H. D.: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Friedman, Susan. "Who Buried H. D.?: A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in 'The Literary Tradition.'" College English 36, no. 7 (March 1975): 801-14.

In the following essay, Friedman contends that "as a woman writing about women, H. D. explored the untold half of the human story, and by that act she set herself outside of the established tradition."

H. D. is a major twentieth-century poet who all too often receives the response "H. D.?—who's he?" When people are reminded that "H. D." was the pen name for Hilda Doolittle, it is generally remembered that she was one of those imagist poets back in the beginning of the century who changed the course of modern poetry with their development of the "image" and free verse. Her early poems, like "Oread" or "Heat," still appear regularly in modern poetry anthologies, but the more difficult epic poetry she went on to write is seldom studied or taught. The canon of her major, largely unread work is considerable: The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946) are the three long poems of her war Trilogy, which has recently been reissued; Helen in Egypt (1961) is the work she called her own "Cantos"; the newly published volume Hermetic Definition (1972) contains three more long poems, the title poem, Winter Love, and Sagesse ; and Vale Ave is another, as-yet-unpublished epic poem. While poetry was undoubtedly the genre giving fullest expression to her creative energies, she also published numerous translations, acted in a movie whose script she wrote ("Borderline," with Paul Robeson, 1930), experimented with drama (Hippolytus Temporizes, 1927), and wrote several novels (Hedylus, 1928; Palimpsest, 1926; Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal), 1960; and the largely unpublished The Gift ), interesting at the very least for her own style of rendering stream of consciousness. Her memoir of Freud, Tribute to Freud (1956), is both an impressionistic record of their sessions together and a serious reevaluation of his impact on the twentieth century; it too has been recently reis-sued in expanded form. Caged in a literary movement that lasted all of six or seven years, the magnificent poet of these epics and the writer who experimented in a wide variety of genres is like the captured white-faced Scops owl in her poem Sagesse. While the onlookers at the zoo chatter about his comical whiskers and baggy trousers, the owl who is both the embodiment of divinity and the personification of the poet is "a captive and in prison":

You look at me, a hut or cage contains
your fantasy, your frantic stare;
May those who file before you feel
something of what you are …
they will laugh and linger and some child may shudder,
touched by the majesty, the lifted wings,
the white mask and the eyes that seem to see,
like God, everything and like God, see nothing.

As Hugh Kenner wrote in his review of Hermetic Definition, to identify H. D. as an imagist poet is "as though five of the shortest pieces in 'Harmonium' were to stand for the life's work of Wallace Stevens" (New York Times Book Review, December 10, 1972). But if H. D. is not already buried in a single moment of literary history, she is rapidly becoming so.

Why is her poetry not read? H. D. is part of the same literary tradition that produced the mature work of the "established" artists—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence. She in fact knew these artists well; she had known and almost married Pound while the two were students in Philadelphia (H. D.'s intensely absorbing recreation of their lifetime friendship, End to Torment, is being prepared for publication); her friendship with Williams goes back to those student days; but most important, she was an active member of the London literary circle that spun out the dazzling succession of artistic "isms"—imagism, dadaism, vorticism, futurism—before the catastrophe of the First World War smashed this coterie into the confusion of a spiritual wasteland. Like these artists, H. D. began writing in the aestheticism and fascination for pure form characteristic of the imagists; and like them, she turned to epic form and to myth, religious tradition, and the dream as a way of giving meaning to the cataclysms and fragmentation of the twentieth century. Her epic poetry should be compared to the Cantos, Paterson, the Four Quartets, and The Bridge, for like these poems, her work is the kind of "cosmic poetry" the imagists swore they would never write.

The pattern of her poetic development not only paralleled that of more famous artists, but it was also permeated by major intellectual currents of the century. In 1933 and 1934 she was psycho-analyzed by Freud, an exploration deep within her own unconscious that ultimately linked for her the personal with the universal, the private myth with the "tribal" myths. At the same time that she studied with Freud, the convinced materialist, she was a student of comparative religion, of esoteric tradition, and, like Yeats, of the occult. The forces perpetually at work to bring a directionless century to war were a constant preoccupation in her work. Consciously rejecting the mechanistic, materialist conceptions of reality that formed the faith of the empirical modern age, H. D. affirmed a "spiritual realism" and the relevance of a quest for intangible meanings. Her growth into a poet exploring the psyche or soul of humanity and reaching out to confront the questions of history, tradition, and myth places her squarely in the mainstream of "established" modern literature. But still, outside of a few poets like Denise Levertov, who wrote "An Appreciation" of H. D., Robert Duncan, and the afficionados who circulate a pirated edition of Hermetic Definition, few people read her poetry. Once again, why?

Is her poetry just plain "bad," however serious the philosophic and human issues she embodies in image and epic narration? For me, the answer is obvious—her poems captivate, enchant, and enlighten me. From my single, necessarily subjective perspective, there is no doubt that her poetry is magnificent. But I have no intention here of raising the thorny questions of what makes literature "great," who determines the standards for greatness, or even whether the literary reputation of an author has much of anything to do with genuine genius. I do insist, however, that H. D. was a serious prolific poet exploring the same questions as her famous counterparts and thus inviting comparison with them. It is something of an understatement, I think, to say that in our profession artists do not have to wear the badge of greatness in order to have articles and books written about them. The simple relevance of her work to the issues and experiments of modern poetry demands that it be studied. And so I am still asking why H. D.'s work is buried under a scattered knowledge of "Oread" or "Heat."

The answer is simple enough, I think. It lies biographically and factually right in front of our critical noses—too close perhaps to be seen easily. It lies in what makes H. D. and her work different from a long string of more studied poets like Eliot, Pound, Crane, Williams, and Yeats. And it lies in the response of her critics. She was a woman, she wrote about women, and all the ever-questioning, artistic, intellectual heroes of her epic poetry and novels were women. In the quest poetry and fiction of the established literary tradition (particularly the poetic tradition), women as active, thinking, individual human beings rarely exist. They are instead the apocalyptic Pocahontas and the demonic prostitute of The Bridge, the goddess in the park sought by the poet Paterson, the superficial women walking to and fro talking of Michelangelo. They are the static, symbolic objects of quest, not the questors; they are "feminine principles," both threatening and life-giving, and not particularized human beings. Women are dehumanized, while the quest of the male poet is presented and understood as the anguished journey of the prophet-seer for the absolute on behalf of all humankind. For "mankind" they may be the spokesmen, but for "womenkind" they are not. As a woman writing about women, H. D. explored the untold half of the human story, and by that act she set herself outside of the established tradition. She became a "woman poet" in a world in which the word "poet" actually means male poet and the word "mankind" too often includes only men. From this perspective there are poets, and then there are the lady poets, or poetesses; there are people, and then there are women.

If her sex and her women subjects were not enough to exile her from the roster of the literary establishment, the response of many critics to her epic poetry completed the process. Her critics have rarely forgotten that she was a woman writing poetry. And I don't think they should have forgotten that fundamental fact. But her appearance in criticism as "woman poet" is never positive as it should be; it becomes instead the subtle ground on which she can be ultimately ignored. Elaborate intellectual scaffolds resting on the fact of her sex have been constructed by some of her critics whose net effect has been to dismiss her.

I will be concrete. In 1969 a special issue of Contemporary Literature was devoted to H. D. after years of critical silence about her work. It was the hope of L. S. Dembo, Contemporary Literature's editor, who had recently published a serious chapter introducing her late poetry, that this special issue would spark renewed interest in her work. It did not. Aside from two fine reviews of her new publications (in The Hudson Review, XXVII [Summer 1974], 309-11; Poetry, CXXIV [June 1974], 162-67), no articles or books have followed. Her later poetry is rarely studied in the universities; and she is not even appearing in the wonderfully useful bibliographies of forgotten literature written by women and the new anthologies of redis-covered women writers (Florence Howe's No More Masks! is an exception).

Looking at the first two articles in Contemporary Literature's special issue—and they are both long, serious, thoroughly researched articles by well-known scholars, Joseph N. Riddel and Norman N. Holland—I am not surprised that it produced more critical silence instead of new studies. Riddel in his "H. D. and the Poetics of 'Spiritual Realism'" and Holland in his "H. D. and the 'Blameless Physician'" take as their starting point H. D.'s psychoanalysis with Freud and her book about that experience. Holland and Riddel are absolutely correct in pointing to that experience as the key to her poetry. But in their hands this valuable key ends up locking the doors to our understanding instead of opening them as it can do.

Although Holland and Riddel dutifully quote some of her careful statements in Tribute to Freud —and they are as careful as Thoreau's in Walden—about why she went to talk with Freud, their basic analysis (particularly Riddel's) ignores what she said about how she went to Freud as his "student," his "disciple," about how she saw psychoanalysis as a medium of quest in a drifting century, about how she found with his guidance the way to link her personal past with that of people in all places, at all times. Refusing to take seriously H. D.'s own comments about the impact of Freud on her artistic identity, Riddel and Holland dissect her with all the Freudian terminology they can muster—as if she were a neurotic woman, a "patient" instead of the artist who warned her readers that "in our talks together he [Freud] rarely used any of the now rather overworked technical terms, invented by himself and elaborated on by the growing body of doctors, psychologists and nerve specialists." And, we might add, literary critics. Holland explicitly and Riddel implicitly start with Freud's statement that a woman's "strongest motive in coming for treatment was the hope that, after all, she might still obtain a male organ, the lack of which was so painful to her" (Holland, p. 485). For these critics, a central issue of H. D.'s psychoanalysis is "penis envy"—in Riddel's article, it is the central issue; in Holland's essay, penis envy shares the stage with the longing to fuse with her mother, a carryover from the oral phase. But even more destructively, in their discussion of her psyche as the generating source in her art, H. D.'s supposedly self-evident longing for a penis (don't all women want one?) becomes the focus for their discussion of her artistic identity and poetry.

Riddel, like Freud, reduces the psychology of women to a physiological level, seeing the woman's genitals as the fundamental metaphor of what he calls "feminine incompleteness," "inwardness," "subjectivity," and "softness" and measuring her anatomy against a male standard of power and sufficiency, the penis.2 Just as Freud refers in his own voice to a girl's clitoris as a "stunted penis," Riddel writes about H. D. as "phallus-less," having an "ontological deprivation." "Suffocating" from her "feminine inwardness," Riddel concludes, H. D. turned to the hard, male objectivity of myth, poetic form, and symbolic objects (Riddel's subjective assumption that poetic form and art objects are male is not even Freudian; it contradicts what many Freudians argue: that artistic "forms" are "vessels" and represent the artists' oral wish to reunite with the mother).

While Holland is more likely than Riddel to use the careful language of H. D.'s perceptions ("again, we seem to be coming to the theme of overcompensating for what she feels is the inferior quality of her feminine body," my italics), his basic thesis is still that H. D.'s creative expressions are evidence for her perpetual search for the "masculinity" which was "lost" or "missing" in the first place.3 At the same time that she sought through therapy to "close the gap" between herself and her mother (oral stage), she transferred to Freud all the "phallic power" she had attributed to her father and her brother (phallic and oedipal stages). In the transference H. D. was able to absorb some of Freud's masculine power ("Fusion with a man insures against deficiency: thus H. D. found it easy to project into and identify with Freud"). Her poetry, with its reliance on "hard" "signs," completed the process she had begun with Freud of closing up the gaps in her body as well as her consciousness.

Both critics conclude that H. D.'s infantile wishes were resolved in therapy as Freud succeeded in rooting out her penis envy, in teaching her to accept her "feminine incompleteness," in giving her "the ability to live in her wingless self" and to discover her "woman's role." Ignoring H. D.'s own interpretation of the "wingless Niké"—wingless in myth so that Victory can never fly away from Athens, a positive symbol of hope for H. D.—the critics change it into the phallusless, powerless woman. Freud's gift to H. D. was to resign her to the fact of her winglessness, her femininity.

Yet once having argued that Freud successfully convinced H. D. that she was a woman, both critics somewhat inconsistently conclude that H. D.'s poetry was a product of her unresolved penis envy. Holland writes finally that her poems are the legacy of her continuing search for those "missing things." He generously concludes:

I feel sadness for a woman who had to become a royal and mythic sign [he refers to her use of her initials as a pen name and her portrayal of her women heroes as "hieroglyphs"] to make up for all those missing things. But I honor the poet. She did indeed close up the gap with signs and, in doing so, left to us a body of poems for which we can be grateful.

(Holland, p. 501)

Riddel stresses the inherent difficulty all women have in creating an artistic identity:

The identity of the creative self as woman is threatened not only by the incompleteness of the female but by the insubstantiality of subjectivity.…In terms of the self-consciousness that forces her to contemplate her ambiguous role as woman poet, she seeks the completeness of the subject in the object. She must turn herself into a poem.

And since the poem is designated objective and "male" in Riddel's scheme of things, he argues implicitly that H. D. must abandon her identity as a woman if she is to develop as a poet. For Riddel, not only are poems masculine, but myths, symbols, and cult objects are linked with the "phallus … the signifier, the giver of meaning" (Riddel, p. 462). By what yardstick Riddel measures things like words or myths as penis-connected or masculine, he never says. But identify the tools of an artist's trade and the kind of images H. D. chose with all that's masculine, Riddel definitely does do. He comes as close as any critic to affirming that the province of the poet is entirely masculine and the woman poet who succeeds in writing poetry must overcome, destroy, or transcend her femininity and write like a man.

For all that the general tone of his essay appears to be detached, scholarly, and objective, Riddel's assumptions about women and women poets color and often distort his discussion of her epic poetry. Her impulse to write poetry—to handle words, to create images—originates in his perspective in her recognition of the inferiority of women and the superiority of men, in short, in penis envy. And the epic poetry of her later years which shows a turning to myth and the imagery of sacred cult objects—poetry that Riddel discusses brilliantly if his psychoanalytic framework is ignored—emerges out of her anguished search for masculine objectivity. Riddel has reduced the creative urge and poetic vision of H. D. to her desire to have what any ordinary man, poet or not, possesses from birth.

