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On the poems from H.D.’s first volume, Sea Garden  ("Sea Rose," "Garden," "Mid-day," "The Helmsman")

Susan Stanford Friedman

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 . . . structure that volume and underline its revisionary treatment of the sentimental Victorian language of flowers. . . .

H.D. repeatedly established dualisms that paralleled the fundamental polarity of male and female, masculine and feminine, another aspect of her imagist poems that is both unique to her work and continuous with her later development. Her imagist poems are often linguistically and thematically structured on polarities such as land and sea, hard and soft, ripe and unripe, wild and sheltered, swift and slow, stunted and lush, torn and whole, pointed and round, positive and negative, salt and sweet, and so forth. . . . Reflecting in part her pride in her difference, and her separation from the conventional or sentimental, H.D. always rejected the ripe for the unripe, the lovely for the harsh, the soft for the hard. At the same time, however, her representation of polarity became the first step in a dialectical process moving toward synthesis.

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

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

"The minimal unit of poetic language is at least double, not in the sense of the signifier/signified dyad, but rather, in terms of one and another." This, from Julia Kristeva [Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art], confronts us with the I/you relationship, resonant for H.D.’s work throughout, but peculiarly isolated in her intense, ritualistic early poems. Where to "put" erotic energy, how to negotiate "one and another" changes during the early works. Sea Garden (1916) as a title is already oxymoronic for vast/containment or uncontained cultivation, one suggestive of the "scrutiny of dualisms" which [Margaret] Homans postulates as necessary to establish the female poetic voice [see Women Writers and Poetic Identity]. In the flower poems repeated through the manuscript, H.D. implies an argument with conventions of depiction. These flowers of the sea gardens are of a harsh surprising beauty, slashed, torn, dashed yet still triumphant and powerful, despite being wounded, hardened, tested by exposure. These flowers propose an almost contemptuous defiance of ease, of simple fashions of ripening. H.D. constructs flowers admired in ways and for motives far different from the view of lush ripeness in carpe diem roses.

In Sea Garden, however, an erotic plot is essayed, in which "I" occurs in awed breathless yearning for an elusive "you." The "you" might be a god or a person, spiritual traces or erotic pressures: significantly H.D. catches these forces just at the cusp of their disappearance, when they leave a sense of their energy and her yearning, their immanence and her half-answered desire, their power and her tribute, their spirit and her supplicating yet powerful ardour. . . . Whatever else might be said, this tactic prevents speaking or narrating being a form of possession of the "you": it is precisely the opposite.

From H.D.: The Career of That Struggle. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 12-13. Copyright © 1986 by Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

Eileen Gregory

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).

Gary Burnett

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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