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H.D and Modernity

Héléne Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

What “Kaspar Knew”: Reading H.D.’s Trilogy as Palingenesis

Demetrios P.Tryphonopoulos

Texte intégral

  • 1 Writing about their Pennsylvania years in End to Torment, H.D. recalls her paideuma under Pound’s t (...)
  • 2 Introduction, Majic Ring, p. xxxix.

1Ever since 1905—when Ezra Pound instigated her occult education with the “avalanche” of books she remembers him bringing to her1—H.D. had been translating her reading and experiences (including her transcriptions of dreams and séances) into a “continuous” narrative marked by radical syncretism. All along, the goal of her poetical education and of her writing project was gnosis, a reading of a modern world in need of being rewritten and reshaped by her own brand of “seeing” or “gifting.” Given the evidence that H.D. was an occultist rather than a spiritualist (even while persisting with her spiritualist séances in WWII London), such an assessment is inevitable. This is especially true in view of her “radical syncretism” as outlined in Majic Ring, a prose record—which elsewhere I have called “the clearest extant account of H.D.’s heterodox tradition”2—that offers the “raw material” for reading Trilogy as palingenesis—that is, as a ritual of rebirth or soul-making ostensibly experienced by both poet and reader.

  • 3 Critics have used a much later date for the beginning of H.D.’s interest in, and involvement with, (...)

2H.D.’s occultist education began under the aegis of Ezra Pound circa 1905.3 And it is to Pound that we must turn for a first rendering of a paradigm that eventually becomes an exemplary modernist signature of H.D.’s own poetic praxis. Drawing upon his early exposure to occult and mythological readings, Pound developed a penchant for syncretic interpretations and paradigms, of which his clearest statement is in a letter he wrote to his father in 1927. Based on his reading of the nekuia passage of The Odyssey (Book 11) and his understanding of the Eleusinian mysteries, Pound offers palingnenesis (or ritual rebirth or soul-making) as The Cantos’ “main scheme” of katabasis, dromena, and epopteia.

  • 4 Hieros gamos or hierogamia means “sacred marriage” —that is coitus between a divine being and a mor (...)

3 Katabasis is a chthonic and/or sexual descent (hieros gamos4) to Hades, followed by dromena, a stage involving wandering, confusion (and darkness), concluding in an epopteia, the state of “having seen” or “full Ειδὼς” (Canto 81/540), often expressed by light imagery. This “main scheme” explicates The Cantos’ palingenetic structure and character—that is, a katabasis or encounter with death within a transcendent framework with the ultimate purpose of achieving the epopteia or “moment of metamorphosis.” And, so, Odysseus, Pound’s epic hero, conquers Circe, descends with her help to Hades, and there he performs the palingenetic ritual (the offering of the sacrificial blood), making it thus possible for Tiresias to answer his question about his future: “‘And he [Tiresias Theban] strong with blood, said then: ‘Odysseus / ‘Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas, / ‘Lose all companions.”... (1/ 4). Eventually, Odysseus returns to Circe and, in the concluding lines of Pound’s opening canto, achieves his epopteia, a vision Aphrodite, this being a metaphor for, among other things, the love (spiritual and sexual) that makes soul-making and rebirth possible.

  • 5 H.D. acknowledges in various places Pound’s role in being introduced very early on to occult ideas. (...)
  • 6 See Notes on Thought and Vision, p. 30. H.D. could not be clearer about this: “The first step in th (...)

4Working under Pound’s influence early on,5 H.D., too, developed her own palingenetic reading of history and poetry, boldly formulating it in 1919 in Notes on Thought and Vision, where she outlines her own version of Pound’s Eleusinian tripartite paradigm. Noting that, “This is the mystery of Demeter, the Earth Mother. The body of the Eleusinian initiate had become one with the earth, as his soul had become one with the seeds enclosed in the earth” (52), H.D. adds that the mystery is rooted in the journey and stages of “the Eleusinian candidates outside Athens in the fifth century, B.C.” (30). The first stage of this initiation, a katabasis as coitus, is sexual or even pornographic in nature and felt or enjoyed “with your body.”6

