H. D. (1886 - 1961)
Having rejected Victorian norms for modern experiments, H. D. repeatedly launched out from
instructors found among the early canonized male modernists. She developed new lyric,
mythic, and mystical forms in poetry and prose, and an alternative bisexual lifestyle that
were little appreciated until the 1980's. Her literary contacts included Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Ford Madox Ford, May
Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, Richard Aldington, Bryher, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Djuna
Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Norman
Douglas, Edith Sitwell and Elizabeth Bowen. She was the literary editor of the Egoist
(1916-1917), and admired the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Younger poets like
Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, May Sarton, and Denise Levertov took her as a mentor. H. D.'s
literary papers are at Beinecke Library, Yale University.
H. D. was born into the Moravian community of her artistic, musical
mother, Helen (Wolle), in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and reared in Upper Darby, a Philadelphia
suburb convenient to the University of Pennsylvania. Her astronomer father, Charles, was
director of the Flower Observatory there. The Gift (written 1941-1944; published
1982) is cast in the inquiring voice of a child, who is cognizant of several generations of
her family, and of her own dreams and fantasies. Her grandmother ultimately bestows a sense
of her self-enabling heritage or "gift," and its mystical connection to the
Moravians. Mystical access to the past through visions and the reading of "signets" - signs or heiroglyphs requiring patient deciphering - is essential to all of H. D.'s autobiographical writing.
H.D.'s autobiographical writings from the middle years of her life are invaluable to the
study of the gendered politics of experimental modernism, and the place of the female analys
and in psychoanalysis. Ezra Pound entered her life while she was still a schoolgirl in
Pennsylvania. In verses written for her, Pound gave her the persona of the
"dryad," which persisted among her many self-concepts. They were twice engaged.
Barbara Guest has suggested that his tutelage interfered with her studies at Bryn Mawr,
which she quit in her second year. She did meet another as yet undeclared poet, Marianne
Moore, while there (1904-1906). H. D. joined the same literary circles Pound traveled in
when she moved to London in 1911. In a famous incident of 1913, he sent some of her verse to
Harriet Monroe's Poetry Magazine, appending the signature "H.D.,
Imagiste." They served as models of the new poetry he was promoting. End to
Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound by H. D. (written 1958; published 1979) explores this
With Bid Me to Live (written 1933-1950, published 1960), H. D.
writes herself out of what Rachel Blau Du Plessis has called "romantic thralldom"
with two other literary men. She married the British poet, Richard Aldington, in 1913.
Having enlisted in World War I, his fictional counterpart called for her sustaining letters
to the front, yet resented her sharing verses with "Rico," the D. H. Lawrence
counterpart, and flaunted his infidelities. Lawrence had a charismatic effect upon H. D. during the war years in London, but discouraged her creation of male subjects in her poetry,
and objected to her relationship with Cecil Grey, the painter whom she joined in Cornwall.
Grey became the father of her only surviving child, Frances Perdita Aldington (born 1919).
H. D. had been anguished over the still-birth of a daughter fathered by Aldington in 1915,
and the death of her brother Gilbert at the front. Bid Me to Live was part of a
"madrigal cycle," including also Paint it To-Day and Asphodel
(neither yet fully published). All of these works intertwined the painful demands of war and
love relationships, as does the brilliant long poem, Trilogy (written 1944-1946),
with its images of rebirth taken from classical, Egyptian and Christian sources.
Tribute to Freud (written 1944; published gradually from 1945-1985) offers a third
creative re-vision of male-inspired paradigms. H. D. was analyzed by Freud in 1933 and 1934,
in an attempt to overcome writer's block. She also underwent analysis with Hans Sachs in the
1930s, with Erich Heydt in the 1950s, and was treated with intervenous shock therapy,
following a major breakdown in 1946. Freud encouraged her to write straight history to break
out of the personal crisis she experienced during World War I. With Bid Me to Live
she felt she was escaping also from the influence of psychoanalysis; she did revise Freud's
role as analyst to something more like a medium. Spiritualism became an overriding interest
in the 1940's. Communication with the dead and projections from another realm were regular
tropes in her writing, including her last writing, HermeticDefinition.
