H.D. (real name Hilda Doolittle) was an Imagist poet, an American transplant to London whose poetry is heavily influenced by Freud and is often inscrutable, but which deals very much with the tumultuous times in which she was writing, during both World Wars. When we talk about war poetry, especially in connection with November 11, we often tend to turn to men such as Wilfred Owen, whose poetry is written from the (male) soldier’s perspective. But we read H.D. in class this week, and I think her writing is as applicable to memorializing the War to End All Wars as any other. I’m particularly interested by how she addresses the theme of Paradise lost through images of Eve and the apple. The passages which follow are from “Tribute to the Angels,” part of her long poem Trilogy. “Tribute to the Angels” was written in 1944, shortly before D-Day (yeah, I know, not WWI, but still relevant, I think).
We see her hand in her lap,
smoothing the apple-green
or the apple-russet silk;
we see her hand at her throat,
fingering a talisman
brought by a crusader from Jerusalem;
we see her hand unknot a Syrian veil
or lay down a Venetian shawl
on a polished table that reflects
half a miniature broken column;
we see her stare past a mirror
through an open window,
where boat follows slow boat on the lagoon;
there are white flowers on the water.
Ah (you say), this is Holy Wisdom,
Santa Sophia, the SS of the Sanctus Spiritus,
so by facile reasoning, logically
the incarnate symbol of the Holy Ghost;
your Holy Ghost was an apple-tree
smouldering—or rather now bourgeoning
with flowers; the fruit of the Tree?
this is the new Eve who comes
clearly to return, to retrieve
what she lost the race,
given over to sin, to death;
she brings the Book of Life, obviously.
This is a symbol of beauty (you continue),
she is Our Lady universally,
I see her as you project her,
not out of lace
flanked by Corinthian capitals,
or in a Coptic nave,
or frozen above the centre door
of a Gothic cathedral;
you have done very well by her
(to repeat your own phrase),
you have carved her tall and unmistakable,
a hieratic figure, the veiled Goddess,
whether of the seven delights,
whether of the seven spear-points.
When reading this, I was reminded of a Pete Seeger song, “Letter to Eve”—much more accessible to the average reader, but equally hauntingly powerful. Listen here, and then remember—as you always should—that the war whose end we observe on November 11 was meant to be a type of action we would never have to repeat.