- H.D.'s Helen in Egypt:Aging and the Unconscious
Since the 1982 publication of Susan Stanford Friedman's Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., the majority of the critical works about the life and poetry of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) have sought to tell and to re-interpret the story of how H.D. won acceptance as a female modernist and at the same time found a way to use her own aesthetic as a critique of prevailing, constricting gender roles within the modernist context. As Friedman later proposed in Penelope's Web, her 1990 study of H.D.'s fiction, the self H.D. fashioned "into a multiply split, gendered subject characteristic of both modernism and an oppositional discourse that positions woman within, yet against, patriarchal representations of female identity" has remained an object of admiration for a generation of critics (80). From Janice Robinson's claim in her H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet (1981) that as a woman Imagist "H.D. came to understand the poem not as an assertion of phallic desire, but as presentation, an act of birth, a means of disentanglement from the burden of inseminating thought" to Diana Collecott's recent interpretation of H.D.'s Collected Poems "in terms of an alternative modernist aesthetic, which is emotionally engaged and woman-identified, esteems speech and performance as much as writing and print, and cherishes the human personality as well as the poet's art," critics for nearly twenty years have celebrated an H.D. who transformed her gender-identity from a liability into a source of originality and freedom.
By the end of her life, H.D had two notable achievements—she had become, as a woman, a central figure in a masculinist group of modernist writers, and she had extended its phenomenal experimental reach. I do not think there is more convincing evidence that H.D. had already, by the end of her life, been recognized for carrying off both of these than Robert Duncan's The [End Page 91] H.D. Book, a book-length series of essays in homage to her begun in the late 1950's. In recollecting his own formative days as a poet, the few years spent most intensely absorbing influences before the publication of his own 1947 Medieval Scenes, Duncan says,
For a new generation of young writers in the early 1950's, the Pisan Cantos and then Paterson had been the challenge. But for me, the War Trilogy [of H.D.] came earlier . . . In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters' studios in San Francisco, I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life from them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be.(114)
As he explores the idea of a late modernism that bifurcates into one pledged to the "rational imagination" and the other, more inspiring and pioneering, surrendering to "creative disorders of primitive mind," Duncan names three authors—Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D.—as the writers who carried the living flame of modernism across the chaos and anguish of the Second World War to a moment when he could grasp it himself. "It seemed to me then that Williams, in the imagination," he said of his readings of the modernists in the late 1940's,
had come to the same place, under fire, that appears in Tribute to the Angels where
as if in London, in Pisa, in Paterson, there had been phases of a single revelation. Indeed, Williams saw that if his Paterson "rose to flutter into life awhile—it would be as itself, local, and so like every other place in the world." Was it that the war—the bombardment for H.D., the imprisonment and exposure to the elements for Ezra Pound, the divorce in the speech for Williams—touched a spring of passionate feeling in the poet that was not the war but was his age, his ripeness in life. They were almost "old"; under fire to come "to a new distinction."(111)
The "spring of passionate feeling" Duncan appreciates in his most courageous modernist predecessors comes not just from their experience...