American poet, novelist, and memoirist H.D. (Hilda Dolittle, 1886–1961) is a figure key to understanding the modernist aesthetic movement. Her writings incorporated the idioms and rhythm of common speech and subject matter characteristic of the avant-garde imagist mode into a more female-centric version of modernism.
H.D.’s prose writing, like her poetry, alludes to the study of classical Greek and Latin literature. Thematically, her explorations of woman-as-artist are set within a framework of the great classical and romantic events—love, death, and war. One recent shift in modernist studies, according to Julie Vandivere, coeditor of UPF’s critical edition of The Sword Went Out to Sea (now available in paperback), is “a new focus on the origins of its aesthetic.” H.D.’s novel, she says, is “a rich, provocative, and important work” that provides important clues to modernism’s wellsprings.
Written under the pseudonym “Delia Alton,” The Sword Went Out to Sea is the first book in a never before published trilogy that includes White Rose and the Red and The Mystery. This trilogy is recognized among scholars for the books’ intense complexity. Doolittle began the trilogy after living through the London Blitz during World War II and after suffering a breakdown.
In her self-commentary, “H.D. by Delia Alton,” the writer describes The Mystery as a sequence of romances linked to Everywoman’s search for the Eternal Lover, a mythic theme she saw as unifying all of her writing. This “deeply pacifist” book, says Cynthia Hogue (coeditor with Vandivere), is a deep meditation on the wages of war. “The author, who was fascinated by the occult, conveys her distress through an experimental blend of autobiography, dream, and vision.”
The second book, White Rose and the Red, is a fictional biography of Pre-Raphaelite “supermodel” Elizabeth Siddal. The Mystery is a return to a concept explored earlier in the unrelated book The Gift (first complete, unabridged edition published by UPF, 1998), that is, H.D.’s belief in a psychic inheritance bequeathed by her Moravian ancestors. On the eve of the French Revolution, siblings Elizabeth and Henry Donha travel to Prague to search the archives of the Moravian Church for the lost Plan that will unite all people and bring everlasting peace to the world. H.D. refers to The Mystery as “the end of a processus” and the end as well of this particular way of mythologizing her experience.
Amy Gorelick, assistant editor in chief, acquires books for the Press’s modernist studies list and believes the previously unpublished H.D. books represent an important contribution to the discipline. “These books will alter profoundly the way we view modernism, the creative process, and the history of women’s literary production.”
*This article originally appeared in the print version of The Florida Current.