5The outcome of the sexual katabasis, of coitus between the queen of Hades—whether she be Demeter, Kore, or Hekate—and Hades himself results in the conception and birth of Brimos, the sacred child. H.D. is certain that “there is a mystery greater than beauty and that is death” (33), which insight leads, in turn, to her fundamental revision of the Christian passion, her understanding of thanatos not as something to be avoided of at all cost but as a necessary step which, in good time, will lead to re-birth, the “jellyfish” vision or over-consciousness. One way in which H.D. discusses the steps of dromena and epopteia is through the symbolism of the thistle and the serpent. She defines the first as “life, love, martyrdom” which “leads in the end—must lead in the logical sense of events to death, paradise, peace” (40). Not in conflict but rather in accord with the thistle is the serpent: “That world of death—that is, death to the stings of life, which is the highest life—may be symbolized by the serpent” (40). Observing that “the world of vision” has been symbolized in various cults and traditions by the serpent, H.D. concludes on a personal note: “In my personal language or vision, I call this serpent a jelly-fish”; and she adds this definition: “The serpent—the jelly-fish—the over-conscious mind” (40).

  • 7 This tripartite process focuses on what Albert Gelpi in his introduction to Notes has said happens (...)
  • 8 H.D. summarizes the palingenetic quest in terms of “the three states of manifestations—subconscious (...)

6In H.D.’s paradigm, the second stage is experienced “with your intellect, with your sheer brain” (31). Once the “wand-bearers, [the few] people who had passed the first two stages of the Eleusinian mysteries,” are properly inspired, the third stage of “over-mind consciousness” or gnosis can be entered. The experience of vision, a new dispensation of wisdom and understanding, takes place in the over-mind, described by H.D. as a “lens” (23) or “a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone” (18-19).7 Insisting on the link of sexuality and spirituality, H.D. sees this over-mind or over-consciousness as enveloping the body, its jelly-fish tentacles reaching into “either the brain or the love-region of the body” (20). Thus, “The serpent—the jelly-fish—the over-conscious mind” (40), corresponding to sexual, mental, and spiritual initiation, is a pre-condition for vision, resurrection, and bringing about a new dispensation of wisdom and understanding.8 This is also a process to be undertaken by the initiate/reader whose creative praxis of integration—this “bridge across, the link between the sub-conscious and the over-conscious” — brings together the hylic, dark subconscious mind with “[t] he intellect, the brain, the conscious mind” (49). It takes, H.D. tells us, “two forms of seed, one in the head and one in the body to make a new spiritual birth” (50). The spiritual body, H.D. instructs us, is “a jelly fish and a pearl” which, in turn, may be used “as a crystal ball is used, for concentrating and directing pictures from the world of vision” (50).

  • 9 Lord Dowding (Hugh Caswall Tremenhere), retired Air Chief Marshal of the Roayl Air Force (R.A.F.), (...)

7First developed in 1919, then, this syncretic, palingenetic theory informs all of H.D.’s poetry and prose, becoming increasingly prominent in her late autobiographical fiction, memoirs, and journals, especially in Majic Ring. In brief, Majic Ring tells the story of H.D.’s encounter with Lord Dowding9 in London in the mid-1940s, in terms of the visions she had, more than twenty years earlier, during her 1920 trip from England to Greece aboard the Borodino. One of Dowding’s doubles is the architect Pieter Rodeck or Peter van Eck, whom Delia Alton (H.D.’s pseudonym for the fiction of this period), meets on her way to Greece. Perhaps the most significant event in Delia Alton’s narrative is the February 1920 vision of the three dolphins she sees leaping together in perfect unison before spying in the Atlantic sea the lost Atlantis, the isle of the Hesperides. Her vision is achieved in the company of van Eck whom she imagines holding up “a square-palm... turned flat downward, above the water” and drawing a single dolphin “above the level of the deck” while speaking to her:

That one, ... nearly landed... If it had landed, ... he would have been your guide and inspiration... He almost landed... I might have made you an instrument of this new dispensation—for you know we are at the turn of the age—my dolphin planted my oracle at Delphi, ... for you do know that I am not Mr. van Eck. You might mix the dimensions, before a lot of people, and make a fool of yourself... But you will later remember one or two apparently disconnected incidents, chiefly of your life in London, and you will say... that I have loved thee (90).

