Prelude: This essay has been excerpted from a longer book project in process, Bryher: Female Husband to Modernism. It is a biography of an unsung heroine of modernism, Bryher, who is mostly known (if at all) for her over forty-year relationship with the modernist poet, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). At the heart of my biography, Bryher and H.D.’s pivotal relationship are re-examined from the perspective of insights about queer modernist lives and archival materials (there are over 185 boxes with Bryher’s correspondence and writing alone at the Beinecke Rare Manuscript Library at Yale University). This section follows the chapter that describes Bryher’s meeting of H.D.. She had come to H.D., who had been staying in Cornwall while her husband, the Imagist poet, Robert Aldington, was at the front; and at the time of the meeting, July 17, 1918, H.D. was pregnant with another man’s child. Her adultery emerged in the context of Aldington’s earlier betrayals and the wartime trauma both were suffering. H.D had been in love with Frances Josepha Gregg in her twenties before meeting Aldington (as well as being the fiancée of Pound); thus she had already been living a bisexual life. After discovering she herself was illegitimate, Bryher, born Annie Winifred Ellerman, named herself after one of the wildest of the Scilly Islands, and took H.D. to the islands to recover from her pregnancy and the illness she suffered during and after the birth of Perdita, who Bryher later legally adopted. Bryher was also trying to escape her wealthy, stifling Victorian life with her family. Bryher’s money funded and fostered numerous artists, writers, analysts, and refugees, yet her early relationship to H.D. shows another side to her peculiar patronage: her circle of friends and beneficiaries often included an affective and collaborative aspect. Funding the likes of Dorothy Richardson, Marianne Moore, Norman Douglass, Anna Freud, H.D. stood out as lover, beneficiary and visionary partner. H.D. allowed Bryher to act out her desire to have adventures and break from gender norms. – Susan McCabe
H.D. & Bryher: The Scilly Islands & “The Jellyfish Experience” (1919)
In Bid Me Live, H.D. wrote about the “precarious nature of flying in the face of convention” as “a very, very thin line to toe, a very, very frail wire to do a tight-rope act on.” This tightrope act was one both Bryher as transgender (before the category was developed) and H.D. as bisexual both had to learn to walk. Cassandra Laity observes that H.D.’s early thwarted lesbian romance with Frances Gregg who “betrayed” her twice (first with H.D.’s “erstwhile fiancé” Pound and then with a surprise marriage to Louis Wilkinson) “cut closer to the bone than Aldington’s desertion.” While there’s solid truth in this statement, it leaves out Bryher, who became H.D.’s psychological, monetary and physical mainstay, at another “developmental” moment. Along with most critics of H.D., H.D.’s first biographer, Barbara Guest, presumes: “It is more than likely that H.D. was never physically attracted to Bryher.” How does Guest come by this assertion? Guest underplayed Bryher’s role in H.D.’s creative life and obliterated any sense of shared passion or erotic mutuality; for her, they were codependent companions, not a same-sex couple, with Bryher often figuring as somehow hindering the imagist poet.
The “darker” elements of the relationship between Bryher and H.D. coexisted with its rich pleasures and discoveries. They suffered injury and thrived as well in the modernist moment of looking forward and backward, adventuring, hiding; inventing styles of disclosure, breakage and continuity. Bryher and H.D.’s refashioned “family” would entail years of travel, cover, and marriages of convenience complicated by the stigmas against female masculinity and indeterminate sexuality. The pair’s nostalgic Hellenism, that is their unified desire to re-enter the Greek past, at this time in their lives before they travelled to Greece, was a means for both survival as “queers” in lived time and as a means of crossing spatial and temporal borders, in a gymnasium without an address. In the Scilly Islands, they situated themselves in a refuge, remote from others.
Havelock Ellis, the English sexologist, as well as H.D.’s letters and other writings, sheds light on how the elfin heiress was more than mere money supplier. What Guest can’t see, Ellis opened up: Bryher and H.D. were engaged in sensuous and psychic experiences that were diffuse, still unnamable, uncharted by Edwardian eyes. Romantic attraction and exchange existed, especially during this period between 1919 and 1924, which according to Friedman, was the pair’s “most intimate period.” Ellis and his theories became one medium to express their affair. Chiron, as Bryher and H.D. called Ellis, changed the world, so Bryher wrote, “through his campaign against ignorance. Freud could have told him [i.e. Ellis] that a fellow human being can seldom forgive being helped; few of us are able to feel gratitude without an unconscious resentment. The pioneers always get the knocks and never the crowns.” She might have been speaking of Chiron, as well as herself, here. H.D. was careful not to depend too heavily upon Bryher, but it turned out to be necessary. H.D. both resented and appreciated all Bryher had done to care for mother and child.
After Perdita was born, H.D. began Paint It Today in 1919 and stopped writing it in 1921: it wasn’t ever finished or published in her lifetime. A parallel text to Bryher’s Development, it depicted H.D’s disruption of the usual conventions of sexual development. In the manuscript, she took uncertain steps towards a same-sex relationship with Gregg, steps she would never forget or erase. She had tried a lesbian romance and it had short-circuited; she had tried a heterosexual marriage, and it had ended in betrayal and pain. She was more romantically attached to Gregg than to Pound or Aldington, as Paint It Today expressed, but by its “conclusion,” all her loves were subsumed by Bryher’s and the arrival of the baby. Notes on Thought and Vision, written while the two “recovered” in the Scillies in June and July of 1919, just after the trauma of illness, birth and Bryher’s first real “escape,” also reads like a love poem. Paint It Today reads as well like a love poem to Bryher. For her part, Bryher composed love-songs that would comprise Arrow Music published in 1922, including “Eros at Sea,” which emerged out of the Scilly setting, but was complemented by H.D.’s tutelage on Greek myths. Bryher’s poems are interlocking parts of a dialogue with H.D. who began writing her interpretive translations of Sappho fragments that appeared in both Hymen and then Heliodora (1924). This sounds more complicated than it has to be, but it is meant to display the pair’s almost overwhelming productivity during this period.
