Tuesday, August 17, 2004

A snippet of poetry from H.D.'s Trilogy

I'm preparing to teach a graduate seminar this fall on British modernism (title: "The Spirits of Modernity"). Alongside James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and Salman Rushdie, I'm planning to teach some H.D.

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) was actually born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania -- where my university is located. To me, she is the most interesting thing about the town (though the story about the rise and fall of Bethlehem steel is also interesting in a rather different way).

For many years, people studying and teaching modernism have tended to highly value her early poems, the ones strongly marked by her association with the glamorous and fleeting "imagist" movement (see also this Amy Lowell definition). But H.D.'s career continued for many years, and she wrote many, many poems, which have been somewhat harder to classify. By the 1920s, Imagism was dead, and the writers who were associated with it had all moved on, including H.D. Feminist H.D. critics have complained that H.D.'s Imagist period is rather over-valued because of the association with Ezra Pound (a Famous Male Poet/Editor/Persona), and that much of her later work -- written without the benefit of a famous literary coterie -- has been as a result under-read.

What that story leaves out is that much of H.D.'s later work, heavily influenced by classical and ancient Egyptian mythology, is pretty obscure and difficult. Much of H.D.'s later work is also strongly marked by the influence of D.H. Lawrence, which means it is sometimes impressionistic and sweeping rather than controlled; Lawrence is big on Big Statements and small on careful plotting or characterization. (I myself prefer Lawrence early Sons and Lovers , which is less grand and more detail-oriented, over the later books.)

Consequently, some critics have simply looked at H.D. as a fascinating modern woman writer, rather than as a serious writer, or an author of poems worth learning. I agree that her life story is fascinating (open marriage; child of unknown paternity; early divorce; long-term female companion; psychoanalysis by Freud...), but I also feel that merely appreciating H.D. as a personality is hardly sufficient. One also has to look closely at the writing -- and the writing should come first.

This fall I'll be attempting to teach H.D.'s Trilogy, which was mainly written while H.D. was in England during the Second World War. It has its share of complex mythology and obscurity, but it also has some moments of profound lucidity. Here is one passage I found this afternoon, where H.D. describes the German bombardment of London as a kind of trial by fire:

. . . we pass on

to another cellar, to another sliced wall
where poor utensils show
like rare objects in a museum;

Pompeii has nothing to teach us,
we know crack of volcanic fissure,
slow flow of terrible lava,

pressure on heart, lungs, the brain
about to burst its brittle case
(what the skull can endure!):

over us, Apocryphal fire,
under us, the earth sway, dip of a floor,
slope of a pavement

where men roll, drunk with a new bewilderment,
sorcery, bedevilment:

the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:

the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead embers,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,

yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?

Even here, there are some individual phrases that I'm not terribly fond of (why "bewilderment" AND "bedevilment"? why "bone-frame"? [a Lawrentian idiom] why rhyme "embers" and "dismembered"? [too easy]). But I think the image H.D. is aiming to get across stands.

Any thoughts on this snippet? Likes or dislikes?


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