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American Shakespeare

“What’s in a Name?”: H.D.’s Re-Vision of Shakespeare

Claire Conilleau


H.D. est à la fois une figure familière du mouvement Imagiste façonné par Ezra Pound et un auteur insaisissable du modernisme historique. Essentiellement connue comme poète, H.D. a pourtant produit de nombreux textes en prose à caractère autobiographique, qui n’ont pas été publiés de son vivant, pour s’affranchir du carcan imagiste et des traumatismes de la Guerre. Shakespeare est un allié précieux car il incarne la jonction entre le personnel et le littéraire, le réel et le fictionnel. Ses pièces sous-tendent la prose autobiographique de H.D. en rapport à la famille, l’histoire et l’identité. H.D. déterre l’auteur et ses textes pour les réinscrire dans un nouveau corpus, une stratégie qui lui permet de se confronter à l’histoire littéraire écrite par les hommes et de la re-voir en tissant un lien familial plutôt que confrontationnel avec la tradition. Cet article envisage la complexité de l’interaction entre le texte shakespearien et la prose de H.D. comme pierre angulaire de son positionnement en tant qu’auteure dans l’économie de la création littéraire. Il étudie les détournements et réappropriations créatives de l’œuvre de Shakespeare qu’opère Hilda Doolittle, notamment à travers son travail sur l’onomastique, l’évocation et l’inscription du Barde dans son texte ainsi que dans un texte moins connu, By Avon River, dont il est le sujet.

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1For many a modernist writer Shakespeare is a strong influence to be dealt with as the emergence of 20th century literature challenges and revisits tradition, by looking back on Renaissance writers and previous modes of expression. T. S. Eliot, who co-edited The Egoist with H.D. in London during World War I, extensively pondered this practice in the essays he wrote in the 1910s-1920s, most notably in his key critical piece “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which he highlights the interweaving of past and present texts in literature: “[The poet’s] significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to dead poets and artists” (4-5). Among these poets and artists of the past, Shakespeare, perhaps standing as the epitome of English literary tradition, is to be reckoned with. A fact which W.B. Yeats reflects upon in his poem, “Three Movements”:

Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;

Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;

  • 1  Yeats, W.B., “Three Movements” [1933], The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (2000), 203. H.D. deploys (...)

What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?1

2This urge to position one’s self with regards to the English tradition has always been felt by American writers.This certainly is an even more crucial stance to take for American women writers as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar delineate in The Madwoman in the Attic and No Man’s Land.

3In his witty essay on Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot specifically underscores the preeminence of Shakespeare studies and reinterpretations in the 1920s; though he deplores the outcome of many, he acknowledges the author’s greatness and the critical input these fresh perspectives bring to such literary monuments (107-120).

4H.D.’s oeuvre revisits Shakespeare’s works from which the writer derives free interpretations, probing as she does the intersection between past and present. As a woman writer acutely aware of the male dominance of literary modernism, she strives to reach back in an autobiographical impulse as well as a desire to bond with the literary canonical writers, the Greeks and Shakespeare, the Founding Fathers of literature. But while many women writers have followed Virginia Woolf’s edict of “thinking back through the mother” to carve a female – rather than feminine – literary tradition, H.D. adopts a less travelled path by developing a personal dialogue with the Bard that takes many forms.

  • 2  The term “prose writings” here aims to encompass the broad scope of H.D.’s texts in which the imme (...)
  • 3  Interestingly enough, Robert Duncan would undertakea similar kind of tribute to H.D., in the unpub (...)

5This paper aims to explore the wide range of connections H.D. establishes with Shakespeare’s plays in a selection of her prose writings2, through names and the act of naming, to show how they partake of the questioning of such binaries as the past/present, the real/literary, the female/male, the personal/universal. We will explore these strategies by looking at explicit uses of names in the author’s life, by analyzing the direct and indirect evocations and inscriptions of the Bard and his plays in her works, and by considering one text in particular, By Avon River3, whose initial theme is Shakespeare himself.

  • 4  It is both the subject of her novel Palimpsest, with its telescoping space-time shifts, and an ess (...)

6H.D.’s vision of history in general, and literary history in particular, as a palimpsest4 governs the relation of her autobiographical prose writings to Shakespeare, whose plays resurface through a range of textual devices, for Shakespeare is a highly personal matter for H.D. As she reveals it in one of her sessions with Freud: “There are trivial, confused dreams and there are real dreams. The trivial dream bears the same relationship to the real as the column of gutter-press news-print to a folio page of a play of Shakespeare” (Tribute 35-36).