H.D.'s troubled alliance with Pound was mingled with her love of Frances
Josepha Gregg, a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the recipient of some
of her earliest poems. Gregg and her mother were H. D.'s companions onthe 1911 trip to
London. Prefiguring other bisexual triangles she would involve herself in, H. D. planned to
accompany Gregg on her honey moon, but was prevented from doing so by Pound. The strains
between lesbian and heterosexual attractions, experienced over the Gregg relationship,
entered into H. D.'s novel HERmione (written 1927, the year before Radclyffe Hall's
lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, was the subject of an obscenity trial;
The novelist and editor Bryher (Winnifred Ellerman, an heiress to a shipping fortune),
was the most significant companion of her mature life. Their relationship survived until H.
D.'s death in 1961, spanning Bryher's two marriages of convenience to Robert McAlmonand
Kenneth Macpherson, in circumstances that included significant travel and residences mainly
in London and Switzerland. H. D. has credited Bryher with saving her life during the final
months of her pregnancy in 1919, when she was struck with influenza. Bryher and H. D.
traveled to the Scilly Islands together in June 1919, for a month of idyllic companionship;
they went to Greece (sailing by Lesbos) with H. D.'s mother in 1922, and traveled to Egypt
the next year. The women made a creative trio with the artist and filmmaker Kenneth
Macpherson from 1927 to 1932; Macpherson became H. D.'s lover, and Bryher's husband, and the
married couple adopted H. D.'s daughter Perdita. Their collaborations included photo
montages, the film journal Close Up, to which H. D. supplied poetry and reviews, and
Borderline, a film in which H. D. starred with Paul Robeson. The project is one
indication of H. D.'s literary connections to the Harlem Renaissance, and her attraction to
the margins of modernism. Much of H.D.'s poetry published in the 1930's and 1940's appeared
in Life and Letters Today, edited by Bryher.
H.D. was well informed about contemporary theories of homosexuality, due both to her
analysis by Freud, who pronounced her bisexual, and her friendship with sexologist Havelock
Ellis, whom she met in 1919. But she was not limited to their views, particularly in
HER. Her shift in interest to mother-daughter dynamics in Notes on Thought and
Vision may have been a transference out of Freud's influence. However, Ellis failed to
appreciate her revolutionary "bell jar" experiences of pregnancy and the
unconscious, recorded in Notes on Thought and Vision, and his lack of enthusiasm may
have discouraged her publishing it.
Critical Repositioning and Feminist Criticism.
For many years H. D. was known chiefly
for the stark, chiseled images and experimental rhythms of her earliest work, collected as
Sea Garden (1916). This fit the imagist program of Ezra Pound. She also had a limited
reputation as a classicist and translator of Greek. Feminist critics, led by Susan Stanford
Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, have studied H.D.'s works for feminine lesbian, and
bisexual discourses. Since the early 1980's H. D.'s epic and prose writing have received
more attention, and work self-suppressed in her own lifetime has been recovered and studied.
H. D.'s frequent recourse to the palimpsest can be seen as anescape from binary and
hierarchical thinking associated with patriarchy. The term denotes a parchment that retains
partially erased parts of earlier writings, which strain productively with new text. She
titled a three-part story sequence Palimpsest (written 1923-1924), but the term also
applies to her rewritings of her own selfhood in autobiographies, and to her rewritten
myths. H. D. can be credited with anticipating the maternal semiotic of Julia Kristeva, and
with giving a female voice to classical myths. Sandra Gilbert ("H. D.? Who Was
She?," Contemporary Literature 24 :496-511) suggests that she developed a
"woman's mythology" in Trilogy, Helenin Egypt, and Hermetic
Definition. Alicia Ostriker ("Thieves ofLanguage," Signs 8, no. 1
: 68-90) includes H. D. among women poets who construct new myths to include their
selves. H. D.'s Greek texts, culminating in Helen in Egypt, explore the divinity of
the goddess, the sexually ecstatic Eleusinian mysteries, and the female version of
patriarchal epics. A criticism from Lawrence S.Rainey ("Canon, Gender and Text,"
Representing Modern Texts, ed. George Bornstein, ) is that in recent years H.
D.'s work has been studied for the sake of content conducive to feminist solidarity, rather
than aesthetic value. Yet this criticism neglects feminist critics' remarks on the formal
devices of mythic mask, palimpsest, and return of the repressed, characteristic of
life-writing cure, that moved H. D. beyond confinement to the divisive gender stereotypes of
Biography by: From The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. Copyright © 1995