Bryher’s “Eros at Sea,” inspired by Keats’ “Hyperion,” has a “female supplicant invoke the god Eros, who rises from the sea like his mother Aphrodite,” who is often a figure for H.D. in Bryher’s writing. Given H.D. has just given birth, envisioning H.D. as Aphrodite would have been appropriate. When the Gods speak and ask the unnamed supplicant her desire, we read the evocative passage: “Words died. All her body spoke its longing but her lips could not utter her request… This was the end of hope—to wait for the sea, to drown, not to re-enter the desolation she had left. How could she, having looked on Beauty, live?” To be in love was devastating, as H.D. herself writes in her poem “Eros,” borrowing from Sappho: “to sing love/ love must first shatter us.” Bryher and H.D. were intimate; Bryher supplicated her lover, who would be wooed. They had intense ups and downs; strains; exhilaration; anguish. They had romantic contact.
While H.D. might have been hesitant to part from Perdita, it was H.D. who wrote Bryher that Brigit Patmore, a friend to H.D. and Bryher, would visit the infant at the nursery every day while the pair vacationed in the Scilly Islands. From the Scilly Islands, Byher wrote Amy Lowell that Predita “is so intelligent already, very like Mrs. Aldington with very beautiful eyes and a lot of soft hair.” Bryher wanted to see Perdita as more developed than she could have been at just over two months because she felt it imperative for both H.D. and herself to “get away”; it had been a dreadful period of exhaustion and suspense, followed by relief. H.D. still had not come to terms with all her losses: there was an enormous chasm that contained her still born, her father and Aldington; the last had not died, but he had to be counted as a casualty. If anything, H.D. had been able to situate Gregg in her own “development,” and had begun to situate Bryher in her present and future. Bryher, for her part, wanted to introduce H.D. to her “personal” place, to share the archipelago with her beloved. “The 200 or so islands, islets and rocks that make up the Isles of Scilly share the same latitude as Newfoundland, but that’s where the similarities end. Looking around at the practically empty beaches and subtropical plants, it’s baffling to think how the latter might have come here in the first place and, more importantly, how they can survive. It’s all down to Scilly’s position at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a branch of the Gulf Stream,” explains Rosemary Parslow, an expert on the region. As H.D. recalled: “There were great birds; they perched there in ‘retreat,’ at certain seasons, both from the tropic zones and from the Arctic. It was here at this time I had my ‘jelly-fish’ experience, as Bryher called it. There were palm-trees, coral-plants, mesambeanthum, opened like water-lilies the length of the grey walls; the sort of fibrous under-water leaf and these open sea flowers gave one the impression of being submerged.” But before we go beneath the water, into the subconscious, as it were, the islands had much to offer.
The two went to Cornwall and the Scillies from the beginning of June to near the end of July. They spent intimate secluded hours together. H.D. wrote, and so did Bryher. On this first trip together, Bryher learned not to interrupt H.D.’s writing in the early hours: a first incursion led to H.D. tearing her pages into bits. While H.D. was too tired to sail and fish, Bryher did, possibly with her companion from Cornwall, Doris. She wrote to Lowell on July 6th from Holgate’s Hotel, Isles of Scilly: “We are enjoying the Scillies [. . .] go out sailing and fishing most days. It is very wild here and we land on uninhabited islands right among gulls, near pinks and puffins. I think Mrs. Aldington is gradually growing stronger and she is doing some work.” The pair spent long hours roaming the coast, discovering the anemones and other vibrant vegetation; they basked in the warmth and swam. The puffin, a favorite of Bryher’s, did not overawe H.D., but she did relish the quiet removal from London. They were both able to don pants. When Bryher and H.D. arrived, there were Bryher’s familiar thrills: all kinds of smuggler’s caves, lighthouses, lookouts as well as white sand beaches, craggy nooks, and fields of narcissi to please her beloved’s eyes. Along with being home to numerous historical shipwrecks, the surrounding waters possessed starfish, anemone, rare corals and ferns, abundant seals, dolphins and black-backed sea gulls. Scilly was called the Sully by the Romans, which meant sun islands. Most of the sun in England gravitates there, though on the north side of the islands, the Atlantic crashes against gigantic granite rocks; the south side is sheltered, leaving a more tropical climate. It is not clear if H.D. ever sailed to the island Bryher, which was less inhabited than the other three islands that host visitors, though the pair did visit several of the uninhabited islands. The island Bryher boasts “High Rock Cave,” thirty feet high on a cliff and four feet wide, thought to be the largest cave for smugglers of old.
Along with subtly introducing H.D. to her “boyhood” fantasies of smugglers and sailing and captains, she wanted to have H.D. to herself so they could clarify how they would move forward, without killing themselves. Considering how tired both women were, their creative output during this “vacation” was note-worthy. Much of what they wrote existed as a form of dialogue between them. The pair likely consummated their affair only after Perdita was born, most likely at Mullion Cove in Cornwall in late June, where they would return again the following July. This location with its privacy of cliffs and wildness would give H.D. a chance to educate her “dear girl” in the sensuousness she understood; they would also become collaborators in what it is necessary to call, for lack of a better phrase, a folie à deux: a shared hallucination, a framing that will recur when the pair visited Corfu in the following Spring. Here they experienced a preliminary shared fantasy, an experience of “drowning” or merging with the other. Recall Bryher’s poem: “This was the end of hope—to wait for the sea, to drown, not to re-enter the desolation she had left.” Yet the poem was both personal and formal: it fulfilled the Hellenic incantation to a beloved.
