Monday, September 27, 2021

H.D.’s diary fragments

Hilda Doolittle, an American poet who wrote under the pen name H.D., died 60 years ago today. She was associated with the avant-garde imagist group of poets which included her friend Ezra Pound and husband Richard Aldington. Although certainly not known as a diarist, there are three diaries listed in the archive of her papers held at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. A very few details about one of these is available online in two biographical essays.

Hilda Doolittle was born in 1886, into the Moravian community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her father was an astronomer, and her mother a musician. When she was 10, the family moved to Philadelphia, where she attended a local school. She entered Bryn Mawr College in 1904. Around the same time she formed friendships with Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound (to whom she was briefly engaged) and William Carlos Williams, all at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Ill health led to her leaving college in 1906. 

By 1911, Doolittle found herself in Europe, and settling mostly in London, where Pound introduce her to the city’s literary circles. There she met and married (in 1913) the novelist Aldington (divorced in 1938). By this time, she was publishing her first poems under the initials H.D., which thereafter remained her nom de plume, not least in Poetry magazine, Pound’s anthology Des Imagistes and The Egoist edited by her husband.

Doolittle’s first volume of verse, Sea Garden, was published in 1916, and established her as an important voice among the young so-called Imagist poets. Other volumes, classical translations and occasional prose works followed in the first half of the century, establishing her as a major literary figure. In 1918, she met born Annie Winifred Ellerman (a novelist who took the name Bryher from one of the Scilly Isles) and the two started, what would become, a lifelong love affair. They travelled as cousins, and were together through affairs/marriages with others for some 40 years. has this assessment: ‘[Doolittle’s] work is characterised by the intense strength of her images, economy of language, and use of classical mythology. Her poems did not receive widespread appreciation and acclaim during her lifetime, in part because her name was associated with the Imagist movement even as her voice had outgrown the movement's boundaries, as evidenced by her book-length works, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. Neglect of H. D. can also be attributed to her times, as many of her poems spoke to an audience which was unready to respond to the strong feminist principles articulated in her work.’ Doolittle died on 27 September 1961. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Poetry Foundation.

Doolittle is not known as a diarist. Nevertheless, she seems to have kept three diaries (as listed in the Beinecke Library archive notes). One of these, for 1911-1912, is mentioned briefly in two biographical essays. Caroline Zilboorg’s essay - H.D. and R.A.: Early Love and the Exclusion of Ezra Pound - is freely online at Here is a paragraph: ‘H.D. and Aldington thought of themselves as “Greeks”; on June 15 H.D. noted in her diary that they had spent the morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, “R deep in Greek choruses H-sketching caste of gladiator-” They probably also consummated their love that summer. When Pound joined them for tea on June 10, H.D. recorded in her diary that she said to Pound, “ ‘You see I am taking your advice.’ (The advice weeks since in Luxembourg gardens ‘You better marry Richard’).” On the facing page is a poem by H.D. beginning “I love you. . . .” The diary also reveals the emotionally intense but formally conventional poems both were producing. They are writing on the Greek or the personal subjects that would become characteristic of their mature poetry but in strict meter and rhyme, formal elements that both would soon reject for the vers libre of early modernism.’

Peter Firchow, in one of his essays to be found in Reluctant Modernists: Aldous Huxley and Some Contemporaries says: ‘Hilda Doolittle’s diary of the Paris portion of this trip [. . .] is mostly dull stuff: notations on the taking of a toast and tea, visits to the Louvre, and so on. But towards the end of the little volume there are several drafts of poems - quite conventional ones, perhaps surprisingly - including one by Aldington, a fact that suggests that these two fledgling poets kept few secrets from each other. So that here too there must have been happy moments.’

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