Hilda and Helen: Recreation of Woman and Myth
-- Reneeta Renganathan
Hilda Doolittles recreation of the infamous beauty, Helen of Troy, in her book-length poem, Helen in Egypt, contains aspects that create two existing realities. These two realities are connected as H.D., as she was known to the reading public, describes a world filled with ancient Greek and Roman myths and connects it closely with her personal experiences. H.D., through her poetry, links her own world in 1900 America with a stage that is set for mythical figures like Helen, Achilles, Paris, Theseus, and Menalaus. The writer in H.D. uses her own identity as a woman and person who was struggling with society and the relationships in her life as a basis for the creation of a new Helen, a Helen who was blamed for the sufferings of two nations but to whom H.D. gives salvation.
A Poets Beginning
H.D.s horizons as a writer were extended by her European travels and by her association with different literary figures. In 1912, she met and married fellow poet and Imagist member, Richard Aldington. When the First World War erupted, events turned bleak for the Aldingtons. When Aldington had to leave to fight in the war, H.D. lost her first child through a miscarriage. In 1918, she lost her favorite brother on the battlefields of France and in 1920, her father passed away. With all this tragedy surrounding her, she suffered a nervous breakdown. It was also at this time that she had her second child. The timing could not have been worse as not only were there complications in the pregnancy, but she was also extremely concerned with the safety of her unborn child. With the help of her close friend and fellow writer Winifred Bryher, H.D. recovered from the many losses and tragedies in her life. Together, they traveled to Greece and New York becoming lifelong companions.
During the later part of her life, H.D. spent most of her time moving between London and Switzerland, raising Perdita, her daughter and writing. In 1960, she returned to the U.S. to become the first woman to receive the Award of Merit Medal for poetry from the American Academy of Art and Letters. As her health failed her rapidly, she spent the last days and her remaining strength in the creation of her final poem, Helen in Egypt. In 1961, Hilda Doolittle died of a heart attack at the Redcross Hospital in Zurich. Before she died, she had written to her friend and literary promoter Norman Pearson and said "I think I did get what I was looking for from life and art."
A Tapestry of Connections
In Helen in Egypt, Helens suffering represents the trials H.D. went through with respect to the relationships she had with the men in her life as well as her own losses in the wars. Charlotte McClure explains that in Helen in Egypt, the protagonist seeks to find her own identity and the meaning of the Trojan war. McClure says that this search for an identity is analogous to H.D.s own search for an identity as a woman and her own confrontation of questions in her century - of war, of hate, and of the relationships in her own life (327). In the poem, H.D. uses mythic figures like Helen and Achilles to represent her self and the people who affected her life. Just as Helen was trying to seek answers regarding her identity, her relationships and reasons for the Trojan war, H.D. was trying to find answers to failed relationships with the men in her life, to the immense loss she suffered during the world wars, and to the new technology and culture that was encompassing the twentieth century.
H.D. was influenced and directed by her experiences, personal and psychological. In her poetry she revived her experiences of the past that still remained in her mind - memories of love, betrayal, war, and loss. H.D. was a revisionist; she took a surviving myth, the myth of Helen of Troy and transformed it into her epic heroine depiction of her own making. The myth changes into a poem from the mythology of the male in war to a mythology of the woman.
The Greeks and the Trojans
Helen, just like H.D. is searching for true love, love that will succeed and thrive, not fail. Helen wants to know why she is blamed for the war, why she is blamed for the death and destruction of so many lives and why Paris kidnapped her. H.D. asks questions and demands comprehension of them. She seeks to know of her failed marriage with Aldington, of her betrayal by Pound, and of her being torn down by the Imagists. She and Pound were in love and were engaged, but she later found out he was involved with other women. Their engagement was eventually broken off and the two remained friends. When she met and grew close to Aldington, a caring relationship seemed to grow between them. However, even that too failed. The Imagists at first held H.D. up on a pedestal but later could only see her as a poet and not as an individual; they fixed an idealized image of her, until she felt she was being sacrificed for her poetry.