For H.D., the Scillies would be a precursor, visual and somatic, to Greece. H.D. wrote with Greek tropes in mind as a medium for feeling and experiencing sensory stimuli and for placing her and a beloved in an alternate, perhaps less alienating, social economy.
As early as December 1918, H.D. had given Bryher the job of translating flower names from J.W. Mackail’s 1911 selection from Meleager’s Garland or Greek Anthology. Bryher was flummoxed by the word for “white” or “blank.” The excessive “whiteness” was a code for homoerotic longing that H.D. inherited from the Decadents and made her own. Bryher had been reading H.D.’s “Sea Gods” and defended the lines “violets whiter than the in-rush / of your own white surf,” and wrote that “For no reality whatever will [she] surrender” them, no matter what Aldington or other critics might judge. It turned out that “reality” was not what H.D. was after. Nor was Bryher, for that matter. Both envisioned their contemporary world through various historical and mythical lenses. When they sojourned in Cornwall and among the Scilly Islands, they found a landscape that could contain their intertwined imagination.
The pair first stayed at Mullion Cove in South Cornwall, and then stayed on St. Mary’s island, eleven miles around and the biggest island in the archipelago, at Tregarthen’s Hotel, one of the oldest and nearer the waves and winds than the higher built, Star Castle, once a garrison used to stop the invading Spaniards by Queen Elizabeth in 1593. Tregarthen’s was built in 1848 by Captain Frank Tregarthen who ran a packet delivering mail, provisions and visitors from Penzance, about 30 miles away. Mail was slow even in Bryher and H.D’s time on the island, or so they explained to Lowell why their correspondence was so delayed. Tennyson stayed at Tregarthen when he wrote “Enoch Arden.”
It was on St. Mary’s Island that H.D. and Bryher had a pronounced altered state. It led to H.D. writing Notes, which while it has become a classic in feminist poetics, was received poorly by Ellis and remained unpublished until after H.D.’s death. While “experiencing” an “hallucination” at St. Mary’s, H.D. even fantasized Ellis as a perfect repository for the experience, believing “this would be an interesting bit of psychological data for” Chiron. She distilled the experience, which led to the Notes, thus:
I had what Bryher called the ‘jelly-fish’ experience of a double ego;
bell-jar or half-globe as of transparent glass spread over my head like a
diving-bell and another manifested from my feet, so enclosed I was for a
short space in St. Mary’s–Isles, July 1918, immunized or insulated from
the war disaster.
There are a number of “queer” elements in this synopsis. For one, H.D. misremembered the date: it was 1919, not 1918, the year Bryher and H.D. met; second, Bryher, perhaps one half of the “double ego,” was instrumental: “I felt the double globe come and go and I could have dismissed it at once and probably would have if I had been alone. . . . It was being with Bryher that projected the fantasy”; the experience happens in a “short space,” yet she felt she could control it. “It was being with Bryher” that makes the new lover so central to the fantasy, and H.D. even predated the fantasy to their year of meeting. It was significantly Bryher who named H.D.’s bodily phenomenon “the “jelly-fish experience,” a story she retold to Freud. This “jelly-fish consciousness” predominates Notes and thus suggests a kind of collaboration with Bryher as more than merely companioning muse. Bryher had tried to “immunize” or “insulate” H.D. from the “war disaster,” but she also acted, according to H.D., as the projector of H.D.’s interior experience. “Projection” served as a description H.D. adopted to suggest an analogy with film, a medium with which the two would experiment later in the decade, when H.D. would publish “Projector” poems in Bryher’s Close Up (1927-33), the first international film journal in English. H.D. had already, before Close Up, internalized both analytic and film terminology. H.D. was both enclosed in her paradoxically placenta-like glass bell-jar, or two gelatinous globes, and linked herself to Bryher as if by umbilical cord. Was Bryher fantasized as within one of these globes with her, or was she merely the encouraging and enabling “audience” for the vision? Bryher eagerly waited for the vision to unfold; instead of thinking it was something “sinister or dangerous,” Bryher coaxed: ‘No, no, it is the most wonderful thing I ever heard of. Let it come.’” It is as if H.D. relived childbirth: “I felt this impulse to ‘let go’ into a sort of balloon”; here Bryher was midwife. Later Freud pronounced the experience as “pre-natal.”
The imagery conjures up the womb, “the diving-bell” immersed in water akin to the baby’s protected sphere. Closely identified with the infant she had left at Norland Nursery, H.D. relived her own natal state. However, the two globes intimated that the vision was double, as if H.D. and Bryher were both identified with the recent birth of Perdita. After all, H.D. called Bryher a “child,” and also considered, for a time, Perdita as almost a sister.
H.D.’s Notes recorded her “jellyfish consciousness” as an optimal creative mind at work. The jellyfish completed the “bell jar” vision as a kind of gelatinous umbrella with trailing tentacles. In Notes, H.D. transformed what appeared to be a double suffocation into a tremendously sensate experience of poetics, with tentacles reaching everywhere.
The language of Notes was objective sounding; H.D., her father’s daughter, studied her condition as would a scientist, and transformed it into artistic protocol, dividing human function between three spheres: “body, mind, over-mind.” Hers was not Nietzsche’s “over-soul” commanding to “overcome” at all costs, for she called for “the balance of the other two”; without body and mind, there existed, her writing claimed, “madness.” She described the “over-mind in my case,” sounding much like the ecstatic synopsis she would offer Freud: “it seems to me that a cap is over my head, a cap of consciousness over my head, my forehead, affecting a little my eyes.” In this state, she continued, “things about me appear slightly blurred as if seen under water.”
