Book Review Desk; 7
HER DEEPEST PASSION WAS D.H. LAWRENCE
By DENIS DONOGHUE; Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James
Chair of Letters at New York University. His most recent book
is ''Ferocious Alphabets.''
14 February 1982
The New York Times
Late City Final Edition
Copyright 1982 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
H.D. The Life and Work of an American Poet. By Janice S. Robinson.
Illustrated. 490 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $17.95.
Her own work is nearly all autobiographical, though she never
removes more than four or five of the seven veils. She didn't
stay an Imagist for long. Indeed, Pound did her reputation more
harm than good by sticking that label on her. Even now, she is
still regarded as the most complete Imagist, with the result
that she is assumed to be the most incomplete poet in every respect
that counts. Imagism is the Minimalism of poetry; its prescriptions
are: no this, no that, no ideas, no comments, no adjectives,
write the poem as if you were carving a piece of wood, cut away
the excess, leave only the tensions and rhythms. But H.D.'s early
poems are superior to other Imagist work in one respect: They
don't dawdle or hang about waiting to have their lines admired.
They have momentum and, what many Imagist poems lack, urgency:
O wind, rend open the heat, cut apart the heat, rend it to tatters.
Fruit cannot drop through this thick air - fruit cannot fall
into heat that presses up and blunts the points of pears and
rounds of grapes.
The later poems largely abandon the pedantry of Imagism in
favor of more liberal meters and the freedom of discursiveness:
Why did you come to trouble my decline? I am old (I was old till
The limitation of H.D.'s poetry, early and late, arises from
her habit of making premature equations. Her mind was infatuated
with coincidences, loose etymologies, conjunctions that seemed
to connect anything with anything. Lawrence and H.D. were the
same age for one day every year, Sept. 10; she thought that significant
enough for pages of twinning daydreams . She ransacked the cultures
of Greece, Rome and Egypt for identifications. Mary Magdalene
was equated with ''Attis-Adonis-Tammuz and his mother who was
myrrh,'' Myrrha, in Ovid's ''Metamorphoses,'' who turned into
a myrrh tree. And so on. She resorted to landscapes, dreams and
mythologies, the most concessive courts to which a poet can appeal
against the abrasions of personal and social life. It may be
argued that she suffered enough shocks in her daily life to send
her all over world and time seeking a poetry of mercurial transitions
and communications. Hermes, god of (among other things) messages,
was her poetic man. True: I refer to a limitation, not a fatal
What I love in her later poems is their voice, sign of a self-possession
often in fear of losing itself, in fear but not in despair: Helen,
Helen, come home; there was a Helen before there was a War, but
who remembers her?
The Hilda we remember, like the Helen, had much to do with
love and war; love from the beginning, war in her London years
and the twinning of love and war in virtually all her memories.
In the poems, Troy is her name for marriage. But it would not
be right to ask of her, as Yeats asked of Maud Gonne: ''Was there
another Troy for her to burn?'' H.D. did not burn her Troy; men
started the fire, and she watched it run through the town. It
is my impression that her early experiences of love with Pound,
Aldington and Lawrence imposed upon her a paradigm, a set of
expectations and frustrations, which constricted her poetry.
Freud helped her, but not enough, and too late. R.P. Blackmur
said of Emily Dickinson: ''All her life she was looking for a
subject, and the looking was her subject, in life as in poetry.''
The difference between Dickinson and H.D., scale and scope apart,
is that H.D. was forced into her subject too soon, and never
had quite enough determination to enlarge it or qualify it. Giving
her one subject, men held her back from developing it to its
largest reach or from finding another. The subject was all she
had, except for a rare talent and a pale Greek face. She died
on Sept. 28, 1961.
Book Review Desk; 7
SHE WAS NEITHER DRYAD NOR VICTIM
By Katha Pollitt
11 March 1984
The New York Times
Late City Final Edition
Copyright 1984 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
The Poet H.D. and Her World. By Barbara Guest. Illustrated.
360 pp. New York: Doubleday & Co. $18.95. H.D. Collected
Poems 1912-1944. Edited by Louis L. Martz. 629 pp. New York:
New Directions. $35.
The early poems, however, fulfill their ambitions through
language, which is, after all, the point of poetry. I'm not persuaded
that ''Trilogy'' does. Certainly this long three-part poem represents
a high point in H.D.'s life - she regarded it as a poetic and
psychic breakthrough after some 15 years of false starts and
depression. And it's a feast for the thematically oriented critic,
with its Gnostic, astrological and biblical allusions, its crosscultural
parallels and large ideas, including the optimistic and feminist
vision of modernity seen by Susan Friedman and other recent critics.
But H.D.'s verbal means are just not up to the demands of
an epic work. Her language is lax and lacking in surprise: the
elixir of life, the philosopher's stone is yours if you surrender
sterile logic, trivial reason; so mind dispersed, dared occult
lore, found secret doors unlocked, floundered, was lost in sea-depth,
sub-conscious ocean where Fish move two-ways, devour.
One person's trite phrase is another's archetypal symbol,
and ''Trilogy'' contains many moments better than this, but you
have to go through an awful lot of occult lore and secret doors
to get to them. On the whole, ''Trilogy'' lacks the sense of
language under pressure that is at least one definition of poetry;
like all H.D.'s long poems, it rambles because it does not have
a structure. Profound it may be, although my taste in profundities
does not run in the direction of Hermes Trismegistus and Thoth
and ''mer, mere, mater, Maia, Mary, / Star of the Sea, / Mother.''
But it would have been equally profound at half the length, and
a much better poem.
It is too early to say if H.D. will get the critical upgrading
claimed as her due. For me, she will always be a writer who wrote
best when she was not straining after wisdom - but then I admire
Blake's ''Songs of Innocence and ''Songs of Experience'' more
than ''The Four Zoas.'' Either way, it is good to have restored
to us the work of this strange and interesting woman, who, despite
her suffering, managed to keep faith with her gifts and her idea
of what mattered in life. In the words she gave Eurydice: At
least I have the flowers of myself, and my thoughts, no god can
take that; I have the fervour of myself for a presence and my
own spirit for light . . . before I am lost, hell must open like
a red rose for the dead to pass.