 “Names are in people, people are in names”

Lost and Found: the Myth of Origins

7H.D., whose personal life is an endless source of inspiration in her writing, named her only daughter Perdita, after the female protagonist of The Winter’s Tale, literally “the lost one” who is found again at the end of the play. This choice is clearly not incidental given H.D.’s proclaimed close attention to names and the act of naming. H.D.’s daughter thus bears the stamp of both personal and literary history. In Shakespeare’s play, Perdita is the daughter of Hermione and Leontes. The latter suspects his wife has been unfaithful and, giving way to his unfounded suspicions revealed in a dream, has his wife imprisoned as she threatens social order and the patrilineal succession to the throne, and the bastard child sent away to Bohemia. In a dream, Hermione appears to Antigonus, who carries out the task of bringing the infant to a desert island and abandoning it, and requests her child be named Perdita: “And for the babe / Is counted lost for ever, Perdita, / I prithee, call’t” (III, 3, 31-33). Perdita’s birth concludes a period of highly traumatic events for H.D., a complex of personal events that would repeatedly be written into H.D.’s prose writings: she gave birth to a still-born child in 1915, which triggered the disintegration of her marriage to Richard Aldington; her father passed away shortly after the news of her brother’s death in combat reached him; while Aldington was fighting in France and having mistresses, she had an affair with music composer Cecil Gray from whom she got pregnant and miraculously gave birth to the child while doctors gave both mother and daughter up for dead after she fell ill in 1919. Although Shakespeare’s Perdita is mistakenly thought of as a bastard child, H.D.’s Perdita is indeed a child born out of wedlock, and whom Aldington refused to recognize as his own.

8Filial relations and self-exploration are recurrent themes in H.D.’s prose writing. In Hedylus, one of the ‘Magna Graeca’ novels (DuPlessis 31), the poet-protagonist is haunted by his fatherlessness, which hinges on the absent father’s unknown name, for which the mother, Hedyle, provides a substitutionary romantic myth of origins: “my mother is a goddess, she had me with a god. I am nameless, bearing her name” or “… my father was… my father is… He had been obsessed with the name” (Hedylus 33, 54). This obsession with names and naming pervades H.D.’s texts, which, as Susan Stanford Friedman has suggested in Psyche Reborn, serve as “therapeutic writings” (30):

  • 5  H.D. often used the term “novel” to allude to her personal experiences and her repeated attempts t (...)

I have tried to write the story or the novel5 of my war experience, my first, still-born child and the second, born so fortunately with Leo rising, Aries or the Ram. I have rewritten this story and others that ‘ghosted’ for it, as in the case of Pilate’s Wife and Hedylus, both historical or classic reconstructions. […] Someone spoke of Hedylus as being ‘hallucinated writing’. Yet if I become more ‘human’ I seem to lose my sense of direction, or my prose style. […] I am no longer interested in a poem once it is written, projected, or materialized. There is a feeling that it is only a part of myself there. (Tribute 148-149. H.D.’s emphasis)

9This phase of H.D.’s life is marked by pain and loss, which she only seems to be able to transcend in her palimpsestic writing: layers of narratives are superimposed on the same original events told time and again, under different guises (the protagonists’ initials trace back to H.D.’s), and which one can uncover by scratching the surface of the parchment as Hedylus the poet does to inscribe his new texts. The reference to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale also brings a promise of re-birth or restored order. In the play, Perdita is eventually found and harmony is restored; thus evoking The Winter’s Tale invariably conjures up the potentiality of renewal through literature. In Tribute to Freud, H.D. remarks:

My daughter was born the last day of March with daffodils that come before the swallow dares out of The Winter’s Tale. […] Am I reminded of happy release from pain and the fortunate auspices, predicted for my daughter who arrived in the vernal equinox; and at high tide of the sun, at noon exactly? (135, 137)

10Even Hermione, Perdita’s mother and one of the few motherly figures to feature in Shakespeare’s plays, who dies imprisoned for an alleged infidelity, reappears at the end of the play in the form of a statue; although marginalized and excluded by the misuse and abuse of power in this patriarchal society, she has survived “to see the issue” (V, 3, 127).

Encoding Names

  • 6  H.D.’s mother, Helen Doolittle, died the year HERmione was completed. The quotation is from “Pando (...)
  • 7  Gertrude Stein, also highly concerned with names and naming puts on a similar narratorial mask in (...)

11This family romance deals with questions of paternity and lineage, which ultimately are issues of power. Similar themes are central in many of H.D.’s texts and The Winter’s Tale serves as a key to decode H.D.’s romans-à-clef, HERmione and Asphodel. Both written in the retrospective mode, these novels stage H.D.’s early life in Pennsylvania up to her days in London at the close of WWI. In the two novels, Hermione Gart experiences a crisis of identity and language; “the protagonist is a divided personality, Her and Hermione. Hermione of Greek mythology, daughter of Menelaeus and Helen”6. Also, most significantly to me, Shakespeare’s misunderstood heroine of The Winter’s Tale, mother of Perdita” (HER xi). By thus naming the protagonist of her two autobiographical kunstlerromane, H.D. uses the reference to Shakespeare’s blighted female character to cloak herself in the text7 as “mother of Perdita”and hence creates a mise-en-abyme which Susan Stanford Friedman highlights in her study of H.D.’s prose:

  • 8  It is interesting to note that Shakespeare adopted a similar discursive strategy: with the forest (...)

