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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1886-1961)

[7105] New York Times Paris Bureau Collection, London Has Its Biggest Raid of the War (1941), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Hilda Doolittle attended exclusive private schools in Philadelphia and was admitted to Bryn Mawr College. Her father was a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Lehigh University and the University of Pennsylvania. After attending Bryn Mawr for two years, H.D. stopped her formal schooling because of poor health.

Along the way, Hilda had fallen in love with young Ezra Pound. In 1911, when she traveled to England, Pound was waiting for her. Pound’s friendship and encouragement enabled her to launch her own writing career. He helped her to publish her first poems in Poetry, and later in the anthology Des Imagistes (1914); he also gave her the pen name H.D. by which she became widely known. Inspired by Pound’s endorsement of vers libre, imagism, and vorticism, H.D. aimed to write tight, concise poems, resonant in the tradition of the haiku. Deeply interested in classical Greek literature, she brought Greek mythology and the words of classical poets into her own verse. Her poems are also characterized by their vivid descriptions of natural scenes and objects, which often stand for a feeling or mood. Her first collection of poetry, Sea Garden (1916), reflects the interests and techniques that were to remain central to her work.

Like many of the other poets in this unit, H.D. spent most of her adult life out of the United States. In 1913, she married fellow poet and imagist Richard Aldington, who shared her passion for Greek literature. The marriage soon ended, and H.D. was left as a single mother with little money. She soon forged a close relationship with a woman named Winifred Bryher, the daughter of a successful businessman. Bryher, who wrote historical novels herself, fell in love with H.D. and supported the poet financially for the rest of her life, allowing her the leisure to write and travel as she wished. H.D.’s companionship with Bryher probably inspired several prose pieces, namely Pilate’s WifeAsphodel, and Her, which dealt candidly with lesbianism, but they were not published until after her death. In 1933, with the encouragement of Bryher, H.D. left London to become a “pupil” (H.D.’s word) of Sigmund Freud. In 1939, she and Bryher returned to London, where they weathered the terrifying Blitz, the devastating German bombing campaign against London and other British cities. H.D. would write about this experience in her The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946). These poems were later collected under one title, Trilogy (1973). After a long and prolific career, during which she published eight volumes of poetry, four novels, a memoir, and several critical works, H.D. died in Zurich.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to review Pound’s three tenets of imagism: (1) “Direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective”; (2) “To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”; (3) “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.” Which of H.D.’s poems seem to adhere to Pound’s ideas most closely?
  • The Walls Do Not Fall was written after living in London during the Blitz. Ask your students how the poem reflects the experience of war? What modernist or imagist techniques does H.D. employ? How does this longer poem compare to some of the earlier works in the unit? What strategies or ideas does she continue? What seems new?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “At Baia,” what is the relationship between the title and the subject matter? Why does H.D. locate this poem in an ancient Roman town? Why does the author use parentheses? What is the significance of the flower imagery?
  2. Comprehension: In “Helen,” how is Greece portrayed? How does this poem about Helen, whose face is said to have launched a thousand ships and begun the Trojan War, differ from other works about her? What is the tone of the poem? What is significant about the end?
  3. Context: Pound was one of H.D.’s mentors and an influential friend throughout her career. How do H.D.’s early poems, particularly “Mid-day” and “Oread,” follow the rules of imagism or vorticism as espoused by Pound?
  4. Exploration: Compare H.D.’s “Leda” to Yeats’s earlier poem, “Leda and the Swan.” How do the poems differ? What is the tone of each? Does the reader sympathize with Leda? How does the diction differ?

Selected Archive Items

[7105] New York Times Paris Bureau Collection, London Has Its Biggest Raid of the War (1941), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Photograph of a London building destroyed by bombs. London experienced heavy fire bombing during World War II.

[7599] Euphronios, Calyx-Krater (c. 515 B.C.E.), 
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, bequest of Joseph H. Durkee, gift of Darius Ogden Mills and gift of C. Ruxton Love, by exchange, 1972 (1972.11.10). Photograph ©1999 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Greek bowl for mixing wine and water. Greek and Roman myths were central to the poetry of H.D., T. S. Eliot, and Robinson Jeffers.

[7981] Ando Hiroshige, Inada/Buri/Warasa & Fugu (1832), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Woodcut of local fish by the Japanese painter and printmaker Ando Hiroshige. Imagist poets like H.D. and Pound were attracted to the minimalist characteristics of such art.

[8005] Anonymous, Hilda Doolittle, Bust Portrait, Facing Right (1960), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 122118]. 
H.D. was one of the founders of imagism, a school of poetry inspired in part by the minimalism of Oriental art, particularly the haiku form.

[9141] William B. Yeats, Leda and the Swan (1924), 
courtesy of Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leda_and_the_Swan. 
Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” describes the rape of Leda, mother of Helen of Troy, by the Greek god Zeus, who came to her in the form of a swan. H.D. also treats this subject in “Leda.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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