Born 10 September 1886, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; died 27 September 1961, Zurich, Switzerland
Daughter of Charles L. and Helen Wolle Doolittle; married Richard Aldington, 1915 (divorced 1938)
Hilda Doolittle was the daughter of a professor of astronomy and the granddaughter of the principal of a local Moravian seminary, who was a descendant of a member of the original 18th-century mystical order known as the Unitas Fratrum, or Moravian Brotherhood. Since the founding of the order, the concept of Unitas Fratrum has been identified with "the Mystery which lay at the center of the world." Young Doolittle participated in Moravian religious exercises and rituals, all of which had a profound effect upon her. In Tribute to Angels (1945), more than 40 years after her childhood experiences, she returned to the enigmatic "Mystery," the essence of Moravian belief, describing it as "the point in the spectrum /where all light becomes one /…as we were told as children."
Educated chiefly in private schools, Doolittle spent a year and a half at Bryn Mawr, withdrawing in 1906 due to a "slight breakdown." She became engaged briefly to Ezra Pound, who encouraged her to pursue her classical studies and to continue to write serious poetry. Soon after, Doolittle left for London to begin the life of an expatriate, and rarely returned to America.
In 1913 Doolittle married the British poet Richard Aldington. Later (1917) she assumed the editorship of the Egoist while she earnestly pursued her career as a poet. The period between 1915 and 1920 was filled with personal crisis: a miscarriage in 1915, the death of her older brother in combat in 1918, separation from Aldington (final divorce in 1938), and the death of her father in 1919. She found herself essentially alone, seriously ill, and pregnant. She wrote from her flat in war-torn London: "Death! Death is all around us!" The foregoing events precipitated a severe breakdown, and Doolittle eventually sought the help of Sigmund Freud, whom she refers to as the "blameless physician" in her brilliant psychobiography, Tribute to Freud, published in 1956.
Following World War I, Doolittle wrote 13 volumes of poetry, along with translations, essays, dramas, film criticism, and novels. When her Collected Poems, the volume that established her reputation, was published in 1925, many of the vital experiences that tempered her writing had occurred.
The early tightly honed, discrete Imagist poems are familiar to most readers. In them with clarity, precision, and control, Doolittle described pear trees with "flower-tufts /thick on the branch," with sea poppies "spilled near the shrub pines /to bleach on the boulders," or grapes "red-purple /their berries dripping /with wine." Doolittle's final, major modern poetic sequences, Helen in Egypt (1961), is less well known. Throughout her work, however, from the slender Imagist verse to the final monumental poetic sequence, Doolittle was in search of what she dimly defined as "a myth, the one reality." This would permit her not only to articulate her emotions but would also allow her the freedom to create an "organizing structure" in which she could function as both a woman and an artist.
Related to the search for "structure which permits freedom" was an acute awareness on the part of Doolittle of the importance of identity to survival. Identity, self-definition, a "signature," were imperative. Doolittle emphasized this in a letter to her friend Amy Lowell on 5 March 1917: "My signature is H. D. for poetic purposes. Please let it be just that. I have always wanted to keep R.'s [her husband] and my literary personalities absolutely distinct…. I must keep H. D. clear from R. A." Later she expressed her conviction in this way: "I have something I own. I own myself." The search for personal identity and self-definition was contemporaneous with Doolittle's realization of her own creative talents, and eventually her poetry became, in a sense, a projection of herself.
Doolittle ingeniously shaped the classical world to her own temperament, weaving and reweaving the legends of the past into modern form, emulating myth in order to gain a sense of the spiritual, the timeless. For Doolittle, events, emotions, experiences, became continuations of a simpler, more structured mythic past, which she found more manageable than the immediate, chaotic contemporary scene. As she developed her skills, Doolittle was able to transfer mythic patterns from one culture to another, as reflected in her wide-ranging vision of Woman throughout the ages, which is included in Tribute to Angels. More notable, however, in The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), she comfortably mingles classical allusions with observations of the shell-shocked, bombed-out, devastation of London: "There as here, ruin opens /the tomb, the temple… /the shrine lies open to the sky /the rain falls… /sand drifts, eternity endures." Typically Doolittle emphasizes once again her concept of identity and self-possession in the lines: "living within /you beget, self-out-of-self /…that pearl-of-great-price."