The narrator is a representation of H.D. in 1926-1927, who is, like Hermione in Greek myth, the daughter of Helen and like Hermione in Shakespeare, the mother of Perdita.Also like Shakespeare’s Hermione, she is frozen, waiting to be reawakened by the return of her ‘daughter’ who comes back in the form of the story about her younger self that she tells. Her fixed identity as H.D. Imagiste has stiffened her into a marble statue, an icon for worship or hate, rather than a living, breathing, aging, and changing writer. (Penelope 128)8

12There are reiterated references to Hermione’s namesake and its origin in Shakespeare:

There was a small red Temple Shakespeare one side of Eugenia’s picture [Hermione’s mother] […]. Temple Shakespeare. I am out of the Temple Shakespeare. I am out of The Winter’s Tale. It was my grandfather’s idea to call me something out of Shakespeare. Her picked up the limp volume. […] Lilies of all kinds… I am out of this book. (HER 31-32)

  • 9  H.D.’s quotational style is frequently loose. Whether this is intentional or not is unclear, but i (...)

13The reference is not only to the name of the famous rare edition of Shakespeare plays available for reading in the character/H.D.’s family home – itself a token of literary history – but also evokes the status of the writer, whose works constitutes a sacred “book-monument” from which H.D.’s character has originated. Once again, the personal and the literary collide, but as H.D. subtly underlines, the act of naming remains a predominantly male act and the character can only leave the trace of a fragmentary quotation as she struggles to recall her origin and make sense of words: “lilies of all kinds, / The flower-de-luce being one.” (The Winter’s Tale, IV, 4, 126-127); the second part Hermione later misquotes9 as “…of all kinds, the fleur de lys being one…” (HER 81).

14In the (hi)story of her life, H.D.’s character, Hermione, ceaselessly muses over the name chosen for her by her grandfather who “read Shakespeare, that’s why Hermione” (Asphodel 53). She locates her protagonist’s identity crisis in the rift between her chosen name – if uncommon and culturally laden – and her psyche, between signifier and signified, echoing Juliet’s “What’s in a name?”, which she tries to solve by playing on the various name combinations, but the disjunction inherent in language prevails: “She said, ‘I am Hermione Gart,’ but Her Gart was not that” (HER 3) and later “But that’s not me. That’s not me. They can laugh if they want cry if they want, become rhapsodic over Her Gart, Hermione Gart or Hermione. But I’m something different. It’s nothing to do with them. I’m something else. Different” (53). This constant grappling with the origin of one’s name as well as the link between name and identity is an evocation of the well-known anecdote of Pound’s christening her as “H.D. Imagiste” in August 1912, which H.D.’s prose writings revisit most explicitly in End to Torment:

  • 10  This is Pound’s early nickname for H.D.

‘But Dryad,’10 (in the Museum tea room), ‘this is poetry.’ He slashed with a pencil. ‘Cut this out, shorten this line. “Hermes of the Ways” is a good title. I’ll send it to Harriet Monroe of Poetry. Have you a copy? Yes? Then we can send this, or I’ll type it when we get back. Will this do?’ And he scrawled H.D. Imagiste at the bottom of the page. (18)

  • 11  The shuttling between subject and object evokes Julia Kristeva’s opening pages of The Powers of Ho (...)
  • 12  See Susan Stanford Friedman’s close study of the various pen names H.D. started using during this (...)
  • 13  There is evidence that H.D. was using her initials to sign her correspondence, to William Carlos W (...)

15In H.D.’s life and writing, the act of naming is highly symbolical and exemplifies the entrapment language may occasion (“names are in people, and people are in names,” HER 5). At the time of the writing of Hedylus,Asphodel and HERmione (the character whose shortened name, Her, blurs the delineation between grammatical subject and object, active and passive roles11), H.D. was in the process of negotiating her shift from Imagism12, the literary movement that had made her famous but had also encased her in a fixed iconic identity institutionalized for her by Ezra Pound13, but from which she could not completely disentangle herself as Susan Stanford Friedman puts it:

More than a nom de plume, “H.D.” was a name she performed. […] She felt both identified with “H.D.” as a material signifier that gave her existence in public, and dissociated from it as an entity forever cut off from the private identity to which it did and did not refer. (Penelope 39)

16These initials forever bound H.D. to her mentor, a connection beyond which she tried to go as she experimented with other genres and conjured up Shakespeare and his plays to stage the woman writer’s self-exploration.

Performances and Impersonation

 The Bard, the Mentor, the Dryad: the Roman-à-Clef Genre

  • 14  A popular genre in the 1920s: Frances Gregg and her husband Louis Wilkinson’s The Buffoon (1916), (...)
  • 15  A.C. Swinburne is also extraordinarily preeminent in H.D.’s prose. See Cassandra Laity, “H.D. and (...)

