Imagism in the Poetry of H.D.

Imagism was an early twentieth century modernist movement among English and American poets who wrote free verse and, according to Poets.org, were "devoted to 'clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images.'" Common language was employed in imagist poetry, but only exact words were adopted, as opposed to words which almost captured the essence of an image.

The economy of language was by necessity concise: the imagist used only those words which contributed directly to the image. Hilda Doolittle (coined H.D. by Ezra Pound, 1886-1961) is the foremost Imagist poet, named "the finest of all Imagist poets" by her colleagues -- most notably by Ezra Pound, who promoted and "marked up" one of her poems, signed it "H.D. Imagiste," and sent it to Harriet Monroe at Poetry. (Bartholomew Brinkman, "Making Modern 'Poetry,'" Poets.org, 14)

Dubbed an Imagist poet -- and by many as the "poet's poet" -- she would break from the Imagist motif later in her career (the movement itself had ceased by 1917). The imagery in her poems, however, is more than merely pictorial; they are also highly psychological. The images which she creates, like a work of art, are to be appreciated more than interpreted. However, an image, strictly taken, is also an "exactness of observed detail." (Poets.org) H.D.'s images, particularly in Sea Garden, are not only a reaction against the abstruse language and concepts of the Romantic-Victorian tradition, but they also challenge the patriarchal poetic dominance of the early twentieth century. 

The literature in the Romanticism of the mid-eighteenth century was versed in flowery images and dreamlike alter-realities. H.D.'s Sea Garden, a collection of imagist poems, is also permeated with "its terse portraits of flowers, landscapes, and coastal inhabitants" (Celena Kusch, "H.D.'s American Sea Garden," 1), but her flowers are anything but an image of tenderness and beauty. In "Sea Rose," for instance, she writes: "Rose, harsh rose, / marred and with stint of petals." (1) (Anthology of Modern American Poetry, 234). Roses are anything but harsh or marred and with stint of petals. The tone here is coarse. The words are pointed. Even the petals are "stinted" or restricted. The image portrayed defies any semblance of a Romantic tradition of a rose imagined -- or, as Susan Stanford Friedman affirms, H.D.'s Sea Garden "structure[s] that volume and underline[s] its revisionary treatment of the sentimental Victorian language of flowers." (Modern American Poetry) What caused this rose to become harsh, marred, and its petals stinted? Why this image?

H.D.'s sea rose is "caught in the drift" of the current (8). It is "stunted, with a small leaf," and "flung on the sand." (9-10) Any hope granted to the rose is left open-ended: "Can the spice-rose / drip such acrid fragrance / hardened in a leaf?" (14-16) The word "acrid" denotes an "irritatingly strong and unpleasant taste or smell," as well as, "angry and bitter." (Oxford) Her rose has been "hardened in a leaf," seemingly unable to emote fragrance. But one wonders if anyone would care to experience the rose's fragrance even if he or she could. The fragrance of a typical rose is not irritatingly strong or unpleasant, nor does such typically represent anger or bitterness. As a matter of fact, when a person gives roses, the effect is intended to incite the exact opposite reaction. H.D.'s sea rose, on the contrary, is harsh, marred and restricted; it is stunted and flung on the sand. Even if it could give off fragrance, it would only irritate and cause bitterness.

Moreover, I think all of H.D.'s flowers in all of her poems are not a thing of feminine beauty but of masculine brutality. Again, Friedman writes:
H.D. repeatedly established dualisms that paralleled the fundamental polarity of male and female, masculine and feminine, another aspect of her imagist poems that is both unique to her work and continuous with her later development. Her imagist poems are often linguistically and thematically structured on polarities such as land and sea, hard and soft, ripe and unripe, wild and sheltered, swift and slow, stunted and lush, torn and whole, pointed and round, positive and negative, salt and sweet, and so forth ... Reflecting in part her pride in her difference, and her separation from the conventional or sentimental, H.D. always rejected the ripe for the unripe, the lovely for the harsh, the soft for the hard.
If H.D. rejects the lovely for the harsh and the soft for the hard, I think she does so in order to establish herself as competent a poet as any man ever were, and to open the eyes of the culture to that fact.

Friedman and others suggest that H.D.'s Sea Garden poetry is highly sexual or erotic as well as a challenging of patriarchal establishment. Celena Kusch comments that H.D.'s poetry addresses "questions of gender and sexuality and offer[s] metaphors for literary modernism's experimentation with aesthetic form." (55-56) Friedman argues that H.D.'s flowers "indirectly suggest an intense eroticism." (Modern American Poetry) While I agree that H.D.'s flowers address the subject of gender, I fail to see them as erotic or sexual as a thing imagined. For example, in "Sea Rose," the tone is much more frustrated and pessimistic than it is sexually charged. If the sea rose is to be viewed sexually, then I am not sure what to make of words such as "harsh," "marred," "stint," "meager," "thin," "sparse," "stunted," "flung," and "acrid" with regard to eroticism.

