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Modernist Legacies

On Love and the Canon: H.D., Robert Duncan, and “Venice-Venus”

Sur l’amour et le canon: H.D., Robert Duncan et ‘Venise-Vénus’
Lara Vetter


The H.D. Book de Robert Duncan renouvelle l’histoire littéraire du modernisme et transforme la cartographie de la poésie contemporaine en battant en brèche certaines idées reçues sur la définition même du modernisme, en décentrant Eliot et en plaçant H.D., Pound, Lawrence et Williams en son centre, si bien que les poètes influencés par ces quatre figures se retrouvent au cœur de la création littéraire de l’après-guerre. L’ouvrage propose également une mise en récit de la carrière littéraire de H.D. qui accorde le primat à sa poésie, reléguant sa prose à des écrits impurs englués dans une forme de luxure. Pour Duncan, Venise et Vénus sont au cœur du problème durant la période « vénitienne » de H.D. Cet article entend explorer les représentations de Venise et de Vénus dans la Trilogy de H.D. et dans « The Venice Poem » de Duncan, afin de montrer que ce que H.D. nomme « Venise-Vénus » est au principe même de la lecture du canon littéraire américain proposée par Duncan.

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  • 1 Duncan’s The H.D. Book was written between 1959 and his death in 1988; though parts of it appeared (...)

1Robert Duncan’s monumental The H.D. Book sketches a literary history of modernism and contemporary poetry that revises received notions of modernism by displacing T. S. Eliot and moving H.D., Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams to its center, a move that, in turn, positions poets influenced by these four (not incidentally including himself) as central to the post-World War II era.1 Along the way, Duncan traces the matrilineal arc of his own growth as an artist. He also offers a narrative of H.D.’s career. Surrounded by a cadre of young, radical artists in the pre-World War I days, H.D., he asserts, began her career writing pure, crystalline Imagist verse. She then veered downward into prose, seduced away from the purity of ancient Greece by a European Renaissance tainted by venery and the emergence of capitalism. After her sessions with Sigmund Freud, he concludes, she returned to the purity of her earliest work but with a strong spiritual compass, producing her most important work, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt.

2What are we to make of this account? In his comments on her middle period, Duncan is clearly disturbed by the personal nature of H.D.’s prose, preferring her mythopoetic mode, her verse that transcends the material plane of existence and reaches toward the heavens. We can start to disentangle the politics of this narrative, I will argue, if we examine their respective notions of Venice and Venus, because for Duncan Venice and Venus are at the heart of the “problem” with H.D.’s “Venetian” middle career. Duncan’s “The Venice Poem” (1948) – to which, he once exaggerated, H.D. was the only one to respond positively (Faas 15) – wrestles with “Venice-Venus” (Venice, the city of Venus) of her Trilogy and Hermetic Definition, and with her implicit argument for love as key to the world’s salvation from its propensity toward war.

  • 2 H.D.’s Trilogy comprises three poems: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Floweri (...)

3Trilogy has its bleak moments, particularly in the first poem, which was written just after the Blitz. But as a whole, it is a utopic poem, charting a spiritual passage through war and to a better world. In its middle poem, Tribute to the Angels,2 H.D.’s speaker conjures an ancient (yet eerily modern) goddess of love who bears a clean slate for humanity to begin anew after the apocalyptic fire of World War II. Duncan’s Venus, however, is a much more conflicted icon. Goddess of love, yes, but love, for Duncan, is not pure: she brings pleasure, but with it jealousy and vengeance, venery and opulence. His excavatory reach is vaster, too, than that of H.D., for it is to the Venus of Lespuges, tens of thousands of years old, that he turns at the close of his poem. These readings of Venice-Venus are significant in terms of Duncan’s larger project in The H.D. Book, to produce a literary canon with H.D. at the center of modernism, and himself as modernism’s inheritor. Duncan’s canon is not just constructed on the formal elements of the verse of his modernist forebears. He makes issues of spirituality and sexuality central to his canon as well.

“[W]horing after strange gods”: Venus-Venice

4Enclosing “The Venice Poem” in his first letter to H.D., Robert Duncan gushes that “[t]he life of Venice comes into my imagination from that city in your Tribute to the Angels. […] Since the writing of the poem I find myself surrounded by them – the beautiful ringing of bells in your poem” (Duncan 2012, 4). Duncan had discovered the first poem of Trilogy in 1942 in Life and Letters Today and began reading it, repeatedly. He found himself utterly immersed in her verse: “In smoky rooms in Berkeley, in painters’ studios in San Francisco, I read these works aloud; dreamed about them; took my life in them; studied them as my anatomy of what Poetry must be” (Duncan 2012, 217). Reflecting on that moment in The H.D. Book, he declares that he “used The War Trilogy in creating the poet I am.” So consumed by Trilogy, he wonders, “Where is the original?” remarking that “I took thought from her thought; I took heart in her heart. In working on ‘The Venice Poem’ in 1948 I first realized that I was not original but derived my spirit in poetry” (Duncan 2011, 439). So when we read, in the opening lines of “The Venice Poem,” that “[t]he bell tower of San Marco / shakes the gold of sound upon / the slumbering city” (Duncan 2012, 211), we see Duncan paying homage to H.D.’s epic poem, in which the speaker of Tribute to the Angels “remembered bell-notes […],”

as when in Venice, one of the campanili
speaks and another answers,

until it seems the whole city (Venice-Venus)
will be covered with gold pollen shaken

  • 3 It may well be that the bells recall “those of the Berkeley campanile,” as Jarnot argues (Jarnot 11 (...)

from the bell-towers. (Duncan 2011, 78)3

5Indeed, the resonances between Duncan’s and H.D.’s work of the 1930s and 1940s can be startling, but it is not insignificant that both were raised in households devoted to mystical forms of religion. What Peter Quartermain observes of Duncan could as well have been written about H.D.: “Duncan’s childhood, even before he could read, was filled with story […]. the world of the Symmes, conventional in most respects, was a world suffused with hidden meanings, ancient lore, signs and wonders, matters occulted from ordinary view” (Quartermain 64). When Duncan encounters Trilogy, By Avon River, “Narthex,” and Tribute to Freud, he has found a kindred poetic spirit, and H.D. responded tersely but warmly to his overtures and to his poems written for and about her, confessing to Norman Holmes Pearson – the Yale professor who worked to further both of their careers – that “there is intensity” in Duncan’s work, that “I must read through carefully, not just hop-skip-and-jump” (Hollenberg 243).