17Pound himself is fictionalized in her novels, much in keeping with the blending of real and created elements, especially by the alteration of names, which the roman-à-clef14 hinges on. His character in both HERmione and Asphodel, George Lowndes, whose last name echoes, by phonemic proximity, Hermione’s treacherous husband Leontes in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is intricately linked to Hermione’s nascent poetic aspirations. H.D. uses her private prose novels to debunk the myth of Pound as her Pygmalion. In HERmione, as they attend a theatrical performance of Shaw’s play – inspired by the Greek myth of a statue transmuted into a woman, and where another Miss Doolittle is thereby given the gift of language – the narrator identifies Fayne Rabb (H.D.’s first love, Frances Gregg) as her Pygmalion in an endeavor to break Pound’s commanding spell: “Hermione hated George with his affectation of familiarity with crowned (so to speak) heads and saw that Fayne Rabb was Pygmalion” (138). In one of the novel’s central episodes, George Lowndes and Hermione go for a walk into the woods and a highly intertextual game ensues. The Winter’s Tale is once more conjured up amid a web of literary references that expands to include As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, while the names ofDostoevski [sic], Shaw, Maeterlinck, Bertrand de Born, the Morte d’Arthur feature alongside A.C. Swinburne15 and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose lines are rhapsodically quoted in italics, repeated, stutteringly incomplete and intermittently losing the printing type, until they are absorbed by the prose. Allusions to or quotes from Shakespeare’s plays bear no regular typographical markings and become integral to Hermione’s unfolding thoughts, thereby blurring the distinction between dialogue and internal focalization. They punctuate Hermione and George’s literary joust, as in the evocation of and quotation from As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice (I, 2, 1-1), which highlight the overlapping of literary references in Her’s palimpsestic mind as well as the intertwinement of comic prose passages and tragic-lyric verse sequences as this game of seduction proceeds to deflation:

George Lowndes asks: “Now is this the forest of Arden?” She looked at George; pedantically, she replied, “My little body is a-weary of this great world.” She swerved, she would yet dramatize herself, she turned as with stage gesture toward stage trees. […] Almost Hermione was out of Shakespeare with George […]. Almost this is the forest of Arden […]. Almost she was lost, stepping back and back into the pages of some familiar rhythm, now this is the forest of Arden. Almost her long legs were bound in Elizabethan trunkhose [sic] and almost her hand, under her hand was a silver chain which almost she was about to drop about the throat of George, of Orlando kneeling, wear this one for me out of suits with fortune. (HER 64-66)

18H.D.’s narrative voice pinpoints the self-consciousness and theatricality of this artificial, highfalutin reenactment of Elizabethan drama; this passage is further undermined by the rhythmic repetition of the adverb “almost” which denies any actuality to this re-creation of Shakespeare’s play and its comic dimension is patently foregrounded by the mise-en-abyme effect (verse within a mock-play within a novel). As Her’s identity crisis increasingly manifests itself to be a crisis of language, she fancies this flight into imagination spurred on by George but his voice breaks the assuaging, “familiar” spell of Shakespeare’s language by parodying Longfellow:

George Lowndes with his throaty sursurring [sic] gone funny, George being funny, nasal intonation, being funny, […] ‘Noaaw this is the fawrest pri-meval.’ […] Almost words would work charm… but not yet. George had broken charm, chanting in harlequin nasal those words out of New England. (66-67)

19In this novel, H.D. writes Her’s encounter with the possibilities of literature and the “charm” of language, whose powers strive to achieve a literary transubstantiation between the New England forest and Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, but the male figure causes this frail verbal construction to tumble down.

Gender Authori(ali)ty

20The forest – a quintessential literary locus throughout literature – recalls many a setting of Shakespeare’s plays, chief among which are As You Like It,The Winter’s Tale and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which it is a place ruled by magic, where illusion and even apparitions can flourish (the apparition of the father in Hedylus closely resembles that of Hamlet’s ghost). Its inscription on the margins implies that the hold of societal rules is suspended and the momentary disorder it occasions allows for encounters with alterity and difference. The forest of As You Like It is a literary place (“tongues in trees,” II, 1, 16, which become “stage trees” in Hermione’s re-vision) where Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) can invite Orlando and imagine what life would be like if she were Rosalind. Shakespeare blends layers of illusory elements as his lines hinge on the conjunction “if” (“if I can,” “if I could,” “if ever I marry,” “if what pleases you,” V, 2, 104-115) much like in H.D.’s roman-à-clef, where Hermione’s tentative attempt to make her visions of Pennsylvania and the forest of Arden coincide is brought to an abrupt end by the master of words George/Pound’s quote of Longfellow in a New England drawl:

It was the forest primeval, it was not the forest of Arden. […] If at that moment, George had made it the forest of Arden, Hermione out of Shakespeare would have been again Hermione out of Shakespeare but this time Hermione from the Winter’s Tale (who later froze into a statue) would have been Rosalind with sleek, deer-limbs and a green forester’s cap with one upright darting hawk quill. Almost, Oh almost, almost this is the Forest of Arden. But not quite. (66. My emphasis)

  • 16  This is a reference to Gubar and Gilbert’s concepts of “female female impersonation” and “male mal (...)
  • 17  For a study of cross-dressing in modernist women’s writing, see Susan Gubar, “Blessings in Disguis (...)
  • 18  Shakespeare’s play reverses and derides the “boy actor” convention so that a man would play a fema (...)

