Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.23

Eileen Gregory, H.D. and Hellenism. Classic Lines.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.  Pp. 321.  ISBN 0-521-43025-9.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Robert G. Babcock, Yale University.
Word count: 1678 words

There was a time when virtually every classicist in America had heard of H.D. (the nom de plume of the American poet Hilda Doolittle), for Henry Rushton Fairclough devoted a considerable portion of his presidential address to the American Philological Association in 1926 to her poetry.1 His praise of her work and confidence about its special interest to classicists is unrestrained,

It is a remarkable feature of H.D. that she has completely transported herself into the Hellenic past, or (shall we say?) that she has made ancient Hellas live again in the present. Her subjects are uniformly Greek; she is enamored of Greece and all things Greek... [A] Greek scholar, after a perusal of her work, cannot but conclude that in Greek poetry and art H.D. lives and moves and has her being. So completely is she suffused with the Greek spirit that only the use of the vernacular will often remind the cultivated reader that he (sic) is not reading a Greek poet.
Fairclough ends by declaring H.D. one of the two greatest American poets now living.

In spite of such a glowing assessment of her work and its particular appeal to classicists, H.D. disappeared from the radar screens of professional classicists in America after Fairclough's pronouncement, although her later work, culminating in the epic-length Helen in Egypt (1961), continued its extraordinary dialogue with classical literature, and continued to attract the attention of critics of American poetry, particularly since the late 1960s. H.D. was a founder of Imagism; a friend, collaborator, or associate of a host of modernist writers, including Ezra Pound (to whom she was at one time betrothed), William Carlos Williams, D.H. Lawrence, Winifred Bryher (her companion for over forty years), Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore (one of her classmates at Bryn Mawr); she was one of the earliest writers about cinema; an analysand of Freud in Vienna; an eye-witness to and survivor of the bombing of London, and a chronicler through her poetry of the World Wars. For these reasons, and many others besides, H.D. has attracted the attention of twentieth-century critics of various persuasions, and she has won wide-spread recognition for her work, including being the first woman to be honored with the Award of Merit Medal for Poetry by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. All scholars of H.D.'s work, whatever their theoretical bent, acknowledge, as did Fairclough, the overwhelming importance of ancient Greece in H.D.'s poetry. Her subjects, vocabulary, settings, and themes come from Greek literature, history, art, and archaeology. She alludes to, quotes from, responds to, adapts and translates from a wide range of Greek writers, including Homer, Sappho, Euripides, Anacreon, Theocritus, the Greek Anthology, and Pausanias. She read classical scholarship, from Wilamowitz's "On Greek Historical Writing" to the five volumes of Farnell's Cults of the Greek States (which she owned and annotated throughout); she visited Greek, Roman, and Egyptian museums, cities, and archaeological sites. The last thirty years have seen an enormous increase in scholarly attention to H.D. and her work, especially from scholars of feminism, race and gender studies, film studies, psychoanalytical criticism, and many other disciplines: a search of her name in the MLA database produces more than 450 publications about her since 1970. But strangely, H.D. is still largely ignored by professional classicists. The recent deluge of scholarly writing about her work is ample testimony that her poetry is worth reading, and Eileen Gregory brilliantly demonstrates that the experience is richer and more attractive for those who understand her Greek world best.

H.D. and Hellenism is groundbreaking as a study of the transmission and influence of classical literature in American poetry. In addressing the classical background of H.D.'s work, Gregory has few predecessors. The first monographic study of H.D. was also the first extensive treatment of the influence of classical sources on her work, Thomas Burnett Swann's The Classical World of H.D., published in 1962. Swann freely admits that he is unable to judge her translations, not knowing the classical languages. He turned to H.D. herself for assistance in identifying allusions or sources that escaped him, including Simaetha, the enchantress of Theocritus's Second Idyll. But one cannot quibble with Swann's delicate appreciation of H.D.'s poetry, and one would still today gladly give his book to an undergraduate looking for an orientation to H.D.'s Greece.

Like Swann, Gregory is a Professor of English, not of Greek, but her study is in a different class altogether from Swann's. It is, in the first place, informed by the voluminous recent scholarship about H.D.'s writing that was unavailable to Swann, so it is much more sophisticated and far more insightful in its analysis of her poems. Gregory is also much more systematic and comprehensive in identifying H.D.'s Greek sources, literary and artistic, and in tracing the transmission of her sources through intermediaries that colored H.D.'s appreciation or understanding of the Greek original. Gregory has carefully sifted the books that were once in H.D.'s library (now housed at the Beinecke Library at Yale), especially her editions and translations of Greek authors, paying particular attention to the ones in which H.D. wrote notes or comments. Gregory also points to the scholarly works that H.D. cited, especially Farnell, but also to the influence of the Hellenists of the Victorian age, in particular Wilde, Swinburne, Frazer, Symonds, and Pater. And she is especially informative on the influence of Jane Ellen Harrison and the Cambridge anthropologists. She further investigates popular and non-literary sources of H.D.'s vision of Greece: opera, astronomy, psychoanalysis, guide-books for her travels through Greece and Egypt, newspaper accounts of the campaigns of Gallipolli, etc.