  • 10 In a typical etymological game, H.D. connects “δέλɸις” (dolphin) and “Δελɸίνιος” (Delphian), an epi (...)

8Aboard the Borodino, H.D. is evidently initiated into the ancient mysteries of Apollo, who becomes her angelos or psychopomp; she has “had a glimpse of perfection” of the Platonic “‘absolute’ of beauty—the lost Atlantis” (116). In relating her story to others later, Delia realizes that it had not been van Eck standing beside her during her vision but, rather, “Anax Apollo, Helios, Lord of Magic and Prophecy and Music” (88), the god of dolphins and founder of the oracle of Delphi. Out of the elements of this vision (dolphins, a strong sexual attraction for van Eck, the sighting of Atlantis), H.D. constructs a personal version of a wisdom tradition.10

9In Majic Ring, H.D. often finds herself in the role of “initiate” waiting in an outer room or “pronaos” before passing through a door or across a threshold leading to the inner chamber or sanctum. The narrative ends with a hierogamia, a vision of H.D.’s entry into the “holy of holies” (136). Majic Ring, concludes, then, with three entries written in mid-April 1944, which deal with a “significant [but incomplete] dream” (163) she has during Holy Week 1944, and one she has on Easter Sunday. In the first, a voice announces, “You are dead” and instructs her to walk from her bedroom to her living room, where she will see herself lying in her coffin (163). Hesitating before the door, H.D. thinks: “When I cross the threshold, I shall literally have crossed the threshold, in the sense that the neophites did in the old temple ceremonies. Yet it is only my own room and I don’t even yet know that I am dead” (163). But the coffin is empty, and the dream ends without resolution. On Easter Sunday night there is “another dream, very real this one, and not in part but a complete whole” (164). H.D. becomes aware of an extraordinary figure standing at the foot of her bed whose countenance is the “white of old ivory” and who is wearing a “high white crown-cap” and white robes: “This person is Love itself, he is mother, he is father [and] draws me to him, I am as it were, simply melted into him... absorbed back into him.” Following this experience, H.D. makes a remarkable claim: “Perhaps the woman on the boat going to Greece, in the early spring of 1920, did see God,” adding later, “Possibly, the girl and the woman did see projections of that white light that is final illumination” (168).

  • 11 H.D.’s personal breakdowns include “[A] still-born child and a baby, four years later, whose birth (...)
  • 12 Delia speaks explicitly and repeatedly of man’s Piscean Age to be followed by the woman’s Aquarian (...)

10The final section of Majic Ring, then, presents a katabasis, the speaker’s death. The rest of the story corresponds to the dromena or wanderings of an initiate fragmented emotionally by various personal and cultural “breakdowns.”11 Finally, H.D.’s absorption into “[t] his person [who] is Love itself,” or the “see [ing] of God, “that white light that is final illumination,” represents the stage of epopteia. And so ends H.D.’s project or story which she has pursued relentlessly “for [over] twenty years.” Majic Ring reveals an artist in whose alchemical crucible Greek, Egyptian, Eastern, and Aboriginal mythologies, traditional and contemporary Christianity, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, the Albigensians, the Kabbala, Theosophy, the Moravian Church, and Freud combine in a quest for truth and a new dimension.12 Most especially, with Majic Ring and Trilogy, “the story of Greece has been written [H.D.’s emphasis]” (224)—or more accurately, “the story of Greece is in the process of being written and re-written.”

  • 13 In my introduction to Majic Ring I claim that this autobiographical memoir/theoretical statement “p (...)

