Word Cloud: ECSTASY

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

If you look up “complex” in the dictionary, you may find a picture of H.D. (1886-1961). Since most Americans and many people in the rest of the world have not had “the benefit of a Classical education,” a lot of the references in her poems need footnotes.

She, Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington are the self-proclaimed “three original Imagists.”  In the summer of 1912, they set out the principles of Imagist poetry:

  1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome

H.D., born Hilda Dolittle, sometimes carried these principles to extreme, and ultimately grew well past them. This poem is one of her three poems which Ezra Pound submitted for publication, under the pseudonym H.D. Imagiste, to Harriet Moore for her new magazine, Poetry, which was beginning publication in the fall of 1912:

. . .Epigram

. . . The golden one is gone from the banquets;
. . . She, beloved of Atimetus,
. . . The swallow, the bright Homonoea:
. . . Gone the dear chatterer;
. . . Death succeeds Atimetus.

If you look up Atimetus and Homonoea, things become a little clearer. Claudia Homonoea, a Roman woman, had a four-sided monument over her grave with an inscription, which seems to alternate between words of her husband and the “voice” of Homonoea.

The “dialogue” between Homonoea and her husband translates:

“Atimetus, freedman of Pamphilus who is the freedman of Tiberius Caesar, Anterotianus for himself and for Claudia Homonoea fellow freedwoman and companion.

Far sweeter-voiced than the sirens, who at Bacchus’ side and at banquets was more golden than Aphrodite herself, I, the talkative and beaming swallow Homonoea, lay here, leaving tears for Atimetus, to whom I was wont to be welcomed gladly since I was little, but an unforeseen divine power dispersed this great love.

By permission of the patron, the front should be 5 feet long and the side 4 feet. You who make your way with a worried mind, halt briefly, I beg, and read a few words.

I was that woman who was preferred over the famous girls, I Homonoea am buried in this little tomb, to whom the Paphian one presented a good appearance, to whom the Charities granted beauty, whom Athena instructed in all arts. My youth had not yet seen twenty years when grudging destiny laid hold of me. I am not complaining about this on my account: that grief of my husband Atimetus is bitterer to me than death itself.

‘May the earth lie light on you, woman most worthy in life, you who once enjoyed your possessions.’ If cruel destiny permitted exchange of life and survival could be purchased by another’s death, I should gladly have exchanged for you, dear Homonoea, whatever trifling seasons are due to my life. But now I shall shun the light of day and the gods, which is all I can do, so that I can follow you over the Styx in speedy death.”

___________________________________________________________

___________________________________________________________

There is also this earlier epigram, by an unknown author:

On Claudia Homonea

I Homonoea, who was far clearer-voiced than the Sirens,
I who was more golden than the Cyprian herself at reveling and feasts,
I the chattering bright swallow lie here,
leaving tears to Atimetus, to whom I was dear from girlhood;
but unforeseen fate scatters all that great affection.

So I think H.D.’s Epigram is her translation of the Unknown Author’s. Her poem does strip it down to the barest essentials. But in doing so, she forces the unlearned reader to do some research to discover what she is talking about. This will limit one’s audience, especially in the 21st century.

___________________________________________________________

In another of the H.D. Imagiste poems which Ezra Pound submitted to Poetry magazine, I don’t know who the “rough-hewn god of the orchards” is. One possibility is Polyphemus the cyclops, son of Poseidon, who imprisoned Odysseus and his men in his cave as handy snack food. They gave him wine to make him drunk, then blinded him and escaped. However, Polyphemus was connected with sheep-herding. Orchards in both Greek and Roman mythology are the province of goddesses like Demeter and Pomona. Pomona did have a determined suitor: Vertumnus, the Roman god of changing seasons, but he is depicted as quite handsome.

Orchard

I saw the first pear
as it fell—
the honey-seeking, golden-banded,
the yellow swarm
was not more fleet than I,
(spare us from loveliness)
and I fell prostrate
crying:
you have flayed us
with your blossoms,
spare us the beauty
of fruit-trees.

