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H.D and Modernity

Héléne Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

The Transformative Rose in H.D.’s Hermetic Definition

Sara Dunton

Texte intégral

1In her last long poem Hermetic Definition, written between mid-1960 and early 1961, the year of her death, H.D. repeats two significant lines that allude to the rose, the highly charged poetic symbol of femininity and romantic love. The first, “so slow is the rose to open,” is from Ezra Pound’s canto 106, published in 1959; the second is the title of her own 1930 poem, “Red Roses for Bronze,” in which H.D.’s speaker sees herself sculpting her male lover’s head in bronze and setting it in a “fiery” place where, she predicts, “my roses would endure.” Effectively casting herself in the role of sculptor—one Pound claimed to be inherently masculine—H.D. had in fact been presenting her metonymic rose in sculptor’s material since 1916, when the “Rose, harsh rose / marred” from “Sea Rose” and the rose “cut in rock, / hard as the descent of hail” from “Garden” challenged poetic tradition.

2In Hermetic Definition, however, at the end of her writing career, H.D. offers a rose that transforms from its past reconfigurations: it is first a symbol of “the feminine” from a previous age; then, a symbol of feminist power to challenge “masculinist” notions in the modern new age; and finally, it unfolds… transforms from object to state of revelation. I read this late poem as an outcome of H.D., the writer, revisiting her career, reflecting upon the impact of the transformative process she is casting in the rose motif. What is more, in a fine demonstration of modernist technique and textual editing practices yet to come, H.D. uses intertextual references, not only to the poems and poets of her past, but also to her novel Bid Me to Live, to its problematic characters—real and rendered—and to its publication history. Notably, the novel spans her writing career: set in 1918, written in 1939, revised in the 1950s, and published in 1960, the year of her composition of Hermetic Definition.

3 Shifting forward, then, to that year, from the “Red Roses for Bronze” of her 1930 poem, H.D. muses “[p]erhaps in 30 years, / Life’s whole complexity will be annulled, / When this reddest rose unfolds.” (16) What H.D. is describing, I suggest, is the transformation revealed by the act of writing when it is coded neither as feminine nor as masculine. This is the state H.D. had aspired to since the late 1910s and theorized in 1919 in Notes on Thought and Vision, in which she proposes “[t]hree states or manifestations of life: body, mind, overmind.” (17) “Aim of men and women of highest development is equilibrium,” she continues, “balance, growth of the three at once.” (17) In describing the process of reaching this overmind state, H.D. attaches the uterine-like metaphor of a jellyfish as if to set-up her own question, “Is it easier for a woman to attain this state of consciousness than a man?” (20), and her subsequent response is: “All men have possibilities of developing this vision.” (23) This transformative state, then, in its ideal configuration, is not gendered, although H.D. understood all too well, especially in 1919, that the act of writing as intellectual practice was still decidedly coded as masculine. By 1960, when she is scrutinizing her own archive, she does not deny the persistence of this coding—it is certainly part of “Life’s whole complexity” —but she knows that it needs to be deconstructed. The ultimate goal of any artist is to undergo that transformation, that unfolding that leads to a perpetually-sought state of transcendence—into the “gloire” that H.D. had framed repeatedly in terms of the rose. In Bid Me to Live, H.D.’s protagonist, Julia Ashton, considers her status as a writer:

No doubt, I will finish the sequence and tidy up some of my old lyrics. No doubt, another slim volume will attract the usual very small but very discriminating public. But that isn’t what I want, that isn’t what I’m after. I want to explain how it is that the rose is neither red nor white, but a pale gloire. […] It didn’t suddenly burst open. I don’t know when it happened. (175, 177)

