Susan Stanford Friedman

Susan Stanford Friedman: On "Helen"

"Helen" takes as its subject the woman who has been the literary and mythic symbol of sexual beauty and illicit love in western culture. Much has been written about her, but H.D.’s poem does something new: it implicitly attacks the traditional imagery of Helen and implies that such perspectives have silenced Helen’s own voice.

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Like Edgar Allan Poe’s poem about Helen, this poem draws a portrait with careful references to Helen’s eyes, face, hands, feet, and knees. But in contrast to Poe’s poem, H.D.’s Helen does not stand alone, unveiled before the adoring eyes of the male poet. Instead, she is accompanied by a hate-filled gaze that never leaves the beauty of her body. H.D.'s poem operates on an opposition established between Helen and "all Greece," and the speaker stands outside this opposition to record the interaction between the two. Time, space, and situation are left uncertain with a sparse setting that presents an image rather than a realistic event. The action verbs outline the image: Helen "stands ... smiles" faintly, and grows more "wan and white" while "all Greece" regards first her face and then "sees ... the beauty of feet / and slenderest knees."

The process the speaker watches is the growing hatred of Helen and the overwhelming effect it has upon her. The emotion directed in judgment against Helen is intense–we are aware of this not only because the verbs "hates" and "reviles" stand out so starkly, but also because the impersonality of "all Greece" generalizes the condemnation. In Poe's poem, he alone worships Helen. In W.B. Yeats's "No Second Troy," the poet's feelings for Helen are more ambivalent, but Yeats still records a private experience between himself and his mythic mask for Maude Gonne. In her poem, however, H.D. generalizes those who regard Helen until they take on the dimensions of a collective culture. "Greece" is a country, not a person, not even a people. H.D.’s choice of "Greece" in place of the more logical "Greeks" suggests that the entire weight of a cultural tradition "reviles" Helen. The structural repetition of "all" at the beginning of the first two stanzas reinforces the image of a whole culture set in powerful opposition to one woman. And the lack of a realistic setting in this portrait of "all Greece" regarding Helen underlines the real subject, of the poem: woman's place in male-dominated tradition.

Helen’s response to the hate-filled gaze of "all Greece" is not a static one. In fact, the stanzas of the poem subtly suggest the transformation of a living woman into a marble statue, a progression from life to death controlled by the force of hate. In the first stanza, Helen seems immobilized--her eyes are "still" and she simply "stands." The emphasis on the whiteness of her face and hands adds to this image of impassivity. But, read in the light of the last two stanzas, Helen in the first stanza still has the glow of life. The poet sees the rich "lustre as of olives / where she stands." This lustre begins to disappear in the second stanza. White hands and white face are conventional attributes of female beauty. But in the second stanza, white skin "grows wan and white" in the face of increasing hatred--that is, pale, bloodless, and seemingly lifeless. As if to appease "all Greece," her "wan face . . . smiles." According to some scholars, women have traditionally relied on a perpetual smile to render themselves more acceptable in an androcentric culture. Helen too smiles in a desperate attempt to counteract the condemnation that is growing "deeper still" for her part in the Trojan war.

In the third stanza, "white" signals the final result of Greece's unmoving hatred, becoming the color of death: "white ash amid funereal cypresses." The word "unmoved" to describe a lack of compassion is something of a pun (un-moving) that echoes in reverse the increasing immobility of Helen. Her smiles win no mercy, and the only way she can become loved is through her death. . . . The growing whiteness of her skin signals her death as a living woman and her birth as a statue, a symbol of beauty in the eyes of "all Greece."

