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Hilda Doolittle

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Hilda Doolittle

Hilda Doolittle, better known by her mononym HD, was an American Modernist poet and author. Her career spans more than five decades, and her legacy expands as a leader of the Modernist literary movement and as a poet of feminist critique.

Hilda Doolittle Biography

Hilda Doolittle was born in 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, as the youngest of six children and the only daughter. Her father, Charles, was a prominent professor of astronomy, first at Lehigh University but then at the University of Pennsylvania where he moved his family in 1896 to live in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Her mother, Helen, was a member of the Moravian Church, and Doolittle’s first few years in Bethlehem amongst the Moravian community were formative for her intellectual development.

Her exacting father sought to raise Doolittle as a scientist; however, she never had an aptitude for math and preferred the artistic nature of her mother. Doolittle attended Bryn Mawr college in 1905. She dropped out after about a year’s worth of studies as she had not performed well in all of her classes, including math and English. The personal relationships that she formed during this time of her life were essential to her development as a writer. She had met modernist poet Ezra Pound when she was 15 years old, and at Bryn Mawr, she formed friendships with other modernist poets such as William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.

Doolittle had five brothers; despite her father's interest in crafting her into the next groundbreaking scientist, Doolittle sought praise and attention from her artistic mother. Doolittle wanted to attend art school but was forbidden by her father.

Portrait of Hilda Hilda Doolittle, Hilda Doolittle photograph, StudySmarterPortrait of American poet Hilda Doolittle, also known as HD, Wikimedia commons

After leaving college, she published a few short stories in Philadelphia papers and magazines. She was briefly engaged to Pound, but the engagement ended when he moved to Europe. Doolittle began a relationship with Frances Josepha Gregg, an art student. In 1911, Doolittle moved to England with Gregg and Gregg’s mother.

In England, Doolittle renewed her friendship with Pound, who helped introduce her to many of the literary modernists working in London. There, she met Richard Aldington; Doolittle, Pound, and Aldington would go on to define the Imagist movement in poetry. Doolittle and Aldington married in 1913, though they would separate after the stillbirth of their first child in 1915.

Imagism is a poetic movement of the 20th century in which poetry was written in a direct manner using sparse, economic language. The goal of the Imagists was to craft sharp, clearly-defined images without using flowery language or conventional structure.

In 1918, Doolittle moved in with Annie Winifred Ellerman, pseudonymously known as Bryher, and the two would live together until 1946 and remain lovers until death. In 1919, Doolittle gave birth to her daughter, Frances Perdita Aldington, whose father was actually Cecil Gray, an English composer. In 1938, Aldington and Doolittle officially divorced. In the 1920s, Doolittle moved into a house on Lake Geneva with Bryher and Bryher’s husband, Kenneth Macpherson. Bryher and Macpherson adopted Doolittle’s daughter Frances.

Also during this time, Doolittle became interested in psychoanalysis. She spent time in Vienna being analyzed by Sigmund Freud. She was terrified at the prospect of a second World War due to the pain she suffered during the First World War—her brother died in the conflict, her husband was left traumatized which led to the dissolution of their marriage, and she believed that her shock at the atrocities of war led to her baby with Aldington being stillborn.

Freud encouraged Doolittle to write about her experiences and feelings as part of her psychoanalytic treatment. These books would later be published as Bid Me to Live (1960) and Writing on the Wall (1944).

During World War II, Doolittle moved back to London with Bryher. The two decided not to live together, however, and Doolittle moved back to Switzerland where she suffered a mental breakdown in 1946. Doolittle spent the majority of the rest of her life in Switzerland, making brief visits to the United States. In 1961, she had a stroke, and she died in Zurich.

Hilda Doolittle’s Career

Doolittle’s career as a writer began with the short stories she published in Philadelphia in her early twenties. When she moved to London she began writing poetry more intensely. Her relationships with Pound and Aldington influenced each other in their development of Imagist poetry. In 1912, she became an editor of the newly-formed Poetry magazine. She published three of her first poems in the 1913 issue of the magazine.

