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On "Oread"


Gary Burnett

Certainly "Oread" is a good poem for Oppen to have chosen for his critique, as perhaps the single most anthologized H.D. poem as well as one which Pound singled out as an exemplum of Imagism. And it is such an exemplum; it is short, direct, definitely without "slither." And yet it seems ultimately to revolve around something other than either Oppen's ideal of accurate perception or Pound's demand for "objectivity" as a poetic ideal:

Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

Of course, in the terms Oppen establishes, this poem does depend on a fallacy; the speaker given by the title, the Oread, a mountain nymph, by her very act of speech—by giving "advice" to the sea—projects a consciousness into something which must otherwise remain outside of the terms of the human. Still, H.D.'s distance here from rigorous vision is not exactly the failure of accuracy implied by Oppen's critique, but the sign of a fundamentally different poetics. As Susan Stanford Friedman has pointed out, ". . . 'Oread' and most of H.D.'s imagist poems are phenomenological in emphasis; they are poems about consciousness, not the world of objects external to consciousness" (Psyche Reborn 56). More radically, I would suggest, it is not concerned at all with either the sea or the fir trees as such, but with a complex set of identifications of the self with the activities and objects of the poem. It simply is not the poem Oppen—or, for that matter, classical Imagism—assumes it to be.

As titular figure, the Oread is necessarily the prime locus of the poem's consciousness and activities, placing the words spoken not only within a consciousness but within a consciousness inseparable from her material surroundings. Her projection of consciousness into the world around her—her act of Imagist "weakness" in giving advice to the sea—Is less a mistake or failure of poetic nerve than an acknowledgement of the potentials of the poem, a discovery, as it were, of potential identities at work within the images of the poem. In the image complex of "Oread," it is clear that consciousness inheres not only within the Oread herself but also within the pines surrounding her and the sea beneath her. This spreading of consciousness out from the poem's center—and not the accurate perception of any actual seacoast—is the basic activity of the poem: the sea, pines, and rocks are, so to speak, entities and not things—they are beings in their own right rather than mere items in an Imagist poetic inventory. In this context, it is significant that "Dryad"—a tree nymph to go with the pines of "Oread"—is one of the several names used by H.D. and one of the names identifying the autobiographical heroines of her novels; though never quite present, this Dryad gives to the poem a second locus of consciousness, one belonging both to the author and to the speechless pines, forming a complex figure by means of which the poem can take on more importance than it may initially seem to possess. And since such a Dryad, absent and yet present in the figural pines, is a figure for H.D. herself, she functions strongly as a literally missing—and yet determining—factor of the poem's meaning. "Oread," that is, is not only "phenomenological in emphasis," but is a poem about nothing less than the very creation or discovery of an identity within and through poetry.

The Dryad, precisely because she is missing from the poem, gives it resonance as a poem of this kind—a poem about the identity of a poet named "H.D.," a poet whose very name—a set of initials—is emptied of any firm demarcation of identity; as Susan Friedman has pointed out, too many people respond to the name with the question "H.D.—who's he?" ("Who Buried H.D. ?"801). At the same time, however, the very emptiness of the initials makes possible—indeed, demands—an ongoing play of the multiple possibilities of what such an identity might be, both as a simple demarcation, a name, and as a complex engagement with the permutations of gender and identity itself.

In this regard, the publishing history of "Oread" is of some importance. It is an early, "Imagist" poem, and yet was not collected until 1924 in Heliodora, a volume which in its title explicitly plays on the poet's enigmatic name. This is not to imply that her two earlier volumes—Sea Garden of 1916 and Hymen of 1921—are not concerned with the relationship between image and identity, but only that "Oread" becomes part of the collection in which this concern is for the first time explicitly foregrounded. In the 1925 Collected Poems, "Oread"—along with several other early poems—was removed from its place in Heliodora and placed in an earlier section under the title "The God." The reason for such a move is unclear; perhaps intended to restore a more accurate chronology, the shift of this poem in particular suggests a more significant concern. Though "Oread" is not actually a part of Sea Garden, it constitutes a central statement of the ground which that first gathering takes as its own: the ground which is the line of the surf, neither actual shore nor actual sea, but a complex and interactive meeting line, an interplay of both. And this ground—precise yet somehow double, an Imagist "outline" of sorts yet an outline built up out of its own intense shifts—is the guiding metaphor for H.D.'s earliest poetry.