Inevitably, as the woman artist strives for self-fulfillment, tension develops. In Doolittle's case, tension was generated gradually between physical love and artistic performance; it manifested itself in a conflict between desire and creativity. Doolittle compares this experience to a tableau vivant with two wrestlers standing ready for a match, with muscles and tendons taut and motionless.
In her effort to deal with the tension and conflict in both her personal and artistic life, Doolittle reveals on the one hand her complete awareness of the need for love and compassion as she writes, "I was not unaware…I was not dull dead." On the other hand, she firmly maintains that even love itself should be resisted if it threatens to diminish one's creative talent. Notwithstanding the contradictions inherent in this situation, Doolittle was determined, as she stated, to control her "very modest possessions of mind and body."
Resolution, reconciliation, control, she realized could be achieved, perhaps by means of some "intermediate ground": an organizing structure, mythical patterns, legends, and symbols. These were all part of her "classical repertoire," and methods for making meaningful use of them had been reinforced during her experience as "student-analysand" with Dr. Freud.
The search for "a myth, the one reality," was successfully achieved by means of the pervasive, legendary figure of Helen in Doolittle's last major work. In the earlier Imagist poem, "Helen," the heroine, a wan maiden with "still eyes in [a] white face" is clouded with subtle ambiguities—she is the Helen Greece could love "only if she were laid /white ash amid funereal cypresses." In Helen in Egypt, the mature, intelligent, confident Helen struggles for self-definition following the cataclysmic Trojan War. With "things remembered forgotten /remembered again," Helen assembles and reassembles her thoughts and emotions and resolves: "I must fight for Helena." In this long poem, Doolittle artfully weaves and reweaves the mythic pattern until the legendary figure of Helen (the Woman who will not now be denied) achieves her identity: "I am awake /…I see things clearly at last, /the old pictures are really there."
With Helen in Egypt, Doolittle herself achieves self-definition and brings to a close her search for an identity, "the one reality," for which she had been striving all her life.
Strong-willed, self-possessed, inherently female, the American expatriate Doolittle's poetic realm has been described as "the perfect, timeless hieroglyph world." Whatever the realm, Doolittle realized the sense of her own worth as a woman and as an artist; and concedes in her "Epitaph" that she "died of living /…soliciting illicit fervor /…following intricate song's lost measure."
For more than five decades, Doolittle devoted her life to the writing of poetry. Though she has regrettably been labeled "the perfect Imagist" and "the Greek publicity girl," her poetry defies classification. Tending on occasion to an obscurantism typical of modern poetry, Doolittle's work transcends the limitations and prescriptions of the Imagist movement, for which she allegedly was not only the inspiration but, together with Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, also a formulator of its principles. Currently she is, and justifiably so, identified as a modern. Norman Holmes Pearson, Doolittle's literary executor, contends that Doolittle is in "the very center of the modern poetic movement…and will increasingly be recognized" when her audience not only learns how to read her poetry but becomes familiar with classical mythology.
Sea Garden (1916). Hymen (1921). Heliodora, and Other Poems (1924). Hippolytos Temporizes (1927). Hedylus (1928). Red Roses for Bronze (1932). The Flowering of the Rod (1946). By Avon River (1949). Selected Poems of H. D. (1957). Hermetic Definition (1958). Bid Me to Live (1960).
Alfrey, S., The Sublime of Intense Sociability: Emily Dickinson, H. D., and Gertrude Stein (1999). Burnett, G., H. D. Between Image and Epic: The Mysteries of Her Poetics (1990). Chisholm, D., H. D.'s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation (1992). Coffman, S. K., Imagism—A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry (1951). DuPlessis, R. B. H. D.: The Career of That Struggle (1986). Freidman, S. S., Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D.. (1981). Freidman, S. S. and R. B. DuPlessis, eds., Signets: Reading H. D. (1990). Guest, B., Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and her World (1984). Hughes, G., Imagism & the Imagists (1931). King, M., ed., H. D.: Woman and Poet (1987). Mearns, H., H. D. (1926). Monroe, H., Poets & Their Art (1932). Quinn, V., H. D. (1968). Swann, T. B., The Classical World of H. D. (1962). Taupin, R., L'influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie Américaine (1929). Vigier, R., Women, Dance, and the Body: Gestures of Genius (1994). Waggoner, H. H., American Poets—From the Puritans to the Present (1968). Zilboorg, C., ed., Richard Aldington and H. D. (1992).
FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Contemporary Literature (Autumn 1969). H. D. Newsletter (1987). Poetry (June 1962).