4The notion of gloire in Ashton’s reflection is an emerging concept; it stems from the notion that Rico, the D.H. Lawrence character of the novel, was insisting upon but in his terms of male privilege. Ultimately, and outside the narrative, H.D. resists Lawrence’s influence upon her writing, and Lawrence balks at her criticism of his own, and then severs their relationship. “What [H.D.] was doing,” Louis Martz observes, “was breaking the image, shattering the role that Lawrence had conceived for her: the disciple, the believer… that she played for Lawrence in that charade of Bid Me to Live.” (Introduction, Collected Poems, xxi)

5In the reflective mode of Hermetic Definition, H.D. indirectly addresses her contentious relationships with her strident initiators, Pound and Lawrence. At the outset of the poem H.D. presents her speaker/herself as the “reddest rose”; it is a highly evocative image—gendered by colour and literary association— and H.D. uses this superlative purposefully. She contrasts the saturated rose against these two masculinist writers—but this is not, I believe, meant to be a confrontation. This is the mature poet who is neither sentimental nor resentful, but who is re-visiting her own story to affirm her belief that the mission of the writer—female or male—is to reach that state of gloire. She remains, as ever, keenly interested in the layering of past and present through allusion. In Hermetic Definition however, she underplays the mythologizing of her thinly concealed relationships from the past and brings two newcomers into her text; most significantly, both men are writers. She frames the poem around two brief, separate encounters in 1960 with renowned French poet St. John Perse, and American Newsweek journalist, Lionel Durand. These meetings are contemporaneous with H.D. being engrossed in a highly productive phase of writing and re-writing her life’s work. Both men offer her the opportunity to re-imagine her past through them because they are unknown to her. This reinforces the temporally undefined conditions best suited to facilitate the “unfolding” H.D. is pursuing.

  • 1 H. Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists, p. 437.

6In “Red Rose and a Beggar,” part 1 of Hermetic Definition, H.D. seems to be imposing the role of “eternal lover” on Durand, with whom she has fabricated a relationship after only two brief meetings; his subsequent lack of response to her letter-writing troubled H.D.—but not in the sense of a scorned lover, rather as a scorned writer. Durand’s lack of communication, but more importantly his dismissive review of Bid Me to Live, evokes Lawrence’s harsh termination of his intellectual intimacy with H.D.; it also alludes to an incident recalled in End to Torment (and fictionalized in Asphodel) when Pound tells H.D.— “You are a poem though your poem’s naught.” Both rejections from Pound and Lawrence were undoubtedly deeply felt—but at this late point in her life and career, given her mission to read her own work intertextually and cross-temporally—H.D. revisits these rejections to reinforce the pursuit of the gloire in the act of writing. As Helen Carr comments, both ruptures precipitated by the male writers of her earlier years had “set [H.D.] free to be a writer.”1 When H.D. revisits her own “Red Roses for Bronze” she re-affirms her intent, from that same era of her life, thirty years past, to become an empowered artist; she positions the young Durand against herself whom she casts in the potent metaphor of the rose. So, in the opening lines of “Red Rose and a Beggar,” the poet asks:

Why did you come
to trouble my decline
I am old (I was old till you came);
the reddest rose unfolds,
(which is ridiculous
in this time, this place,
unseemly, impossible,
even slightly scandalous),
the reddest rose unfolds (3)

  • 2 D. Hollenberg, H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity, p. 237.
  • 3 S. Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., p. 147.

7 Donna Hollenberg observes that, “though the poet appears to question why the young Durand came from Paris to ‘trouble [her] decline, ’ H.D. quickly makes him the vehicle through which ‘the reddest rose unfolds, ’ the rose of maternal love that she has equated with creative passion. More like a son to her than a lover… ”2 Susan Friedman argues that H.D. turns to Durand (despite their 30-year age difference), “to repeat what she has experienced before with previous incarnations of the male lover. In personal palimpsest of love and victimization,” Friedman deduces “that Durand has taken the place of Pound and [Richard] Aldington (H.D.’s ex-husband).”3 H.D. does indeed evoke her personal history when she writes, in section 9 of “Red Rose and a Beggar”: “as you are new to me, different, / but of an old, old sphere… the torch was lit from another before you, / and another before that.” (11, 14) But these ruminations also clearly echo H.D.’s ongoing process of composition during the late 1950s. Nephie Christodoulides, editor of Magic Mirror, Compassionate Friendship, Thorn Thicket—written by H.D. between 1955 and 1960—makes the following observation:

  • 4 N.J. Christodoulides, “Facts and Fictions,” p. 23.

