On Trilogy, part 1 (The Walls Do Not Fall)
The "fifty thousand incidents" of the Blitz placed all alike--soldiers and civilians, men and women, young and old--indiscriminately on duty and at risk. The flat H.D. and Bryher shared was only blocks from the anti-aircraft batteries in Hyde Park and thus constantly in priority range for incoming bombers. As H.D. sat at her desk, the rhythms of her writing--its "endless silence," in her daughter's description, "followed by a barrage of typing"--replicated the bursts of nearby artillery fire. Knowing at any moment the building would collapse beneath her, H.D. stayed at her post throughout the war, stubbornly earning the right to call herself one of London's "old front-liners," a defender of "the fortress."
Just as war gives women new access to authority, it constructs a crucial role for artists, a role that draws them from the peripheries toward the center. H.D. understood this shift as a return from notions of art as ornament, recreation, or investment to earlier conceptions of art as cultural work. In the Moravian community where she grew up and in the Native American, Egyptian, and Greek cultures she studied, "work" included activities we shunt to nights or weekends and call play, art, or worship. In these cultures myths and rituals were, like hunts or harvests, expenditures of energy, tasks to be undertaken, things to be done for the benefit of all. Whether those who undertook these tasks were initiates in momentary seclusion or permanently designated seers or sayers, their work exposed them to great peril and entitled them, in return, to the support of the tribe. [...]
Each of TRILOGY's three parts is doubly marked; by a date that places the poem inside the chronology of World War II and by a vision that lifts it up out of that chronology. Like her patrons, the messenger-gods Thoth, Hermes, Mercury, and St. Michael, the poet plies between the realms H.D. called "in time" and "out-of-time," inscribing in this oscillation the poem's many intuitions and ironies. Part I, written in 1942, a year of unremitting worldwide aggression, offers a vision of a slender and beardless "world-father"; Part II, composed in "a wonderful pause just before D-Day," offers the dream of a Lady carrying "the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new"; and Part III, composed in 1944 during the crosscut between Hitler's Ardenne campaign and the ceremonies of Christmas, offers Kaspar's vision of "the whole scope and plan // of our and his civilization on this, / his and our earth." Like the nineteenth-century African-American women mystics who preceded her, H.D. uses the visions that lifted her out of history to claim a public power and presence within it. Their mystical force guaranteed her stature as a cultural spokesperson and authorized her transition from lyric to epic poetry.
from Adalaide Morris, "Signaling: Feminism, Politics, and Mysticism in H.D.'s War Trilogy." SAGETRIEB 9.2 (Winter 1990): 121-33.
Susan Stanford Friedman
The initial experience of the Trilogy is immersion in the harsh reality of the contemporary world. The conditions under which H.D. wrote underline the philosophical starting point of the poem and help dispel the frequent critical notion that H.D. was essentially escapist in her art and too fragile for the modern world. Throughout the war, H.D. remained in London, the center of the air war in Britain. As an American, she could have easily returned to the States. Or she could have taken the urgent advice of her friends who implored her to leave the city for the relative safety of the countryside. .. .
Like the woman Hilda Doolittle, the poet of the Trilogy makes no attempt to escape the gaping walls and constant death that surround her. The poem begins with the poet walking through the ruined city just after a bombing raid. Staring in desolation at the destruction, she records her impressions in the first section. But even as she is immersed in the concrete, actual horror of the war, she refuses to limit her understanding of the destruction to the material rubble in front of her. The ruins remind her of Pompeiianother instance of sudden catastrophe in human experience. This is no escape back into time; rather, H.D.s comparison foreshadows her insistence throughout the poem that the ultimate reality of any single moment in history is contained in a pattern of essential experience which informs all time. The fire in London, like the fire in Pompeii, is a special kind of flameApocryphal fire, destruction which brings rebirth. H.D. approaches external reality in the same way she learned to read the mysterious script of psychical reality from Freud. The rubble contains, she believes, a coded message whose interpretation can reveal an order underlying the surface reality of chaos.
From Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. 102-104. Copyright © 1981 by Susan Stanford Friedman.
H.D.s initial reaction to the explosion of war is to withdraw into the psyche as protective shell. In a poem early in The Walls Do Not Fall [#4] she becomes a shell-fish . . . a lowly oyster or clam or mollusc, whose cunning contrives survival in the jaws of Leviathan. . . . It was a strategy she first learned in the other war, yet learned that "there is a spell . . . in every sea-shell" which allows "that flabby, amorphous hermit" to quicken and flourish. So the shell-fish becomes an "egg in egg-shell," and the imagery of female gestation in The Walls Do Not Fall goes on to include the cocoon (anticipating Tribute to the Angels) and the myrrh-jar (anticipating The Flowering of the Rod). The enclosure is hermetic in a double sense: sealed and magical. The shell becomes an alchemical crucible within which "you beget, self-out-of-self, / selfless, / that pearl-of-great-price." So in the course of the poem the hermetic crucible splits in birth, as "my heart-shell / breaks open" to deliver the pearl, the precious oils, the bird, the butterflyall images of the parthenogenetic self.
