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Hilda Doolittle, (September 10, 1886 – September 27, 1961) was an avant-garde American poet, novelist, a translator, and a memoirist, who took an active part in the imagist and the feminist movements and eventually in the psychoanalytical areas. She came to be popularly known as “H.D.” when Ezra Pound sent her first published poems to Poetry magazine under those initials, which thereafter remained her pen name.
Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at the peak of the Victorian era, H.D. was brought up under the rigid codes and customs of the Protestant Moravian culture by her parents. Her mother, Helen Doolittle was an artist while her father, Charles Leander Doolittle was a professor of astronomy at Lehigh University. She was the only surviving girl with five older brothers, and she was her father’s favorite child. Her father was very much influenced by the riveting idea of the “new woman” in feminism and thus granted her the necessary education, inclusive of math, which she was not fond of. He wanted her to be a scientist like Marie Curie. Contrarily, she wanted to be an artist and was more interested in the arts of music and painting her mother taught to children. But her father forbade it, and living thus in a patriarchal society, her mother was taciturn to the edict and this was when H.D. decided that to be an artist, she must break away from all conventionality in order to become an artist and her own person.
What furthermore stirred the rebellious spirit in her came from the years from 1905 to 1911 for it was during these times that she began questioning the construct of gender, sexuality, and vocation. In 1905, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college with its curriculum supposedly easier than a men’s college. Here, she failed both at English and Math and her “essays were held up, as samples of the very worst description.” She dropped out of college in 1906 when she was twenty years old and was then facing an identity crisis. In her roman a clef, HERmione (1981), written in 1927, she writes that she felt like she was a “failure,” an “Old Maid” and “a disappointment to her father, an odd duckling to her mother, an importunate over-grown, unincarnated entity that had no place here.”
Furthermore, her doomed relationship with Ezra Pound and the backstabby her friend, lover, and poet Frances Josepha Gregg, whom she had referred to as her “alter ego,” by having an affair with Pound left her feeling betrayed and hurt. H.D. would go on to write about lesbian and heterosexual love in her poems.
H.D.’s life and work reiterates the central themes of literary modernism: the emergence from the slow-paced Victorian life into an age characterized by rapid developments in technology, deadly wars, and an emergence of the so-called ‘third world’ and of literary techniques that attempted to make sense of the chaos as a way of response. Her works date from 1911 to 1961, up till her death. She was first and foremost known as a poet, but she also wrote novels, memoirs, and a couple of translations from Greek. Her work is constantly experimental and it contributed to the avant-garde movement that dominated the arts of London and Paris. Her fascination and interest in feminism, modernism, psychoanalysis, and mythologies gave her a distinct and a unique voice that grappled to make sense of the pandemonium around her. H.D.’s complex works follow the themes of love and war and birth and death, in which she reconstructs gender, language, and myth as a way of subverting and questioning the culture which had constructed itself as the order of life.
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