Authors: H. D.

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

September 10, 1886

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

September 27, 1961

Zurich, Switzerland


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.”

Author Works Poetry: Sea Garden, 1916 Hymen, 1921 Heliodora, and Other Poems, 1924 Collected Poems of H. D., 1925 Red Roses for Bronze, 1931 The Walls Do Not Fall, 1944 Tribute to the Angels, 1945 The Flowering of the Rod, 1946 By Avon River, 1949 Selected Poems of H. D., 1957 Helen in Egypt, 1961 Hermetic Definition, 1972 Collected Poems, 1912–1944, 1983 Selected Poems, 1988 Long Fiction: Palimpsest, 1926 Hedylus, 1928 Kora and Ka, 1934 (includes Mira-Mare) The Usual Star, 1934 (includes Two Americans) Nights, 1935 Bid Me to Live, 1960 Trilogy, 1973 (includes The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod) HERmione, 1981 Short Fiction: The Hedgehog, 1936 Nonfiction: Tribute to Freud, 1956 Tribute to Freud, Writing on the Wall, Advent, 1974 End to Torment, 1979 The Gift, 1982 A Great Admiration: H. D./Robert Duncan Correspondence, 1950–1961, 1992 (Robert J. Bertholf, editor) Richard Aldington and H. D.: The Early Years in Letters, 1992 (Caroline Zilboorg, editor) Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H. D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, 1997 (Donna Krolik Hollenberg, editor) Translations: Choruses from “Iphigenia in Aulis” and the “Hippolytus” of Euripides, 1919 Hippolytus Temporizes, 1927 (adaptation of classical text) Euripides’ Ion, 1937 Bibliography Burnett, Gary Dean. H. D. Between Image and Epic: The Mysteries of Her Poetics. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990. This study deals with H. D.’s poetry between the wars (1916-1944). Burnett refers to this period as her middle period between the Imagist years and the later epics. Her concerns about her life, her response to the war, her research on ancient mystery cults, and her interest in the work of her contemporaries are traced and shown as a context for reading these poems. Includes bibliography and index. Camboni, Marina, ed. H. D.’s Poetry: “The Meanings that Words Hide: Essays.” Brooklyn, N.Y.: AMS, 2003. This collection examines topics such as, the gender issues in H. D.’s Trilogy, H. D.’s uses of language, and the poet’s influence on other poets. Collecott, Diana. H. D. and Sapphic Modernism, 1910-1950. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. This critical study argues for recognition of H. D. as a key figure in the shaping of Anglo-American modernism. The development of a homoerotic strand within H. D.’s distinctively modernist poetics comes together in Collecott’s central concept of sapphic modernism. Dickie, Margaret. “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. A sensitive essay offering an extended treatment of H. D., Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein. DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. H. D., the Career of That Struggle. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1986. This compact volume offers an overview of H. D.’s literary career informed by feminist criticism. The author defines four types of “authority” that H. D. confronted in her poetry: cultural authority, the authority of otherness, gender authority, and sexual or erotic authority. Using these concepts, she tries to explain why H. D.’s poetry is often difficult. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies and index. DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Susan Stanford Friedman, eds. Contemporary Literature 27, no. 4 (1986). This special issue on H. D. includes Ezra Pound’s tribute to H. D. (1916) and a number of fine essays. Poet Alicia Ostriker discusses H. D.’s creation of a poetic role for herself as poet/mother; Adalaide Kirby Morris describes how H. D. lived outside the Western ethic; and Eileen Gregory provides excellent readings of many of H. D.’s early lyrics. Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. This important study charts the progress of H. D.’s career, especially her development from Imagist to a poet who adopted the epic form of quest-poetry. Her later poetry, grounded in feminism according to Friedman, celebrates the woman as author and hero who, with her word, will save a self-destructive civilization. Examines the impact of Sigmund Freud’s theories on her art in transition and H. D.’s own understanding of how gender influences literature. Fritz, Angela DiPace. Thought and Vision: A Critical Reading of H. D.’s Poetry. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1988. Fritz attempts to cover H. D.’s entire poetic canon, and in doing so reaffirms her eminence as a modernist and feminist poet. Ths study suggests throughout that H. D.’s thought and vision are best defined in her poetry. Includes bibliography and index. Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. In this highly experimental biography, Guest ignores such conventions as footnotes and chronological tables. She includes no bibliography and few dates. Her tremendous scholarship, however, is evident, and her book is a successful evocation of the ambiance, the people, and the places that made up H. D.’s world. The book is thus a reliable account of H. D.’s life, even though critics have pointed out that in Guest’s book, H. D. herself remains a more shadowy figure than many of the people who surrounded her. King, Michael, ed. H. D.: Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. This anthology contains two dozen expert essays and a good annotated bibliography of works written about H. D. from 1969 to 1985. King’s useful introduction outlines the concerns of each section of the book and summarizes briefly each essayist’s ideas. Besides sections on H. D.’s place in poetic tradition, her poetry, and her prose, this volume contains an interesting chapter on her career in the theater. Includes an index. Korg, Jacob. Winter Love: Ezra Pound and H. D. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. An examination of the personal and professional relationship between two of the most significant poets of the twentieth century. This book is especially worthwhile for those beginning study on H. D. Laity, Cassandra. H. D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Argues that H. D. shaped an alternative poetic modernism of female desire from the “feminine” personas. An examination of female modernism to demonstrate extensively the impact of the Decadents on a modernist woman writer. Robinson, Janice S. H. D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. Another excellent biography of H. D. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index. Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. New York: Pantheon Books, 1970. A biography of the poet who was H. D.’s first love and mentor in poetry, and from whose shadow she has only recently begun to emerge. Provides essential background on Imagism and early modernism. Index.

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