From "Re-membering the Mother: A Reading of H.D.s Trilogy. H.D.: Woman and Poet. Ed. Michael King. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. 176. Copyright © 1986 by The National Poetry Foundation
At one level, the speakers transformation from shell, to worm, to butterfly in The Walls Do Not Fall signifies H.D.s emergence from the structural confines of Imagism to the more ambitiousyet riskierdomain of the myth-making long poem. Like much of the Trilogy, poem #6 opens by recovering the power of symbols deemed negative in Judeo-Christian traditions. The opening lines allude to Psalm 22 ("I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people"). The speaker must reject narrow conceptions of "righteousness," just as H.D. must revise the mythic traditions that anchored the long poems of her brother modernists, Eliot and Pound. For H.D., the archaic meaning of "worm" (serpent) links this symbol to the healing power of Hermess caduceus, which is entwined with snakes. Serpents were also sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and many poems in The Walls Do Not Fall draw from this culture that pre-dates (and thus re-codes) Judeo-Christian myths. "Unintimidated by multiplicity," H.D. embarks on a quest to recover and reassemble the fragmented legacies of earlier culturesa quest that parallels both the reassembly of Osiris by Isis, and the reconstruction of relics by archaeologists. (H.D. had witnessed the excavation of Tutankhamens pyramid in 1923).
While the speaker draws power from her new position as worm/serpent, she is also more vulnerable than the mollusc who "limits its orbit / of being" [poem #4]. The worm/serpent must "escape" menace from the sky (like Londoners during the Blitz), from thorns, and from pursuit. Persistent, the worm ingests her hostile environment and "profit[s] / by every calamity." Note how the "separate ravellings / of encrusted gem-stuff" that she deposits on grass blades resemble writinga self-reflexive comment on H.D.s process of producing her first modernist long poem. Finally, the speaker-as-worm assumes a hostile interlocutor who accuses her of unrighteousness. She counters her accuser by refusing to repent, and by claiming that the shroud/cocoon she will make from within is a sign of divinity. Later in The Walls Do Not Fall [#39], the worm transforms to a butterfly hatched from the "little boxes" of cryptic words.
© 1999 by Marsha Bryant
If we consider WDNF to be the start of a war poem and a language fantasy, then the poem's quiet opening surprises. Neither an explosive scene of "Apocryphal fire" (which appears later in the first section) nor all arresting vision like H.D.'s famed "writing on the wall," the opening stanza presents the extraordinary—bombing—as the quotidian:
An incident here and there,
and rails gone (for guns)
from your (and my) old town square.
Amid the settling grey ash of the blitz, this narrative tone of reportage sounds "mist-grey"; it displays "no colour" (3). Yet perhaps the continual, commonplace, and quotidian threat of death best characterizes the civilian's numbing experience of war—just as the trite, euphemistic, or ironic expressions of death constitute the only "new" language for the civilian war poet." An incident here and there" points casually to a few of the "fifty thousand incidents" (as the British press ironically called the blitz) spread randomly, and fatally, "here and there" throughout Britain's capital. The language of civilian casualty, it seems, evinces a matter-of-fact casualness: war's idiom comes to reflect the willful self-numbing of civilian survivors, those "patient[s]" newly "etherised on a table," to quote language born of an earlier war-to-end-all-wars. H.D.'s first lines thus focus the reader's attention on the "here" of language—the hard, ossified, outer shell of words rendered trite by overuse and willful irony, what H.D. calls "bitter truth / wrapped up in a little joke" (16) in WDNF; Here, in London, language appears as unresponsive as the faces of civilian survivors.
But if "here" marks the world of civilian shell shock, where is the "there" of WDNF? In beginning her poem with deictic words—the indispensable "pointing" words, like "here and there"—H.D. does more than mark a temporal distance, the "here" of "London 1942" versus the "there" of "Karnak 1923," a distance easily gleaned from the poem's epigraph. "Here and there" simultaneously points to language itself, and particularly to the language of H.D.'s own poem. If "here" refers to the "forlorn husk" (22) of clichéd language, the reflected image of language users "dragging the forlorn husk of self after" them, then "there" refers to the suddenly meaningful inside of language, an inside that reveals itself only through the most focused scrutiny. An "incident" here and there: here, on the outside, the word merely replicates an ironic newspaper cliché, But "there," on the inside, the word reveals its hidden meaning: "incident," from the Latin incidere, means "a falling in," a multiply appropriate phrase for the physical danger of bombing, for the emotional danger of civilian life, and for the linguistic danger to a poem called The Walls Do Not Fall. Suddenly the physical, emotional, and linguistic valences of this word flicker through its outer "husk." And the fact that, for five centuries, Anglophones have used that very word, perhaps recognizing its multiple significance during a moment of crisis, offers a different sort of salve for the Londoner who would otherwise turn to ether.
