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Books: The Astronomer’s Daughter

5 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

HERSELF DEFINED: THE POET H.D. AND HER WORLD by Barbara Guest; Doubleday; 360 pages; $18.95

Near the end of her life, Hilda Doolittle might be seen in Manhattan crossing Fifth Avenue from the Stanhope Hotel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tall, gray poet would head for the Pompeian frescoes and classical statues and then for the museum’s restaurant to eat apple pie and ice cream for lunch. It was 1960 and H.D., as she signed herself, had come home briefly from Europe to receive the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died the following year, at age 75, in Zurich, within a circle of admirers and close to Bryher, nee Annie Winifred Ellerman, the energetic heiress and novelist (The Fourteenth of October) who had been her lover and benefactor for more than 40 years.

H.D. is not generally regarded as a major poet. Edmund Wilson accurately summed it up with “writes well, but there is not much in her.” Her gift was for the short, precise line: “The hard sand breaks,/ and the grains of it/ are clear as wine.” She was greatly influenced by ancient Greek and encouraged by Ezra Pound, to whom she was briefly engaged. Hilda first met him when she was 15 and he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania; her father was director of the school’s Flower Astronomical Observatory. Doolittle and Pound were not the only future literary stars in the vicinity. William Carlos Williams was also enrolled at Penn, and Marianne Moore attended nearby Bryn Mawr, where Hilda eventually dropped out after failing English. In 1911 she left for England and Pound, who was already there politicking for modernism and cutting a rebellious figure in velvet jacket and flowing tie. He edited her new poems in the British Museum bun shop, trimmed her byline down to initials and made her a charter member of the Imagist movement.

Herself Defined is a book of such famous names, legendary times and places, and unconventional relationships. H.D. married British Writer Richard Aldington, had a daughter, Perdita, with Composer Cecil Gray, and possibly an affair with D.H. Lawrence. Her most enduring relationship was with Bryher, whose father was Sir John Ellerman, a self-made shipping tycoon from Hull.

Bryher’s checkbook makes fascinating reading. She kept H.D. in style and paid for much of her daughter’s upbringing and education. James Joyce, the Sitwells and Dylan Thomas were recipients of Bryher’s beneficence. Ellerman money also enabled her husband, American Writer Robert McAlmon, to publish the early works of Gertrude Stein, Pound, Hemingway and their fellow expatriates.

With small change she supported avant-garde film making, Close-Up, the first important cinema magazine, and contributed to the psychoanalytic movement.

H.D. was a patient of Sexologist Havelock Ellis, who described her in his autobiography as “a shy sinuous figure, so slender and so tall that she seemed frail, yet lithe, one divined, of firm and solid texture.” Freud, who analyzed her in the early ’30s for $25 a session, told her she was a classic example of bisexuality. H.D.’s own ideal was not a psychological abstraction but a statue of a sleeping hermaphrodite that she had seen as a young woman at the Diocletian Gallery in Rome.

The myth and the romanticism of unifying the male and female form appear to have preoccupied H.D. in ways that are not always clear. Says Biographer Barbara Guest: “She had an assortment of ideas and events that were repetitious; they were thoughts and images that might be embellished by her reading, or actual experiences never to be relinquished.” The remark may explain why the poet on the page appears static and obsessively withdrawn, and the aura of the poet-priestess seems theatrical and self-indulgent. Excerpts from her letters are forgettable; she has little to say about other writers, and does not appear to have seriously concerned herself with the social and political events of her exciting times. World War II found her dabbling in spiritualism and writing an esoteric novel about lost airmen living in an astral dimension. “Nearly impossible to decipher, it is an upsetting book, as everywhere there is evidence of a disturbed consciousness,” writes a fretful Guest. References to breakdowns and Swiss clinics indicate that H.D. was more unbalanced than her tactful biographer suggests.

Fortunately there is Bryher, whose wealth, practical intelligence and activities run away with the book. “Fido,” as H.D. called her cigar-smoking companion, is constantly on the move: in one day she visits Brancusi, Stein, Pound, Joyce’s wife Nora, and has dinner with Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. Bryher proves to be a great traveler who mingles comfortably and is resourceful under pressure. In London, during World War II, she had cloth woven from camel hair collected at the city zoo. She also tried to raise chickens during the blitz, but the birds ate their own eggs. Just as well. H.D. would not eat chicken for fear that it might be cat. What is a biographer to do? — By R.Z. Sheppard

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