Is it any wonder that Riddel's and Holland's descriptions of H. D.'s quest for the phallus have not stimulated renewed interest in her work? Why should anyone bother reading a poet in search of "masculine hardness" when you can take your pick from among any number of "hard" male poets?

Although the work of these two critics has angered me greatly, both as a woman and as a person who sees H. D.'s poetry unjustly treated, my point is not to attack the criticism of individuals. I am far more concerned with the general issue of what impact the male-oriented criticism of modern scholarship has had on the literary reputations of women writers like H. D. I am interested in Riddel's and Holland's articles for their blatant documentation of the fact that criticism is written from a subjective male point of view; that, no matter how scholarly and well-researched such articles may be, they are not value-free.

While Riddel tends to present himself as an objective scholar, Holland himself would not disagree that all criticism is subjective. In fact, the central argument of his newest book, Poems in Persons,4 is that all literary experiences—including the logical, careful, internally coherent work of literary critics—are necessarily subjective. But what he means by "subjectivity" (the recreation of a literary work within the terms of an individual reader's "ego identity," his or her uniquely woven pattern of childhood psychosexual fantasy) is not at all what I mean. His own "subjective" viewpoint which colors so much of what he writes about H. D. is instead a misogynist set of psychoanalytic presuppositions about the infantile wishes of young girls which he takes to be "objective" truth. This type of political and cultural subjectivity that so pervades Holland's and Riddel's work is symptomatic of the prejudiced inadequacies of much literary criticism, non-psychoanalytic as well as that heavily influenced by Freud.

I can hear voices objecting to my generalization—you are making a mountain out of a mole hill; Riddel and Holland are only two men; dismiss them as male critics and get back to the business of criticism. It is true that by themselves they are only two men; but if they are pushed to the side as exceptions—rather than seen as examples of a hidden pattern set in bold relief—the main body of criticism can continue to put forth its mask of scholarly objectivity. In their criticism of H. D.'s works they are not simply exceptions to a generally fair rule; perhaps because of their psychoanalytic interests, their work is a more explicit version of the double standard in criticism. Vincent Quinn, for example, wrote a generally useful book on H. D., Hilda Doolittle (1967), that focuses mainly on her imagist poetry. But a subtler form of male perspective is evident in his discussion of her epic poetry. He provides a good introduction to the religious, prophetic vision of the war Trilogy —he has understood what her work is about—but he is entirely uncomfortable with it. It is too abstract, too philosophical; its theology, based on a belief in the essential oneness of divinity throughout all cultures, is confusing. As a writer of short, lyric, emotional poems about nature, love, and beauty, H. D. was at her best, in Quinn's opinion. But a double standard of judgment for men and women writers may have something to do with Quinn's evaluation of H. D.'s poetry. H. D.'s compatriots, Eliot, Williams, and Pound, left the imagist poem to write epics permeated with mythological and religious allusions and with complex philosophical abstractions; yet they are praised for the profundity of their poetic thought and not accused of abstraction. In fact, none of her late work, which always has a highly personal as well as a mythic dimension, is as abstract as a poem like the Four Quartets. But subtle enough so that even Quinn might not have been aware of his own assumptions may be the feeling that H. D.'s work was too abstract for a woman to write. The short, passionate lyric has conventionally been thought appropriate for women poets if they insist on writing, while the longer, more philosophic epic belongs to the real (male) poet. Perhaps it is this presupposition about women writers that has caused so many of H. D.'s critics (see Douglas Bush and Thomas Swann, for example) to label her interest in mythology "escapist." Even Linda Welshimer Wagner (women, too, can analyze from the male perspective—that has been, after all, our training), who has some interesting comments to make on the "feminine" in Helen in Egypt, saw H. D.'s fascination with myth as a search for "solace" and escape.5 When Eliot, Pound, Williams, and Yeats show that same rejection of materialist conceptions of reality, they are praised for their struggle to deal with the ultimate questions of human existence. It is a kind of double talk emerging out of a hidden bias that makes Eliot deeply religious, Pound profound, Crane prophetic, Williams archetypal, and Yeats visionary while the same phenomenon in H. D. is "escapist." If there is to be any growth in the understanding of literature by women, or by any other group not accepted within the recognized literary tradition, or even by the established artists, these hidden biases and the necessarily subjective nature of all criticism (as all art) must be confronted.