[H.D. ’s] work is partly a process of fabrication and replenishment, a rewriting of life to generate a new textual identity by appropriating myths and revisiting personal history. H.D.’s work represents the self as produced not by experience, but by autobiography itself, “the story must write her. The story must create her.”4

8Durand, the journalist, can be easily linked to H.D.’s quest for “textual identity” since he acts as a catalyst, of sorts, during a time when she was enjoying public attention, long after her male cohort had ascended to literary fame. Durand enters her life with the sole purpose of interviewing her and reviewing Bid Me to Live on the brink of its publication. Because of the esoteric nature of H.D.’s fiction, publication had always been problematic. With this in mind, Norman Holmes Pearson had been encouraging her in the 1950s to revise the more accessible Bid Me to Live—capitalizing perhaps as well on the popularity of D.H. Lawrence. Equally importantly, at the same time, H.D.’s therapist Erich Heydt was encouraging her to revive memories of her early entanglements with Lawrence and Pound. Bid Me to Live, in this temporal context, acts as biographical signpost within Hermetic Definition since the novel chronicles a critical turning point in H.D.’s early life and career in 1918, when her marriage to Aldington was failing, when she was struggling, as Julia Ashton was, “to explain how it is that the rose is neither red nor white, but a pale gloire” and to resist Lawrence’s criticism of her work and belittling of women writers. Interestingly, Durand’s review of the novel included a trivializing remark about that troublesome year of 1918, which H.D. in turn smartly embeds in Hermetic Definition and re-directs to the journalist at the outset of poem:

true, it was ‘fascinating…
if you can stand its preciousness, ’
you wrote of what I wrote; (7)

9And so, in this clever intertextual maneuver, H.D. makes sure that the novel, Lawrence, Durand, and the act of her writing, are all integrated into her long poem: past and present are neatly pleated together.

  • 5 Susan Edmunds reports that Durand died in mid-January, after heart failure “brought on by exhaustio (...)

10As further evidence of Durand’s catalytic role, H.D. also reflects on his presence in “Star of Day,” part 3 of Hermetic Definition. In her journal entry from May 1961, written not long after Durand’s death in January 1961,5 and not long before suffering the stroke that was to end her writing career, H.D. muses:

Was Lionel a Lover? At his death, I wrote, he was ‘integrated with the Star of Day. ’ But when I think of his going in his sleep like that, I think that I might go too. I have not clung too desperately to life, but now in my new surroundings, I want to complete the pattern, and re-edit the stacks of MSS that I have collected. (Hirslanden Notebooks, V)

11The role of Perse is less catalytic than Durand’s—perhaps more timely in terms of serving as an antidote to the unknown journalist and his brief intervention into H.D.’s life. Only one month after her interview with Durand, H.D. met Perse in New York City when she received the achievement award from the American Academy of Letters. Although she had never before met her co-honouree, H.D., well versed in French poetry, was an admirer. In “Grove of Academe,” part 2 of Hermetic Definition, H.D. shifts her attention from Durand to Perse, after quickly comparing the two. She writes:

I stopped waiting for a letter,
and into the veil rent,
as through parted curtains
was the exact intellectual component
or the exact emotional opposite (41)

12H.D. is then just as quick to contrast Perse with herself…

Your cool laurel, the olive silver-green,
to compensate or off-set the reddest rose,
this enigmatic encounter. (41)

  • 6 Hatlen’s analysis of Hermetic Definition includes a convincing argument, centered on the symbolism (...)
  • 7 B. Hatlen, “Recovering the Human Equation: H.D.’s Hermetic Definition,” p. 154.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 156.

