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H.D and Modernity

Héléne Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.


Marc Porée

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1The ambition of this volume is at least twofold. Following the H.D. and Modernity conference, which took place at the École normale supérieure in December 2013, it aims at bringing together academic work that evidences shared interests in literature, theory, poetry, coming from a wide range of countries, and a vast spectrum of disciplines, and which addresses the needs of Agrégation students while reminding them that the works on their syllabus are objects of research and theoretical reflection world wide.

2So the interest in H.D. and, more specifically in Trilogy is, at the same time, of a somewhat self-seeking and disciplinarian nature, but the articles gathered in this volume demonstrate that the impact of H.D.’s potent poetry is much further reaching and does resonate with current issues in critical and theoretical thinking. May all fall for “the spell, for instance, in every sea-shell,” (8) and pocket the non-utilitarian “pearl-of-great-price.” (9)

3As the head of the LILA (département Littérature et langages), I feel as the third Mage must have felt, or rather, I would like to refer to the closing lines of “The Flowering of the Rod”, which features the least obtrusive and conspicuous of the three Magi, Kaspar, the last to enter the oxstall and push the door, so as to attend “Calvary’s turbulence” and witness “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” (Yeats).

and Kaspar stood a little to one side
like an unimportant altar-servant,
and placed his gift,
a little part from the rest,
to show by inference
its unimportance in comparison;
and Kaspar stood
he inclined his head only slightly
as if to show,
out of respect to the others,
these older, exceedingly honoured ones,
that his part in this ritual
was almost negligible,
for the others had bowed low. (170-171)

4The gift of LILA (lilas, lilac) is negligible indeed. For all its symbolic properties that have a lot to do with the season of Spring and the time of Easter in which it breeds “out the dead land,” lilac, be it that of Whitman ( “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,”) or of Eliot ( “mixing memory and desire”), won’t and can’t compare to myrrh, the supreme Christmas gift, along with frankincense and gold. Myrrh is, so to speak, the last word of the poem: “he did not know whether she knew/ the fragrance came from the bundle of myrrh/ She held in her arms.” Such carefully drafted and artfully sifted ultima verba sound like an invitation to go for more, by way of an implicit half-rhyme, and according to the thousand and one resources of paronomasia, a figure of speech which H.D. exploits to the full. And never more fully, albeit obliquely, than when she runs the whole gamut of semantic derivations, not all of which are as bitter as the acrid marah, the briny mar, à la beauté amère: “mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary / Star of the Sea, Mother.” (71) Myrrh, most fittingly therefore, completes and further fuels the cycle, by providing the last touch but one. Poetry is never merely poetry, there’s always more/ myrrh to this inexhaustible Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics.

5A few last words of introduction will be directed towards H.D. whom I will venture to refer to, for the sake of expediency, as the Lady’s not for Burning. The phrase reads as the title of a play by Christopher Fry, written in 1948, a romantic comedy in three acts and in verse, set in the Middle Ages, but reflecting the world’s exhaustion and despair following World War II, with a war-weary soldier who wants to die and an accused witch who wants to live. I suppose the last time that play made the news was in October 1980, at the Conservative Party Conference, when Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, delivered that great line: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Whether Mrs Thatcher knew about the play or not, is of course irrelevant to our present concerns— needless to say, she did not, since it was her speech-writer who inspired that clever paraphrase—; but what does matter, and crucially so, is the fate that befalls and attends upon women who write, and who invariably stand accused of witchcraft. H.D. was exposed to public ridicule, scorn and abuse, and short of being literally burnt at the stake she, the would-be offender, was repeatedly put in the stocks.

6 Hence a possible reading of Trilogy as a deconstruction of the Pillory, as well as a rewriting of the Calvary, in which she enacts a process by which the young girl—not a “hyacinth girl,” it will be noted—supplants Jesus Christ, at the time of his wondrous birth. Which translates as a defiant countering or refutation of those infamous charges laid at her door. A process which I see as following a twofold metamorphic pattern. The first takes the form of a caduceus, entwined with snakes, noted for its healing powers, a symbol possibly stolen or plundered from De Quincey— “steal then, O orator, / plunder, O poet.” (63) From De Quincey’s Suspiria De Profundis, and from his own scholarly use of the hermetic symbol whereby the Rod—the Roode—is made for Flowering. The second insists on stoically undergoing exposure to the singeing lava of Pompei or the cleansing flames of “Apocryphal fire,” while remaining immune to fire, like so many legendary creatures. The result of such a defiant poetic alchemy is that, “Unintimidated by multiplicity,” Our Lady of the Goldfinch, Our Lady of the Candelabra, Our Lady of the Pomegranate, Our Lady of the Chair (93) —note the contrastive echo, again with De Quincey’s Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow (1821)—is more impregnable than ever, “yet the frame held” (4). Her passing the flames thus proves her neither a Lady for Burning nor for Mourning. But a Lady for myrrhing.

© Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2014

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