Doolittle, Hilda (1886–1961)

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Doolittle, Hilda (1886–1961)

A leading American poet of the first half of the 20th century. Name variations: H.D. Born Hilda Doolittle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1886; died on September 27, 1961, at Zurich, Switzerland; daughter of Charles Leander Doolittle (a professor of astronomy) and Helen Eugenie (Woole) Doolittle; attended Bryn Mawr College, 1905–06; married Richard Aldington, in 1913 (divorced 1938): children: one daughter, Perdita (b. 1919).

Met Ezra Pound (1901); moved to Europe (1911); saw first important publication as a poet (1913); became acquainted with Bryher (1918); separated from husband (1919); published collected poems (1925); underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud (1933–34); lived in England during World War II (1939–45); received Brandeis University Creative Arts Award for Poetry (1959); received Award of Merit Medal for Poetry from American Academy of Arts and Letters (1961).

Major works:

Sea Garden (1916); Collected Poems (1925); Palimpsest (1926); Hedylus (1928); Red Roses for Bronze (1931); (war trilogy) The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), The Flowering of the Rod (1946); Tribute to Freud (1956); Bid Me to Live (1960); Helen in Egypt (1961); (autobiographical) The Gift (edited by Jane Augustine, University of Florida, 1998).

Hilda Doolittle held an important position as an American poet and novelist from the era before World War I to the middle of the 20th century. Her work has fascinated critics in part because of the vast and varying set of influences that helped to shape her talent. For example, Doolittle's literary work owed much to her study of the ancient world. In both her poems and her novels, she tried to recreate and find new meaning there, in particular in the era of ancient Greece. Mixed with her fascination for ancient Greece was a second, anomalous element that influenced her writing: the Moravian religious heritage Doolittle received from her mother's side of the family. An additional current running through Doolittle's work was her bisexuality and feminist sensibility; their importance has received particular emphasis in the most recent studies of Doolittle's writing. Finally, her career saw her involved with such leading figures on the intellectual scene as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence, and Sigmund Freud.

Although a prolific writer who produced 15 volumes of work in several genres, Hilda Doolittle was best known for her early poetry. She stands as a leading figure—some would say as the founder—of the Imagist movement in American and English poetic writing that flourished from 1912 through World War I. The poetic world into which Doolittle entered in the early part of the 20th century was still dominated by a tradition that extended back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Tennyson. It featured a heavy dose of sentimentality, verbosity, and a passion for precise meter. The Imagist movement, in which she took her place, challenged this reigning set of standards with poems that were economical in their use of language, irregular in their rhythm, and laden with new and refreshing imagery. She received her nom de plume of "H.D." from Ezra Pound upon the publication of these first Imagist poems.

Nonetheless, Doolittle's complex and extensive body of work includes novels, essays, and her own translations of classical literature. Important themes in her writing included a clear call to abandon urban society for a life spent in nature and the human inability to surrender the self in order to achieve a permanent affectionate relationship.

Hilda Doolittle was born at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1886. Her father Charles Leander Doolittle, a former soldier in the Civil War who had been educated as an engineer, was then a professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Lehigh University. His second wife, Hilda's mother, was Helen Woole Doolittle . The Woole family belonged to the Moravian (or Bohemian) Brotherhood, a persecuted Protestant minority in 18th-century Germany that had found refuge in Pennsylvania. Hilda spent most of her childhood in Philadelphia after her father had received the eminent academic position of Flower Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Flower Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. Charles Doolittle had hopes that his daughter would follow in his footsteps to become a distinguished scientist, but their tutoring sessions together soon showed Hilda's lack of aptitude in the areas where her father had done so well.

