Biography of Hilda Doolittle, Poet, Translator, and Memoirist

Portrait of Hilda Doolittle

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Hilda Doolittle (September 10, 1886–September 27, 1961), also known as H.D., was a poet, author, translator, and memoirist known for her early poetry, which helped bring in the "modern" style of poetry, and for her translations from Greek.

Fast Facts: Hilda Doolittle

  • Known For: Poet, author, translator, and memoirist who brought a "modern" style of poetry and translated works from Greek
  • Also Known As: H.D.
  • Born: September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Charles Leander Doolittle and Helen (Wolle) Doolittle
  • Died: September 27, 1961, in Zurich, Switzerland
  • Education: Bryn Mawr College
  • Published Works: "Sea Garden" (1916), "Heliodora and Other Poems" (1924), "Nights" (1935), "Tribute to the Angels" (1945), "Helen in Egypt" (1961), "Bid Me to Live" (1960)
  • Awards and Honors: Guarantors Prize, 1915; Levinson Prize, 1938 and 1958; Brandeis University Creative Arts Medal, 1959; Award of Merit Medal for poetry; National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1960
  • Spouse: Richard Aldington (m. 1913–1938)
  • Child: Perdita Macpherson Schaffner
  • Notable Quote: “If you do not even understand what words say, / how can you expect to pass judgment / on what words conceal?”

Early Life

Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Charles Leander Doolittle, who came from New England ancestry, and Helen (Wolle) Doolittle. She was the only surviving girl in her family, with three brothers and two older half-brothers.

At the time of Hilda's birth, Charles was the director of Sayre Observatory and a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Lehigh University. Charles valued education and wanted Hilda to become a scientist or mathematician. Hilda wanted to be an artist like her mother, but her father ruled out art school. Charles was cool, detached, and uncommunicative.

Hilda's mother, Helen, was a warm personality in contrast to Charles, though she favored her son, Gilbert, over the other children. Her ancestry was Moravian. Her father had been a biologist and director of the Moravian Seminary. Helen taught painting and music to children. Hilda felt that her mother lost her own identity to support her husband.

Hilda Doolittle's earliest years were spent living in her mother's family's Moravian community. In about 1895, Charles became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Flower Observatory. Hilda attended the Gordon School, then the Friends' Preparatory School.

Early Writing and Love Interests

When Doolittle was 15, she met Ezra Pound, a 16-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania where her father was teaching. The next year, Pound introduced her to William Carlos Williams, then a medical student. Hilda enrolled at Bryn Mawr, a women's university, in 1904. Marianne Moore was a classmate. By 1905, Doolittle was composing poems.

Despite her father's opposition, Dolittle became engaged to Pound and the couple met secretly. During her sophomore year, Doolittle left school due to health issues and because she was struggling in math and English. She turned to self-study of Greek and Latin and began writing for Philadelphia and New York papers, often submitting stories for children.

In 1908, Pound moved to Europe. Doolittle was living in New York in 1910, writing her first free-verse poems. Two years later, in 1910, Doolittle met and became involved with Frances Josepha Gregg. Doolittle found herself torn between Gregg and Pound. In 1911, Doolittle toured Europe with Gregg and Frances' mother. She met with Pound there, where she learned he was unofficially engaged to Dorothy Shakespear, making it clear to Doolittle that her engagement to Pound was over. Doolittle chose to remain in Europe, while Gregg returned to the United States.

In London, Doolittle moved in the same literary circle as Pound. This group included such luminaries as W. B. Yeats and May Sinclair. She met Richard Aldington there, an Englishman and poet. They married in 1913.

Imagist Poet

At one meeting, Pound declared Doolittle to be an imagist and wanted her to sign her poems "H.D. Imagist." She agreed and after that was known professionally as H.D. Under the new name, she contributed to the 1914 publication, "Des Imagistes," the first anthology of imagist poetry. Publishing her poems in Poetry magazine, H.D. began to have an influence on others. Amy Lowell, for instance, reacted to H.D.'s published poems by declaring herself an imagist as well.

Aldington enlisted to fight in World War I in 1916. While he was away, H.D. took his place as literary editor of the Egoist, the main imagist publication. H.D. also published her translation of "Choruses From Iphegenia in Aulis" that same year.

Personal Life

Due to her poor health, H.D. resigned as the Egoist's editor in 1917, and T.S. Eliot succeeded her in that position. D.H. Lawrence had become a friend, and one of his friends, Cecil Gray, a music historian, became romantically involved with H.D. Later, Lawrence and his wife came to stay with her. H.D. and Lawrence apparently nearly had an affair, but her affair with Gray led to Lawrence and his wife leaving.

In 1918, H.D. was devastated by the news that her brother, Gilbert, had died in action in France. Their father had a stroke when he learned of his son's death. This same year, H.D. became pregnant, apparently by Gray, and Aldington promised to be there for her and the child.

The next March, H.D. received word that her father had died. She later called this month her "psychic death." H.D. became seriously ill with influenza, which progressed to pneumonia. For a time, it was thought she was going to die. Her daughter was born. Aldington forbid her using his name for the child and left her for Dorothy Yorke. H.D. named her daughter Frances Perdita Aldington.

Productive Period

In July of 1918, H.D. met Winifred Ellerman, a wealthy woman who became her benefactor and her lover. Ellerman renamed herself Bryher. They went to Greece in 1920 and to America in 1920 and 1921. While in the U.S., Bryher married Robert McAlmon, a marriage of convenience, which freed Bryher from parental control. H.D. published her second book of poems in 1921, called "Hymen." The poems featured many female figures from mythology as narrators, including Hymen, Demeter, and Circe.

