Fred Beake: Sea Garden -- a chapter on H.D.

Published in 1916 Sea Garden was the culmination of a brief period of the most intense activity. H.D. had come to London in 1911 in her twenty fifth year via Paris in the company of Frances Gregg and her Mother. Frances and she were more than a little enamored of one another, but it was necessary for Frances to return to the States with her Mother, so it was Ezra Pound (who had been H.D.'s Philadelphia boyfriend) who played the major role in her London life. And yet H.D. found the time to marry the poet and journalist Richard Aldington, and to enjoy close friendships with Brigit Patmore and May Sarton. With Patmore at least she may have been rather more than friends.

There was a brief period of intense happiness and liberation before the darkness of the War came down, and with it, the loss of a child, intense marital problems, an affair with the composer Cecil Gray, an illegitimate child and much else. Yet the period of happiness before the War was as intense as the unhappiness during it. Much of it was spent in tea shops in intense conversation on the nature of poetry, or other more frivolous matters. Equally a lot of time was spent in the British Museum, studying ancient Greece and Egypt. And closer to hand Pound and Aldington threw books at her in Greek and Latin that they expected her to read.

The problem that she confronted poetically was to break out of the luxuriant dream worlds of Shelley and Keats, and some at least of the Victorians, and create a poetry for the Twentieth Century. We have very few real clues to her thinking, other than her actual writing. We know that she met the pianist Walter Rummell in Paris, and was fascinated by his playing of Debussy, and it is likely that Debussy's short pieces with their free form and constant sense of the presence of the elements, especially water, left a mark on H.D.. If so, she never committed the thought directly to paper, though she hints broadly in that direction in her novel Asphodel.

Equally she was reading among the spare, finely wrought poetry of the Greek Anthology, which also has the sea as a constant presence; and she was in contact with Pound and his ideas of free form in verse. And from Browning and Shelley and Morris and Swinburne (and indeed Pound) she could not but have been aware of the idea of poetry as Persona: that what we hear is not the direct voice of the poet, but a character speaking through the poet.

This was an original brew in itself, But H.D. added to it much that was her own. First she had a sense of lyric form that is as musical, perhaps more musical, than her elder contemporaries Yeats or De la Mare. This is not stanzaic, but it has something of the liquid flow of Greek Lyric poetry, Sappho or Alcaeus say. It is rather as if the foot becomes independent of meter, but retains its existence.

Second she achieved contact in these years with a complex dream world, that both recreates and transforms Ancient Greece. It is often said that H.D. had no contact with Surrealism, which may in the strict sense be true, but many of the happenings in her poems are none the less 'surreal'. Take 'The Wind Sleepers' for example. Who are these people who have woken on a beach 'stung by the hurled sand/and the broken shells', so they have to retreat into the city. Why is it necessary to build an altar on the shore to propitiate them, now they have gone in the city? Possibly there is some hint of the women worshipers of Adonis in Theocritus' great hymn:

And in the morn we shall gather in the dew
And bear him by the rollers that batter on the beach,
And untie our hair, and let fall our girdles to our ankles
And show our breasts and begin our songs of lamentation.

However if this is so it is clearly an act of mourning that has gone wrong, and that failure must itself be propitiated. And one may perhaps deduce from this a distress at the failure of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries to propitiate and intermingle with the elemental, not least Death, which to some degree is still with us.

However what one takes from the poem is a sense of great strangeness: of a dream of a real seashore, where something has gone terribly wrong.

Thus we come to a contradiction that is central to all of H.D.'s writing. In a century which has purported to rediscover the 'real' and distrusted the mystical, she, though apparently one of the first Modernists, continued to treat of essences and unknowns.

In Sea Garden these essences are often an attempt not to propitiate the dark destructive side of nature, and our disposition to join in with it, as to celebrate it. Thus in The Helmsman, the pagan characters of the anonymous landscape 'fled inland with our flocks/...cut off from the wind/ and the salt track of the marsh.'

'We worshiped inland-
We stepped past wood flowers,
We forgot your tang...'

But somehow now they are back at sea, and

'...our boat climbs - hesitates - drops-
climbs - hesitates - crawls back -
climbs - hesitates -'

The last two lines are intensely ambiguous

'O be swift-
We have always known you wanted us.'

These lines seem to indicate a willing sacrifice to the goddess of the sea/destruction by the crew of the boat. Whether this is meant to mean simply a return to sea and its attendant risks, or whether the sacrifice is literal i.e. destruction is upon them, and the crew willingly accept it, perhaps even seek it, remains ambiguous. However the fact that this poem is followed by The Shrine tends to support the theory of willing sacrifice.

The Shrine repeats itself rather, but parts of it are of great power, and it is full of the unreasonably attractive beauty of destructive Nature.


... you are great, fierce, evil -
you are the land-blight -
you have tempted men
but they perished on your cliffs.

Though oak-beams split,
though boats and sea-men flounder,
and the strait grind sand with sand
and cut boulders to sand and drift-
your eyes have pardoned our faults,
your hands have touched us-
you have leaned forward a little
and the waves can never thrust us back
from the splendor of your ragged coast.

However in the second section the god is 'useless', but

'O but stay tender, enchanted
where wavelengths cut you
apart from all the rest-
for we have found you,
we watch the splendor of you,
we thread throat on throat of freesia
for your shelf.

You are not forgot,
O plunder of lilies,
honey is not more sweet
than the salt stretch of your beach.'