21The linguistic connection to Shakespeare, through the reiterated conjunction, emphasizes the situational and verbal parallels that exist between the two writers and their exploration of the potentialities and power of words. H.D. here treads on this familiar territory to recast her heroine, Hermione out of The Winter’s Tale, as Rosalind out of As You Like It. This telescoping of female characters is particularly thought-provoking as it serves to introduce the theme of lesbian love also at stake in this novel and which the homoerotic attachments inherent in Shakespeare’s play buttress. Her’s “difference” is not clearly spelled out until later in the text, but this play on the fictions of the self and the “female female impersonation”16 are early clues to decipher the subplot. The “Elizabethan trunkhose” mentioned previously are breeches worn by men in the 16th and 17th centuries, and directly refer to As You Like It. In the play, Rosalind escapes to the forest of Arden (as H.D.’s Hermione romantically ventures into the woods with George) and she disguises herself as a man to conceal her regal identity. This early instance of cross-dressing17 is certainly made possible by the peripheral setting and serves the comic dimension of the play. It also empowers the female character who, in an authorial gesture, renames herself Ganymede and thus adopts the social position of a man in a challenge to literary and gender conventions. HERmione invokes this heritage, as do the other “romances of the late twenties and early thirties” which H.D. described as “dressed up” (“Delia Alton” 220). But it is also a thwarted flight of fancy built through language and literary references that are passed on from a male tradition but fail to coincide with herself (“Almost, almost Hermione was Hermione out of Shakespeare… but not quite.” HER 67). H.D. summons As You Like It to challenge gender conventions as well: Rosalind’s sexual ambivalence is appropriated to figure the female writer’s struggle to emerge. H.D.’s depiction of Hermione-transformed-into-Rosalind-dressed-as-Ganymede18 points in that direction; not only does she wear male clothes to disguise her gender, as her own vision of Rosalind’s appearance quoted above indicates, but H.D. introduces the “upright darting hawk quill” thus suggesting the epitome of male authorship. Hermione longs for her re-birth as a writer through the evocation of Shakespeare, but she is left struggling with uncomfortable male-defined images of women and history (such as her name, which is constantly recast):

she [the female poet] must confront precursors who are almost exclusively male, and therefore significantly different from her. [They] incarnate patriarchal authority […]. Thus the ‘anxiety of influence’ that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more primary ‘anxiety of authorship’—a radical fear that she cannot create. (Madwoman 48-49)

22H.D.’s life and career were plagued by the World War I events, which occasioned a “war trauma” and a subsequent “writing block,” as H.D. perceived the rewriting of the same “events” in her prose as a dwindling of creativity. Having experienced another breakdown during the Blitz, H.D. sought solace in her visits to Stratford-upon-Avon, from which her creative powers reemerged.

(Re)-Visiting Shakespeare: By Avon River

A Re-Membrance

23As a response to this anxiety, H.D. moves away from attempting to uncover herself in the literature of such an author as Shakespeare, to providing a palimpsest or re-vision of male myths which show the entwinement of both male and female experiences, or what she calls: “remembering Shakespeare always, but remembering him differently” (Avon 31. My emphasis). “Remembering Shakespeare Differently: H.D.’s By Avon River,” Susan Stanford Friedman’s seminal essay on this largely understudied experimental text, inscribes it within the body of H.D.’s writings in the tribute genre together with Tribute to Freud, End to Torment: a Memoir of Ezra Pound, and Hermetic Definition (on St.-John Perse). This genre can be seen as an attempt to resolve the “anxiety of authorship” identified by Gilbert and Gubar. Written in 1946, By Avon River is a two-fold avant-garde text whose structure belies its double intent: the first is a three-part meditative-narrative poem on Shakespeare entitled “Good Frend” (after the epitaph on his tomb19 visited on “Shakespeare Day” and again in August 1945); the second, called “The Guest,” is a modernist essay on Elizabethan poets and dramatists, centering on Shakespeare (“Remembering” 144). Thematically and formally, it stands as a transitional work between the two epics Trilogy (1944-46) and Helen in Egypt (1961). Susan Stanford Friedman notes that, though H.D.’s essay-tribute to the courtly love tradition is thematically closer to Dante and Spenser, her choice of Shakespeare is the result of a personal overlay of meaning which she connects to war and the origin of her modernism, in her survival and rebirth traced in writing most notably in HERmione and Asphodel. By Avon River is a reflection upon H.D.’s salutary visits to Shakespeare’s tombstone in the aftermath of World War II (her “war phobia” had led to her psychoanalysis with Freud in 1933-34, as she felt her creative powers had been crippled by her previous war experience), amid a period punctuated by breakdowns and physical illness, reminiscent of her 1919 mental collapse depicted in HERmione, and most likely triggered by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For H.D., madness is deeply connected to issues of war, as is often the case in Shakespeare’s plays20. But, as in many instances of tribute writings, remembering and honoring Shakespeare are also ways of speaking about one’s writing, as the spatial preposition in the title of H.D.’s tribute implies. Though he is unmistakably evoked by the geographical reality of “Avon,” By Avon River is not a direct study of Shakespeare. Similarly, the epitaph which opens the text ultimately serves to move past the evocation of the Bard’s death and his final “text” to focus on H.D.’s process of personal and creative rebirth.

