell, the sea rose is “harsh,” “marred,” “meagre,” even “stunted.” The sea rose is a symbolic rejection of the romantic ideal of femininity and romance that the typical domestic rose represents. The sea rose mirrors H.D.'s rejection of the conformity that surrounded her. In 1911 and during a visit to Europe with Josepha Frances Gregg, H.D. decided to remain in England and not return to the United States. By remaining in London, H.D. effectively rejected the conventional life that awaited her at home. With the exception of several short visits, she never lived in the United States again.
In London, H.D. became a part of the new wave of literary and poetic rebellion, where Ezra Pound introduced her to a circle of poets that included Richard Aldington, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, all of whom saw poetry as a way to bring attention to social inequities. In her essay in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Irene Ramalho Santos claims that H.D. “conceived of poetry as a way of achieving social change.” According to Santos, H.D. did this in a “personal and intimate way, as a subtle and troubled questioner of the culture and the tradition, and the hegemonic (male) intellect, imagination, and sensibility that sustained them.” Her poem, “Sea Rose,” presents this questioning of culture, as the poem probes conventional ideas about femininity and survival. The sea rose, though battered by the sea and sand, claims its beauty in its survival. It presents the feminine as strong and capable of surviving, even when battered and beaten by forces that would attempt to confine women to the domestic garden of conventionality.
The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of change in both cultural and societal life. This was a period of time in which women's identities were as shifting as the blowing sands in H.D.'s poem. The world in which she was living was still caught up in traditional values that limited women's lives, but it was a world in which women were demanding more equality. This is a time in which modern poets use their texts to interrogate “the crisis of modernity,” according to Santos. These poets use poetry to “speak the language of rupture” that is occurring in the modern world, a world in which women are challenging traditions. Santos argues that “assumptions about the individual and collective identities of men and women, long taken for granted in the hierarchical order of the patriarchal tradition, were being challenged by science and technology, the intensification of commerce, and the unprecedented acceleration of travel and communication.” World War I highlighted the shifting boundaries between the domestic and private world of women and the salaried and public world of men. Santos notes that “at the beginning of the twentieth century, it had become more difficult than ever before to be a woman in a man's world, precisely because all three—woman, man, and world—were being transformed in many subtle and complex ways.” As the world underwent so much change, the ways in which men and women interacted reflected a new tension of change as their lives together became less clearly bound by institutional norms, such as marriage. Her relationship with Gregg is only one example of H.D.'s rejection of conventionality. Even before marrying Aldington, H.D. had been involved in a three-way romantic relationship with Ezra Pound and Gregg. Santos suggests that H.D.'s “intense emotional and erotic attachment” to Gregg, as well as “Pound's betrayal” in becoming involved with Gregg might have contributed to H.D.'s “understanding of herself as a poet.” It was as a poet that H.D. understood her role in the world and where she found the strength to reject the traditional values that defined what was expected of women.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, literature was characterized by the sentimentalism of the Romantic poets and nobility of the Victorian Age. Even before the start of World War I, the late Victorian Age began to give way to the Realist Period in English literature, as literature responded to the scientific revolution of the late nineteenth century. H.D.'s poetry appears right at the cusp of this change. As noted above, one change was in women's demands for more equality. Although the boundaries between women's and men's lives were less clearly defined than in previous centuries, the majority of women still continued to spend their adult lives as wives and mothers. H.D. did become a mother, but she rejected the conventionality of marriage after her union with Aldington ended. Instead, she began a lifelong relationship with the novelist, Annie Winifred Ellerman.