The same can be argued from H. D.'s "Garden", where the rose is "cut in rock, / hard as the descent of hail." (2-3) In part two of "Garden," the heat "presses up and blunts / the points of pears and rounds the grapes." (18-20) Again, her word choices (i.e., "cut," "hard," "blunts,") do not paint a portrait of erotic, sexual activity, but on the contrary are anxious, distressing, brambly images which cause a person to be set on edge.

Many scholars, such as Robin Pappas, have rightly stated that in "her literary career, even prior to her analysis with Freud, H.D. devoted her writing to exploring new ways of conceptualizing mind and body, intellect and art." ("H.D. and Havelock Ellis," 153). There are, no doubt, sexual overtones in some of her poetry or other writings (e.g., Notes on Thought and Vision). However, rather than stimulate sexual portraits in one's mind regarding H.D.'s flowers, in my mind they image frustrated, troubled, restricted and oppressed female poets in her time who were vying for a voice in an art that, I think, was meant to celebrate sexual and gender diversity.


H.D.'s flowers, as much as many of her works, are not merely pictorial but are psychological in nature (Anthology of Modern American Poetry, 232). Her "Garden" is a place of repression and oppression. The first-person voice in the poem is speaking to a rose cut in a rock in part one, as well as to the wind; to blow away the humidity, which is so thick and weighty that it could seemingly be cut in half, in part two. There are two very delicate "things" which relate to something harsh in "Garden": a rose cut in rock, and air, which could be cut in half.

First, H.D.'s rose is "cut in rock, / hard as the descent of hail." (2-3) As hail cuts and penetrates whatever it falls upon, when it descends, so is this rose cut into a rock in her garden. Typical female writers of the mid-eighteenth century would have imaged beautiful and delicate rows of vibrant roses in a lush and colorful garden. But H.D. breaks from that tradition. There is nothing delicate or beautiful about this rose. As for beauty, there is nothing at which to admire about her garden, either. The tone is agitated; the words are pointed and sharp.

Second, a request is made to the wind in part two to "rend open the heat, / cut apart the heat, / rend it to tatters." (12-14) The humidity is so thick that even fruit which could drop from a tree would not hit the ground. The vocative "O wind" (12) recalls the language of prayer. The speaker is desperate enough for relief to speak or pray to the wind to "cut apart the heat." (13) The images in part two are oppressive, leaving one smothered, desperate and despondent. The overall image is one of rending something in two, dividing solidarity, and leaving a fixed impression. If the speaker could break the rock in two then she could break a tree (7-8) -- she could even break "you." (11) But breaking apart or cutting the heat is beyond her ability, so she calls for the wind, a force more powerful than herself. 

H.D.'s garden is as oppressive and repressive as was the early twentieth century for many female poets. The works of some early female poets and other writers were initially dismissed or ignored altogether due to their gender. If H.D.'s rose cut in rock in part one imaged a repressed female perspective, divorced from an earlier Romantic tradition, then the oppressive heat in part two imaged the difficulty for some women to "cut" through the long-held patriarchal tradition of authors and poets. Eileen Gregory suggests that H.D.s' rose in "Garden" is an image "of power as the untouchable, inaccessible thing that the poet desires, like the adamantine 'rock roses' in H.D.'s essay on Sappho." (Modern American Poetry) Though we are always to appreciate poetry for what it is -- a work of art -- the images are still a thing imagined. What we are to imagine in Garden is a power and equality inherent in the female sex. 

The emotion which H.D. in "Garden" and "Sea Rose" evokes, to many, is a deep appreciation for her art, even when the images portrayed are less than a thing of aesthetic beauty or an emotion of comfort and serenity. Gregory argues that Garden defines "the 'aesthetic' of creative apprehension and suffering within the sea garden." (Modern American Poetry) For H.D., notes Margaret Dickie, utilizing imagism was "a way of restraining and encoding emotions that threatened to overcome her." ("Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism," 243). Examples of restraint, apprehension and suffering are rife in H.D.'s "Sea Lilly" and "Sheltered Garden." In "Sea Lilly," the reed is "slashed and torn." (2) The myrtle is "dashed" (10); sand has cut its "petal." (12) Yet as it endures the harshness of nature, it remains powerful and majestic just the same. Nature cannot impede the power of such a "myrtle." In the same way, as she has endured the harshness of a patriarchal society, she remains powerful and majestic.