 Inscribing “the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new” (CP 570)

24H.D.’s tribute writings typically are a means of reflecting upon one’s own writing, place and self, as well as being “textual re-visionings of authoritative men whom she revered, even loved but whom she had to remake in her own image” (Penelope 168). The poem “Good Frend,” whose first part is entitled “The Tempest, follows the conventions of the romance genre adopted by Shakespeare’s play of the same name. In H.D.’s “Tempest,” the contemporary poet pays tribute to the literary genius with flowers: “Awkwardly, tenderly, We stand with our flowers […]/ I found I knelt by Avon river” (Avon 9, 24). In the subsequent meditations, which violate the poet’s commanding epigraph not to disturb his bones, H.D.’s poetic persona dwells on the “invisible, voiceless” character of Claribel (14). Only mentioned by name in the Shakespearean text and not part of the cast of actors, the princess is solely evoked as her marriage to the King of Tunis is the original impetus for the other characters’ sea voyages across the Mediterranean and her father’s eventual shipwreck. H.D. focuses on Claribel’s untold story, which takes place before Shakespeare’s play opens. Therefore she pens a prequel to the Bard’s story, a strategy that will later be adopted by Jean Rhys’ re-visionary story of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

I had no voice

To chide the lark at dawn,

Or argue with a Jew,

Be merciful;

I had no wit

To banter with a clown,

Or claim a kingdom

Or denounce a throne;

I had no hand

To snatch a dagger

Or pluck wild-flowers,

For a crown.

I stand invisible on the water-stair. (16)

25Here, H.D. clearly employs Claribel’s voice to position Shakespeare’s underwritten character in relation to his creations (strong women characters as Rosalind, Lady Macbeth or Portia, for example, who are indirectly evoked in the lines above). The poet’s choice of the “invisible, voiceless Claribel” is closely linked to H.D.’s unfolding identity crisis, tormented as she is by her own invisibility and voicelessness as a woman in male culture. Claribel as the author’s possession, whose function is to be the King’s daughter and to become the King of Tunis’ wife, is a mirror image to the woman poet’s relation to male literary tradition, embodied by Shakespeare, whose words have (pro)creative powers:

I only threw a shadow

On his page,

Yet I was his,

He spoke my name;

He hesitated,

Raised his quill,

Which paused,

Waited a moment,

And then fell

Upon the unblotted line;

I was born,

Claribel. (15)

  • 21  S. Stanford Friedman draws an esoteric connection between H.D.’s Moravian heritage and the Renaiss (...)

26This extract, where the performativity of language is at work, strongly evokes the connection between the Biblical word and the story of Pygmalion which traverses H.D.’s prose texts as previously seen. H.D. weaves this tale with the esoteric tradition which she views as a point of intersection between Shakespeare and herself, especially in the use of flowers21. In the last section, “Claribel’s Way to God,” the character has stepped out from the pages of Shakespeare’s play – like Hermione in H.D.’s novel – and travels to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay tribute to the poet, her creator – as H.D. does in 1945. In a typically palimpsestic vision of history, H.D. orchestrates a space-time collision, superimposing passages from Shakespeare’s play and the source-texts he used, liberating his muted character by giving Claribel a voice to tell her story (something H.D. will take up again in Helen in Egypt) and enabling her to bridge the gap between the Elizabethan poet and the modernist writer visiting his grave.

27Rachel Blau DuPlessis identifies an “early revisionary impulse” in H.D.’s early work, such as “Eurydice” or Hedylus, which she sees as preliminary sketches paving the way for such frescoes of the later period (DuPlessis 84). The essay section focuses on Shakespeare’s historical life in a widely contrasting narrative voice, that of the literary scholar. It also foregrounds his androgynous dimension by expanding Virginia Woolf’s creation of Shakespeare’s sister, Judith, which H.D.’s creative essay fancies as his daughter. She is the one who inherits the poet’s genius since her twin brother Hamnet has died, and through this filial bond and the androgyny of the all-encompassing twin Judith, the poet is reborn a “father-muse” (“Remembering” 157) as the text offers an alternative to the patrilineal system. H.D. refashions him as “Gentle Shakespeare” (Avon 46), thus distinguishing him from the other Elizabethan poets. It is his “difference” that, at the end of the narrative, enables her to link him to the female modernist poet. While the persona’s gift of flower opened the text, the establishment of this close bond ends the narrative and connects its two voices.

