A reading of a classic Imagist poem
Along with Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the short poem ‘Oread’ by Hilda Doolittle or H. D. (1886-1961) may be the defining poem of the Imagist movement. You can read ‘Oread’ here, before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
‘Oread’ was published in the 1915 anthology Some Imagist Poets, which also featured poems by Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and F. S. Flint – probably the main poets who published under the Imagist banner. (There were others, such as Amy Lowell – though her style was more loose and less concrete than Pound, the founder of Imagism, advocated. With a possible pun on the final two syllables, Pound once dismissed her work as ‘Amy-gism’.) But when Glenn Hughes published the first critical study of Imagist poetry in 1930, it was Hilda Doolittle – who published under the initials H. D. – that Hughes identified as ‘the perfect Imagist’.
In many ways, this is odd. Imagist poetry is characterised by a suspicion of repetition for poetic effect, and usually concerns itself with recognisably urban scenes: a journey on the London Underground (Aldington’s ‘In the Tube’, Flint’s ‘Tube’), an observation in the Paris Metro (Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’), or a brief description of a London scene (Aldington’s ‘Hampstead Heath’, Flint’s ‘Cones’). ‘Oread’ clearly fails on both counts. Yet Hughes’s description of H. D. as the perfect embodiment of the Imagist method is perceptive because her use of images is always concise and makes us rethink the very idea of calling something ‘like’ something else. Even metaphor, that more direct comparison between one thing and another, won’t do: the poet has to mix up the two things being compared. This is what ‘Oread’ is about.
In summary, the poem takes its title from the name of a nymph in classical mythology. Specifically, an ‘Oread’ was a nymph of the mountains; more specifically still, an Oread was a nymph of mountainous conifers. This is crucial when analysing ‘Oread’ because it explains the reference to the fir tree in Doolittle’s poem. The Oread addresses the sea and beseeches it to ‘whirl up’ onto the rocks, asking it to cover the rocks in its ‘pools of fir’. The language and rhythm ripple like the gentle lapping waves of the sea: ‘Whirl up’, ‘Whirl’, ‘Hurl’, ‘pointed pines’, ‘great pines’, ‘over us’, ‘cover us’ – and then that final fading of ‘over’ into ‘of fir’.
But the most arresting thing about ‘Oread’ is that the conifers and the sea melt into each other: the speaker asks the sea’s ‘pointed pines’ to whirl up over the rocks, just as those ‘pools of fir’ belong to the sea, rather than to the conifers already on land. The union between water and land that the speaker desires has, in her mind and in her images, already happened.
In just six short lines, Hilda Doolittle has offered a concise example of Imagist poetry, presenting an image in the Poundian sense (‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’). ‘Oread’ is a miniature work that is ‘classical’ in both the normal sense (it takes its name from a nymph from classical mythology) and the philosophical sense promoted by T. E. Hulme. Although it describes a scene of gushing abandon and release, the gushing is merely desired – it is not a reality. The language displays the same restraint which Pound called for in his manifesto for Imagism.
We can also analyse ‘Oread’ as a poem that gives voice to a female poet specifically, given the fact that an Oread is a feminine being. The link with the classical conjures up the titles of epic poems (invariably written by men) with –id or –ad titles, such as Iliad or Aeneid or Thebaid, with the irony being that this modern poem, this ‘Oread’, can say all it needs to say in six lines rather than twenty-four books. But the classical subject also takes us back to Sappho and raises the possibility that ‘Oread’ is a homoerotic poem, with the feminine mountain nymph calling to the (often also feminine) sea. Given that both the sea and the mountainous conifers effectively change places in Doolittle’s poem, might this be hinting at the idea that they are both, in many ways, the same?
Continue to explore the world of modernist poetry with our discussion of May Sinclair’s forgotten imagist novel, our pick of T. E. Hulme’s greatest poems, and our discussion of Hulme’s 1908 lecture on modern poetry.
Image: Les Oréades by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), via Wikimedia Commons.