  • 4 See my introduction to H.D.’s By Avon River.

6The Venetian bells that chime in Tribute to Angels toll in the first part of By Avon River, written in 1946 and published in expurgated form the following year. Stemming from the immediate postwar period in which H.D. immerses herself in the Renaissance, By Avon River contemplates The Tempest, and Duncan, too, is reading in the period, William Shakespeare’s plays and Christopher Marlowe’s complete works (Bertholf 5). In “The Venice Poem,” San Marco’s bells sound, summoning Shakespeare and the characters of Othello. Both poets critique Shakespeare. Duncan’s Shakespeare is naïve and “simple-minded,” worshipping false idols “under the five adulterous false domes / of burnished copper” (Duncan 2012, 211-212), while H.D.’s Shakespeare (as I have argued elsewhere4) is a scamp who escapes to London after a prank and becomes a famous playwright, guilty of poaching plots from his contemporaries and of being generally insensitive to issues of gender and imperialism. They are also both, in this period, contemplating Dante’s Vita Nuova. Both, then, were considering their place in the poetic tradition and in the Western literary canon, Duncan at the beginning of his career, H.D. nearing the late phase. It is, in fact, a concern with canonization that fuels much of The H.D. Book.

7There are resonances between Trilogy and “The Venice Poem” – both composed in response to World War II – that go beyond the obvious image of bells covering Venice in gold. Duncan’s suggestively enjambed lines, “This is Love. Our Lady / appears and reappears,” are surely inspired by H.D.’s Lady in Tribute to the Angels. “Now we are bathed,” he continues, “in her light, sapphire with light, / ultramarine, rose, / delirious” (Duncan 2011, 222). We detect in Duncan’s recurrent references to rays of a sapphire blue jewel (see, for instance, 211, 229, 239) and to “radium, unstable” (226), H.D.’s divine “Presence”: “spectrum-blue, / ultimate blue ray, // rare as radium” (20). The “dropd cup” in “The Venice Poem,” magically reconstituting, “reappear[ing] from its fragments” (227), calls to mind the labors of Isis to reconstruct an Osiris torn to pieces by Set. As many critics have noticed, repetition is a dominant motif of both poems: the repeating cycles of history in H.D.’s Trilogy; the “Recorso” of Duncan’s poem, in which “the pattern repeats, endlessly repeats, repeats pattern” (227). They both, moreover, return to the Bible, and a blank book figures significantly in both.

8But one of the most interesting points of comparison concerns their treatment of Venus and, by extension, Venice. H.D.’s Trilogy attempts a redemption – absolution, indeed rebirth – of Venus, Goddess of Love. Venus is not mentioned specifically in the second section of the bleakest poem of the trilogy, The Walls Do Not Fall, but she is surely part of the composite Goddess figure (“Isis, Aset or Astarte”) denounced as a “harlot” (Duncan 2011, 5). In the second, more hopeful poem of Trilogy, the speaker resurrects Love in the form of Our Lady through the ancient practice of alchemy. Placing attributes and names of mythological and religious women into the bowl of her crucible, a feminine deity is summoned. Venus – the star of the morning and the evening, the star of the East – rises and shines over the landscape (H.D. 1998, 73). But “suddenly we saw your name / desecrated,” the speaker exclaims, echoing the second section of The Walls Do Not Fall. Here Venus is not just “harlot” but “poison” (H.D. 1998, 74). Lighting the crucible again, the speaker elaborates for the reader how Venus has been maligned: “Venus, for venery stands for impurity // and Venus as desire / is venereous, lascivious” (H.D. 1998, 74). In the next poem, however, the crucible’s magic has transmuted Aphrodite (Venus’ Greek avatar) into a “holy name,” and Venus has cast off “venery” to recover a different meaning, “to venerate, venerator” (H.D. 1998, 75). In The Flowering of the Rod, Venus appears again after Kaspar encounters Our Lady, in her manifestation as Mary of Magdala. Our Lady contains seven female “daemons” or deities, the speaker explains, “now unalterably part of the picture; // they had entered separately or together / the fair maid” (H.D. 1998, 146-147). Mary contains “Isis, Astarte, Cyprus,” “Ge-meter, De-meter, earth-mother // or Venus / in a star” (H.D. 1998, 145). The crucible has transmuted multiple manifestations of Our Lady into one, but it has not erased the complexity of her heritage.

  • 5 Note that Jarnot argues that Duncan exaggerates his response to Ackerman’s affair for poetic effect (...)

9It is then, in the fifteenth section of Tribute to the Angels, that H.D. anoints “Venice-Venus,” as its bells shake pollen over the city, while the speaker announces a vision of “Our Lady, Love,” conjured in the crucible and given life. Duncan’s “The Venice Poem” opens with this stunning scene of Venice awash in gold, but in his version the city does not spring to life; rather, it sleeps, it “slumber[s]” (Duncan 2011, 211). As many scholars have noted, Duncan writes the poem in the wake of the end of what he depicts as a devastating betrayal by Gerald Ackerman, “love’s betrayal of love” (Duncan 2011, 213).5 So Duncan’s Venice is a “Carnal City,” the home of the agent of the speaker’s heartbreak, a beguiling “bronze boy” who is “all love […] frozen there” (Duncan 2011, 211). Venice, “the city of Venus,” is the setting of “lewd shadows / haunting the holy candles” (Duncan 2011, 212). Duncan’s Venice is a place of veneration – “The lions of Venice crouch / suppliant to the ringing in the air” (Duncan 2011, 211) – but it is also a space of venery. Only the “simple-minded” pray to the “Holy Mother,” “Our Lady, Love” (Duncan 2011, 82). Though the monuments of Venice are “bathed in gold of the sun,” they give voice to “despair” (Duncan 2011, 82-83). Even the waters that rise yearly and flood its streets are described as “adulterous,” and Duncan’s speaker “[d]amn[s]” the bells of the “pseudo-dome” of the city he had only glimpsed in a course on medieval and renaissance architecture (Duncan 2012, 212-214). Venice “delights the eye past hurt,” seducing and distracting him,

       until the heart awakes
to that vast watery waste enclosed
        by copper domes too beautiful
         for the eye. (Duncan 2012, 214)

