H.D., born Hilda Doolittle, was a profoundly talented writer, a pioneer of modernism, and a literary visionary whose work is unlike any other I have ever read. You’ve also, possibly, never heard of her, or read anything she’s ever written. Despite the best efforts of her literary executor, Norman Holmes Pearson, after her death in the 1960s, H.D. slipped into obscurity, to be recovered in the 80s and 90s by a dedicated group of feminist scholars, but never quite make it to the mainstream. Until relatively recently, she was largely remembered as the muse of the more famous Ezra Pound. Those of us who study 20th century literature are lucky enough to encounter her, but you’d be hard pressed to find her work in your average book shop.
That H.D. has never found a foothold among casual lovers of literature is in some ways a result of her struggle to break through to a broad contemporary audience during the formation of the American canon. In the present day, however, she remains obscure because those of us who know H.D. find her hard to recommend to the average reader. She is seen as someone who is hard to read. Her poetry and prose are not often clear, her plots circular, her meanings… mystical.
Some of her work, it’s true, is hard to read. But how many book clubs pick up Ulysses and War and Peace simply because they represent a challenge? Being difficult has never been an impediment to being beloved, really. Beyond this, H.D.’s work is so varied that to parcel it all up as opaque or too complicated for a general audience is a mistake—one I hope to correct here, for anyone who finds it.
Who is H.D. anyway?
H.D. was a 20th century poet and writer who was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, moved to London in her twenties, and spent the rest of her life living between England and Switzerland. She married fellow writer Richard Aldington in 1913, but her marriage broke down after WWI and she spent the rest of her life tethered to a woman who preferred to be known as Bryher. Bryher was devoted to H.D., forming the cornerstone of a series of odd, triad relationships H.D. pursued throughout her life, and eventually adopting H.D.’s daughter, Perdita.
Despite bearing an immense amount of war-related trauma (that she worked on with Freud in the 1930s), H.D. spent WWII in London out of a sense of loyalty to her ‘first readers’. The war prompted a literary renaissance for her, prompting her to experiment with style and form to address the devastation around her and speak out against future violence. She died on September 27th, 1961, in Zurich, sixty years ago today.
H.D. experimented with form and subject matter across her work, varying stylistically from Imagist poetry to dreamlike prose, pulling from the events of her life, Greek myth, great writers in the literary tradition, themes of religion and mysticism, and the extremes of natural beauty. There is—literally—something for everyone in her work.
I have studied H.D. for over five years now and have been constantly surprised by the richness of her work and her consistency of skill across such a breadth of genre and subject. But I have still found it difficult to distil what her power over me is to others, so—
Behold my handy-dandy flowchart!
The works on this flowchart are my favourites of H.D.’s—follow the paths to find your perfect fit, and read on to see brief synopses as well as why I think they’re worth a read.
H.D.’s first collection—how she made her name! This collection features the poems that remain H.D.’s most famous works and showcase her incredible skill at distilling crystal clear imagery and intense emotion into very few words.
What Do I Love
These poems have been recently collected along with a series of essays H.D. wrote while living in London during the Blitz by Annette Debo, but I believe they are also available in her Collected Poems. The poems of ‘What Do I Love’ are unusual in the H.D. canon as they are much more autobiographical and almost diaristic. I think they are a fantastic entrypoint into H.D. because they reflect a period of life lived under duress, with recognisable subject matter, but still feature her poetic skill and insight.
Helen in Egypt
Some people might not put Helen in Egypt on an ‘H.D. for Beginners’ list, but those people are wrong. I have a particular soft spot for Helen in Egypt because I am doing my PhD on it, and I think it’s her magnum opus. It’s an epic poem that deals with Helen after the events of the Trojan War, taking place across time and space, in many ways a romantic and psychological journey of self-recovery. The plot often contradicts or doubles back on itself, so don’t worry too much about pinning down exactly who is doing what—where or why—and instead let the disparate images wash over you. You will get the sense of what’s happening, I promise. A very fun way to do this is to listen to H.D. herself read the poems (though these recordings were made before the book’s publication and are in a different order, in case you want to try to read along).
Bid Me to Live
Bid Me to Live is H.D.’s novel that is loosely based on the events of her life during the First World War. If you are interested in women’s writing and experiences, this is the book for you. The first part of the novel is set largely in a single flat, and reflects a sense of claustrophobia and alienation suffered by a woman writer trapped by the war and the other men in her life. It is compelling work about love, self, and artistic creation. In many ways it’s a proto-Helen in Egypt—a story of a woman trying to escape an identity given to her by someone else. Best enjoyed with the chaser of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
Palimpsest is a collection of three short stories that follow similar themes to Helen in Egypt and Bid Me to Live, of women working out their identities in new places in relation to (and in spite of!) the men in their lives. The stories are loosely interconnected while spanning three spaces and times:
1. Hipparchia: War Rome (circa 75 B. C.)
2. Murex: War and Postwar London (circa A. D. 1916-1926)
3. Secret Name: Excavator’s Egypt (circa A. D. 1925)
They might be difficult to get a hold of, but if you do, they are an extremely rewarding blend of H.D.’s different styles of prose writing and are a good insight into the major themes of her work. (Also worth nothing that the ‘clear’ vs ‘weird’ choice of the flowchart is a lie; all H.D. is a little weird, which is half the fun.)
The Sword Went Out to Sea
I have just got my hands on a copy of this book, so I can’t give you my own review, but I can tell you why I’m excited to read it. The book has been sold to me as a half-autobiographical novel, half-séance vision of a postwar world—it sounds wild and confusing and like it’s going to say something really fresh and new. I’ve read about it mostly in the context of H.D.’s response to the Cold War, which I find especially fascinating. Come voyage into unfamiliar waters with me!
Notes on Thought and Vision
Do you want to take acid without taking any acid? Please read ‘Notes on Thought and Vision’. Written very early in H.D.’s career, it details her poetic philosophy in short bursts of text, exploring her theories of poetic consciousness and creative vision. It is unlike anything you will ever read, it will probably not make sense to you, and it will take up half an hour of your time. H.D. wrote it as a summary of a vision she believed she had on a trip to Greece in the 1920s and it is a rare and beautiful insight into a mind so alien to my own. It’s like taking shots of mysticism.
End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound
While I am loath to mention Ezra Pound in this list, I found H.D.’s late memoir ‘about’ her relationship with Pound a fascinating and quick read. It is mostly a book of H.D. looking over her life and her creative output, exploring her inspirations and motivations, and detailing the spiritual and psychological journey of her own life. Like Notes on Thought and Vision, I find it interesting for its insight into the artist’s mind, and if you read it first, it gives you a useful map of what H.D. is ‘driving at’ in her work.
Please feel free to chime in with suggestions of your own! It is my belief that H.D. is one of the most underrated authors of the last century. It’s my hope that on the sixtieth anniversary of her death, I can be of some use in introducing her work to a new readership. I’m jealous of anyone encountering her for the first time, so as cliché as it is—enjoy!