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H.D and Modernity

Hélène Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

H.D.’s Trilogy: How to Connect

Hélène Aji

Texte intégral

1From Ezra Pound’s essay “How to Read,” to Gertrude Stein’s “How to Write,” how-to’s abound in the history of modernism, to the extent that its prescriptive, possibly dogmatic, tendencies cannot be overseen. Many of the major, and minor agents of the first half of the 20th century’s “revolution of the word” are indeed in desperate search of a two-folded method: how to read a world and texts that seem to have become barely legible or manageable; how to write “about” (and around) this world and “about” these texts while remaining faithful to the realities of individual experience as well as the ethical demands of collective history. It is no novelty that some works, among which H.D. ’s, take this agenda more seriously than others, and, like Pound’s, to further extremes than others, notably because of the contingencies of historical events, and their willing or unwilling participation in these events.

  • 1 H. Arendt, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), p. 18.
  • 2 Ibid.

2As underlined by Hannah Arendt in her biographical essay on Walter Benjamin, some lives follow a trajectory which connects moments according to a teleology that eludes the individual living through them, so that decisions are made unawares and at odds with logic, choices are taken that instead of countering disaster put one on its most direct path, and one’s existence appears to one “as a pile of rubble,” from which making sense is, to say the least, a challenge1. In a similar fashion to the Proust described by Benjamin, and in a similar fashion to the Benjamin described by Arendt, these individuals are “utterly unable to change the life conditions which destroy them.” They die from “not knowing how to light a fire, or how to open a window.”2 It will not be our contention here that H.D. did not know how to light a fire or open a window, but we will take these simple gestures as allegorical representations of a general difficulty of dealing with events, texts and ideologies. This difficulty informs the connections, done or undone, in Trilogy, something which appears strikingly in Adalaide Morris’s book How to Live/What to Do, H.D.’s Cultural Poetics.

3 Trilogy can indeed be seen as written at the crossroads of several modes of reading the world: imagism, psychoanalysis, modernism, feminism— consistently in reticence, and in resistance to monolithic representations and interpretations (on this see Gubar, “The Echoing Spell of H.D.’s Trilogy,” in Friedman and DuPlessis). But the poems also evidence the complex negotiation between history and vision, and the attempt by the poet to connect them, to connect with them, and to connect through them to a reader, in a movement committed to the certainty of both the atavistic nature of this effort, and its inherent newness. This duplicity of the work allows for Adalaide Morris’s following statement about the poems:

  • 3 A. Morris, “Signaling: Feminism, Politics, and Mysticism in H.D.’s War Trilogy”, p. 121-133. http:/ (...)

Each of Trilogy’s three parts is doubly marked; by a date that places the poem inside the chronology of World War II and by a vision that lifts it up out of that chronology. Like her patrons, the messenger-gods Thoth, Hermes, Mercury, and St. Michael, the poet plies between the realms H.D. called “in time” and “out-of-time,” inscribing in this oscillation the poem’s many intuitions and ironies. Part I, written in 1942, a year of unremitting worldwide aggression, offers a vision of a slender and beardless “world-father”; Part II, composed in “a wonderful pause just before D-Day,” offers the dream of a Lady carrying “the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new”; and Part III, composed in 1944 during the crosscut between Hitler’s Ardenne campaign and the ceremonies of Christmas, offers Kaspar’s vision of “the whole scope and plan // of our and his civilization on this, / his and our earth.” Like the nineteenth-century African-American women mystics who preceded her, H.D. uses the visions that lifted her out of history to claim a public power and presence within it. Their mystical force guaranteed her stature as a cultural spokesperson and authorized her transition from lyric to epic poetry.3

4Some years after this analysis could be made though, it might have become more complicated to assert that the finality of H.D.’s writing in Trilogy is indeed to “claim a public power,” and indeed the close reading of the poems helps outline less of an agenda and more of a series of poetic gestures aiming at circumscribing (in a somehow Dickinsonian fashion) the destruction spread by the unnerving discovery in war of the hollow core of humanity. To connect becomes then an imperative to counter the disconnection which the poet witnesses—a disconnection at work in every aspect and dimension of human existence. Consequently, and without any ambition of exhausting the topic and its many-facetted consequences, this paper briefly formulates a series of three hypotheses about the significance of Trilogy as a poet’s refusal to persist in disconnectedness.

How to Connect (1): a-Chronological History

5The very explicit use of the myth of Isis and Osiris in Trilogy stems from the allegorization of this refusal to persist in disconnectedness: Susan Gubar thus analyzes the end of “The Walls Do not Fall” as succeeding to establish a connection between the name of “Osiris” and the “zrr-hiss” of war bombing.

