Gary Burnett: On the Poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden

The two parts of another poem—appropriately given the simple title "Garden"—makes it clear that for H.D., Imagism itself is, in every sense, a matter of identity; this small poem, paradigmatically Imagist and, like "Oread," an anthology piece, makes its claims for possible identity precisely in the terms of Imagism, literalizing the sculptural and poems-like-granite metaphors of Hulme and Pound. This poem's first part reverses the unstable imagery of "Sea Rose," turning the rose into that ultimate Imagist form, rock:

You are clear

O rose, cut in rock,

hard as the descent of hail.

 

I could scrape the colour

from the petals

like spilt dye from a rock.

 

If I could break you

I could break a tree.

 

If I could stir

I could break a tree—

I could break you.

The exact outlines of the rose here must endure an extreme solidity, trapping both the rose and the poet—clearly a Dryad imprisoned within her tree—within the clearly cut outlines of the image. The dripping fragrance of "Sea Rose" has here solidified into the color which can only be scraped from the surface of the rock. Nothing shifts, nothing grows, in this garden.

The negative solidity carries over into the poem's second section:

O Wind, rend open the heat,

cut apart the heat,

rend it to tatters.

 

Fruit cannot drop

through this thick air—

fruit cannot fall into heat

that presses up and blunts

the points of pears

and rounds the grapes.

 

Cut the heat—

plough through it,

turning it on either side

of your path.

Here, the hardness of the rock/rose becomes a stifling solidification of the very atmosphere through which neither the pears nor the poet can move. All that remains is a desperate invocation to the wind which elsewhere in the volume whips the sea garden, transforming the dangers of that landscape. "Garden" makes over the Imagist metaphor of the sculptural poem into a stultifying solidification of image and, thus, of possible identity; in the second half of the poem, the implied Dryad of the first half does not appear even in spectral guise.

Ultimately, "Garden" is a poem about the terrible limitations H.D. finds herself subject to in the Imagist doctrine, a poem about why she must—in George Oppen's words—"give advice to the sea." Such a doctrine, strictly followed, would turn her into nothing more than a set of initials, emptied of possibility and limited to the production of the "few but perfect" poems of Pound's programmatic poetics. "Garden" situates itself firmly within Imagist definitions and finds itself stuck there: What allows her to escape is, ironically , that very set of initials, "stunted," cut down to almost nothing, but alive with potential, with room to play and to discover the variety of possible identities in such a hermetic space. With typical indirection, H.D. herself suggested such a function for Imagism in her 1916 review of John Gould Fletcher's Goblins and Pagodas:

And through it all, it is the soul or mind of the poet, knowing within itself its problems, unanswerable; its Visions, cramped and stifled; the bitterness of its own insufficiency. Knowing indeed not whence it cometh and whither it goeth, but flaunting in the face of its own ignorance, its own undaunted quest. (184)

Writing about Fletcher she is, of course, also writing about herself, about her own "undaunted quest" for identity in poetry.

From "The Identity of 'H.': Imagism and H.D.'s Sea Garden." SAGETRIEB 8.3

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Title Gary Burnett: On the Poems from H.D.’s First Volume, Sea Garden Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Gary Burnett Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jul 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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