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


Brendan Jackson

It is time to consider the poem [Ezra] Pound selected as the exemplar of Vorticist poetry. "In painting Kadinsky, Picasso," he wrote, in the first issue of Blast, "In poetry this by ‘H.D.’" In Blast the poem is untitled. What it appeared in Some Imagist Poets 1915 it was called "Oread," and this is the title which appears in the Collected Poems [by H.D.]. F. S. Flint in the Egoist referred to the poem as "PINES," clearly believing that it speaks of pines, imaged as a green sea. . . .Pound, however, appears to have read the poem differently . . . "‘H.D.’s’ waves like pine tops." . . . This confusion is, paradoxically, illuminating, for all such formulations misrepresent the poem. The poem is not about pines or sea. It . . . functions in a non-discursive mode and cannot be "unfolded" or explained; for [as Pound stated] "the Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy."

And indeed the most immediately striking quality of "Oread" is perhaps its projection of a contained energy: it is vibrant, yet reaches stasis. The stasis is achieved in part by the poet’s refusal to extend her compass. . . . The energy is a product of the intensity of the poet’s vision. It is bodied forth in the centering of the poem on forceful verbs. In six short lines we find five violent verbs: "whirl" (twice), "splash," "hurl" (strengthened by the assonantal relationship with "whirl"), and "cover." All are in the imperative mood; each is placed at the beginning of a line; and only commas are allowed to articulate this avalanche of energy. Thus we have a movement of breathless crescendo, or rather of repeated climax, suggestive of the surging of sea and forest alike. And thus the poem is a worthy model of authentic imagism, of Pound’s vorticist ideal. . . . the five clauses really offer alternative expressions of a single idea.

From "‘The Fulsomeness of her Prolixity": Reflections on "H.D., ‘Imagiste.’" The South Atlantic Quarterly 83:1 (Winter 1984): 99-100.  Copyright © 1984 by Duke University Press


Susan Stanford Friedman

One of H.D.’s earliest and best-known poems, "Oread," illustrates how the visual language of imagism parallels the mechanisms of the dream-work as Freud described them. This important similarity helps to establish how the poetic epistemology of imagism laid a foundation that made H.D. particularly receptive to psychoanalytic; influence.

[. . . .]

Since most imagist poems present images from nature, it is easy to assume that imagist poetry is about nature. But "Oread" and most of H.D.'s imagist poems are phenomenological in emphasis; they are poems about consciousness, not the world of objects external to consciousness. The center of "Oread," as the title indicates, is not the sea; it is instead the perceptions and emotions of an oread, a nymph of the mountains, as she regards the sea aroused in a whirling passion of intensity. Analogous to the manifest and latent content of the dream, the poem presents images of the sea in order to embody an "intellectual and emotional complex," which is the real subject of the poem.

The images that simultaneously obscure and reveal the emotions of the oread are not surrealist images emerging from the unconscious. "Oread" is a controlled poem, not the achievement of the dream-work. But the waves made of pine trees and the trees made of water have a quality analogous to the dream. The rational eye of the conscious mind would not see pine-tree waves, splashing pines, or "pools of fir." Such vision belongs to the "Kingdom of the Illogical." If H.D. were to report such dream-images to Freud, he might well have called them an illustration of "dream-distortion." Through "condensation," the poem presents a distortion of reality that suggests a whole range of interrelated ideas and emotions encoded in a few images. Decoding these condensed distortions would have to begin with the recognition that they result from a picture-making mode of thought, rather than an analytic mode. The poem significantly does not rely upon similes, which by definition remind the reader that the images only make comparisons, not equivalences. The speaker does not say that a rough sea looks like pointed trees; she sees tree-waves. just as the dream-work gives the dreamer a visual representation of unconscious impulses, so the poem conjures an illustration of nonrational reality that conveys an "intellectual and emotional complex" in a highly condensed form.

