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H.D and Modernity

Hélène Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

“Steal then, O orator, plunder, O poet”: H.D.’s Subversive Harmonising of Rhetoric and Lyric

Nicholas Manning

Texte intégral

1It is a common trope that, during its decades of emergence in the early twentieth century, American poetic Modernism waged a concerted war against the rhetorical nature of poetic language. Imagism has often been seen as the command centre of this anti-rhetorical campaign, with such martial figures as Ezra Pound and T.E. Hulme as its commanders in chief. We must note, however, that both Pound and Hulme mean the term “rhetoric” in a very specific sense. The rhetoric they denounce is neither that of Plato’s manipulative art of persuasion in the Ion, Phaedrus or Gorgias, nor that of Aristotle’s later tekne rhetorike—that is, rhetoric as the art of discovering what may be persuasive in any given deliberative context. Their use of the term is rather shaped by rhetoric’s increasing restriction, throughout the nineteenth century, to its purely tropological modes: that is, as a classificatory forest of figures, forms and devices.

  • 1 Pound even identifies an explicit causality between stylistics and the downfall of Italian culture (...)
  • 2 T.E. Hulme, The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, p. 24.
  • 3 W.C. Williams, Paterson, p. 263.

2For Pound and Hulme, rhetoric concerns not persuasion, but perception and stylistics.1 They take aim at rhetorical language, at least ostensibly, not for political or ethical reasons, but because, as Pound puts it: “All emotion depends on real solid vision or sound. It is physical. But in rhetoric and expositional prose we get words divorced from any real vision.”2 Stylistic concerns in this way quickly become semiological and phenomenological: they are involved with the role played by language in our meeting with the world. We detect the echo of William Carlos Williams’ famous prerogative in Paterson: “no ideas but in things.”3 The danger of rhetoric is not here, or not primarily, that of manipulative persuasion, but rather abstraction: a distancing of the self from the world via language’s conventionality, wherein the sign comes to replace the ipseity of the “thing in itself” being signified.

  • 4 T.E. Hulme, The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, p. 27.
  • 5 Cassandra Laity rightly notes the clearly gendered aspect of this anti-rhetorical stance, as for T. (...)

3Such an approach invariably leads, as is the case with Pound and Hulme, to a division between the literal and symbolic aspects of the sign. T.E. Hulme presents this dichotomy in a revealing metaphor. “A word to me” he states, “is a board with an image or statue on it… When I pass the word, all that goes is the board, the statue remains in my imagination.”4 Here, Hulme clearly separates the profane and sacred dimensions of language. During quotidian, communicative uses of the word, all that is transmitted, Hulme claims, from speaker to receiver, is a reduced semantic surface; what is left behind is the symbolic, sacralised icon, which remains forever within the hermetic space of the speaker’s imagination. For Hulme, the image is thus an explicit response to the failure of language: to the sign’s powerlessness to transmit a fundamentally incommunicable, symbolic sacrality.5

4It is my contention that H.D.’s rejection of this dichotomous vision of language—the false Janus of a separable “literal” and “symbolic” aspect of the sign—is one of her most profound points of difference with many anti-rhetorical positions in Anglo-American poetic Modernism. In stark contrast to Pound or Hulme, H.D. has constant recourse to images of language’s simultaneously communicative and ideational functions, to its necessarily fused rhetorical and symbolic ends. H.D. continually recognises poetry’s affirmative vocation. We thus discover, in a fragment of Trilogy that will be central to my analysis, that the “clients” of Hermes Trismegistus are “orators, thieves and poets”: “steal then, O orator, / plunder, O poet.” (Trilogy, 63). It is difficult to overstate the importance of this subversive call-to-arms. Rather than opposing poet and orator, H.D. identifies a common goal which unites both lyrical and oratorical personae.

Rhetoric as Argument or Artifice?

  • 6 For further analysis of these questions see D.M. Smith, Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citiz (...)

5In the years following the Second World War, the question of whether poetic language could have argumentative, propositional or persuasive powers became a primary interest of such poets as W.H. Auden, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.6 Auden is particularly concerned with poetry’s ability, like philosophical or political language, to contribute to the discourse of the res publica—in other words, whether poetry, imbued with a power to influence and persuade, is able to pragmatically shape the common good. On these issues, H.D. may be profitably associated not with her Imagist contemporaries, but rather with her post-war successors. In contrast to such later movements, Pound and Hulme specifically target the prolixity and narrativity of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poetry, and the abstraction and hieratic idealism of French Symbolism and late German Romanticism. Pound neatly outlines the Imagist argument against rhetoric in a well-known letter to Harriet Monroe:

  • 7 E. Pound, in P. Jones, Imagist Poetry, p. 141.

