A Brief Biography of H.D.


Note: This biography is largely drawn from Herself Defined: the Poet H.D. and Her World, by Barbara Guest. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984.) An excellent and highly recommended biography is Susan Friedman's article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 45, 2nd series (volume is entitled, Modern American Poets).
H.D., Hilda Doolittle, was born on September 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her mother a Moravian, and her father an astronomer, she grew up to be what some have called the finest of all Imagist poets. Her accomplishments, though, extended far beyond her early Imagist poems. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction writings were published on both sides of the Atlantic, and her roles in a few early films also earned her praise. Most of the awards, including the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Brandeis and Longview Awards came late in her life, when her poetry had begun to break away from strict Imagism.

Her days in Pennsylvania were spent among her family and extended family. As a young woman she began lifelong friendships with Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound. She met them both before and during her days at Bryn Mawr, but dropped out and found her way to England in 1911. Her romance with Ezra Pound had ended, but he had found his way to Europe before her and he introduced her to London's literary circles. In London she also met the novelist Richard Aldington, whom she married on October 18, 1913 in the borough of Kensington.

The Imagists held three principles: direct treatment of the subject, allow no word that was not essential to the presentation, and follow the musical phrase rather than strict regularity in their rhythms. They began publishing circa 1908, and H.D.'s first published poems appeared in the journal Poetry in January 1913. ("Hermes of the Ways," "Orchard," and "Epigram.") Throughout her life she had adored all things Greek, and during this time she began to travel throughout Europe, and saw Greece for the first time. Her friends and associates included Ford Madox Ford and Amy Lowell, and her poetry appeared in the English Review, the Transatlantic Review, and the Egoist. And, thanks largely to Amy Lowell, she was introduced to audiences in the United States. She also began turbulent times during which her intense, but non-sexual relationship with D.H. Lawrence began, and her marriage became troubled. (Her novel "Bid Me to Live" is largely about this time.)

She lived downstairs from her husband's mistress, and was introduced to a friend of the Lawrences, Cecil Gray, who became the father of her daughter, Frances Perdita. Known as Perdita, she was named for H.D.'s first great love and lifelong friend, Frances Gregg, and for the lost daughter of Hermione in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. She was born on March 31, 1919; H.D. had been very ill, but Bryher had come to her rescue.

Bryher, born Annie Winifred Ellerman, met H.D. on July 17, 1918 in Cornwall. She took the name Bryher from one of the Scilly Isles, which she adored. Also a writer, she was a great fan of H.D.'s poetry, and their friendship blossomed into love. They were lifelong companions, although often maintaining separate residences and their independence. They travelled as cousins, and were together through the other loves of each others' lives, and through Bryher's marriages to Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Macpherson. Together they went to Paris, mingling with the expatriate literary community, where Bryher helped establish McAlmon's press, which published Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pound, Nathanael West, and Djuna Barnes, among others. After Bryher's marriage to McAlmon ended, and the one to Macpherson begun, they were drawn into the world of film. Bryher and Macpherson began POOL Productions, and the film magazine Close-Up, read internationally. H.D. appeared in the POOL films Foothills (1927) and Borderline (1930), which received the most enthusiastic reception in Germany. Although they moved in circles that included G.W. Pabst and Sergei Eisenstein, H.D. was again soon travelling.

She and Bryher lived at this time in Kenwin, the Bauhaus home Bryher had built near Riant Chateau in Switzerland. Life for H.D. was awkward there; she was neither mistress of the house nor guest. She also sought out analysis, and Bryher, an early supporter of psychoanalysis, arranged for Dr. Hanns Sachs and Havelock Ellis to recommend H.D. to Sigmund Freud. H.D. referred to herself as Freud's pupil, and he referred to her as his analysand, during 1933 and 1934. H.D. later wrote "Tribute to Freud" as a fictionalized memoir of this period. Her interests at this time also included mysticism, Hellenic studies, Egyptology, and astrology, and her days in Vienna were very happy. Luckily, she and Bryher were able to get to London for the duration of World War II; Bryher barely escaped Switzerland before helping over a hundred refugees to homes in other countries.

The years during World War II were very productive for H.D., in contrast to her experience of World War I. She and Bryher lived together during this time, and Bryher published "Life and Letters Today," having bought enough paper to last through the war. They visited their friends the Sitwells, T.S. Eliot, and others, and kept up their correspondence with their friends in America, including Norman Holmes Pearson. He was at Yale, and became her friend, promoter, and literary executor. She became very interested in spiritualism, and her poetry began to strain at the boundaries of Imagism. "The Walls Do Not Fall," the first part of "Trilogy," was her break with Imagism.

After the war, though, H.D. suffered a mental breakdown, and returned to Switzerland. She lived at Kusnacht, a clinic, and various hotels. She was now 60, yet was experiencing the most prolific writing years of her life. Now divorced from Aldington, they began a new friendship, and she remained legally Hilda Doolittle Aldington. The greatest awards of her career came in the fifties and sixties, during which time Bryher, now divorced, and Pearson took care of the legal and literary details of her life, leaving her free to write.

However, in July 1961, while on the phone with her dear friend and physician, Dr. Heydt, she suffered a stroke. She remained perhaps semi-conscious while her writings continued to be published. She died on the 21st of September 1961, and was buried on Nisky Hill, back in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, among her family. She was survived by Bryher, her daughter and son- in-law, her grandchildren, and many, many other family members and friends. She had written to Pearson, "I think I did get what I was looking for from life and art."

Her gravestone lies flat in Nisky Hill Cemetary, Bethlehem, Penn., and usually has sea shells on it, left in tribute. It bears lines from her poem "Epitaph:"

Hilda Doolittle
Aldington
Sept. 10, 1886
Sept. 27, 1961

"So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
reclaims forever
one who died
following intricate song's
lost measure."
H.D.

--H. Hernandez

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H.D., A Brief Biography, Rev. January 25, 2004 (http://www.imagists.org/hd/bio.html) Please send comments and suggestions to hh@imagists.org