H. D.'s poetry itself brings into bold relief the assumptions of her critics that have been so damaging to her reputation. Her own explorations of women's experience and the dilemma of women writers correct, more eloquently than I can, the mistaken prejudices of her critics and the distorting lens of a double standard for men and women writers. Riddel's and Holland's Freudian conception of a woman torn with desire to possess the penis—or at any rate something "hard"—is nowhere demonstrated in the "woman's epic" that H. D. writes. Missing also are various other critical assumptions they make: that H. D. found her fulfillment as a woman by resignation to "winglessness"; that the "phallic" and the "masculine" are associated with power, myth, poetry, objectivity, and meaning in opposition to the "feminine" qualities of weakness, softness, insubstantiality, subjectivity; and so forth. The more diffused, less psychoanalytic, description of the mature poet as a fragile naiad escaping into the still world of an imaginary Greece bears no relationship to the H. D. who used myth to confront the most contemporary and timeless problems in women's lives. Even less do H. D.'s women heroes fit the stereotypes of women in the kitchens of the world or in the poetry of male poets.

Winter Love (Espérance), a newly published poem of H. D.'s (continuing in twenty-eight sections the quest of Helen in Helen in Egypt ), demonstrates forcefully how distant the stereotypes and conventions of literature and the complementary distortions of criticism often are from the reality of a woman's perspective. Helen of Troy, that symbol of dangerous love and beauty in so many poems by male poets, is in H. D.'s poem not a distant symbol, nor some soft creature seeking to fuse with some male hero, nor a reflection of H. D.'s willingness to accept her "ontological deprivation." Listen instead to the woman's anguish in the final section of Winter Love as Helen gives birth to her child Espérance and recalls the succession of lovers who have come in and gone out of her life:

I am delirious now and mean to be,
the whole earth shudders with my ecstacy,
take Espérance away;
cruel, cruel Sage-Femme,
to place him in my arms,
cruel, cruel Grande Dame,
to pull my tunic down,
so Odysseus sought my breast
with savage kiss;
cruel, cruel midwife,
so secretly to steal my phantom self,
my invisibility, my hopelessness, my fate
the guilt, the blame, the desolation,
Paris slain to rise again
and find Oenone and mortality,
Achilles' flight to Thetis
and the Sea (deserting Leuké
), Menelaus with his trophies in the palace,
Odysseus—take the Child away,
cruel, cruel is Hope,
terrible the weight of honey and of milk,
Cruel, cruel, the thought of Love,
while Helen's breasts swell, painful
with the ambrosial sap, Amrita
that must be given;
I die in agony whether I give or do not give;
cruel, cruel Sage-Femme,
wiser than all the regents of God's throne,
why do you torture me?
come, come O Espérance,
Espérance, O golden bee,
take life afresh and if you must,
so slay me. (H. D., pp. 116-17)

In this moment of delirium, when the aging Helen sees the lovers of her life pass before her—Paris at Troy, Achilles in Egypt and Leuké, Menelaus back in Sparta, and finally Odysseus, the father of Espérance—she is left with "my phantom self, / my invisibility, my hopelessness, my fate, / the guilt, the blame, the desolation." She is a woman used—sought in violence by Odysseus; abandoned finally by Paris, who returns to his first love Oenone; and Achilles, who deserts Helen for his mother Thetis (Menelaus is something of a bore with his trophies and stale stories). And is the child Espérance consolation for the emptiness of life that has left her clinging to the only identity she has—"my phantom self, / my invisibility?" Is he, in Freudian terms, the satisfying sublimation for penis envy? "The whole earth shudders with my ecstasy;" Helen cannot help but feel joy in the overwhelming experience of the birth, but mixed with this "ecstasy" is great pain, for the Child, with the added irony of his name, Hope, brings a special agony. Helen sees him as linked to the older men who took from her and fled: "cruel, cruel, Grande Dame, / to pull my tunic down, / so Odysseus sought my breast / with savage kiss." For, like a lover, the Child demands and she must give. She is not even to be left in peace with her "phantom self," a kind of death itself (see section 27 of Winter Love ), but at least her own. To the Child she must give milk—"while Helen's breasts swell, painful / and the ambrosial sap, Amrita / that must be given"; to deny the baby is torture, to give all he demands is agony: "I die in agony whether I give or do not give." The Child, in taking milk and love from his mother, is bringing a kind of death upon her: "Espérance, O golden bee, / take life afresh and if you must, / so slay me." The special cruelty is that the birth of this child should be, as his name suggests, a woman's hope, but the Child's all-encompassing demands mean death for Helen because once again she will have to give and give and give, only to be left by the grown child in the end: "take the Child away, / cruel, cruel, is Hope / … / cruel, cruel the thought of Love." Yet, as with her lovers, she finally puts the Child's needs before her own; Helen's cry in the middle of the poem to "take the Child away, / cruel, cruel, is Hope," becomes by the end "come, come, O Espérance" as she welcomes the newborn to her breast.

