H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet by Janice S. Robinson

H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet

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A bright and quick girl, Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) grew up at the turn of the century under the eyes of a Moravian-reared mother and a distinguished astronomy-professor father; and in 1911, at a Halloween party, she met a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate named Ezra Pound. Right then, by and large, her fate was sealed. She became Pound's fiancÉe, but never his wife; she followed him to London, where she half-knew he had another fiancÉe; she presented him with hard, oblique, even angry small poems (""Spare us from loveliness!"") as a protest against his troubador pretensions--and Pound's immediate response, according to biographer Robinson, was ""to edit her, slash her, and put her up on public display as 'his discovery.'"" Hilda became ""H. D. Imagiste."" It was a sexual power play of the subtlest yet crassest sort--one which H. D. responded to, however, by thereafter seeing her life as a mythology. Her worst years, 1910-20--rejection by Pound, bad marriage to Richard Aldington, loss of a child, tormenting affair with D. H. Lawrence--produced her greatest poetry; they also led to endless romans à clef, ever more etiolated verse, and psychological ruin (H. D. was one of Freud's personal patients in 1933-34). Robinson, using a feminist-cum-psychoanalytic approach, finds H. D.'s consistent self-mythification a great opportunity. She's frequently up to her neck in theory (""What Roheim and H. D. both understood is that the scapegoat is the cultural embodiment of the forgotten violence and the repressed incestuous wish of each individual. What is always repeated in the sacrifice of the victim is the primal incest""); and, paraphrasing H. D.'s real-life-based novels, she dangerously skirts soap-opera summary (""There was no use trying to explain to Rate. Rate was not an artist. He would not, could not, understand""). One might wish that more attention had been paid, instead, to periods not cast into legend by H. D. herself--such as H. D.'s sexual/psychological/financial relationship with Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) in the Twenties; but Robinson does all but prove H. D.'s affair with Lawrence--something stricken from Lawrence biographies through the influence of Aldington--as well as the artistic cross-pollinization between the two (on both scores, the evidence that H. D. was Connie Chatterley is completely convincing). Yet one has to dig and haul for all of this: Robinson's style is maladroit, her focus drifts, her purposes are often less than clear. For doctoral candidates--lit crit or psychoanalytic--there's raw ore here. For the general reader, some fascination--but largely a head-spinning lurch.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1981
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin