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H.D and Modernity

Hélène Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

Fight for an Illusion: H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, Pound’s Cantos and the Masques of Myth and History

Michael Heller

Texte intégral

1Modernity is not so much a condition as a strategy, one of the ways out, as a Sartre might quip, for geniuses or at least intelligent minds in difficult cases. Both Helen in Egypt (in fact, almost all of H.D.’s so-called post-Imagist work) and Pound’s Cantos contain war-machine gestures, simultaneously defensive and aggressive, as they try to break the holds of restraining traditions, both aesthetic and cultural, and manifest new poetic dynamics.

2So let me begin with my word “masque,” recalling its use in the charged atmospherics of the aristocratic court, as both an act of projection and, with the artificiality of its distancing effects, an act of camouflage. A number of definitions swirl around the term, from its description as a “deferential allegory flattering to the patron,” (Wikipedia), to, as The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics explains it, a dramatic attempt at “bringing divinity and royalty together,” consisting of “representations more emblematic than mimetic,” the “soul” of which, according to Ben Jonson, is its “themes and words.” The authors and critics of “epic” works like The Cantos and Helen In Egypt may see them as enacting a mimesis, but given their theatrical dramatic structure and hallucinatory power, it strikes me that to see them as masques, as “emblematic” rather than “mimetic,” makes them more comprehensible. We/they are perhaps the flattered reader/patrons of these works.

  • 1 A. Preminger, T.V.F. Brogan and F.J. Warnke, Ed., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poet (...)

3The two poems, as the Princeton Encyclopedia claims of the masque “explore in a quasi-mystical way the sources and conditions of power.”1 In both works, elements of myth and history become allegorical figures: they no longer ‘represent’ themselves but, wearing the masks of their enlisted duties, enter into dances and arabesques with the poets who deploy them. If in Pound, the emphasis is on history and in H.D. on myth, in both cases the overt content of the appropriation is subverted to the desire, not of history-making, but of prophecy and visions of the “good” society.

  • 2 H. Kenner, Motive and Method in the Cantos of Ezra Pound, p. 4.
  • 3 R. Sieburth, “In Pound We Trust: The Economy of Poetry/The Poetry of Economics,” p. 159.

4So first let us turn to Pound, whose Cantos—which have already generated mountains of critical attention—serve, for my purposes, as an exceptionally convenient foil to H.D.’s poem. In the Cantos, it is the progression of great men who emblematize artistic, social and economic power, whose representation is in the service of moral and political instruction. The way to a terrestrial paradise is through the examples of Malatesta, Mussolini, and so on. Pound’s loss of “his Aquinas map” leads to the plundering of culture and to the citational modalities of The Cantos. Yet, despite its immense hoard of sources and poetic techniques, the poem remains resolutely monological, as though Pound’s “repeat in history” were the only repeat. Kenner describes this as Pound’s “await [ing] with a vigilance of his own the exact events that will enter his purpose without modification.”2 And Richard Sieburth writes of the poet, in “In Pound We Trust: The Economy of Poetry/The Poetry of Economics,” that “language serves not to create meaning but to carry or convey or ‘get across’ antecedent facts or meanings or values.” Pound subscribes, says Sieburth, “to the totalitarian plenum which institutes an absolute continuum among the signs of the natural, political and economic world, thus guaranteeing both the order and representation of order.”3 The figures of Pound’s pantheon are not people—we are not encouraged to wonder about their psychology, their hopes and fears, their doubts—rather, they are the characters of the masques, symbolizing, emblematizing, creating the dance of the plenum, “guaranteeing” the divinity and power by which Pound wishes the world were ordered.

5And yet, in the same breath as I write this, I am aware, along with many critics, how much the Cantos sometimes seems a poem divided against itself, especially in the preternaturally beautiful and often deeply moving Pisan Cantos in which Pound’s remembrances of friends and lovers (H. D, for example, his “lynx” and “Dryad”), his focus on natural objects— “la vespa,” the cats, the landscapes, the cut of the language by which these are rendered—, all either temper or resist our knowledge of the often brutal political systems Pound had embraced, and, despite the presumed air of confession and repentance in the poetry, continued to embrace. In Pound, this complicated (and to many, compromised) vision is in the form of a catenary, an unbroken series of links from the past to the present that not only shows, as Walter Benjamin saw in modernity, an implacable, judgmental “immemorial gaze,” but exposes—in fact indirectly claims for the poem—an “antiquity.”