In Poe's poem, Helen's appearance as a statue is an affirmation. But in H.D.'s poem, the speaker understands the connection between the traditional worship of woman as symbol and the death of the living woman. H.D.'s poem about Helen is a re-vision of the Medusa myth and an implicit attack on the processes of masculine mythmaking with female symbols. According to Greek myth, a man's direct sight of the fearful Medusa with her hair of snakes would turn him to stone. In his famous interpretation of this myth, Freud argued that Medusa's head represented the castrated state of female genitals, and the myth embodied castration anxiety. But in H.D.'s reversal of psychoanalysis and myth, the hatred of a collective male tradition turns woman to stone, literally a statue. An added complexity, however, is that hatred becomes love once Helen's paralysis is complete. Like Joan of Arc, Helen, immobilized and silenced, is an object of worship. Alive, she was an object of hatred, a threat to the dominant culture ruled by men. As statue or symbol, she is safely controlled by the tradition that defines her through its art. What seems to be an adoration of woman, H.D. says, is rooted in reality in a hatred for the living woman who has the capacity to speak for herself.

In "Helen," the poet cannot free Helen from the patriarchal cage of traditional hate and adoration. She stands outside the process, helpless to prevent Helen's growing silence and paralysis. She can and does attack tradition, but she cannot give the mute statue a voice. Because of her mother's name, Helen was always a personal and mythic mother-symbol for H.D. But at this point in her life, her mother-symbol was too overwhelmed to help her daughter the poet. To serve as "the Muse, the Creator" as the Goddess does in H.D.’s later poems, the daughter had to give birth to her own mother.

From Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. 232-35. Copyright © 1981 by Susan Stanford Friedman. Reprinted by Permission of the Author.

Susan Stanford Friedman: On "Oread"

One of H.D.’s earliest and best-known poems, "Oread," illustrates how the visual language of imagism parallels the mechanisms of the dream-work as Freud described them. This important similarity helps to establish how the poetic epistemology of imagism laid a foundation that made H.D. particularly receptive to psychoanalytic; influence.

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Since most imagist poems present images from nature, it is easy to assume that imagist poetry is about nature. But "Oread" and most of H.D.'s imagist poems are phenomenological in emphasis; they are poems about consciousness, not the world of objects external to consciousness. The center of "Oread," as the title indicates, is not the sea; it is instead the perceptions and emotions of an oread, a nymph of the mountains, as she regards the sea aroused in a whirling passion of intensity. Analogous to the manifest and latent content of the dream, the poem presents images of the sea in order to embody an "intellectual and emotional complex," which is the real subject of the poem.

The images that simultaneously obscure and reveal the emotions of the oread are not surrealist images emerging from the unconscious. "Oread" is a controlled poem, not the achievement of the dream-work. But the waves made of pine trees and the trees made of water have a quality analogous to the dream. The rational eye of the conscious mind would not see pine-tree waves, splashing pines, or "pools of fir." Such vision belongs to the "Kingdom of the Illogical." If H.D. were to report such dream-images to Freud, he might well have called them an illustration of "dream-distortion." Through "condensation," the poem presents a distortion of reality that suggests a whole range of interrelated ideas and emotions encoded in a few images. Decoding these condensed distortions would have to begin with the recognition that they result from a picture-making mode of thought, rather than an analytic mode. The poem significantly does not rely upon similes, which by definition remind the reader that the images only make comparisons, not equivalences. The speaker does not say that a rough sea looks like pointed trees; she sees tree-waves. just as the dream-work gives the dreamer a visual representation of unconscious impulses, so the poem conjures an illustration of nonrational reality that conveys an "intellectual and emotional complex" in a highly condensed form.

"Condensation," Freud believed, also allowed the dream-work to express "contraries" and outright "contradictions" in a single dream-picture. The condensation of imagist technique accomplishes just that fusion of opposites in "Oread." The poem's pronouns--"us" and "you"--establish the oppositions in the poem imaged in the land and the sea. The oread is the land and consequently identifies with the shore and addresses the waves as "you," As the spirit of the land, she understandably perceives her fluid opposite in her own terms: waves are pointed pines that whirl up, crash, and make pools of fir. This nonrational mode of thought gives motion, fury, and a watery stillness to the land; conversely, it gives stature and stability to the sea. But these images condense opposites into a contradictory whole; they simultaneously affirm and deny the division of land and sea.