In his essay in Contemporary Literature, Joseph N. Riddel claims that H.D.'s “purity and hardness and coldness, her alleged classicism, are qualities of loneliness, a metaphysical estrangement that confronts her at every moment with the perilous condition of her own identity.” The hardness and coldness of which Riddel speaks are features of “Sea Rose.” With its emergence from the cold sea onto the “crisp sand,” the sea rose might be considered to exemplify the isolation of the speaker, but it also signifies survival. Even the perfume of the sea rose is “hardened” into an “acrid fragrance,” but once again, the speaker suggests that the sea rose is valued for its difference. While some readers find strength and survival in H.D,'s rejection of conformity, Riddel argues that rejection leads to unwelcome solitude. “And it is precisely this loneliness that calls forth her poems, those words through which she anxiously seeks connection at once with the solid ground of some remote past.” Riddel adds: “only words are not lonely.” H.D.'s vulnerability and loneliness may be present in her poetry, but her strength is that of the sea rose; it survives the challenges of change.
In a 1969 interview in Contemporary Literature, Norman Holmes Pearson, a long-time friend of H.D.'s, suggests that “only Emily Dickinson will be felt to be her [H.D.'s] superior as a woman poet.” Pearson is not alone in his admiration of H.D. In discussing the need for a female poet who might inspire a new generation of women poets, Alicia Ostriker, writing in Contemporary Literature, also looks to H.D. to provide a paradigm for women poets who seek to create a new women's literary canon. Ostriker argues that women poets need a model of strength and resistance. Indeed, Ostriker claims that “if a woman is ambitious and means perhaps to be a major poet, she will have read major critics—men of course—writing about the poets she might consider identifying with.” These female poets will find that the traits that were valued in women poets of the past were not what might be expected. Instead of strength and resistance, women poets will find that their poetic ancestors were valued, according to Ostriker, for being “modest.” Words such as powerful, forceful, violent, or large were not used to describe women poets. Ostriker says that women poets want models “who are subversive; whose work constitutes a critique of culture.” She argues that modern women poets have an obligation to retrieve the subversive nature that was so artfully disguised by earlier female poets, who sometimes had to pretend to be compliant to the values promoted in a patriarchal world that valued women more for their modesty than their talent. H.D. is the perfect poet to fill this role. In “Sea Rose,” she is at her best, celebrating the difference and the uniqueness of the individual, even while rejecting the supposed perfection of conventionality.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on “Sea Rose,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Gregory explores H.D.'s representation of a lyrical spiritual world through flower imagery in the poems collected in Sea Garden, with specific discussion of “Sea Rose” as well.
… I suggest that Sea Garden is a consciously crafted whole, with studied consistency in landscape, voice, and theme. The landscape is a sufficiently constant feature among the poems that we get the sense of a finite place: desolate sandy beach strewn with broken shells, large promontories and rocky headlands; inland, a barren stretch of sparse but hardy vegetation beyond the beach, and low wooded hills nearby; deeper inland, the marshes and places of luxuriant or cultivated growth. The voice in these poems also possesses consistency. All the speakers have a similar tone and intensity, even in poems dealing with specific dramatic situations and appearing to have sometimes male and sometimes female speakers. This voice is similar to that in H.D.'s translations of Euripidean choruses. Though few of the poems speak of “we,” the collective voice is suggested; the “I” dissolves within the pervasive sense of generalized suffering and exaltation, like the single voice in the chorus of tragedy. The poems are often addressed to another person or to a god, and, in a few instances, they are simple meditations. But the most representative address, occurring in more than a third of the poems, is the apostrophe, the vocative voice. It seems in part to function as prayer or supplication, summoning presences, as do some of the poems in the Greek Anthology. More than this, the apostrophe, as Jonathan Culler points out, serves to create “a detemporalized immediacy, an immediacy of fiction.” The “apostrophic” force is central to lyric power, creating “a fictional time in which nothing happens but which is the essence of happening” (152).
… The poems of Sea Garden appear to have been selected and arranged quite deliberately. The separate lyrics are not presented in chronological order, though their order is clearly not random. Furthermore, the volume does not represent merely a gathering of H.D.'s already published poems, for many of the best of these—for instance “Oread,” “Sitalkas,” and “The Pool”—do not appear until her third collection, Heliodora and Other Poems. The unity of Sea Garden is not immediately apparent; nevertheless the work gives singleness of affect. It is this affective coherence that first led me to contemplate the possibility of hidden authorial motives.