The honey-seeking
paused not,
the air thundered their song,
and I alone was prostrate.

O rough-hewn
god of the orchard,
I bring you an offering—
do you, alone unbeautiful,
son of the god,
spare us from loveliness:

these fallen hazel-nuts,
stripped late of their green sheaths,
grapes, red-purple,
their berries
dripping with wine,
pomegranates already broken,
and shrunken figs
and quinces untouched,
I bring you as offering.

___________________________________________________________

Hilda Dolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the only daughter among five sons in the family of a professor of astronomy and a Moravian mother with a passion for music. The family moved to Philadelphia when her father joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1896.

She met Ezra Pound in 1901, when she was 15, and he was a 16-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania. H.D. enrolled at Bryn Mawr in 1904. By 1905, she and Pound were secretly engaged to be married, because her father strongly disapproved of Pound. In 1907, Pound gave her a collection of his poems bound as “Hilda’s Book.” Through Pound, she met William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. But by 1908, Pound had moved to Europe, and their romance began to fizzle.

H.D. moved to New York in 1910, becoming involved with Pound’s former lover, Frances Josepha Gregg, and trying her hand at free-verse poetry.  The following year, H.D. toured Europe with Frances Gregg and Frances’ mother. When she met with Pound, she discovered he was unofficially engaged to Dorothy Shakespear.

She decided to remain in Europe. Her parents wanted her to return home, yet they provided her with financial support when she insisted on staying. Gregg returned to America with her mother.

H.D. settled in London, introduced by Ezra Pound into a literary circle which included luminaries like W. B. Yeats and May Sinclair. She met Richard Aldington there, an Englishman and poet, six years younger than she was. They traveled with and without Ezra Pound, who did eventually marry Dorothy Shakespear, to Paris and to Italy, where H.D. toured part of the time with her parents.

She and Richard were married in 1913. H.D. gave birth to a stillborn daughter in 1915. In 1916, Aldington joined the British army and went to war. H.D. published her first book, Sea Garden, in 1916, and took over her husband’s position as an editor at The Egoist.

___________________________________________________________

The Helmsman

O be swift—
we have always known you wanted us.

We fled inland with our flocks.
we pastured them in hollows,
cut off from the wind
and the salt track of the marsh.

We worshipped inland—
we stepped past wood-flowers,
we forgot your tang,
we brushed wood-grass.

We wandered from pine-hills
through oak and scrub-oak tangles,
we broke hyssop and bramble,
we caught flower and new bramble-fruit
in our hair: we laughed
as each branch whipped back,
we tore our feet in half-buried rocks
and knotted roots and acorn-cups.

We forgot—we worshipped,
we parted green from green,
we sought further thickets,
we dipped our ankles
through leaf-mould and earth,
and wood and wood-bank enchanted us—

and the feel of the clefts in the bark,
and the slope between tree and tree—
and a slender path strung field to field
and wood to wood
and hill to hill
and the forest after it.

We forgot—for a moment
tree-resin, tree-bark,
sweat of a torn branch
were sweet to taste.

We were enchanted with the fields,
the tufts of coarse grass—
in the shorter grass—
we loved all this.

But now, our boat climbs—hesitates—drops—
climbs—hesitates—crawls back—
climbs—hesitates—
O, be swift—
we have always known you wanted us.

___________________________________________________________

Evening

The light passes
from ridge to ridge,
from flower to flower—
the hepaticas, wide-spread
under the light
grow faint—
the petals reach inward,
the blue tips bend
toward the bluer heart
and the flowers are lost.

