Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was an American poet who moved to London in 1911, where she remained until she removed to Switzerland in 1946. She was an early feminist and an unapologetic bisexual. Indeed, over lengthy periods of time she was involved in ménages à trois. At the age of fifteen she met Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams when they were students at the University of Pennsylvania. So they were friends from the beginning, 5 or 6 years before the movement called Imagism began. Pound was her first love.(*) Though she has written some novels, memoirs and essays, I know her as a poet, one of the original Imagists who revolutionized American poetry in the first decades of the 20th century and whose impact, for better and worse, has been felt in American poetry down to our day.
The Selected Poems offers a selection of poetry from her entire career and can therefore provide the reader unfamiliar with her work an opportunity to decide which books he/she would like to examine in more detail. Though counted a part of the Imagist movement, her poetry is generally more rhetorical than pure Imagism would admit. She had a particular attachment to ancient Greek literature and mythology, and this interest expressed itself many ways in her poetry, in her choices of topics and in the language and images she choose to explore these topics.
I'd like to let you read a few examples to see if you would like to follow up with these Selected Poems. First, a rather imagist poem:
Excerpt from "Garden" (Sea Garden, 1916)
You are clear
O rose, cut in rock,
hard as the descent of hail.
I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock.
If I could break you
I could break a tree.
A taste of her Greek side, in which she clearly sympathizes with the woman who was the "cause" of the Trojan War:
Helen (Heliodora , 1924)
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.
All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.
Greece sees, unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.
Her later work became more complex and lengthy; even in the Selected Poems these later poems are largely excerpted due to their extent. Here is an excerpt from Trilogy (1944-1946) in which she reacts to the German bombing of London in World War II:
. . . we pass on
to another cellar, to another sliced wall
where poor utensils show
like rare objects in a museum;
Pompeii has nothing to teach us,
we know crack of volcanic fissure,
slow flow of terrible lava,
pressure on heart, lungs, the brain
about to burst its brittle case
(what the skull can endure!):
over us, Apocryphal fire,
under us, the earth sway, dip of a floor,
slope of a pavement
where men roll, drunk with a new bewilderment,
the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:
the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead embers,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,
yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?
(*) For more biographical information and an overview of her work, see this Poetry Foundation link: