History's Headlines: Hilda Doolittle


On Sept. 8, the Bethlehem Public Library was added to the national list of Literary Landmarks with a plaque. The reason?

Not a stone's throw from the library, where Bethlehem's City Hall now stands, was the childhood home of Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961). Better known by her initials H.D., she was a poet who changed the course of modern verse.

Among her many friends and lovers were Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. She was also the longtime partner of Winifred Ellerman, aka Bryher, the lesbian daughter of a wealthy British shipping magnate.

During the 1930s, H.D. went to Vienna where she underwent analysis by Sigmund Freud who told her that she was bisexual, something that may or may not have come as a surprise to H.D. In later life she became fascinated by her Moravian roots. Touched by her own brand of mysticism, her highly unorthodox views of the Moravian faith shocked many in Bethlehem.

This did not bother H.D., who had long ago decided she didn't care what other people thought of her eccentric ways and beliefs.

It was on Sept. 10, 1886, that Hilda Doolittle was born into a comfortably Victorian home on Bethlehem's Church Street. Her father, Charles Doolittle, was an astronomy professor, a post he held for 20 years at Lehigh University. Her mother, Helen Wolle, was a teacher of art and music at the Moravian Seminary. Her uncle was J. Fred Wolle, the founder of the Bethlehem Bach Choir.

Growing up the only girl in a family of five boys, she was torn between her professor father, whom she loved and respected but sometimes found cold and distant, and her mother, whom H.D. admired and had instilled in her Moravian traditions. But she came to believe her mother deferred too much to her father.

When she was 9 years old, H.D.'s family was uprooted from Bethlehem to Upper Darby, when her father got a position as director of the Flower Observatory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her father thought H.D. could be another Madame Curie and pushed her toward a career in science. But as she admitted later, the harder her father tried the more she could just not get interested. When she wanted to enter art school instead, Professor Doolittle said, "No."

In 1901, the 15-year-old H.D. met a dashing young poet named Ezra Pound, who was to change her life. Then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound, along with his friend, poet and medical student William Carlos Williams, turned her in the direction of poetry. Soon the two were romantically involved and in 1905 became engaged. But her father felt Hilda was not ready for that and especially not with someone as unstable as Pound and refused to give his consent.

That same year, H.D. enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. But she soon found herself struggling in math and English. "My essays were held up as the very worst description," she recalled years later. After a year and a half, H.D. left Bryn Mawr. But one of the things she did make at college was close friendships with women. Among them was Frances Gregg, described by some as an "intense" young woman. They had similar interests and H.D. fell in love with her.

In 1911, H.D. left for what was planned to be a short trip to Europe with Gregg and Gregg's mother. Except for four or five brief trips back to the U.S., she was to spend the rest of her life overseas.

Once she arrived in Europe, she got in touch with Pound, who was in London. Pound, as much a master promoter as he was a brilliant poet, managed to get some of her poems placed in magazines. It was also Pound who gave her the persona H.D. and founded the Imagist school of poetry, one that transformed how poetry was seen ever after.

Free verse replaced rhyming and symbolic language was considered the modern way for poets. Some hated it, others loved it, but few could deny its impact. But H.D. was shocked to learn that Pound and Gregg were having an affair.

In 1913, H.D. married Richard Aldington, an English poet. But their marriage fell apart in 1916 during World War I, when he went off to join the British Army. At Aldington's return, he was changed person.

By 1919, H.D.'S life was in turmoil. Her brother, Gilbert, died in WWI. Her relationships with Pound and novelist D.H. Lawrence - then married to the formidable Frieda von Richthofen, cousin of the famous German WWI air ace Manfred " The Red Baron" von Richthofen - had collapsed.

She also came close to death from the flu pandemic sweeping the world and became pregnant with a child Aldington claimed was not his. Some critics claim Lawrence was the real love of her life and the baby's father.

Others disagree. H.D. always denied it. What saved her was her relationship with Bryher, who became her lover and lifelong partner. She took care of H.D.'s financial and social problems, providing the poet with a stable background from which to work.

"H.D.'s vigorous experimentation," notes her Poetry Foundation biography, "in the 1920s went into her fiction." Among those who influenced her were James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

A long trip to Greece financed by Bryher created a new outlet for H.D. in the study of Greek mythology. H.D. became fascinated by Helen of Troy, who, according to the poet Homer, was the cause of the Trojan War, when she was stolen from her Greek husband by the Trojan prince, Paris. H.D. later wrote a long poem about her.

The 1930's were troubled times for H.D. She renounced Pound, who had become an apologist for Fascism and later during World War II would broadcast anti-Semitic propaganda for Mussolini's Italy to America. As early as 1933, long before many people, she was convinced Adolph Hitler's coming to power in Germany would lead to another world war. Among the reasons H.D. went to see Freud was to deal with her anxiety about it.

According to her daughter Perdita, H.D.'s interest in her Moravian heritage came about in an unusual way. Sharing a flat in London with her daughter and Bryher at the height of the blitz in 1941, a jar of apple jelly from Fortnum & Mason she was trying to open exploded.

Bryher was outraged when she saw her books were covered with it. But the mother and daughter sampled the mess and instead it opened a door in H.D.'s brain to the lost world of her childhood.

The result was "The Gift," a book that reflected on her past and on the Moravian faith she grew up in. As a poet and mystic, H.D. had her own unique imagination and looked at the experience from stories half remembered from her childhood.

Just as her Helen of Troy was more myth than history, H.D.'s view of the Moravian religion was more folklore than faith. Some denounced it as "witchcraft." But H.D. had not attempted to write a treatise on Moravian theology.

After the war, H.D. lived in Switzerland and continued to write both prose and poetry, which some critics consider her best work. She made two visits back to Bethlehem in 1951 and 1956 to reconnect with her roots touring her family home with Bryher.

It was on Sept. 28, 1961, that H.D. died in Switzerland. Her ashes rest today in Bethlehem's Nisky Hill Cemetery next to those of her relatives and not far from where H.D. was honored by the Bethlehem Public Library.