The cornel-buds are still white,
but shadows dart
from the cornel-roots—
black creeps from root to root,
each leaf
cuts another leaf on the grass,
shadow seeks shadow,
then both leaf
and leaf-shadow are lost

___________________________________________________________

She was beginning to find her way as a writer, but all around her was emotional upheaval and chaos. Her husband, traumatized by his wartime experiences, came home a changed man. They drifted apart. He took a lover, and  H.D. moved in with composer Cecil Grey, who had a cottage in Cornwall. She became pregnant by Grey but their relationship had quickly cooled. In 1919, H.D. came close to death when she gave birth to her daughter Frances Perdita Aldington—although the father was not Aldington, but Gray—while suffering from the virulent wartime influenza.

One of H.D.’s brothers had been killed in the war in 1918. It was a blow to her parents from which they never recovered, and hastened her father’s death.

Close to the end of the war, H.D. met the wealthy English novelist Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman). They spent the rest of the war in London together. When Bryher later remarried, she and her new husband adopted H.D.’s daughter. The relationship between Bryher and H.D. would outlast many affairs. They lived together until 1946, and no matter how many others came and went, Bryher remained her lover for the rest of H.D.’s life.

I should interject here that H.D.’s sex life was so active and complicated that I will not attempt to detail it – there were women and men, and more than one ménage à trois.

___________________________________________________________

She published her second collection of poetry, Hymen, in 1920. The untitled first poem acts as a kind of prologue.

___________________________________________________________

     . . .They said:
she is high and far and blind
in her high pride,
but now that my head is bowed
in sorrow, I find
she is most kind.

          We have taken life, they said,
blithely, not groped in a mist
for things that are not
are if you will, but bloodless–
why ask happiness of the dead?
and my heart bled.

          Ah, could they know
how violets throw strange fire,
red and purple and gold,
how they glow
gold and purple and red
where her feet tread.

___________________________________________________________

Helen

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees, unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.

___________________________________________________________

At Ithaca

Over and back,
the long waves crawl
and track the sand with foam;
night darkens, and the sea
takes on that desperate tone
of dark that wives put on
when all their love is done.

Over and back,
the tangled thread falls slack,
over and up and on;
over and all is sewn;
now while I bind the end,
I wish some fiery friend
would sweep impetuously
these fingers from the loom.

My weary thoughts
play traitor to my soul,
just as the toil is over;
swift while the woof is whole,
turn now, my spirit, swift,
and tear the pattern there,
the flowers so deftly wrought,
the borders of sea blue,
the sea-blue coast of home.

The web was over-fair,
that web of pictures there,
enchantments that I thought
he had, that I had lost;
weaving his happiness
within the stitching frame,
weaving his fire and frame,
I thought my work was done,
I prayed that only one
of those that I had spurned
might stoop and conquer this
long waiting with a kiss.

But each time that I see
my work so beautifully
inwoven and would keep
the picture and the whole,
Athene steels my soul.
Slanting across my brain,
I see as shafts of rain
his chariot and his shafts,
I see the arrows fall,
I see the lord who moves
like Hector lord of love,
I see him matched with fair
bright rivals, and I see
those lesser rivals flee.

___________________________________________________________

Circe

It was easy enough
to bend them to my wish,
it was easy enough
to alter them with a touch,
but you
adrift on the great sea,
how shall I call you back?

Cedar and white ash,
rock-cedar and sand plants
and tamarisk
red cedar and white cedar
and black cedar from the inmost forest,
fragrance upon fragrance
and all of my sea-magic is for nought.

It was easy enough–
a thought called them
from the sharp edges of the earth;
they prayed for a touch,
they cried for the sight of my face,
they entreated me
till in pity
I turned each to his own self.

Panther and panther,
then a black leopard
follows close–
black panther and red
and a great hound,
a god-like beast,
cut the sand in a clear ring
and shut me from the earth,
and cover the sea-sound
with their throats,
and the sea-roar with their own barks
and bellowing and snarls,
and the sea-stars
and the swirl of the sand,
and the rock-tamarisk
and the wind resonance–
but not your voice.