This close scrutiny of “symptoms” suggested she was readying it for Doctor Ellis, but her imagery was drawn straight from the Scilly Islands: “That over-mind seems a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone.” In this state, “thoughts pass and are visible like fish swimming under clear water.” The water in the Scilly Islands is similarly transparent, ready for the diver or swimmer of the unconscious depths.
H.D. recorded that there was “grinding discomfort of mental agony” to switch from “normal” consciousness to this more heightened “abnormal” consciousness. H.D. was familiar with the botanical sea-plants and vegetation her father explored in his science studies, and described her physiognomy as both metaphor and lived experience: “I should say—to continue this jelly-fish metaphor—that long feelers reached down and through the body, that these stood in the same relation to the nervous system as the over-mind to the brain or intellect.” Again, as if she were writing a medical treatise, she reports with precision and seeming objectivity: “There is, then, a set of super-feelings. These feelings extend out and about us; as the long, floating tentacles of the jelly-fish reach out and about him.” The identification with the jelly-fish perceived in the colorful coastal waters became an aesthetic principle, one that revised the notion of the autonomous male artist working in his tower. Here there are “super feelers” “elongated in fine threads”; if these “super feelers” approximate a literary predecessor, Henry James comes to mind with his hyper-sensibility, his cultivation of nerves and an interconnected nervous system as model for familial relations.
In order to anatomize her condition as distinct from the masculine model of creativity, H.D. began to understand this jelly-fish consciousness as “centered in the love-region of the body or placed like a foetus in the body.” H.D. thus linked this aesthetic experience with her own pregnancy and, notably, with eroticism: “For me, it was before the birth of my child that the jelly-fish consciousness seemed to come definitely into the field or realm of the intellect or brain.” This was admittedly a most peculiar occurrence “when the centre of consciousness shifts and the jelly-fish is in the body, (I visualize it in my case lying on the left side with the streamers or feelers floating up toward the brain),” as that “of the womb or love-vision.” The love-vision occurred, from Bryher’s point of view and it would seem from H.D.’s, before the birth and upon meeting a “sympathetic.” There are “two kinds” of vision, of the brain and of the womb, “both centres … equally important.”
There is a hefty precedent for H.D.’s “womb” consciousness, though taken in a pathological direction, in the pages of Charcot, who charted the symptoms of women whom he believed were hysterics, governed by the vacillations of an imbalanced or wandering womb, or as Charcot medicalized it, uterine troubles causing “lesions” in the brain which led to paralysis or unexpected spasms. Remember that Bryher feared being labeled or treated as hysteric, the default position during this period of any woman who didn’t marry or know their “household” place. The War did much to change this, but the effects took awhile to be truly felt. H.D. in these jottings recuperated “hysteria,” and made it a path towards visionary poetry, in this singularly fractured poetry manifesto.
Notes developed a “womb” vision to facilitate H.D.’s return to her bodily desires. She could not have been mooning over the loss of Aldington, or even of Gregg. One of her fragments, following one of the jelly-fish streamers, read: “There is no great art period without great lovers.” This is suggestive that she linked her “abnormal” condition with that of being in love, playing upon the pair’s “sympathy of thought”:
The minds of the two lovers merge, interact in sympathy of thought.
The brain, inflamed and excited by this interchange of ideas, takes
on its character of over-mind becomes (as I have visualized in my own
case) a jelly-fish, placed over and about the brain).
The love-region is excited by the appearance or beauty of the
loved one, its energy not dissipated in physical relation, takes on its
character of mind, becomes this womb-brain or love-brain that I have
visualized as a jelly-fish in the body.
H.D.’s later interpretation of the “bell-jar” was that she had to split off from the trauma of war. Dianne Chisholm notes that Freud conjectured that in some forms of psychosis, a person “under the influence of the instincts detaches the ego from reality,” and she surmises that H.D.’s “doubled, detached, and englobed ego suggests such a reality in embryo.” There is a splitting of consciousness taking place, but Chisholm (and Freud) do not account for Bryher’s role as audience or “projector.” H.D. was gravely disappointed in Chiron’s null reaction to Notes because she thought of him as an audience, but her real audience was Bryher, who encouraged what essentially reads as a love manifesto for same-sex couples at this time, circa 1919, when no codification for such relationships between women existed. The womb, if discussed, was maligned.
Among the fragments of Notes she reminded her audience (namely Bryher and Ellis) how the “Delphic charioteer has [. . .] an almost hypnotic effect on me,” but like so many other ancient mysteries, she felt modern consciousness did not have “the right sort of brains” to absorb their meanings. Still there was hope in her “treatise” of sorts that someone could recover “the secret of dots and dashes.” Superimposing the technology of telegraphs, she imputed the contact with the past as a matter of Marconi, of finding an appropriate “receiving station.” In one way, Bryher stood for such a “receiving station,” ready to enact the meaning of figures like the Delphic charioteer. Instead of grieving over the fragmented world after the war, H.D. discovered in this vision, both ecstatic and part of a “grinding agony,” that “[t]here is already enough beauty in the world of art, enough in the fragments and the almost perfectly preserved charioteer at Delphi alone to remake the world.” This was an invitation to her sympathetic “friend” to help her remake the world, who together with “the right sort of receiving brains, could turn the whole tide of human thought, could direct lightning flashes of electric power, to slash across and destroy the world of dead, murky thought.” Still using the imagery of “feelers,” H.D. further reviewed this experience while in analysis with Freud: “Are we psychic coral-polyps? Do we build one upon another? Did I (sub-aqueous) in the Scilly Isles, put out a feeler? Did I die in my polyp manifestation and will I leave a polyp skeleton of coral to blend with this entire myriad-minded coral chaplet or entire coral island? My psychic experiences were sub-aqueous.”