  • 4 See S. Friedman and R. B DuPlessis, Signets: Reading H.D., p. 305-306.

Although the walls still do not fall, continuing to testify to the divisions and barriers between people, between historical periods, within consciousness itself, they also preserve remnants of written messages—anagrams and cryptograms—which, by providing the link from the present back to the past, allow H.D. to evade the destructive definitions of reality provided by those who utilize the word for modern mastery.4

6Beyond this stake of modern ideological mastery, and also beyond this stake of the “search for historical parallels,” which according to H.D. herself “has been done to death before” (38, 51), the inversions, or, more generally, the re-shuffle of chronological times perform a radical questioning of temporality and the workings of memory.

7The re-membering of Osiris’s body is remembrance but remains a palliative, a remedy but not a cure to a dis-membering that cannot ever be fully mended. The metaphor of the “spiral upon spiral of the shell / of memory that yet connects us” ( “The Flowering of the Rod,” 33, 156) points at this revision of temporality according to the modes of memory, as well as according to an apocalyptic perception of all times, both past and future, as collapsing onto the present. The use of grammatical tenses in the poems, especially of the present perfect, seals this imprisonment of the subject in the present (the present of the Blitz and the Holocaust), and her consequent de-materialization, as evoked in section 14 of “Tribute to the Angels” (77): “till I shrink, / dematerialize.” If pronouns, and the persistence of the poetic “I,” seem to construct a stable poetic persona, they are also a way of underlining her struggle against what emerges as a general process of entropy. In section 40 of “The Walls Do not Fall,” her action limits itself to “reveal [ing] the regrettable chasm,” and “correlat [ing] faith to faith,” linking minds in an attempt to transfigure the dividedness ( “The Walls Do Not Fall,” 40, 54).

How to Connect (2): the Self and Others

8In this respect, the revision of the genealogy of humanity, and the insistence on cultural and mythical filiations, as in section 33 of “The Flowering of the Rod,” (157) contribute to establish a highly ramified network of figures that are, however, shown as discrepant at the same time as they emerge as related. The instances of the messenger, from Thoth to Hermes and Mercury ( “The Walls Do not Fall,” 10, 17) thus combine into a reconfigured poetic instance, but they also, through their iterations and variations, become evidence of their inadequacy to perform the very task of transmission for which they were devised.

9The difficulty to communicate, and the repeated references to revelations, the opening of secret boxes or sealed jars, reassert as they try to circumvent the irredeemable opaqueness of both self and others. Not only do the poems propose methods to connect with oneself, in self-knowledge, and with others, in expression, but they also take stock of their own shortcomings. The reflexiveness of many passages, as in the disarmingly simple question “what can we say?” in section 40 of “Tribute to the Angels,” (106) or the tension between the poet and her addressee in the game between “I” and “you” testify to the uncomfortable alliance of the undying desire to say, and the quasi Wittengsteinian assessment of language’s limitations and one’s entrapment between its walls. These limitations add on to the idiosyncrasies of the individual to generate the paradoxical repetition of radical differences, the “Same-forever,” identical and mutable of section 40 of “The Walls Do Not Fall” (55) or the snow-flake or leaf of section 38:

but my mind (yours)
has its peculiar ego-centric
personal approach
to the eternal realities,
and differs from every other
in minute particulars,
as the vein-paths on any leaf
differ from those of every other leaf
in the forest, as every snow-flake
has its particular star, coral or prism shape. ( “The Walls Do Not Fall,” 38, 51-52)

10The poems could be read as staging the fateful, if not fatal, process of mediation, remedy and relapse which generates the very dynamic of writing: this process is exploratory, albeit bounded, life-saving in the very fact that it fails and forces the poet to endure. The archeology of words then becomes the endless task of a poet much akin to the Sibyl of Eliot’s Waste Land (61), and of H.D.’s own section 38 in “Tribute to the Angels” (103).

How to Connect (3): Words

11Indeed, the primary assumption for H.D. is that words hold secret meanings for the poet to uncover through various strategies (etymology, homophony, synonymy, analogy, association, etc.). Through lists, the poems record the dynamics of an intellectual and mental process, performing combinations that draw a new mapping of meaning, trajectories of thought that redefine the meanings of words through their cohabitation in a single line, in a couplet or over the blank space between two stanzas. Although reading the poems in a linear manner is part of the implicit mode of Trilogy, the strategy of taking inventory of words in the poem generates lexical series altering meaning progressively, and generating hesitation as well as order.

