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Hilda and Helen: Recreation of Woman and Myth

-- Reneeta Renganathan

Hilda Doolittle’s 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 Poet’s Beginning
H.D. started her education at Gordon and remained there until 1902. There, she met and began a life-long friendship with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams who would both soon deeply influence and guide her talent as a writer and poet. In 1904, she entered Bryn Mawr and between 1904-06, her relationship with Pound blossomed into love. In 1911, she set sail for Europe and with Pound she made her way through Europe’s literary circles. As her writings grew more abundant and her style more personalized, H.D. along with Pound, Williams, James Joyce, Amy Lowell, and others formed a new literary order fashioned after her own poetry and became known as the Imagists. The Imagists had their own creed and established their own style of writing. They stressed use of the common language and of not adding any embellishments. They believed in creating new rhythms and free verse so the individuality of the poet could breathe. As H.D.’s fame grew and more people responded to her poetry, readers realized that she resembled the women in her poems. We see this occurring in Helen in Egypt -- there is a resemblance between H.D. the poet and Helen the wronged heroine.

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
It seems quite probable that not only Stesichorus but also Euripides influenced H.D. Both wrote of Helen, and tried to tell her story. From these ancient poets and other influences of Egyptian and Greek traditions, H.D. wove her story of the wronged heroine. Euripides' Helen seems to have much in connection with H.D.'s tale. In both, the Helen that the soldiers see and blame for the war and suffering for Troy and Greece is a phantom sprit, a ghost that was created by jealous and manipulative gods. Euripides tells of how the real Helen remains hidden in the house of Proteus unknown to the warring nations. Thus, as in H.D.'s retelling, the Greeks and Trojans fought for an illusion. "Alas my brothers,/ Helen did not walk/upon the ramparts,/she whom you cursed/was but the phantom and the shadow thrown/of a reflection," (H.D. 5). What perhaps connects H.D.'s tale and Euripides' is that in both, Helen is truly not to blame. Of course for H.D., Helen in Egypt becomes a story based on her experiences of joy and sorrow. An earlier poem by H.D. simply entitled, "Helen" also has similar themes to Helen in Egypt. Here, Helen has the same fate, blamed by Greece as the cause of the war and hated by man, who could only love her if she were "laid, / white ash amid funeral cypresses" (16-18).

In Helen in Egypt, Helen’s 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
The three men who affected emotionally H.D. are represented by mythic characters throughout the poem. Helen/H.D. struggle with the conflicts within the relationships she had with these men. Helen (H.D.) is taken away from her true husband Menalaus (Pound) by Paris (Aldington). The Greeks (represented by Lawrence and the Imagists) are going to war to reclaim her from Paris and the fall of Troy, which was the result of the war, came to represent for H.D. the fall of her marriage. Thus by 1915, H.D. came to see her marriage to Aldington in terms of Paris abducting Helen. Janice S. Robinson explains, "H.D. speaks the language of Greek mythology to tell her own story" (62).

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 Pound’s 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. Pound’s 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?"
War and its impact had horrific and grievous repercussions on H.D. and the other poets of that time. She not only lost her brother and close friends but also had to see, taste, and feel the fear and terror of the people in Europe. In Helen in Egypt, Helen asks constantly why war is happening, why it must be remembered, and who caused it to happen in the first place.

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. relationship’s 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. Helen’s 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
The three main books that make up Helen in Egypt, "Pallinode," "Leuke," and "Eidolon" all come together to form a journey that Helen goes through to find the answers that she has been searching. According to Robinson, the "Pallinode" is "a meditation upon the transcendental Helen -- the Helen who had visions, saw things, wrote poetry" (363). In the "Pallinode," H.D. begins reconstructing her version of the myth of Helen. The first function of the "Pallinode" is to explain and apologize for the blame that Helen had to endure as being the cause of the war. Helen is defended by H.D. and presented as a woman, innocent and unsure of what is happening around her. H.D. uses images and symbols that appear frequently in the poem - the hieroglyphs. These symbols are used by Helen to understand the events that have happened in her life and to understand her own relationship with Achilles. Helen knows that she must find a deeper understanding of her situation and herself through the studying of the hieroglyphs because they contain secret messages (Quinn 134). H.D. took an interest to these symbols of messages and started studying them after her trip to Egypt in 1923.

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 humanity’s 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 woman’s reality as opposed to a man’s" (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
In "Leuke," the second book, Helen finds a way to understand the spiritual symbols in the "Pallinode." She can translate them into human terms. Here, Helen confronts the buried past and in the process realizes and accepts herself and her destiny. Throughout the beginning of "Leuke," Paris returns and tries to convince Helen that he never left her, that he still loves and wants her. He tries to convince her that Achilles was never in love with her and that she must forget him. Paris says about Achilles, "he was father, brother/he was deserted husband,/he was never your lover" (H.D. 139).

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 "Eidolon," there is a suggestion of clarity and fulfillment, something both Helen and H.D. were searching for. Helen is clearer and firmer in her understanding of her relationship with Achilles and her past. Helen in "Eidolon" is able to let go of her concerns with Troy, Egypt, and Leuke. She looks back at her past in terms of her experiences in Egypt and Leuke. Helen is called back from Egypt. H.D. too was called back to the memory of her poetry and her life as a writer by Lawrence. Once again, H.D. attempts to bring Helen and herself together. H.D. recalls her early poetry and life and first meetings with Lawrence. Both H.D. and Lawrence had loved and lost. Their poetry spoke of similar, shared pains of lost love and of things remembered only in the past.

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 Lawrence’s 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"
Helen in Egypt is a search and rebellion for one woman’s identity and destiny, a quest for answers and affirmation of true, fated love. Helen was created to rebel against a legend that had primarily belonged to a man’s glory. Helen became a new creation, in which she was no longer man’s blame for the war. Helen is granted the chance, through H.D.’s poetry, to become a song that will be sung and remembered and will no longer be "Helena, cursed of Greece" (H.D. 16).

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.


Works Cited

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.