It is easy enough to call men
from the edges of the earth.
It is easy enough to summon them to my feet
with a thought–
it is beautiful to see the tall panther
and the sleek deer-hounds
circle in the dark.
It is easy enough
to make cedar and white ash fumes
into palaces
and to cover the sea-caves
with ivory and onyx.

But I would give up
rock-fringes of coral
and the inmost chamber
of my island palace
and my own gifts
and the whole region
of my power and magic
for your glance.

__________________________________________________________

In 1920, she and Bryher traveled, spending time in Egypt, Greece and the United States before eventually settling in Switzerland. The time they spent in Egypt became the setting for her 1944 WWII epic poem, The Walls Do Not Fall. The destruction in London during the war reminded her of the ancient Egyptian ruins and archaeological excavations which they had seen years before.

from The Walls Do Not Fall

XIV.

Yet we, the latter-day twice-born,
have our bad moments when

dragging the forlorn
husk of  self after us,

we are forced to confess to
malaise and embarrassment;

we pull at this dead shell,
struggle but we must wait

til the new Sun dries off
the old-body humours;

awkwardly, we drag this stale
old will, old volition, old habit

about with us;
we are these people

wistful, ironical, wilful
who have no part in

new-world reconstruction,
in the confederacy of labour,

the practical issues of art
and the cataloguing of utilities:

O, do not look up
into the air,

you who are occupied
in the bewildering

sand-heap maze
of present-day endeavour;

you will be, not so much frightened
as paralysed with inaction.

and anyhow,
we have not crawled so very far

up our individual grass-blade
toward our individual star.

___________________________________________________________

She had been Sigmund Freud’s patient during the 1930s, in order to understand and express her bisexuality. But in 1946, shortly after she and Bryher stopped sharing living quarters, H.D. had a severe mental breakdown, and stayed in a clinic until the autumn of that year. Apart from a number of trips to the States, H.D. spent the rest of her life in Switzerland. In the late 1950s, she underwent more treatment, this time with the psychoanalyst Erich Heydt. At his prompting, she wrote End to Torment, a memoir of her relationship with Pound, who allowed the poems of Hilda’s Book to be included when the book was published.

During this period, she continued to write a great deal of poetry, most notably Helen in Egypt, which she worked on from 1952 to 1954.

There are alternative legends about Helen of Troy and the Trojan War. One of them says that Helen never went to Troy.

According to that legend, the poet Stesichorus wrote a poem blaming Helen for the Trojan War. In revenge, she struck him blind. But then Stesichorus rewrote his story, offering his “retraction,” or palinode. In three famous lines, he corrected his earlier poem:

That story is not true,
You never sailed in the benched ships,
You never went to the city of Troy

Instead, Zeus hid Helen in Egypt. Paris carried off only an image of Helen, an eidolon. So, Helen returned Stesichorus’s eyesight — but left Homer blind as a lasting punishment. Rather than a seductress, or a mere divine plaything, this Helen seems more like Medea — a woman with supernatural powers.

H.D. combines that legend with what she had learned in psychoanalysis to reimagine Helen as a woman in search of hidden truths — looking for “the Sun/hidden behind the sun of our visible day.”

She is haunted by the ghost of Achilles, who has to ask her if he is dead. He was killed by Paris, and she becomes uncertain whether she was there in Troy, as she sees in terrible visions, or it is all illusion.Helen alternately feels guilt for her part in the war, and frustration that she has been a pawn of gods and men.

___________________________________________________________

Helen in Egypt, Eidolon, Book III: 4

Helen herself seems almost ready for this sacrifice–at least, for the immolation of herself before this greatest love of Achilles, his dedication to “his own ship” and the figurehead, “an idol or eidolon . . . a mermaid, Thetis upon the prow.”

