September 11, 1886 – Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle
Popular in her day, H.D. (a pen name) has not been totally forgotten; many poem anthologies have two or three of her pieces, including the verses she showed Ezra Pound, her former fiancé in 1912. Pound submitted them to Poetry magazine, a gesture that gave the 26-year-old poet her literary persona. H.D. figures in biographies, romans a clef and memoirs by the famous men with whom she was involved: Sigmund Freud, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and many others. Her intense but non-sexual relationship with novelist Lawrence is reflected in her novel Bid Me To Live (1960).
She and Freud became chummy during the 1930s, and she became his patient in order to understand and express her bisexuality, her war trauma, her writing, and her spiritual experiences.
H.D. married once, yet she enjoyed relationships with both men and women her entire adult life. She was, for her era, rather unapologetic about her sexuality, and she should stand as an icon for both the LGBTQ and Feminist movements.
She lived downstairs from her husband’s mistress, and she was introduced to a friend of Lawrence, composer Cecil Gray, who became the father of her daughter, Frances Perdita, named for H.D.’s first great love and lifelong friend, Frances Gregg, and for the lost daughter of Hermione in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
A woman named Bryher (1894 –1983), born Annie Winifred Ellerman, met H.D. in 1918. She took the name Bryher from one of the fabled Scilly Isles, a site of many ancient legends and monolithic stone monuments. Bryher was a wealthy heiress and a writer. Her friendship with H.D. blossomed into romance. They were lifelong lovers, although they mostly maintained separate residences and their independence. They traveled together and kept their relationship throughout their other affairs.
The two women moved to Paris, mingling with the expatriate literary community, and for a time lived in Kenwin, the Bauhaus home Bryher had built in Switzerland, where H.D. met Freud. H.D. referred to herself as Freud’s pupil, and she later wrote Tribute To Freud (1956), a fictionalized memoir of this period.
Bryher and H.D.traveled 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.
Her interests included Mysticism, Hellenic studies, Egyptology, and Astrology. During the 1950s, H.D. wrote a lot of poetry, most notably Helen In Egypt (1952), a look from a feminist point at male-centered epic poetry.
She and Bryher were able to get to London when World War II broke out; Bryher barely escaped Switzerland, but not before helping over a hundred refugees find homes in other countries.
After the war, H.D. suffered a breakdown, and returned to Switzerland. She lived at a clinic, and various hotels, yet she also had the most prolific writing years of her life.
H.D. was born Hilda Doolittle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, part of a upper-middleclass family. As Doolittle, she attended Bryn Mawr, but dropped out and moved to England in 1911.
Pound, introduced her to London’s avant-garde literary circles. She married novelist Richard Aldington in 1913. She had an affair with Brigit Patmore, a London society hostess with the mostest, who had a brief affair with Aldington. H.B., Patmore, Pound and Aldington became inseparable, the heart of their bed-swapping London literary circle. H.D.:
“We three were bound together, but lightly, gaily. We liked being together. We laughed and read, walked about London, looked at pictures, had meals in tea-rooms.”
Following the breakup of Aldington and H.D’s marriage, Patmore and he had a ten year relationship, living together and travelling across Europe.
H.D. was wildly eccentric; she refused to eat chicken because she feared it might really be cat. After World War I shattered the London literary community that had welcomed her as a young and strikingly beautiful expatriate, she was adrift. She was skilled at getting her way through frailty, but it turns out, men were a less important part of H.D.’s story than that list of famous names might suggest.
Bryher came into H.D.’s life at a moment of crisis: Aldington had just run off with a sad-eyed bohemian beauty, and neither he nor Cecil Gray, wanted to have anything to do with the newborn baby or its desperate mother. The very rich Bryher helped both financially and emotionally. The pair of intense, self-centered women, each with a strong need to dominate and a penchant for tantrums and scenes, managed to share their lives for more than 40 years.
Bryher entered a marriage of convenience in 1921 with publisher Robert McAlmon, which allowed him to fund his ventures in Paris by using some of her personal wealth for his publishing house Contact Press. Both Bryher and H.D. had affairs with McAlmon during this time. Bryher and McAlmon divorced in 1927.
Bryher legally adopted 7-year-old Perdita with H.D.’s consent, because she feared that Aldington would take the child. H.D., before the adoption, had little interest in living with her daughter, who was boarded or with Bryher’s mother. In a crazy coincidence, Pound and his wife gave their son to his mother-in-law, and Pound and his mistress gave their daughter to a peasant woman they met in the maternity ward.
The beautiful H.D. had a commanding personality, and she was worshiped by Bryher and courted by younger men and was the center of a small circle of fans who hung on her every word, pronouncements and visions. She was neurotic, but she made neurosis work for her. Even that nervous breakdown she suffered at the end of WW II provided her with 15 years at a beautifully set psychiatric clinic in Switzerland, the happiest time of her life. She had all the time in the world to write, her doctors adored her, and Bryher paid the bills.
The men she admired rejected her and chose nonintellectuals. She was asked to leave by the management for smoking in London’s most daring nightclub while all around her men puffed away. H.D. in Bid Me To Live:
”’I believe in intelligent women having experience’ was then a very, very thin line to toe, a very, very frail wire to do a tight-rope act on…”
When she went to Freud for help, he gave her his standard diagnosis of ”penis envy”. But he also acknowledged that poets were special cases, which is what she wanted to hear.
H.D. was one of the leaders of the bohemian culture of London in the early decades of the 20th century. Her poetry explores traditional epic themes of violence and war. from a feminist perspective. She was the first woman to be granted the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal.
H.D. returned to the USA in 1960 to collect her American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. Returning to Switzerland, she suffered a stroke and died a couple of months later at the clinic that she had called home. Her ashes were returned to Bethlehem. Her epitaph consists of the following lines from her early poem Let Zeus Record:
So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
one who died
following intricate song’s
Aldington died in 1962, shortly after being honored in Moscow on his 70th birthday and the publication of some of his novels in Russian translation. His works became very popular in the USSR in his lifetime. Bryher was acclaimed in her own time, but her historical novels are now out of print. She died in 1983 at 88 years old.
I tried hard to read H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944, and it was a bit of a slog, but her life intrigues me, especially all that bed-hopping.