The word "incident" does nothing to stop physical bombardment, but for the civilian war poet the word offers an enduring mold for emotion that might otherwise collapse in on itself—a linguistic structure for fearfully unstructured (or destructured) subjectivity. And within the poem called The Walls Do Not Fall, the five-hundred-year-old word "incident" suggests that language, if nothing else, can resist both sudden trauma and gradual decay. The word affirms that, amid falling buildings, a poem exerts a sturdy constructive force. The word itself begins to refute the charges (leveled against H.D. herself) that poets "are not only 'non-utilitarian,' / we are 'pathetic'": "but if you do not even understand what words say, / how can you expect to pass judgment / on what words conceal?" (14).
Look there, inside the words, H.D. apparently suggests, offering a macroscopic ars legendi for WDNF via microscopic scrutiny, a scrutiny that links H.D.'s sensibility to an earlier American war poet, Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, H.D. jolts the reader out of surface interpretation (a skimming of the outer husks of language) by an almost amputating concision that obscures syntactical meaning. "And rails gone," for example, remains opaque because of its syntactical simplicity (a mere linking of a plural noun with a past participle). But H.D. again focuses the reader on the inside, not through etymology but, appropriately, through syntax. Typographically marking an inside through her use of parentheses, H.D. leads the reader to the explanatory phrase that renders "rails gone" suddenly clear: "(for guns)." Just as meaning disappears "here"—on the outside of language, as well as "here" in "London, 1942"—so, too, meaning reappears "there," on the inside of language, where disappearing rails of London's squares are suddenly recognized (and reappear) as the raw material of munitions.
Language, H.D. suggests, enforces this outside/inside interplay, for good and for ill. Her final line, "from your (and my) old town square" implies, again syntactically and typographically, that the reader's ("your") outside perspective must find a bridge toward the poet's inner vision of language, a vision both necessary to the communication of meaning and necessarily marked with parentheses: "(and my)." The parentheses here, while visually inscribing an inner meaning or perspective within language, simultaneously imply a pessimism toward the reader's ability to discover that vision—one as easily discarded as any parenthetical (that is, extraneous) locution. And the poet's inner perspective on her language carries private "associations," including Freudian "free associations," meanings available only to the analyst and (occasionally) to the analysand herself. Indeed, to the reader familiar with H.D.'s history of psychoanalysis, the last line suggests—but will not confirm—the association of this general "old town square" with the particular Tavistock Square, the site of H.D.'s first psychoanalysis in the late 1920s (Friedmaft 18). If so, the "old town square" as locale recalls the moment at which H.D. discovered that dreams themselves—the poet's own dreams—were made of a "here and there" language, one composed of a cryptic outside and a multiply significant inside.
[. . . ]
From the fires of the blitz, fires that melt human flesh (and, no doubt, "fleshly" poetics of the past), a modernist "frame" emerges. "A new creation," H.D. wrote 10 August 1943, "is already on us" (Pearson v):
the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:
the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead ember,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,
yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for? (4)
At this pole of H.D.'s language fantasy, it is the "husk" or "bone-frame" or "skeleton" that "save[s] us" in providing "protection for the scribe"—both for her meaning and for her subjectivity. Indeed "Pompeii has nothing to teach us," for "we know crack of volcanic fissure, / slow flow of terrible lava"; that is, the formlessness or dispersal of meaning which slips all too easily into "oneness lost, madness" (43). If, both in London's smoldering house frames and in Egypt's decaying temples, "there are no doors" (3), then "eternity endures," via H.D.'s homonymic pun, indoors—within some durable husk or "frame," physical, psychological, and linguistic. The husk offers, the comforting enclosure so desperately sought by hiding Londoners who would seek the ever deeper, safer "cellar"—only to find, to their terror, "another sliced wall, / where poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum" (4). The survival of language, like one's physical survival, depends upon the discovery of an enduring husk.
At the opposite pole of H.D.'s thoughts about language in WDNF, though, the enclosed psyche cries for liberation from all enclosure. Here the poem echoes with the voice of the claustrophobic survivor of the blitz or the concentration camp inmate:
pressure on heart, lungs, the brain
about to burst its brittle case
(what the skull can endure!) (4)
For this voice "eternity endures," human life and poetic meaning survive, amid "ruin everywhere" only because "the fallen roof / leaves the sealed room / open to air" (3). Eternity endures only because "ruin opens" (3); poetic meaning survives when it can break free of its suffocating husk. The violent polarity in H.D.'s vision of language—the crashing "tide and ebb" (51) of her poetics—reflects the profound psychic split that simultaneously torments and sustains war's civilian victim, at once a casualty and a survivor.
from "'H.D., war poet' and the 'language fantasy' of Trilogy.'" SAGETRIEB 14.1-2.
Return to H.D.