Imagery and Hilda Doolittle
My Key to HD: Imagery
Hilda Doolittle, publishing as H.D., was famously known as a poet of the “imagist movement” – an early 20th century literary movement championed by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell that focused on “the power of an image to arrest attention and convey emotion.” (Loeffelholz 1514). This poetry did not use traditional rhetorical devices like metrical beat or rhyme and avoided abstraction. H.D.’s 1916 poem, Mid-day, uses brilliant imagery along with repetition, metaphor, alliteration and onomatopoeia to show readers that too much of a good thing is a destructive rather than a creative force, and that the natural world is not always a healing balm for those in psychological pain, who may recognize their own demise in destructive natural forces.
The title and the first stanza immediately reveal the theme of natural destruction metaphorically entwined with the emotional anguish of the speaker. The title of the poem, “Mid-day,” has explanatory power because a mid-day sun radiates high levels of ultraviolet light that can burn skin and shrivel plants. Although the poem opens with “The light beats upon me”(1), the title provides the only clue in the poem that the light is coming from the sun, and the only explanation of how light, normally a positive force, could aggressively “beat upon” the speaker. In line two, “I am startled – “(2), the short line and the ending dash convey the speaker’s hesitancy and discomfort. It is as if the speaker is lost in other thoughts and suddenly becomes aware that she is, in fact, in a battle with the light. The third line repeats the hesitant ending dash and introduces some of the sound effects and imagery H.D. will use throughout the rest of the poem. H.D. uses the imagery of the “leaf” in this line, a natural motif she repeats later with “seed-pod,” “seeds,” “grass,” “grape,” “mint,” and “poplar.” The leaf is “split”– a loss of wholeness caused by the hot sun, who will later similarly weaken or destroy many of the other natural elements in the poem. H.D. uses onomatopoeia to convey the crunchy sound of leaves with the use of the hard c and k sounds in “crackles” (3) and later “crackled.” (17) She repeatedly uses other words with hard c or k consonants in this poem to convey a dry, crunchy, auditory experience that matches the visual image. Examples of these words are “shakes,” “black,” “scattered” (used twice), “blackened,” “stalks,” “crevices,” and “rocks.” As she ends line 3 with “on the paved floor – ” she gives the reader a visual image of a path strewn with rocks or leaves, an image she will repeat in the closing stanza, and she uses the abrupt ending dash again to reinforce the speaker’s confusion. As the stanza closes the speaker progresses from being “startled” to being “anguished” and “defeated” (4). The “anguished” term could signify either physical or mental anguish, and in this first stanza is ambiguous, but the “defeated” term is clear – the speaker cannot win the battle, and she knows it. At the close of the first stanza, H.D. has established the natural motifs and sound devices she will use and given the reader images she will build on as the poem progresses to demonstrate the psychological barrenness of the speaker as reflected in the physical landscape.
In the second stanza, a second natural actor, the wind, is introduced, and the speaker clearly indicates that the trauma she suffers is psychological rather than physical. In the line “A slight wind shakes the seed-pods-“ H.D. introduces the wind as a natural force, curiously choosing a “slight” wind, which as the stanza progresses will prove meaningful. In the lines “my thoughts are spent/as the black seeds” (6-7) the simile compares thoughts with seeds, both of which can contain creative power, but which have been robbed of their positive, life-giving force and rendered barren. The speaker’s thoughts take on destructive power of their own as the stanza progresses; no longer are they simply “spent” but now, “My thoughts tear me, /I dread their fever.” (8-9). As for the “slight wind,” the speaker states “I am scattered in its whirl./I am scattered like/the hot shriveled seeds.” (10-12) The wind is only slight, and yet the state of the speaker is so fragile, like a weak stem, that it is enough to scatter her. The stanza is very speaker-centric, as three lines of the eight begin with “I” and two with “my.” It is the psyche of the speaker that has the power to “tear” her, and the parallels with the shriveled natural objects are now drawn as comparisons. In this stanza, the poem clearly introduces the idea that seeds can be full of life, like the imaginative power of human beings, and that both can be destroyed by too much of something ordinarily useful. In the case of seeds, light is needed for germination to occur, but a searing mid-day sun can destroy the seed. In the case of the speaker, thoughts that can become ideas and poetry and other beautiful expressions of life can turn malignant and “fevered”. H.D. isn’t clear in this poem about the cause, but the metaphor of “too much light” could possibly mean too much public scrutiny or fame, as a spotlight shining too brightly overhead (this poem can be enjoyed not only because of the clear images, but also because interpretations like this one are left to the reader). The reader continues enjoying the auditory experience of the crunchy alliterated “k” sounds in “shakes,” “black,” “like” and “scattered” (twice); and the sizzling “s” alliteration of “slight,” “shakes,” “seed-pods,” “spent,” “seeds “scattered” (twice) and “shriveled seeds.”
