The bisexual poet H. D., whose full name was Hilda Doolittle, was born on Sept. 10, 1886, in Bethlehem, Pa., to a wealthy upper-middleclass family. A contemporary of the American poet Ezra Pound, with whom she was involved at one point, she became a great Imagist poet. She received literary awards including the Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and, later in life, the Brandeis and Longview awards.
Doolittle attended Bryn Mawr, but dropped out and moved to England in 1911. Her romance with Pound had ended, but he introduced her to London’s avant-garde literary circles. She married novelist Richard Aldington in 1913.
The Imagist poets believed in direct treatment of the subject, allowing no inessential words and following the musical phrase rather than strict, traditional regularity in their rhythms. H.D.’s first published poems appeared in the journal Poetry in January 1913.
H.D. was fascinated by ancient Greek culture, and she began to travel throughout Europe and saw Greece for the first time. Her poetry appeared in the English Review, the Transatlantic Review and the Egoist. She also began an intense but non-sexual relationship with novelist D.H. Lawrence, and her marriage became troubled. (Her novel “Bid Me to Live” is largely about this time.)
She lived downstairs from her husband’s mistress, and was introduced to a friend of the Lawrences, Cecil Gray, who became the father of her daughter, Frances Perdita, named for H.D.’s first great love and lifelong friend, Frances Gregg, and for the lost daughter of Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” The birth left H.D. very ill, but a woman named Bryher came to her rescue.
Bryher, born Annie Winifred Ellerman, met H.D. on July 17, 1918, in Cornwall. She took the name Bryher from one of the fabled Scilly Isles, located to the west of Cornwall. A wealthy heiress who was also a writer, her friendship with H.D. blossomed into love. They were lifelong companions, although often maintaining separate residences. They traveled together and kept their relationship throughout their other affairs, and throughout Bryher’s marriages to Robert McAlmon and Kenneth Macpherson.
The two women moved to Paris, mingling with the expatriate literary community. After Bryher’s marriage to McAlmon ended and the one to Macpherson began, they were drawn into the world of film. Bryher and Macpherson began POOL Productions and the film magazine Close-Up.
H.D. and Bryher lived at that time in Kenwin, the Bauhaus home Bryher had built near Riant Chateau in Switzerland. H.D. sought analysis, and Bryher arranged for Dr. Hanns Sachs and Havelock Ellis to recommend her to Sigmund Freud. During 1933-34, H.D. referred to herself as Freud’s pupil and he referred to her as his analysand. H.D. later wrote “Tribute to Freud” as a fictionalized memoir of this period.
She and Bryher were able to get to London when World War II broke out; Bryher barely escaped Switzerland before helping more than 100 refugees to other countries.
After the war, H.D. suffered a mental breakdown, and returned to Switzerland. She was now 60, yet was experiencing the most prolific writing years of her life. Her book “Hermetic Definition” (1972, New Directions) contains the angel-haunted poems of her old age. Other books include “Selected Poems of H.D.” (1957, Grove Press) and “Trilogy” (1973, New Directions).
In July 1961 she suffered a stroke, and died on Sept. 21 of that year.
H. Hernandez wrote, “Her gravestone lies flat in Nisky Hill Cemetery ... and usually has seashells on it, left in tribute. It bears lines from her poem ‘Epitaph’: ...So you may say, Greek flower; Greek ecstasy reclaims forever one who died following intricate song’s lost measure. H.D.”