Eileen Gregory: On the poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden

The figure of the poet, too, has distinct encounters, which take place in the "private space" of imagination, the cultivated garden or orchard. Within the "sea garden" itself are two other gardens, both of which taken together define clearly the exigencles of creation in this marginal world.

[....]

"Garden" (CP 24-25), a poem in two parts, does not describe a place antithetical to life and creation but one essential to it. In a sense it defines the "aesthetic" of creative apprehension and suffering within the sea garden. In the first part of the poem, a rose is again an image of beauty, but here it carries a sense of power as the untouchable, inaccessible thing that the poet desires, like the adamantine "rock roses" in H.D.'s essay on Sappho: "You are clear / O rose, cut in rock, / hard as the descent of hail." The rose "cut in rock" (growing in the crevice of a rock, or made precise by the background of rock) is clear and "hard as the descent of hail" (sharp, cold, relentless). The austerity and clarity of the image is compelling, and the speaker is drawn to its force. She imagines what she "could" do, what her power could be before this image, with increasingly conditional claims, until she admits her powerlessness before it. She "could scrape the colour / from the petals," seize the image directly and violently, but to do so would destroy and denature the rose; to do so would be to have it only as "spilt dye from a rock." The speaker cannot possess the rose, and cannot break its crystal, because this would involve superhuman strength ("If I could break you / I could break a tree"). She ends with the strange conditional statement: "If I could stir / I could break a tree— / I could break you." Before the image of the rose she cannot even stir; so much less can she break a tree, or, indeed, assert her mastery at all.

In this poem the rose is image, the object of the poet's desire; yet she cannot touch or possess it, cannot shatter its ice, but only witness to its radiance. Thus the poem dramatizes the aesthetic of H.D.'s early work: poetry is the evocation and reenactment of the experienced power of the image. The knowledge of her weakness before the image is a refined salt experience—the consciousness of longing in the presence of a beautiful but unyielding object. A similar though more satisfying longing is shown in "The Contest" (CP 12), where the human athlete also represents the image—but here one that is humanly crafted. As image, the male figure is highly liminal; his aspects of grace and power , as experienced by the poet, reside between nature and human artifice. This image has the "rare silver" of a resolved epiphany.

The second part of "Garden" is the familiar poem "Heat." It is tied to the first enigmatic part by the common theme of longing within the process of creation, and by the sense of stasis and need for release. In both poems, too, the endurance of the moment is part of the necessary process of insight and making. The speaker asks the wind to "rend open the heat," cut it, plough through it, so that ripe fruit can drop. The heat is a palpable force that "presses up and blunts / the points of pears." In this imagined oppression of unbearable pregnancy she prays for a deliverance from the process of gestation and ripening, though even her own metaphor acknowledges that without the force of heat the growing and ripening fruit would not assume its proper shape. Thus in this essential garden both poems speak of salt suffering in terms of creative process, within which it is hard to bear attention to the potency of specific image and to be patient in the heated forging of the destined shape. 

From "Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H.D.'s 'Sea Garden.'" Contemporary Literature 27:4 (Winter 1986).

Details

Title Eileen Gregory: On the poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Eileen Gregory Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jul 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

General Poet Criticism
No Data
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media