H.D. or Hilda Doolittle

Imagist Poet, Translator, Memoirist

Goddess statues, Cyrene
Goddess statues, Cyrene. Doug McKinlay/Getty Images

Hilda Doolittle Facts

Known for: her early poetry helped bring in the "modern" style of poetry; also for her translations from the Greek
Occupation: poet, author, translator, memoirist
Dates: September 10, 1886 - September 27 (or 28), 1961
Also known as: H. D.

Hilda Doolittle Biography:

Hilda Doolittle was the only surviving girl, with three brothers and two older half-brothers. She was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Hilda's father, Charles Leander Doolittle, came from New England ancestry. At the time of Hilda's birth, he was the directory of Sayre Observatory and a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Lehigh University. Her father was quite supportive of her education; he thought she could become a scientist or mathematician, but she did not take to math. She wanted to be an artist like her mother, but her father ruled out art school. Charles Leander was rather cool, detached and uncommunicative.

Hilda's mother Helen was a warm personality, in contrast to Hilda's father, though she favored her son, Gilbert, over the other children. Her ancestry was Moravian. Her father had been a biologist and directory of the Moravian Seminary. Helen taught painting and music to children. Hilda saw her mother as losing 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 Doolittle became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a director of the Flower Observatory.

Hilda attended the Gordon School, then the Friends' Preparatory School.

Early Writing and Loves

When Hilda 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, Hilda Doolittle was composing poems.

She continued her friendships Ezra Pound and Williams. Despite her father's opposition, she became engaged to Ezra Pound and the couple had to meet secretly. During her sophomore year, Hilda left school, for health reasons and her poor results in math and English. She turned to self-study of Greek and Latin, and she began writing for Philadelphia and New York papers, often submitting stories for children.

Not much is known of the her time between 1906 and 1911. In 1908, Ezra Pound moved to Europe. Hilda was living in New York in 1910, writing her first free verse poems.

Around 1910, Hilda met and became involved with Frances Josepha Gregg, who had had an affair with Pound. Hilda found herself torn between the two. In 1911, Hilda toured Europe with Frances Gregg and Frances' mother. She met there with Pound, whom she discovered was unofficially engaged to Dorothy Shakespear, making it clear to Hilda that her engagement to Pound was over. Hilda chose to remain in Europe.

Her parents tried to get her to return home, but when she made clear that she was staying, they provided her with financial support. Gregg returned to America when Hilda stayed, to Hilda's disappointment.

In London, Hilda Doolittle moved in the literary circle of Ezra Pound. This group included such luminaries as W. B. Yeats and May Sinclair. She met Richard Aldington there, an Englishman and poet, six years younger than she was.

Hilda received a letter from Gregg in 1911: Gregg had married, and wanted Hilda to join her honeymoon trip to Paris. Pound convinced Hilda not to go. Gregg and Doolittle continued to write to each other occasionally until 1939. Hilda went to Paris in December of 1911 with Aldington, then to Italy with her visiting parents. Pound met her several times during these travels.

She was back in London in 1912.

Imagist Poet - and Chaotic Private Life

At one meeting, Pound declared Hilda Doolittle to be an Imagist, and wanted her to sign her poems "H.D. Imagist." She took up his insistent suggestion. She was known professionally after that as H.D.

In October of 1913, H.D. and Aldington married, her parents and Ezra Pound among the guests. In 1914 Pound and Shakespear's engagement became official when her father finally agreed to the marriage, which took place that year. Pound and his new wife moved into a flat in the same building as H.D. and Aldington.

H.D. contributed to the 1914 publication, Des Imagistes, the first anthology of Imagist poetry. In publishing her poems in Poetry, 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.

A poem first published in 1914 is often considered the prototypical Imagist poem, with spare language evoking images:

Oread

Whirl up, sea
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
on our rocks
hurl your green over us
cover us with your pools of fir.

In 1915, H.D. published her first book of poems, Sea Garden.

She also had a miscarriage that year. She blamed it on hearing about the sinking of the Lusitania. Her doctors told her to refrain from sex for the duration of the war. Richard had an affair with H.D.'s friend Brigit Patmore, and then a more serious affair with Dorothy (Arabella) Yorke.

Aldington enlisted to fight in World War I in 1916, hoping by enlisting to avoid being drafted.

While he was away, H.D. took his place as literary editor of the Egoist, the main imagist publication.

H.D. was also working on translations, and in 1916 published her translation of Choruses from Iphegenia in Aulis,, which was published by Egoist Press.

Her health poor, 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 involved with H.D. Then D.H. Lawrence and his wife came to stay with H.D. H.D. and Lawrence apparently came very close to having an affair, but her affair with Gray led to Lawrence and his wife leaving.

