Last reviewed: June 2018
September 10, 1886
September 27, 1961
H. D., born Hilda Doolittle on September 10, 1886, was perhaps the best known of the Imagist poets. Her creative life spanned half a century, from 1905 to 1961. Her mother’s family, the Wolles, were Moravians, and her father, Charles Doolittle, was a distinguished astronomer, a somewhat distant figure whom Hilda Doolittle adored. H. D. grew to be a tall woman (5 feet, 11 inches). Her looks remained striking, elegant, and memorable into her old age. She spent one year, 1905, at Bryn Mawr College as a day student but did not do well academically and dropped out—though not before meeting both William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound.
Pound was her discoverer, the first reader and admirer of her poetry, and he indoctrinated her with his ideas of culture from Europe and his knowledge of classical Greece. When H. D. heard Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis performed by the Bryn Mawr senior class that year, her love of Hellenism was awakened, and it remained with her for the rest of her life.
In 1909 she met Frances Gregg, her first “girl-love,” as she called her. This relationship was enormously influential for H. D., and long after the relationship was concluded she named her daughter Frances. H. D.’s life was marked by many intimate relationships with both men and women. Pound and Gregg were the first. Throughout her tangled personal life and her many attachments, however, she always retained a certain distance, a privacy that allowed her to work; she was a very disciplined and prolific writer. She worked in many genres, including poetry, prose, translations, memoirs, and fiction, but it is as a poet that she will always be known. Recognition for her poetry came early, largely as a result of Pound’s great respect for her work.
In 1910 H. D. went to New York and from there, in 1911, to Paris and London on what was to be a four-month tour. It lasted all her life. In London she made an immediate impression: Her height, her “Greekness,” her spare and open poems, were all of the moment there. Her first published poems—“Hermes of the Ways,” “Orchard,” and “Epigram”—were, with Pound’s endorsement, published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry. Her first book, Sea Garden, followed soon after, in 1916. Pound soon left the Imagist label behind him, stirring up the Vorticist movement with Wyndham Lewis and others in 1913, but H. D. remained true to the Imagist style for years. She did not change her poetic style in a major way until her Trilogy poems, written during World War II.
H. D. married Richard Aldington in 1913. Although Aldington was in the Army during the war years, from 1914 to 1918, he continued, as before, to read and critique all of her work. The couple’s close friend, John Cournos, fell in love with H. D., but as a result of apparently ambiguous communications on her part he gradually acquired an enmity for her. (H. D.’s life was marked by triangles of various kinds.) She went to live in Cornwall, England, with the musician Cecil Gray, and while there she translated Euripides’ Hippolytos and discovered that she was pregnant by Gray. She had the child, whom she named Frances Perdita, but Perdita, as the child was known, seldom actually lived with her mother, instead usually staying at nurseries or boarding schools. H. D. had great affection for her daughter but preferred solitude.
While pregnant with Perdita in the midst of the influenza epidemic that killed so many, H. D. contracted the disease. She was rescued by a young woman who called herself Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), who had fallen in love with H. D.’s poetry, sought her out, and fallen in love with her. Bryher, who was nearly ten years younger, became the poet’s lifelong companion, protector, and manager of her life and her talent, though the two rarely lived together. The daughter of an immensely wealthy shipping magnate, Bryher supported H. D. as well as many other writers, artists, and worthy causes. In later years, she also enjoyed considerable success as a historical novelist. H. D. began writing the story of their relationship in 1918 and continued work on it sporadically. It was finally published as the autobiographical novel Bid Me to Live in 1960. In 1921 H. D. published Hymen, poetry dedicated to Bryher, a youthful and delicate book. H. D. next published Heliodora, and Other Poems in 1924 and Palimpsest (a novel) in 1926 with the Contact Press of Robert McAlmon, who at this time had entered into a marriage of convenience with Bryher that allowed the triangle to exist harmoniously and McAlmon to publish many new writers. During this period the three were living in Paris, but H. D. never really became part of the expatriate scene there. She was a friend of Margaret Anderson of the Little Review but of few others. She was, however, published in the three primary journals of those times: Ford Madox Ford’s Transatlantic Review, the Little Review, and Eugene Jolas’s transition.
Bryher loved to travel, and she took H. D. to Greece, to Egypt, and all over Europe. In 1922 Bryher established a residence in Switzerland, first at a pension at Territet, a suburb of Montreux; later Bryher built Kenwin, a Bauhaus palace above Lake Geneva. This event coincided with both Bryher’s and H. D.’s relationship with Kenneth McPherson, a handsome and talented younger man who was H. D.’s lover and friend and Bryher’s husband. That trio started a film journal, Close-Up, which was read and admired by the foremost German film directors of the day. H. D. appeared in two German films: Foothills and The Borderline.
In 1933 and 1934 H. D. was both an analysand and a student of Sigmund Freud. Later, toward the end of her life, she published an extraordinary book on this experience titled Tribute to Freud. Psychiatry was always of great interest to her, in part perhaps because of her occasional instability but also for purely intellectual reasons. In 1937 H. D., Bryher, and McPherson traveled to New York, where H. D. met many of the younger American poets, including Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Sarton. In 1939, at the onset of World War II, Bryher and H. D. returned to the Lowndes Square flat in London that was H. D.’s home. The pair lived together all through the war. During this time H. D. wrote her great Trilogy and The Gift, the latter being the story of her Moravian childhood. The war years changed her work; the terror and trauma of bombed London tried her severely but excited her creativity. From this point on, she wrote with heightened intensity.
Eventually, after becoming increasingly involved with spiritualism and acquiring a belief that she could predict where bombs would fall, H. D. suffered a major breakdown in 1946. Bryher chartered a plane to fly her to Kusnacht in Switzerland to recover. H. D. lived the rest of her life in Switzerland, at Kusnacht, a convalescent hospital at Lausanne, or in hotels. Helen in Egypt was completed during this time, as well as Tribute to Freud, Hermetic Definition, Bid Me to Live, and End to Torment, her book on Ezra Pound. She had the respect and admiration of young poets, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan among them, and read and admired their work as well. In her last years she was much honored. In 1956 she visited the United States for a seventieth birthday celebration of her work at Yale University. In 1960 she was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an occasion she also marked with an American visit. In 1961 H. D. died in Switzerland of a stroke. Shortly before she died she wrote, “I think I did get what I was looking for from life and art.”