Naomi Milthorpe reviews H.D. Hilda Doolittle by Lara Vetter

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

by Lara Vetter

Reaktion Books



It may say more about my own tastes than about the culture more broadly, but most of my reading in the past months has been about misunderstood and multifaceted women. Lara Vetter’s slim critical life of the modernist poet H.D. has slid snugly between Anna Funder’s ponderous counterfiction Wifedom (2023), Katharine M. Briggs’s neglected 1963 witchy Scots fairy tale, Kate Crackernuts, and Nancy Mitford’s 1952 fizzing biography of Louis XV’s official mistress, Madame de Pompadour. It’s important to state at the outset that Vetter’s book is fundamentally unlike any of these books – neither ponderous nor witchy nor particularly fizzing. Yet in focusing on a woman who thrived exploring experimental modes of writing and relished occupying new forms of identity and relationship, it offers an engrossing contrast to the picture these other books offer, of the way history, circumstance, and choice, impact upon women’s lives. H.D. has been taken as a biographical subject by a number of earlier writers, including most recently Francesca Wade in her excellent 2021 group biography Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. As Wade writes, ‘A biography offers one version of a life, and H.D. lived several.’(1) In living several ‘lives’ – or as Lara Vetter suggests, in living a life that flourished through contradiction and multiplicity – H.D. is also a fascinating subject for readers interested in what it takes to live, thrive, and create through cataclysmic social and political change.

She was born Hilda Doolittle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1886, the daughter of Charles, an astronomy professor and Helen, a musician and painter. Hilda was the only daughter of six children. The Doolittles were members of the Moravian church, an evangelical German Christian sect that focused on community, family, and ritual, including a strong devotion to music. H.D.’s early life – portrayed by her in autobiographical novels like HERmione, written in the late twenties but published in 1981 – was bounded by both the pleasures and frustrations of this life. As a scientist her father encouraged his children to closely observe nature in their rambling garden and the surrounding forest. Hilda’s elder brother Eric also taught astronomy and tutored his siblings in botany and ecology, which Hilda was fascinated by: ‘There were things under things, as well as things inside things.’(2) Helen passed on her skills in music and the arts, with Hilda playing piano and participating in musicals and Shakespeare performances. Hilda taught herself ancient Greek; throughout her life she remained deeply inspired by Greek history and myth. Hilda enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, studying the classics, and meeting Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams along the way, but dropped out after three semesters to focus on her writing.

It was meeting the poet Ezra Pound, and the mystic and writer Frances Gregg – both fellow Pennsylvanians – that caused the first cataclysm of her early life. The three were caught in a tumultuous love triangle for several years. Pound called Hilda ‘Dryad’, and for him, she was a muse that haunted his early poems. Pound and Hilda became engaged and then broke it off. But the relationship with Frances Gregg was the more electrifying. Both Hilda and Gregg viewed sexuality and gender as non-binary, and both (at this time) were polyamorous. Pound went to Europe in 1908, and Hilda and Gregg followed in the summer of 1911. Although the romance ended (Gregg returned to the U.S. and married, a profound betrayal for Hilda), Pound and Hilda would stay in Europe for good, entangled in each other’s lives and writing until well into the thirties.

How Hilda became H.D. is literary legend, sketched by H.D.’s. earlier biographer Barbara Guest: Hilda, sitting with Pound in the tea room of the British Museum in 1912, showed him some poems. ‘But Dryad, this is poetry.’ Then, in his manner, he made some adjustments, and signed them off for her, scrawling H.D., Imagiste, at the bottom of the pages and posting them to Harriet Monroe at the then newly-established magazine, Poetry. (3) These poems – ‘Hermes of the Ways’, ‘Epigram’, and ‘Priapus’ – were published in January 1913 and Hilda, now H.D., became the figurehead for what Pound hoped would become a revolutionary literary movement, Imagism. He would expound these theories in one of his early aesthetic manifestos, ‘A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste’, as well as in some now-much-anthologized poems like ‘In a Station of the Metro’. H.D.’s husband Richard Aldington suggested, though, that Pound’s theories were ‘based on H.D.’s practice’ (4). While the literary notice was gratifying, H.D. was soon embarrassed by the ‘Imagiste’ moniker and asked Monroe to remove it from any subsequent poems she published. In 1916 her first collection, Sea Garden, was published, to both acclaim and puzzlement – especially over gender identity, for some reviewers veiled by those obscure initials. Throughout her life, H.D. would experiment with multiple nom-de-plumes, relishing in the simultaneous effacement and expansion of identity they offered.

It is still often for these early poems that H.D. is best known – poems like ‘Oread’, ‘Sea Garden’, and ‘Sea Rose’. The adjective ‘crystalline’, was attached to her poetry so doggedly that she began to resent it, especially given her later experiments with long form verse and prose. But as Vetter ably argues, reading H.D. only for the poems published in the 1910s risks understanding only a fraction of her life and writing, which were deeply intertwined and profoundly multifaceted. Vetter sees her as dramatically inconsistent, ‘swing[ing] wildly between poles’ of personality according to who is giving the account of her (5). But consistency of self is only a problem for the biographer, not for the liver of the life (as many of H.D.’s biographers, Vetter included, are well aware). As Vetter writes, ‘Work did not reflect life. Rather, she wrote her life into existence. She was ever-mindful that it is narratives that construct identity, and not the other way around.’(6) For H.D., who variously embraced and was challenged by the profound changes witnessed in the 20th century (cinema, psychoanalysis, total war, gender fluidity and sexual experimentation), the capacity to lose an identity, as she wrote in her 1928 poem ‘Narthex’, was ‘a gift’(7).