Did her eyes slant in the old way?
was she Greek or Egyptian?
had some Phoenician sailor wrought her?

was she oak-wood or cedar?
had she been cut from an awkward block
of ship-wood at the ship-builders,

and afterwards riveted there,
or had the prow itself been shaped
to her mermaid body,

curved to her mermaid hair?
was there a dash of paint
in the beginning, in the garment-fold,

did the blue afterwards wear away?
did they re-touch her arms, her shoulders?
did anyone touch her ever?

Had she other zealot and lover,
or did he alone worship her?
did she wear a girdle of sea-weed

or a painted crown?  how often
did her high breasts meet the spray,
how often dive down?

________________________________________________________

H.D. was one of the leading figures of bohemian London in the early decades of the century, but her readership was never large – Imagist poetry was only briefly in fashion, and even though her work grew and changed, she was forever connected with that short period. Her later poetry expanded into larger issues like violence and war, but from a woman’s perspective.

Nevertheless, in 1960 she came back to the U.S. to receive an American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. Back in Switzerland, she suffered a stroke in July 1961 and died a couple of months later in Zürich at the age of 74.

Her ashes were returned to Bethlehem, and buried in the family plot at the Nisky Hill Cemetery on October 28, 1961. Her epitaph is from her early poem “Let Zeus Record”:

So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
reclaims forever
one who died
following intricate song’s
lost measure.

___________________________________________________________

“Let Zeus Record” was written for Bryher, who had helped her through the deaths of  her father and brother, the break-up of her marriage, and a failed love affair. There are the last lines:

VII

None watched with me
who watched his fluttering breath,
none brought white roses,
none the roses red;

many had loved,
had sought him luminous,
when he was blithe
and purple draped his bed;

yet when Love fell
struck down with plague and war,
you lay white myrrh-buds
on the darkened lintel;

you fastened blossom
to the smitten sill;
let Zeus record this,
daring Death to mar.

H.D.’s work was on its way to being forgotten when the Second Wave of Feminism launched Women’s Studies and Arts and History programs, and new-made women scholars re-discovered her, laying “myrrh-buds on the darkened lintel.”

___________________________________________________________

Selected works

 Poetry collections

  • Sea Garden (1916)
  • The God (1917)
  • Translations (1920)
  • Hymen (1921)
  • Heliodora and Other Poems (1924)
  • Hippolytus Temporizes (1927)
  • Red Roses for Bronze (1932)
  • The Walls Do Not Fall (1944)
  • Tribute to the Angels (1945)
  • Trilogy (1946)
  • The Flowering of the Rod (1946)
  • By Avon River (1949)
  • Helen in Egypt, New Directions (1961)
  • Hermetic Definition, New Directions (1972)

 Prose

  • Notes on Thought and Vision (1919)
  • Paint it Today (written 1921, published 1992)
  • Asphodel (written 1921–22, published 1992)
  • Palimpsest (1926)
  • Kora and Ka (1930)
  • Nights (1935)
  • The Hedgehog (1936)
  • Tribute to Freud (1956)
  • Bid Me to Live (1960)
  • End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound, New Directions (1979)
  • HERmione, New Directions (1981)
  • The Gift, New Directions (1982)
  • Majic Ring (written 1943–44, published 2009)
  • Pilate’s Wife (written 1929-1934, published 2000)
  • The Sword Went Out to Sea (written 1946–47, published 2007)
  • White Rose and the Red (written 1948, published 2009)
  • The Mystery (written 1948–51, published 2009)

Visuals

  • Claudia Homonoea tomb inscription
  • Pomegranates
  • Dutch painting of ships in storm – artist not credited
  • Hepatica japonica
  • Fiery abstract flowers
  • Woman Drying Her Hair by Joseph Rodefer de Camp
  • Penelope at her loom
  • Circe Invidiosa (detail) by John Waterhouse (1892)
  • Sky Night Walker – artist not credited
  • Mermaid figurehead
  • H.D.
  • H.D. and Bryher

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

 

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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One Response to Word Cloud: ECSTASY

  1. Pingback: H.D. “Epigram” | BIRD-WATCHER'S DIARY

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