Monday, September 19, 2016

to find a new beauty / in some terrible / wind-tortured place - H. D.'s beautiful and intense Sea Garden

H. D.’s first book, Sea Garden (1916) is a classic of seashore poems, in the old American tradition of Walt Whitman.  Almost every poem in it is a shore poem, with the shore being simultaneously in imaginary Greece and remembered – oh, Maine, New Jersey, wherever young Hilda went on vacation.  Poems are about shrines to sea gods – “The Shrine,” “The Cliff Temple,” “Sea Gods” – and shore plants – “Sea Rose,” “Sea Lily,” “Sea Poppies,” “Sea Violet,” Sea Iris.”

Violets are everywhere.
Violets in clumps from hills,
tufts with earth at the roots,
violets tugged from rocks,
blue violets, moss, cliff, river-violets.  (from “Sea Gods,” II – the entire section is about violets)

The most common fruit is the pear, which I don’t associate with the sea, but anyways:

O white pear,
your flower-tufts
thick on the branch
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.  (from “Pear Tree”)

These samples are representative enough to show the difficulties of the book.  Is H. D. doing more than describing some object?  Are these Rilke-like Thing Poems?  They sometimes seem like it.  Plenty of flowers in Rilke’s New Poems, too.  And as in Rilke, maybe more so, the poet is strongly present, even if it is hard to pin down who or what she might be:

from Sheltered Garden

I have had enough.
I gasp for breath…
I have had enough –
border-pinks, clove-pinks, wax-lilies,
herbs, sweet-cress.

The poet protests against the greenhouse, or whatever the shelter is, the “pears wadded in cloth,” and demands that the fruit be exposed to the frost:

it is better to taste of frost –
the exquisite frost –
than of wadding and of dead grass.

For this beauty,
beauty without strength,
chokes out life…

O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.

“Sheltered Garden” is towards the middle of the book, so H. D. has already been clear about what that new beauty looks like: the “harsh” sea rose or the “slashed and torn” sea lily.  Or, presumably, a poem, as in “The Gift,” where the gift, in place of pearls, is the poem itself.  Pear, garden, violets – skip all that for this strange ending:

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark – no changing it now –
on our hearts.

Her heart was torn, a bit earlier in the poem, by a flower, which is I believe what that last line refers to.  “The Gift” is a love poem, but from a partner who is going to be a handful.

I could laugh –
more beautiful, more intense?

Emphasize both instances of “more,” as if the speaker is incredulous.  Impossible!

In her next few books, H. D. moves away from the astringency of the Sea Garden poems, particularly by working in more explicitly Greek content – more translations, more mythology – to the point of monotony.  Let’s see, which story is this, who is the speaker, where are we in the story?  Interesting poems, but similar.  The distance of the sea flower poems is replaced by a different kind of distance, with the old stories as the object rather than the flowers or rocks.  Come to think of it, Rilke did the same thing.  The old stories tell my story, the poet says, if I just change the emphasis a little.


  1. I've read no HD yet, despite having several of her prose books on my shelves. I have to say that her poetry sounds very appealing from what you've shared here so far...


  2. I have to agree with Karen above. Very appealing.

  3. There is so much H. D. prose now, so many posthumous works. It is a confusing, honestly.

    The early poems and translations or adaptations can be quite exciting, and they make sense considered as books. She made more sense to me this way than pulling a few poems from an anthology. She has an appealing personality.