Kooky as this may sound to the uninitiated, H.D. was creating a myth that could contain her romance with Bryher; in the center of Notes, she left traces of Bryher: “The Galilean fell in love with things as well as people. He would fall in love with a sea-gull or some lake-heron” and then there was the “young Jude with his intense eyes.” That Bryher fell in love with places and birds perhaps more readily than with people we know, and that in H.D.’s mind, she looked Jewish and had intense eyes, placed her in the center of these meditations. She also invoked Bryher in Notes by mentioning some of her favorite writers, before in Asphodel, dismissed as intellectual interruptions to her “bodily” laying in: “If you cannot be entertained and instructed by Boccaccio, Rabelais, Montaigne, Sterne, Middleton, de Gourmont and de Regnier there is something wrong with you physically.” The latter three writers Bryher raved to H.D. about during the early months of 1919. Then, in Notes, H.D. arrived at Meleager, her poet who loved another poet, Heliodora, who H.D. identified with as an alter-ego. In her depiction, Meleager suffered as an outcast, being born of “a Jew father, a Greek mother” so that she exclaimed: “what a fate”; to have a “poet’s mind” and to be trapped in her father’s palace.
The chemistry of love, according to H.D.’s treatise of sorts, involved two individuals as “receiving stations, capable of storing up energy [ . . .] energy is always there but can be transmitted only to another body or another mind that is in sympathy with it, or keyed to the same pitch.” H.D. was meanwhile scribbling an homage to Sappho, who figured largely in her newly enlarged view of bodily “heat”; in this alchemy, heat can be physical love, or “transmuted to this other, this different form, concentrated, ethereal.” (Recall Bryher’s planetary profile as earth[Virgo]/air[Gemini] coupled with H.D.’s [Virgo]/fire [Sagitarius]). H.D.’s meditation gives some evidence that both heats, the physical and the psychic, were engaged on the Scilly Islands, as further developed in H.D.’s depiction of her relationship to Bryher (figured as Althea) as ethereal, electric and primal in Paint It Today.
H.D.’s commemoration to the “wise Sappho” (also never published in her lifetime) was also a conjuring of love, using the landscape of St. Mary’s, “gold of sea-grass or meadow-pulse” to imagine Sappho’s poems as “magnetic, vibrant” remnants. She felt a “scintillating star turned warm suddenly in our hand like a jewel, sent by the beloved.” She read Sappho geographically: “we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks—perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.” Staunch were the blossoms of Cornwall and the Scillies. H.D. created a palimpsest of what she had read of Greece and what she saw before her on these islands, now figured as poems, “innumerable, tiny, irregular bays and fjords and little straits between which sun lies clear.” H.D., we may imagine, read the islands as poems while Bryher fished, managed their sailboat, and was stirred to find the precise words to convey her adoration and love.
In her “jellyfish” state, H.D. might well have been suffering from post-partum symptoms, which can include hallucinations and peculiar sensations. Remember she had just, almost suddenly, stopped breast-feeding Perdita. Lactation creates chemicals, namely Oxytocin, in the mother’s body that are uplifting for both mother and child; this stoppage would have exacerbated the erratic hormonal fall-out from pregnancy. Oxytocin is thought to release neurotransmitters that foster bonding with another to the exclusion of others (sounds much like the lead-in to a folie à deux on a petite scale).
In her memories of her visions in Greece with Freud, H.D. made a sleight-of-hand merging her Scilly experience and the more protracted visions at Corfu nine months later. She described Corfu and the “writing on the wall” that the women witnessed as drowning: “I may be breathing naturally but I have the feeling of holding my breath under water. . . . I know that I must drown, as it were, completely in order to come out on the other side of things (like Alice with her looking-glass or Perseus with his mirror).” Was this a double drowning or felt fusion of selves? While H.D. spoke of herself independently of Bryher in this instance, invoking both Alice and Perseus, she echoed the language of Bryher’s drowning for beauty poem, “Eros at Sea.” The stock response at the time and still a possible one (depending on social conditions of place and family) for finding out that one was queer would be suicide. With Bryher, suicide became a vision of drowning with the impossibly beautiful same-sex beloved, a vision that also propelled H.D.’s on the Scilly Islands. In other words, both women had to split off some of their ego to survive, not only war and its heavy losses, but also the peculiarity of their new union, with a baby. Such circumstances called for a poetics of dissociation.
Post-partum symptoms can be very similar to those ascribed to hysteria: mood shifts, strange bodily phenomena, irritability, and even delusions, or if poets, imaginary visions. The very thought of having a child, after having lost one early in the war, might have been enough to throw H.D. off her equilibrium. If H.D. had not had Bryher, her support system would have been minimal, in terms of both psychic and financial assistance. She would never have asked Lowell to defray all the costs of pre-natal, natal and post-natal care. During this period, post-partum syndromes were being acknowledged by medical experts and used in trials of infanticide. In fact, incidents of a mother taking the life of her child, in circumstances where she was either impoverished or left without a father for the child (or both) were on the rise, so much so that in 1922 England introduced the Infanticide Act which “reduced the offence from murder to manslaughter if ‘at the same time of the act or omission she had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to such child, but by reason thereof the balance of her mind was then disturbed.’” The point is not to pathologize H.D. or even to untangle the law’s desire to lean heavily upon mental imbalance in women, but rather to point out that, at this point in history, the extreme impact of women’s lack of funds and good medical care would not have been lost on H.D.; she knew she lived in a world with one foot still stuck in the Victorian era.
