There was no use going on. Everything in life was blighted, still-born—that was the crux of the matter. Feet, feet, feet, feet, feet. They were a still-born generation.—H. D., Palimpsest
This passage from the 1926 novel Palimpsest shows H. D. acting as her own literary historian, christening her own “generation” of writers, and thus placing her younger self in a named literary context. It is taken from “Murex,” the second part of Palimpsest, whose protagonist is, like H. D., an American poet in London looking back at the Great War; the “still-born generation” (165), then, refers to the group of writers who were just establishing themselves when war broke out, and thus came chronologically between Yeats’s “Tragic Generation” and Hemingway’s “Lost Generation.” The label that H. D. offers is a deeply pessimistic one (“There was no use going on”) and suggests a failed artistic movement. It is a name that could only be applied retrospectively: unlike the many other labels that were applied to the tentative [End Page 540] “movements” of the immediate prewar period—the “Imagists,” the “impressionists,” “les jeunes,” “The Men of 1914,” the “Vorticists,” the “Georgians”—the name “The Still-Born Generation” is not one that can be imagined at the top of a manifesto, or on the cover of an anthology. Nevertheless, in looking back at the generation that we now know as simply “the modernists,” this is how H. D. chose to define her literary origins.
The metaphors of “blight” and sterility locate this label squarely in the “Wastelandism” of postwar England, with its aesthetic atmosphere of disillusion and its vocabulary of decay. 1 Its suggestion of the death of European culture recalls Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and the reference to the automatism of the urban masses (the “feet” of passersby remind her of soldiers marching to Victoria Station during the war) perhaps gestures toward The Waste Land itself. But the self-defeating metaphor adds something new to this tone of desolation: it restores a literal meaning to the word “generation” (the act of begetting), only to undermine this act of origin with the image of stillbirth. The metaphor of birth and origins brings with it ideas of descent and genealogy, of continuity between successive literary movements, but no sooner are these ideas invoked than we are simultaneously told that in this case the process has stalled.
The metaphor of stillbirth is not arbitrary—this autobiographical character, like H. D., suffered a stillbirth during the Great War, the personal trauma becoming conflated in the text with the wider “blight” of the war. The apparently solipsistic self-absorption of H. D.’s fiction, which repeatedly reworks key moments of her own biography, broadens out at moments such as this, so that the narrative manages to combine a subjective impressionism with an implicit cultural commentary. As well as being an account of Raymonde’s emotional problems—her memories of her husband’s military service, of the resultant change in his character, and of the treachery of her friend who had an affair with him—“Murex” also reflects a change in the whole culture of wartime London. As she perceives it, the war brings with it a cheapened culture of propaganda and virulent xenophobia, together with a strengthening of gender stereotypes, and threatens to stifle the spirit of poetry. The impression we get from “Murex,” and from H. D.’s other fictions of the 1920s and 1930s, is that the war was partly responsible for the death of a specific literary culture, one which had flourished in [End Page 541] the 1890s and which her own generation had been fighting to keep alive. The three novels/novellas Asphodel, “Murex,” and Kora and Ka all hold out this vision of a suppressed subculture as a potential source of postwar regeneration, with at times an unexpected sense of hope that offsets the “Disillusion” which we expect from the literary fallout of the Great War.
Decadence as Woman: Modernism’s Other
In Kora and Ka (1934), John Helforth mourns the death of his elder brother Larry, who was killed in the war, and whom it is tempting to read as...