H.D.s and Pounds relationship was one of initial trust, acceptance, respect, and love. When H.D. started to show signs of talent and acceptance by her peers, Pound was the first one to congratulate her and openly exalt her poems, but later on he was responsible for editing her poetry. Pounds nature was to control and H.D. knew that she wanted to be the sole person in control of her poetry and of her own life. Though they continued their friendship, he had violated some of the respect she had for him. In Helen in Egypt she refers to Pound as "The Command" ; he took command of her work. "The Command was a bequest from the past,/from father to son,/the Command bound from the past to the present" (H.D. 61).
Still, H.D. always had Pound in her mind and heart. She never gave up on their friendship and she remained loyal to and supportive of him. They were supposedly engaged twice, once in 1905 and again in 1910. Both times, H.D. heard troubling rumors of his affairs with other women, but both times she did not end the engagements immediately. It seemed to mutual friends that H.D. always thought she and Pound belonged together. In the foreword to End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound, Michael King asserts that H.D. had a "conviction that her life and Ezra's had been intertwined irrevocably" (vii-xii). King goes on to explain how H.D. felt that she and Pound were connected to each other ever since their childhood.
H.D. still suffered because of lost love and broken relationships, but never gave up on herself or on important relationships like her friendship with Pound. Writer and critic, Jeanne Kerblat-Hougton explains in her essay, '"But Am I Wrong?': A Study of Interrogation in End to Torment" says that H.D. has "never accepted failure, parting, absence, the flight of the partner, but has always converted her suffering into art" (272). Indeed, H.D. recognized the many partings and absences of the men in her life from Pound to Richard Aldington. Thus, the strength behind both H.D the woman and Helen the mythical figure lies in the fact that they are both able to survive and that they both willingly search for their destinies and find them.
In the later years of her marriage to Aldington, she felt that she had been seduced and manipulated by him. She already had a miscarriage while Aldington was at war and had complications with the birth of their daughter, Perdita. At this point she needed all the support she could get from Aldington. But, their relationship just did not seem to have a chance, partly due to the fact that he was having an affair with Brigit Patmore. He also did not seem concerned about the miscarriage. Thus, H.D. later presents Aldington as Paris in Helen in Egypt. H.D. saw Aldington as Paris who had stolen Helen away from her first husband Menalaus, who was represented by Pound. In the poem, H.D. relates the manipulation by Aldington with Helen who was seduced and manipulated by Paris. Also, H.D. always felt that the man she should have been with was Pound, and she never lost sight of her relationship with him.
Another man and fellow writer who was very taken with H.D.s poetry and obvious talent was D.H. Lawrence. He became a close friend and confidant of H.D.s when Aldington left during the war. Lawrence was the one who visited H.D. and helped her deal with the tragedy of losing her first child in 1915. Even H. D. herself knew that it was Lawrence who really believed in her poetry more than Aldington was. In Compassionate Friendship, H.D. writes of a dream she had where Lawrence appeared to her and told her "Hilda, you are the only one of the whole crowd, who can really write" (54).
"Whose are the dead/and whose the victory?"
HD saw her marriage to Aldington as a war, and the relationship between D.H. Lawrence and Aldington was a battle even after she divorced Aldington. Aldington could never understand H.D. relationships with Lawrence, just as Helen could not reconcile Paris to Achilles. H.D. wrote Helen in Egypt as mediation on the cause of war. She believed that war occurs when a group or culture does not want to bend to the will of the opposition. For H.D. just as cultures can go to war, so can individuals. In her own experience, the men in her life (specifically Pound and Aldington) had tried to force their will on her. In Helen in Egypt, H.D. asks why Helen should be blamed for the war. Helens experience is parallel to H.D.s own experience with the Imagists. Just as Helen suffers from the war and its repercussions, so too did H.D. suffer from the wars in terms of loss.
H.D. finished the poem close to her death and she might still have had questions regarding who the woman behind the muse was. Helen in Egypt, the poem, may have been a way to understand her own identity. Just as Helen was trying to fit into these two opposing cultures (Greek and Trojan), H..D. was trying to fit into a culture that was unlike the period during her childhood. This new era, the 1940s to 1960s, were a period of new technology and a time for rebellion and revolution. There were new things happening everywhere. Just as Helen had to "remember" the past in order to understand, H.D. had to do the same. Both Helen and H.D. must question a patriarchal society to find out who they really are. Helen constantly asks Achilles who Helen is. H.D. asks society who she is through her poetry.
