H. D.

views updated

H. D.

H. D. (b. 10 September 1886; d. 27 September 1961), writer.

H. D. was born Hilda Doolittle in Pennsylvania in 1886. She dropped out of Bryn Mawr College, where another poet, Marianne Moore, was a fellow student, and was briefly engaged to Ezra Pound before leaving for Europe in the élan of a first lesbian affair with Frances Gregg in 1911. Choosing exile in London as a condition for her own marginal modernism, she emerged as the exemplary imagist poet, first published in Poetry (Chicago) in 1913 under the gender-free initials "H. D."

The much-anthologized "Oread" displays the dynamic minimalism of this early phase in six lines of free verse. Less well known are woman-centered longer poems such as "Eurydice," which anticipate the mythic revisionism of such later poets as Adrienne Rich. These prepared H. D. for the great work of her maturity: the visionary Trilogy of World War II, written in London under bombardment, and the revisionary Helen in Egypt, written in Switzerland and published just before her death in 1961. Both are peace poems, challenging Homeric epic and European history with a prophetic voice that places them beside T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Pound's Cantos.

H. D. lived in the vortex of world wars, and also that of conflicted sexualities. Her relationships with two British writers illustrate this. Married to fellow poet Richard Aldington in 1913, she met the novelist Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman) in 1918, and they became lifelong companion-lovers, despite Bryher's two "white" marriages (from the French mariages blanc, or marriages without sexual relations) and lesbian affairs on both sides. The second of Bryher's marriages, to the Scottish cinéaste Kenneth Macpherson (who was then H. D.'s lover), connected them with gay men on both sides of the Atlantic, but their enduring connections were with lesbians such as Amy Lowell and May Sarton in New England, and Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein in Paris. H. D.'s poems to Bryher register a complex commitment: "I Said" and "We Two" defend their solidarity in the face of an uncomprehending world; "Halcyon" and "Hyacinth" elaborate the Sapphic landscape of their shared imagination; "To Bryher" (from the novel Palimpsest) celebrates the steadfastness of this flawed but undaunted patron.

Two presences from the literary past are felt in H. D.'s writings. One is the late nineteenth-century British aesthete Oscar Wilde; the other is the great lyric poet of antiquity, Sappho of Lesbos. Both connect her with homosexual cultures over two and a half millennia, and separate her from the homophobia and misogyny of her closest male contemporaries among expatriate American modernists in the early twentieth century.

H. D. identified with Wilde as a decadent committed to the artistic "personality," in contrast to the "impersonality" upon which Eliot and Pound insisted. Like Wilde, she believed that art opens the mind to intensities of feeling, and so placed aesthetic experience on a par with erotic experience. The poetic effect of this is felt in the Wildean ecstasy of "At Baia": "Lover to lover, no kiss, / no touch, but forever and ever this" (Collected Poems: 1912–1944, p. 128).

In a more austere mode, "Fragment Thirty-six" uses a verse from Sappho to dramatize the artist's dilemma:

I know not what to do,
my mind is reft:
is song's gift best?
is love's gift loveliest? (p. 165)

This is one of a number of poems by H. D. that blow the embers of her Sapphic inheritance into living flame. Sappho was a vital female antecedent for H. D.; fragments from the earlier poet's surviving verse glow at the heart of H. D.'s poetry and prose. The Collected Poems opens with the "acrid fragrance" of "Sea Rose" (p. 5), and later lyrics such as "Eros" ring the changes on Sappho's celebrated description of love as "bittersweet." While H. D.'s "Notes on Thought and Vision" for Havelock Ellis honors an intellectual tradition among male homosexuals extending from Socrates to Leonardo da Vinci, her essay "The Wise Sappho" pays homage to a woman who loved women and whose poems to them were neither romantic nor sentimental but "magnetic, vibrant," energizing lives and writings beyond her own.

Sigmund Freud, who analyzed H. D. in the 1930s, declared her "the perfect bi-," and later critics such as Claire Buck and Rachel DuPlessis have located the tensions in her work on a bisexual borderline. Susan Friedman has shown how vividly the novels Asphodel, Her, and Paint It Today resist the plot of heterosexual romance, and in her introduction to the last of these, Cassandra Laity characterizes Paint It Today as "a modern homoerotic novel of passage" (p. xviii). The fault line between H. D.'s established reputation as a poet and this posthumously published fiction reminds us that she was a contemporary of both Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf, and has far-reaching implications for our understanding of modernism.


Bryher. The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962.

Buck, Claire. H. D. and Freud: Bisexuality and a Feminine Discourse. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Collecott, Diana. H. D. and Sapphic Modernism: 1910–1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. H. D.: The Career of That Struggle. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1986.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.'s Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Friedman, Susan Stanford, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, eds. Signets: Reading H. D. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

Laity, Cassandra. "Lesbian Romanticism." Introduction to H. D., Paint It Today. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Diana Collecott