Where as in the rest of the poem the force described is dark and destructive, here we have a Beauty that is very real, but to no useful end, and lacks the pretty niceness of so much of the Victorian depiction (one might almost say prostitution) of Nature.

Sea Gods is related but gentler. The key line is perhaps 'You [i.e. the Gods of the Sea] will break the lie of men's thoughts'. This suggestion that Nature is above Man has never been popular all this century. We have seen the introduction of western species to the Pacific, with the almost invariable destruction of the native types, we have the dubiousness of modern farming methods, we have the growing threat of the uncertain final outcome of genetic engineering. In every case we have tampered with (as H.D. would have it) 'the Gods' and no doubt our lies will be broken.

Parallel to this very un-nineteenth century idea of the ferocious power of brute Nature, and the need both to propitiate it, and attain to union at whatever cost, are several poems where there seems to be some idea of a hunt after the fashion of many classical myths. Thus in Pursuit the narrator sees traces of a pursuit through woodland. This is literal with descriptions of the hints provided by broken branches etc till the traces disappear and the poem is ended with the idea that the Pursued has begged the wood daemons for help.

More obviously classical is Huntress, where an Artemis like figure (though the sex of the speaker is notably undefined) calls on the hearer to

Spring up - sway forward -
follow the quickest one,
aye, though you leave the trail
and drop exhausted at our feet.

Again as with the sea pieces the characters in both poems seem possessed by wild forces, beyond normal reason. There seems no particular reason for the flight of the character in Pursuit, and in Huntress the hunt is remorseless, and regardless of the civilized life of agriculture.

This theme is taken up in Sheltered Garden. The poet (and surely this is one of the few pieces in H.D's own voice) denounces 'border pinks, clove pinks, wax lilies'. She denounces the covering of fruit 'for this beauty,/beauty without strength,/chokes out life'. She ends

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

This is like Lawrence in the Fruits section of Bird Beasts and Flowers, which was written nearly a decade later. It is less colloquial and less direct, but the mood is very similar.

The resemblance between Lawrence and H.D. is at least partly explicable by an exchange of letters, and a close platonic association. Much more surprising is the closeness of the flowers in H.D.'s Evening to Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings of a decade later.

The petals reach inward,
the blue tips bend
towards the bluer heart.

There is the same undoubted rather female sensuality in both artists. The one large difference is that H.D.'s flowers are part of a larger world, the coming of evening, and O'Keefe's flowers live each in its own self contained world.

Yet it is flowers of a different sort that dominate this very various, and in some ways rather centerless book, which is indeed almost like a series of fragments from a larger dream. Starting with the seminal Hermes of the Ways, which many regard as the original Imagist poem, there is an obsession with flowers and fruit that manage to survive in proximity to the Sea. Several years before Lawrence went down a similar road in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, there are poems seeking to anatomize the being of the Sea Rose,the Sea Lily, Sea Poppies, the Sea Violet, the Sea Iris, and (in Hermes of the Ways) "the sea orchard". The flowers are all pictured in an almost sculptural way, and great stress is placed on the value of surviving. If one considers the all too real stress which H.D. found herself under in the England of World War One, and was to portray so movingly in the novel Asphodel, it is tempting to find something very personal in these constant images of survival. And indeed there may also be something of H.D.'s sexual situation, on the shore (as it were) between male and female. Yet it is equally possible to argue (and may indeed apply equally well) that H.D. was writing about a whole generation, who found themselves between Life and Death, with the probability at least equal. The problem is beyond the poetry however, and what we have is a series of very fine pieces with very original rhythms, and very deep ambiguous feelings.

Such then is Sea Garden: a book very much of its time, the First World War and just before, with its deep feeling for Nature, and its intense emotions, arising (probably) out of both private and public affairs. Yet there is nothing of the Urban poetry of Pound (H.D.'s mentor, and one time boy friend) or Aldington (briefly her husband), or Eliot (whose mentor was also Pound). And there is an inscrutability, which arises at least partly from the Greek Personae, but also from a scrupulous acceptance of inner direction, that had something in common with Surrealism.

The indirection is valuable: it avoids too easy labels being applied, and gives the poems a charged life of their own. It was however to create an artistic dilemma for H.D.., which she was not to resolve in her poetry till Trilogy in 1942-4. This was simply that when she wrote less intensely than in Sea Garden, she tended to retain the ambiguity without the intensity, and over a greater length, so her poems became less. The very personal poems of Red Roses for Bronze in the late Twenties were to prove a partial exception to this, but it was in the prose-poem novels that it was resolved.

Sea Garden therefore stands as a very considerable achievement: poem after poem that seems far longer than it is, and seems to open a window on a very large world. Yet though the book is very visual, it is the strange irregular rhythms that seem to create the sense of waking dreams that come and go. The effect is rather like that of some English music contemporary to it, the Bax of the Garden of Fand, or November Woods for example.

The effect of this was curiously different to Pound or Eliot, or indeed Aldington. They confront the brutality and fragmentation of the modern Urban Landscape, and the effects of War and the Military Industrial Complex, but are also in danger of being overwhelmed by what they confront, as witness Pound's dubious admiration for Mussolini, and Eliot's curious affection for Action Francaise. It was to be the allegedly half mad H.D. who admitted that the real reason for her sessions with Freud in the Thirties was in fact what was going on in Germany. Similarly in Sea Garden there is a resolute refusal to give way to the Warrior ethos of the First World War, and a psyche constructing (however fragmentedly) a world in which to survive.

This is an extract from Fred Beake's forthcoming book on H.D. to be published by Salzburg University Press.