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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 Read the rest of this entry


A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘Araby’

A commentary on one of Joyce’s shortest Dubliners stories

‘Araby’ is one of the early stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the 1914 collection of short stories which is now regarded as one of the landmark texts of modernist literature. At the time, sales were poor, with just 379 copies being sold in the first year (famously, 120 of these were bought by Joyce himself). And yet ‘Araby’ shows just what might have initially baffled readers coming to James Joyce’s fiction for the first time, and what marked him out as a brilliant new writer. But before we get to an analysis of ‘Araby’ (which can be read here), a brief summary of the story’s plot – what little ‘plot’ there is.

In summary, then: ‘Araby’ is narrated by a young boy, who describes the Dublin street where he lives. As the story progresses, the narrator realises that he has feelings for his neighbour’s sister and watches her from his house, daydreaming about her, wondering if she will ever speak to him. When they eventually talk, she Read the rest of this entry

A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’

On one of Joyce’s finest short stories

‘The Sisters’ is the opening story in James Joyce’s 1914 collection, Dubliners. Unlike the other stories in the collection, it is told in the first person, by a young man recalling his friendship, as a boy, with a Catholic priest. As this very brief summary of the story would suggest, there is something odd in the story being given the title ‘The Sisters’, since the two sisters are actually not the central focus of the story. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get to a summary and analysis of the story, here it is: you can read ‘The Sisters’ here.

Modernist literature, of which James Joyce is a key exponent, is often marked by gaps, ellipses (…), innuendos and insinuations, things unspoken but implied. In choosing to use first-person narration rather than a less limited (or ‘omniscient’) third-person narrator, Joyce, in ‘The Sisters’, immediately restricts the field of knowledge of his narrator. And by making his narrator and protagonist a young boy, who has been shielded (locked away?) from the realities of the adult world by his parents and by institutions like the Catholic Church, Joyce intensifies this ignorance or innocence. It’s hardly any wonder there are so many half-caught things in ‘The Sisters’, things which Joyce’s narrator – and we as readers – have been left to analyse, complete, and make sense of (or attempt to). Read the rest of this entry