Rather than suggesting consoling escape from reality, rather than representing the acquisition of "phallic objectivity," the mythic dimension of the poem adds cruel irony to the agony of this woman, to this poetic version of postpartum depression. From the time of Homer to the twentieth century Helen has been the symbol of woman in her most perfect form. Yet this poem with Helen as the subjective voice instead of the object of some poet's glazed eyes reveals desperate unhappiness. The "Sage-Femme" (literally "mid-wife" in French), the "Grande Dame," who brings the child safely to term and into the world is not worshipped here by Helen as the Great Earth Mother—she is "cruel," all the more so because she and Helen are both women, sisters. And capitalization of "Child" makes explicit the parallel between Helen-Espérance and Mary-Jesus, Isis-Horus, and all the other mother figures in mythology and art. Yet instead of reveling in this mythic parallel, instead of celebrating her fulfillment as a woman, Helen cries out in agony as she once again witnesses the death of her individual self. H. D. is not writing about Helen of Troy, however; we shouldn't let the poem's ancient speaker and this whole mythic dimension interfere with the direct, contemporary, universal voice of the poem—the agony of a middle-aged woman who has given and cannot stop giving to her lovers and her children. H. D.'s poem is all about women who are driven to fulfill others' demands only to find themselves left with a "phantom self," an "invisibility," a "hopelessness."

The woman in Winter Love is lamenting "missing things," but not the missing penis of Holland's analysis. Throughout all the sections of the poem, as in many of H. D.'s epics, she searches for the missing identity, for a direction and purpose which is so often denied to women. Caught within the Freudian or even more generally male-oriented categories of her critics, this theme of missing identity or "invisibility" in the midst of love and birth could easily be twisted into evidence for the persistence of H. D.'s unresolved phallic stage, for her desire to flee "feminine inwardness," or for her attempt to acquire power by merging with a man and with the "phallic signifiers" of knowledge. But such readings would be a total distortion of what H. D. is saying—about how that "phallic power" has presented Helen with a lifetime of demands, only to desert the drained phantom in the end; about how the ecstasy of birth is mingled with the recognition of a death of the individual self. Freed from the confines of a critical cage, this poem clearly contradicts the kinds of assumptions H. D.'s critics have made as they approach her work.

Perhaps, however, my reading of one small section of only one poem by H. D. is too limited an example upon which to rest my case that a male-oriented bias has had dire consequences in the understanding of H. D.'s poetry. What about the whole sweep of her epic quests? Do they bear out my contention that H. D. has set herself outside the established literary tradition by her exploration of human experience from a woman's perspective and that conventional male categories of literary criticism must be abandoned if her work is to be understood? The thematic thrust and "arguments" of her major poems do indeed reveal how misleading some of her critics have been. In the war Trilogy, written as the German bombs created a crucible of fire out of her home, and in Helen in Egypt, written a few years later in quiet reflection on a war-torn century, H. D. expresses a vision in total opposition to envy for the male world. Both epics are poetic arguments for a belief similar to Carolyn Heilbrun's in Towards a Recognition of Androgyny: the dominance of masculine values has brought destruction and suffering, like the catastrophe of the two world wars. The "phallus" and its weaponed manifestations are never the "signifiers" of meaning as Riddel rather self-importantly suggests; they have been instead the destroyers of human potentiality.

In Helen in Egypt Achilles represents the "Whirlwind of War" as the leader of the "warrior cults" of the "purely masculine iron-ring." It is he who must learn from Helen how his sword "has blighted that peace" embodied in the Goddess and how he can become the "new Mortal" by recapturing the feminine values of union and creation represented in his past by his mother Thetis and in the present by Helen herself. Even more explicitly in the war Trilogy, H. D. resurrects the powerful ancient deities of the matriarchies whom she associates with the positive values of love, peace, regeneration, and synthesis as the poet tranforms degraded "venery" into "veneration" for Venus, Aphrodite, Isis—the Lady or female principle in general. In both epics these active, powerful forces of birth and reintegration are scarcely similar to the placid, fecund goddesses awaiting some lance-carrying hero for fulfillment that abound in the patriarchal mythologies and literature. And they bear little resemblance to Riddel's portrayal of "soft," "weak" femininity seeking escape into the strength of whatever he happens to label "mascu-line." In fact both epics attempt to transcend the divisions into male and female as they reach for a vision of individual identity, society, and religion based on an androgynous union of the strongest and most creative aspects of the traditionally "masculine" and "feminine." In so doing they reveal a writer who believes that to rectify the understanding of women's experience and matriarchal values leads the poet-prophet to confront universal questions of history, time, and humanity.