In fact, in Asphodel H.D. rounded up all the bugbears of a Dickensian universe after Aldington threatened to report her to the criminal authorities. In graphic language, she imagined herself left adrift with a baby in her arms and nowhere to go. If she hadn’t been taken in by the nurses at St. Faith’s:
Sick and in prison and ye visited me. For if they had said ‘take the little
girl, we–have no room for the little girl’ it would have been walking on
and walking on in the–snow, with snow and petals drifting and walking
on and walking on in the snow. It would be like the worst, the very
worst imaginable melodrama. [ . . .] Don’t people see since the war, in
the war, that Way Down East and East Lynne was true, are–the only
truth? And beggars saying, ‘kind lady for Gawd’s sake, a penny,’—are
the–truth and things like Jean Jean sent to prison and taking a loaf of
bread because he or someone else was starving are the truth? Dickens
with ‘my lords and gentlemen’ is the truth for how could you go on?
How could you go on? You would have had a baby in your arms and
stumbled. . . and there is always a river. Melodrama is so awfully funny
. . . so terribly funny. Here I am sitting on the top of a bus and it might
be anywhere with light snow drifting and little pink almonds all along
the front of brick houses and behind rusty laurel hedges putting out pink
fingers . . . Eos the dawn. Eros. Someone, somewhere makes me think
This “someone” had to be Bryher who during the Scilly trip wrote not only “Eros at Sea” but also “Eos,” and other dawn poems to her beloved H.D. The reality of being a wed mother with a “bastard” child would have encouraged H.D. to accept the gifts of “Eos,” the promise of unconditional care, if (and that was a heavy if) Bryher herself could confront her bastardry and turn it on its Edwardian head. As a bastard, Bryher would speak and live on behalf of “bastards”; as a boy trapped in a girl’s body, she would speak and live on behalf of these so-called deviants or inverts. H.D. was simultaneously depleted and exhausted, and in some respect, without anchors in the social world.
The Scilly Islands had two primary effects: it brought to the surface H.D.’s residual anxieties over her lack of “anchors” and her war traumas so that she had to radically shut these anxieties down. The sojourn also brought her paradoxically to a vision of the female poet, embodied in her short piece “The Wise Sappho” (published and written with her Notes), often at odds with the patriarchal tradition. The sojourn offered Bryher as well a creative and romantic workshop so she could work out her phenomenological link to “Eos” as well as “Eros,” fashioning Hellenic poems that echoed H.D.’s.
Cassandra Laity describes a “patchwork of feminine tradition that traced a line from Sappho through Decadent renderings of the lesbian femme fatale” in Swinburne, Pater and Wilde, who forged a “feminine” tradition for modernist women poets, who were “unable or unwilling to recognize a tradition of women poets in the nineteenth century… H.D. and others used the Decadents to fashion a modernist poetic of female desire.” Unlike male modernists who shifted “from stifling romanticism to a cult of autonomous male modernism,” “female genealogies of modern poets began with the split from Romanticism and its attendant erasure of female identity, and proceed to work backward toward recovery of a former romantic self that experienced a primary and frequently homoerotic bond with a sister/mother/muse.” Lover might be added. The Hellenic past had a sensual appeal: the swooning of a Swinburne poem, his own feminized reputation, castigated as was his precursor, the effete outsider Keats—whom both Bryher and Lowell reveled in.
Bryher’s poem “Eos,” goddess of the dawn, undid Bryher’s cerebral stance:
Under your lifted arm,
there is lavender to kiss,
sea-lavender, spice with salt.
I kiss your limbs, wild followers of Artemis.
Your eyes break Sleep!
I touch the pansy set below your heart;
Each kiss a star
That fades upon your body,
which is dawn.
Bryher was distinct from other imagists and even H.D. for this brazen address to the body; another poem, “In Syria,” though distanced with geography, the female narrator “kissed her navel” within these sculpted lines: “A queen was glad because I praised / her carven, turquoise eyes and kissed/ her navel, (white, smooth poppy-leaf.)” This queen was both H.D. and Heliodora. Tactility, kisses, intimacy could be untroubled. “Blue Sleep” addressed “Aphrodite, ” a figure for H.D. in Bryher’s world: “I thank you that at last my body is at peace.” Likewise, H.D. wrote, as if guiding Bryher, of Sappho: “The beauty of Aphrodite it is true is the constant, reiterated subject of her singing” (63). “Blue Sleep” finishes:
The love-hour is ended.
Swallow-wings, dreams of a spike iris,
The hollows under your knees are wet with love,
Your knees are quince blossoms, bent back by the rain.
Silhouettes, thresholds, hymens, and the post-coital Baudelarian state, where the blue of seas mingled with the beloved’s eyes of “spike iris” end with an H.D.-like question, leaving us on a precipice: “Am I lifted / to the porch of Aphrodite on your wings?”
Bryher’s “Amazon” supplies a very compact image of the loved one, with the first line: “The closed bud of dawn opens on your face.” The second and last short stanza shows a body who has lived in sensation and visceral memory: “You have torn your limbs / with spines of gorse-flower, bramble and cytisus. / I remember / Wind, April, the black rain.” These stark lyrics were certainly written by someone in love. During this period, the couple made poetic vision the protocol for lived experience. Another poem, “In Exile,” wonders if she, Bryher, was not just a buffer for her lover’s violent poetic vision: “Are my limbs but a sheath for your intensity, my love.” In a sense, Bryher sheathed and buffered, gave a second skin to H.D. as much as she identified with the sometimes “violent” passions she protected. Perhaps not Mr. and Mrs. Reciprocal as Stein called herself and Alice, but there was a queer romance in the making that would endure in imagination for forty odd years.