10H.D. opens her short story “Narthex,” published in Alfred Kreymborg’s Second American Caravan in 1928, with a portrait of Venice as “post-card Venice” (H.D. 1928, 9), so she was neither immune to its overpowering attractions nor unwary of its fickle beauty. Both poets were aware that Venice is an impossibly beautiful but artificial city, and they both reluctantly love the city despite its falsity. St. Mark’s Cathedral – the “pride of 14th century / Venetian pomp” (Duncan 2012, 214), “a child’s paste-board set of buildings” (H.D. 1928, 283-284) – is exposed as a copy of a Byzantine Islamic church, built over an original church. It is garishly opulent, the lavish product of imperialist plunder, and unabashedly touristy. Duncan’s portrayal of Venice follows closely on an observation by Raymonde Ransome of “Narthex” that this illusory city provokes “spiritual values shifting” (H.D. 1928, 277). As Michael Davidson notes of “The Venice Poem,” the speaker “see[s] in the lustrous golden domes and glittering pomp of Venice the insistent falseness and possessiveness that he calls empire” (Davidson 1991, 56). Duncan’s Venice is the setting for stylish and beautiful boys, who “ride / in their expensive motor cars […] the red leather and the metal / rich and bewildering to the eye,” “[w]ho go about the town, these princes of money […] too holy,” Duncan seethes, “to walk among the humble […,] faithless and splendid as the gods they go” (Davidson 1991, 223). Though H.D.’s narrator loves the city despite its flaws, she cannot refute her partner Gareth’s perspective that “Saint Mark's Cathedral is a sort of Christmas-tree sort of cathedral” (Davidson 1991, 225). For Raymonde, Venice contains multitudes, or what Duncan’s The H.D. Book refers to as “multiphasic association[s]” (247): it can be “[c]lassic Venice, romantic Venice […], poster Venice, post-card Venice, Othello Venice, clap-trap stage Rialto Venice” (H.D. 1928, 239). To Gareth, it is a “sort of spiritual joke,” “a Coney Island side show” (Davidson 1991, 240).

  • 6 His view of Bryher may well have been colored by Levertov’s description of her in a letter followin (...)

11Venice makes Raymonde feel “smothered down in beauty, suffocated, painlessly snuffed out” (Davidson 1991, 240). “[L]oss of identity,” she thinks, “was the gift of Venice” (Davidson 1991, 240, 271). Duncan quotes that very line, and it is this vision of Venice that drives his extended analysis of “Narthex” in Book 2 of The H.D. Book. Venice was a city H.D. knew well, having visited it several times over the course of several decades, from the 1910s through the 1930s. For Duncan, who relies not on firsthand knowledge of Venice but on pictures of it, however, his Venice is a copy of a copy of a copy. He views Venice as symbolic of a kind of seduction into the privileged, “self-centered life of the rich” H.D. enjoys after meeting Bryher, her longtime partner on whom Gareth is based: “Another H.D. emerges in kinship with Venice,” he alleges, “and finds herself alienated from the earlier ‘pure’ H.D.” (Duncan 2011, 259). “In the drift of her writing in the twenties,” he explains further, “she provides a picture of this world set apart by money from the common lot of working for a living, of the poet living from hand to mouth, and set apart by the post-war modernism from the traditions of the upper class” (Duncan 2011, 260). This repositioning is what Duncan blames for the decline in H.D.’s reputation after the Great War (Duncan 2011, 264). H.D., Bryher, Kenneth Macpherson (H.D.’s lover and Bryher’s husband) – they are all living off of Bryher’s money, “living beyond their means,” dabbling in film and celebrity culture, losing their way, but worse still, at the root of their art, “they use the potentiality of homosexual attractions to heighten the heterosexual bond” (Duncan 2011, 262). In a passage that makes contemporary readers wince, Duncan goes so far as to compare H.D.’s transition from this dark Venetian period into what he sees as her glorious late career, to Mary Magdalene’s “passing from her life as a whore into her new life” (Duncan 2011, 387). Having “gone whoring after strange gods,” Duncan claims, H.D. found “Osiris, Amen, Christos, the authentic Jew stepped out from Velasquez” in Trilogy (Duncan 2011, 388).6

12It is true that in Trilogy’s Tribute to the Angels, the jewel distilled in the crucible contains the essence of female deity: she is venerable, not “venereous” (Duncan 2011, 303). This jewel generates love and peace. It inspires vision. Not so, Duncan’s jewel. His jewel is the materialization of jealousy, the cold eye of the betrayer: “My jealousy is like a jewel, a sapphire […] cruel and absolute” (Duncan 2012, 217). “Great Jealousy” is “terrible and lovely” (Duncan 2012, 217). In Trilogy, Love promises a new future, but for Duncan, Venus is “awful and lovely,” both a virgin and a whore. Love spawns pleasure but also pain. It brings “panic, jealousy, / or joy in the heart.” Love causes one to become “delirious,” for “[n]o one / is immune to her seduction” (Duncan 2012, 218). Of the poem, Davidson comments that “[t]he many references to Venus and her avatars in primitive and modern forms suggest the plural nature of love in its divine and secular forms” (Davidson 1991, 56; emphasis mine). Duncan’s sense of Love is complex, multifaceted, but it is also radically unstable. H.D.’s “Our Lady” reflects her many artistic representations: she is

           Our Lady of the Goldfinch,
           Our Lady of the Candelabra,

           Our Lady of the Pomegranate,
           Our Lady of the Chair. (H.D. 1998, 93)

But Duncan is more interested in the perilous, jagged edges of her contours, her omnipotence, but also her brutality:

           Our Lady Love: Great Jealousy was her avatar;
Joy was her avatar; Abounding Love of Man and Beast
           her avatar; Longing for Death her avatar.
           She has so many faces, forms. (H.D. 1998, 218)

13The formal repetition, and meditations upon it, in the Recorso of “The Venice Poem” attest to the trauma, the repetition compulsion, of love. Duncan’s poem is full of what Andrew Mossin refers to as “self-directed rage and anguished tone” (Mossin 67). And yet, at times, Duncan also romanticizes H.D.’s Venice-Venus, imagining in The H.D. Book that she had first learned of Venus at the knee of her father, an astronomer: “‘Venus is very beautiful tonight,’” Duncan envisions Charles Doolittle exclaiming to his daughter, for “[t]he planets were persons of her father’s mysteries before they were persons of Greek myth” (Duncan 2011, 575-576). He lavishes praise on H.D. for her “impassioned evocation” of Venus, “where venery and the venereous (the body of heat) are called forth from the body of fire and re-related to venerate, venerator,” contrasting her treatment of the goddess with that of Ezra Pound, who puritanically demands chastity and perfection of her (Duncan 2011, 303-307). The Lady of The Flowering of the Rod may be venerated, but she retains some seductive power: Duncan wonders if Kaspar falls in love with Our Lady (Duncan 2011, 584).

  • 7 H.D.’s Hermetic Definition comprises three poems: Hermetic Definition (itself comprised of “Red Ros (...)

14Duncan’s more romantic view of Venus coexists with his despair at her less favorable attributes because love and its attendant suffering births art. Venus, in “The Venice Poem,” “strike[s] a music in the blood,” “which, set into order, emerges […] the symphonic allegro, / jeweld perfection” (Duncan 2012, 218). Images of love betrayed “swim / in lust’s malicious eye” but are transformed to “rare music,” which “fills the poet’s ingenuous machine / with her radiance” (Duncan 2012, 216-217). For Duncan, art and love are inextricable: “It is of the essence of Poetry that sexual rites, fertility rites, Christian rites, and Celtic rites, may be confused, transmuted in an alembic to yield the stuff of a poetic reality” (Duncan 2011, 98). We find the same threads of art and love interwoven in H.D.’s work. It is Venus, after all, in Hermetic Definition,7 who commands the poet, “write, write or die,” a line Duncan quotes in a poem he wrote in response to hers, a line so important that they had discussed it in letters (H.D. 1972, 7, 49; Duncan 1964, 83; Bertholf, 31-32).

  • 8 The term “romantic thralldom” is DuPlessis’s (DuPlessis 1979); my extended argument on the subject (...)

15But it should be said that though H.D. cleanses Venus of venery in a crucible, her view of love was not entirely out of line with Duncan’s. Her late period of prose and poetry expounds again and again upon the enticements and perils of romantic thralldom, the structures of heteronormativity linked to cycles of war that doom women to Cupid’s sharp arrows. As I have argued elsewhere, H.D. is deeply absorbed with patterns of betrayal in times of war, casting an assemblage of men she had known throughout her life in the role of soldier-lover.8 In this sense, Duncan’s poem of sexual jealousy and betrayal in the World War II period resonates. Despite being at different stages of life, in the 1940s and 1950s H.D. and Duncan are alike spurred by war to explore the imbrication of the public and the private spheres, the mirroring of pain and trauma at personal and national levels. War, in The H.D. Book, is “the wrath of the Father” and “the very spirit of industrial and commercial capitalism,” an “attack upon art, sexuality and Woman” (Duncan 2011, 339). “H.D.’s apocalyptic vision in The War Trilogy, like her identification with Hellenistic decadence in the period between the first two World Wars,” he explains, “provides an historical perspective in which the experience of London under attack in the Second World War becomes meaningful in relation to depths and heights of personal reality” (Duncan 2011, 337).

  • 9 See Chapter 3 of Detloff’s book for her argument concerning the ramifications of Trilogy’s apocalyp (...)

16Madelyn Detloff has argued convincingly that Trilogy ultimately deems apocalypse necessary to civilization.9 Only by wiping the slate clean does humankind have a chance of survival. I would argue that Trilogy’s apocalypse likewise makes possible the production of art. The catastrophe of war binds a community of artists to one another – “bearers of the secret wisdom, / living remnant / of the inner band,” “companions of the flame” – and to the task of elevating the Word over the Sword (Detloff 14, 21). These poets are Venus’ progeny, “born of one mother” (Detloff 21),

the keepers of the secret,
the carriers, the spinners

of the rare intangible thread
that binds all humanity

to ancient wisdom,
to antiquity. (H.D. 1998, 24)

17Duncan reads H.D. as in agreement with his views of pain and art: “H.D. will all her life be concerned in her work with conveying to our sympathy the fact that agony seems to be in the very nature of deep experience, that in every instant there is a painful – painful in its intensity – revelation” (Duncan 2011, 422). Why else a passage through the underworld? he asks: “The poet may have meant to rescue the name Venus from its desecrations […] but in the actual operation of the poem not only is the name brought to its sublimation but it has been brought thru its nigredo.” In representing the root of the word Venus as “a phallic mandrake full of seminal poison,” H.D. evokes “an image from the underworld of the mind” (Duncan 2011, 479-480).

18In The Walls Do Not Fall “Apocryphal fire” – “rain of incendiary” – pours from the heavens, laying the ground with “smouldering ash” (H.D. 1998, 4, 19, 16). But in the more hopeful Tribute to the Angels, it is pollen, fallen from bell towers, that swathes Venice in gold. Alchemy transmutes base metals into gold and, in this poem, cleanses the female godhead. Venus becomes gold in the alchemist’s bowl, just as Venice glitters with gold. Art, in the form of the music of the bells, blankets the city in a layer of germinating pollen, which will, in turn, create more art. Likewise, in “The Venice Poem,” music from the bell tower at St. Mark’s “shakes the gold of sound upon / the slumbering city” (Duncan 2012, 211). In the final lines of the poem, the city finally awakens to an inseminating art, the pollen of sound emanating from “[f]atherly towers in the air!” (Duncan 2012, 240).

  • 10 In an interview with Michael André Bernstein and Burton Hatlen, Duncan tells them that part of the (...)

19Duncan’s final line celebrates a phallic image of paternity. After all, pollen derives from the male part of the plant; it fertilizes the female ovule. But Duncan also honors art born from woman in the third part of the poem, “The Venus of Lespuges,” a title that references a nude female statuette around 25,000 years old. If “bad women”10 dominate much of the poem, an ancient, primitive Venus holds promise of restoration and healing. Love comes in “The Venice Poem” in a postlapsarian moment, in a fallen state following the loss of innocence and the acquisition of knowledge. It is “[a]s if the goddess herself, / awful and lovely, spoke to the dumb poet / more than he knew” (Duncan 2012, 217). “[A]ll spirit flows” from “the mons veneris” – “[f]irst into flower and then / the full fruit, pendulant” – of this markedly fecund ivory sculpture that is shaped, he observes, like a musical instrument (Duncan 2012, 227, 228). Reversing the story of the Garden of Eden, “the male” is “not first, / but out of the female” in Duncan’s vision (Duncan 2012, 228). “She has so many arts,” he tells us, arts that “putteth away envy / & comforteth the body and the members” (Duncan 2012, 229). Her arts “saw there hope” (Duncan 2012, 230). The speaker finds “music, magic, / emerging // out of the shell-coil ear,” for it is a shell from which Venus is born (Duncan 2012, 232). Having summoned Venus, in Duncan’s coda, the artist suffers. It is excruciatingly painful – “How deep the violation goes” – and the “virtue” of “Our Lady” “flows / violent” (Duncan 2012, 233, 222). The pain of love drives him to violence, to embrace war:

He is violent. He is animal.
Driven by the language itself
alive with such forces,
he violates, desiring to move
the deepest sound. (Duncan 2012, 234)

20But the artist transmutes violence into art in the “moment when that faith returns” (Duncan 2012, 234). The shell “roar[s]” with sound, and the poet prays, “O blessed Mother, heal” (Duncan 2012, 231, 238). The pain has wrought art: the poet proclaims,

There is no pain
I would not bear for her sake.

  • 11 It is tempting to see this transformation in terms of what Eric Keenaghan argues about Duncan’s lat (...)

Who gives also faith
and surcease from pain. (Duncan 2012, 238)

“Beget[ting] self-out-of-self”: Duncan’s Canon

21Evoking both venery and veneration, these notions of Venus and Venice are central to the way Duncan envisions, in The H.D. Book, the canon of American twentieth-century poetry, both textual and sexual, at once materialist and spiritual. Even as Duncan bemoans H.D.’s fall from the “purity of Athens,” he sees the Venice period of her life – “the impurity of Byzantine Venice” – as swelling the sheer scope of her vision in her late career: “In ‘Narthex’ we see for the first time the synthesis that will flower in her later work. In the composite image of St. Mark’s H.D. reaches forward towards a fusion of oriental opulence and Greek spirit in images now of the Renaissance Christian world” (Duncan 2011, 387, 260). The fall from innocence, the passage through the underworld, the reemergence into a spiritual understanding of one’s position in the world of art and life – these are central to his conception of twentieth-century verse. The material world is not, after all, entirely divorced from the spiritual one for Duncan: “There is no reality in H.D.’s sense of things,” he observes with admiration, “that is not involved in the physical and vital realities around us” (Duncan 2011, 586).

22The H.D. Book is not just an homage to H.D. The book traces a direct lineage from modernist poets H.D., Williams, Pound, and Lawrence to contemporary poets: “For my generation,” he avers, “our elders – for me, specifically Pound, H.D., Williams, and Lawrence – remain primary generative forces” (Duncan 2011, 183). These modernist poets saw themselves as “seer[s] and creator[s],” and “literature as a text of the soul in its search for fulfillment in life” (Duncan 2011, 216). It is not, of course, as R. S. Hamilton quips, a “disinterested” gesture (Hamilton 226): such a lineage positions Duncan himself – and his comrades, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley – as the inevitable heirs to a legacy of poetry that reaches back to Robert Browning, the Pre-Raphaelites, the tradition of German Romanticism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman; through Imagism (with its “free thot, free verse, and even will – particularly free love” [Bertholf 261]); and then forward.

23This version of literary history thrusts aside the intellectual, “rational” modernism of Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and T. S. Eliot, as well as the “fundamentalis[t]” and “singleminded” Laura Riding and Robert Graves (Duncan 2011, 479), in favor of a more romantic, personal strain of modernism. It stresses, as H.D. did in White Rose and the Red (1947-1948), a modernism that extends out of the nineteenth century “era of Romance” (Duncan 2011, 100), not the metaphysical or classical poets. “Back of H.D., as back of Pound or of Yeats,” Duncan elaborates, “was the cult of romance that [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti and then [William] Morris had derived from Dante and his circle, the Fedeli d’amore, and revived in the Victorian era” (Duncan 2011, 519). This version of literary history also informs the earlier “Venice Poem,” which, for Mossin, is marred by an uneasy “yok[ing] together [of] two competing notions of the modernist project” (Mossin 83). Duncan’s version of literary history makes “The Venice Poem” the natural heir of a modernism shaped not by Eliot’s purported coldness and rationalism but rather a movement that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that delves into the topics of love and sexuality in a way that traces the overlapping of the private and public spheres.

24Duncan further suggests a parallel between the conditions of World War I and World War II, remarking that “[t]heir threshold remains ours. The time of war and exploitation, the infamy and lies of the new capitalist war-state, continue.” (Duncan 2011, 183) Amidst this strife and discord is verse in which both generations can express “concern for quality and spirit, for romance and beauty” (Duncan 2011, 183). It is Trilogy – which celebrates the persistence of art in times of war – that lies at the center of this account of his aesthetic origins, and he castigates those who chucked H.D. and her epic poetry out of the canon, venting his fury at Randall Jarrell, Dudley Fitts, Karl Shapiro, and Richard Wilbur for their anti-romanticism and their embrace of “the monotheistic cult of Reason” (Duncan 2011, 523-524). In an interview with Ekbert Faas, Duncan speculates that her exclusion was based on misogyny, that “men find genius itself unwomanly,” that they took offense at the “presumption” of “this poetess” (Duncan 2011, 488, 490). He characterizes the perceived impropriety of H.D.’s inclusion in the canon to Kaspar’s response to Mary of Magdala in Trilogy – “it is unseemly that a woman / appear at all” (H.D. 1998, 79). “The narrative of The War Trilogy,” he explains, “is the story of the restitution, of the daemonic and of woman, cursed by the Fathers, into the sight of God or among the Goods […]. It is the prostitute; it is venery, venereous, venerate, venerator in the star Venus […]. It is Mary of Magdala, where: ‘through my will and my power, / Mary shall be myrrh” (Duncan 2011, 489).

  • 12 And this, he explains, is what distinguishes him from his male comrades, Olson and Creeley (Faas 13 (...)

25There is an overlapping shadow genealogy sketched in The H.D. Book, a matrilineage, that rests alongside the account of literary history that elevates Pound, Lawrence, and Williams above Stevens and Eliot. Just as “The Venice Poem” turns to Venus as mother of art, beginning in the first chapter of The H.D. Book and continuing throughout the volume, Duncan credits women – teachers, poets and novelists, friends and classmates – with his awakening as a poet. Poetry itself is a mother, he exclaims, citing in Chapter 9 of Part II the powerful women of H.D.’s late poetry (Duncan 2011, 70). It is not just H.D., Pound, Lawrence, and Williams who have birthed Duncan and his cohort but Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Mary Butts, Dorothy Richardson, and Gertrude Stein. As he tells Ekbert Faas, “My very strong feeling which has not changed at all is that all those women, Virginia Woolf, and H.D. and others who are even more doubted, like Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell, are of the same order as Stevens and Williams and Pound and [James] Joyce” (Faas 16).12 Hamilton notes that though Pound, Williams, and Lawrence write about sexuality, they ignore “realms of experience” of women, and the womanly side of Duncan himself. H.D. and Duncan, Hamilton astutely contends, can see the complexity of Venus as an avatar of Love that has been corrupted by patriarchy, contaminated by “projections of masculine desire,” and thus in need of purification in the crucible (Hamilton 234).

  • 13 See Davidson, for a brief discussion of Duncan’s “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” within the (...)

26Duncan’s misgivings about the personal nature of H.D.’s prose of her “Venetian” period are certainly clear, and his language, as we have seen, can betray the kind of misogyny Michael Davidson documents in Guys Like Us. Duncan was an enthusiastic member of Jack Spicer’s “‘secret boys club’” (Davidson 2004, 17) (as Duncan called it) in the late 1940s, with its “hard-drinking, macho ethos” (Davidson 2004, 41). But his pronounced admiration for women poets and readers, and his dedication to a woman poet so intense that he dedicated a 700-page book to her, suggest a not insignificant departure from Spicer’s “battle for poetry […] waged against the twin evils of femininity and mass culture” (Davidson 2004, 42). Moreover, even as poetry considers the public sphere, it must also be personal for Duncan, and this, too, separates him from the masculinist, and objectivist (Davidson 2004, 47), milieu Davidson describes. Poetry must explore the human mind and dissect human emotions. It must mirror personal and public trauma, capture the suffering of the individual as a microcosm of the tumult of the times. Throughout the H.D. Book, Duncan alleges that Pound and H.D. employ the personal lyric to respond to the exigencies of an era of global warfare: “they drew upon the dramatic choral lyric and the trance-voice of religious evocation to charge the actual with meaning” (Duncan 2011, 198); they examine the human “in his cooperation with the world about him” (Duncan 2011, 329); and they are profoundly interested in “where the man strives to bring his individual awareness and the communal awareness into one” (Duncan 2011, 360).13 As Rachel Blau DuPlessis contends, The H.D. Book “parallels H.D.’s own long poems by postulating that personal transformations of subjectivity […] were crucial to historical shifts mainly concerning the status of gender, as well as the role of war” (DuPlessis 2014, 637). Eliot’s impersonality, then, is anathema to Duncan.

27Duncan’s “The Venice Poem” follows these dictates about canon, and the poem is well positioned, in 1948, to be a turning point not just for his own career – he called it a “rebirth” and his first lesson in how to write poetry (Faas 8) – but for modernism’s turn to postmodernism. Duncan’s sense of self in 1948 – the self of the poet – reflects a postmodern sense of self as fluid, plural, and unstable. Venice has been known for its mirrors for centuries, and Duncan’s poem makes ample use of them, vehicles for copies of a self that is ungrounded and transitory. The poem is a mirror in the second part of the poem – “in the poem as a mirror, the whole world” (Duncan 2012, 219) – but it is no longer objective after the speaker’s fall: “I no longer know the virgin mirror.” The speaker bemoans his loss, for the mirror now is a site in which “I conjure / luxuries I can ill afford,” a surface that reflects Love’s “earlier / frightening form […] violent” (Duncan 2012, 219, 222). The mirror reflects not the world but “consternation of a whole world” (220). Silver surfaces reflect and refract in Duncan’s poem. The poet is as much shaped by the poem as the poem is shaped by the poet, and he turns again and again in The H.D. Book to H.D’s “Pygmalion” to illustrate this point.

28From the “slumbering city” and “crouch[ing] suppliant” lions of its opening, to its victims of infidelity, to the birthing at its conclusion, the poem is replete with images of lack of agency and loss of ego. To love is to lose oneself in the other, and this loss is what leaves us vulnerable to the “suffering and pain [that] are an integral part of love,” as Hamilton observes (Hamilton 238). For Duncan, falling in love “means losing my being” (quoted in Keenaghan 2018, 117). “There is a love in which we are outcast and vagabond from what we are that we call ‘falling in love,’” Duncan opines in his discussion of Kaspar in The Flowering of the Rod. “It appears an evil or a power over us, and can seize us, sweeping from us all sense of who we are. We know it […] as pain, as longing, as loss, as ecstasy; for we are estranged from ourselves in this love or light.” At the same time, though, we must embrace love, absorb its blows, for it is how we “com[e] into the intention of God in the peril of the soul” (Duncan 2011, 578-579).

29Love is surrender to the other, then, but it is also surrender to God, a sentiment H.D. shared. This notion, too, is precisely what Duncan admires in Madame Helena Blavatsky’s theosophy, which he had imbibed since childhood: “Whatever came from the individual inner volition was suspect” (Duncan 2011, 133). Falling in love is as much “conversion” as “obsession,” he writes of H.D.’s poem that first fired his admiration of her (Duncan 2011, 39). The speakers of “Heat” and “The Venice Poem” are acted upon more than they act. In “Heat,” he avers, “the poet submitted her will to be shaped by what happened” (Duncan 2011, 39). As a lover and as an artist, Duncan submits. Even Duncan’s compositional process involves surrender and sacrifice, Dennis Cooley suggests: “A poem arrives as a command to the artist; it is presented not invented. Duncan must serve what the poem requires, not what he desires” (Cooley 61).

30The unstable self, then, may dissolve and dissipate, but just as often the self multiplies into “complexly interwoven subjectivities” (Mossin 71) in “The Venice Poem,” the speaker moving in and out of the voice of the poet, at times embodying and at times observing him. “[N]o one individualized presence dominates the poem,” Mossin notes (85). The speaker of the poem is at times omniscient, at others ignorant. At some points the speaker is Othello, at others “potentially the person who can’t see the connections” (Peters and Trachtenberg 106), and at still others he looks down at Othello, sympathizing with his plight. At still other points in the text, the speaker is Othello’s nemesis, Iago, or his love, Desdemona: “Duncan plays all the roles of his poem simultaneously” (Mossin 87, 91-92). In The H.D. Book, this “symphonic” self is reflected in the collective “we” of H.D.’s epic poetry of the 1940s and 1950s. H.D.’s speaker is at once in the present and the past, entering into the consciousness of the worm and the goddess alike. H.D.’s career began with the “we” of Imagism, Duncan argues, descended into the egotism of an “exclusive social group” in her Venetian period, and reemerged in Trilogy: “H.D. would create not only a life of her own but she would fuse elements of the community of poets, the community of the psychoanalyzed and the community of Christ, to have a community of her own” (Duncan 2011, 298, 365). This collective self plays a significant role in the modernist canon Duncan constructs: “For Freud, as for Lawrence, H.D., Pound, Joyce, or Eliot, the immediate experience of the First World War brought an intensified experience of the ‘we’ and the ‘they’” (Duncan 2011, 189). This sense of “we” resonates, then, for him as he writes “The Venice Poem” in the wake of the Second World War. A war may bring society together in nationalist sentiment, but war also fragments identity, leaving the self in fragments, effectively pluralizing it. If the Imagists and early modernists were not yet producing postmodernist art, their notion of collectivity laid the groundwork for it, he theorizes.

31Autobiographical writing, too, Duncan asserts, pluralizes the self: the self being narrated and the self narrating; the author, the speaker, and the character. In H.D.’s autobiographical work specifically, “each of these in turn in a mystery of person are more than a self-portrait of H.D., whose personality now is not that of author but that of a member of the cast in the play” (Duncan 2011, 112). The self, then, is process, always becoming. In apocalyptic times, in The Walls Do Not Fall, the self rises from the ashes – it breaks through the hardened silken fibers of its chrysalis – and, Duncan notes, this moment in which “living within, / you beget self-out-of-self” (H.D. 1998, 9) had “prepared my thought for ‘The Venice Poem’” (Duncan 2011, 440). This new metamorphosed self serves as a kind of container for the multiplicity of selves we embody (495).

32In “The Venice Poem,” Duncan characterizes the shift from modernism and postmodernism as a rebirth. The Coda of Duncan’s poem witnesses just such a birth or rebirth – a “self-out-of-self” – because “to be a poet is to be reborn” (Duncan 2011, 69). “The Venice Poem,” he admits, is autobiographical, but not because he wants “to express what [he] experienced,” but rather “to in-form myself with the content of the poem, to form a womb […] in order to beget […] a Child out of myself that was to be my poet” (Duncan 2011, 441). One of the ways he accomplishes this birth is by projecting on to Venus, and on to H.D., the role of mother. Duncan told Jack Cohn and Thomas O’Donnell that in his dream life H.D. had appeared as his adoptive mother (Duncan 2011, 526-527). In “A Sequence of Poems for H.D.’s Birthday,” undoubtedly with Tribute to the Angels in mind, H.D. appears as a holy mother, Sophia, the embodiment of divine wisdom. Here Duncan draws, too, on the language of a vision experienced by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov when he writes “an eternal woman woven in blue […] a divine womanly radiance” (Duncan 1964, 15-16). As DuPlessis argues of The H.D. Book, Duncan is radical in finding in H.D. a mother figure; it is “a forbidden return to the powerful mother” that “rejects female ‘lack’ in eros and in culture” (DuPlessis 2014, 639-640). In “The Venice Poem,” Venus occupies that role. Venus, rising out of a seashell gives birth at once to art and self. She is the “blessed Mother” (Duncan 2012, 238), inseminating the man – “the head singing // into the male” – who gives birth to his new self, the “charmd” child who appears in the Coda (Duncan 2012, 229, 239).

33In H.D.’s Within the Walls, the narrator cannot see her reflection in a Venetian mirror. One loses one’s identity in Venice, Raymonde Ransome realizes in “Narthex,” but she refers to this loss as a “gift.” “[B]eyond this loss of identity, of self, there is the giving up of self” to something new, Duncan observes, quoting from the story, “to ‘this new protection, this going into all things,’ into the narthex of Saint Mark’s, into the ‘power to crawl, snail self up the surface of high window and creep half-hatched moth in among tenuous rootless and dynamic deep earth feelers’” (Duncan 2011, 387). Raymonde Ransome revises her impressions of Venice by the end of the story. True, Venice is a bit of a circus, but it is also profoundly alluring. “How was I to know,” Raymonde marvels, “that Saint Mark’s Square would hold so many different odd dimensions? [...]. How was I to know that I was going to love it?” (H.D. 1928, 92). Over time, Raymonde begins to reframe her perceptions, shaking off Gareth’s view and claiming her own: instead of castigating its artificiality, she admires the planning that went into its fabrication. She comes to see that Venice is a construction, a product of discursivity and imagination, a collaboration between self and other: “Now seated in Saint Mark's Cathedral toward the mid-ish lateness of an early evening, Raymonde was again reminded [...] people, things don't exist in themselves unless you […] are there to re-create them” (ibid. 103).

34This revelation, Duncan believes, is what makes way for the luminescent Trilogy. H.D. had to pass through her decadent 1920s-1930s Venetian phase, through “the emotionalism of Red Roses for Bronze.” She had to have “seven devils cast out of her,” but these seven return in the new plural self that is birthed in Trilogy (H.D. 1998, 387). Trilogy is the seed that, in turn, germinates, birthing “The Venus Poem.” By the time she writes the poems of Hermetic Definition, however, Duncan has begun to wonder if his poem, in turn, had given birth to hers. “Were there, workd into the ‘Red Roses & a Beggar,’ elements you were aware of that related to my ‘Venice Poem,’ sent to you long ago?” he asks in an unanswered letter in the final year of her life (Bertholf 1992, 55). Fanciful, perhaps. But his sentiment in 1961 suggests a vision of modernism and postmodernism in conversation, tracing influence in both directions. Perhaps Duncan in the 1960s can imagine himself a mother to H.D. And perhaps this speaks to an enigmatic line in his extended tribute to her, that “[p]oetry is the Mother of those who have created their own mothers” (Duncan 2011, 70). Duncan, perhaps, has reached the point at which “mother and child are almost indistinguishable,” as Albert Gelpi observes of this passage; “the poet and the poem are each both mother and child of the other” (Gelpi 333). As H.D.’s life draws to a close, Duncan can give birth to himself.

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Bernstein, Michael André, and Burton Hatlen. “Interview with Robert Duncan.” Sagetrieb 4.2-3 (1985): 87-135.

Bertholf, Robert J., ed. A Great Admiration: H.D./Robert Duncan Correspondence 1950-1961. Culver City, CA: Lapis Press, 1992.

Bertholf Robert J., and Albert Gelpi, ed. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Cohn, Jack R., and Thomas J. O’Donnell. Interview with Robert Duncan.” Contemporary Literature 21.4 (1980): 513-548.

Cooley, Dennis. “The Poetics of Robert Duncan.” boundary 2 8.2 (1980): 45-73.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Davidson, Michael. Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Romantic Thralldom in H.D.” Contemporary Literature 20.2 (1979): 178-203.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Polymorphous Poetics: Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book.” Contemporary Literature 55.4 (2014): 635-664.

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H.D. “Narthex.” Second American Caravan. Ed. Alfred Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Rosenfeld. New York: Macaulay Company, 1928. 225-284.

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1 Duncan’s The H.D. Book was written between 1959 and his death in 1988; though parts of it appeared in a range of journals, it was not published as a complete volume until 2011.

2 H.D.’s Trilogy comprises three poems: The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod. The Walls Do Not Fall was written in 1942 and published in 1944; Tribute to the Angels was written in 1944 and published in 1945; and The Flowering of the Rod was written in 1944 and published in 1946.

3 It may well be that the bells recall “those of the Berkeley campanile,” as Jarnot argues (Jarnot 113), but there is no mistaking the striking similarity in the wording of these two passages.

4 See my introduction to H.D.’s By Avon River.

5 Note that Jarnot argues that Duncan exaggerates his response to Ackerman’s affair for poetic effect (114). Whatever Duncan’s emotions may have been, for the purposes of his poem, a dramatic betrayal is critical to understanding Venus.

6 His view of Bryher may well have been colored by Levertov’s description of her in a letter following H.D.’s death. In a letter to Duncan, Levertov harshly accuses Bryher of failing to care for H.D. in her later years and expresses disgust at her conservative anti-Communist politics (Bertholf and Gelpi 318-319).

7 H.D.’s Hermetic Definition comprises three poems: Hermetic Definition (itself comprised of “Red Rose and a Beggar,” “Grove of Academe,” and “Star of Day”), Sagesse, and Winter Love. Composed between 1957 and 1961, the three poems were published together in one volume in 1972.

8 The term “romantic thralldom” is DuPlessis’s (DuPlessis 1979); my extended argument on the subject appears in A Curious Peril (see especially chapters 1 and 7).

9 See Chapter 3 of Detloff’s book for her argument concerning the ramifications of Trilogy’s apocalyptic mode. “The compelling, apocalyptic language of Trilogy is not without its costs, however” Detloff asserts, “for in its redemptive turn, the poem redescribes loss as something triumphant” (Detloff 80). Moreover, “Trilogy represents the destruction of the war as cleansing” (ibid. 82).

10 In an interview with Michael André Bernstein and Burton Hatlen, Duncan tells them that part of the poem “is dominated […] by themes of bad women” (Bernstein, 93).

11 It is tempting to see this transformation in terms of what Eric Keenaghan argues about Duncan’s later poetry, that Duncan “desires” vulnerability, seeking “any number of kinds of invasion […] even a penetrative sexual encounter” (Keenaghan 2018, 98).

12 And this, he explains, is what distinguishes him from his male comrades, Olson and Creeley (Faas 13). It is tempting to infer, then, that this is what aligns him with Denise Levertov, who also greatly admired H.D.

13 See Davidson, for a brief discussion of Duncan’s “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” within the context of “linking the private and social” (Davidson 2004, 100-101).

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Lara Vetter, « On Love and the Canon: H.D., Robert Duncan, and “Venice-Venus” »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 29 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Lara Vetter

University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Lara Vetter is Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches twentieth-century literature. She is the author of A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose and Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse: H.D., Loy, and Toomer; editor of H.D.’s By Avon River; and co-editor of Approaches to Teaching H.D.’s Poetry and Prose and Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences. Her articles on modern and contemporary writing have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Review of English Studies, Genre, and MELUS.

Lara Vetter est professeur de littérature anglaise à l’Université de North Carolina at Charlotte, où elle enseigne la littérature du vingtième siècle. Elle est l’auteur de A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose et Modernist Writings and Religio-scientific Discourse: H.D., Loy, and Toomer; l’éditrice de H.D.’s By Avon River; et coéditrice de Approaches to Teaching H.D.’s Poetry and Prose et Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences. Ses articles sur l’écriture moderne et contemporaine sont parus dans le Journal of Modern Literature, Review of English Studies, Genre, et MELUS.

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