28H.D. thus presents herself both as reader and writer of Shakespeare. Her continuous dialogue with the Elizabethan poet and playwright, whom she re-members in her writings, leads to renewed literary production, or as Adrienne Rich – who has significantly been influenced by H.D.’s writing – explains in an interview: “what I’m searching for always is a way of staying linked to the past, pulling out of it whatever you can use, and continuing to move on” (270). H.D.’s prose texts entertain a close connection to Shakespeare’s plays which underwrite her writings in many ways. Be they in the guise of characters’ names, allusions or direct references to settings and quotations, Shakespeare’s hauntingly familiar names and words are to be found throughout H.D.’s autobiographical prose in relation to family, history and identity. H.D. excavates Shakespeare and his plays to reinscribe them in a new body of work – a strategy which enables her to engage with the male literary tradition and re-vise it. In “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich further defines literary re-vision as

the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. […] the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, […] we can begin to see and name—and therefore live—afresh. (167)

29By reappropriating this “very act of naming,” and producing her own family romances, H.D. claims this power and establishes a familial rather than adversarial relation to her literary past which allows her to write with tradition and not against it, in her incremental vision of history best embodied by the palimpsest. This fragmentary form, which H.D. revered and which permeates all of her writing, prose and poetry alike, creates a dialectics of the (in)visible and (il)legible, initiating a play on the absent/present author and text, since, as Shari Benstock has argued, the earlier texts’ remnants are to be “read through” the contemporary writing with which they coexist (Benstock 351).

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Primary Sources

DOOLITTLE, Hilda (H.D.). Asphodel [1921-22]. Ed. Robert Spoo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992.

- - -. By Avon River. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

- - -. Collected Poems 1912-1944, with an introduction by Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1983.

- - -. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979.

- - -. Hedylus [1928]. Manchester: Carcanet, 1980.

- - -. HERmione [1926-27]. New York: New Directions, 1981.

- - -. Paint It Today [1921]. Edited and with an Introduction by Cassandra Laity. NY and London: NYU Press, 1992.

- - -. Tribute to Freud, with an introduction by Norman Holmes Pearson. New York: New Directions, 1984.

- - -. “H.D. by Delia Alton.” The Iowa Review: H.D. Centennial Issue, vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1986, 181-221.

Secondary Sources

BENSTOCK, Shari. Women of the Left Bank. Paris, 1900-1940, 2nd edition. London: Virago, 1987.

DUPLESSIS, Rachel Blau. H.D. The Career of That Struggle. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986.

ELIOT, T. S. Selected Essays 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” [1917], 3-11.

- - - .“Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” [1927], 107-120.

- - -. “Hamlet and His Problems” [1919], 121-126.

GILBERT, Sandra M., and GUBAR Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, 2nd edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

- - -. No Man’s Land, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1989, 1991, 1996.

GUBAR, Susan. “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 1981), 477-508.

KRISTEVA, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, transl. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

LAITY, Cassandra. “H.D. and A.C. Swinburne: Decadence and Modernist Women’s Writing,” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, No. 3, Feminist Reinterpretations/Reinterpretations of Feminism (Autumn, 1989), 461-484.

NOVY, Marianne ed. Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare. On the Responses of Dickinson, Woolf, Rich, H.D., George Eliot, and Others. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

RICH, Adrienne. Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. New York and London: Norton Critical Edition, 1993.

SHAKESPEARE, William. The Complete Works. General Editors Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. London: Penguin Books, Pelican Text, 2002.

STANFORD FRIEDMAN, Susan. Psyche Reborn, The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, Midland Books, 1987.

- - -. Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.’s Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

- - -. “Remembering Shakespeare Differently: H.D.’s By Avon River,” in Marianne Novy, ed. Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare. On the Responses of Dickinson, Woolf, Rich, H.D., George Eliot, and Others. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1990, 143-164.

YEATS, W.B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. London: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2000.

- - -. “At Stratford-on-Avon,” Ideas of Good and Evil [1903]. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007, 142-167.

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1  Yeats, W.B., “Three Movements” [1933], The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (2000), 203. H.D. deploys a similar “stream” metaphor in Paint It Today to refer to literary history: “I drift with the stream, […] made up of the early visions of all the poets we read when we were sixteen, whom we outgrew when we were twenty and whom we find again now in our peaceful thirties,” in Paint It Today [1921] (1992), 69. H.D. felt a strong connection to Yeats’ poetry, which bridged the “Victorian” past and “modern heritage” as she adumbrated in her posthumously published 1916 review of Yeats’ Responsibilities, and the title of H.D.’s book-length tribute (discussed in the final section of this paper) bears a strong resemblance to Yeats’ essay “At Stratford-on-Avon,” Ideas of Good and Evil, [1903] (2007), 142-167).