12And an order that does not necessarily follow logic, as can be seen in many of her series that in fact use subtle permutation as in section 9 of “The Walls Do Not Fall” (16): there the pen occurs before the quill, building a counter-history of writing in the very play on lexical variation, and the way these words are connected—grammatically as well as semantically—or unconnected. Indeed, playing on the forms of coordination (or lack thereof) allows the poet to insist on the games of substitution and juxtaposition, and their consequences on the process of understanding and sense-making. Notions happen as much in succession as they do simultaneously: where one definition could replace (correct) the previous one, it could just as well coexist with it in what can be deemed a discourse of “and/or”. The argumentative rhetoric of clarification, as in section 39 and 40 of “The Walls Do Not Fall,” is undermined by the figure of a poet that covers “the cankerous growths” of reality with her words as much as she reveals them. The “resurrection myth”, and “resurrection reality” can be “related” (linked/recounted) in “The Walls Do Not Fall” (40, 54), but they cannot be brought to their full completion. The poem offers a unified vision as a horizon, an ideal, an object of desire, but what it actually enforces is the dispersal of meaning metaphorized in the hatching of butterflies from the contained units of words.

13What the analysis of words brings about, maybe, is the clarity of the “dim,” when the poem’s only clear revelation is a revelation of confusion. Indeed when the only thing that can be “named” is the “un-named,” the poetic activity turns into one of “un-naming” (“Tribute to the Angels,” 41, 107). The possibility of no salvation hence (rather than the impossibility of salvation) returns (“I saw no temple,” “Tribute to the Angels,” 41, 107) in the debacle of a poetic enterprise undermined by the very material of its elaboration. The functioning of H.D.’s metaphorizations sustains the possibility of an empty “box” or “bowl”, as words might turn out to be “shells” without content. ( “The Walls Do Not Fall,” 17, 26).


14The strive for connection tempts the poet into devising some type of narrative that could transcend the limitations of one’s capability to fuse the fragmentary, the scattered, the dislocated into a single coherent “vision.” The ternary structure of Trilogy, however, does not cohere more than Ezra Pound’s gigantic Cantos, though H.D. seems less willing to admit that she “cannot make it cohere,” so that “The Flowering of the Rod” resorts to a transfigured version of one of the major Western master narratives. What this gesture achieves rather than the fantasized unity is to seal “forever” in the text the tragic discrepancy between the dream “to be one” and a poetic practice of plurality and dissemination. The poem reveals, if anything, the workings of nostalgia as it strives to “bridge” gaps and restore a fantasized past unity into the present and for the future. However the binary landscape of the last two lines of section 40 of “The Walls Do Not Fall” (“in the papyrus-swamp / in the Judean meadow,” 55) emphasizes the parallel workings of the imagination and its failure to actually fuse the diverse visions into the present of a fully coherent image.

15The overall syntactic order, the fluidity in the use of run-on-lines, the appearance of harmonious typographic organization do not quite mask the “chasm” of the suspension marks that separate the axiom from the example, as if neither of the two could actually perfectly “correlate.” (“Tribute to the Angels,” 40, 54) The poem enforces the poetic strive to coherence, but reenacts at the same time the divorce between transcendent aspiration and immanent experience.

  • 5 H. Arendt, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), p. 89.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 93.

16Rather than connection, then, the poems evidence a collection of objects, figures, textual fragments. As remnants of civilization after the disaster, they send the reader back to the palliative power of collecting exemplified in Walter Benjamin’s archival practice. A Benjaminian figure lost among the rubble of her life, the poet collects cultural artifacts, allowing for their “transfiguration,” as they lose their conventional utilitarian functions, and become part of an alternate system.5 Yet in Hannah Arendt’s words about Benjamin, “the collector’s passion is not systematic: it is in fact almost chaotic”6 in the way it privileges “authenticity” and the mystery of the “origin” over tradition and normativity—in this case, the delusion of collection to survive the checkmate of connection.


1 H. Arendt, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), p. 18.

2 Ibid.

3 A. Morris, “Signaling: Feminism, Politics, and Mysticism in H.D.’s War Trilogy”, p. 121-133.

4 See S. Friedman and R. B DuPlessis, Signets: Reading H.D., p. 305-306.

5 H. Arendt, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), p. 89.

6 Ibid., p. 93.



Hélène Aji is Professor of American literature at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre. In addition to a number of articles on Modernist and contemporary American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams: pour une poétique américaine (L’Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams: un plan d’action (Belin, 2004) and a book-length essay on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). More recently she edited an issue of the European Journal of English Studies on “Reading the Modernist Past”, a volume on modernist little magazines and politics (Revues modernistes, revues engagées, PUR, 2011), and an issue of the Revue française d’études américaines on the discourses of truth in literature and history (2013).

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