Objectivity and again objectivity, and expression: no hindside-beforeness, no straddled adjectives (as “addled mosses dank”), no Tennysonianness of speech; nothing—nothing that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say. Every literaryism, every book word, fritters away a scrap of the reader’s patience, a scrap of his sense of your sincerity.7

6We of course know that Pound’s own poetry, as early as Personae and Ripostes, hardly respects this imperative, being veritably littered with “literaryisms”, “book words”, and things which no one, in any circumstance, would ever actually say. But this internal paradox is not what interests me here. Rather: argumentation and artificiality, though two common attacks against rhetoric, are hardly attacks against the same thing. Importantly, it is artificiality, not argumentation, that Pound takes issue with in his vituperations against the rhetorical “excesses” of Victorian and Symbolist verse.

  • 8 Preface to Some Imagist Poets, in S.K. Coffman, Imagism: A Chapter For the History of Modern Poetry(...)
  • 9 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 88.

7The aim of Imagism, as famously stated in the 1915 preface, is “to use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”8 Decoration, everywhere associated by Pound with rhetorical devices, is explicitly opposed to imagistic clarity. “The point of Imagisme” Pound will later write, “is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image itself is the speech… the word beyond formulated language.”9 (Pound 88). Such “formulated language”, being preexistent and categorical, is associated with rhetorical processes; it is condemned not for its argumentative potentials, but for its static conventionality.

Literal Board or Symbolic Butterflies?

8In order to understand H.D.’s profound divergence from this Poundian and Hulmian model, we need to explore the very different image of language’s function that H.D.’s poetic presents. “We have had too much consecration, / too little affirmation” observes the lyrical subject towards the end of Trilogy’s “The Walls Do Not Fall”:

too much: but this, this, this
has been proved heretical,
too little, I know, I feel
the meaning that words hide;
they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies (Trilogy, 1973, 53)

9A close comparison of T.E. Hulme’s and H.D.’s contrasting images of statue and butterflies, board and little boxes is revealing. In Hulme’s metaphor, literal board and symbolic statue are fundamentally dissociable; moreover, the statue is not generated by the board, but simply placed upon it in a relationship devoid of both causality and reciprocity. In other words, for Hulme, language’s symbolic potency does not emerge out of its semantic communicability: it is artificially and temporarily poised on the sign’s communicative function. It thus rarely, if ever, survives the difficult transfer from one mind’s private symbolic space to another’s.

10For H.D., the situation is quite the reverse. In the image of “little boxes, conditioned/ to hatch butterflies”, not only does H.D. accept language’s categorical, even reductive aspect, but it is precisely from out of this categorical limitation that the sign’s symbolic multiplicities may be born. More than this: the “butterflies” of linguistic proliferation actually require this safe, enclosed space of reduced signification in order to multiply and thrive. Far from the Imagist condemnation of a tropological rhetoric with its classificatory semantics, H.D. thus posits the restrictive, reductive function of language as a necessary foundation, from which subsequent poetic multiplication may take wing and fly forth.

11H.D.’s image of words as “little boxes” thus combines two key notions, namely interiority and generativity, here related in a causal dynamic. As sites of linguistic multiplication and rebirth, the “little boxes” of words are related to other crucial images of protective, gestational spaces throughout Trilogy. We may mention, for instance, Mary’s “alabaster jar” (Trilogy, 1973, 66, 129), Psyche’s “cocoon” — “she is Psyche, the butterfly, / out of the cocoon” (103)—or the sealed space of the “oyster, clam, mollusc” (Trilogy, 1973, 9) in which the recalcitrant self seeks protection: “I sense my own limit, / my shell-jaws snap shut” (Trilogy, 1973,). Not only, then, does language’s categorical, “box-like” quality make communication possible by way of the necessary limitation of an otherwise infinite semantics, it also creates a custodial, insulating space for the gestation of future polysemy. Language’s categorical function, so maligned in Hulme’s reductive “board”, becomes here the enclosing womb of a transformative semantics.