2  The term “prose writings” here aims to encompass the broad scope of H.D.’s texts in which the immensely complex interplay between memoir and fiction is at stake. These texts, imbued with autobiographical material, blur the standard delineations between such genres as the fictionalized autobiography, memoirs, tributes, and the novel and its subgenres.

3  Interestingly enough, Robert Duncan would undertakea similar kind of tribute to H.D., in the unpublished manuscript, TheH.D. Book (Poetry and Rare Books Collectionof theSUNY Buffalo Library).

4  It is both the subject of her novel Palimpsest, with its telescoping space-time shifts, and an essential element of Eliot’s essay “Hamlet,” which foregrounds the contemporary critical studies of the play: “Hamlet is a stratification, […] it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors.” (122). Such a remark implies that any literary production is palimpsestic, a practice also to be ascribed to Shakespeare’s use of source-texts.

5  H.D. often used the term “novel” to allude to her personal experiences and her repeated attempts to record them in book form, thereby insisting on their interconnectedness. See Advent (Tribute esp.153).

6  H.D.’s mother, Helen Doolittle, died the year HERmione was completed. The quotation is from “Pandora’s Box,” foreword to HERmione, written by H.D.’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner.

7  Gertrude Stein, also highly concerned with names and naming puts on a similar narratorial mask in The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas (1933).

8  It is interesting to note that Shakespeare adopted a similar discursive strategy: with the forest of Arden, he superimposes topographical realities in Warwickshire and France, making it everywhere and nowhere. He also interlocks the personal and literary, since Arden was Shakespeare’s mother’s maiden name.

9  H.D.’s quotational style is frequently loose. Whether this is intentional or not is unclear, but it does point to a reappropriation of the initial words.

10  This is Pound’s early nickname for H.D.

11  The shuttling between subject and object evokes Julia Kristeva’s opening pages of The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection: “[…] what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses” (1982 1-2). Kristeva’s emphasis.

12  See Susan Stanford Friedman’s close study of the various pen names H.D. started using during this period: “Names: Noms de Plume, Noms de Guerre, Noms de Paix,” Penelope 35-46.

13  There is evidence that H.D. was using her initials to sign her correspondence, to William Carlos Williams for instance, before Pound’s intervention.

14  A popular genre in the 1920s: Frances Gregg and her husband Louis Wilkinson’s The Buffoon (1916), Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1922) for instance. H.D.’s novels, written at the same time, were kept private (she wished to destroy copies of Asphodel after the completion of Bid Me to Live, which she considered a more satisfactory version of the same events), until her death. Most critics agree that this is due to the highly personal and controversial dimension of these writings.

15  A.C. Swinburne is also extraordinarily preeminent in H.D.’s prose. See Cassandra Laity, “H.D. and A.C. Swinburne: Decadence and Modernist Women’s Writing,” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, No. 3, Feminist Reinterpretations/Reinterpretations of Feminism (Autumn, 1989), 461-484. However, a study devoted to uncovering the hypertextual links between Swinburne and Shakespeare in H.D.’s writing (quotations with the same vocables seem to bounce off one another, “winter”/“swallow”/“lilies”…) has yet to be undertaken.

16  This is a reference to Gubar and Gilbert’s concepts of “female female impersonation” and “male male impersonation” found in the rise of gender masquerades and revisions of family romances in the 20th century to respond to the demise of a stable definition of the “feminine,” see No Man’s Land, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, vol. 3: Letters from the Front (1996).

17  For a study of cross-dressing in modernist women’s writing, see Susan Gubar, “Blessings in Disguise: Cross-Dressing as Re-Dressing for Female Modernists,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn, 1981), 477-508.

18  Shakespeare’s play reverses and derides the “boy actor” convention so that a man would play a female character disguised as a man. H.D. further turns this convention around by remembering a Bryn Mawr female classmate interpreting the part of “Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream. […] That was the trouble with Bryn Mawr. Your dean tried to make English gentlemen of her girls” (HER 231).

19  Shakespeare’s tombstone may be viewed at :

20  For instance, in Hamlet, the ghost appears at the opening of the play “clad in complete armour” (I, 1, 38-39)

21  S. Stanford Friedman draws an esoteric connection between H.D.’s Moravian heritage and the Renaissance by interpreting the rosemary as the mystic Ros Maris(“Remembering” 151). Roses, and flowers in general, are another common denominator between H.D. (Red Roses for Bronze, 1931, for instance) and Shakespeare.

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Claire Conilleau, « “What’s in a Name?”: H.D.’s Re-Vision of Shakespeare »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 27 septembre 2010, consulté le 01 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Conilleau

Université Paris-Est Créteil

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