Sunday, September 10, 2017

Birthday: the poet who loved everybody


Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961)
Poet, author

There were, doubtless, those who said, knowingly, that when you cross an astronomer with a Moravian, trouble’s gonna follow. And Hilda, daughter of Charles Doolittle, Flower Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, and his wife, Helen, delivered in spades.

She met Ezra Pound when she was fifteen and he- a few months older- was a Penn freshman.

He sent her love poems.

Her father disapproved.

In 1907, the two were engaged. Her father put his foot down. Hilda, who had a small reputation as the pseudonymous author of well-regarded children's stories in a Philadelphia Presbyterian church’s newsletter, promptly started an affair with an art student, Josepha Gregg, and moved to Greenwich Village in New York.

By 1911, she was on a steamer to London with Gregg, and Gregg’s mother; once ashore, the Greggs went one way and Hilda went to see Ezra Pound.

Within a year she was a co-founder of Pound’s Imagist movement in poetry, which stressed a pared-down, direct form of representation of things, driven by music rather than rhythm. She began publishing her own work as “H.D.”

She also met a young poet called Richard Aldington. They married in 1913 and, after a stillborn child, separated. Aldington went off to the war, and H.D. replaced him in the editorial offices at The Egoist, the Imagist magazine.

Her take on Imagism was influenced by studies of the fragmented verses of Sappho and Japanese haiku. The Greek classical age remained a touchstone of her work for the rest of her life.

Aldington returned from the war broken and distraught, and a reconciliation failed. H.D. developed a passionate friendship with the writer D.H. Lawrence around 1916; then, two years later, with a friend of his, Cecil Gray.

H.D. and Aldington formally separated, though it took them until 1938 to divorce; H.D. bore Gray’s child, then met a star-struck young woman who wrote novels under the pen name Bryher.

A shipping heiress, Bryher had set herself up in Paris as a literary patroness, backing Edith Sitwell and James Joyce and cutting a swathe through the American Lost Generation colony.

In the hyper-modern new postwar world, a girl-girl couple with one-word-or-less-names could not have been more hipoisie. They quickly became joined at that, and remained a couple, albeit one with many distractions, for the rest of H.D.’s life.

New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani summed up H.D.’s life as the Great War ended:

H. D.'s closest friends were writers; and all of them were constantly setting down impressions of the others. In H. D.'s case, the dominant image which emerges is that of an ethereal, high-strung woman - tense, glamorous and very much in need of protection. To Ezra Pound, she was a ''tree-born spirit of the wood,'' ''a pink moth in the shrubbery.'' To William Carlos Williams, she was someone who could ''walk on the tips of the grass stems.'' And to D. H. Lawrence, she was ''like a person walking a tight-rope - you wonder if she'll get across.'' Much of this image was a kind of willful creation of H. D.'s own theatrical temperament, and it is to Miss Guest's credit that she locates the iron will that lay beneath the gossamer costume.

One role Bryher fulfilled in H. D.'s life was that of guardian - she protected the precious privacy the poet needed for her work, by fending off visitors and calls. And yet even with Bryher, H. D. could grow distant, even cold: work took precedence over everything else in her life, and she would brook no distractions.

“Distractions,” however, she delimited only from her writing time. Bryher entered into a mariage de convenance with a writer called Robert McAlmon, in aid of his publishing ventures. H.D. launched a series of three planned trilogies, novels drawing on classical Greece and the role of women as poets and religious figures.

McAlmon and Bryher divorced, and Bryher set her cap for a dashing young man H.D. was romancing, Kenneth Macpherson. He and Bryher soon married, and happily settled down- with H.D.

Through the Jazz Age, H.D. grew and evolved as a poet and novelists, always reaching for a vague new somewhere she saw in the mists of time. She and Bryher launched a cinema production and magazine company in 1927; through them, they championed the work of the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. They settled in mansion/film studio in Switzerland. The Macphersons adopted H.D.’s child, Perdita, and Macpherson got H.D. pregnant in 1928. She got an abortion.

In 1933, having read Freud, H.D. decamped to Berlin to become his patient and sort out her bisexuality. The rise of the Nazis, however, sent her packing. Having lost a brother and husband to the first world war, she correctly foretold a second, which she and Bryher rode out in London.

The war’s end tossed everything up in the air again. Bryher divorced Macpherson; H.D. and Bryher stopped living together though they continued as a couple. H.D. had a breakdown and spent time in a Swiss sanitarium.

Settling permanently in Switzerland, H.D. had a very productive period for the remainder of the Forties and through the Fifties. In 1960, she became the first woman awarded the gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A stroke felled her in 1961; her ashes were buried in the family plot in Pennsylvania.

