H.D.'s The Gift
A review by Charlotte Mandel


Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author; originally published in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, September 1999 (42:3), p.344-348.

H.D.'s The Gift

H.D. The Gift: the Complete Text. Jane Augustine, ed.
Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 1988. xvi + 318 pp. $49.95.
H.D.'s The Gift, written in London between 1941 and 1943, exploded into her consciousness during nightly bomb raids that sounded apocalyptic destruction and fire from the sky. This prose work of revelation, which she termed "autobiographical fantasy," vibrates with energy that will generate and sustain her breakthrough long poem of endurance and regeneration, Trilogy, written immediately after. The Gift, an arresting work in itself for its style and musicality, proves to be the realization of H.D.'s most profound vision of the significance of her art. More than fifty years since its creation, readers have been gifted indeed by publication of the definitive text, superbly annotated and edited with scholarly excellence by Jane Augustine.

Publication of this volume rectifies a skewed impression of the work given by the 1982 New Directions edition which had been severely--and silently--truncated. Nearly a third of H.D.'s 1944 final typescript was cut, from entire chapters to intermittent lines and paragraphs, as well as the entire section of H.D.'s "Notes" (94 pages) comprised of historical material she considered integral, to be included upon publication. The misleading effect of such arbitrary literary surgery was noted by Rachel Blau DuPlessis at the time the abridged version appeared (Sulfur 1984). Chapters of the missing text have been made available in journals: "The Dream" (Contemporary Literature); "The Fortune Teller" (Iowa Review); and "Dark Room" with related "Notes" (Montemora). The New Directions edition aimed for simple storytelling as a memoir of H.D.'s childhood in Pennsylvania recollected in World War II London, thereby neglecting primary material concerning the mystical religion and history of her Moravian heritage. Truncation also lost the stylistic resonance of H.D.'s deliberate echoing of images and names.

The present edition obeys H.D.'s final decisions on textual order, punctuation and syntax. In its completeness, the volume demonstrates that The Gift is central to full appreciation of H.D.'s unique status as a visionary artist of the twentieth century. She saw herself as a receptor of mystical truths, her writing as inscription of spiritual energy towards universal love and peace.

In 1886, Hilda Doolittle was born into a family extended not only by siblings, grandparents and cousins, but also by the community of her mother's Moravian Church. Details of the history and naming of the settlement of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are painstakingly reported by H.D. in her "Notes" following the seven chapters of impressionistic memoir. H.D. quotes from various sources she has assiduously sought out; the "notes" parallel italicized phrases in the text and explore earliest references to the Unitas Fratrum, founded in Bohemia in 1457. Jane Augustine's "Editor's Notes" verify, with painstaking references, H.D.'s historical readings. An insightful essay by Adalaide Morris, "H.D. and the Spirit of the Gift" (Contemporary Literature, 1986), correlates H.D.'s ways with finances, authorial signatures, and motherhood, with upbringing in a cultural "gift economy." By tracing European dispersions of names, H.D.'s "Notes" incarnate personalities linked to Brethren and Sisters who brought their beliefs to America in the early eighteenth century. These are the child Hilda's spiritual as well as blood ancestors. The main body of the text is told through that child's consciousness.

The canon of H.D.'s prose works has only gradually been revealed through posthumous publication. Her early autobiographical romans à clef HERmione, Paint It Today, and Asphodel enact in syntax the knots and spasms of the author's adolescent consciousness, the discoveries of first loves and poetic vocation. Sentences feel subject to the author's inner tensions, as: "Back beat of waves beating now against her, this isn't fair" (HERmione). For H.D. in her fifties, The Gift, although evoked during firebomb attack, enlists the child Hilda's close-up view of the world as her spiritual lens with assured purpose and masterly control of language flow.

H.D. opens with a single declarative sentence given importance as a separate paragraph: "There was a girl who was burnt to death at the Seminary, as they called the old school where our grandfather was buried." Immediately, principal configurations of memory/image/idea are set forth: fire; a girl's fear of mortal danger; generational heritage; Moravian religious teaching. Fire re-emerges in the narrative like a note in varying chords: burning girl; shooting star that ignites grandmother Mamalie's trance-like psychic memories; child Hilda's hand bearing a holiday "light-of-heaven" beeswax candle; industrial glow of Bethlehem's new steel mill furnaces; and the London fire-bombs which will trigger H.D.'s breakthrough into memory.

One advantage the abridged New Directions edition does offer the reader is the introduction by Perdita Schaffner, H.D.'s daughter, who was present at the time of the London Blitz and the writing of the book. According to her daughter, H.D. had felt "haunted, trapped" by a confused child's concept of a mysterious "Gift" which carried hints of "transmigration of souls, the weight of past events." Yet, experienced as incarnation of an ancient evil terror from the sky, the bombings catapulted H.D.'s power to recall. The psyche, she believed, could "inherit" memories of ages past.

