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Hilda Doolittle (often referred to simply as H. D.) is often called ”the perfect imagist,” and her early free verse poetry is credited with inspiring Ezra Pound’s formulation of Imagism. Doolittle’s later poetry transcended the principles of this school of verse to include mythology, occult and religious themes, psychoanalytic concepts, and symbolism. Her work retains interest for its role in establishing the tenets of imagism, and because much of it reflects Doolittle’s association with some prominent figures in English and American intellectual life in the early twentieth century, including Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, D. H. Lawrence, and Sigmund Freud.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Engagement to Ezra Pound
Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on September 10, 1886, and for two years attended Bryn Mawr College, where the poet Marianne Moore was also a student. In the early 1900s, Doolittle, Moore, Pound, and William Carlos Williams were friends, and studied and wrote together. Doolittle and Pound were briefly engaged, but her family forbade the marriage, and some biographers theorize that she traveled to England in 1911 to rejoin him.
Pound Arranges for Publication of Doolittle’s Work
From London Pound arranged for the publication of several of Doolittle’s poems in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in January 1913. Submitted under the name ”H. D. Imagiste,” the poems ”Hermes of the Ways,” ”Priapus,” and ”Epigram” embodied Pound’s concept of imagism, which includes the use of concrete, sensual images, common speech, conciseness, a wide range of subject matter, and the creation of new rhythms, intended to produce, according to the credo published in the 1915 imagist anthology, ”poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.”
Life in Literary London
Doolittle’s participation in the social and intellectual life of literary London, on the eve of the First World War, included association with D. H. Lawrence, May Sinclair, W. B. Yeats, and Richard Aldington, whom she married in 1913. Together Alding ton and Doolittle edited the Egoist, a literary forum for imagist writers, and both were major contributors to Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology, a collection of imagist poetry edited by Pound and published in 1914. When Pound abandoned imagism following the publication of this volume, Doolittle and Aldington, in conjunction with Amy Lowell, led and further developed the movement; they were instrumental, for example, in arranging for the publication of three succeeding imagist anthologies. Doolittle’s first volume of poems, Sea Garden, was published in 1916.
Adverse Events Lead to Divorce
Following a series of stressful events, including Aldington’s absence while in military service during World War I, the deaths of Doolittle’s brother and father, and the miscarriage of her first pregnancy, she and Aldington separated in 1918. For many years thereafter she lived with the novelist Winifred Ellerman, who took the pen name of Bryher. The two women traveled extensively after the birth of Doolittle’s daughter in 1919, eventually settling in Switzerland. Two subsequent volumes of poetry, Hymen (1921) and Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), established Doolittle as one of the most important free verse writers in English.
Experimenting Genre and Technique
After her first three volumes of poetry were gathered as Collected Poems in 1925, she began to experiment more widely with different genres and techniques. In ensuing works of poetry, she expanded the technical innovations of imagist verse, and ultimately departed altogether from the tenets of imagism. She also wrote drama and fiction, including two experimental works, Palimpsest (1926) and Hedylus (1928), which are nominally considered novels, although they defy easy categorization and are primarily commended for their poetic prose. Critics have acknowledged the complexities of these prose works; Babette Deutsch, for example, termed Palimpsest a book ”for poets and patient intellectuals.”
Undergoing Psychoanalysis with Freud
In 1933 and 1934, Doolittle underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, and later published her recollections of the experience in Tribute to Freud (1956), a book of prose characterized by her biographer Vincent Quinn as essentially ”a self-portrait brought into focus by her confrontation with Freud.”
War-torn London Inspires War Trilogy
Doolittle returned to England during the Second World War and subsequently wrote her ”war trilogy,” comprising The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), works inspired by the realities of living in war-torn London that make greater use of religious imagery than her previous poetry. After the war she returned to Switzerland, where she wrote her third major work of fiction, Bid Me to Live (1960), a semiautobiographical account of her life in Lon don in the 1920s. Doolittle’s last major poetic work, Helen in Egypt (1961), is a book-length mixture of poetry and prose in three parts that retells the Helen of Troy legend. In 1960, she became the first woman to receive the Award of
Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died in 1961 after suffering a major stroke.
Works in Literary Context
Doolittle is best remembered as an exemplar of imagism, the first important movement in twentieth-century poetry and a precursor of literary modernism, and thus remains of primary interest as an important influence on modern poetry. The development of Doolittle’s increasingly complex and resonant texts is best understood when placed in the context of other important modernists, many of whom she knew intimately and all of whom she read avidly—especially poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens, and novelists such as D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Colette, May Sinclair, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner. Within this modernist tradition, Doo-little’s particular emphasis grew out of her perspective as a woman regarding the intersections of public events and private lives in the aftermath of World War I and in the increasingly ominous period culminating in the Atomic Age. Love and war, birth and death are the central concerns of her work. In her search for the underlying patterns ordering and uniting consciousness and culture, she examined, questioned, and reconstituted gender, language, and myth.