Vetter has previously published extensive scholarship on H.D.’s later work, especially her prose. As Vetter shows, any account of H.D.’s long and varied life needs to carefully weigh Imagism, which she left behind in the twenties, with her other creative endeavours and personal milestones. These include her writing for and about film, pursued in the pages of the landmark film journal Close Up but also through film-making such as in the avant-garde feature Borderline (1930) in which she acted opposite Paul Robeson; book length poems such as Trilogy, written in response to World War Two (published between 1942 and 1946), and Helen in Egypt (1961); her writing on Shakespeare (By Avon River, 1949) and Freud, with whom she entered analysis in 1931 (Tribute to Freud, 1954); and her autobiographical novels, such as Paint it Today, Asphodel, HERmione, and Bid Me to Live. Many of these novels – besides Bid Me to Live – remained unpublished in H.D.’s lifetime, which explains why her reputation was, for so long, based on the early poetry. But the novels provide rich evidence for her life, relationships, sexuality, and literary development; they also emphasize, as Vetter argues, ‘the self as object of narration’(8).

In her personal life – which H.D. viewed as a source of art – she was similarly uninterested in conventionality as it was defined in the early 20th century. Though married to, and living with, Aldington throughout the twenties, she pursued other romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women. Her daughter, Perdita, was the child of a relationship with Cecil Gray, a Scottish composer whom H.D. lived with in Cornwall in 1918, though Aldington was named on the birth certificate. But neither of these men were Perdita’s primary carer. Though she initially thought she might raise her daughter alone, at the end of the Great War Hilda met and began a relationship with the heiress and writer Bryher (Winifed Ellerman), who became her lifelong partner. Bryher and Hilda were, as Perdita later wrote, her two mothers (Vetter suggests Bryher may today likely have identified as transgender, having in 1919 been reassured by the sexologist Havelock Ellis that ‘she was only a girl by accident’(9)). The relationship was romantically and creatively nourishing – Bryher shared H.D.’s enthusiasm for film and travel – and, thanks to Bryher’s immense wealth, protected H.D. from the need to write for commercial reasons.

Anna Funder’s Wifedom is focused on the traps which heterosexual marriage, home keeping, and motherhood seem to lay for many, especially low-income women. In comparison, Vetter’s study shows the relative freedom H.D. enjoyed in pursuit of love and art. Where Funder portrays Eileen Orwell chained to the home, mucking out blocked toilets and making endless rounds of tea, devoted in unpaid servitude to the project of George Orwell’s writing, from which she was studiously erased, Vetter shows H.D. able to combine parenting, travelling, loving, and learning, with writing. Hilda was not bogged down in wifedom (neither, I should add, was Bryher, though both according to Perdita, were devoted parents). H.D.’s adherence to the first principle of art = life meant that she devoted her whole existence to creative and personal liberty. Of course, Bryher’s independent wealth, and the freedom of movement permitted to their white bodies, enabled their living largely unthreatened by the injustice and oppression central to, and ongoing beyond, the 20th century.

Part of why H.D. was forgotten by the academy following her death in the 1960s may have been her unclassifiability. By the end of her career, she could no longer be called simply an ‘Imagist’. But part of the reason she could be recovered by feminist researchers in the 70s and 80s was because she kept so much of her unpublished writing, and so many of her letters and notebooks. This is another point of comparison with Eileen Orwell, whose archival existence is, comparatively, slim. H.D. is a creation of paper, self-fashioned by her own autobiographical writing, and by her early deposit of a ‘shelf’ of manuscript papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library. Writing was H.D.’s motivation for living, and living fuelled her writing. As the poet Robert Duncan wrote in his monumental work, The H.D. Book, ‘she took whatever she could, whatever hint of person or design, colour or line, over into her “work”.'(10) It is fortunate that ongoing editing and publication since the 1980s by the publisher New Directions has made so much of her writing accessible to the general reader.

This ‘Critical Life’ of H.D. is necessarily an introductory one, especially given the wealth of published and unpublished material to cover. Vetter states from the outset that this book is intended for those mostly unfamiliar with H.D.’s life. Vetter manages the breadth and depth of materials with deftness, moving between archival and literary evidence to create a portrait of an individual who was totally unique but not at all one-dimensional. It is worth the attention for those who are interested in understanding this fascinating poet and her devotion to art.

1. Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber, 2020), p.38.
H.D., Tribute to Freud (Carcanet Press, 1997), p.21
2. Barbara Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and her World (Doubleday, 1984).
3. Letter from Richard Aldington to Hilda Doolittle, 20 March 1929, in Lara Vetter, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), p.48.
4. Vetter, p.14.
5. Vetter, p.12.
6. Quoted in Vetter, p.15.
7. Vetter, p.101.
8. Quoted in Vetter, p.80.
9. Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book (University of California Press, 2011), p.242.
NAOMI MILTHORPE is Senior Lecturer in English at the School of Humanities. Her research interests centre on modernist, interwar and mid-century British literary culture, including most particularly the works of Evelyn Waugh. Naomi is currently completing a scholarly edition of Waugh’s 1932 novel Black Mischief, volume 3 of Oxford University Press’s Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.