In 1916, Doolittle published her first poetry book, entitled Sea Garden. She became the assistant editor of the publication The Egoist, replacing her husband Aldington as he served in World War I. In the 1920s and 1930s, Doolittle published three series of novels; her work explored classical literature and examined the patriarchal lens through which stories were written. Her first collection, Magna Graeca, consisted of two novels: Palimpsest (1921) and Hedylus (1928). She then wrote the Madrigal cycle, which consisted of four novels that weren’t published until many years after her death that dealt with autobiographical details about Doolittle’s own life and her relationships. In the 1930s, she published novellas as part of the Borderline cycle.

Doolittle was also involved in film. She was part of the 1927 POOL Group, which included Bryher and Macpherson; the trio wrote, directed, and acted in the film Borderline (1930). They also established a film criticism magazine known as Close Up, which Doolittle frequently wrote for. She also published memoirs such as Writing on the Wall (1944) about her experience with psychoanalysis.

Back in London during World War II, Doolittle continued writing poetry, memoirs, and prose. She published numerous poems throughout the 1950s and was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal in 1960, becoming the first woman to win the award.

Hilda Doolittle, Plague outside Hilda Doolittle's home, StudySmarterPlaque outside of the home of Doolittle where she lived in London—Doolittle spent much of her life living outside of the United States, most of it split between England and Switzerland, Wikimedia commons

Works by HD

Hilda Doolittle is regularly known by the moniker HD, an abbreviation of her name. This abbreviation is said to have come from Ezra Pound signing her name once as HD, which Doolittle then adopted.

The story goes that Pound signed her name for her on a document and added the word 'Imagiste.' Doolittle, however, frequently relayed different versions of these events, and she often would use other pseudonyms when publishing her poems and books.

Books by Hilda Doolittle

Doolittle published many books throughout her lifetime. These include her prose pieces that came from her three cycles, Magna Graeca, Madrigal, and Borderline. A few of her more famous books, such as HERmione (1981) and The Gift (1982) as they contained autobiographical information about her relationships with women and also the revelation that Aldington was not her daughter Frances’s father.

Poems by Hilda Doolittle

Published separately in magazines along with numerous poetry collections, Doolittle wrote many poems throughout her lifetime. Her first poetry collection was Sea Garden (1916) in which she set her poems amongst a lush natural landscape in order to express her poetic and personal identity. Her subjects ranged though, as with The Walls Do Not Fall (1944), her poetry collection that confronts the atrocities of the First and Second World Wars. Helen in Egypt (1961) used Greek and Egyptian myths and history as a basis for her poetry collection that examined the patriarchal norms that dominated the myths and stories of the past.

Hilda Doolittle Quotes

“Words were her plague and words were her redemption”1

This quotation from her book HERmione, not published during her lifetime, reflects Doolittle’s approach to writing. Like many artists, when she couldn’t produce writing to her standards it was an agonizing, uninspired process, but when the inspiration was there, writing became her salvation. Particularly in response to the World Wars, which affected her deeply, Doolittle found an outlet in her writing.

“At least I have the flowers of myself,

and my thoughts, no god

can take that;

I have the fervour of myself for a presence

and my own spirit for light;”2

This poem recounts the tale of Eurydice. Here, Doolittle turns the expectations of the reader regarding Eurydice’s fate by showing her inner narrative. Despite the machinations of the Gods and Orpheus’s ultimate failure, Eurydice’s own essence cannot be ruined or stolen.

Hilda Doolittle, Bust of Helen of Troy, StudySmarterBust of Helen of Troy, one of Doolittle's frequent subjects as a symbol of women, Wikimedia commons

Why would Doolittle choose classical mythology as a frequent subject? How can the women of classic myths represent the struggles of women in the modern world?

Hilda Doolittle’s Writing Style

Doolittle’s writing style was avant-garde for the time period in which she was writing. She was one of the three primary poets to codify what it meant to be an Imagist writer, namely that the subject must be treated directly, words must be used as economically as possible, and verses were to be written to evoke a musical rhythm.

In addition to classic Imagism, Doolittle employed free-verse in her poetry. Her poems often did not follow a set rhyme scheme or meter, rather flowing from line to line without regard for formal structure. Her direct approach to poetry showed both her background as an American, in her word choice and in her descriptions, as well as her point of view on writing as a woman.