11The aim of the occult enterprise being to occasion palingenesis or soul-making, Trilogy should be read as Hermetic palingenetic literature. In such a reading, the poem describes initiation and also enacts an initiation for the reader’s benefit. With its incantations and liturgical or ritualistic rhythms but also in its continuous—indeed, persistent—allusions to an occult narrative, Trilogy comprises a palingenetic text designed to help the reader perform the ritual that brings together past, present, and future, a Gnostic act negotiated between life and death that eventually makes possible the soul’s resurrection. As already suggested, Majic Ring offers the raw material and exegesis leading to such a reading of Trilogy.13

12“The Walls Do Not Fall,” the first part of Trilogy, begins with the phrase “An incident here and there,” repeating it frequently. “Here” is the present moment in London during the Blitz while “there” is both the past and the future, “a new heaven and a new earth” (Trilogy, ix); “here” is also the present as “black tunnel or darkness or ‘initiation’” (Trilogy, ix) that facilitates a movement backwards and forwards, ushering the initiate, the “twice-born” (Trilogy, 22), into the eternal present where light and darkness coexist and death is not defeated by life (as in the Christian version) but, instead, makes life possible so that the “Presence,” the new Christos/master announced by the “Spirit” in the opening page of the poem (Trilogy, 3), may appear. The poem’s speaker, then, is not alone but belongs to the succession of the “bearers of the secret wisdom, / living remnant // of the inner band / of the sanctuaries’ initiate” (Trilogy, 14), of whom she is one; this is a group of “nameless initiates / born of one mother // companions / of the flame,” who share with H.D. her quest for gnosis. Not something to be uttered openly or divulged to the masses, the fact of one’s initiation is communicated subtly through symbolism: “we know each other / by secret symbols” (Trilogy, 21, 20), H.D. writes—these being the very symbols appearing in Majic Ring and Trilogy, including the Caduceus, the “snake-rod” mentioned in the medium’s, Arthur Bhaduri’s vision (Majic Ring, 4), which H.D. calls “the rod of power /... crowned with the lily-head”: “among the dying / it bears healing: // or evoking the dead, it brings life to the living” (Trilogy, 7).

13In “Tribute to Angels,” the psychodrama of initiation is stated clearly: the initiate, with Azrael, the “ruler of time and death” acting as psychopomp, has overcome the resistance of Cerberus and has descended through a “dark subterranean pasasage,” arriving at an underworld site; “[L] lovest thou not Azrael, // the last and greatest, Death?,” the narrator asks in seemingly coded langage. In the Arabic tradition H.D. is following here, Azrael is not Death or Hades as terrifying reaper but as an instrument of resurrection. During Adam’s creation, Azrael succeeds where the other archangels fail by providing seven handfuls of earth to God who, in turn, rewards him with the task of separating the body from the soul at death. His task is achieved by holding an apple from the Tree of Life to the nostrils of the dying person. In a revision of the Genesis story, H.D.’s archangel offers those dying an opportunity to be reborn into the realm of gnosis. For the initiate, death ushers not a separation but a second birth, a resurrection.

14Interestingly, in this palingenetic story of the soul and the Lady and the other initiates in Trilogy, Lord Dowding seems be the double of Cerberus since he refuses to undertake the journey to Hades or the subconscious, dismissing and, indeed, reproaching H.D. for wishing to do so herself. But with Azrael acting as enabling double for an ineffectual Dowding, H.D. persists with her initiation. During its subconscious state in the Underworld, the soul still feels attached to its hylic constitution but is also being readying for abandoning it and translating or creating—out of its own subtle material—its own ethereal “constatation” (Notes, 30). The right time for this action seems to be determined by Thoth who, “with a feather //... weighed the souls / of the dead.” (Trilogy, 99) What happens, then, is that the initiate is separated from her hylic body and thus from “darkness of ignorance” (98). No longer “imprisoned in leaden bars / in a coloured window,” the soul is transformed into “Psyche, the butterfly, / out of the cocoon” (103). The rebirth of the butterfly or soul is likely what H.D. means by repeating at the end of “Tribute to Angels” this: “we pause to give / thanks that we rise again from death and live” (87, 110).