Examination of her own career reveals that Doolittle continued to experiment with different poetic techniques after writing the works that established the essential principles of imagism. Poetry written after the publication of the Collected Poems in 1925, for example, employs increasingly complex rhymes and rhythms. Doo-little ultimately moved away from the predominantly visual imagery characteristic of imagist verse, instead relying on phonetic and rhythmic effects to recreate moods and objects. Many commentators contend that the works that follow the Collected Poems are her best, although a few maintain that she broadened her range at the expense of the clarity and conciseness that had been her trademark as the quintessential imagist poet. Still, her technical achievements, her poignant portrayals of her personal struggles, and the beauty of her work have all earned a significant amount of praise. As C. H. Sisson pointed out, the prospective reader of Doolittle might be a little surprised to find that ”[Doolittle] offers more than the formal virtues which are usually allowed to her work, and that … work abundantly repays the not very strenuous labor of reading it.”
To many, Doolittle will be remembered as ”a poets’ poet.” ”To be such,” wrote Horace Gregory, ”has few tangible rewards, for this means that the poet who holds that title must often wait upon the future for true recognition.” Hyatt H. Waggoner asserted that ”the notes she made in her journey, in her poems, compose one of the really distinguished bodies of work of this century.”
Works in Critical Context
Critical assessments of Doolittle’s poetry have exhibited the kind of shifts that demonstrate the relative nature of all literary criticism and epitomize the problems many women writers have faced in gaining admission to the established canons of literature. On the whole, Doolittle’s work in the 1910s and 1920s was highly praised and widely anthologized. But beginning with the publication of Red Roses for Bronze (1931), reviews tended to be mixed. The publication of Trilogy during the war led to some enthusiastic reviews, some complaints about her abandonment of imagism, and some negative reviews, with Randall Jarrell’s brief and disparaging review of Tribute to the Angels being the most damaging. Ignoring the later development of Doolittle’s fellow imagists, Jarrell argued that ”imagism was a reductio ad absurdum upon which it is hard to base a later style.”
Critical Reaction to Helen in Egypt
When compared with her earlier work, Doolittle’s final work, Helen in Egypt received scant critical attention. When it was first published, it received only five reviews. However, since its initial appearance, the work has been praised by scholars as a bold epic, told from a distinctly feminine perspective. Kathryn Gibbs Gibbons writes, ”H. D.’s last book, Helen in Egypt, is a long psychological meditative lyric which represents the height of her art. . . . It is the culmination of long years of poetic experimentation and refinement. As we would have expected, the writing does not lack depth or intricacy in its examination of the relation of the personal problem of guilt to the social problem of war.” Likewise, Albert Gelpi considered it ”the most ambitious and successful long poem ever written by a woman poet, certainly in English.”
Revival of Critical Attention
Critical attention to Doolittle dwindled in the decade following her death, until 1969, when a special issue of Contemporary Literature devoted to her work appeared. The volume includes some two hundred pages of previously unpublished poetry. Stimulated by this publication of Doolittle’s unavailable work, scholars covering the spectrum of critical perspectives and methodologies began writing about Doolittle. While the Doolittle revival has gathered great momentum, the reassessment of her work is still in the process of change. Some critics, such as Hugh Kenner and Alfred Kazin, still consider Doolittle a minor chapter in literary history, notable largely for her contributions to imagism. But a growing chorus of critics—including, for example, Louis Martz, Sandra Gilbert, Albert Gelpi, Susan Gubar, Denis Donoghue, Susan Stanford Fried man, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Alicia Ostriker, Adalaide Morris, Sherman Paul, Carroll Terrell, Cyrena Pondrom, Diana Collecut, and Paul Smith—consider Doolittle a major poet belonging both to the modernist mainstream and the tradition of women’s writing.
- Chisholm, Dianne. H. D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992.
- DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. H. D.: The Career of That Struggle. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1986.
- Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1981.
- Gregory, Eileen. H. D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Laity, Cassandra. H. D. and the Victorian Fin de Siecle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
- Sword, Helen. Engendering Inspiration: Visionary Strategies in Rilke, Lawrence, and H. D. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
- Gubar, Susan. ”The Echoing Spell of H. D.’s Trilogy.” Contemporary Literature 19 (Spring 1978): 196-218.
- Morris, Adalaide. ”Signaling: Feminism, Politics, and Mysticism in H. D. s War Trilogy. Sagetrieb 9 (Winter 1990): 121-33.
- The H. D. Home Page. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from http://www.imagists.org.
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