by Anthony Domestico
Hilda Doolittle (H.D., 1886-1961) was an avant-garde poet and novelist known in her own days primarily for her work in the Imagist movement. Her early poems published in Poetry were exemplars of Imagistic principles: austere in structure and diction, they blended mythology and symbolist techniques to create a verse form that was classical yet modern, spare yet complex. After her initial and intense relationship with this movement, H.D. moved away from Imagism and became interested in psychoanalysis, feminism, and other areas. Although pigeonholed as an Imagist throughout her career, she is now acknowledged as a variegated, formally innovative poet whose work has influenced Allen Ginsburg, Robert Duncan, and Susan Howe.
Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on September 10, 1886. Her ancestors had deep connections with the Moravian and Puritan faiths. Doolittle and her academic family soon moved to Upper Darby upon her father’s acceptance of a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. It is here that she would first meet Ezra Pound in 1902. Their relationship soon became intense: in 1905, Pound gave Doolittle a collection of love poems entitled Hilda’s Book; in 1907, the two were engaged; by 1908, the engagement had been broken. The two would remain close, however, and would work closely together in the first years of Imagism’s ascendancy in the avant-garde.
While attending Bryn Mawr College to study Greek literature from 1905-1907, Doolittle met fellow poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. She began writing short stories and small lyrics. In 1911, she moved to London to be close to Pound and the literary circle that he had drawn around himself. In 1912, her first poems were submitted by Pound to Poetry, signed by “H.D. Imagiste.” These poems – “Hermes of the Ways,” “Priapus,” and “Epigram” – were well received and illustrated Pound’s famous dictums for Imagistic creation: direct treatment of the subject; a tight, stripped down structure; and the abandonment of meter for musical rhythm. They played an important role in the development of modernist free verse.
H.D., as she was now known, became quite close with many of the literary luminaries in the London scene, including May Sinclair, D.H. Lawrence, and Richard Aldington, whom she would marry in 1913. With the outbreak of World War I, H.D. soon found herself at the head of Imagism’s institutional mechanisms, becoming the literary editor of The Egoist and helping Pound with Des Imagistes, an anthology of Imagist poems that appeared in 1915.
In 1918, H.D. separated from Aldington and began to live and travel with Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), with whom she would have an intense relationship for the next 30 years. In 1933 and 1934, she underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, and her work began to take a more autobiographical bent. Abandoning Imagism and its ideals of impersonality, H.D. became interested in mysticism and mythical patterns, exploring ancient Greek culture in an attempt to find archetypes that undergirded and resonated with her own personal experiences. Her last major work, Helen in Egypt (1961), shows H.D. grappling with these transhistorical, transcultural concerns.
H.D. is perhaps most notable for her constantly shifting formal practices and philosophical underpinnings. Her 1916 Sea Garden was a collection that encapsulated Imagism at its most powerful; her later Palimpsest (1926) was a hybrid form, part novel and part poem, that used the stream-of-consciousness technique; her Trilogy, published from 1944 to 1946, was a powerful response to the experiences of World War I and a fine instance of the modernist tendency to relate contemporary events to mythic substructures. Finally, her 1956 Tribute to Freud is a classic example of the engagement between modernism and psychoanalysis.