15Having lived through dromena’s “anger, frustration, / [and] bitter fire of destruction” (114) and endured and left behind Golgotha, “The-place-of-a-skull / to those who have fashioned it” (115), at the beginning of “The Flowering of the Rod” the soul is ready to overcome its desire for its hylic nature “and mount higher / to love—resurrection” (114). At achieving this state, the soul is then freed to search for its origins, “the lost island, Altantis... (117, 153), “Herperides” (120, 153), “The Islands of the Blest” (122, 153), “the lands of the blest” (154), “the promised land” (154), “Paradise” (117), “Paradise / before Eve” (155).

16Indeed, “The Flowering of the Rod” brings to the psychodrama of the soul’s awakening to its telos. The figure of the Lady represents, among other things, the opportunity for Kaspar to penetrate into “the secret of the sacred processes” (133), “the innermost secret” (158), and arrive eventually “before the Holy-Presence-Manifest” (170). But before this moment can be realized, Kaspar—who could be the magi or Amen or even God himself—must first learn to deal with his predisposition to believe that the Lady should not appear in public in her state as “un-maidenly” (130), “unpredictable” (131, 159), “disordered, disheveled” (137)—in fact, “it was unseemly that a woman / appear at all” (137). In fact, H.D. suggests that Kaspar’s education and training must be overcome (167) before he can recognize the Lady and experience his epopteia.

17The process of Kaspar’s initiation has already begun in “The Walls Do Not Fall” with Velasquez’s crucified who “now looks at you” with eyes that “are amber and... fire” (Trilogy, 28), an alchemical image of kenosis, of the soul’s emptying out through death into another life, a process whose signature is the “glowing amber” identified with the palingenetic utterance neatly expressed in this couplet: “I have gone forward / I have gone backward” (124). The soul, a “speck, fleck, grain or seed” (152), “the least of all seeds” (127), sheds its hylic body and, like the Christos, “journeys back and forth / between the poles of heaven and earth forever” (128). The seed also blooms into the lily and the Tree or Life. Using a number of other palingenetic metaphors, H.D. traces the figure of the Lady as a “Presence,” a manifestation, a sort of ambivalent Amen figure who makes possible the resurrection not only of a God and “His-life-after-Death” (129) but, more importantly, the soul’s journey toward its own growth of understanding. Beginning as “the infinitely tiny grain or seed” (153), the soul dies by shedding its sheath and is immediately reborn into an entity capable of achieved epopteia, the moment at which Kaspar (along with the speaker) “saw further, saw deeper, apprehended more // than anyone before or after him” (165). This is the “full ειδὼς” symbolically represented in the final section of “The Flowering of the Rod” when Kaspar’s gift of an alabaster jar containing, as the new-born’s mother says, “a most beautiful fragrance, as of all flowering things together” turns out to have its source not in the jar which has remained unbroken but in the newborn soul, “the bundle of myrrh / she held in her arms” (172). In “The Flowering of the Rod,” then, H.D. instructs Kaspar and the reader, preparing them for understanding the meaning of their glimpse of the re-born soul. Nonetheless, the “story of Greece,” which H.D. thought she had completed with Trilogy, may have been unfinished or be unfinishable after all. If Trilogy’s epopteia constitutes the initiate’s/reader’s working out of the “full ειδὼς,” we find H.D. continuing this search for the soul’s identity and naming in Helen in Egypt, Vale Ave and Hermetic Definition. These late poems, each in its own way, also tell the story of Greece, a story of esoterically constructed self-knowledge imagined by H.D. as the attainment of epopteia, a visionary moment of the integration of the over-mind and the “womb-mind” from which issues a “new spiritual birth” (Notes, 50).


1 Writing about their Pennsylvania years in End to Torment, H.D. recalls her paideuma under Pound’s tutelage “at the time of the avalanche of Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Shaw, Yogi books, Swedenborg, William Morris, Balzac’s Séraphita, Rossetti and the rest of them” (p. 45-46; see also p. 22-23).

