An experience in a hotel room in Corfu shaped the second act of H.D.’s career: while travelling with her companion, Bryher, in the aftermath of World War I, H.D. found herself quite unexpectedly contemplating picture writing on the wall of her hotel, writing that she felt had been projected out of her own head. Her best-known account of this extraordinary psychic event is in her Tribute to Freud, but her poetry and prose of the 1930s onwards repeatedly return to the artistic, personal, and political questions that the events of this trip posed for her life and work.
A number of intellectual and religious frameworks helped her in this task. At different times in her life, H.D. drew on psychoanalysis, spiritualism, and Christian spirituality to understand what had happened to her on the Greek island. Matte Robinson’s new monograph, The Astral H.D. explores a further framework H.D. used for understanding her Corfu experience and others like it: occult science. The various frameworks she used meshed—or at times clashed—as H.D. struggled to think through the implications of her experience, but Robinson’s monograph sidesteps the complexities of these interactions by focusing on the period between 1952 and H.D.’s death in 1961, the period when, he claims, occult texts came to exert a particular hold upon her thought.
As Robinson is well aware, the label “occult” can encompass a vast range of practices and ideas from alchemy to demonology and astral projection—all subjects explored at various points in this volume. Nevertheless, and in order to ensure attention is directed to H.D. and her work, Robinson centers his discussion on the observable record of H.D.’s readings in the occult, focusing on the marginalia included in the books of her personal library. H.D.’s copies of works by the French esoteric writer Robert Ambelain (1907–97)—Adam, dieu rouge, Dans l’ombre des cathedrales, and La Kabbale pratique—fall under particular scrutiny. Robinson correlates, for example, H.D.’s extensively annotated copy of La Kabbale pratique with dates and notes included in one of H.D.’s personal notebooks to argue that the poet turned to Ambelain not only for poetic inspiration but also for spiritual guidance. Robinson suggests that H.D. herself practiced forms of the rites she modified from her occult reading (131–42). The introductory note by H.D.’s literary executor, Norman Holmes Pearson, to the poem “Sagesse”—included in the posthumous Hermetic Definition—cited H.D.’s creative debt to Ambelain’s text, but Robinson’s discussion situates her reading of Ambelain in the context of her personal spiritual practice. Thus, “Sagesse” itself becomes a liturgical poem in which biographical material and occult reading come together in service of what Robinson calls H.D’s process of “working things out” (4), helping her understand the significance of her various psychic experiences. [End Page 889]
The Astral H.D. is at its strongest when—as in the example above—it uses H.D.’s marginalia to offer new readings of her major texts. In another section, Robinson charts the impact of H.D.’s reading of Arthur Weigall’s The Paganism in our Christianity (1928) on one of her major poetic works, Trilogy (40–48). The Paganism in our Christianity has a Christian apologetic slant: Weigall surveys the pagan sources for many supposedly early Christian traditions, and recommends that these interjections be purged in pursuit of a purified Christian religion centered on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. H.D.’s marginalia, however, show that she—perhaps unsurprisingly given her fascination with occult histories of religion—ignored the thrust of Weigall’s argument, and instead mined the volume for its account of the intersections of Christianity and paganism. This material, Robinson notes, went on to inform her retelling of the nativity story in Trilogy. Methodologically, then, the monograph exemplifies a willingness to historicize our understanding of...