I find evidence of self-conscious crafting not only in the consistency of landscape and mood but in several details of structuring as well. Similar poems, such as the encounters with gods, the intense dramatic monologues, and especially the five sea-flower poems, are spaced evenly throughout the work, giving the impression of rhythmic or cyclic recurrence of moods and images. Furthermore, there is slight but deliberate progression in the poems depicting times of day (midday, evening, and night), and another, more subtle, progression in the placement of the precincts of the chief gods (the “shrine” at the beginning, the “temple” in the center, the “herm” as a boundary marker at the end). But to perceive the most significant instances of artistic choice in arrangement requires that one grasp the ritual intent of the whole volume: that one enter the sea garden, a world ritually set apart, as an initiate in its mysteries. Seen in this light the volume has a group of three initiatory poems that move us immediately and deeply into the mysteries of the sea garden, and three poems of closure that allow reflection upon the marginal nature of that world and the cultivation of the soul's beauty it allows. Considering first the governing images and themes of the book as a whole, I wish to treat the initiatory poems, others that suggest the character of the sea garden experience, and finally the poems of closure.
The title of the collection points to the governing experience in all its poems. The garden is traditionally the place of consummation of love. In H.D.'s poems the garden is still the place of love, but love washed with salt. It is a sea garden, inimical to all but the most enduring. The sea represents here the harsh power of elemental life, to which the soul must open itself, and by which it must be transformed or die. H.D. need not have known, but probably did, that sea/salt is the arcane alchemical substance linked to the mysterious bitterness and wisdom essential to spiritual life.
… In the opening three poems we move from an intense, static focus upon a mysterious icon (“Sea Rose”), to a choice for movement and engagement with the sea (“The Helmsman”), and, finally, to a ritual passage of entrance into the sacred mysteries of the sea garden (“The Shrine”).
H.D.'s flowers, like Sappho's, represent a moment when a certain poignant beauty takes on “the stature of an eternal condition in the spirit” (McEvilley, “Sapphic Imagery” 269). “Sea Rose” immediately reveals to the reader the necessity to look through the image to read that eternal condition. The initiate's work begins with learning clairvoyance. This “harsh” rose, “marred and with stint of petals, / meagre … thin, / sparse of leaf,” has no conventional worth, but, marked by the inimical elements, is altogether poor. Yet it is “more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem.” Here the typical standards of beauty are reversed, and in the last stanza the “spice-rose” is deficient for not possessing the “acrid fragrance” of this harsh flower. The relentless elements in action are annihilating (“you are caught in the drift … you are flung on the sand”); yet they exalt (“you are lifted / in the crisp sand / that drives in the wind”). The beauty is in the mark of sea-torture.
… “Sea Rose” and these other poems reveal the spiritual potency residing in a surrender to the process of “sea-change.” The flowers represent, like those of Sappho, a pure openness to life; however, rather than the fresh, natural virgin threshold of the young girls in Lesbos, these show a virginity, an integrity, achieved within desire. Moreover, in these key recurring poems the voice itself reveals its radical openness, its own movement in the wash of feeling. The dominant voice in Sea Garden comes from within the sea-washed flower …
Source: Eileen Gregory, “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H.D.'s Sea Garden,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 1986, pp. 525-52.
Jackson R. Bryer
In the following article, Bryer discusses the popular and critical reputation of H.D. in light of the mid-twentieth century scholars who attempted to reestablish American Imagism and Modernism as critical to the development of American poetry.
From the anonymous reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement in 1916 who kept referring to the author of Sea Garden as “he” down to William Hogan, longtime book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, who admitted, in a 1960 review of Bid Me to Live, that he thought that H.D. had died “years ago,” the literary career of Hilda Doolittle was one filled with paradoxes and shrouded in the sort of obscurity and mystery which the poetess herself apparently sought by using initials (and occasionally pseudonyms) instead of her full name. Although, as the first section of the following Checklist makes graphically apparent, H.D.'s verse and prose have been widely published, collected, and anthologized, the second section of the Checklist gives equally convincing evidence that her work has not been the subject of nearly the same amount of serious critical scrutiny afforded such contemporaries as Pound, Williams, Eliot, and Marianne Moore.
