H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), 1886-1961

In January 1913, Harriet Monroe’s influential little magazine, Poetry, printed three vivid poems by an unknown "H. D., Imagiste." These spare, elegant lyrics were among the first important products of the "imagist movement": poems devoid of explanation and declamation, unrhymed and lacking regular beat, depending on the power of an image to arrest attention and convey emotion. The poet’s pen name, the movement’s name, and the submission to the magazine were all the work of Ezra Pound, poet and tireless publicist for anything new in the world of poetry. The poems themselves had been written by his friend Hilda Doolittle. In later years, H. D. would look back at these events as epitomizing her dilemma: how to be a woman poet speaking in a world where women were spoken for and about by men. It is, perhaps, a symbol of her sense of difficulty that, though she strove for a voice that could be recognized as clearly feminine, she continued to publish under the name that Pound had devised for her.

She had been born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, one girl in a family of five boys, her mother–who was the father’s second wife–was a musician and music teacher, active in the Moravian church to which many in Bethlehem belonged. The symbols and rituals of this group, along with its tradition of secrecy created in response to centuries of oppression, had much to do with H. D.’s interest in images and her attraction in later life to occult and other symbol systems: the cabala, numerology, the tarot, and psychoanalysis.

When her father, an astronomer and mathematician, was appointed director of the observatory at the University of Pennsylvania, the family moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. There, when she was fifteen years old, H. D. met Ezra Pound, a student at the university, already dedicated to poetry and acting the poet’s role with dramatic intensity. The two were engaged for a while, but Pound’s influence continued long after each had gone on to other partners. H. D. attended college at Bryn Mawr for two years; in 1911 she made a bold move to London, where Pound had gone some years earlier. She married a member of his circle, the English poet Richard Aldington, in 1913. With Aldington she studied Greek and read the classics, but the marriage was not a success and was destroyed by their separation during World War I when Aldington went into the army and served in France.

The year 1919 was a terrible one for H. D.: her brother Gilbert was killed in the fighting in France, her father died soon thereafter, her marriage officially broke up, close friendships with Pound and with D. H. Lawrence came to an end, she had a nearly fatal case of flu, and amid all this gave birth to a daughter who Aldington said was not his child. Aftereffects of all these traumas haunted her for the rest of her life. But she was rescued from the worst of her emotional and financial troubles by Winifred Ellerman, whose father, a shipping magnate, was one of the wealthiest men in England. Ellerman, a writer who had adopted the pen name Bryher, had initially been attracted by H. D.’s poetry; their relationship developed first as a love affair and then into a lifelong friendship.

In 1923, H. D. settled in Switzerland. With Bryher’s financial help she raised her daughter and cared for her ailing mother who had joined her household. During 1933 and 1934 she spent some time in Vienna, where she underwent analysis by Sigmund Freud. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and the disguised ways in which it reaches surface expression accorded well with H. D.’s understanding of how the unexplained images in a poem could be significant; the images were a code, carrying personal meanings in disguise. Freud and H. D. had many arguments, especially over the destiny of women, for H. D. by this time had become a feminist, and Freud believed that woman’s nature was determined entirely by biology; still, H. D. felt strong affection for him, and was instrumental (with Bryher’s help) in getting him safely to London when the Nazi regime took over in Austria. When World War II broke out H. D. went back to London to share England’s fate in crisis.

Like many of the major poets of the era, H. D. came in time to feel the need to write longer works. During the 1930s she worked mostly in prose forms and composed several autobiographical pieces (some of which remain unpublished); the bombardment of London inspired three long related poems about World War II, The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), which appeared together as Trilogy. In them she combined layers of historical and personal experience; wars going back to the Trojan War all came together in one image of humankind forever imposing and enduring violence.

The personal and the historical had always been one to her, and now she became increasingly attracted to the image of Helen, the so-called cause of the Trojan War, as an image of herself. According to Homer’s Iliad, Helen’s beauty led Paris, a Trojan prince, to steal her from her Greek husband Menelaus, and all the Greek warriors made common cause to get her back. After ten years encamped before the walls of Troy, they found a devious way to enter the city and destroy it. H. D. was struck by the fact that the legend was related entirely from the male point of view; Helen never had a chance to speak. The object of man’s acts and the subject of their poems, she was herself always silent. If Helen tried to speak. would she even have a voice or a point of view? Out of these broodings, and helped by her study of symbols, H. D. wrote her meditative epic of more than fourteen hundred pages, Helen in Egypt. The poem, composed between 1951 and 1955, consists of three books of interspersed verse and prose commentary, which follow Helen’s quest. "She herself is the writing" that she seeks to understand, the poet observes.

H. D.’s imagist poetry, for which she was known during her lifetime, represents the imagist credo with its vivid phrasing, compelling imagery, free verse, short poetic line, and avoidance of abstraction and generalization. She followed Pound’s example in producing many translations of poetry from older literature, choosing her favorite Greek poets for the exercise. Her images come chiefly from nature: austere landscapes of sea, wind, and sand are contrasted with exotic figures of flowers, jewelry, and shells. This contrast can be understood in many ways: it is sterility versus fruitfulness, intellect versus passion, control versus abandon, grief versus joy. H. D. lived a liberated life for a woman of her time, but experienced too much grief to be an exponent of self-abandon. The austere landscapes were as attractive to her as the luscious jewels and flowers that decorated her poetry. Her poetry, although centered on her experience as a woman, was also entirely modernist in its representation of the psyche–anybody’s psyche–adrift in a violent, fragmented, alien, and insecure reality.

The texts of the poems included here are those of Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (1983).



The light beats upon me.
I am startled—
a split leaf crackles on the paved floor—
I am anguished—defeated.

A slight wind shakes the seed-pods—
my thoughts are spent
as the black seeds.
My thoughts tear me,
I dread their fever.
I am scattered in its whirl.
I am scattered like
the hot shrivelled seeds.

The shrivelled seeds
are split on the path—
the grass bends with dust,
the grape slips
under its crackled leaf:
yet far beyond the spent seed-pods,
and the blackened stalks of mint,
the poplar is bright on the hill,
the poplar spreads out,
deep-rooted among trees.

O poplar, you are great
among the hill-stones,
while I perish on the path
among the crevices of the rocks.


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.
(1914, 1924)


Where the slow river
meets the tide,
a red swan lifts red wings
and darker beak,
and underneath the purple down (5)
of his soft breast
uncurls his coral feet.

Through the deep purple
of the dying heat
of sun and mist, (10)
the level ray of sun-beam
has caressed
the lily with dark breast,
and flecked with richer gold
its golden crest. (15)

Where the slow lifting
of the tide,
floats into the river
and slowly drifts
among the reeds, (20)
and lifts the yellow flags,
he floats
where tide and river meet.

Ah kingly kiss—
no more regret (25)
nor old deep memories
to mar the bliss;
where the low sedge is thick,
the gold day-lily
outspreads and rests (30)
beneath soft fluttering
of red swan wings
and the warm quivering
of the red swan’s breast.
(1919, 1921)


1. A nymph of mountains and hills.

2. In Greek mythology, Leda is the mortal raped by Zeus, in the guise of a swan. Helen of Troy was her daughter.

from The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Shorter Fourth Edition (Nina Baym, General Ed.)

H.D. & Imagism
In the early spring or summer of 1912, ‘H.D.’, Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

from A Retrospect (1918); Ezra Pound

Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
(W.B. Yeats; 1923)