The fusion of land and sea in "Oread" does not in itself explain the emotional intensity of the poem. The parallel verbs of the poem--"whirl … crash," "hurl," and "cover"--create the oread's sensation of being submerged in the violence and then stillness of the waves. Robert Duncan wrote perceptively that many of H.D.'s "nature poems" have a sexual dimension: they "betray in their troubled ardor processes of psychological and even sexual identification.... [there is a] poetic magic in which the natural environment and the sexual experience are fused." The imagery and rhythm of "Oread" suggest that Duncan is correct. The waves whirl up to become phallic pines that crash down "on our rocks . . . over us." The poem ends on a final note of protectiveness as the waves "cover us" in quiet pools. The oread's commands throughout the poem emphasize that the sea acts while the land is acted upon. H.D.'s images may be identifying a traditional masculinity with the waves (movement; sexual assault) and a traditional femininity with the land (passivity; sexual receptivity). The action of the waves on the shore combined with the emotion intensity suggest that the poem can be read as a correlative of sexual experience or emotion. Since the synthesizing "logic" of the image has already created a fusion of land and sea, the poem additionally may be suggesting an androgynous identity for the oread. The experiential reality of the poem illustrates that externally opposite qualities such as active/passive or masculine/feminine coexist within single individual.

Freud's syntax of the dream-work includes the important technique he called "displacement," by which intense feelings are projected onto a relatively unimportant person or set of events. "Oread," the oread's identity and sexual emotions are "displaced" onto a natural event, the meeting of the land and sea on the shore line. More significantly, the poet's relationship to her speaker is analogous to the dream-work's displacement of emotion. The oread is persona for the poet herself as well as an anthropomorphic embodiment of the land. She is a personal metaphor whose experience gave indirect, and therefore permissible, expression to the intense passion that characterizes much of H.D.'s early poetry. To give form and expression to her own experience, H.D. displaced her voice into that of the oread and substituted the oread's emotion for her own. Norm Holmes Pearson warned that H.D.'s use of Greek masks as a distancing device has all too often been ignored by her critics. He told his interviewer, L S. Dembo: "When you said that she used Greek myth to find her own identity, you hit upon an aspect of H.D.'s poetry which, rather surprisingly, has gone unrecognized. She has been so praised as a kind of Greek publicity girl that people have forgotten that she writes the most intensely personal poems using Greek myth as a metaphor." The oread may be Greek, but the setting for "Oread" comes from a past not more remote than her visits to the Cornwall seacoast and her childhood summers on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The ultimate subject of the poem is the consciousness of the poet herself, the intellectual and emotional complex of perception that finds its clearest expression in the picture-making mode of imagist epistemology. H.D.'s poetic apprenticeship with imagism laid the groundwork for her rapid absorption of Freud's related theories of the encoding and decoding of the unconscious.

From Pysche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Copyright © 1981 by Susan Stanford Friedman. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Susan Stanford Friedman: On the Poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden

Permeating H.D.’s early revisionary exploration of female identity is an austere sensuality, an erotic dimension of repressed yet explosive sexuality that is nonreferential in nature. Like the potent flowers in Lawrence’s early novels and Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, H.D.’s flowers indirectly suggest an intense eroticism, whose power comes precisely from its elusive, nonhuman expression. Related to her animistic sense of the scared, H.D.’s objective correlatives for the self often radiate erotic energy and rhythms. In particular, the five flower poems of Sea Garden . . .

From "Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)" Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets, 1880-1845. Vol. 45. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 125-26. Copyright © 1983 by Susan Stanford Friedman

Susan Stanford Friedman On: "Twenty-One Love Poems"

Throughout "Twenty-One Love Poems," which form the structural center of The Dream of a Common Language, Manhattan serves as the alienating setting, representing the violent world which the lovers must inhabit, yet seek to transform with love and relationship. Just as H. D. started the Trilogy with her impressions of destruction on walking through her London neighborhood after a bombing raid, Rich began poem I of "Twenty-One Love Poems" with a walk through the city which produces images of violence. . . .

From Signs (1983).