The last poem the aging, ailing poet wrote, the recently published Hermetic Definition, sharply focuses the broader issues explored in the earlier epics to a highly personal account of the dilemma faced by the woman poet. As she tries to combine the woman in love and the woman at work into a single artistic identity, her difficulties are great, as Holland and Riddel suggested they would be. But totally inconsistent with her final resolution are both Holland's description of the "ego theme" by which she writes poetry to acquire the power she associated with a whole string of male figures since childhood, and Riddel's contention that H. D. had to transcend her femininity to write like a man. The poem is first of all an implicit rejection of a Freudian tenet that infuses both Holland's and Riddel's work and our culture in general. Freud saw an unbridgeable chasm separating the "masculine" woman—the active, competitive woman whose early development was "arrested" in penis envy and its consequent sublimation into all sorts of "male" activities, and the "feminine" woman—the passive, weak woman who had passed beyond penis envy into an acceptance of her domestic role.6 In Freud's eyes and within the perspective of the generally acceptable attitudes which Freud's "science" did so much to legitimize, a woman is simply not expected to be capable of both the joys of love and motherhood and the rigors of work beyond the home. Yet H. D. in the poem, as in so much of her work, portrays a woman poet simultaneously passionate in her love for a man and in her commitment to write poetry.

The poet's search is not for a man to fuse with or be like—it is precisely the opposite: the process of the poem's quest is how to escape from the influence of two men in order to find her own vision and direction. One man is Lionel Durand, who represents for H. D. the Lover and the Son and whom she actually met when he came to interview her for a Newsweek review of her novel Bid Me To Live. At age seventy H. D. fell electrically in love with Durand, and was in fact obsessed with this love for the nine months it took her to write the poem, as her diary of the period reflects. But both in her life and in the poem Durand rejected H. D., as a woman and as a poet. His personal letters to her were polite and distant; her work, he wrote, was "fascinating if you can stand its preciousness" (H. D., p. 7). To deny his condemnation of her work she listens to the voice of her guide, her Muse—once again the powerful female deity and patron of the mysteries, not any representative of the "phallus" or "masculine" objectivity: Isis "draws the veil aside, / unbinds my eyes, / commands / write, write or die" (H. D., p. 7). In contrast to Riddel's description of the ambivalence of her role as a woman writer, H. D. writes about the problem of many women writers—the ridicule they receive from their critics and reviewers.

Rejection by Durand leads H. D. into an intense study of the hermetic poetry of St.-John Perse. As she is entranced with Perse's philosophic, esoteric vision and his acceptance of her as a poet, she gradually comes to realize that she must pass beyond the poetry of Perse to find her own way, one which will "recover the human equation," the human experience of her love for Durand, a dimension which is missing from Perse's more abstract, more "formal and external" (H. D., p. 51) poetry. She cannot rely on any man to be her voice. To insure herself against "deficiency," to echo Holland, she must speak for herself and avoid fusion with a man, lover, or fellow poet. Her symbolic expression of her successful independence is this poem itself, whose writing she images as a pregnancy and a final painful birth. Such a metaphor for poetic creation has been somewhat conventional in poetry by men, but coming from a woman poet it has a special power since the woman can in fact give birth to both human life and poetry. Isis, the mother-goddess-Muse, commands, directs, protects, and infuses the growing artistic identity of the woman poet throughout the poem. The resolution is no easy one: the difficulties of being a writer are somehow part of the necessary process of writing. But as she closes the poem the voices of her critics must quiet their talk of phallic power and female insubstantiality so that they can hear the woman's voice and strength which closes H. D.'s poetic career:

Rain falls or snow, I don't know,
only I must stumble along, grope along,
find my way; but believe me,
I have much to sustain me.
(H. D.   p. 53)

Once again, however, the central issue at stake is not the mistaken theories of individual critics. What the chasm between H. D.'s poetry and the readings of some of her critics demonstrates is how distortions in this one case are part of a more general pattern in criticism by which the work of women writers is misread. Let no one argue at this point that as long as all reading is subjective one person's theories are as valid as another's. It must be recognized that distortions of a literary work which result from prejudiced political and cultural categories do have real consequences for the reputations of many writers—those of different races, nationalities, classes, and political persuasions, as well as of sex. These distortions play a central part in what literature is admitted to the informal roster of the established tradition, what literature is regularly studied and taught. Criticism is a link of the broad cultural chain that in this country, especially now that once excluded students are sitting in university classrooms, does not exist for a privileged elite alone. Consequently, criticism does not exist in a polite vacuum in which one person's views are as good as another's, in a gentlemanly sort of way. It can perpetuate the slow burying process that is suffered by writers whose vision and experience are somehow out of the more privileged mainstream. And with this burial comes the alienation of readers who cannot find their own experience reflected in what they study in college.

