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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

H.D.’s life and work recapitulate the central themes of literary modernism: the emergence from Victorian norms and certainties; the entry into an age characterized by rapid technological change and the violence of two world wars; the disruptions of conventional gender roles with the rise of feminism; and the development of literary modes which reflected the disintegration of traditional symbolic systems and the mythmaking quest for new meanings. Writing under the nom de plume H.D., she is known mainly as a poet, especially for her imagist poetry (as in Sea Garden) and her epics of the forties and fifties (Trilogy and Helen in Egypt). She was the first woman to receive the prestigious Award of Merit Medal for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1960). H.D. has also been highly praised for her Greek translations. Often compared to Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, H.D. is increasingly recognized for her experimental fiction (HERmione, Bid Me to Live and Asphodel) and her personal essays (Tribute to Freud).

Like the modernist poetry of her friends, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, H.D.’s early poetry originated in the avant-garde, vers libre movements of 1910–1920 (especially imagism), influenced by Sappho, Japanese haiku, Troubadour lyrics, Bergsonian philosophy, and post-impressionist art. H.D. was known as the “most perfect” of the imagist poets for her innovative musical rhythms, crystalline lines, and stark images. Like The Cantos, The Waste Land, and Paterson, H.D.’s later long sequence poems featured the poet as prophet wandering in the wilderness of the modern world, drawing on the fragments of many cultures to forge new myths that might give meaning to a world shattered by war, technology, and alienation. Like the modernist novels of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and William Faulkner that she admired, H.D.’s fiction fractured narrative perspective and chronology in order to capture the shifting subjectivities of consciousness. This prose centers on the experience of the creative woman who wants both love and vocation in a world perpetually split open by violence.

H.D.’s distinctive emphasis as a modernist grew out of her extensive involvement with classical Greece and ancient Egypt, cinema, psychoanalysis, esoteric religion, and occult mysticism. Her perspective as a woman further permeated her revisions of these traditions. Analyzed by Sigmund Freud (1933, 1934), for example, she transformed his androcentric theories of femininity into the basis of a redemptive female voice and vision. Like Woolf, H.D. was profoundly concerned with the issues of war and violence. To counter the forces of death, her work reconstitutes gender, language, and myth to serve her search for a vision of personal and cultural rebirth.

Loving the forests and sea-coasts of the United States, H.D. grew up in Pennsylvania: first Bethlehem and then a Philadelphia suburb. Her mother was a Moravian artist and musician, and her father was a well-known professor of astronomy. Withdrawing from Bryn Mawr College in her sophomore year with poor grades, she later went to Europe in 1911 to join the circle of artists around Pound, Yeats, and Joyce. Although she remained intensely American throughout her residences in London and Switzerland, she only visited the United States four times. Bisexually oriented, H.D. almost married Ezra Pound, married fellow imagist Richard Aldington in 1913, separated from him in 1919, divorced him in 1938, and lived with Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) from 1919 through 1946.

Susan Stanford Friedman
University of Wisconsin at Madison

In the Heath Anthology
Oread (1914)
Sea Rose (1916)
The Helmsman (1916)
Helen (1923)
from Trilogy
      from The Walls Do Not Fall [43] (1944)
      from Tribute to the Angels [8,12,19,20,23,43] (1944)

Other Works
Sea Garden (1916)
Collected Poems (1925)
Palimsest (1926)
Hedylus (1928)
By Avon River (1949)
Tribute to Freud (1956)
Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal) (1960)
Helen in Egypt (1961)
Hermetic Definition (1972)

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American Women Writers 1890 to 1939: Modernism and Mythology
Site provided by Kristin Mapel-Bloomberg, addresses H.D.'s place in the Modern moment.

Modern American Poetry
Criticism, poems for reading online, a biography, and links.

The H.D. Homepage
Biography, newsletter, resources, and poetry online.

Secondary Sources

Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critical Views: H.D., 1989

Dianne Chisolm, H.D.'s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Transition, 1992

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, H.D.: The Career of That Struggle, 1986

Susan Edmonds, Out of Line: History, Psychoanalysis, and Montage in H.D.'s Long Poems, 1994

Susan S. Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., 1981

Susan S. Friedman, Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction, 1990

Susan S. Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, eds., Signets: Reading H.D., 1990

Barbara Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, 1984

Donna Krolik Hollenberg, H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity, 1991

Cassandra Laity, H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siecle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence, 1996