Doolittle had only a brief college experience, and she withdrew from Bryn Mawr in 1906 in her sophomore year. Some students of her life attribute this to her poor health, but another reason may have been her dismal academic performance. Over the following five years, she pursued her education at home; her passion was the literature of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. She read these works first in translation, then, as her language skills developed, in the original. Her first influential literary colleague—and her first romantic interest as well—was Ezra Pound. The two met at a Halloween party when Hilda was only 15; Pound was just a year older. The young man was already pursuing his higher education, and he frequently left the University of Pennsylvania campus to visit her. Their mutual fascination for literature helped to bring them together. William Carlos Williams, a friend of both Pound and Doolittle, later described Hilda as "tall, blond and with a long jaw but gay blue eyes," and he noted how Ezra was "wonderfully in love with her." The romance petered out, however, in large measure due to the elder Doolittles' opposition to Pound. He left for Europe in 1908. The gap Pound created in the young woman's life was soon filled by a deep, possibly physical relationship with a young woman, Frances Gregg . Doolittle's bisexuality, which was to play a large role in her future relationships, thus surfaced by her mid-20s.

A key turning point came in Hilda Doolittle's life in 1911. A brief vacation in Europe in the company of Frances Gregg led to her decision to settle permanently in England. Her father agreed to support her financially, and, in the end,

she spent most of the remainder of her life in voluntary exile from the United States. She soon received an emotional jolt when Gregg wrote from America with news of her marriage.

Not long after settling in London, Doolittle once again entered Ezra Pound's circle. Pound had become the center of a group of young poets who shared his commitment to a new form of verse that would break away from the stale Romanticism of the 19th century. His ties to Harriet Monroe 's recently founded American magazine, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, gave him the chance to promote work that he admired.

Pound led the young American woman into his group of like-minded London poets. In January 1913, Doolittle, aided by Pound, published three of her works in Poetry. The poems were done in the style of Imagism, and they were filled with what Vincent Quinn has called the key qualities of this important new movement: "brevity, concrete imagery, and flexible versification." In an action that has fascinated students of her life, the young American poet took Pound's suggestion to sign her verses as "H.D., Imagiste." Feminist critics such as Janice Robinson and Susan Gubar have seen this as a sign of Doolittle's abandoning her own personality under the force of Pound's strong will. Richard Aldington, a fellow poet to whom she was introduced by Pound and Doolittle's future husband, later wrote that these were the first poems to appear "with the Imagist label," and he identified her as the center of the entire movement. Doolittle went on to publish poems, once again under the pseudonym "H.D.," in Pound's anthology of Imagist poetry, Des Imagistes, which appeared in 1914.

Hilda Doolittle married her fellow poet, Richard Aldington, in October 1913. He had admired her poetry from the first time he had encountered it, and the two shared a passion for Greek culture and the Greek language. Although they now took their place together in the London literary scene, their marriage was shaken by Hilda's miscarriage in the spring of 1915. By this time Richard was also involved with other women. But, in the midst of these painful developments in her personal life, Hilda continued to write diligently. She published her first book, a collection of 27 early poems entitled Sea Garden, in 1916. When Richard was about to enter the British army to fight in World War I, she took over his responsibilities as literary editor for a monthly journal of opinion, The Egoist. The war years also saw her win a number of prizes from various poetry magazines, and she began to publish her translations from the Greek with Choruses from Iphigenia in Aulis appearing in 1916.

By the close of World War I, members of the group of Imagist poets, in which Doolittle had played so central a role, began to go their separate ways. Meanwhile, her own life had been severely disrupted by the war. Her brother was killed in France, her home in London was bombed, and Doolittle's husband was gone for long stretches of active duty. A more lasting complication came into play when her marriage to Aldington finally disintegrated as a result of his infidelity.

During the war, new personages had entered her life. D.H Lawrence and his German-born wife Frieda Lawrence arrived in London in 1917 after being expelled from an English coastal region as potential spies. Doolittle quickly befriended them, and some biographers of Lawrence suggest that he and H.D. had a romantic liaison. There is clearer evidence of her relationship with a young Scottish composer named Cecil Gray whom she had met in the Lawrences' circle. Gray became the father of a child, her daughter Perdita , to whom she gave birth in March 1919. The event took place within complicated circumstances: separation from her husband and serious illness in the form of double pneumonia.

