I read Arthur Waley’s early translations from the Chinese alongside the Collected Poems of H. D. (1925), containing her first five books, Sea Garden (1916), The God (1917), Choruses from the Iphigeneia in Aulis and the Hippolytus of Euripides (1919), Hymen (1921), and Heliodora (1924). The titles alone give a sense of the comparison. The young Modernist poets are plundering old traditions for new ideas. For H. D., the tradition that really works, that she can use to express her own ideas and identity, in the Classical Greek lyric, especially as found in Sappho, the Greek Anthology, and the plays of Euripides.
There is something about the bright, thick, overstuffed English poetry of the 1890s that became dated almost immediately, so that the next generation of poets could not use it. H. D. loved Swinburne, the great predecessor of the Decadents, and shared his love of Sappho and other Greek lyricists, but she could not write like him and be herself. Who could.
H. D., Pound, and others were not really searching old traditions for innovations for their own sake, but for their own means of self-expression. That us what I am trying to say here. H. D. expressed herself by translating Sappho and Euripides.
The only book I had read by H. D. before, by the way, was her gorgeous 1937 version of Ion. When I read the first edition owned by the University of Chicago library, the pages were uncut. Not a center of H. D. studies, I guess. It was interesting to see that she had been working on the play for years, with early quite different fragments appearing in Choruses and Heliodora:
from The bird-chorus of Ion
so light, so light,
your scarlet foot so deftly placed
to waft you neatly
to the pavement,
and do you really think
that tunes the harp of Helios,
will save you
from the arrow-flight? (in Heliodora)
Pieces of Hippolytus are scattered through the early books, too. Those I can identify, and the Sappho translations, adaptations and riffs are clear enough, like “Fragment Thirty-Six”, which begins:
I know not what to do,
my mind is reft:
is song’s gift best?
is love’s gift loveliest? (in Heliodora)
Of the eighty or so lines, I think only the first two are Sappho’s, the rest an extension or completion of Sappho. A more up-to-date Collected Poems would be useful just to tell me when H. D. is concealing translated lines of classical Greek in her poems.
Subsequent writings by H. D. and others have added an enormous amount of biographical context to her work. Although I am not as ignorant as her original readers, I am pretty close. The original readers did not even know Hilda Doolittle’s name, for pity’s sake, much less her sex or who she had dated.
Actually, I did look up one point – had the Greece-obsessed H. D. been to Greece? She visited in 1920, right in the middle of this period. So, no, and then, yes. The poems are about Greece and also about something else.
Maybe I should write something about the poems themselves. Sea Garden, in particular, is a heck of a book.