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On H.D.'s Imagist Poems and Ancient Greece

Cassandra Laity

I hope to demonstrate that H.D.’s Imagism undermines masculinist theories of impersonality by way of the metaphoric landscape/bodies and language for transgressive desire she gleaned from the sexually diverse "Greece" of Victorian Hellenists such as [Walter] Pater, [Oscar] Wilde, and [A. C.] Swinburne. Sea Garden’s white, chiseled, or brazenly colored and marred sea flowers, its decadent overflowered Venusbergs, and evasive (Swinburnian) linguistic practices thus forma narrative of competing sexualities and "unnatural" desires that deliberately implicate the authorial "I" behind the volume. Indeed, much later, Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Romantic Tradition lambasted H.D.’s Imagism for its Decadent Aestheticism. . . . Bush concludes that H.D. was more "escapist" than the Pre-Raphaelites, "who testify their consciousness . . . of a world outside themselves," and relegates H.D.’s "paradise" to the Greece of "Pater and Wilde."

The "Greece" constructed by the Victorian Hellenists as a haven for male-male desire and associated with the image complex of "light," "whiteness," and sculpture . . . resembles the "crystalline" Imagism for which H.D. gained early fame. H.D. herself would make casual comparisons between her early style and the play of light on marble statuary at the Louvre (where she first saw the statue of the Hermaphrodite): "My idea of Paris," she wrote in 1936, "is a sort of holy, holy pilgrimage to the Louvre to see the lights and shadows on the marbles and wings of marble. All very early H.D." And Louis Untermeyer is among those critics who praised H.D. for her possession of "the sculptor’s power" to both animate and fix the image. Unintentionally evoking the Aesthete’s sculptured emblem for male transgressive desire . . . Untermeyer remarked H.D.’s fusion of "warm blood and chill stone." "Her marble palpitates," he comments. Others, perhaps reacting subliminally to H.D.’s use of Aesthetes’ "unnatural" imagery, attacked H.D.’s Imagism for its cold artificiality and perversion–some describing Sea Garden as the work of a "frozen Lesbian."

from H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996. 42-43. © Cambridge University Press 1996

Cheryl Walker

Though H.D. was not consistent in her commitment to the Greek persona, sometimes relinquishing it in favor of others and at no time limiting it absolutely to a certain set of qualities, we can, with reasonable accuracy, pinpoint the aspects of the Greek persona which typically appealed to H.D. From the early days in London, when the poet thought of herself as a Greek statue come to life, to her epitaph–"Greek flower; Greek ecstasy"–the Greek persona represented qualities she desired: aloofness, inner strength, mental superiority, physical boyishness, courage, freedom, and wildness; a psychological landscape comparable to the physical landscape of the New England coastline which she . . . would forever remember and admire.

Roughly, the figure of Artemis emerges as her preferred version of the Greek persona. . . . Hippolyta, whom H.D. would use as a mask for her own struggles, is a follower of Artemis. At the end of her life, the poet would once again imagine herself as Artemis in her writing of Tribute to Freud, Artemis who is strong enough to take on the Professor. . . .

It is easy to see the particular attraction of the Greek persona for a woman like H.D. . . . Like Amy Lowell’s androgynous persona, it blended "male" and "female" characteristics, helping to free the poet from derogatory assumptions about sentimental women poets. Like Sara Teasdale’s passionate virgin, which also had connections to Greek culture, H.D.’s Artemis persona was associated with chastity and personal autonomy as well as passion. In fact, according to Barbara Guest [Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World], John Gould Fletcher remarked "that Teasdale’s fragile appearance and her tendency to seclude herself from society reminded him of H.D." (43). Like Elinor Wylie, who also dressed in Greek fashions and identified herself with Artemis, H.D.’s Greek self was a woman warrior of sorts, both vulnerable and aggressive, the kind of woman who never forgot a slight.

from Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1991. 111-12. © 1991 by Cheryl Walker

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