13Perse then, comes to “off-set” the passionate feminine-coded red rose that H.D. had presented to Durand. Burton Hatlen’s analysis of the Durand-to-Perse transition is astute. “H.D. turns to Perse,” Hatlen writes, “as a substitute for Durand, saluting him as a lover she describes as “my own age, who shares my own stars.” (22)6 But H.D. also pays tribute to Perse by integrating his verse—in French—into her own, using words that must be translated and might be transformative. She focuses particularly on Perse’s fixation on the concept of “transhumance” within his peculiar and “vast poetic system.” Being his equal, H.D. can do this! In this sense, their “enigmatic encounter” should be an experience of equalization: woman poet meets and matches male poet on the same platform (figuratively and literally). Unfortunately, as Hatlen suggests, “despite H.D.’s hope for reciprocity, the relationship with Perse is actually unequal from the beginning: for while H.D. is reading Perse, there is no evidence that he is reading H.D.”7 But although H.D. grapples with the realization that Perse’s poetic system excludes her own, she does not view this as disparagement. Instead of being resentful, H.D. offers “her own emblem” as Hatlen terms it—since she offers to shelter Perse “under her rose tree.”8 She asks Perse, poet to poet, “are we translated, transubstantiated, / derived from tree and fish?” (36), and then invites him to “rest under [her] branches” (36) where, she assures

  • 9 […] “your very rare hybrid / of a Himalayan rose-bush” (Trans. Sara Dunton).

believe me, I would be
your hybride très rare
de rosier-ronce hymalayen… (36)9 

  • 10 Ibid., p. 155.

14Here H.D. deftly integrates Perse’s own lines to at once pay respect and stand her own ground, revealing, as Hatlen concludes, that “reading Perse is useful to H.D. insofar as it implies, not a swallowing up of her own world by his, but a new discovery of her own world.”10

  • 11 C. Zilboorg, Richard Aldington and H.D.: The Later Years in Letters, p. 418.

15Within Hermetic Definition H.D. demonstrates how the rose turns from being feminine symbol to feminist emblem; she aligns the transformation in her narrative with the intervention of two new male writers; but, there, is of course, one more unnamed writer—Pound—who is also present in the poem, one whose own life story permeated H.D.’s consciousness in the 1950s throughout his time in St. Elizabeths. In her February 3, 1957 journal entry in the Hirslanden Notebooks, H.D. records a dream that includes “the news that Ezra Pound was being tried for treason + might be hanged.” At the same time both Aldington and H.D. in their detailed correspondence express their concern for Pound’s well-being during his confinement, and then, not long after his release in May 1958, Aldington writes, “Very good to know that Ezra is settled comfortably into an adoring family.” Later, in the fall of 1960, during the course of writing Hermetic Definition, H.D. grapples with the idea of accepting Pound’s invitation to visit him in Venice—something Aldington discourages her from doing: “It is just as well you decide against Venice,” he writes, “for I suspect emotional complications [with Pound] there, which might distress you.”11

  • 12 Carroll Terrell glosses the reference to “Venice shawls” as Pound’s allusion to the Italian women’s (...)

16H.D. brings her original initiator Pound into Hermetic Definition by invoking the third stanza of his canto 106, which reads: “So slow is the rose to open. / A match flares in the eyes’ hearth, / then darkness / ‘Venice shawls from Demeter’s gown’.”12 H.D. certainly would have appreciated the mythopoetic allusion in Pound’s verse, but her repetition and integration of this particular line about the rose is significant. As the original, most invasive of her initiators, Pound is embedded in her literary psyche and in their shared formation as artists. Durand and Perse may have been briefly present in her life, but Pound is a presence in her lived life as a writer. She first attributes the line simply to “an intimate of my youth / a poet…” (13) in section 11 of “Red Rose and a Beggar” and then soon after, in section 15, Pound’s line reappears; but here she attributes it to “the poet”… her male other from an “old, old sphere” and she echoes his question:

The poet of so slow is the rose to open
writes, “what have I done with my life?”
what have I done with mine? (17)

17Is H.D. not only alluding to Pound but also aligning herself with him as poet? Her late-in-life intense writing and re-writing of her own story is the impetus for her work—it is the promise of that unfolding of the rose—which H.D. detects still in Pound’s late cantos—the promise that propels both Pound and H.D. to write. But this is not driven by old age, it is not determined by gender or public acclaim—it is driven by the same insistency that H.D. expressed in Bid Me to Live: “While I live in the unborn story, I am in the gloire. I must keep it alive, myself living with it” (177).

  • 13 R. Baccolini, “Pound’s Tribute to H.D., 1961,” p. 436.

18There is a fitting and poignant connection between this propulsion, H.D.’s allusions to Pound, and the indirect elegy he bestowed upon her. He was living with his daughter in Brunnenburg, Italy, Raffaella Baccolini reports, when he received news of H.D.’s death by letter, sent by her family. The letter included a quotation from H.D.’s poem “Regents of the Night” (written in 1957). After reading it, Pound retreated immediately to translate the poem into Italian. His instinct—to translate her work, to keep her alive—indicates, as Baccolini suggests— “the urgency of the undertaking and the strength of emotion Pound still had for H.D.”13 But this is also the same urgency that the two writers shared—to pursue the transformative state, “to want to complete the pattern.” Despite their past ruptures, and perhaps in acknowledgement of them, Pound the poet does not hesitate to perpetuate the unfolding of H.D.’s words and her story.


1 H. Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists, p. 437.

2 D. Hollenberg, H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity, p. 237.

3 S. Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., p. 147.

4 N.J. Christodoulides, “Facts and Fictions,” p. 23.

5 Susan Edmunds reports that Durand died in mid-January, after heart failure “brought on by exhaustion and the tear gas he had inhaled while reporting in the Casbah” (Out of Line: History, Psychoanalysis, & Montage in H.D.’s Long Poems, p. 155) as he was covering the Algerian War.

6 Hatlen’s analysis of Hermetic Definition includes a convincing argument, centered on the symbolism of the rose, that links H.D.’s thematic concerns with “Dante and the later poets in the tradition of mystical love poetry” (see “Recovering the Human Equation: H.D.’s Hermetic Definition,” p. 145), particularly the Medieval poets, to whom “the rose always represented Woman” (ibid.).

7 B. Hatlen, “Recovering the Human Equation: H.D.’s Hermetic Definition,” p. 154.

8 Ibid., p. 156.

9 […] “your very rare hybrid / of a Himalayan rose-bush” (Trans. Sara Dunton).

10 Ibid., p. 155.

11 C. Zilboorg, Richard Aldington and H.D.: The Later Years in Letters, p. 418.

12 Carroll Terrell glosses the reference to “Venice shawls” as Pound’s allusion to the Italian women’s custom of “parading their grief in black shawls around the square” (A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, p. 628n14), derived from Demeter, “[t] he Greek goddess, mother of Persephone, from whose black gown the mourning shawls were supposedly cut” (p. 628).

13 R. Baccolini, “Pound’s Tribute to H.D., 1961,” p. 436.



Sara Dunton is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton (Canada). Her research focuses on the exploration of interconnectivity between modernist poetry, design theory and visual art. Her proposed doctoral dissertation will examine H.D.’s late poetry and prose, with particular emphasis on the writer’s fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite period, and use of ekphrasis. Ms. Dunton is the recipient of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Canada Graduate Scholarship for Doctoral studies, and of several writing awards from UNB. Since 2011, she has attended various international conferences at which she has presented papers on the work of both Mina Loy and H.D.

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