H.D.'s major claim to critical recognition, that she was the first and purest of the Imagists, has not only been an inescapable and all too facile means of summing up her almost fifty-year writing career, but it is also a key to understanding the fluctuations of her critical reputation during that career. When her verse began to appear, first in periodicals like Poetry, The Egoist, and the Little Review, and then in collections such as Sea Garden (1916), Hymen (1921), and Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), its uniqueness and apparently faithful adherence to the Imagist creed as enunciated by Pound elicited virtually unanimous approval from reviewers of the individual volumes and from essayists in the leading literary journals. Amy Lowell proclaimed her “among the most important of recent American poets,” while May Sinclair went even further in a review of Hymen, declaring, “There is certainly nothing in contemporary literature that surpasses these … poems.” Mark Van Doren hailed her as “the most perfect woman poet alive”; Herbert Gorman saw Heliodora as “certainly one of the most pleasing books of poetry that have appeared for some time”; and John Donelson, in The Bookman, called H.D. “one of the few living poets who speak with absolute accents of genius.” Further praise was lavished upon her, in early essays, by F. S. Flint (in The Egoist), John Gould Fletcher, and Richard Aldington (both in the Little Review). Virtually the only negative reactions were those expressed by English reviewers. Typical of these, the Times Literary Supplement found the selections in Hymen “deadening and monotonous,” and F. L. Lucas, in the New Statesman, felt that Heliodora was “a sham reproduction of an original that never existed.”
During the middle years of H.D.'s career, after the novelty and innovative quality of her verse were no longer noteworthy, critical attention began to dwindle in quantity, while at the same time being more sharply divided in its estimate of quality. There was also a tendency to analyze and characterize the nature of her art rather than simply to be enthusiastic about it. Several commentators, Harriet Monroe, Edward Sapir, and Babette Deutsch among them, viewed H.D.'s verse as decidedly American in spirit, though classical in form. Reviewers of Collected Poems (1925) were generally impressed, with Herbert Gorman, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams among those most appreciative; but Robert Hillyer sounded an early and prophetic note of mild dissent when he praised the translations in the book, but called her “metrical and rhymed verse … unsure, even bungling” in places, and predicted that H.D.'s work would survive not in collection, “but rather, like her admired Sappho, in fragments.” A glance at the Checklist will reveal the accuracy of this observation; for, while many of H.D.'s poems have been anthologized three or four times, only a handful—“Orchard,” “Oread,” “Heat,” and “Sea Gods”—have been reprinted continuously since their first appearance.
Adding to the ambiguous critical response during this period were the publications of Palimpsest (1926) and Hedylus (1928), H.D.'s first two books of “fiction.” Reviewers were plainly puzzled but hesitant to dismiss entirely what they did not understand. “It is possible not to like the intricate, subjective manner; but one can hardly fail to gain a sense of something rare, and real, and living,” wrote the reviewer of Palimpsest, in The Adelphi. The same work left Edward Shanks in the Saturday Review “with a faint impression that the author has failed to convey something not worth the conveying.” Similarly baffled by Hedylus, Grace Frank noted cryptically, “For those who can transmute the fragilities and subtleties of H.D.'s seeing and knowing into their own experience, the book will offer rarely suggestive reading.” But there were also those unafraid to register more definite opinions. Walter Kohn in the New Republic felt that the two books offered definitive evidence that “nowhere in contemporary English prose fiction is there any prose more exquisite than that of H.D., and that nowhere in English prose fiction are human emotions and experiences more immaculately reproduced.” On the other side, Gorham Munson called Hedylus “not so much caviar as poorly cooked common honest dessert”; and John Gould Fletcher felt that, in Palimpsest, “the treatment … overburdens the theme.”
