Friday, March 11, 2011

Sea Garden by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

H.D. was born in 1886 in Pennsylvania, but moved to London in 1911, where she came to be associated with the Imagist movement* and fellow American poet Ezra Pound. H.D. became deeply involved with the English literary scene, marrying poet Richard Aldington, becoming the editor of the avant-garde Egoist magazine, and publishing in venues like the English Review. H.D. was open about her bisexuality, and thus she has been viewed as an important figure in the breaking down of gender constructions. Sea Garden was her first book of poems, published in 1916 during her tenure at the Egoist. 

*according to an influential 1913 essay on imagism by F.S. Flint, imagism seeks to directly treat a subject or object at a particular instant in time, seeks to be as concise as possible, and rejects traditional poetic meters in favor of more musical rhythms.

A Radical preference for the sea over the land:  The first three poems offer some of the strongest expressions of this. "Sea Rose" contrasts the "sea rose" with the "spice rose," radically redefining the image of what is beautiful as the "harsh" "marred" "meagre flower" (the sea rose). As with many of H.D.'s poems in this collection, the poet directly addresses something's being and forcefully asserts its existence: "Stunned, with small leaf, / you are flung on the sand, / you are lifted / in the crisp sand / that drive in the wind." "The Helmsman," narrated in first person plural, tells of the movement of people inland, but in the end, changes their movement out to the sea: "But now, our boat climbs--hesitates--drops--/climbs--hesitates--crawls back--/climbs--hesitates--/O be swift--/we have always known you wanted us." Finally, "The Shrine" dismantles the image of land as safe: "Nay, you are great, fierce, evil--/you are the land--blight--/you have tempted men but they perish on your cliffs." Celena Kusch offers a succinct reading for H.D.'s move towards imagery of the seas and the coasts over and above images of land: Sea Garden implicitly "rewrites the landscape, and by extension the culture, of the modern United States" which requires "transcending the US/Anglo-Europe dichotomy...Sea Garden's poetic representation of coasts and borders allows her to do just this." (Source: H.D.'s American Sea Garden: Drowning the Idyll Threat to US Modernism." Twentieth Century LIterature 56:1, 2010)

Freedom, movement, and violence: Relatedly, Sea Garden repeats that images of movement and violence are desirable, and that images of shelter often mean a kind of terrible stagnancy. "Sheltered Garden" gives one of the best examples; it begins with images of a "sheltered garden" in which "Every way ends, every road, / every foot-path leads a tlast / to the hill-crest--/then you retrace your steps." The poet bursts out, wishing for some movement, any movement: "O for some sharp swish of a branch--there is no scent of resin/in this place..." The poet complains that this kind of static beauty without movement is "beauty without strength." The call for a new kind of beauty "in some terrible / wind-tortured place" ends the final stanza, signaling that this kind of movement is accompanied by violence as well. "Loss" is addressed to someone who has drowned in the tide as opposed to his/her comrades, who were either dragged back to the marshes or swept under the cliff during some epic battle involving spears and lances. The "beloved" who was taken out to sea has "escaped," while the "heavy sea-mist stifles" the poet left behind. Again, the land proves a trap, and the sea, freedom. The "Huntress" surges with the energy and violence of movement, of a group sprinting quickly over the land: "We climbed the ploughed land, / dragged the seed from the clefts / broke the clods with our heels, / whirled with a parched cry / into the woods." The final stanza signals to the addressee of the poem that s/he must keep up at all costs: "Spring up--sway forward--/follow the quickest one, / aye, though you leave the trail / and drop exhausted at our feet." The "huntress" signals that this desirable violence isn't the directed masculine violence of battle, but it's own sort of indirect violence which comes of individuals breaking free or breaking loose. "The Garden" again imagines the violent wind as a desired force: "O wind, rend open the heat, / cut apart the heat, / rend it to tatters...Cut the heat--/plough through it, / turning it on either side of your path." In "Sea Gods," the poet remarks of the gods, "[t]hey say you are twisted by the sea, / you are cut apart / by wave-break upon wave-break / that you are misshapen by the sharp rocks, / broken by rasp and after-rasp." But, this violent destruction of their corporeality proves a boon in the third section of the poem, which affirmatively says what these sea gods will do, having been freed from their bodies: "For you will come, / you will yet haunt men in ships, / you will trail across the fringe of strait / and circle the jagged rocks...For you will come, / you will come, / you will answer our taut hearts, / you will break the lie of men's thoughts, / and cherish and shelter us." Having been broken themselves, the sea gods will then break men's taut (stubborn?) hearts and the lies (conventions?), thus enabling to them also a new kind of freedom.
Overall, H.D.'s imagistic formal innovations parallel the subject matter's concern with energy that breaks and frees as a radical expression of beauty. The form has broken free of traditional metric considerations, as well as linguistic fetters such as of high poetic diction, or twisted syntax. On the level of culture and nation, I agree with Celena Kutsch that H.D. channels the violence of broken boundaries that are so central to her images to suggest a radical vision for American literature which isn't insular, but bold and unafraid of transgressing the borders of both time and space. These traits--boldness, transgression, violent freedom--themselves become what is individual and American; paradoxically, she claims an identity that is simultaneously non-national and national.

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