  • 4 P. Morrison, The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Paul de Man, p. 4.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 26.

6As Paul Morrison writes in his Poetics of Fascism, “Pound’s commitment to a poetics of proper names (following Aristotle) [is] in opposition to an ethos of metaphorical displacement.”4 “Proper names” —and here I allude to my own poetics—are quite different from a poetics of naming. The former, especially under Pound’s regime of the “direct treatment of the thing,” become already fixed historical entities, filling the poem, as Morrison insists with “so much inert subject matter”.5 Inert because with Pound the proper name forms part of an argument rather than an interrogation. Names constitute the array of antiquity: museum captions turned into maxims.

7A superficial typology perhaps might classify Helen in Egypt with Pound’s Cantos. H.D. herself may have toyed with the idea or at least thought the ambition of the Cantos must be matched by her own effort. But her Helen in Egypt, by contrast, while in many respects also a work of cultural theft, shows forth its uncertainty, not only between its versions of the Helen story but also in the malleability of its project of mythos itself. And while its surface, triadic stanza upon stanza, seems formally regulated in contrast to The Cantos, it conjures myth and myth-as-history as dynamic illusion.

8 Helen in Egypt, (to my knowledge one of the least explored works of the poet) was written in part, perhaps subliminally, as a response to Pound’s work, since its genesis occurs in the time frame in which H.D. devotes serious attention to the Cantos. The result is sometimes not favorable. In her prose diary-meditation Compassionate Friendship, begun in 1955, she describes picking up a small collection of the Cantos and finding herself

lazy and I have not the power to concentrate and my own rhythms run in my head. There is beauty in every paragraph or stanza or page, somewhere, a dynamic, indissoluble beauty. The world and time are blasted, dynamited, shattered.... But long ago, I stepped out of the track of this particular whirlwind, this psychic landslide. (Compassionate Friendship, 95)

9Nevertheless, both works do have some material in common, mythic gods and heroes, the poets and mythmakers who celebrated them and a deep feel for the language and cultures of the originals. But while Pound’s poem is “presentational,” i. e., makes an argument that allows virtually no speculation, H.D.’s poem seems to make almost no argument, placing us instead in an endless mirrored hall of possibilities. The masque here is less processional, less conclusive, and far more dance-like, with interrelations between its figures complicated by issues of proximity, psychic attitude, pose. Any scene of instruction is temporary, replaced by another equally temporary. If patriarchal Pound wants to order men and their affairs, H.D. wants a looser freedom from men and their business of war and revenge and their domination of woman.

  • 6 D. Hollenberg, Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H.D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, p. 126.

10H.D.’s difficulties were many. In the war—and post-war years leading up to Helen in Egypt, they included living through the Blitz and the ongoing conflict, her fragile state of physical and mental health, personal disappointments such as those with Lord Dowding allegorized in Majic Ring and The Sword Went Out to Sea; and finally there were her concerns about the direction of career and work. At the same time, these years were richly productive, first came Trilogy, and then a great rush of prose and fiction, The Gift, Tribute to Freud and other works poured forth. Yet, as H.D. confessed to Norman Holmes Pearson, who had for several years been prompting her to write more poetry, the beginning sections of Helen In Egypt were the first poems she had written in five years.6

  • 7 B. Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, p. 32.

11The entire work, over 300 pages in length, was produced between 1952 and 1955 but the book was released only after H.D.’s death in 1961—actually, she received her publisher’s copy the day before she died, on September 27, 1961.7 It consists of three major divisions, each broken into a number of “books,” “Pallinode,” “Leuké” and “Eidolon,” each containing a number of sections comprising cadenced tercets that are irregular in line length and beats. Above each section is a prose caption in italics. These were written and incorporated as part of the text as a result of H.D.’s experience in recording the poem for reproduction on disk. H.D. had used prose passages in both her “Hymen” sequence of 1921 and in her translation of Euripides’s Ion in 1936. But in “Hymen” they are used to choreograph the poem, while in Ion, they are “explanatory,” offering a poetics and a meditation on Greek drama. In Helen in Egypt, the captions and the poetry echo and intermix with each other, like two mountaineers speaking across a deep gorge to each other. Phrases bounce off the texts and rebound, only to become lodged in both, the source or origin unclear, so that the whole enterprise of the “epic” is suffused with an uncertainty that is foreign not only to the usual epic narration but especially to the Poundian assurance of voice and name.