Critical response to Red Roses for Bronze (1932), H.D.'s last pre-World War II collection of verse, was also divided. R. P. Blackmur, who had generally approved of her three-act, verse play, Hippolytus Temporizes (1927), was now very critical: “Having given her words work to do, she should have made sure that they worked at all times.” J. V. Cunningham admitted that H.D.'s verse, which now seemed “thin,” might have once been “overvalued because it was pertinent to our lives.” But, most important, many reviewers observed that the poems in Red Roses for Bronze were very different from the early Imagist verses, and thus began the task, which has actually continued down to the present moment, of distinguishing between H.D. the Imagist and H.D. the poetess and evaluating the two separately. The Times Literary Supplement saw the change as not entirely fortunate, noting that “the further removed from everyday, the more significant do her words seem to be.” The reviewer for The Spectator agreed, feeling that “attempts to handle contemporary experience [have] relaxed the frozen intensity of her verse and thawed it into a rather inconclusive fluidity.” But a critic for The Bookman claimed that what her new poems lost in beauty, “they gain[ed] for it in dramatic contrast.”
The movement in H.D.'s poetry away from Imagist form and classical themes toward a concern with the present world which had been signaled in Red Roses for Bronze was intensified in her three-volume series of war poems, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). Critics were now confronted directly with the challenge of whether or not they could accept her apart from the movement which had given her work its original impetus. Again, the response was mixed. Elizabeth Atkins called the first volume “the best poem that I have seen arising out of the present war”; Leo Kennedy saw the second as “one of her finest books”; and Martha Bacon felt that the third “will be a delight to all those who care for the poetry which we have inherited and which we long to perpetuate.” But the negative voices were clear, if not always reasonable in their standards. Babette Deutsch committed the fatal critical error in faulting H.D. in The Walls Do Not Fall for betraying “one of the first principles of imagism by using unwieldy abstractions instead of making each poem a concrete, expanded yet powerful metaphor.” Alfred Kreymborg, reviewing Tribute to the Angels for the Saturday Review of Literature, also seemed oblivious to the changes in its author's themes and method, choosing instead simply to characterize H.D. as “the perfect Imagist, and the one most certain to survive fly-by-night changes in poetry.” One is tempted to ask whether or not Kreymborg would have included H.D.'s own change in the fly-by-night category!
But by far the most damaging dismissal of H.D.'s art during the last twenty-five years was Randall Jarrell's in a “Verse Chronicle” in The Nation. Jarrell, important not only as a discerning critic of modern poetry but also as a spokesman for an entire generation of post-World War II poets, devoted only one brief paragraph to Tribute to the Angels, spending the balance of his review on Alex Comfort's The Song of Lazarus. Clearly, Jarrell felt that H.D.'s verse was outdated. For her, he wrote, “imagism was a reductio ad absurdum upon which it is hard to base a later style.” He dismissed her new poem as “one for those who enjoy any poem by H.D., or for those collectors who enjoy any poem that includes the Virgin, Raphael, Azrael, Uriel, John on Patmos, Hermes Trismegistus, and the Bona Dea.”
While it would be foolish to claim that Jarrell's few sentences are responsible for the relative critical neglect which has befallen H.D. in the last two decades, they are nevertheless expressive of the offhand manner in which her poetry has been dealt with during that period. Her five final books (one was published posthumously) were not reviewed widely. Although, as always, she did have her advocates-Horace Gregory and Merrill Moore were perhaps the most vehement-Richard Eberhart, in a Poetry review of Selected Poems (1957), echoed Jarrell's sentiments, calling her early work “magnificent” but seeing her limitation as an inability directly to tell us “how to live.” Her 1960 novel, Bid Me to Live, was interesting to reviewers chiefly because of its thinly disguised portraits of D. H. Lawrence and his circle.