Finally, Winifred Ellerman , the woman who became her lifelong friend and companion, was now impelled to meet Doolittle after reading her poems. The daughter of a rich English shipowning family, "Bryher," as Winifred chose to be called, provided Doolittle with crucial emotional support over the following decades although the passionate relationship between the two women was clouded and complicated by Winifred's two marriages. After recovering her health in the aftermath of her pregnancy, Doolittle set out with Bryher on tours of Europe and the United States. By the mid-1920s, Hilda had settled in Switzerland. Her Collected Poems appeared in 1925, and she now began more than three decades of steady literary production, publishing five additional volumes of poetry before her death in 1961.

Throughout her career, Doolittle's passion for ancient Greece was a dominant element in her writing. Some critics found reason to fault her fiction for departing from the reality of the ancient world. As one critic, Douglas Bush, put it, she created ancient Greek characters and plots in the "soft romantic nostalgia … of the Victorian Hellenists." A more sympathetic assessment of her work noted that her protagonists are "too nervous in their intensity to be conventionally Attic" but credited her nonetheless with an ability to capture the longing for ancient Greece that has pervaded Western history.

The complexity of Doolittle's work as a novelist appears in Palimpsest, published in 1926 and her first major work of fiction. One portion of the book was set in the era of the ancient world around 75 bce as Rome invaded Greece; a second segment of the work was an autobiographical account placed in contemporary London; the book's concluding portion takes place during a visit to contemporary Egypt. As Quinn has noted, here and in Doolittle's other works of fiction "a principal character is a sensitive woman trying amid uncongenial circumstances to remain faithful to transcendental ideals." In his view, Doolittle repeatedly presents the reader with a description of a woman who has been rejected in her efforts to find love.

A novel departure for Doolittle came in 1927 when she adapted a work by Euripides, Hippolytus, to produce her own three-act play entitled Hippolytus Temporizes. The decision to move in this direction may have been influenced by the mixed reviews her direct translations from the Greek had received. Meanwhile, her poetry in the 1920s explored and reinterpreted Greek mythology from a woman's perspective.

Doolittle's poetry, as seen in her 1931 volume Red Roses for Bronze, now seemed to lose much of its energy and imagination. Perhaps for that reason, she ceased to publish verse until the World War II years. Similarly, her difficulty in working in this form may have caused her to turn in 1933 to Sigmund Freud in Vienna for psychoanalysis. The initial treatment lasted for three months, and she then resumed her analysis at the hand of the noted Viennese doctor for another five weeks in 1934. A decade later, she recorded her reaction in her Tribute to Freud, which was published in 1956. That volume offers a glowing pen portrait of Freud that has been highly praised by Freud's biographer Ernest Jones.

Doolittle's account of her time in Vienna also offers her recollections of her state of mind at a crucial point in her writing career. The picture Doolittle presented of her psychological state in the early 1930s downplayed any suggestion of pain and pathology. She wrote in Tribute to Freud that she wanted to "root out my personal weeds, … canalize my energies." Quinn describes her central purpose as seeking aid "in overcoming doubts about the timelessness of the soul." Ironically, she found the Viennese doctor and psychoanalyst deeply skeptical about any substantial form of human immortality beyond the survival of the family line from one generation to the next. In her unpublished record of her hours with the noted psychoanalyst, Doolittle noted that they had spent some of their time together exploring her bisexuality. Freud also encouraged her to write an account of her life during the First World War, and this became the genesis of her roman à clef Bid Me to Live. Written between 1939 and 1949, it was published only a year before her death. Despite her deep differences with Freud over such issues as the value of a religious sensibility, she still remembered him with respect and affection. In an important study of Doolittle's work, Psyche Reborn, critic Susan Stanford Friedman wrote that the poet's psychoanalysis with Freud helped nourish "the explosion of a new kind of poetry and prose during the forties and fifties."

In the aftermath of her psychoanalysis, Doolittle turned again to translation, producing an English-language version of Euripides' Ion in 1937. Thereafter, she wrote poetry steadily despite the difficult circumstances of World War II, but her new work began to appear only in 1944. The war period, as Vincent Quinn notes, led her to feel that "the five years' ordeal had cleansed and strengthened her soul." In any case, in 1945 and 1946, she now presented her public with three volumes of war poems. This trilogy—The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod—was written from 1942 to 1944. Other works written at this time, but published only long after, were her tribute to Shakespeare and other leading English writers, By Avon River, and her Tribute to Freud.