While in stanza two the focus is primarily on the speaker, in stanza three the poem returns to the natural world for more images of destruction, along with a new, contrasting image of life, strength and hope. H.D. uses repetition to reinforce the images introduced in earlier stanzas. “The shriveled seeds/are split on the path – “(13-14) reintroduces the “shriveled seeds” that were the closing image of stanza two and then circles back to the “split” image from stanza one, with slight variations. In the first stanza, it was a split leaf, and in this stanza it is split seeds. In the first stanza, the leaves were “on the paved floor” and in this stanza the seeds are “on the path.” The “grass bends with dust” (15) and “the grape slips/under its crackled leaf” (16-17) repeat the image of a natural object losing potency and falling closer to the ground. The stanza anticipates a transition in “yet far beyond the spent-seed-pods/and the blackened stalks of mint,” (18-19) and then makes the transition in “the poplar is bright on the hill,” (20). The poplar continues to be presented with positive images in the rest of stanza three, unlike the negative images of other natural objects used throughout the rest of the poem. The poplar “spreads out,/deep-rooted among trees.” (21-22). The only impact of the mid-day sun is to make the tree radiate light and become “bright”. The deep roots allow the tree to enjoy moisture from far below the earth. The tree “spreads out” rather than shrinking and shriveling and falling close to the earth. In this stanza, a natural object that survives the mid-day sun and adapts is flourishing. The reader is given some hope that the creative force remains alive in the world, and that all is not lost. H.D. continues the alliterated “s” sounds in this stanza with “shriveled seeds,” “split,” “slips,” “spent seed-pods,” “stalks,” and “spreads” and she alliterates the “p” in “path,” “ poplar” (twice), and “pod.” The hushed “s” sounds and the popping “p” provide auditory contrast and repetition, along with the “k” consonants in “crackled,” “blackened,” and “stalks” that convey the crunchy texture of a dried out landscape.
In stanza four, H.D. continues the worshipful tone towards the poplar tree. “O poplar, you are great/among the hill-stones” (23-24). The image of the tree in H.D.’s language is elevated and majestic, as contrasted with the wilted, shriveled grass, grapes, seeds, and leaves lying on the path some distance away. The last two lines in the final stanza return to the speaker, who has taken notice of the survivor of the natural landscape, but knows she lacks the qualities of this magnificent poplar tree and will not survive herself: “while I perish on the path/among the crevices of the rocks.” (25-26). In this stanza, the reader imagines a dying speaker lying among rocks in the hot mid-day sun, yet knows the speaker is using the natural world to describe her psychological anguish and the death of her creative power. Something like a mid-day sun in the speaker’s life has been excessive, turned destructive, and acted on her fragility. She has internalized this destructive force (“My thoughts tear me” (8)) and now she cannot escape by sitting in the shade or under an umbrella.
H.D. uses visual images, onomatopoeia, alliteration, and repetition to create a poem that stimulates the senses and encourages interpretation. The form of H.D.’s Mid-day is varied in the imagist style, with a four line stanza followed by an eight line stanza, a ten-line stanza, and finally another four line stanza. The first stanza introduces the images and sound devices that will continue to be layered on and repeated throughout the poem. In the second stanza, the speaker clearly indicates that the trauma she suffers is psychological rather than physical. In stanza three the poem returns to the natural world for more images of destruction, along with a new, contrasting image, the strong, majestic poplar tree.
In stanza four, H.D. contrasts the image of the tree on the hill with the perishing speaker lying on the path. Instead of finding solace in the natural world for the wounds of her psyche, as many people do, the speaker sees a reflection in the landscape of her own internal agonies.
Doolittle, Hilda. “Mid-day”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D. Ed. Mary Loeffelholz. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1916. 1515-1516. Print.
Loeffelholz, Mary, Ed. “H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume D. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 2007. 1514-1515. Print.