Cecil Gray became a successor composer, musical biographer, and critic. He died in 1951. Robert McAlmon wrote a number of books. One was a hit: Being Geniuses Together, his 1938 memoir of life in H.D.’s circle. He died in 1956.

Richard Aldington remained friends with H.D., though remaining friends with him was hard for all who knew him. Current thinking is that he suffered from undiagnosed PTSD. He went from a patron and intimate of T.S. Eliot to a partisan of Eliot’s first wife, savaging him in a novel. He became a pariah to the British literary establishment after a 1950s biographical autopsy of Lawrence of Arabia, whom Aldington denounced as a poseur and a pansy. He died in 1962 and is memorialized as one of the Great War poets in Westminster Abbey.

Kenneth Macpherson became an influential experimental filmmaker. His 1930 silent short, Borderline, explored a love triangle involving characters played by H.D. and the black American singer/actor Paul Robeson; after a critical panning, Macpherson withdrew it for decades. It remains a staple of film school studies. He spent World War I in America, in an affair with the heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim; after the war, he lived on Capri with his partner, the photographer Algernon Islay de Courcy Lyons- underwritten by Bryher- and cared for the elderly Scottish writer Norman Douglas. He spent his last years in Italy and died in 1971.

Ezra Pound became one of the 20th century's major poets and one of its most controversial figures. Put on trial, after World War II, for treason after his scandalous broadcasts on Italian radio, he was confined in a Washington, D.C. mental hospital for years before being released in the early 1960s. He died in Italy in 1972.

Bryher carried on, writing historical novels and memoirs through the 1960s. She died in 1983.

H.D.’s daughter- and Bryher’s and Macpherson’s adopted one, Perdita, lived as colorful a life as her mother. Having been raised, as her son Val wrote in her obituary, “in a highly unusual household,” her multilingual skills led her to work in the British code-breaking factory at Bletchley Park; later in the war, she was an air-raid warden with the author Graham Greene. Seconded to the American OSS- the precursor to the CIA, she worked for the later-notorious spy hunter James Jesus Angleton.

In 1950 Perdita married her boss, New York literary agent, John Valentine Schaffner. His career flourished and he counted among his clients the writers Ray Bradbury, Maxine Hong Kingston, Craig Claiborne and James Beard. He died of AIDS in 1983. H.D.’s four grandchildren all became writers.

Perdita only met her father once- on Capri, at a house party put on by Norman Douglas. She spent her married life as a patroness of the arts and essayist and died in 2001.

Kakutani wrote of H.D.’s odd combination of allure and steely- almost reclusive- dedication to her work:

In the end, this led to extraordinary productivity, but also to a sense of loneliness and exile. There were a succession of breakdowns, and ''a more and more frantic search into the unknown,'' manifested by the poet's growing interest in mysticism and the occult. Still, as Miss Guest observes at the end of her elegant biography, H. D. could look back on her life and say, ''I think I did get what I was looking for from life and art.''

Fragment Sixty-eight

. . . even in the house of Hades.


I envy you your chance of death,
how I envy you this.
I am more covetous of him
even than of your glance,
I wish more from his presence
though he torture me in a grasp,
terrible, intense.

Though he clasp me in an embrace
that is set against my will
and rack me with his measure,
effortless yet full of strength,
and slay me
in that most horrible contest,
still, how I envy you your chance.

Through he pierce me--imperious--
though beauty is slain
when I perish,
I envy you death.
What is beauty to me?
has she not slain me enough,
have I not cried in agony of love,
birth, hate,
in pride crushed?

What is left after this?
what can death loose in me
after your embrace?
your touch,

your limbs are more terrible
to do me hurt.
What can death mar in me
that you have not?


What can death send me
that you have not?
you gathered violets,
you spoke:
"your hair is not less black,
nor less fragrant.
nor in your eyes is less light,
your hair is not less sweet
with purple in the lift of lock;"
why were those slight words
and the violets you gathered
of such worth?

How I envy you death;
what could death bring,
more black, more set with sparks
to slay, to affright,
than the memory of those first violets,
the chance lift of your voice,
the chance blinding frenzy
as you bent?


So the goddess has slain me
for your chance smile
and my scarf unfolding
as you stooped to it;
so she trapped me
with upward sweep of your arm
as you lifted the veil,
and the swift smile and selfless.

Could I have known?
nay, spare pity,
though I break,
crushed under the goddess' hate,
though I fall beaten at last,
so high have I thrust my glance
up into her presence.

Do not pity me, spare that,
but how I envy you
your chance of death.

-from Heliodora, and Other Poems (1924)

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