12Consecration is thus contrasted with affirmation for the reason that affirmation involves the rhetorical interplay of competing assertions, rather than the ranking of set significations in fixed hierarchies. H.D. thus associates language’s potential to categorise with proliferation rather than reduction. Moreover, such proliferation necessarily extends to those aspects of discourse commonly considered outside the scope of established orthodoxies. Affirmation is not here synonymous with dogmatic imposition or decree, but rather invokes the rhetorical dramatisation of competing points of view. In other words, affirmation leads to a generative multiplicity, while consecration engenders a repressive singularity.

13Consecration and affirmation are not here related, however, in a strictly binary opposition. Robert Duncan compares the interaction between the two principles to the circulation of blood in the body. Far from establishing a mutually exclusive pairing, affirmation and consecration rather constitute for Duncan a “heart-beat in a duality”:

  • 10 R. Duncan, The H.D. Book, p. 341.

The presentation of intellectual alternates—the orthodoxy arising from convention and the consensus of authority versus the heresy of individual experience—would seem farthest from referring to the physical image of the heart, but in its form of alternating beats, of a flux between too much and too little, it proposes not the image of opposites but the image of a circulation, the returning flood from the ventricle of the heart into the arterial circuit, where the sense of the more-than-enough in the word ‘too’ may refer to a crisis or strain.10

The Profane Subversion of Poet, Orator, Thief

14Throughout Trilogy, the retreat of poetic language into a hermetic space of symbolic abstraction and linguistic self-reference is presented as a constant risk. Affirmation, and by extension rhetorical engagement, is in this way a profoundly subversive principle. It gives rise to the possibility of comparing, contrasting and evaluating discourses otherwise considered dangerously heretical. We thus begin to glimpse the importance of the association of the poet with the equally subversive figures of the orator and thief:

Hermes Trismegistus
is patron of alchemists;
his province is thought,
inventive, artful and curious;
his metal is quicksilver,
his clients, orators, thieves and poets,
steal then, O orator,
plunder, O poet,
take what the old-church
found in Mithra’s tomb,
candle and script and bell,
take what the new-church spat upon
and broke and shattered (Trilogy, 1973, 63)

15In order to reconstitute, via the alchemic processes of poetic fusion— “and of your fire and breath/ melt down and integrate” (Trilogy, 1973, 63)—the poet must not merely draw on the past’s heterodox traditions, but must “plunder” them. This plunder constitutes an iconoclastic refusal to respect the hermetic impenetrability of both sacred and linguistic spheres. Crucially, the occult trinity of poet, orator and thief find themselves united in this insurgent enterprise. What, though, do these three avatars have in common? Firstly, in continually traversing sacralised boundaries, they refuse to be confined to the distinct disciplinary or social territories attributed to them by cultural doxa. Secondly, they also clearly fail to respect authoritative notions of property, ownership, or in a literary context, authorship. The theft of other discourses, like the theft of sacred artifacts deemed heretical, paradoxically preserves such discourses’ value in the face of repressive orthodoxies.

  • 11 Plato, Gorgias, p. 76.

16H.D. is thus far from the Socratic condemnation of the orator as a speaker who, bereft of contact with the Good and the True, constantly modifies his argument in accordance with the pragmatic situation at hand. As Socrates famously puts it to Gorgias: “the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know.”11 Socrates thus affirms that rhetoric, not being a true techne, simply deals with truths already established by proper technes such as cookery, carpentry, or philosophical dialectic. According to the Socratic conception, the role of rhetoric is not to discover truths, but simply to simulate knowledge of truth for persuasive ends. With its recognition of language’s fundamental role in the determination of truth, H.D.’s position is closer to the New Rhetoric forged by such thinkers as Chaïm Perelman and Kenneth Burke from the 1950s on. In this later view, rhetoric is involved not merely in the organisation and presentation of knowledge, but also in its discovery. Antoine Compagnon summarises succinctly this crucial shift:

  • 12 A. Compagnon, “La rhétorique à la fin du xixe siècle: 1875-1900,” p. 1258. My translation: “Après K (...)