Psychic Death

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. 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 that 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, and the daughter was known by that sad name, Perdita.

Bryher

The next period of her H.D.'s life was relatively more calm and productive. In July of 1918, H.D. met Winifred Ellerman, a wealthy woman who became her benefactor and her lover.

Ellerman had renamed herself Bryher. They went to Greece in 1920, and then to America together in 1920 and 1921. Among their stays were New York and Hollywood.

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 on 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. H.D. 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 a kind of ending of the main phase of her poetry career.

Kenneth MacPherson

Through Frances Gregg, H.D. met Kenneth Macpherson. H.D. and Macpherson had an affair beginning in 1926. Bryher divorced Robert McAlmon and then married Macpherson. Some speculate that the marriage was "cover" to prevent Aldington from protesting the use of his name for H.D.'s daughter, Perdita. Macpherson adopted Perdita in 1928, the same year H.D. had an abortion while staying in Berlin. H.D. briefly reconciled with Aldington in 1929.

The three founded a film group, the Pool Group. For that group, Macpherson directed three movies; H.D. starred in them: Wing Beat in 1927, Foothills in 1928, and Borderline in 1930 (with Paul Robeson). The three also traveled together. Macpherson drifted off eventually, more interested in affairs with men.

More Writing

From 1927 to 1931, in addition to taking up some 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 prose play Hippolytus Temporizes and in 1928 both a second novel, Hedylus set in ancient Greece and Narthax asking whether love and art are compatible for women. In 1929 she published more poems.

Psychoanalysis

Bryher met Sigmund Freud in 1937, and began analysis with his disciple Hanns Sachs in 1928. H.D. began analysis with Mary Chadwick, and in 1931 through 1933, with Sachs. She was referred by him to Sigmund Freud.

H.D. came to see in this psychoanalytic work a way to link myths as universal understandings of union, to mystic visions she'd experienced. In 1939, she began writing Tribute to Freud about her experiences with him.

War and Shadows of War

Bryher became involved with rescuing refugees from the Nazis between 1933 and 1928, helping more than 100, mostly Jews, 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 finally 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. These three, a war trilogy, were reprinted in 1973 as one volume. They were not nearly as popular as her earlier work.

Later Life

H.D. began to have occult experiences and write more mystical poetry. Her involvement in the occult caused a split with Bryher, and after H.D. had a breakdown in 1945 and retreated to Switzerland, they lived apart though they 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 visit her grandchildren. H.D. renewed contact with Pound, with whom she corresponded often. H.D. published Avon River in 1949.

More awards came H.D.'s way in the 1950s, as her role in American poetry was recognized. 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 in 1961 Helen in Egypt from the perspective of Helen as protagonist and wrote 13 poems that were published in 1972 as Hermetic Definition.

She had a stroke in June of 1961, and died, still in Switzerland, on September 27.

The year 2000 saw the first publication of her work, Pilate's Wife, with the wife of Pontius Pilate, whom H.D. named Veronica, as protagonist.

Was H.D. a Lesbian?

H.D., Hilda Doolittle, has been claimed as a lesbian poet and novelist. She was likely more accurately called a bisexual.

Here are some of the relevant incidents in her life:

  • Her love life included an early affair with and engagement to Ezra Pound. Her first affair with a woman began in 1911, with Frances Gregg.
  • She chose -- or Pound urged and she agreed to -- a gender neutral literary persona as H.D. rather than using her obviously-feminine name, Hilda.
  • She was married to Richard Aldington, had a daughter by another man, and may have had an affair with D.H. Lawrence.
  • She had a long relationship with Bryher, a woman. Bryher was married legally twice -- but the first marriage may have been to escape parental control, and was clearly not a serious commitment. The second was to Kenneth Macpherson who had been H.D.'s lover and who moved in gay circles.
  • She wrote an essay called "The Wise Sappho" and a number of poems with Sapphic references -- at a time when Sappho was identified with lesbianism.
  • Freud named her "the perfect bi-"

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Helen Eugenia Wolle
  • Father: Charles Leander Doolittle
  • Siblings:
    • 2 older half-brothers, plus a half-sister who died in infancy
    • 3 brothers, plus a sister who died early. One brother was older, two were younger.
    • H.D. was the only surviving girl.

Education:

  • Gordon School
  • Friends' Preparatory School
  • Bryn Mawr: entered 1904

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Richard Aldington
  • many relationships with men and women
  • one child:
    • Frances Perdita Aldington, called Perdita (likely fathered by Cecil Gray, Aldington denied paternity)
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "H.D. or Hilda Doolittle." ThoughtCo, Mar. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 14). H.D. or Hilda Doolittle. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "H.D. or Hilda Doolittle." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/hilda-doolittle-biography-3530880 (accessed November 23, 2017).