In pages that should interest all classicists (her first chapter), Gregory describes the construct of "classical" in early Anglo-American modernism, quoting Hulme, Pound, and T.S. Eliot on the subject. She elaborates Eliot's model of Hellenism and H.D.'s rejection of that model, exemplified in her preference for Euripides over Eliot's Aeschylus. Devotees of the debates surrounding Bernal's Black Athena will find much of interest in Gregory's study. Gregory provides clear evidence that H.D. perceived of academic classicists in her day as narrowing the focus of ancient studies and the canon of ancient authors by emphasizing writers who were male, heterosexual, Eurocentric, militaristic/patriotic. It may surprise some contemporary classicists to learn that H.D., a woman writing during the period when this narrowing was supposedly taking place, not only recognized the trend towards Aryanizing the canon that Bernal describes, but associated it, not as he did with German nationalism, but with English academics, and with Eliot. H.D. reacted strongly to this trend by developing her own canon of writers. Her unpublished essays, "Notes on Euripides, Pausanias, and Greek Lyric Poets", as well as the works she refers to in her poetry and novels, define an alternative canon. Gregory has much to say about H.D.'s chosen authors, especially the extent to which they represent an Alexandrian curriculum (in the late romantic and decadent sense -- Gregory quotes Oscar Wilde on the subject, "There is really not a single form that art now uses that does not come to us from the critical spirit of Alexandria, where these forms were either stereotyped, or invented, or made perfect... [I]t was to that city, and not to Athens, that Rome turned."), a translation of Greek culture from Athens to Egypt; a fruitful mingling of Asian and European, of pagan, Christian and Jewish; and, especially, a distinct feminine tradition in literature.

Gregory could have gone even farther in describing H.D.'s canon as a coherent, and to H.D.'s mind, comprehensive survey of Greek literature. For it is just as interesting to consider what H.D. did not read as what she did. She threw out the Iliad in favor of the Odyssey (she was, like Joyce, under the spell of Samuel Butler's Authoress of the Odyssey); archaic lyric for H.D. is represented by Sappho not Alcaeus. For tragedy she read Euripides (she calls him "feminine") not Sophocles or Aeschylus; for history Pausanias (she believed he was Jewish) not Herodotus or Thucydides. In lyric poetry she chose Anacreon (she thought he was Asian), Theocritus (he lived in and wrote about Egypt) and the Greek Anthology (she believed Meleager was Jewish). Plato is an author of love lyrics in the Greek Anthology. The Trojan War is not about Achilles and Hector but about Helen. H.D. elaborates in her early lyrics, in her essay on Euripides' Helen, and in her final work, Helen in Egypt, the palinode of Stesichorus about Helen's abduction to Egypt. The extent of H.D.'s assimilation of Helen to an Egyptian (i.e., non-European) and Alexandrian (decadent) context is inadvertently revealed in the first draft of the typescript of her essay on Euripides' Helen (preserved in the H.D. archive at Yale), in which every time she meant to write Menelaus, she instead wrote Meleager.

Euripides, as Gregory amply shows (her entire sixth chapter is devoted to him), was the most influential Greek author in H.D.'s canon. Gregory documents H.D.'s engagement with Euripides in her lyrics, novels, and narrative poems, and she makes extensive use of H.D.'s unpublished essays, the "Notes on Euripides, Pausanias, and Greek Lyric Poets", the bulk of which are devoted to Euripides. H.D. owned and annotated editions of Euripides in Greek, English, and French. Her translations from the choruses of Euripides earned grudging (and paternalistic) praise from none other than Eliot, who preferred H.D.'s renditions to Gilbert Murray's.

There is much more to be done with H.D. and her Greek world than anyone could have done in one volume. In particular, H.D.'s lifelong engagement with Euripides is fertile territory. The appendices and indices to Gregory's volume are intended to provide a sound basis for further work in studying her classical background. And Gregory's text should provide a sufficient orientation in the complexities and richness of H.D.'s poetry, and contemporary criticism of it, to prevent a too hasty approach by classicist source-hunters. Classicists who are interested in the transmission and influence of classical literature in American poetry could hardly ask for a more appealing poet than H.D., or a better introduction to her work than Gregory's.


1.   Fairclough's address was published as The Classics and Our Twentieth-Century Poets (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1927) Stanford University Publications. University Series. Language and Literature, vol. 2, no. 2.

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