The poetry of the war years once again displayed Doolittle's attraction to drastically new forms of writing. She now departed from her use of pure free verse to adopt the more disciplined form of free verse couplets. Instead of her customary focus on ancient Greece, the poems of her war trilogy show a new interest in Egyptian culture and the world of the Bible. The poems of The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod were filled with complexity. Nonetheless, their inspirational purpose was evident as she expressed a continuing belief in God and the deity's presence even in the midst of such unprecedented catastrophe.

By the closing years of her life, the distinguished poet and writer received a wave of recognition. In 1959, Brandeis University presented her with its Creative Arts Award for Poetry. The following year, Hilda Doolittle became the first woman to receive the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award of Merit for Poetry.

Doolittle ended her writing career with the publication of two drastically different works. In her 1960 novel Bid Me to Live, she gave a fictionalized account of her life in the closing years of World War I. Her social relations then became dominated by the disintegration of her marriage and her growing link to D.H. and Frieda Lawrence. Julia the heroine is, like Doolittle herself, an American in wartime London married to an English writer who has left for military service. Doolittle describes how Julia's husband begins an adulterous affair, and how Julia follows suit with Frederick, a character modeled on D.H. Lawrence. In the end, Doolittle's heroine establishes a platonic relationship with a young composer.

The following year, she published Helen in Egypt. A lengthy and notoriously difficult work of poetry, it centers on a monologue by Helen dealing with the Trojan War. For some critics, it is Doolittle's most important work, surpassing the achievement of her early writing as an Imagist poet. It raises the startling and provocative idea that Helen was not kidnapped and carried off to Troy. Rather, she spent the years of the Trojan War in Egypt; her place in Troy was taken by a phantom whom the Greek gods placed there.

A longtime expatriate who had returned to the United States only for brief visits since 1911, Doolittle spent her last days in Zurich, Switzerland. She died there on September 27, 1961, shortly after her 75th birthday.

Evaluations of H.D.'s literary achievement vary widely. Vincent Quinn's view of her as a talented but limited writer who did her best work early on in her career remains influential. He marks the Imagist verse written between 1912 and 1917 as her best work. In his view, Doolittle had blended the imagery of nature with her own strong emotions in verse that met the Imagist ideal of "hard, clear [poetry], never blurred nor indefinite." While ranking these pieces of verse as Doolittle's supreme achievement, he also notes that they were only a limited triumph: "Like cameos and etchings, they are excellent works of art in a minor key," but he calls them lacking in the "larger intellectual and social concerns of major poetry." Thereafter, as she explored new and larger literary forms, "a luminous brevity," according to Quinn, departed from her work.

Other critics in considering the broad extent of Doolittle's work have placed a different emphasis on her work. Professor Norman Holmes Pearson of Yale University has, in contrast to Quinn, been a promoter of Doolittle's overall literary achievement. He joined a number of other critics in stressing H.D.'s development over time with such work as Helen in Egypt matching or exceeding her early work as a star of the Imagist movement. Finally, feminist critics such as Friedman and Claire Buck have found H.D. to be particularly significant as a literary voice expressing a woman's perspective. Thus, Margaret Dickie , writing in The Columbia History of American Poetry, stresses H.D.'s role as a woman writer who repeatedly employed "the metaphor of birth" and whose work was "distinguished by its exploration of female eroticism."


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

Doyle, Charles. Richard Aldington: A Biography. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Eng.: Macmillan, 1989

Duplessis, Rachel Blau. H.D.: The Career of That Struggle. Brighton, Sussex, Eng.: The Harvester Press, 1986.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Penelope's Webb: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

——. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Parini, Jay, ed. The Columbia History of American Poetry. NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Quartermain, Peter, ed. American Poets, 1880–1945. First Series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Quinn, Vincent. Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). NY: Twayne, 1967.

Robinson, Janice S. H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1982

Suchard, Alan, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan. Modern American Poetry, 1865–1950. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989.

suggested reading:

Carpenter, Humphrey. A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

Dickie, Margaret, and Thomas Travisano, eds. Gendered Modernism: American Women Poets and Their Readers. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California