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Remembering H.D. on her 130th birth anniversary

American-born, British citizen by an ill-fated marriage, the modernist writer Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) was wary of nationalism, which she viewed as leading inevitably to either war or imperialism. Admittedly, she felt—as she wrote of one of her characters—“torn between anglo-philia and anglo-phobia,” and like all prominent modernists of her day, her views were probably not as enlightened as ours. But, except in times of war, she was decidedly unpatriotic and disdainful of provincialism, and her work on a 1930 avant-garde film, Borderline, decrying racial violence and prejudice in America is evidence of an unusual open-mindedness. While loyal to the “beleaguered rock” of England under siege during World War II, she referred variously in her lifetime to at least half a dozen nations as home. She felt deep connections to particular regions of the world: the United States of her youth; the Moravia of her ancestors; Greece, so often the setting and subject of her poetry; Switzerland, where she spent her final decades; and her adopted English homeland. I can’t imagine that she would have been terribly pleased about Brexit. For H.D., boundaries between countries should be fluid, the citizens of the world happily nomadic. In a letter to the poet May Sarton, she once suggested—only half-jokingly—that a more peaceful world might be accomplished by redrawing national borders to accommodate personality types, rather than geographical, ethnic, or linguistic commonalities.

It was in part this expansive vision that first drew me to H.D.’s work, in Randy Malamud’s modern poetry seminar in my second term of an M.A. program. Here was an extraordinarily well-traveled woman—she even viewed King Tutankhamun’s tomb when it opened to visitors in 1923—who was a self-taught scholar of the histories, mythologies, cultures, and languages of the world, ancient and contemporary. Having reinvented English verse—with fellow Imagists Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington—H.D. went on to write the “crystalline” lyric poetry for which she is best known, ambitious epic poems, autobiographical fiction and memoirs, and experimental historical novels; she translated drama and poetry from ancient Greek, and briefly worked as an actor and filmmaker. She knew such modernist luminaries as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence; hung out with Natalie Barney’s Parisian salon and in Berlin cafés with avant-garde artists G. W. Pabst and Hans Sachs; maintained significant friendships with Havelock Ellis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Pound; and was twice an analysand of Sigmund Freud’s. She was bisexual, enjoying relationships with men and women throughout her life, married for two decades to Aldington and committed to a lifelong companionship with Winifred “Bryher” Ellerman, a writer and a wealthy patron of the arts. Her extensive library and correspondence reveal an intense intellectual curiosity about anything and everything, from Byzantine trade routes to astrological charts to Shakespeare’s comedies, from military strategy to fairy tales to Northern Buddhism. She especially loved reading travelogues and life-writing, and she painstakingly learned ancient Greek, French, Italian, and German in order to read her favorite writers—among them, Euripides, Sappho, Dante, Herman Hesse—in their native languages.

She imagined worlds in which women, not men, were the questers, the seekers of knowledge. She plumbed ancient worlds for salves and antidotes to contemporary global issues.

You might be surprised to learn, then, that H.D. was born 130 years ago today in the small, tight-knit, devout Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where her grandfather directed the Moravian Seminary, her uncle played the organ for Central Church, and her mother taught music and painting to seminary students. H.D. spent her childhood attending Lovefeasts and Christmas Eve candlelight services. Nineteenth-century Moravianism, however, sowed the seeds of H.D.’s nascent cosmopolitanism. She was fascinated with the history of the persecuted pre-Reformation sect that had isolated her, in a sense, from other Americans. She traced her family’s roots to Eastern Europe and learned a mystical tradition that defied the orthodoxies of most mainstream Protestantism in its conception of sex as sacrament and its acceptance of the validity of ecstatic encounters with deity. Though she spent her lifetime studying numerous ancient and modern religions, as well as a fair number of occult and spiritualist traditions, she returned again and again to Moravian traditions and rituals as a model for spiritual belief and practice. In her later years, she characterized it as a path to “world-unity without war.”

So today we celebrate the birthday of a modernist writer and thinker who spent her life and career challenging the status quo. Her early poems of Sea Garden privileged the flowers “[m]arred and with stint of petals… thin, sparse of leaf” over the meticulously manicured roses of a “sheltered garden.” She composed verse in the voices of female deities maligned and forgotten. She penned memoirs about her bisexual desires, and her struggle to be read as a woman writer. She imagined worlds in which women, not men, were the questers, the seekers of knowledge. She plumbed ancient worlds for salves and antidotes to contemporary global issues. Her epitaph aptly remembers her as “one who died / following intricate song’s / lost measure.”

Quotations above are from H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea, The Mystery, and Collected Poems, and appear by permission of Declan Spring, for the H.D. Estate.

Featured image credit: Hydrangea flowers dead in winter by Charro Badger. CC-BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Karen James

    So wonderful to read this about a major woman writer, alas excised from the mainstream of literature, as is the fate of so many women writers. Thank you.

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