After Kenneth Burke, epistemic rhetorics have recently developed, according to which rhetoric not only intervenes in the transmission of knowledge, but also in its constitution, is not only used to communicate the truth, but also to discover it, for the reason that intersubjectivity is the condition of its possibility. We find here the antithesis of positivist and empirical conceptions of language as a neutral instrument, since meaning and truth are seen as emergent properties among individuals engaged in a negotiation. Knowledge is thus the product of a rhetorical activity; it is itself a rhetorical construction.12

17In short, language is a fundamentally epistemic enterprise. It is intricately involved with the formation of knowledge via subjective interaction. Orators and poets, celebrated here as undoers of dominant truths, are profoundly involved in this process. It is for this reason that the heretic plundering of prior traditions and discourses by poets, orators and thieves may be profoundly positive, for it creates an agonistic confrontation of competing histories within a larger hermeneutic enterprise. It is via the argumentative exploration of such rival truths, themselves creating a rich heteroglossia, that a new alchemic fusion of neglected traditions may be attained.

H.D.’s Dissoi Logoi: the Critique of the Poem From Within

  • 13 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 83.

18H.D.’s position is thus at odds with Pound’s conception of the image as a powerful antidote to rhetorical artifice. As Pound claims, the image “is the furthest possible remove from rhetoric.”13 Pound thus traces an expressive spectrum with two distinct poles; all of poetic discourse appears as a delicate bridge strung between the imagistic and the rhetorical. Concentration, objectivity, materiality and fusion are associated with the image, while abstraction, subjectivity, immateriality and division are associated with rhetorical techniques, giving rise to a chaotic discursiveness.

19The paradox of these pronouncements by Pound is well known. Like the Socrates of the Gorgias, Pound vehemently excoriates rhetoric using the full extent of his rhetorical arsenal. He attacks rhetoric using rhetorical means. But importantly, this attack occurs outside the poem, within a critical apparatus expressly designed to integrate agonistic energies. Rhetoric is tolerated, it seems, on the sociological battleground of movement formation— which involves the repudiation of predecessors and of competing poetic contemporaries—but may not enter the symbolic confines of the poem. In contrast, H.D. often transplants the rhetorical examination of poetry from the external discourse of criticism to the internal, reflexive context of the poem itself.

  • 14 For detailed exploration of this point, see N. Manning and C. Oudart, Signs of Eternity: H.D.’s Tri (...)

20Is is thus no surprise that H.D. constantly makes use of competing arguments in her poems as a form of rhetorical interplay and epistemic discovery. In rhetoric, this technique is linked to what Greek rhetoricians called dissoi logoi. Dissoi logoi was a rhetorical exercise which involved orators alternately advocating opposing sides of the same argument. Dissoi logoi is based on the notion that by arguing a point from both sides, one may attain a more profound understanding of the central issues at stake. In Trilogy, sections thirty and thirty-one of “The Walls Do No Fall” are a clear example of this contrastive technique.14 We find here a heterogeneous mixture of criticisms aimed against H.D.’s own poetic, which contrast starkly with Trilogy’s affirmative avowals of confidence in poetry’s value:

Wistfulness, exaltation,
a pure core of burning cerebration,
jottings on a margin,
indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over
with too many contradictory emotions,
search for finite definition
of the infinite, stumbling toward
vague cosmic expression (Trilogy, 1973, 42)

  • 15 J. Johnson, Why Write Poetry? Modern Poets Defending Their Art, p. 71.

21These voices cannot merely be associated with external criticisms of the poem; rather, they imply a self-reflexive integration of divergent rhetorical positions into the fabric of the poem itself. As Jeannine Johnson remarks: “There is a certain rhetorical strategy at work here, as the presence of this oppositional voice creates an opportunity for the poet to put forth a defense of poetry. However, at least for now, H.D. remains unwilling to disregard her antagonists altogether, prompting us to reconsider why she allows ‘them’ into her poem in the first place.”15 In contrast to Greek rhetoric, H.D.’s dissoi logoi are not binary, but are rather multiple. We witness a nexus of competing arguments which meet, collide and refract, giving rise to a veritable explosion of intersecting rhetorical positions. Importantly, this pluralisation concerns not only arguments, but also identities. In Trilogy, the various declensions of Mary give rise not only to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, but also to myrrh, “Mary-myrrh” (Trilogy, 1973, 135), “mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary, / Star of the Sea, Mother” (Trilogy, 1973, 71). Similarly, in Helen in Egypt, the various declensions of Helen extend far beyond the binary node of Helen in Egypt and Helen in Troy. In contrast to the exercise of dissoi logoi, where a static ethos expresses opposing views, the identities of H.D.’s speakers are mutable and dynamic: they actively transform their own refracted, subjective identities, in order to give voice to varied or contradictory viewpoints.