H.D’s meditative essay on Sappho “performs one of the oldest purposes of poetry: commemoration.” Sappho hovered between Bryher and H.D as they created a new life, partly in her image, with her beloved child, Cleis as Perdita. Remember as well that Sappho supposedly jumped from a cliff. Sappho was in fact a resident ghost within their lives. She can’t be quite found, and was always already fragmented, and left behind what one of H.D.’s characters call “trash.” The trash of Sappho was a resource through which H.D. and Bryher not only draw their own themes but how they stage-set, or orchestrate their relationship in the injured present, or in the fragile, shaky, post-war moment when two women together was not exactly without vicissitudes. In H.D.’s portrait of Sappho, we see her ability to see the woman in the poet, to see her not as idealized. She described her much like she did Bryher, in semi-unfavorable language:
The under-lip curls out in the white face, she has twisted
her two eyes unevenly, the brows break the perfect line of the white
forehead, her expression is not exactly sinister (sinister and dead), the
spark of mockery beneath the half-closed lids is rather living destructive
With admirers like H.D., who needs enemies! Seriously, the sinister face was a product of the heterosexist projection, the “living destructive irony” from the “twisted” eyes essential to her art.
H.D. and Bryher were writing under the sign of Sappho, embodied with a “bitter jeer,” H.D. abandoned by lovers, alive with Eros. Sappho, as if by conduit of dots and dashes, spoke to H.D.: “this girl who bewitches you, my friend, does not even know how to draw her skirts about her feet.” The awkwardness, characteristic of H.D.’s description of Bryher, was an allusion to Sappho, who H.D. herself identified with. In other words, in this post-partum theater, Bryher and H.D. can take multiple roles, but with H.D. as the body who bore the visitations. As audience, and the one consciously bearing H.D.’s projections, Bryher heard them, felt them, and made them real through conversation.
We learn from Bryher that she too had visitations, the pangs and longings of love, sometimes requited, sometimes painfully rebuffed. There was plenty of reason for H.D. to feel imbalanced, and having a baby would have increased her likelihood of labile mood swings. It created the stage for someone as ultra-sensitive as H.D. to come alive in the presence of someone less vocal about her sensitivities, but nevertheless porous to alternative experiences. In the late 1920s, Bryher recorded in her journal an analytic session with Hanns Sachs where she recalled a dateless event: “Something happened that had nothing to do with the brain. It was a form of seeing that I experienced several times when young but it left me as I grew older. The flesh of the people dropped away and I saw with absolute clarity what their emotions actually were. A rock like reality followed by a suffocating sense of danger.” This sense of suffocation matched, at least in part, well with the “jellyfish” mentality that H.D. underwent on the Scilly Islands.
If Bryher felt desperate, H.D. acknowledged there was reason behind such desperation. “I Said,” a poem written in 1919, reads as a dialogue, in spite of the title, incorporating Bryher’s words and actions. We hear the familiar language from Two Selves rehearsed as H.D. turns around how Bryher was able “to live as you lived, outwardly telling lies/ inwardly without swerving or doubt–”:
‘if I can not have beauty about me
and people of my own sort,
I will not live,
I will not compromise’
H.D. retorted that “anyone who stands alone, / so tenaciously determined/ if fate over-rule a desire to live, at least to die for beauty [. . .] / is and must be my brother.” In this small snapshot, H.D. envisioned them as boys together. Whether rambling near Land’s End or at Mullion Cove, or on St. Mary’s, the island where the two stayed the longest, the landscape came through the poem:
Ah, the long path down from that hill,
The very rocks broken,
Scattered, rain of sand,
Rocks clutched—sliding down
Part of the appeal of the islands is their placement in the path of the warm Gulf Stream. Flowers grow more amply due to the lack of frost. A fertile landscape for our pair, and yet the realities of London and Audley followed them there. Still the poem offers a memorial of sorts to both uncanny joy and rough slippage:
it was beyond any words;
there were no words
even in our glorious speech
that could hint the joy we had then;
how can we to-day in a crude tongue,
in a strange land hope to say
one word that can hint at the joy we had
when the rocks broke like sand under our heels
H.D.’s reiteration of a “joy” in her plea that if Bryher intended “to say, / to speak one word of the joy we had / (to people who anyway don’t want to understand)/ [. . .]// O don’t you, don’t you understand, you must count yourself now, now among the dead?”
This poem, with Bryher specifically in mind, was a significant statement about the love that had no name and H.D’s insistence that if Bryher really wanted to speak the truth about the couple’s “glorious speech” or “joy,” there would be “no words” to those who “don’t want to understand” and that in that “dark land” called home, these “people” (i.e. parents and others ruled by conformity) would simply relegate her to the dead. She did not need to commit suicide, for she would now be at least half-way among the dead.
In a much less crude way, H.D.’s poem was a warning similar to Lowell’s that Bryher might well find herself in the “lock-up,” even if she didn’t go to some Western town dressed in men’s clothes to enacte her “queer” desires. “I Said” both celebrated Bryher and positioned her as a child needing instruction, one who was “crouching” (a word reminiscent of what H.D. was doing in her under-heated room in Ealing) and “kneeling”; disciplinarian here, H.D. told Bryher not to “tremble with the rain beating outside / and the thousand ghosts and the dead.” Yet the fear that “gnawed” Bryher, she admitted, also gnawed her. Their relationship would not be recognized or visible; if visible, they would likely end up dead. Bryher spoke of drowning herself if she could not act on her desires, which included being with H.D., who no paragon of mental health herself—preferred “sudden violent shattering rather than the suffocation of sheer drowning” that Bryher envisioned. Bryher ably managed the onerous situation with mother and child, yet her love life was clouded by memories of the constraints imposed by her family.
