Hilda Doolittle, Modernist Poet Known as H.D.
By Elodie Barnes | On November 17, 2019 | Updated August 17, 2022 | Comments (0)
Hilda Doolittle (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961) was an American-born poet, novelist, translator, and essayist who wrote under the pen name H.D.
She was heavily influenced by the effects of World War I, and the subsequent trends of modernism, psychoanalysis, and feminism.
Her work is often framed within the context of other important modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Today, she’s best remembered for her innovation and experimental approach to poetry.
Hilda’s early years were spent in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in a close-knit Moravian community founded in the 18th century by a small group of strict Protestants. Her father Charles was a professor of astronomy at Lehigh University, while her mother Helen taught music and painting at the Moravian Seminary.
Later, when Hilda was nine years old, her father became professor of astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and the family moved to the Flower Observatory in Upper Darby.
The only surviving daughter in a family of five sons, she was her father’s favorite child and he was ambitious for her to become a scientist like himself.
Hilda, however, was more drawn to the arts and struggled to reconcile the two when her father forbade art school and her mother, a traditional wife who bowed to her husband’s opinions and decisions, did not support her ambitions.
Hilda was an intelligent child and did well at school. In 1905 she enrolled at Bryn Mawr instead of the art college that she would have preferred, but withdrew less than two years later after achieving poor results in both maths and English.
She longed instead for a stimulating artistic community in which to share ideas and her love of books and poetry, and felt like “a disappointment to her father, an odd duckling to her mother, an importunate overgrown, unincarnated entity that had no place here.”
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13 Modernist Poems by H.D.
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Rather than in conventional education, Hilda found the stimulation she craved in her personal relationships. She had met Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams around 1901 when both men were studying at the University of Pennsylvania (where her father taught).
Pound and Williams were already passionate about literature and regularly visited Hilda at the Flower Observatory to share their love of books and poetry. By the time Hilda started at Bryn Mawr, she and Pound were lovers.
Pound was Hilda’s first love, an intense one, and the one she often returned to in later writings. Her father’s disapproval did not halt their engagement, but Hilda became increasingly disillusioned with the idea of marriage as their relationship progressed.
She had dreamed of a bohemian, free life with Pound, but felt that the longer they were together the more conventional their relationship became. He, it seemed, was the writer, and she, like so many before her, merely his muse.
This disenchantment paralleled her deepening involvement with Frances Josepha Gregg, whom she met through a college friend in around 1910. Their affair was a troubled and stormy one; while Hilda found some of the freedom she craved and the inspiration to write, she was devastated when Gregg had a short liaison with Pound.
With two lovers, Hilda felt torn, and the pull of her bisexuality remained one of the central themes in her life and writing.
Expatriate life and marriage
In 1911 Hilda set off for a short visit to Europe with Frances. Pound was already in Europe and had spent time there in previous years, and through him, she found an almost ready-made literary circle that gave her the artistic and creative stimulation she had been seeking.
Although their romantic relationship was over, Pound introduced her to many of the writers and artists who would form her community — Richard Aldington, T.S.Eliot, John Gould Fletcher, and Ford Madox Ford.
Unwilling to return to the US, Hilda eventually persuaded her parents to let her stay in London but was hurt once more when Frances refused to stay with her. Frances’ return to the US and her subsequent marriage marked the end of the short but intense affair between the two women, although they stayed in touch periodically until 1939.
Now settled in London, Hilda began to spend more time expanding her circle and working on her writing. She spent increasing amounts of time with Richard Aldington, with whom she shared poetry and worked on translations from Greek.
It was the first time she had felt like an artistic equal in a relationship, and after trips to Italy and Paris, they married on October 1913. Apart from short trips much later in life, she would never again return to the U.S.
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Imagist poetry and a nom de plume
Hilda’s writing career was already well underway by the time she married. She had a strong reputation as one of the best of the new ‘Imagist’ poets — a short-lived but influential movement in poetry that favored hardness, clarity, and intensity in words.
In September 1912, in the tea room at the British Museum, HD gave Pound three new poems, Epigram, Hermes of the Ways, and Priapus (later renamed Orchard). Later, in her memoir End to Torment, Hilda would recall how Pound said, “but this is poetry!”
After some impromtu editing, he said that he would send them to Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine, and at the bottom of the page he scrawled ‘H.D., Imagiste.’
Hilda accepted the new name, and the loss of her surname, presumably with enthusiasm (although recent commentators have pointed out that Pound’s power and autonomy in this renaming suggest an ominous undertone to his support — something that she would later explore in her roman à clef HERmione).
She certainly enjoyed the ambiguity that the initials created, and in 1917 was furious when Amy Lowell published an author photo without her permission in Tendencies in Modern American Poetry,saying that “the initials … had no identity attached; they could have been pure spirit. But with this I’m embodied.”
Monroe published the new poems in the January 1913 edition of Poetry under the name ‘H.D., Imagiste,’ and more poems rapidly followed with the ‘Imagiste’ signature.
