Helen in Egypt: H. D.’s Modernist Epic

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle visits Egypt courtesy of H. D.’s response to the epic poem

Helen of Troy was a mere phantom conjured by the goddess Hera. The real wife of Menelaus, the woman we know as ‘Helen of Troy’, spent the duration of the Trojan War in Egypt, having been taken there by Hermes and kept out of harm’s way, while some pretender was used back in Troy as a stand-in for the real Helen. The Greeks and the Trojans both went to war over what was, effectively, an illusion.

This is one of the oldest conspiracy theories in western literature, and the basis of one of Euripides’ less famous plays, Helen. But it is also the loose inspiration for a long modern epic by one of the twentieth century’s most distinctive voices: H. D., the poet who was born Hilda Doolittle and who made her name in the second decade of the twentieth century as ‘H. D. Imagiste’ (the initials were Ezra Pound’s idea).

As the standout imagist poet, H. D. attracted the admiration of numerous poets and critics of the early twentieth century. But like other poets who were associated with the core of the imagist movement, H. D.’s ambitions grew in her later, post-imagist years.

Her former husband Richard Aldington, in the 1920s, wrote a number of longer poems – essentially verse narratives or even verse novels – the most remarkable of which is A Fool i’ the Forest. Pound himself, famously, embarked on The Cantos, which would keep him busy for the rest of his life.

H. D. went on to write novels as well as poems, and in her later years produced two substantial works of poetry: Trilogy (1944-6), about the fallout from the Second World War, and Helen in Egypt (1961), which is the longest ‘poem’ she wrote, a vast 300-page work of free-verse tercets, with each section prefaced by brief prose introductions telling us the story, almost like stage directions in some vast verse drama.

H. D. wrote Helen in Egypt in the early 1950s, although it remained unpublished until shortly after her death in 1961. The poem can be understood as a feminist response to the idea that it was a woman who caused a vast and cataclysmic war – that Helen of Troy was responsible for the suffering and deaths of countless men. But no: what if Helen were blameless, and the war were merely an excuse for men to strut and sport and compete with each other to prove their prowess?

H. D. had lived through two world wars. Her poetic career had been launched on the eve of the First World War, while the Second World War had persuaded her to return to writing poetry after several years away from it. Helen in Egypt is on an epic scale, and a typically modernist – which is to say oblique and allusive – attempt to engage with contemporary events through history and myth, by viewing the specific through the lens of the eternal and timeless. The more things change…

H. D. knew Egypt well, having spent some time in Karnak in the early 1920s (she was nearby when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922). She weaves in personal knowledge of the country here, but Helen in Egypt is also steeped in her awareness of the classics.

What Helen in Egypt effectively does is take on the genre of the epic – a distinctly male genre, from Homer to Virgil to Spenser and Milton – and offer a feminist revision of its implications and preoccupations. Instead of mighty battles and bravado, heroism and questions of imperial possession and expansion, Helen in Egypt is more of a dialogue, even a dialectic, between the female Helen and figures such as Achilles.

And one of the things Helen in Egypt encourages us to do is to question our accepted notions of form and genre. Is it an epic poem? In one sense, yes, although it lacks an epic ‘hero’ in the traditional sense, and even Helen herself, being removed from the theatre of war, is a dubious case for ‘epic heroine’, since she neither undergoes a considerable journey nor engages in a significant battle of some sort.

The battles associated with the epic are instead recast as the debates Helen stages between herself and the notable figures from the Trojan War. Similarly, the mixture of prose and verse in Helen in Egypt, with the former sections reminding us of stage directions, suggest the possibility of drama, without Helen in Egypt becoming a play per se. For these reasons and others, Helen in Egypt is a curious modernist reinvention of the epic poem, which can be analysed as a feminist response to that male form par excellence.

It is both epic and not epic, autobiographical and not autobiographical, about the Trojan War and about all war, poetry and prose, dramatic and not dramatic. Where could the epic go after the world wars of the twentieth century?

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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