Likewise, in "Sheltered Garden," in her suffering the author begins, "I have had enough. / I gasp for breath." (1-2) What she has "had enough" of is "border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies, / herbs, sweet-cress." (10-11) These dainty, feminine images deprive her of some masculine "sharp swish of a branch," "resin," "bark," and "coarse weeds" (12-17), which she desires. What she laments most is "beauty without strength," for it "chokes out life." (41-42) She continues, in first person, "I want wind to break, / scatter these pink-stalks, / snap off their spiced heads, / fling them about with dead leaves -- / spread the paths with twigs, / limbs broken off, / trail great pine branches, / hurled from some far wood." (43-50) She wants the "sheltered garden" blotted out and forgotten (55-56). She longs to find "a new beauty / in some terrible / wind-tortured place." (56-58) In this "Sheltered Garden," as in "Garden," the wind is requested to break something: in the former it is feminine "pink-stalks," while in the latter it is the oppressive heat. What she requests is a breaking of femininity and patriarchal oppression.

Again, Eileen Gregory argues that H.D.'s gardens speak of "suffering in terms of creative process, within which it is hard to bear attention to the potency of specific image and to be patient in the heated forging of the destined shape." (Modern American Poetry) Without the heat performing its work, for example, "pressing up and blunting," in "Garden" (18), the pears and grapes could not take their proper form. Hence there is the potential of forming and molding something of beauty through suffering. This "beauty," however, may not be the kind of beauty which was imagined a century ago. She seeks "a new beauty." 

Female poets like H.D. were breaking new ground in a society long entrenched in patriarchy. By the time modernism (and certainly imagism) could be detected, poets like H.D. had already refined the art and broken through the proverbial wall of a male-oriented cultural milieu. Again, Margaret Dickie comments, "From the very beginning the women Modernists all expressed their resistance to this codification and to an identification with their own generation of male poets." ("Women Poets," 258) Identity was the key to their success. Paul Smith comments, "Instead of trying to establish a kind of rival identity and self-possession with which to confront the male, H.D. attempts metonymically [via figure of speech] to unfold a series of overlapping and unfixed identities that will respond to her desire." ("H.D.'s Identity," 13) For example, in "Sheltered Garden" she writes, "Have you seen fruit under cover / that wanted light -- / pears wadded in cloth, protected from the frost, / melons, almost ripe, / smothered in straw?" (18-23) Here we discover unripe fruit which holds potential, but is being hindered from becoming fully ripe, not by over exposure to the sun, nor by an infestation of bugs, but by being smothered by straw -- a thing useless for fruit. She responds: "Why not let the pears cling / to the empty branch? / All your coaxing will only make / a bitter fruit." (24-27) She uses the word "coaxing" here, which denotes persuading or manipulating someone or something gradually, or by flattery to do something. (Oxford)

When we recall that it was Ezra Pound who thrust H.D. into the spotlight by submitting a poem of hers to Harriet Monroe at Poetry (Poets.org), we better understand her experience with "coaxing." Her own identity as Imagiste was created for her by Pound. But image and identity were nevertheless paramount to her. Bonnie Kime Scott notes that for many years "H. D. was known chiefly for the stark, chiseled images and experimental rhythms of her earliest work, collected as Sea Garden (1916)." (Modern American Poetry) In her later career she published under various pseudonyms, all the while maintaining her personal (inward) identity and a consistent theme that was anti-Victorian and challenging to the patriarchal norm of the early twentieth century. She used her skills of imaging in her writings as an avenue to accomplish these objectives. Even though marginalized by others in her time (Margaret Dickie, 258), H.D. used this experience as a venue for experimentation with imagism and created a context by which to challenge a system and worldview ("straw") which hindered her "fruit" from ripening. Nearly five decades after her death, we are feasting on that fruit. 

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WORKS CITED

Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Editor Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brinkman, Bartholomew. "Making Modern Poetry: Format, Genre and the Invention of Imagism(e)." Journal of Modern Literature 32.2 (2009): 20-40. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Dec. 2010.

Dickie, Margaret. "Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism." The Columbia History of American Poetry. Columbia University Press, 1993. EBSCO. Web. 8 December 2010.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Modern American Poetry.

Gregory, Eileen. Modern American Poetry.

Kusch, Celena E. "H.D.'s American Sea Garden: Drowning the Idyll Threat to US Modernism." Twentieth Century Literature 56.1 (2010): 47-70. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 Dec. 2010.

Pappas, Robin. "H.D. and Havelock Ellis: Popular Science and the Gendering of Thought and Vision." Women's Studies 38.2 (2009): 151-182. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 6  Dec. 2010.

Poets.org <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5658>

Smith, Paul. "H.D.'s identity." Women's Studies 10.3 (1984): 321. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.