Her poetry is characterized by its intensity and an often detached tone. She was inspired by Greek myths, and much of her inspiration for the subjects of her poem came from the poetry of Sappho. Her later work changed thematically to reflect the values that she had developed: her extensive research and work on psychoanalysis, particularly her time spent with Freud, and a deep interest in the unconscious mind. Her later work became more personal and more concerned with revelations brought on by her psychoanalytic work.

Hilda Doolittle’s Legacy

Doolittle’s legacy is an important part of feminist literary history. She underwent a period of rediscovery in the 1970s, years after her death, as literary critics began to challenge prevailing notions about the male-dominated fields of acclaimed literature. Her own writing, which critiqued and examined patriarchal structures in society and literature, was reexamined as scholars sought to expand their knowledge of modernist writers beyond just the likes of Pound, Eliot, and Aldington.

Thanks to this rediscovery, Doolittle’s legacy is established as a leading figure in the Imagist and Modernist literary movements of the 20th century.

Hilda Doolittle - Key Takeaways

  • Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was an American poet, author, and filmmaker.
  • She was a leading Imagist and Modernist poet in her rejection of formal poetic structures and use of direct, sparse language.
  • Doolittle was known as HD, and her career spans five decades in which she wrote numerous poetry collections along with prose and memoirs.
  • Doolittle was fascinated by psychoanalysis, and much of her later work deals with themes regarding the unconscious.
  • Doolittle is known for her poetry that addresses classical myths and the patriarchal norms they uphold by reinterpreting them to challenge these patriarchal ideas.

1. Hilda Doolittle, HERmione, 1981.

2. Hilda Doolittle, “Eurydice,” 1982.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hilda Doolittle

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was known for her influence on the Imagist and Modernist literary movements. She was a leading figure in Imagist poetry in addition to her numerous works of prose. She is noted for her feminist interpretations and critiques of classical myth.

Doolittle is considered a Modernist and Imagist poet. She wrote without concern for the formalist structures of the past. Instead, she was interested in the Imagist technique of treating subjects directly, sparsely used language, and the creation of clear images.

Doolittle grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania before moving to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. As an adult, she spent the majority of her life in Europe, living for many years in England and Switzerland.

Hilda Doolittle is considered a leading member of the Imagists. Her association with Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington led the three of them to define what Imagist poetry is. Her early poetry in particular is Imagist; her later poetry outgrew some of the qualities of Imagism.

Hilda Doolittle won the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for poetry in 1960, a year before her death. She was the first woman to win the prestigious award.

Final Hilda Doolittle Quiz

Question

What awards did Hilda Doolittle win?

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Answer

Hilda Doolittle won the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for poetry in 1960, a year before her death. She was the first woman to win the prestigious award.

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Question

Was Hilda Doolittle an imagist?

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Answer

Hilda Doolittle is considered a leading member of the Imagists. Her association with Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington, led the three of them to define what Imagist poetry is. Her early poetry in particular is Imagist; her later poetry outgrew some of the qualities of Imagism.

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Question

Where did Hilda Doolittle live?


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Answer

Doolittle grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania before moving to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. As an adult, she spent the majority of her life in Europe, living for many years in England and Switzerland.

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Question

Is Hilda Doolittle a modernist poet?


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Answer

Doolittle is considered a Modernist and Imagist poet. She wrote without concern for the formalist structures of the past. Instead, she was interested in the Imagist technique of treating subjects directly, sparsely used language, and the creation of clear images.

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Question

What was Hilda Doolittle known for?


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Answer

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) was known for her influence in the Imagist and Modernist literary movements. She was a leading figure in Imagist poetry in addition to her numerous works of prose. She is noted for her feminist interpretations and critiques of classical myth.

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Who was the one person Hilda Doolittle was married to?

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Answer

Bryher

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True or False: Hilda Doolittle was interested in writing poetic interpretations of Roman myths. 

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True

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With which literary movements was Hilda Doolittle associated?

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Imagism and Modernism

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Why were some of Doolittle's works left unpublished during her lifetime?

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She left some works, including HERmione, unpublished during her lifetime as they included details about her relationships with men and women. 

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In addition to writing prose and poetry, what medium was Doolittle involved with?

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Film

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What is the theme of “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle?

