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H.D. Feature

Beyond Sea Garden: Hermes and the Rose

by Nephie Christodoulides

Section 1

I grew tired of hearing [my early poems] referred to as crystalline. Was there no other way of criticizing, of assessing them? But perhaps I did not see, did not dare see any further than my critics. Perhaps my annoyance with them was annoyance with myself. For what is crystal or any gem but the concentrated essence of the rough matrix, or the energy, either of over-intense heat or over-intense cold that projects it? The poems as a whole [… ] contain that essence or that symbol, symbol of concentration and of stubborn energy. The energy itself and the matrix have not yet been assessed. (‘H.D. by Delia Alton’ 8)


In the paragraph immediately preceding this excerpt from her unpublished memoir ‘H.D. by Delia Alton,’ H.D. talks about ‘dispersion,’ as one of the characteristics of the post World War I generation which she applies to some of her earlier fiction. She then comes to talk about the ‘annoying’ crystalline label of her earlier poems, feels that what upsets her is in fact the concentrated quality of the poems, which must be ‘assessed’ further, implying that assessment should be done through dispersion. As I see it, what she expects to be done is for readers to let out the so far staunched or pent up energy of these poems. Is this energy purely imagist? Unlike a vortex, an image is static and as such it can only be exposed and not dispersed. The answer lies in two of the terms she is using: ‘matrix’ and ‘energy.’ Matrix is a vas, a womb, a receptacle where a reaction can take place. Energy is what is released during the reaction, triggering transformation.


This paper is part of a longer project in which I discuss the palimpsestic affinity that joins H.D.’s Sea Garden (1916) and Hermetic Definition (1960), the former composed at the beginning of her career the latter at the end. In this excerpt, I will read Hermetic Definition as the surface which retains the traces of the erased crypto-alchemical, quasi-imagist traits of Sea Garden and further amalgamates them successfully with its own exposed alchemical symbols, thus achieving a perfect reconciliation of the two, much like the reaction taking place during the chymical wedding.


In my trajectory, I will not consider the poems of Sea Garden as exemplary poems of imagism, or ‘pure images of direct presentation’ but of ‘suggestion,’ as poems bearing ‘traces of spiritual forces,’ a sort of ‘suggestive imagism’ (Winter Love 32). My trajectory will follow the alchemical subtext of Sea Garden and discuss the way it flourishes in Hermetic Definition, focusing on the image of the rose as well as the figure of Hermes.


For many critics, including Marianne Dekoven, ‘Sea Rose,’ one of the most widely anthologized poem of Sea Garden, is the model of imagism, allowing images to make meaning, characterized by ‘brevity and concision,’ engaged in the ‘“direct treatment” of the material, with no inessential words or rhythms and based on musical phrasing rather than the regular, metronome beats of poetic tradition in English’ (Modernism Companion 189). Eileen Gregory, going beyond the traditionally imposed discussion of the poem as a detailed inventory of imagist characteristics, has wisely observed the saline tincture of the Sea Garden flowers and stressed the importance of salt in the alchemical opus, but merely associated it with subjectivity, feeling and desire issues, seeing along with Jung the sea as feminine and thus identifying it with the maternal figure, without further expanding on its alchemical subtext (Signets 140).


It is my conviction that ‘Sea Rose,’ far from being a model imagist poem, is a crypto-alchemical manifestation of H.D.’s hermetic/alchemical predilection. The goals of alchemy were originally the creation of gold out of base metals, a concoction of an elixir that granted eternal life (aqua vitae), a stone that would give one magical powers over matter (lapis philosophorum), or even the creation of human life (filius philosophorum). The basic ingredients of the opus were sulphur that was masculine and solar and mercury which was feminine and lunar. To this was added salt which represented the body and without which the opus would fail (Mysterium Coniunctionis 192).


The ‘science’ of alchemy was then converted into myth according to which, as Jung says, the mystical marriage of King and Queen became the medieval representation of the final operation of the opus, i.e. mysterium coniunctionis. The fundamental idea was that divinity was entrapped in the gross physical matters of the bodies of men and women as well as in the elements of nature, and that in the alembic of the alchemist the energies of this immanent spiritual presence were to be released (Yeats and Alchemy 123). Thus, the alchemical process came to stand for the transformation of the ‘hylic to the pneumatic man’ (Alchemical Studies 233).


In ‘Sea Rose’ the rose is presented as devoid of any of the characteristics of the typical rose: it is ‘harsh’ and ‘marred,’ blackened, with only a few petals, thus ‘meager’ and ‘thin’ and ‘sparse of leaves.’(CP5) Such a ‘marred’ rose appears to be at the initial stage of the alchemical process, i.e. nigredo or blackness. In the alchemical sense this is identified with putrefaction, because with the penetration of the external fire, the inner fire is activated and the matter blackens and is reduced to its primal state. This is effective as it destroys the old nature and as a ‘life-giving spirit,’ helps to find a new life, according to Pernety (AS 141n39). In its subsequent format, the rose has lost leaves and petals as if these have been seen as impurities which had to be purged off, thus making the rose enter the second alchemical stage, that of albedo (whitening), which represents the actual cleansing of the psyche (Ibid.). At this stage, the rose, having got rid of the impurities of most of its leaves and petals, has become ‘more precious’ than even ‘the wet rose’ (CP 5).


One would expect the next stage to be that of rubedo, the final stage of the alchemical opus, in which a red light appears and it is the moment when the union of opposites takes place. The stage represents the resolution of psychic conflicts and the balancing of opposites. Instead of this, the partly purified rose is ‘flung on the sand’ and further ‘lifted/in the crisp sand’ (CP 50). The change that has taken place is that of the hardening, congealment – to use an alchemical term – of an ‘acrid fragrance’ in one of its remaining leaves. The smell is acrid (<L ãcr—Cs of acer) sharp, sour pertaining to the influence of acid (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary 13). As acetic water, it strongly echoes the acetum fontis the ‘powerful corrosive water that dissolves all created things and at the same time leads to the most durable of all products, the mysterious lapis’ (Psychology and Alchemy 74). Thus, the presence of the acetum fontis suggests the power of the rose to dissolve all hyle and enable the alchemical opus to restart


For Jung, the three stages of the alchemical opus were analogous to the process of attaining individuation and rubedo would represent the wholeness, a point in which a person discovers his true nature. In ‘Sea Rose’ the process is cut short, but there is hope in the presence of the acrid fragrance that has condensed and congealed in the remaining leaves that the process will resume. In 1916 when Sea Garden was published the individuation process for H.D. had just started. Her separation from the maternal figure was achieved, but only physically; in 1911 she left America and settled in Britain [1]; her poetic voice was barely audible and in a way appropriated by Pound; but there was hope that with the acrid fragrance of the leaves the process would recommence and along with it, H.D. would perhaps finally manage to achieve her individuation by being separated from the maternal figure and generating her own poetic voice.


‘Hermes of the Ways,’ one of H.D.’s three poems that Pound tailored for publication in Poetry in 1913, starts with an invocation to Hermes which many critics have seen as mysterious, when contrasted with the clarity of the description of the sea-shore (King 226). This Hermetic figure is watching the several changes that take place in the poem, as if approving of all transmutations. First: ‘[t]he hard sand breaks, / and the grains of it / are clear as wine’ (CP 37). Further the wind causes the ‘little ridges’ to pile up so that ‘the waves’ will ‘break over’ (Ibid.). The ‘boughs of the trees / are twisted / by many bafflings’(CP 38) and the sea is turned into a monster: ‘the great sea foamed, / gnashed its teeth about me’ (CP 39). Hermes ‘waited, / where sea-grass tangles with / shore-grass’ (Ibid.).


He was ‘dubious,’ not uncertain or doubtful but volatile, protean, always associated with change: as Hellenic Hermes he was able to transform the shell of a turtle into a lyre for Apollo, thus bestowing upon him the power of music and metonymically lyric poetry; as Egyptian Thoth, he transmuted signs into writing. As patron of alchemy, he watched over the transmutation of metals. In the poem, he is supervising another reaction, one in which the opposites reconcile in a ‘solved antinomy’ (Yeats, A Vision, qtd in Gorski 119). There is harmony anticipated in the final change, the tangling – bringing together into a mass of confusedly interlaced or inter-twisted strands – of ‘the sea-grass’ and the ‘shore-grass’ (CP 39).


Why did H.D. resort to this veiled alchemical tint of the rose and the Hermetic figure? She had already been initiated into Yogi Philosophy by Pound in Pennsylvania; though she was writing poetry back then, her poems were ‘naught,’ as Pound claimed (End to Torment 12). Later in England in 1913–1916, her poetic voice was still too low to be heard on its own, and it thus needed Poundian imagist amplifiers to become audible. She had not yet developed her own aesthetics but she had well developed a sense of the visionary role of the poet, an heirloom from her Moravian ancestry.


She, however, resorted to a veiled hermetic/alchemical poetics, what Helen Sword calls cryptopoetics, and many of her poems require to be ‘pried open to reveal secrets of spiritual resurrection’ (Sword 119). Her predicament in revealing the alchemical self was the predicament of Delia Alton, her mask in ‘Majic Ring’: ‘I think that I was afraid that my own experience or my own philosophy would not stand up to the proddings of the inexpert, the unilluminated’ (123). Hence, since ‘perhaps humility is more becoming / in a woman’ (Hermetic Definition 130), she preferred a muted, veiled alchemical pattern, one, however, that suggested a final successful transmutation, under the guidance of Hermes.


In Hermetic Definition, written 48 years after Sea Garden, the persona sees the red rose, which features prominently in it, as a maturation of the poems of Red Roses for Bronze poems written in 1924, (‘H.D.’ 14). Those were merely ‘an abstraction;’ ‘now with like fervour, with fever, [she] offer[s] them to a reality; / the ecstasy comes through you / but goes on’ (Ibid.). While the Red Roses for Bronze poems were mostly focusing on love and sexuality, the Hermetic rose goes beyond this and embraces spirituality. The poem, the autobiographical aspect of which cannot be dismissed, focuses on her ‘winter loves,’ her infatuations with Haitian journalist Lionel Durand whom she comes to identify with 1960 decathlon star, Rafer Johnson, and poet St.-John Perse (Guest 328).


The presence of the men bids ‘the reddest rose’ to unfold (3) much to the surprise and partly shame of the H.D. persona: ‘Why did you come / to trouble my decline? / I am old (I was old till you came) (Ibid.).


The first part of the poem, ‘Red Rose and a Beggar,’ revolves round Durand who had interviewed H.D. in 1960. In it, the image of the red rose is initially used as a symbol of love and sexuality, an idea stemming from the Freudian notion of considering the flower as a representation of the female sexual organs, and its particular shape as an association with the shape of the vulva (Seward 7). This, however, is merely the surface, since the sexuality of the rose encompasses spirituality, an idea H.D. stresses in her philosophical Notes on Thought and Vision, a notion also shared by Jung: ‘In mysticism one must remember that no “symbolic” object has only one meaning; it is always several things at once. Sexuality does not exclude spirituality nor spirituality sexuality, for in God all opposites are abolished’ (qtd in Yeats and Alchemy 124).


In ‘Red Rose and a Beggar,’ the spirituality is manifested in the invocation of Isis and her ‘Isis, / fleur-de-lis’ (5). In ancient Egypt the rose / iris of Isis replaced the lotus and it came to stand for what is maternal and solar. Isis was the goddess of magic, Osiris’ wife and mother to Horus, sun god, born after Osiris’ death. As such she was the personification of universal mother of all living things, and her flower represented the female generative principle.


And of course this generative power (to resurrect Osiris out of his dismembered corpse and give birth to Horus) was triggered by her power of love (Seward 11). Her generative power is projected on the H.D./persona. When Lionel Durand, as she mistakenly thought, ‘brushed aside her poetry’ deeming it ‘too precious,’ she clung tenaciously to it as she was summoned to do so by Isis:


She draws the veil aside,
unbinds my eyes,
write, write or die. (7)


The red rose as associated with Isis also led to Notre Dame as Robert Ambelain, whose book In the Shadow of the Cathedrals H.D. had read voraciously and annotated heavily, showed. Ambelain noted that under the foundations of Notre Dame lay an ancient temple to Isis, with the three doors standing for the tripartite pattern of astrology, magic and alchemy. Thus, in appropriating Isis’ rose, H.D. is able now to access astrology, magic and alchemy.: ‘Astrologie / is the first door;’ ‘Saint Anne is the last door,’ (Magie); ‘The middle door is Judgement, (Alchemie)’ (8, 9, 11).


In the second part of Hermetic Definition, ‘Grove of Academe,’ St. John Perse as Perseus embodies the Hellenic element which sustained H.D. as a maternal mantra, but this she just brushed aside as the most important aspect was his recognition of her poetry. The fact that she ‘was accepted / [not] by the State, the Office, the Assembly, / but by [him]’ (24) went beyond the mere acceptance and established a bond of poetic dependence on him. She recognized that his ‘mind’s thought and range / exceeded [hers] / out of all proportion’ (25), and as if to get closer to him, she interspersed his words among her own. She saw his language as ‘esoteric,’ difficult but devoid of ‘magic’ or ‘striving for strange ships’ and ‘Adamic light’ (26). Yet this held a sort of infatuation and set a pattern of poetic submission to him, a Bloomian anxiety of influence. She stayed alive in ‘his recognition’ but she did not forego her dependence on ‘the five-petalled, rose sauvage / (pentagram of the alchemists)’ which she saw as a great sustaining force (33).


As already seen, in the first section of Hermetic Definition, the rose is used in the worldly sense, as the beloved flower of the ‘fedeli d’amore.’ The H.D./persona had been reanimated with the new love in the face of Durand and saw the self as a beggar for this love, hence the title. Such awakening, however, entailed spiritual gifts with Isis commanding her to write and leading her to astrology, alchemy and magic. Now in the second part she openly talks about the sustenance offered by the alchemical rose.


The association of the rose with alchemy was evidenced in 1550 when the first Rosarium was printed and in which the rose was regarded as the symbol of the relationship between the Queen and the King who were ascribed the white and red rose respectively, and which in fact symbolized the continuation between the albedo and the rubedo. The marriage of the Queen and the King further than denoting the union of the male and the female, suggested the union of antithetical elements in a perfect marriage; mysterium coniunctionis. Thus, this as a symbol perfectly covers H.D.’s feelings for Perse: union of opposing forces, the male and the female, the King and the Queen; ‘we meet in antithesis’ (‘H.D.’ 31).


In Alchemical Studies, Jung mentions that the rosa mystica is an allegory of Mary, it is decidedly feminine and it can be seen as a projection of feminine Eros upon Christ (AS 394-395). At the same time, Ambelain saw the pentagram as ‘a diagram of the Pythagorean golden section,’ and in its shape he observed an architectural principle transmitted within the esoteric tradition which signifies the feminine aspect of God an idea that appealed to H.D. (Materer 94). The religious aspect of the feminine with its mystical and artistic role fascinated her as in it she could see the mother, both as a figure of sustenance and as a muse.


As such, it also underscored her Eros for Perse, a notion further reinforced with the reference to the five-petalled rose, which was also seen as standing for the five senses indicating ‘the vehicles of Christ’s love for man’ (AS 294). As in the writings of the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, in which the Lord spoke to her and urged her to: ‘Praise [him] in the five senses, which are indicated by this rose’ (294), in the same way H.D.’s five senses are devoted to her praise of Perse whom she considers superior and bows to his poetic excellence submissively.


In Sea Garden, in the veiled reference to the interrupted alchemical opus there is a hopeful cry for the much coveted individuation under the hermetic guidance, and Hermes promises a reconciliation of opposing forces. Hermetic Definition explicitly defines the self as Hermetic, sustained by Isis’ rose, and guided by astrology, alchemy, magic; H.D.’s poetic individuation may seem even more dubious, as she depends on Perse’s text but since antithetical forces meet in the alchemical opus, her own dependence will be simply that of the White Queen who joins with the Red King.


The result will be her own cauda pavonis, the end of the opus, which, like the exquisite display of colors in the peacock’s tail, heralds the synthesis of all the forces in complete harmony: the self and its textual representation.


[1]  In 1933 (May 1–June 12) and 1934 (October 31–December 2), when she was analyzed by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, he would discover that her problem was ‘maternal fixation.’ His belief was that she was longing to be reunited with the phallic, pre-oedipal mother, a notion that he associated with her bi-sexuality (See his paper ‘The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’). Unbeknown to Freud who had advised H.D. against any dissemination of the confidential sessions, she writes to Bryher: ‘ F. says [my fixation] is the absolutely FIRST [sic] layer. I got stuck at the earliest pre-OE [pre-Oedipal] stage, and “back to the womb” seems to be my only solution’ (Analyzing Freud 142). He stressed to her that she went to Vienna, hoping to find her mother, who had honeymooned there (Tribute to Freud 16-17). He translated her transference to him as maternal, an idea he was not pleased with: ‘I do not like to be the mother in transference – it always surprises and shocks me a little. I feel so very masculine ‘ (TF 146-147, emphasis in the original).

Works Cited

Dekoven, Marianne, ‘Modernism and Gender’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Michael Levenson, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Doolittle, Hilda. End to Torment. New York: New Directions, 1979.

———. Collected Poems. 1912-1944. Louis Martz, ed. New York: New Directions, 1983. CP.

———. ‘H.D. by Delia Alton.’ Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

———. Hermetic Definition. New York: New Directions, 1969.

———. Notes on Thought and Vision. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1982.

———. ‘Majic Ring.’ Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

———. Tribute to Freud. Manchester: Carcanet, 1885.

Friedman, Susan Stanford, ed. Analyzing Freud: Letters of H.D., Bryher and Their Circle. New York: New Directions, 2002.

Friedman, Susan Stanford and Rachel Bau DuPlessis. Signets: Reading H.D. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined. The Poet H.D. and Her World. New York: Quill, 1984.

Gorski, William. Yeats and Alchemy. New York: SUNI, 1996.

Jung, C.G. Alchemical Studies. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton, 1983. AS.

———. Mysterium Coniunctionis. R.F.C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

———. Psychology and Alchemy. R.F.C. Hull, trans. London: Routledge, 1993.

King, Michael, ed. H.D. Woman and Poet. Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

Korg, Jacob. Winter Love. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Materer, Timothy. Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Seward, Barbara. The Symbolic Rose. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Sword, Helen. Ghostwriting Modernism. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Random House, 1989.

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. London Macmillan, 1978.

Nephie Christodoulides is currently Visiting Assistant Professor for the Department of English Studies (University of Cyprus). My research areas include Modernist poetry, psychoanalysis, autobiography, the occult, alchemy. I have published extensively on Plath, Hughes, H.D. and Woolf. Some of my publications are as follows: 1. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in Plath’s Work, Rodopi 2005. 2. The H.D. Cambridge Companion, coedited with P. Mackay, forthcoming in 2010. 3. An annotated scholarly edition of H.D.’s “Thorn Thicket”, “Compassionate Friendship” and “Magic Mirror”, forthcoming 2012. 4. The Notion of the Rose in H.D. (Mellen) 2012.

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