In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads a wide-ranging poem about the Second World War
When H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her then-husband Richard Aldington walked into a bomb-damaged house during the First World War, Aldington found an abandoned volume of Robert Browning’s poetry and kicked it across the room. What use was poetry in the face of such destruction? But poetry tends to endure in wartime: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets would largely be written during the next world war, while H. D.’s own poetry would have a curious and poignant afterlife: sections of her poem ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ (from her long poem Trilogy) were inscribed by an anonymous graffitist among the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11.
As Norman Holmes Pearson notes in his introduction to the Carcanet edition of Trilogy which I own, with this long poem – or trilogy of long poems – H. D. was trying to connect the communal experience of the Second World War with her own history and with history in general.
H. D.’s imagist poetry had largely ignored the First World War – although I’m inclined to see echoes of the war, and even perhaps a feminine reshaping of the war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in her poem ‘Sea Poppies’, in which the poppies flourish amidst the unpromising detritus and ‘split shells’ of the sea-bed – but ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ and the subsequent two poems which make up Trilogy are resolutely a response to the Second World War. Modernist poets’ responses to the events of the 1930s and 1940s became larger-scale, more all-encompassing, than their earlier work, as the generic nature of their titles reveals: H. D.’s Trilogy, Eliot’s Four Quartets, Pound’s Cantos. Such titles name a form or structure rather than providing any clue to the poems’ contents.
Like The Waste Land, Eliot’s response to the fallout from another war, Trilogy fuses different traditions and world religions. The first part, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’, bears the inscription ‘To Bryher for Karnak 1923 from London 1942’. Bryher was H. D.’s friend, lesbian lover, and companion who had stayed with her in Egypt in the early 1920s (they were nearby when Howard Carter uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings), but the juxtaposition of Karnak and London points up the internationalism of H. D.’s poetic enterprise: like Eliot’s The Waste Land and ‘Little Gidding’, Trilogy is both a London poem and, in a sense, a world-poem.
Each of the three parts that make up Trilogy – ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ (1944), ‘Tribute to the Angels’ (1945), and ‘The Flowering of the Rod’ (1946) – is divided into forty-three sections, and is written in couplets (almost) throughout. These couplets are unrhymed, continuing the free verse style H. D. pioneered in such imagist poems as ‘Oread’ and ‘The Pool’. The poem also recalls, in its mixture of imagistic precision and conversational style (almost closer to thinking out loud at times), the destabilised quatrains of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, although there’s no suggestion in the poem that H. D. was directly influenced by Pound’s poem. As with H. D.’s imagist period, there’s a mixture of tautness and looseness: tautness because of the carefully chosen and vivid imagery deployed, and looseness because of the sprawling and irregular nature of the couplets, and the efforts to capture the rhythms of natural speech throughout.
Trilogy is about more than the Second World War, or H. D.’s private history, or Karnak, or London. It is a poem in search of the key to the meaning of life, which, like The Waste Land, considers the major world religions, Greek and Roman mythology, and, in H. D.’s case, the zodiac itself (the Scorpion, Archer, Goat, Waterman, and Fish appear in one section). In this respect, the poem may also be recalling Eliot’s lines in ‘The Dry Salvages’ which consider the human fascination with countless forms of divination.
But to this ‘barren search’ for meaning, as H. D. puts it at one point, we can add psychoanalysis: she had travelled to Vienna in the early 1930s to be analysed by Freud, and Trilogy reflects her knowledge of Freud’s ideas. The unconscious, for H. D., is full of ‘incongruent monsters’ and ‘imagery done to death’. So, of course, is poetry, and so the private battle to come to terms with her own identity is also a public struggle to move forward as a poet, and to move poetry itself forward. And like T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets, H. D. in Trilogy is a self-conscious poet, directly discussing poetry and the difficulties of finding new words for what seem age-old things: war, love, religious devotion.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.