The Denial of Argument

22These observations are all the more important when we consider the occasional reluctance of some critics to accept H.D.’s valuing of rhetorical or argumentative engagement. I would argue that H.D. constantly explores the risk that the sublimation of argument via poetic lyricism or ideational sacrality may in fact reinforce the status quo, perpetuating political, historical and sexual hegemonies. This is one possible reason why H.D. consistently seeks to dramatise the male refusal to engage in rhetorical contest with female interlocutors. In H.D.’s “The Master”, for instance, the patriarchal dominance of the Freudian master-figure is maintained precisely by his refusal to argue with a poet. We thus witness the efficient dissociation of the poetic persona from the gritty, pragmatic affairs of rhetorical conflict:

he did not say
my disciple,”
he did not say,
each word I say is sacred,”
he did not say, “teach”
he did not say,
or seal
documents in my name,”
no, he was rather casual,
“we won’t argue about that”
(he said)
“you are a poet.” (Collected Poems, 458).

  • 16 R. DuPlessis and S. Friedman, “‘Woman Is Perfect’: H.D.’s Debate with Freud,” p. 419.
  • 17 J. Tambling, RE: Verse: Turning Towards Poetry, p. 204.

23In stark contrast with Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Susan Stanford Friedman’s reading of this poem, in which “difference and confrontation are precisely and frankly the subject”,16 some critics have expressed a surprisingly positive interpretation. Jeremy Tambling for instance observes that “[‘The Master’] records a liberation... In not keeping H.D. as his ‘disciple’, not wanting to dictate to her, Freud acknowledges her desire as that which is ‘other’, i. e. other to that which psychoanalysis can deal with. Psychoanalysis gives the precedence to poets, makes writing poetry the supreme mode of liberation.”17 I am not sure I share Jeremy Tambling’s optimism on this point. For is not the refusal to argue here a type of explicit dismissal? Rather than a tacit respect for the “liberated female” other, another subtext is plain, namely: good poets do not argue, and neither do good women. Good poets—and especially good female poets—are involved in the symbolic, the hieratic, the unexpressed and the inexpressible: anything but the pragmatic, messy engagement implied by rhetorical, and thus political and sexual, antagonisms.

24We thus see emerge the risk that the sacred ends of poetry be used as an excuse for a facile obedience and submission to an unchallenged status quo. This primarily positive reading of such poems as “The Master” becomes even more difficult to accept when we consider prior sections of the poem which specifically concern H.D.’s deep attachment to argumentative confrontation:

I was angry at the old man,
I wanted an answer,
a neat answer,
when I argued and said, “well, tell me,
you will soon be dead,
the secret lies with you,”
he said,
“you are a poet”;
I do not wish to be treated like a child, a weakling,
so I said,
(I was angry)
“you can not last forever,
the fire of wisdom dies with you,
I have traveled far to Miletus,
you can not stay long now with us,
I came for an answer”;
I was angry with the old man
with his talk of the man-strength,
I was angry with his mystery, his mysteries,
I argued till day-break; (Collected Poems, 455).

25Here, H.D.’s lyrical subject won’t let the matter lie. The Master’s refusal to answer, based on the supposedly symbolic rather than rhetorical nature of the poetic vocation, is directly associated with male hegemony, and reduces the female poetic figure to a “child” or “weakling”. This position has as its subtle premise the idea that neither women nor poets need be concerned with arguing about the “mysteries”, for they have higher, less pragmatic means of dealing with such affairs. In this reading, the Freudian Master’s anaphoric repetition of “you are a poet” is far from a liberating gesture; it is closer to the much more disturbing imperative: “Hush, poet, hold your peace.” Moreover, this reading is consistent with H.D.’s repeated dramatisations of positive rhetorical confrontation. In this light, the rejection of poetry’s rhetorical nature is a way of perpetuating dominance via the claim for the poet’s lyrical and ideational disinterestedness.

Veiling and Unveiling: H.D.’s Revelatory Concealment

  • 18 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 83.

