By HUGH KENNER
NOT A BIOGRAPHY, no, "a biographically
illuminated study of H.D.'s poetry": a long book spun from the poems plus a few facts. The non-literary facts, with one exception, are well known. The exception is startling. Here's the plot:
1. In a Philadelphia suburb, Hilda Doolittle, 19, of an academic and Moravian family, finds herself engaged to Ezra Pound, 20.
2. The off-and-on engagement draws her (1911, age 25) to London, where Pound launches her as the Imagist poet "H.D." but then turns round and marries Dorothy Shakespear. H.D. (27) marries Richard Aldington (21), an Englishman with literary talents more striking then than now.
3. Her marriage founders; yet in March 1919, 11 months after the war had shipped Aldington to France, she bears a daughter. Her husband threatens big blue policemen if the child is registered as his, so vague stories are cobbled up. But . . .
4. Are you ready for this? Enter, a little previously, D.H. Lawrence. And, quite literally, H.D. was Lady Chatterley, Richard Aldington the gutless Sir Clifford, D.H. of course the potent gamekeeper.
5. Exit Lawrence; exit just about everybody. And as once before when menfolk failed her, H.D. takes up with a woman: the heiress Winifred Ellerman, known as "Bryher," whose wish was to have been a man. Together they bring up Perdita, while H.D. writes and rewrites novelizations of the past. The relationship lasts till 1946.
6. In 1933 H.D. commences analysis with Freud himself. ("Bisexual," is his diagnosis.) She finds peace, enjoys in the '40s a second poetic flowering, and dies in 1961, age 75.
Item 4 is the stunner. The rest has long been common knowledge, thanks not only to biographers' diligence but to H.D.'s habit of telling and retelling her story with the names changed. Thus 1-2, the Pound Story, was the substance of End to Torment (published 1979) and of HER/mione (published 1981).
Again and again, too, she told her Lawrence Story: in her novel Bid Me to Live and in much unpublished fiction; obliquely in her major poem, Helen in Egypt. Lawrence also told it several times (three versions of Lady Chatterley; The Man Who Died; more). But until Janice Robinson came along no one has read any of this correctly. Why? Because misdirecting readers and biographers was for decades the obsessive enterprise of Richard Aldington. For who'd want to be fingered as Lady Chatterley's Loser?
Aldington's strategy was to take firm charge of how we should see D.H. Lawrence. This entailed writing four book-length essays; also discreetly tampering with all the Lawrence poems, essays, letters, novels--18 volumes --that were published under his supervision ("Most of the volumes of Lawrence's work now in print have been altered by Aldington"). He was also of eager "service" to biographers, notably Harry T. Moore, and wrote a Lawrence biography of his own (Portrait of a Genius, But. . . ). He spread the word that D.H.L. was impotent; he suggested misleading originals for the Chatterleys; as far as he could he expunged his ex-wife from the Lawrence Story completely.
H.D. for her part never divulged Perdita's paternity, even to Perdita, one reason Robinson's book is so long. Whole chapters sift and resift circumstantial evidence, much of it embedded in works of imagination.
Let's instead assume, as she couldn't, that the facts are established. What have we? We have an intense and highly original but limited poet, whose chief work is the pseudo-Greek "Imagism" of the time of disentanglement from Pound (1913-18) and the Helen in Egypt sequence (1951-4, published 1961) which by Robinson's reading is the consummate retelling and distancing of her sole theme, the story of her life.
If she is Helen, Pound is Menelaus; Aldington is Paris who snatched Helen away; the Fall of Troy is the fate of that marriage; Lawrence is Achilles. Thus her tryst with Lawrence had been in Cornwall beside the sea, and But what could Paris know of the sea, its beat and long reverberation, its booming and delicate echo, its ripple that spells a charm on the sand, the rock-lichen, the sea-moss, the sand. . . ? . . . only Achilles could break his heart and the world for a token, a memory forgotten.
If behind such lines we glimpse Aldington's bank-clerkly demeanor and Lawrence's satyr-like intensity, no harm. But from end to end of her book Robinson encourages us to look upon any poem we come on as a challenge to decode. "Each poem," she says, "is a prolonged metaphor, in which actions on the part of deities, nymphs, heroes, or Nature herself are symbolic of the actions and events taking place in the life of H.D.'s circle of poets. Through myth or allegory, H.D. tells the story of her own life."
And not only H.D. Pound, Aldington and H.D. were once in Venice? Then a Venice-passage in an early Pound Canto must be "written of H.D.," its "had my rolls for breakfast" a bawdy pun. Nonsense; the lines address Robert Browning's shade. Their girl ("young, too young") alludes to an event in Sordello and is anyone but H.D. (less than a year Pound's junior). And their rolls are edible rolls.
"Sometimes," Pound would say, "frawgs is frawgs." And (one afternoon in Washington, to a Hindu visitor who had requested a "meaning"): "That god damn squirrel over there is that god damn squirrel over there; it does NOT rep-re-sent anything ELSE."
If, as Janice Robinson complains, H.D. has not been overwhelmingly present in other accounts of the period, that is in part because of her limitations. Having acknowledged the stark originality of her 1913 Imagism, one gets put off by a certain difficulty in remembering one poem from another. What we've needed, it now appears, is better knowledge of the underlying events; then we'd know that the hard sand of "Hermes" is a setting for her relation to the tricksy Pound, while other sands pertain to the Cornish coast she shared with Lawrence.
Grant that, though, and if you've granted Robinson a tool she needs for reconstructing the life, you've also surrendered much of the poetic status she'd like you to grant H.D., since you've agreed that to read the poems you need to know what they'll say before you start. Unless you are cheerfully complacent about poems as encoded autobiography, that is damaging.
There's no doubt that H.D.'s novels, published and unpublished, are that: obsessive high-keyed retellings, names permuted. Judging from quoted samples, I'm content to see the rest left unpublished. The poems, though: it cheapens "Sea Iris" to be told that "she speaks directly about how it feels to be characterized by her fellow poets as 'on the prowl' (in a characteristic Imagist wordplay, the 'prow' is contextually related to the 'prowl'.)"
"On the prow" is not H.D.'s phrase but her exegete's. H.D. said to Sea Iris, You are painted blue, painted like a fresh prow . . .
And "wordplay" was not a characteristic of Imagism. No, better trust her straight talk at its best: . . . so you may say, "Greek flower, Greek ecstasy reclaims forever one who died following intricate song's lost measure."