2 Introduction, Majic Ring, p. xxxix.

3 Critics have used a much later date for the beginning of H.D.’s interest in, and involvement with, the occult. For instance, Rachel Connor, following Susan Stanford Friedman, claims that H.D. engaged in occult activities “from as early as 1930” (H.D. and the Image, p. 112). See The Celestial Tradition (p. 64-69) for my claim for a much earlier date.

4 Hieros gamos or hierogamia means “sacred marriage” —that is coitus between a divine being and a mortal. It is thought that an hieros gamos was part of the ritual practiced during the Eleuninian mysteries. Pound’s understanding of the concept of the hieros gamos explains the proliferation of copulative imagery in The Cantos.

5 H.D. acknowledges in various places Pound’s role in being introduced very early on to occult ideas. For instance, see the Hirslanden Notebooks where she writes that “Ezra was the first person to introduce me to Yogi philosophy + though I did not progress far, the Air Marshall’s lectures on psychic phenomena or “spiritualism” did limb up in the unconscious “memory” with Ezra’s Yogi books. Swedenborg + Balzac’s Seriphitus.” (Hirslanden Notebooks, 35)

6 See Notes on Thought and Vision, p. 30. H.D. could not be clearer about this: “The first step in the Eleusinian Mysteries had to do with sex” (29), a point that she develops later on by pointing out that “Egypt... is the act of love. Hellas is a child born.” (37)

7 This tripartite process focuses on what Albert Gelpi in his introduction to Notes has said happens to H.D. when she finds herself “in extremis on unknown boundaries and strange thresholds” (p. 7) which “make possible a breakthrough into heightened consciousness” (9).

8 H.D. summarizes the palingenetic quest in terms of “the three states of manifestations—subconscious mind, conscious mind, over-conscious mind” (49).

9 Lord Dowding (Hugh Caswall Tremenhere), retired Air Chief Marshal of the Roayl Air Force (R.A.F.), was the renowned victor of the Battle of Brittain that had preceded the Night Blitz. Called Lord Howell in Majic Ring, he met with H.D. and corresponded with her. See Introduction to Majic Ring, especially p. xxix-xxxiv.

10 In a typical etymological game, H.D. connects “δέλɸις” (dolphin) and “Δελɸίνιος” (Delphian), an epithet of Apollo, with “Δελɸοί” or Delphi.

11 H.D.’s personal breakdowns include “[A] still-born child and a baby, four years later, whose birth was a miracle and whose living was a wonder but who had all but taken my life... a husband’s subtle deflection and a friend’s desertion and the falling away of an entire set of acquaintances” (98). These “breakdowns” refer to what happened in the aftermath of WWI; another major breakdown was Lord Dowding’s rejection during WWII.

12 Delia speaks explicitly and repeatedly of man’s Piscean Age to be followed by the woman’s Aquarian Age.

13 In my introduction to Majic Ring I claim that this autobiographical memoir/theoretical statement “provides strong evidence of H.D.’s construction of a unique occult tradition at the heart of what emerged as visionary politics; it offers a road map for, and a prose record of, the writing process and substance of Trilogy” (p. xxi).


Professor of English and A/Dean, School of Graduate Studies at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton (Canada). He is also a member of the Editorial Collective for Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics and Secretary of the Ezra Pound Society. He is the author, editor or co-editor of twelve books, including The Celestial Tradition: A Study of Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos” (WLUP, 1992); “I Cease Not to Yowl”: Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti (University Press of Illinois, 1998); The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2005), H.D.’s Majic Ring (University Press of Florida, 2009); and A Festschrift in Honor of Burton N. Hatlen (NPF, 2013). His current projects include The Correspondence of H.L. Mencken and Ezra Pound (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2014); Approaches to Teaching Ezra Pound’s Poetry and Prose (forthcoming from PMLA, 2014); The Inmate at St Elizabeths: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and Archibald MacLeish; a translation of Andreas Empeirikos’ surrealist collection ῾Υψικάμινος (Blast Furnace); and a scholarly edition of H. D’s Hirslanden Notebooks (ELS Editions, 2014).

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