12 Helen in Egypt is also a coded, hence emblematic, autobiography, the stage for a confrontation (is it a battle?) between masculine will to power and a will not quite easily definable as feminine or feminist, because, if it has a project of ordering the world, that comes via a hope for peace and the powers of the imagination to offer up alternative realities. The “illusion” it resists is that woman causes war, that this war over beauty and sex, is both noble and evil, inevitable and, as with the Trojan war, ruinous. Instead H.D. proffers another “illusion,” meant to be understood as illusion, even as its source materials, Stesichorus’s poem (and then Euripides) substitute their illusions for the Homeric one. Stesichorus’s example, blinded by his indulgence of the Homeric version, then restored to sightedness by moving Helen to Egypt (although her eidolon remains on the walls of Troy), is the ur-motivation for H.D.’s vision: the war was “fought for an illusion” (Helen in Egypt, 1).

13H.D.’s re-imagining, seen in the potential of its largest context, is directed at the overthrow or breaking up of, if I may borrow Blake for a moment, the “mind-forged manacles” of the basic roots and tenets of western civilization. In Palimpsest (1926), what H.D. is fighting against is made clear on the first page of “Hipparchia: War Rome,” when the narrator Hipparchia, conjuring a poet, one of her “eternal Greeks,” comments: “I think differently but what does it matter? That poem, Marius, is religion.” (Palimpsest, 1) Writing heresy to that religion is H.D.’s intention. Her poem then is also something of an attack on the methods by which we process the products of the imagination and on the extent to which consciousness is mythic. For the poet’s consciousness to hew too closely to myth is to make it iron-bound in its traces and basically unalterable, doomed to formulate and reformulate an eternal recurrence (or in Pound’s words to enact “the repeat in history”). In this transformative view, Helen in Egypt stands with Simone Weil’s “Poem of Force,” but the poem also liberates—opens up might be more accurate—the whole arenas of thought concerning what culture and society might be.

14How does the poem work? The most obvious, at the macro level, is some admixture of apposition and opposition. Two versions of a story, one out of Homer, a baseline cultural datum, the other, making for a kind of interference in the transmission modes of that datum, are juxtaposed within the same work. There’s more than a shimmer of instability, a rich, complex shimmer, because we never lose sight of either version—they begin, after a few sections of the poem, to interpenetrate each other. Yet this is a poem, the work shouts, nothing is exactly true. Even the autobiography underlining the motifs is subject to a poetics of role-playing, of revisions and psychoanalytic scrutiny.

15On a more micro-level, each section, rather than furthering the narrative, as in a traditional epic, proposes a conflict. The captions, with lines and phrases repeated in the poetry below it, with the echoing I mentioned above, are not meant to clarify or explain. Thus, for example, in “Pallinode,” the caption of section 8 of Book 3 begins: But still Helen wants “some simple answer.” She feels that Achilles can give it to her.... And the first tercets of the poem reads:

“Were you rapt in prayer?”
“no, Achilles, I wanted some simple answer
to your question”;
“my question?”
“which was the dream”;
“I asked you which was the veil;
the sea roads lie between
you and the answer”;
“you called me Helena”. (Helen in Egypt, 49)

16At least three questions and a confusion of who is speaking mark the poetic passage. Is the Helena, the Helen of the Trojan walls, as the caption suggestions? When Achilles seems to apologize for the impulsive leap to that false conclusion, it seems he also leaps out of character and admits: “I was afraid.” The Helen who is in Egypt seems to transform him, which, as the caption indicates, transforms “all-history,” bringing into question “Fate, Death, Reintegration, Resurrection?” Again, those key terms are followed by a question mark, as though emphasizing their instability.