Within the last few years, however, there has been evidence, albeit slight, of renewed interest in and appreciation of H.D.'s work. This actually began in 1960 with the awarding to her of the Award of Merit Medal for Poetry of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a clear indication of the continuing high esteem in which she was held by her peers. It continued with the editorial tribute which appeared in the New York Times upon the occasion of her death, in October of 1961. Not only was the very fact of this editorial an important harbinger of the permanence of H.D.'s place in literary history; but also the sentiments expressed established a goal for future students of her work: “Her poetry owes no allegiance to movements and time. The Imagist label was applied to her poems; they did not derive from it. The precision and clarity of her lines, the ability to capture the sharply observed object are qualities that are beyond literary fashions or styles.” “Long after the flamboyance of other poets of these years will have begun to wear,” predicted the Times, “readers will return with pleasure to these cleanly hewn, controlled poems …”
If this prediction has not been fully realized, it is nonetheless true that the years since H.D.'s death have seen the appearance of the first two book-length studies of her life and work. Her poems are continually anthologized in collections ranging from high school texts to scholarly editions. What are needed now are intensive studies and explications of H.D.'s prose and verse, in an attempt to discern and define just what its timeless attributes are. We are now sufficiently removed from both the novelty of Imagism and the emotional impact of World War II to be able to evaluate her work virtually in vacuuo, or at least without undue attention to schools of verse or contemporary events. This special issue of Contemporary Literature will, one hopes, begin this new phase of H.D. studies. It is a recognition richly deserved and long overdue.
Source: Jackson R. Bryer, “H.D.: A Note on Her Critical Reputation,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1969, pp. 627-31.
“The Battle between Rhyme and Imagism,” in the New York Times, February 4, 1917.
Bourke, Joanna, “Women and the Military during World War One,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/women_combatants_01.shtml (accessed September 26, 2007).
———, “Women on the Home Front in World War One,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/women_employment_01.shtml (accessed September 26, 2007).
Dembo, L. S., Introduction, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1969, p. 4.
Deutsch, Babette, “The Melody Lingers On,” in the New York Times, September 22, 1957.
Freeman, Ruth, and Patricia Klaus, “Blessed or Not? The New Spinster in England and the United States in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Journal of Family History, Vol. 9, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 394-95.
Gregory, Horace, “Speaking of Books,” in the New York Times, October 22, 1961.
H.D., “Sea Rose,” in H.D. Selected Poems, Grove Press, 1957, p. 15.
“Hilda Dootlittle, Poet, Dead at 75,” in the New York Times, September 29, 1961.
Hutchison, Percy, “New Books of Poetry,” in the New York Times, January 31, 1932.
Ostriker,Alicia, “What Do Women (Poets) Want? H.D. and Marianne Moore as Poetic Ancestresses,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1969, pp. 485-503.
Pearson, Norman Holmes, and L. S. Dembo, “Norman Holmes Pearson on H.D.: An Interview,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1969, pp. 435-46.
Riddel, Joseph N., “H.D. and the Poetics of ‘Spiritual realism’,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Autumn 1969, pp. 447-73.
Santos, Irene Ramalho, “H.D.: A Poet between Worlds,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 5, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 239-47.
———, Prologue, in The Cambridge History of American Literature, Vol. 5, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 191.
Anonymous, World War I in Photographs, Carlton Books, 2002.
This books contains photos taken from the collection of war photos at the Imperial War Museum in London. The photos are augmented by essays that explain the events in more detail.
Clift, Eleanor, Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
This book chronicles the struggle women underwent as they fought for the right to vote. Clift's book is very readable and is filled with interesting anecdotes that provide a glimpse into this period of history.
Heyman, Neil M., Daily Life during World War I, Greenwood Press, 2002.
This book provides details about life during World War I, and includes information about women's lives in England, France, Germany, and the United States.
Ouditt, Sharon, Fighting Forces, Writing Women: Identity and Ideology in the First World War, Routledge, 1993.
This book offers a feminist examination of women's experiences during World War I.
Silkin, Jon, ed., The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Penguin, 1997.
This anthology is a collection of poetry that explores life, death, and patriotism.
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