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Hilda Doolittle: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore the life and poetry of Hilda Doolittle. We'll also consider the context and themes of her work in order to better appreciate her poetry.

Introduction

Truly great artists tend to reject the conventions and habits of the artists that have come before them and attempt to do something new. One can find a terrific example of this in the poetry of Hilda Doolittle.

Doolittle, better known simply as H.D., was born in Pennsylvania in 1886. H.D. was well educated throughout her childhood, and at 15, she met the famous poet Ezra Pound, with whom she would later have an intimate relationship. In 1911, H.D. traveled to Europe, where she would end up living for the rest of her life. Living in Europe, H.D. spent time with Pound who encouraged and helped her to develop as a poet and writer. Together with Pound and other influential poets, H.D. began to develop her unique theories and aesthetics of poetry.

H.D. married Richard Aldington, another poet, in 1913 but their relationship was troubled early on and they would eventually separate. H.D. entered into a series of intimate relationships throughout her life, many of which included women. H.D had a straightforward, unashamed attitude toward her sexuality and society's problematic gender roles in her personal life and in her poems, which led to her becoming a symbol of sexual liberation. In fact, H.D. never earned a large reading audience during her life and some critics believe this is partly due to her outspoken and progressive views towards sexuality and gender. H.D.'s work, however, continues to receive critical attention, particularly from feminist critics who view her work as revolutionary.

Ezra Pound was an important influence in both the life and work of H.D.
Pound

In addition to her own writings, H.D. served as an editor for the Egoist, a particularly important literary journal of the early 1900s, and translated a large amount of classic literature. H.D. died in 1961, leaving behind numerous novels, multiple memoirs, and 14 collections of poetry.

Context

As the 20th century began, people's perspective towards the world and what they believed about truth changed drastically. As science, psychology, and philosophy developed, they produced theories that challenged many basic understandings about reality. With the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, people became increasingly skeptical about the human ability to accurately comprehend the world. Similarly, people endured further anxiety as a result of witnessing the atrocities in which humans took part in World War I. Many artists who experienced these events believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world. This movement came to be known as modernism and tends to use abstract, unusual techniques.

One of the most interesting poetic movements that came out of modernism was Imagism, which, as the language suggests, involves the attempt to depict an image or moment using the clearest, most direct language possible. The movement was partly inspired by the Japanese haiku, which is a three-line poem that contains five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. Imagism was seen as a break from the moralistic, linear poetry that had been popular in the last half of the 19th century. Instead of teaching the reader a lesson, Imagist poets wanted to return to a more central poetry that captured moments in all of their complexity and beauty. The greatest principle of Imagist poetry is its strong determination to avoid any excessive or unnecessary language. This sort of approach to poetry naturally worked well for H.D.'s own aesthetics, and early on in her career she became one of the most most recognizable of the Imagist poets.

Work

H.D.'s first full collection of poetry was Sea Garden, published in 1916, and it established her as one of the leading Imagist poets. The collection reflects her overt attempt to create poems that are free from excess and unnecessary convention. The title poem, for example, opens this way:

Rose, harsh rose,

marred and with stint of petals,

meagre flower, thin,

sparse of leaf... (1-4)

These lines clearly demonstrate the Imagist ideal of presenting an image that works on its own without excessive action or movement--H.D. simply presents it as it is without any lengthy story or narrative. H.D. employed similar aesthetics in her second collection of poetry, The God (1917). In 1921, H.D. published another collection of poetry titled Hymen, which continued her straightforward approach to poetry and presented many themes that addressed both gender and sexuality. This collection was followed by Heliodora and Other Poems (1927), Hippolytus Temporizes (1927). H.D. continued publishing throughout the 1930s and '40s, releasing Red Roses for Bronze (1932), The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to the Angels (1945), Trilogy (1946), and Flowering of the Rod (1946).

Ancient Greek mythology frequently appears in the poems of H.D.
Helen

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