H.D. aka Hilda Doolittle (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961)

On this day, in 1886, the poet Hilda Doolittle (aka H.D.), was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Of all the writers/poet-heroes I love and praise and revere, I can say without hesitation that H.D. is my favorite poet and visionary. I am utterly enthralled by her entire body of work, from the earliest Imagist poems to her final masterpiece, the book-length epic, Helen in Egypt. Along the way, she wrote novels (HERmione and Asphodel are the two closest to my heart), translated Euripides (Ion and Hippolytus), compiled memoirs/tributes to Sigmund Freud (she was one of his patients) and Ezra Pound (one of her closest friends, the pair were even briefly engaged), and set forth a mystical philosophy in Notes on Thought and Vision. Even her correspondence is fascinating.

Her most famous poem, below, was regarded as the perfect example of Imagism:

Oread
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Whirl up, sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

***

Here’s Another brief poem in the same Imagist style:

The Pool
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net.
What are you – banded one?

***

One of my favorite poems, the piece that instigated my H.D. obsession, is entitled “Eros.”

Eros
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

I.
Where is he taking us
now that he has turned back?

Where will this take us,
this fever,
spreading into light?

Nothing we have ever felt,
nothing we have dreamt,
or conjured in the night
or fashioned in loneliness,
can equal this.

Where is he taking us,
Eros,
now that he has turned back?

II.
My mouth is wet with your life,
my eyes blinded with your face,
a heart itself which feels
the intimate music.

My mind is caught,
dimmed with it,
(where is love taking us?)
my lips are wet with your life.

In my body were pearls cast,
shot with Ionian tints, purple,
vivid through the white.

III.
Keep love and he wings
with his bow,
up, mocking us,
keep love and he taunts us
and escapes.

Keep love and he sways apart
in another world,
outdistancing us.

Keep love and he mocks,
ah, bitter and sweet,
your sweetness is more cruel
than your hurt.

Honey and salt,
fire burst from the rocks
to meet fire
spilt from Hesperus.

Fire darted aloft and met fire,
and in that moment
love entered us.

IV.
Could Eros be kept,
he was prisoned long since
and sick with imprisonment,
could Eros be kept,
others would have taken him
and crushed out his life.

Could Eros be kept,
we had sinned against the great god,
we too might have prisoned him outright.

Could Eros be kept,
nay, thank him and the bright goddess
that he left us.

V.
Ah love is bitter and sweet,
but which is more sweet
the bitterness or the sweetness,
none has spoken it.

Love is bitter,
but can salt taint sea-flowers,
grief, happiness?

Is it bitter to give back
love to your lover if he crave it?

Is it bitter to give back
love to your lover if he wish it
for a new favourite,
who can say,
or is it sweet?

Is it sweet to possess utterly,
or is it bitter,
bitter as ash?

VI.
I had thought myself frail,
a petal
with light equal
on leaf and under-leaf.

I had thought myself frail;
a lamp,
shell, ivory or crust of pearl,
about to fall shattered,
with flame spent.

I cried:

“I must perish,
I am deserted in this darkness,
an outcast, desperate,”
such fire rent me with Hesperus,

Then the day broke.

VII.
What need of a lamp
when day lightens us,
what need to bind love
when love stands
with such radiant wings over us?

What need–
yet to sing love,
love must first shatter us.

***

The following lines have been a great source of comfort in times of despair:

Excerpt from “The Tribute” (Section 10)
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

And this we will say for remembrance,
speak this with their names:

Could beauty be done to death,
they had struck her dead
in ages and ages past,
could beauty be withered from earth,
they had cast her forth,
root and stalk
scattered and flailed—

They had trod her to death with sneers,
they had bartered her
for a piece of thin money tossed up
to fall half alloy,
they had stripped her and sent her forth.

Could beauty be caught and hurt,
could beauty be rent with a thought,
for a thrust of a sword,
for a piece of thin money tossed up
then beauty were dead.

Long, long before we came to earth,
long, long before we rent our hearts
with this worship, this fear
and this dread.

***

H.D.’s ability to express her depth of emotions (which includes achingly beautiful love poems written to men and to women), her crystalline clarity (her “hard, gem-like flame”), her musical rhythms, her passion for ancient Greece, her immersion in all things esoteric, and her entangled web of connections to other modernist writers/artists are just a few of the reasons I adore her work. Her words are a continuing source of inspiration, and I can honestly say she’s kept me going me through some dark periods in my life. I’ve long felt like our souls are connected in some way. And after being ignored and marginalized for decades, she’s finally becoming more widely recognized as a writer of canonical stature.  Her work should be of especial interest to pagans, especially those interested in Hellenic, Kemetic, and Greco-Egyptian paganism/polytheism.

The primary page for more information on H.D. can be found here, and there’s a nice introduction to her life and work (including the texts of several poems and and part of an audio recording of H.D. reading from Helen in Egypt) here.

***

A Few Quotes by H.D.

“Actually, they are both occupied with the thought of reconstruction, he ‘to re-claim the coast of Pharos, the light-house,’ she to establish or re-establish the ancient Mysteries.”
– H.D., from Helen in Egypt, Pallinode IV.8

“Today, again at a turning-point in the history of the world, the mind stands, to plead, to condone, to explain, to clarify, to illuminate; and, in the name of our magnificent heritage of that Hellenic past, each one of us is responsible to that abstract reality; silver and unattainable yet always present, that spirit again stands holding the balance between the past and the future. What now will we make of it?”
– H.D., from Ion, part XIX

“The Delphic charioteer has, I have said, an almost hypnotic effect on me: the bend of his arm, the knife-cut of his chin; his feet, rather flat, slightly separated, a firm pedestal for himself; the fall of his drapery, in geometrical precision; and the angles of the ingatherings of the drapery of the waist.

All this was no ‘inspiration,’ it was sheer, hard brain work.

This figure has been created by a formula arrived at consciously or unconsciously.

If we had the right sort of brains, we would receive a definite message from that figure, like dots and lines ticked off by one receiving station, received and translated into definite thought by another telegraphic centre.

There is no trouble about art. There is already enough beauty in the world of art, enough in the fragments and almost perfectly preserved charioteer at Delphi alone to remake the world.

There is no trouble about the art, it is the appreciators we want. We want young men and women to communicate with the charioteer and his like.

We want receiving centres for dots and dashes.”

– H.D., from Notes on Thought and Vision

peril, strangely encountered, strangely endured,
marks us;

we know each other
by secret symbols,

though, remote, speechless,
we pass each other on the pavement,

at the turn of the stair;
though no word pass between us,

there is subtle appraisement;
even if we snarl a brief greeting

or do not speak at all,
we know our Name,

we nameless initiates,
born of one mother,

companions
of the flame.

– H.D., from “The Walls Do Not Fall”

We are voyagers, discoverers
of the not-known,
the unrecorded;
we have no map;
possibly we will reach haven,
heaven.
― H.D., from “The Walls Do Not Fall”

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6 Comments

  1. Oh, I love H.D. She’s probably in my top five of poets, and I think this was a very fine tribute to her.

    Reply
    • Thank you! I’m always glad to meet another fan of H.D.! And thanks for commenting, because that reminds me that I definitely owe you an email!

      Reply
  2. Marvellous. I think I came across her during my studies of pre-modernism, modernism, imagism and all such movements. Nice selection of pieces !

    Reply
  3. By the way, I tried to find for free some epub versions of her works 🙂 Got “Hymen” and “Sea Garden”

    Reply

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