H.D.'s mother joined Bryher and H.D. on a trip to Greece in 1922, including a visit to the island of Lesbos, known as the home of the poet Sappho. The next year they went to Egypt, where they were present at the opening of King Tut's tomb. Later that year, H.D. and Bryher moved to Switzerland, into houses near each other. H.D. found more peace for her writing. She kept her apartment in London for many years, splitting her time between homes.

The next year, H.D. published "Heliodora," and in 1925, "Collected Poems." The latter marked both the recognition of her work and an end to this portion of her career. Through Frances Gregg, H.D. met Kenneth Macpherson. H.D. and Macpherson had an affair beginning in 1926. Macpherson adopted Perdita in 1928, the same year H.D. had an abortion while staying in Berlin.

Macpherson, H.D., and Bryher founded a film company called the Pool Group in 1927. Macpherson directed three movies that H.D. starred in: "Wing Beat" in 1927, "Foothills" in 1928, and "Borderline" in 1930.

Prose Writing and Psychoanalysis

From 1927 to 1931, in addition to taking up acting, H.D. wrote for the avant-garde cinema journal Close Up, which she, Macpherson, and Bryher founded, with Bryher financing the project.

H.D. published her first novel, "Palimpsest," in 1926, featuring women expatriates with careers, searching for their identity and love. In 1927, she published a play "Hippolytus Temporizes" and in 1928, both a second novel, "Hedylus," set in ancient Greece, and "Narthex," a work of fiction that asks whether love and art are compatible for women.

H.D. met Sigmund Freud in 1927 and began analysis with Freud's disciple Hanns Sachs in 1928. "In 1933, she began sessions with Freud himself, starting what would become a lifelong studentship," according to writer Elodie Barnes. The sessions took place in Vienna, Austria, and ended with the rise of Nazim in 1934. H.D. would go on to publish a full-length book about the famed psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis in 1956, titled simply, "Tribute to Freud," detailing her experiences with him.

Shadows of War

Bryher became involved with rescuing refugees from the Nazis between 1923 and 1928, helping more than 100 people escape. H.D. also took an anti-fascist stand. Over this, she broke with Pound, who was pro-fascist, even promoting investment in Mussolini's Italy.

H.D. published "The Hedgehog," a children's story, in 1936, and the next year published a translation of "Ion" by Euripides. She divorced Aldington in 1938, the year she also received the Levinson Prize for Poetry.

H.D. returned to Britain when war broke out. Bryher returned after Germany invaded France. They spent the war mostly in London. In the war years, H.D. produced three volumes of poetry: "The Walls Do Not Fall" in 1944, "Tribute to the Angels" in 1945, and "Flowering of the Rod" in 1946. This trilogy was reprinted in 1973 as one volume. It was not nearly as popular as her earlier work.

Later Life and Death

H.D. began to have occult experiences and write more mystical poetry later in her life. Her involvement in the occult led to a split with Bryher, but after H.D. retreated to Switzerland in 1945, the two lived apart but remained in regular communication. Perdita moved to the United States, where she married in 1949 and had four children. H.D. visited America twice, in 1956 and 1960, to see her grandchildren.

More awards came H.D.'s way in the 1950s. In 1960, she won the poetry award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1956, H.D. broke her hip and recovered in Switzerland. She published a collection, "Selected Poems," in 1957, and in 1960 a roman a clef about life around World War I—including the end of her marriage—as "Bid Me to Live."

She moved to a nursing home in 1960 after her last visit to America. Still productive, she published "Helen in Egypt" in 1961 and wrote 13 poems that were published in 1972 as "Hermetic Definition." H.D. had a stroke in June 1961 and died in Zurich, Switzerland, on September 27.

Legacy

H.D. created such a wide, diverse, and powerful body of work. In addition to her role as one of the earliest and most influential imagist poets, H.D. wrote a full-length book about Freud, mentioned previously, that is still available and admired by scholars and aficionados today, as are many of her other works. Her book-length poem called "Helen of Egypt," about the many legends surrounding the famed figure from Greek mythology, is still popular as well.

And to read her poems today is to be swept up in their crackling realism, a stark contrast to earlier American Poets such as Walt Whitman, who used subtle figurative language to explore emotions and internal feelings. In contrast, H.D.'s poems are often filled with concrete, realistic images, as this stanza from her poem "Mid-day" illustrates:

"The light beats upon me.
I am startled—
a split leaf crackles on the paved floor—
I am anguished—defeated."

A trilogy of H.D.s works was published posthumously by the University of Florida Press in 2009: "The Sword Went Out to Sea," "White Rose and the Red," and "The Mystery." Amy Gorelick, an assistant editor in chief with the University of Florida Press, noted in an article titled "Celebrating the Legacy of Hilda Doolittle" that the books contribute to H.D.'s continuing legacy in a variety of areas: "These books will alter profoundly the way we view modernism, the creative process, and the history of women’s literary production.” 

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Hilda Doolittle, Poet, Translator, and Memoirist." ThoughtCo, Jun. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, June 7). Biography of Hilda Doolittle, Poet, Translator, and Memoirist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Hilda Doolittle, Poet, Translator, and Memoirist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880 (accessed October 18, 2021).