Further insight into H.D.'s quest can be gained from her coeval short fiction, "The Death of Martin Presser" (Quarterly Review of Literature, 1965) which recreates an eighteenth-century event of massacre, the burning of a village of Moravian settlers. The story blends historical figures named in the "Notes" section of The Gift with a mystical vision of The Lady, later to echo in Trilogy. H.D.'s account of Martin Presser's thought at the instant of dying is useful as a guide to her artistic goals: "He had striven to understand the terrible break in Christian consciousness. More than love, he had wanted the absolute reconciliation of the irreconcilable. He wanted ... to weave back through History, to the beginning of the break or the several breaks in Christian continuity, and at least to show how those breaks occurred, with the not quite impossible hope of (in time) healing old wounds." H.D.'s major long poems strive to heal breaks in time, to weave language "back through History." Anciently bitter "marah-mar" evolves as "mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary,//Star of the Sea/Mother"; and one of the Magi receives a vision of "Paradise/before Eve" (Trilogy).

The Gift offers a developmental lead to H.D.'s complicated conflations of divine/mythological figures which resonate throughout Trilogy and Helen in Egypt. Jane Augustine, a scholar of the theology and cultural forms of Moravian sects, discussed H.D.'s interpretation of Moravian figures as reincarnated divinities in an article on a later (unpublished) novel, "The Mystery Unveiled: The Significance of H.D.'s 'Moravian' Novel" (H.D. Newsletter, Spring 1991 [4:1]).

The Gift is a pivotal work for H.D., significantly modernist in the style of its self-searching consciousness and representation of time. Her experiences with cinema editing are in evidence as mental realities of time perceived are defined by pictorial pace. The traumatic event of ten-year-old Hilda's father appearing bloodied and in shock from a trolley accident is rendered in cinematic rhythm, slowing duration for emphasis. Similarly transposed techniques operate in a later narrative long poem (charted in my article, "Cinematic Dynamics in the Style of H.D.'s Helen in Egypt). The essentiality of cinema to literary modernism is the premise of a new anthology based on Close Up, a pioneer magazine on film art, founded and edited by H.D.'s close companions Kenneth Macpherson and Bryher (Close Up: 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus). It is Bryher who is with H.D. during the bombing scene of the final chapter of The Gift, and who represents family stability. The factor of Bryher's presence in H.D.'s earlier life and work has been noted, but not adequately considered so far in respect to H.D.'s later writings. Bryher is generally cited as a pragmatic rescuer in times of illness, but less recognized for her support of H.D.'s sense of mystical purpose and search for vision that could touch upon the occult.

Writing, to H.D., as inscription of vision, is a sacred trust. She has inherited a "Gift"; she is chosen to be receiver and transmitter; the way is by words. Grandmother Mamalie in her psychic trance remembers there are words anciently inscribed on parchment, which were lost in fire. H.D.'s art must re-inscribe, in modern terms, the lost words. The Gift takes us to her first glimpses of vision. Language immerses the child, and the reader, in early sensory experience--sound, smell, taste, and touch as well as the visual sense which dominates most of her poetry and prose. An out-of-time experience here, the "Old Man" who gives her a lily in the snow, anticipates later projections. Certain "out-of-time" experiences affected her life-long, as told in Tribute to Freud, the memoir of her analytic sessions with the founder of psychoanalysis. Susan Stanford Friedman has examined The Gift as self-analysis by H.D.--the apparition/memory of the Old Man "repeats and mythologizes" her paternal figures (Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction, 1990).

In the opening chapter, "Dark Room," H.D. plays upon the concept of a photographic darkroom as she explores mystical concepts of connection:

It would be possible with time and with the curious chemical constituents of biological or psychic thought-processes...to develop long strips of continuous photographs, stores in the darkroom of memory...[The self is] an actual psychic entity...which contains cells or seeds which can be affiliated to the selves of people, living or long dead. A bit of me can really "live" something of a word or phrase, cut on a wall at Karnak...a little cell of my brain responds to a cell of someone's brain, who died thousands of years ago. A word opens a door.
In a jagged world, H.D. sought permeable boundaries. In Bethlehem, siblings and cousins passed easily from one house to another; neighbors shared communal religious rituals, holiday preparations, music and pageants. Where the geography of exile may inform modernist sensibility, The Gift erases borderlines. H.D. reaches into all-time.

This edition is beautifully designed, and includes many well-chosen photographs not previously published. The cover photograph shows a brightly smiling very young Hilda Doolittle standing with family before a trellised blooming vine. An element not usually associated with H.D. is laughter. Mamalie in her trance tells the child Hilda: "it was laughing, laughing all the time...like scales running up and down...it was the laughter of leaves, of wind, of snow swirling, it was...outpouring of the Mystic Chalice...it poured from the sky or from the inner realm of the Spirit." If the letters of the lost mystical "Secret" can be written, they will spell peace, love, joy. H.D. sought balm in The Gift, and readers now are her beneficiaries.

Charlotte Mandel,
Cedar Grove, New Jersey


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H.D.'s The Gift: A review by Charlotte Mandel, Rev. December 27, 2001 (http://www.imagists.org/hd/giftrev.html) Please send additions, comments, and suggestions to hh@imagists.org