The Best Poems by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle)

Are these H. D.’s greatest poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

Hilda Doolittle, or H. D. as she chose to publish, was labelled ‘the perfect imagist’ by various critics and reviewers. The following five poems show why H. D. was the leading light of the short-lived imagist movement, as her poetry offers concise and vivid images behind which lurk whole storms of restrained emotion. Here’s a selection of H. D.’s finest poems, both from her imagist period and from her later work.

Oread’. This six-line poem, perhaps H. D.’s best-known poem, was published in the 1915 anthology Some Imagist Poets, which also featured poems by Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and F. S. Flint – the main poets who published under the imagist banner. The Oread or mountain-nymph addresses the sea, asking for it to come up to the land and smother it – but the imagery H. D. uses enacts this very desire, by describing the sea using land-based imagery (seeing the green waves as pine trees, for instance). Is this also a poem about sexuality, and perhaps even same-sex desire? It might be read as such, as well as an innovative nature poem.

The Pool’. It’s unrhymed, it has no regular metre, it uses no superfluous word or phrase, and it has at its centre a strong, clear image – but what does the image of the pool, or to be more accurate, the image in the pool represent in this poem? Has the poet come face-to-face with her own reflection (making this a poem about self-reflection in both a literal and metaphorical sense), or does the simile of the addressee quivering ‘like a sea-fish’ suggest that the poet is making unwanted overtures to a loved one who now spurns her?

Sea Poppies’. Written during the First World War, ‘Sea Poppies’ might be read as an alternative war poem, addressing the death and destruction of the Western Front but only obliquely, from a female civilian’s perspective. The sea-poppies flourish despite the unpromising surroundings out of which they grow, which includes detritus and, suggestively, ‘split shells’ – summoning not just seashells but the more sinister ‘shells’ used in the Great War.

Sea Rose’. Like ‘Sea Poppies’, this poem was collected in H. D.’s first volume of poems, Sea Garden (1916), and in fact opened the collection. Suggesting a new way of viewing the poetic symbol par excellence, ‘Sea Rose’ presents the harshness and durability of the sea rose: it’s a rose, but not as we (usually) know it. Beauty, in other words, can be spawned in the most surprising and unlikeliest of places.

‘The Walls Do Not Fall’. Perhaps the greatest H. D. poem from the latter half of her career, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ grew into the three-part long poem Trilogy, written during the Second World War but taking in religion, comparative mythology, the zodiac, and autobiography (H. D. recalls her time spent in Egypt in the 1920s with her lesbian lover, Bryher), as well as psychoanalysis (H. D. had travelled to Vienna in 1933 to undergo analysis with none other than Sigmund Freud). As this is a longer poem, you’ll need to get hold of Trilogy to read it in full – but it’s well worth it.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.