"The Pallinode" -- A Defense of Helen
H.D. had found the images of her life substantiated on the tombs of Egypt. The existence of these hieroglyphs in Egypt brought for H.D. a greater understanding of her experiences and how these experiences were recurring realities for all men and women because they told the stories of humanitys joys and sorrows. This proved to Helen and H.D., that these painful experiences must be lived out as they would bring her closer to the truth about herself. It was in this understanding that H.D. was able to bring a level of universality to the poem. As Robinson puts it, "Helen in Egypt is a context for apprehending a womans reality as opposed to a mans" (378). The "Pallinode" represents the first step Helen must take in order for her to grasp the true meaning of herself and of her new direction. The hieroglyphs are the way for her to understand her past and why events took place.
"Leuke" -- Island of Thetis
Like Paris, Aldington too tried constantly to keep in touch with H.D. through letters, trying to convince her that he still cared about their relationship and wanted to pick things off from where they had left. Aldington too was always trying to convince H.D. that Lawrence never really loved her. In "Leuke," H.D. attempts to relate the fall of Troy to the fall of her marriage with Aldington. Aldington could not understand H.D. and her poetry. To him, poetry was a way to make money; it was something he did for the public. But for H.D., life was consumed by poetry. H.D. soon realized that the failure of their marriage was not just due to his infidelity but also because she could no longer respect him for his hypocrisy.
"Eidolon"-- Helen is called back
In the last lines of "Eidolon," Helen gives true respect and honor to Achilles which is parallel to H.D. paying her final respects to Lawrences work and talent, where she refers to Lawrence as the "sea." "But what could Paris know of the sea,/its beat and long reverberation,/its booming and delicate echo,/its ripple that spells a charm" (H.D. 304).
"Pallinode," "Leuke," and "Eidolon" all lead up to each other like a story woven with secrets and answers that will be sought and found by the heroine. Helen goes through three different stages, in "Pallinode" she is wary, confused, and questioning. Somehow, she manages to start finding answers to her problems through the hieroglyphs in Egypt. In "Leuke" she awakens from the dream and understands the significance of the symbols in the temple, seeking reality and not fantasy. In "Eidolon" she finally understands the reasons why the war came about and gains a deep understanding of her relationship with Achilles.
"The Harpers will Sing Forever"
Because H.D. was so able to connect her own life with her work, she fashioned these mythic characters into her own corresponding realities. Achilles had the personal characteristics of D.H. Lawrence, just as Helen was so like H.D. In Helen in Egypt, character, culture, and events are recurring realities. For H.D., these characters went beyond her personal relationships and became "figural realities of all time" (Robinson 360).
H.D.s ability to connect her own experiences with the mythic figures and symbols of Greece and Egypt enabled her to come to a better understanding of her own life and reality. H.D. was a truly remarkable and insightful writer and woman with unsurpassable talents of being able to make the reader feel the presence of her poetry. Horace Gregory describes Helen in Egypt as a"rarity" and says that there is enchantment and magic in it. In the twentieth century, book-length poems that can inspire and invoke such images of beauty and rhythmic balance as Helen in Egypt did are few. However, the re-emergence of such works by talents like Hilda Doolittle is a sign of hope for more works of art.
H .D. Helen in Egypt. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1961.
-------. Compassionate Friendship. Yale: Beincke, nd.
-------. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions Publishing Inc., 1979.
Gregory, Horace. Introduction. Helen in Egypt. By H.D. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1961. vii - xi.
Kerblat-Houghton, Jeanne. "'But Am I Wrong?': A Study of Interrogation in End to Torment" H.D. Woman and Poet. Ed. Michael King. Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. 259-277.
King, Michael. Foreword. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. By H.D. Eds. Michael King and Norman Holmes Pearson. New York: New Directions, 1979. vii-xii.
Martz, Louis L. ed. H.D. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1988.
McClure, Charlotte S. "Helen of Troy in America: From Ideal Beauty to Heroic Quester." Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 11 (1991): 325-36.
Robinson, Janice S. H.D.-- The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1982.
Quinn, Vincent. Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1967.