26“Rhetoric” Pound argues, “is the art of dressing up some unimportant matter.”18 Revealingly, textual and textile coverings are a common conceit for the notion of rhetorical adornment. Coverings, and particularly those of female dress, are a crucial motif in all of H.D.’s poetics, and especially in Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. Just as T.E. Hulme attempts to demarcate the profane and sacred faces of the word, Achilles, throughout Helen in Egypt, seeks always to distinguish between the literal and symbolic aspects of Helen’s exterior identity: “Helena, which was the dream, which was the veil of Cytherae?”. (Helen in Egypt, , 1974, 238). All throughout Helen in Egypt, recurring solutions are provided to this division between what H.D. terms “the actual/ and the apparent veil” (Helen in Egypt, 1974, 108). At times, the veil becomes purely symbolic: “Is the ‘veil of Cytherae’ or of Love, Death?” At other times, the symbolic resonance of the veil is denied, and it becomes a purely literal, designated object in the world: “The symbolic ‘veil’ to which Achilles had enigmatically referred now resolves itself down to the memory of a woman’s scarf, blowing in the winter-wind” (Helen in Egypt, 1974, 55).

27Even when deploying the trope of “unveiling”, used frequently for both Mary Magdalene in Trilogy and for Helen in Helen in Troy, H.D.’s lyrical subject seeks to tear away her outer coverings not in order to reveal an objective essence (in the sense of Carlos Williams or Hulme), but so as to confront us with “something to challenge”. As we read in H.D.’s “Red Roses For Bronze”:

I feel that I must turn and tear and rip
the fine cloth
from the moulded thigh and hip,
force you to grasp my soul’s sincerity,
and single out
something to challenge,
handle differently. (Collected Poems, 213).

28“Something to challenge, / handle differently” is here an explicit call for confrontational engagement, a distancing of the trope of unveiling from its erotic associations towards those of conflictive revelation.

29We must wait until very late in Helen in Egypt for the question of the veil’s literal or symbolic nature to become clearer: “Achilles said, which was the veil, / which was the dream? / they were one.” (Helen in Egypt, 1974, 238) It is, in truth, impossible to reduce the veil to either its designative or connotative, literal or symbolic dimensions: as in any semiology, both aspects are so closely interwoven that they cannot be undone. Throughout Helen in Egypt, we encounter various other examples of this simultaneously literal and symbolic doubling. Importantly, it concerns all subjective identities, and not merely Helen: “It is Achilles who calls heror it is the image or eidolon of Achilles.” (ibid., 208). The real Achilles and his imagistic eidolon are, in fact, one. It is for this reason that, when the veil is indeed “rent”, it reveals to Paris and Achilles not the “true” Helen, but the extent of Helen’s subjective multiplications—her ability to be many individuals, to occupy many places in space and time at once:

Helen appears “in rent veil.” When Aphrodite had appeared to him in his delirium, Paris had said, “a tattered garment folded across my knee, as she bent over me.” Now Helen’s garment or “veil” is “rent.” Is the garment of the apparition synonymous with the “veil” of Helen? Is the “torn garment” in both cases, a symbol? Paris has accepted and must accept “a tattered garment” or an incomplete or partial manifestation of the vision, but Helen was suave and elegant, her “garment sheathed” her […] But now, she has taken on the attributes of another. (ibid., 145).

30The “woven veil” (ibid., 125) that Helen wears is thus a site of subjective multiplication and rhetorical encounter: it dramatises the concealment and revelation of a pluralised identity. Moreover, it insists on the fact that there is no “real” veil devoid of symbol, and no symbolic veil devoid of literal reference, no more than there is a real Helen who may be distinguished once and for all from her various symbolic avatars. Instead, as Helen herself realises: “it was they, the veil/ that concealed yet revealed, that reconciled him to me.” (ibid., 44). Providing Helen’s subjective identity with a space of multiplication and proliferation, the veil, like the simultaneously literal and symbolic sign, reveals as it conceals (and vice versa).

Both Symbol and Simple Scarf

31We may thus see H.D.’s poetics as a powerful response to the crisis of early American poetic modernity regarding poetry’s relation to statement, argument, and the agonistic tensions of rhetorical and affirmative discourse. In refusing even to associate the term “rhetoric” with argumentation, and in prioritising the nineteenth century vision of rhetoric as a mere sum of tropological categories, Pound and Hulme effectively evacuate the question of poetic argument altogether. By linking rhetoric not with argument but with artifice, decorativity and stylistics, Pound and Hulme preclude attempts for poets—and in particular female poets—to reform poetry from within by way of rhetorical and argumentative devices.