The growth of Women's Studies—like Afro-American Studies, Puerto Rican Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian Studies, Native American Studies—has been a necessary answer to the closed curriculums of the established literary tradition. There should be no doubt that poems like Hermetic Definition and Winter Love can be studied in a course on women and literature. H. D. was a woman writer who faced the peculiar difficulties imposed on women writers by the society at large and the established literary tradition with its retinue of critics in particular. Although she never wrote her own A Room of One's Own, many of her novels and poems center around the problems of women artists and intellectuals. In addition, her heroes are always women; and as individuals in quest instead of abstract symbols, the women in her work are strikingly different from those in the poetry written by her male counterparts. What H. D. and poets like her have to say about women's experience and potential is as much a legitimate focus for a course as any thematic or chronological breakdown in a college curriculum. If literature and politics of the thirties, or frontier literature, or the angry young men in Britain, or the absurd in modern fiction, are all valid subjects for study, then surely women and literature must also be.

But having separate courses on women and literature is not enough; in fact this kind of separation by itself fosters the continuation of the idea that there are poets and then women poets, artists and then black artists, literature and then radical propaganda. To say that "lost" literatures by women, blacks, and other minority groups belong in separate niches all to themselves is to claim a kind of universality for literature by white males that it does not have. The poetry of H. D., along with that of other women and minority writers, should be as much a part of the training of a graduate student in modern poetry as the work of Eliot, Yeats, Williams, Crane, Stevens, Pound, and any other of the numerous male poets whose works are required reading in the universities. H. D. is a part of modern poetry—that she was a woman writing about women should not exclude her from "The Literary Tradition." What she has to say about women and men in her poetry should be as much a part of any class as what Pound or Eliot have to say about men and women. If the elite of acceptable literature will have explored the experience of only half the human race (at best), with this incompleteness, this subjectivity, it will have lost a profound understanding of its own humanity. For when men see women in terms of stereotypes, they also understand themselves inadequately.


  1. Sagesse, in Hermetic Definition (New York: New Directions, 1972), p. 59. This volume will hereafter be referred to in the text as H. D. I am grateful to Norman Pearson, H. D.'s literary executor, for the suggestion that the caged owl of the poem is the aging poet herself.
  2. For Riddel's references to the inferior anatomy of women and the spiritual or psychological consequences, see his "H. D. and the Poetics of 'Spiritual Realism,'" Contemporary Literature, X (Autumn 1969), 448, 453-54, 455, 456, 459.
  3. For Holland's references to genitals as representations of physical and psychical inadequacies, see his "H. D. and the 'Blameless Physician,'" Contemporary Literature, X (Autumn 1969), 476, 482, 483, 485, 486, 490-91, 493, 497, 499-500, 501, 502.
  4. Norman Holland, Poems in Persons: An Introduction to Psychoanalysis and Literature (New York: Norton, 1973). Two thirds of this book uses H. D. as a case study for his broader argument concerning psychoanalytic criticism as a general method. His Contemporary Literature article appears with few changes as Chapter One where his argument is more clearly seen as a method of tackling any writer, male or female. Many of the stylistic changes are eliminations of Freudian terminology ("anal," "phallic," "oral," etc.); some of the "penis envy" language has been softened or diffused. But his argument that H. D.'s childhood "phallic stage" left within the adult poet a sense of longing for the penis her mother and father never gave her is as much present as ever in spite of the "gentler" language.
  5. Wagner's article, "Helen in Egypt: A Culmination," is in Contemporary Literature, X (Autumn 1969), 523-36. See also Thomas Swann's The Classical World of H. D. (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1962) and Douglas Bush's Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1937), pp. 497 ff.
  6. See Sigmund Freud, "Femininity," in New Introductory Lectures, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1964), pp. 112-35; Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1949), pp. 80-99.


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The explosion of feminist criticism in the 1970s combined with the revival sparked by Contemporary Literature to produce the kind of extended, serious critical examination that H. D.'s modernist work demands. Feminist critics in particular have created a body of theoretical and practical criticism that illuminates the anomalous position of the woman writer in the largely male literary tradition, the thematic and formalist aspects of the female literary tradition, and the androcentric lens of established critical traditions that has led to the undervaluation of many important women writers. The revival of interest in women writers accomplished by feminist criticism led to renewed attention to H. D.'s entire oeuvre among readers and scholars of widely varying perspectives.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. An excerpt from "Hilda Doolittle." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 45: American Poets, 1880-1945, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Peter Quartermain. Gale Group, 1986.

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