"Condensation," Freud believed, also allowed the dream-work to express "contraries" and outright "contradictions" in a single dream-picture. The condensation of imagist technique accomplishes just that fusion of opposites in "Oread." The poem's pronouns--"us" and "you"--establish the oppositions in the poem imaged in the land and the sea. The oread is the land and consequently identifies with the shore and addresses the waves as "you," As the spirit of the land, she understandably perceives her fluid opposite in her own terms: waves are pointed pines that whirl up, crash, and make pools of fir. This nonrational mode of thought gives motion, fury, and a watery stillness to the land; conversely, it gives stature and stability to the sea. But these images condense opposites into a contradictory whole; they simultaneously affirm and deny the division of land and sea.

The fusion of land and sea in "Oread" does not in itself explain the emotional intensity of the poem. The parallel verbs of the poem--"whirl … crash," "hurl," and "cover"--create the oread's sensation of being submerged in the violence and then stillness of the waves. Robert Duncan wrote perceptively that many of H.D.'s "nature poems" have a sexual dimension: they "betray in their troubled ardor processes of psychological and even sexual identification.... [there is a] poetic magic in which the natural environment and the sexual experience are fused." The imagery and rhythm of "Oread" suggest that Duncan is correct. The waves whirl up to become phallic pines that crash down "on our rocks . . . over us." The poem ends on a final note of protectiveness as the waves "cover us" in quiet pools. The oread's commands throughout the poem emphasize that the sea acts while the land is acted upon. H.D.'s images may be identifying a traditional masculinity with the waves (movement; sexual assault) and a traditional femininity with the land (passivity; sexual receptivity). The action of the waves on the shore combined with the emotion intensity suggest that the poem can be read as a correlative of sexual experience or emotion. Since the synthesizing "logic" of the image has already created a fusion of land and sea, the poem additionally may be suggesting an androgynous identity for the oread. The experiential reality of the poem illustrates that externally opposite qualities such as active/passive or masculine/feminine coexist within single individual.

Freud's syntax of the dream-work includes the important technique he called "displacement," by which intense feelings are projected onto a relatively unimportant person or set of events. "Oread," the oread's identity and sexual emotions are "displaced" onto a natural event, the meeting of the land and sea on the shore line. More significantly, the poet's relationship to her speaker is analogous to the dream-work's displacement of emotion. The oread is persona for the poet herself as well as an anthropomorphic embodiment of the land. She is a personal metaphor whose experience gave indirect, and therefore permissible, expression to the intense passion that characterizes much of H.D.'s early poetry. To give form and expression to her own experience, H.D. displaced her voice into that of the oread and substituted the oread's emotion for her own. Norm Holmes Pearson warned that H.D.'s use of Greek masks as a distancing device has all too often been ignored by her critics. He told his interviewer, L S. Dembo: "When you said that she used Greek myth to find her own identity, you hit upon an aspect of H.D.'s poetry which, rather surprisingly, has gone unrecognized. She has been so praised as a kind of Greek publicity girl that people have forgotten that she writes the most intensely personal poems using Greek myth as a metaphor." The oread may be Greek, but the setting for "Oread" comes from a past not more remote than her visits to the Cornwall seacoast and her childhood summers on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The ultimate subject of the poem is the consciousness of the poet herself, the intellectual and emotional complex of perception that finds its clearest expression in the picture-making mode of imagist epistemology. H.D.'s poetic apprenticeship with imagism laid the groundwork for her rapid absorption of Freud's related theories of the encoding and decoding of the unconscious.

from Pysche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Copyright © 1981 by Susan Stanford Friedman. Reprinted by permission of the author.


Jeanne Kammer

As in many of H.D.'s poems, voice, action, and objects here are treated as equal elements in a system, rather than as subordinate in syntactic or philosophical relation to one another. The oread, a nymph of the forest, demands of the sea an action which rises in crescendo from "whirl" to "splash" to "hurl," then settles into senescence with "cover." It is sexual, suicidal, and it connects the speaker to the sea in an intense, intimate manner.

The remaining images of the poem--the waves, the rocks, the pines--interact diaphorically with voice and action, superimposing one upon the other, creating ambiguity. The great pointed pines of the forest, for example, in a violent transference beyond simple juxtaposition, become the crashing waves of the sea; the "green . . . pools of fir" raise conflicting associations of warmth and coolness, safety and peril, life and death. "Our" and "us" are cloudy referents which both tighten and obscure relationships: the sea and the oread? The pines and the nymph? The speaker and some unnamed other? all of these? We read again, trying to feel our way through the poem, trying out combinations of terms--just as we must do with the work of Dickinson and Moore.

From Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essay on Women Poets. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Copyright © 1979 by Indiana University Press.


Thomas Burnett Swann

When it was first published, another poem in which the sea is personified, "Oread," was attacked by the enemies of Imagism. They objected to its irregular pattern, and thought that because its single image was devoid of ethical significance it was suitable only to begin a poem and was not a poem in itself. But as Imagism triumphed, "Oread" became one of its showpieces. Critics agreed that in its six short lines H. D. had suggested the sea's thunder and its cleansing powers. The sea here is equated with an immense oread, a nymph of the mountains, whose violence is a purification. (According to one interpretation, the poem compares mountains to sea, rather than the other way around.)

Whirl up, sea--
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

Verbs which are also trochees, or the first syllables of trochees, begin all but one line. Placed as they are in a position of prominence and stress, with their sound alone they convey the surge of waves, and they also denote a surging movement of water. Images reinforce the work of the verbs: the sea not only splashes, it splashes waves like "great pines" and scatters "pools of fir."

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


Richard Gray

Perhaps the first thing that strikes a reader about a poem like this is the absence of certain familiar elements. There are no similes, no symbols, no generalised reflections or didacticism, no rhymes, no regular metre, no narrative. One might well ask what there is, then and the answer would be a great deal. There is a pellucid clarity a diction, and a rhythm that is organic, intrinsic to the mood of the poem; there is a vivid economy of language, in which each word seems to have been carefully chiselled out of other contexts, and there is a subtle technique of intensification by repetition -- no phrase is remarkable in itself, perhaps, but there is a sense of rapt incantation, an enthralled dwelling on particular cadences that gives a hermetic quality, a prophetic power, to the whole. It is the entire poem that is experienced, not a striking line, a felicitous comparison, or an ingenious rhyme; the poem has become the unit of meaning and not the word, so each single word can remain stark, simple, and unpretentious. In 'Oread', the image that constitutes the poem becomes not merely a medium for describing a sensation but the sensation itself. The sea is the pinewood, the pinewood is the sea, the wind surrounds and inhabits both; and the Greek mountain-nymph of the title comprehends and becomes identified with all three elements. There is a dynamic and unified complex, an ecstatic fusion of natural and human energies; and the image represents the point of fusion, 'the precise instant' (to quote that remark of Pound's again) 'when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and, subjective'.

'Oread' is typical of H.D.'s work in many ways. 'I would be lonely', she once admitted, while living at the heart of literary London, 'but for the intensity of my . . . inner life'. And this became the subject of her work, from the early Imagist verse to the later, more oracular poems: the secret existence that cast her, in the midst of company, into permanent but willing exile, the ecstatic sense of inhabiting a borderline between land and ocean, outer world and inner, time and eternity. The earlier work (of which, of course, 'Oread' is an example) is what she is, perhaps, most well known for. Here, greatly influenced by classical Greek poetry, H.D. speaks in a taut and suggestive manner, emitting everything that is inessential, structurally or emotionally unimportant.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by Longman Group UK Limited.


Shawn Alfrey

Conversely, in H.D.'s poem, the speaker is not a removed craftsman, but is herself a part of the experience of the poem. While she, too, transforms her object, the emphasis is not so much on the power of her virtuosic perceptions. Rather, the poem is an attempt to describe the speakerís experience in terms of the other being she encounters.

Pound's direct treatment of the thing requires a hierarchical division between the viewer and his object where the viewer's "apparition" becomes a stabilizing truth. But H.D.'s Imagism is marked by an active, even dangerous, balancing of two forces. Indeed, her poem suggests that there can be no direct treatment of the thing except through such confrontations. "Oread" is not a description, but one part of a desired dialogue between two subjects, a wood nymph and a sea nymph or god. Articulating the energy of exchange, not the stasis of superposition, the poem evokes a dialogic encounter between the two.

from "Toward Intersubjective Knowledge: H.D.'s Liminal Poetics." SAGETRIEB 11.3


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