Hilda Doolittle, known by her initials H.D., was an American avant-garde poet and novelist. Her innovative and experimental work spanned five decades, and although she was primarily known as a poet, H.D. also wrote novels, memoirs and essays. She is best-known for her association with the Imagist movement, a pre-World War One poetic movement which championed clear, concise imagery and economic use of language.
Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1886, H.D. was the only daughter in a family of five sons. In 1901, when she was fifteen, she met the poet and critic Ezra Pound who would later become instrumental in building her career. Although H.D. attended Bryn Mawr College, where she met poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, she dropped out before the end of her first year.
H.D. moved to London in 1911, and would remain in Europe until her death in 1961. During her early years in London, Pound introduced H.D. to a community of writers, which consisted of artists such as Yeats, Eliot, Ford Madox Ford and Wyndham Lewis.
In 1912, Imagism, the short-lived but highly influential literary movement which H.D. was a key part of, was launched in the tea shop of the British Museum. The Imagists rejected the sentimentality of Romanticism, but focused on writing poetry using direct language and non-traditional verse forms. The Imagists were also influenced by the intellectual climate of the early 20th century, and so their work was informed by Freud’s psychoanalytic theories (coincidentally, H.D. would undergo treatment with Freud later in her life), the visual art of post-Impressionism and Cubism, and the philosophy of Henri Bergson.
In the early days of Imagism, H.D. wrote Priapus and Hermes of the Ways. When Pound read them, he declared ‘this is poetry’ and christened Doolittle, H.D. In 1916, H.D.’s first collection of poetry, Sea Garden, was published. Also around this time, she became part of the editorial team at Egoist, a London-based literary magazine.
Whilst following the Imagist ethos, H.D.’s poetry also drew inspiration from classical civilization, but critically appraised it with a feminist lens. This is most obvious in H.D.’s poems Helen, Leda and Cassandra, which all give a conscious voice to the eponymous women but also critique their position in a patriarchal world. These themes become united in H.D.’s final poetry collection Helen in Egypt, which was written between 1952 – 54 and published in 1961. In Helen in Egypt, H.D. recentres the classic Greek epic narrative on the interior and emotional life of Helen of Troy.
In addition to being a prolific poet, H.D. wrote huge amounts of fiction in her lifetime. HERmione, HD’s most famous novel, is heavily influenced by the author’s experiences and explores same-sex desire and female creativity. Although written in 1927, HERmione wasn’t published until 1981. A number of H.D.’s novels, including Majic Ring, Pilate’s Wife, The Sword Went Out to Sea, White Rose and the Red and The Mystery, were all published after her death.
H.D. had relationships with men and women throughout her life, and her bisexuality was a topic she explored in her poetry and discussed extensively in her sessions with Freud. In 1907, she became engaged to Ezra Pound, but their engagement was called off in 1908, in part due to the continual opposition of H.D.’s family.
While studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, H.D. was in a relationship with Frances Gregg. The pair sailed to Europe together, where H.D. met, and married, fellow Imagist poet Richard Aldington. During the war, H.D. and Aldington’s relationship deteriorated; H.D. had an affair with music historian Cecil Gray and developed a close friendship with D.H. Lawrence. At the end of the war, H.D. met lesbian novelist and editor, Bryher, and although the pair would continue to have other lovers, they remained in a relationship until H.D.’s death.
In 1960, H.D. travelled to America to accept the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal – she was the first woman to be awarded the honour – and died in Switzerland a year later. H.D.’s work was rediscovered by second-wave feminists of the 1970s, who were interested in questioning gender roles and were searching for a less androcentric literary tradition. As a result, much of her work was published and re-issued after her death by the prestigious publisher of avant-garde work, New Directions.