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On "The Helmsman"


Thomas Burnett Swann

The flowers are children of the sea. But what is the sea itself? In "The Helmsman" it becomes a titanic being, wilful and hypnotic, who seems to personify a not unwelcome threat of death. The shepherds who speak the poem flee the Helmsman. They hurry inland and lovingly catalogue the wild beauties of the shore: oak, hyssop, bramble, acorn-cups. They revel among the acorn-cups and dip their ankles in the leaf-mould. But they yearn for something beyond the land, something which only the sea holds for them--a harsh kind of peace, probably death itself. Finally they desert their flocks and set sail:

But now, our boat climbs—hesitates—drops--
. . . .
O be swift--
we have always known you wanted us.

From The Classical World of H.D. Copyright 1962 by University of Nebraska Press.


Gary Burnett

The second poem of the volume, "The Helmsman," like "Hermes of the Ways," presents a figure for "H" who is explicitly male; and, like both "Hermes of the Ways" and "Sea Rose," it gives a version of the sea garden, rooted in land and sea. The garden of "The Helmsman," though, is not simply the line of the shore but is a complex of potential movement, both inland to safety and out to the sea and possible death:

O be swift—
we have always known you wanted us.

We fled inland with our flocks,
we pastured them in hollows,
cut off from the wind
and the salt track of the marsh. (5)

Although the inland havens initially promised reprieve from the menace of that sea and the dangers of the shore, it is not the unambiguous sanctuary it may seem. It is, rather, something "cut off," an all-too-safe forgetting, sweet only "for a moment." The sea, for all of its dangers, is a more powerful element compelling the return which the poem enacts. The poem, then, dramatically extends the double nature of the composite Hermes figure of "Hermes of the Ways"; but where he waits, functioning as a sign of possible identity, "We" either flee the difficulties of that possibility or are pulled back out into the menace of the sea: "We have always known you wanted us."

Within the poem's double motion, the persona of the helmsman is equally double, an explicitly male figure who may be either the speaker of the poem—and thus a kind of figurehead, guiding his people back out into their natural, though dangerous, environment—or an overpowering figure for a forced return to the sea and a terrible death. In either case, he is clearly an incarnation of "H," the helmsman and guiding force of the poem, an inchoate persona of the author who may be at one with the speaking "we," who may be alien and hostile, or who may be both. Thus "H" exists, not as a concrete entity, but as a "fluid," almost spectral set of possibilities, simultaneously a figure of destruction and a more forceful stand-in for Hermes, leading to a necessary, if dangerous, re-fulfillment.

An assumption of the gender of "H.D." as author of this poem does not solidify or stabilize this "complex." Although such an assumption—our knowledge that H.D. is female—at first demands identification of "we" as female and the Helmsman as controlling other (almost a Hangman—as "we" say, "O be swift" and carry out our execution as painlessly as possible), the melding of "H" and the Helmsman—the melding of female with male—returns the poem to the difficult and fluid outlines of the double sea garden. H.D., as author, gender-free and unidentified, may enter into the poem in many guises; and, tracking down "Her" identity, we find a series of images that always threaten to dissolve or be obliterated into empty signs even as they promise a filling-out of character.

from "The Identity of 'H.': Imagism and H.D.'s Sea Garden." Sagetrieb 8.3.


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