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Doolittle writes with themes of mythology and misogyny throughout the poem. The misogynist attitudes fo the ancient Greeks toward Helen persist in the modern day. She notes that Helen could only be loved by the Greek people if she were dead. Doolittle uses the myth of Helen to show how little has changed in terms of these cultural norms. 

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What is the poem “Helen” about?

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“Helen” is about the Greek people’s hatred for Helen of Troy. Doolittle writes the poem to examine the prejudices of the people for blaming Helen for the Trojan War, rather than Paris. The beautiful woman who men could not resist was at fault, rather than the man who abducted her.

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Who is the speaker in “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle?


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The speaker in “Helen” is not named or described by Doolittle. Instead, the speaker just recounts the facts regarding the opinion of the Greek people toward Helen. The speaker adopts a very factual, detached tone, and relays the information as a list of facts. Doing so brings the vitriolic reaction of the Greek people into starker contrast.

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What type of poem is “Helen?”


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“Helen” is a free-verse poem. There are three stanzas and each stanza increases its lines by one—5, 6, and 7. Each of the stanzas employs its own rhyme scheme. 

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What is the author's purpose behind the poem “Helen?”

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Doolittle approaches “Helen” in a way to expose some of the prejudices that underlie the classical myth. Rather than blame Paris for the Trojan War—for he was the one who, in many retellings, abducted Helen unwillingly—all of the blame for the fighting and the death is on Helen. She is the scapegoat for all of Greece’s hatred, and thanks to her beauty she was responsible for the war.

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Helen is blamed as the cause of which war?

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Trojan War

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Who abducted Helen and brought her to Troy?

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Paris

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True or false: Homer wrote in the Iliad that Helen's face 'launched a thousand ships.'

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True

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What literary devices does Doolittle use in "Helen?"

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Doolittle uses alliteration, allusion, and rhyme throughout the poem.

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What is the overall meaning of "Helen?"

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The overall meaning is about how misogynistic cultural norms have persisted from ancient times until now. Doolittle uses the story of Helen of Troy to illustrate this where Helen represents women as a whole and Greece represents society.

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Who wrote "Eurydice"? 

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"Eurydice" was written by Hilda Doolittle.

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What was happening in Hilda Doolittle's life when "Eurydice" was written? 

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Doolittle was going through a separation with her husband. 

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When was "Eurydice published"? 

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It was published in 1917 during the first World War, which drastically changed Doolittle's pre-war life. 

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What Greek myth does "Eurydice" respond to? 

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The myth of Eurydice and Orpheus 

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Who is the speaker of Eurydice? 

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Eurydice herself

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What does Eurydice blame her return to hell on? 

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Orpheus's arrogance and ruthlessness

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True or false: Eurydice becomes comfortable with her place in hell

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True 

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What does Eurydice say she misses most from earth? 

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The flowers

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What are the main themes of the poem? 

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The main themes are resiliency and inner strength as well as arrogance and self-importance. 

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What is the meaning of the poem? 

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"Eurydice" is a feminist retelling of the ancient Greek myth in which Orpheus is the tragic hero and Eurydice is a passive object of his quest. Eurydice was betrayed by Orpheus's arrogance and the belief that only a man could save her, but she finds strength and a purpose as she reclaims her place and feminine power. 

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Who wrote Helen in Egypt?

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Helen in Egypt was written by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) 

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When was Helen in Egypt published? 

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Helen in Egypt was published in 1961. 

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When was Helen in Egypt written? 

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It was written in the 1950s and heavily influenced by the world wars. 

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Who is the central character in Helen in Egypt

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Answer

Helen of Troy 

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True or false: some accounts claim Helen never went to Troy

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True

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Who does Helen inadvertently summon? 

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Achilles

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What causes Achilles to change?

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Helen calls to his mother and the violence that the war has instilled in him was replaced with love

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Who helps Helen decide if she wants to stay with Paris? 

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Her ex lover, Theseus

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What are the main themes in Helen in Egypt

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The main theme are isolation caused by gender divisions and the reclamation of personal identity and the self. 

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What is the climax of the story? 

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When Helen realizes that she is both Helen of Troy and Helen of Egypt and she can choose her own fate instead of letting men choose for her. 

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