17Let me give another example: H.D. writes in the caption of section 8 of book 5 of “Pallinode”: “Helen compares Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia to ‘one swan and one cygnet’” who “must forget the war and its consequences—but no, there is this yet, unresolved—without war, there would have been no Achilles, no ‘Star in the night. ’” The poetry related to these lines reads as follows:

Have you ever seen a swan,
when you threaten its nest—
two swans, but she was alone,
who was never alone;
the wings of an angry swan
can compass the earth,
can drive the demons
back to Tartarus,
can measure heaven in their span;
one swan and one cygnet
were stronger than all the host,
assembled upon the slopes... (Helen in Egypt, 76)

18Clytaemnestra is made male by H.D., perhaps because she takes matters into her own hand, slaying Agamemnon, after he has tricked away Iphigenia with a fake marriage offer so that she can be sacrificed and enable the Greek fleet to sail to the Trojan war. Yet this is a double-sided revenge; it initiates war and establishes the figure of Achilles, the warrior, who in the polyvalence of the poem, is both cruelty personified and love object, one that Helen must create and recreate, illusion transformed into illusion:

I must wait, I must wonder again
at the fate that has brought me here;
surely she must forget,
she must forget the past,
and I must forget Achilles...
... but never the ember
born of his strange attack,
never his anger,
never the fire,
never the brazier,
never the Star in the night. (Helen in Egypt, 76-77)


19There are many passages of the poem that work this kind of magic. What sorts of endings do we have here? Pound saw his world collapse around him. His “antiquity” had been still-born in nightmare, in the corpses of Europe, in the dead bodies of Mussolini and his mistress hanging by their heels in Milan, in the ever-constant stream of visitors to St. Elizabeth’s, some to try to understand, some to pay homage, some to reinforce a dark vision out of ruins. One of them, John Kasper, as virulent a proto-Nazi and anti-Semite as one could imagine, must have driven the old poet to both hope and distraction with his plots and dreams. James Laughlin reports that Pound had a food-taster, like a dotty old Roman aristocrat, fearing an enemy’s poison.

  • 8 D. Hollenberg, Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H.D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, p. 126.

20“Antiquity” never happened for H. D, or at least it was a work in progress, not the fixity it had been for Pound. “Fear nothing of the future or the past,” she writes in the draft of the first section of the poem, which she sent to Norman Holmes Pearson in 1952.8 Helen In Egypt is situated directly on the seam of past and future time. As Horace Gregory notes in his Introduction, the poem “infused with the action and memory of an ancient past... exist [s] within the mutations of the present tense” (Helen in Egypt, x). Pound was sure of his history, secure in it, in its rightness. H.D. acknowledged the tensions that inhabited her very being, the clash of visions within herself. Her project, with its minuet of myths, its midstream combining and recombining of partners, each exposed by the plasticity of their torn-away masks, seems, in its very uncertainty and ambiguity, to lay a simultaneous claim to the ground of both romanticism’s freedom and modernism’s strategic perception of the loss of the archaic. This was a conflict she embraced within her own materials, fighting for the present. “Is it true, I wonder,” she wrote, “that the only way to escape war is to be in it?” (Compassionate Friendship, 92).


1 A. Preminger, T.V.F. Brogan and F.J. Warnke, Ed., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, p. 738-739.

2 H. Kenner, Motive and Method in the Cantos of Ezra Pound, p. 4.

3 R. Sieburth, “In Pound We Trust: The Economy of Poetry/The Poetry of Economics,” p. 159.

4 P. Morrison, The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Paul de Man, p. 4.

5 Ibid., p. 26.

6 D. Hollenberg, Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H.D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, p. 126.

7 B. Guest, Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World, p. 32.

8 D. Hollenberg, Between History and Poetry: The Letters of H.D. and Norman Holmes Pearson, p. 126.



Michael Heller has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays and memoir. His newest book is This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Nightboat Books, 2012). Other recent works include: Eschaton (Talisman House, 2009), a book of poems, and Beckmann Variations & Other Poems, a work in prose and poetry (Shearsman Books, 2010). His collection of essays on George Oppen, Speaking the Estranged, was published in 2008. An expanded edition was published in 2012. His many awards and honors include prizes from The New School for Social Research, Poetry in Public Places, the New York State CAPSFellowship in Poetry, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize of the Poetry Society of America, a New York Foundation on the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fund for Poetry. For many years, he was on the faculty of New York University and has taught at The Naropa University, The New School, San Francisco State, Notre Dame and other universities. His papers are collected in the Stanford University Libraries.

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