32The notion of a decorative or artificial language implies the contrastive presence of an essential or authentic word, whose rhetoricisation would be a mere subsequent corruption, an effusive slackening or weakening of its true, authentic form. For H.D., this distinction between the essential and decorative, the literal and symbolic, the imagistic and rhetorical, is as impossible as it is undesirable. Helen’s veil is both a symbol and a simple scarf, Mary’s myrrh at once a sacred panacea and ubiquitous herb. The board and the statue cannot, for H.D., be divided: they are inevitably and inextricably bound. Both rhetorical and lyrical, affirmative and consecrative, H.D.’s speakers highlight the impossibility of distinguishing between the two joined faces of Janus, as between the “mythical” Helen in Troy and the “true” Helen in Egypt. At once classifying and liberating, the word as little box replaces the mutual exclusivity between communicative message and hieratic symbol with the notion of depth—of ever deeper, interwoven connections between sign and world. In this way, the butterflies of symbol may hatch and prosper within the apparently reductive, yet in truth safe and warm surrounds of the profoundly rhetorical word.


1 Pound even identifies an explicit causality between stylistics and the downfall of Italian culture during the Renaissance, specifically implicating the use of the “flowing paragraph” and “periodic sentence”: “And in the midst of these awakenings Italy went to rot, destroyed by rhetoric, destroyed by periodic sentence and the flowing paragraph, as the Roman Empire had been destroyed before her. For when words cease to cling close to things, kingdoms fall, empires wane and diminish. Rome went because it was no longer the fashion to hit the nail on the head. They desired orators.” (E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 114).

2 T.E. Hulme, The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, p. 24.

3 W.C. Williams, Paterson, p. 263.

4 T.E. Hulme, The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, p. 27.

5 Cassandra Laity rightly notes the clearly gendered aspect of this anti-rhetorical stance, as for T.E. Hulme: “The Romanticism of Swinburne, Byron and Shelley was defined as ‘feminine’, ‘damp’ and ‘vague’; Classicism, which formed the model for Imagism, ‘dry’, ‘hard’, ‘virile’, and ‘exact’.” (C. Laity, H.D. and the Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence, p. 3).

6 For further analysis of these questions see D.M. Smith, Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960.

7 E. Pound, in P. Jones, Imagist Poetry, p. 141.

8 Preface to Some Imagist Poets, in S.K. Coffman, Imagism: A Chapter For the History of Modern Poetry, p. 28.

9 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 88.

10 R. Duncan, The H.D. Book, p. 341.

11 Plato, Gorgias, p. 76.

12 A. Compagnon, “La rhétorique à la fin du xixe siècle: 1875-1900,” p. 1258. My translation: “Après Kenneth Burke, des rhétoriques épistémiques se sont […] développées, suivant lesquelles la rhétorique n’intervient pas seulement dans la transmission du savoir, mais aussi dans sa constitution, ne sert pas seulement à communiquer la vérité, mais aussi à la découvrir, car l’intersubjectivité est la condition de sa possibilité. On trouve là l’antithèse du positivisme ou de l’empirisme faisant du langage un instrument neutre, puisque la signification et la vérité sont supposées émerger parmi des individus engagés dans une négociation. Le savoir est donc le produit d’une activité rhétorique; il est lui-même une construction rhétorique.”

13 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 83.

14 For detailed exploration of this point, see N. Manning and C. Oudart, Signs of Eternity: H.D.’s Trilogy, p. 130-133.

15 J. Johnson, Why Write Poetry? Modern Poets Defending Their Art, p. 71.

16 R. DuPlessis and S. Friedman, “‘Woman Is Perfect’: H.D.’s Debate with Freud,” p. 419.

17 J. Tambling, RE: Verse: Turning Towards Poetry, p. 204.

18 E. Pound, A Memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 83.


Nicholas Manning is maître de conférences in American literature at Université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4). A graduate of the École normale supérieure (Ulm), he holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Strasbourg. Founding editor of The Continental Review, he is the author, with Clément Oudart, of Signs of Eternity: H.D.’s Trilogy, from Fahrenheit Books (2013). His study of sincerity in modern poetics, entitled Rhétorique de la sincérité. La poésie moderne en quête d’un langage vrai, is forthcoming from Honoré Champion, Paris.

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