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  • The Astral H. D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H. D.’S Poetry and Prose by Matte Robinson
  • Victoria Papa
The Astral H. D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H. D.’S Poetry and Prose, by Matte Robinson. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 193pp. $110.00 cloth; $39.95 paper; $34.99 ebook.

In the closing pages of The Astral H. D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H. D.’s Poetry and Prose, Matte Robinson puts into words what is perhaps a feeling shared by many scholars of the modernist poet, H. D.: “The difficult thing about H. D.’s poetry . . . is that it directs its readers to a place scholarly criticism cannot go, or even speculate about” (pp. 174–75). In her later years, H. D. vigorously partook in spiritual questing. Robinson’s monograph is the first study fully dedicated to examining the occult sources and contexts that influenced her life and literature. Studying various teachers, schools of thoughts, rituals, religions, and practices, H. D. turned to sources like the tarot, astrology, yogic traditions, theurgy, ancient mythologies, and esoteric texts not only as a poet in search of creative inspiration but as a person with a strong calling for spiritual ascension—the kind that involved traversing the terrain of the “au-delà or other side” (p. 1).

The Astral H. D. is a deft work that manages to both broadly survey the esoteric material that informed H. D.’s spiritual questing—what she termed her “work or her researchesand acutely place this work in the context of her writing (p. 23). Robinson’s approach to this material is detailed and multifaceted. Employing historical, biographical, and critical methodologies, he draws his analysis from a range of material including archival sources, such as the writer’s notebooks and marginalia from her original copies of occult books. He also turns to the writings of the key occult figures to whom she was drawn (for example, Yogi Ramacharaka, Jean Chaboseau, and Robert Ambelain). While most H. D. scholars will be aware of the poet’s interest in the occult, they may be surprised to learn of the intricacies of H. D.’s research. [End Page 499]

The reader of The Astral H. D. should expect to gain significant knowledge of key concepts, terms, symbology, and critical debates within the occult sources that were most important to the poet. While this material is challenging for anyone who is not well-versed in occult practices and teachings, Robinson addresses it with care and precision. Complex ideas are made especially accessible when placed in direct conversation with prominent themes in H. D.’s literature. For instance, in chapter one, Robinson explains that through the writings of French occultists Chaboseau and Ambelain, H. D. came to understand theurgy as “magic used for self-transformation . . . limited to internal action designed to transform or initiate the self so that it can become capable of comprehending the mysteries” (p. 55). Theurgy, thus, “informed [H. D.’s] late poetics by creating possibilities for open spaces that were in flux because they were transformative” (p. 55). Flux and transformation—rendered through images of mystically meditated spaces and divine unions or aesthetic techniques that collapse linear time—are hallmarks of H. D.’s literature, especially that of the late works on which Robinson focuses: Helen in Egypt (1961), Hermetic Definition (1972), Majic Ring (2009), Trilogy (1973), and Vale Ave (1982). Robinson notes such examples as “the romance across lifetimes in Vale Ave and the mystical birth of her own lover in Hermetic Definition” (p. 55).

In addition, Robinson looks into the relationships that were essential to the poet’s spiritual evolution—in particular, those that H. D. believed contributed to her “initiation process,” which include her early romances with Ezra Pound (p. 68). Primary amongst these connections is H. D.’s tie to Hugh Dowding, the prominent British Air Marshall and war hero turned spiritual teacher. H. D. dubbed Dowding her “Large Star” and regarded him as a mystical doppelgänger of sorts; he was the other astral H. D., in effect (p. 161). H. D., however, strictly distinguished herself from the period’s spiritualist movement...


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