An ‘Imagist’ anthology was published in 1914, which included poems by not only H.D. but also Richard Aldington, F.S. Flint, and Pound, and which was financed by Amy Lowell. After the publication of three more anthologies, the group effectively disbanded at the end of WW1.
H.D’s first book of poetry, Sea Garden, was published in 1916 towards the end of the Imagist years and marked the beginning of her use of the natural world and its symbolism to explore ideas of consciousness and spirituality.
She was expanding her interest in the classics, and together with Aldington started the Poets’ Translation Series of pamphlets which highlighted translation from Latin and Greek.
She also became assistant editor of the magazine The Egoist (effectively replacing her husband who had enlisted in the army to avoid conscription), and won awards from Poetry magazine and from the Little Review for her work.
A Post-war breakdown
While her literary and artistic career was flourishing, H.D.’s personal relationship with Aldington was deteriorating. Their only child was stillborn in 1915, and Aldington subsequently had several affairs, including one with H.D.’s close friend Brigit Patmore.
When her brother Gilbert was killed in action in 1918, H.D. retreated to Cornwall to stay with the composer Cecil Gray, whom she had met through their mutual friend D.H. Lawrence.
With her husband’s full knowledge, H.D. embarked on an affair with Gray which resulted in another pregnancy. While this upset Aldington, she refused to either abort the child or marry Gray, and Aldington promised to care for both her and the child despite the effective end of their marriage.
Her daughter Frances Perdita Aldington (known as Perdita) was born in March 1919, but the trauma of the war and a serious bout of influenza just before she was due to give birth left H.D. shattered.
In her memoirs, she would refer to March 1919 as a “psychic death” from which she didn’t really recover until World War II. The result was her own personal “war phobia” — for years afterwards, the threat or reality of war triggered associations of personal and societal breakdown.
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Bryher and the interwar years
Towards the end of the war, H.D. met Annie Winifred Ellerman, known as Bryher. Also a writer, Bryher came from a wealthy family and was the daughter of shipping magnate Sir John Ellerman.
The two became lovers and would remain intimate for the rest of H.D.’s life, supporting and sustaining each other and sharing the responsibility of parenting H.D.’s daughter Perdita.
However, theirs was not an exclusive partnership. Both took other lovers, and in 1921 Bryher entered into a marriage of convenience with the American writer and publisher Robert McAlmon.
This arrangement enabled Bryher to keep her traditional family at arm’s length, and allowed McAlmon to use her wealth to set up his own press, Contact Editions.
When they divorced in 1927, Bryher went on to marry H.D.’s friend and lover Kenneth Macpherson. Macpherson and Bryher later formally adopted Perdita to avoid any parental challenges from Aldington.
The relationship between Bryher and H.D. was never an easy one. H.D. still struggled with the effects of trauma from the war, while Bryher grappled with gender and sexual identities and with suicidal depressions.
However, their travels from 1919 through 1923 — to England, Greece, New York, Paris, and Switzerland, sometimes with McAlmon in tow as well — gave H.D. renewed inspiration and impetus to write.
She started three projected cycles of novels: the first, Magna Graeca, consisted of Palimpsest (1921) and Hedylus (1928) which were heavily inspired by Greece and the classics; the second, Madrigal, consisted of HERmione, Bid Me To Live, Paint It Today and Asphodel, all of which were mostly autobiographical, and focused both on women as artists and the tension between heterosexual and lesbian desire.
The third cycle, Borderline, included the novellas Kora and Ka and The Usual Star, dealing with different psychic states and their relationship to reality.
H.D. also published four full-length volumes of poetry and one verse drama, many of which were inspired by her trips to Greece and Egypt and which reinterpret the classical myths and the role of women in them. Heavily influenced during this period by Sappho, she published translations of Sappho’s work as well as an essay.
H.D. wrote constantly, and in a letter to her American friend Viola Jordan said, “I sit at my typewriter until I drop. I have in some way, to justify my existence, and then it is also a pure ‘trade’ with me now. It is my ‘job’.”
She suffered a period of severe writer’s block during the 1930s but continued to maintain and expand her circle of avant-garde literary and artistic friends that now included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Nancy Cunard, Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, Sylvia Beach, and Marianne Moore.
Hilda maintained an unusual family life, living together with Bryher, Macpherson, and Perdita in Switzerland. Their common passions were literature and cinema. In 1927 Bryher and Macpherson established the film journal Close Up, to which H.D. contributed several reviews.
She also acted in three films directed by Macpherson: Wing Beat (1927), Foothills (1928) and Borderline (1930). At one point she thought seriously about becoming an actor; however the rise of fascism in Berlin had a heavy impact on the European film industry and Close Up folded in 1933.
Psychoanalysis, Freud, and World War II
Just as important to H.D.’s creativity and direction was the science of psychoanalysis. She met Sigmund Freud in 1927 and began analysis with Hanns Sachs in 1928, largely funded by Bryher (who at one point planned on becoming an analyst herself).
In 1933, she began sessions with Freud himself, starting what would become a lifelong studentship. Daily sessions in Vienna were cut short by the rise of Nazism, but she continued less intensive analysis and her memoir Tribute to Freud was published in 1956.
The late 1930s were difficult years. The rise of fascism triggered H.D.’s “war phobia,” which she didn’t feel that she could discuss with Freud because he was Jewish, and she ultimately cut all ties to her former lover Ezra Pound because of his pro-Fascist position.
Bryher, meanwhile, assisted over 100 refugees, mostly Jewish, in escaping Germany between 1933 and 1939. When war broke out in 1939, H.D. and Bryher moved to London.
Far from providing a retreat, living in London confronted H.D. with the worst of the war. She sought to find some meaning in the catastrophe by delving deep into hermetic tradition, finding there a larger pattern that pointed to regeneration amidst the rubble.
Like Eliot’s journey through the wasteland, H.D.’s journey through London in the war took her through a “city of ruin” and into an almost religious epiphany that appears in the form, not of the established church, but of a woman who was “Love, the Creator.”
H.D. had a resurgence of creativity in her writing, and during the 1940s wrote Bid Me To Live (published in 1960), The Gift (her memoir of her childhood and family life in Pennsylvania, published in 1980), and Trilogy (1942 –1944), consisting of The Walls do not Fall, Tribute to the Angels and The Flowering of the Rod.
Her new work was praised highly by other writers, friends and reviewers, including Marianne Moore and Edith Sitwell.
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Post-war writing and later years
H.D. took great comfort in spirituality throughout the war and often attended spiritualist circles and seances. Bryher, however, was not a believer, and tensions grew between them as H.D. became more and more involved.
In addition, history appeared to be repeating itself as, at the end of the war, H.D. suffered a severe breakdown triggered by news of the atomic bomb, and exacerbated by severe anemia and a bout of meningitis.
As news from Japan filtered through to the West, and as she attended more and more seances and spiritualist meetings, H.D. believed that World War Three had begun.
Unable to persuade her otherwise, Bryher eventually took her to a clinic in Switzerland in May 1946. While daily letters and regular visits attest to their continued intimacy, the two would never live together again.
H.D. recovered within 6 months, and once again emerged to another period of intense creativity. Her last years saw her produce an extraordinary amount of poetry, most notably Helen in Egypt, Sagesse, Winter Love and Hermetic Definition.
Living alone, mostly in Switzerland and Italy and with visits to the US to see her grandchildren, H.D. was able to concentrate on her writing. She was the recipient of the poetry award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1960.
After a brief illness and subsequent stroke, H.D. died in Zurich on September 27, 1961 and her ashes were taken back to Bethlehem, PA. Fittingly, her epitaph is a poem:
So I may say,
“I died of living,
having lived one hour”
So they may say,
“she died soliciting
So you may say,
“Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
reclaims for ever
one who died
intricate song’s lost measure.”
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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)
On this site
- Sea Garden (1916)
- The God (1917)
- Choruses from Iphigenia in Aulis (1919)
- Translations (1920)
- Hymen (1921)
- Heliodora and Other Poems (1924)
- Hippolytus Temporizes (1927)
- Red Roses for Bronze (1932)
- Euripides’ Ion (1937)
- The Walls Do Not Fall (1944)
- Tribute to the Angels (1945)
- Trilogy (1946)
- The Flowering of the Rod (1946)
- By Avon River (1949)
- Helen in Egypt (1961)
- Notes on Thought and Vision (1919)
- Palimpsest (1926)
- Kora and Ka (1930)
- Nights (1935)
- The Hedgehog (1936)
- Tribute to Freud (1956)
- Bid Me to Live (1960)
- Bid Me to Live (1960)
- End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound (posthumous, 1979)
Biography and Letters
- Herself Defined: The Poet HD and Her World by Barbara Guest (1984)
- Richard Aldington & H. D.: The Early Years in Letter, ed. by Caroline Zilboorg (1995)
- Analyzing Freud: The Letters of H.D., Bryher and Their Circle (2002)
Posthumously published works
- HERmione, New Directions (1981)
- The Gift, New Directions (1982)
- Paint it Today (1921;, published 1992)
- Asphodel (1921–22; published 1992)
- Pilate’s Wife (1929-1934; published 2000)
- The Sword Went Out to Sea (1946–47; published 2007)
- Majic Ring (1943–44; published 2009)
- White Rose and the Red (1948; published 2009)
- The Mystery (written 1948–51; published 2009)
- Vale Ave. (2013)
More information and sources
- H.D. International Society
- Representative Poetry Online (University of Toronto)
- Teaching H.D.: Curriculum and Resources
- Reader discussion of H.D.’s works on Goodreads
- Poetry Foundation
- Academy of American Poets