While all relationships have conflict, there is a desire to understate conflict in lesbian relationships; it is as if they are not allowed to have it, or else they are allowed to have too much of it: the slaying predatory lesbian or femme fatale, descendent of “La Belle Sans Merci,” figure for Frances Gregg. Heterosexuals are generally allowed more leeway on the continuum of disharmony. It is as if the lesbian or transgender life has to be all idyllic or all psychotic; there is no middle ground. Yet it was a really remarkable achievement that these two women managed in 1919 to braid the realities of experience within a lived mythology; both worlds of real life and imagination were tangibly present. This was what partly bound H.D. to Byher. Hellenism became for H.D. the most suitable conduit for exploring her mother love, her “Helen” love. Freud later theorized that H.D.’s fantasies and “hallucinations” in the Scilly Islands and then in Greece were based on a desire to go back “to the womb,” i.e. “pre-oed,” or pre-Oedipal; the father, who represented the law, submerged within the more fluid reality imagined with Bryher. Freud speculated that the geography of water and islands contributed to H.D.’s “symptoms.” It was curiously necessary that by August 1919, Lowell had H.D.’s “Islands” published in the North American Review.
by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
What are the islands to me,
what is Greece,
what is Rhodes, Samos, Chios,
what is Paros facing west,
what is Crete?
What is Samothrace,
rising like a ship,
what is Imbros rending the storm-waves
with its breast?
What is Naxos, Paros, Milos,
what the circle about Lycia,
what, the Cyclades’
What is Greece –
Sparta, rising like a rock,
Thebes, Athens, W
what is Corinth?
What is Euboia
with its island violets,
what is Euboia, spread with grass,
set with swift shoals,
what is Crete?
What are the islands to me,
what is Greece?
What can love of land give to me
that you have not –
what do the tall Spartans know,
and gentler Attic folk?
What has Sparta and her women
more than this?
What are the islands to me
if you are lost –
what is Naxos, Tinos, Andros,
and Delos, the clasp
of the white necklace?
What can love of land give to me
that you have not,
what can love of strife break in me
that you have not?
Though Sparta enter Athens,
Thebes wrack Sparta,
each changes as water,
salt, rising to wreak terror
and fall back.
“What has love of land given to you
that I have not?”
I have questioned Tyrians
where they sat
on the black ships,
weighted with rich stuffs,
I have asked the Greeks
from the white ships,
and Greeks from ships whose hulks
lay on the wet sand, scarlet
with great beaks.
I have asked bright Tyrians
and tall Greeks –
“what has love of land given you?”
And they answered – “peace.”
But beauty is set apart,
beauty is cast by the sea,
a barren rock,
beauty is set about
with wrecks of ships,
upon our coast, death keeps
the shallows – death waits
clutching toward us
from the deeps.
Beauty is set apart;
the winds that slash its beach,
swirl the coarse sand
upward toward the rocks.
Beauty is set apart
from the islands
and from Greece.
In my garden
the winds have beaten
the ripe lilies;
in my garden, the salt
has wilted the first flakes
of young narcissus,
and the lesser hyacinth,
and the salt has crept
under the leaves of the white hyacinth.
In my garden
even the wind-flowers lie flat,
broken by the wind at last.
What are the islands to me
if you are lost,
what is Paros to me
if your eyes draw back,
what is Milos
if you take fright of beauty,
terrible, torturous, isolate,
a barren rock.
What is Rhodes, Crete,
what is Paros facing west,
what, white Imbros?
What are the islands to me
if you hesitate,
what is Greece if you draw back
from the terror
and cold splendour of song
and its bleak sacrifice?
William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. (1878–1962). Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1920.
H.D., Bid Me Live Gainsville, Fl.: University of Florida Press 2011, posthumously published and edited by Caroline Zilboorg, 97.
Cassandra Laity, H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996, 136.
Susan Stanford Friedman, Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.’s Fiction, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1980, 227.
Bryher, Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. London: Collins 1963, 194.
Amy Lowell Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, June 1919.
Rosemary Parslow. The Isles of Scilly, Collins New Naturalist Library No. 103, (Kindle Edition, 2010).
H.D.,“Advent” in Tribute to Freud, New York: New Directions 2009 reprint, 130.
Amy Lowell Letters, Houghton Library.
Cited in Dianne Chisholm, H.D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1992, p. 232, n. 16.
H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision (Scilly Islands July 1919), San Francisco: City Lights Books 1982, 18.
H.D.’s Freudian Poetics, 232.
Notes on Thought and Vision, 26.
Advent, 133; see also Pound in “Psychology and Troubadors” in The Spirit of Romance who refers to the telegraph as “charged surface—produced in a cognate manner—attracting to it, or registering movements in the invisible ether,” 93.
“The Wise Sappho” in Notes on Thought and Vision, 57.
H.D., Tribute to Freud, 53-4.
Katherine O’Donovan, “The Medicalisation of Infanticide,” in The Criminal Law Review 261.
H.D., Asphodel Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992. Posthumously published and edited by Robert Spoo, 204-5.
H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle, 31.
Diana Collecott, H.D. and Sapphic Modernism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. In fact her “Eros of the Sea” (1921) composed at the Scillies at “pre-honeymoon” is modeled, writes Collecott, on Keats’ “Hyperion” (37-8)
“The Wise Sappho,” 59.
Bryher Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. F. 2860.
H.D., Hedylus, Contact Editions: 1923.