H.D.’s Helen in Egypt: Myth, Symbol, and Subjectivity

Collected Poems

Collected Poems 1912-1944
EDITED BY Louis L. Martz
(New Directions, 1986)

Hippolytus Temporizes Ion

Hippolytus Temporizes Ion
(New Directions, 2003)

H.D. Selected Poems

H.D. Selected Poems
EDITED BY Louis L. Martz
(New Directions, 1988)

Read & Listen

“As if God made the picture
and matched it with a living hieroglyph…”

— H.D.

Although largely remembered as a poet, Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) wrote in the diverse genres of memoir, Imagist poetry, translations of classical Greek drama, and autobiographical novels, a fact that reflects her fascination with personal history and the classical world. Likewise, as Doolittle wrote across these mediums, she continually revisited Greco-Roman myth as a framework within which autobiographical experience can be presented and explored in a larger literary and historical context. Such works as Heliodora and Other Poems (1924), Ion (1937), and Kora and Ka (1930), while written in the form of verse, dramatic translation, and prose, respectively, exemplify Doolittle’s recurring impulse to conflate myth with autobiography, contemporary with ancient, and personal narrative with society as a whole throughout history. In conveying these ideas to the reader, Doolittle frequently blends the literary strategies of fiction and memoir, while in other works combining the concrete language of Imagist poetry with the epic, the lyric, and other verse forms.

Although portraying her sessions with Freud in a positive light, Doolittle perceived psychoanalysis as being an ideology rooted in many of the same assumptions about masculinity that render war such a destructive cultural mechanism.

Approached with Doolittle’s previous work in mind, Helen in Egypt, published near the end of her life in 1961, reads as a culmination of the themes of myth, autobiography, and history that dominated much of her literary career, and her various literary styles. Described by critic Harold Bloom as “a culmination of a life in poetry,” and also by feminist scholar Helen Sword as one of the “masterpieces of her career,” this epic work is described throughout secondary literature about the author in terms of Doolittle’s lifelong revisions of her own literary technique. Based upon an alternative version of the story of Helen of Troy that is derived from the texts of Euripides and Stesichorus of Sicily, in which the heroine is conveyed by the gods to Egypt at the onset of the Trojan War, H.D.’s late epic poem takes the form of verse that also draws heavily from the Imagist tradition of her early career, and is prefaced by the fictionalized prose of her mid-career writings. As in other works, this mythic structure becomes a framework for Doolittle to explore autobiographical experience, namely that of undergoing psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. In doing so, H.D. presents Helen as entering a period of introspection similar to what one would experience in sessions with a psychoanalyst, whereby she considers her role in the masculine culture of warfare, much like Doolittle did after the First World War. For both Helen and the author, such introspection offered resolution of these traumatic memories while presenting new problems. Although portraying her sessions with Freud in a positive light, Doolittle perceived psychoanalysis as being an ideology rooted in many of the same assumptions about masculinity that render war such a destructive cultural mechanism. As in many of her earlier works, Doolittle uses myth throughout Helen in Egypt to offer a transhistorical view of these gender politics, comparing Helen’s ancient cultural context, her own contemporary one, and the time that has elapsed between the two.

In addressing these cultural assumptions about gender, the book often focuses on two competing aspects of the psychoanalytic process, which, for Doolittle, encapsulated this tension between personal revelation and the dangers of ideology. Frequently contrasting the realm of dream, symbol, and the subconscious that are accessed as a result of psychoanalysis with the secondary language of their interpretation, Doolittle continually searches for a way to negotiate them. Just as in many of her personal writings, she depicts some aspects of psychoanalysis as revelatory and others as being rooted in male ideology. Indeed, Helen maintains a shifting relationship to both the symbols of the subconscious and their secondary interpretation, exploring the myths of her own life and the ways they have been be construed. Often using objective images to evoke these subjective concepts, these themes are frequently mirrored in and complicated by the poetic style of these writings. Throughout the psychoanalytic texts that Doolittle worked from during her sessions with Freud, the objective image was understood as a sublimation of emotions and psychological conflicts into a concrete thing, which evokes ideas much larger than itself. Freud describes this type of image as a “visible, plastic symbol” in The Interpretation of Dreams, suggesting both its concreteness and its generative nature. And, as psychoanalyst Joseph Newirth argues, within the context of Freudian theory, these highly evocative images should be interpreted through “a process of translation,” in which the primary language of the concrete thing can be understood through the “secondary process,” and hence subjective language, of analysis.

Although previous scholarship has addressed efforts within H.D.’s own life to reconcile images with their interpretation, as well as her revisionist approach to Freud and her use of autobiography to convey these criticisms, few authors have focused how Doolittle’s stylistic decisions convey this tension between symbol and interpretation. When approached through close readings of individual poems, H.D.’s explorations of symbol and interpretation Helen in Egypt can still be read as a feminist revision of Freud as well as a re-envisioning of modernist autobiographical conventions, though one also observes that stylistic aspects of Doolittle’s work illuminate the several established scholarly interpretations of this theme within the book. This essay will focus on a single motif within the book-length poem, that of the Egyptian hieroglyph, which continually serves as a metaphor for the conflict between the languages of symbol and interpretation within the text. Although Doolittle conveys this tension descriptively, the strophes of Helen in Egypt also use the imagist style of H.D.’s early career to mirror and complicate Helen’s efforts to negotiate objective with subjective. Style and form, for H.D., encompassed poetic technique as well as the literary traditions from which she drew such strategies, and will be defined in this way throughout this analysis. Such a reading of the hieroglyph motif within Helen in Egypt reveals a constant struggle between symbol and interpretation as being omnipresent within the style, imagery, and plot of the poem sequence. Through these stylistic and thematic decisions, Doolittle continually privileges an unmediated experience of myth, symbol, and the sub-conscious as ends in and of themselves. By doing so, H.D. and her autobiographical counterpart present themselves in the role of both patient and analysand, an egalitarian claim rather than a presumptuous one.

Psychoanalysis as a Cultural Phenomenon

Sigmund Freud, c. 1905
BY Ludwig Grillich

In the years before Doolittle became a patient of Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis remained increasingly popularized in America and Europe, and, as a result, she began engaging with such ideas long before her sessions with The Professor. As Mariano Ben Plotkin argues in her book Freud in the Pampas, psychoanalysis had captured the collective imagination of the 1910s and 1920s, and new publications often presented analysis as an empirical science that could be applied and tailored to the individual psyche. She writes, for instance, that “…psychoanalysis found a place in the popular imagination at the convergence of a more open discourse on sexuality with new ‘scientific’ forms of knowledge. Psychoanalysis could be introduced as one of the new technologies available for the modernization of social mores, a modern version of hypnotism… and at the same time, a new instrument to deal with traditional but highly popular themes, such as the mysteries and interpretation of dreams.” Plotkin suggests that although Freudian theory often appeared in the guise of scientific knowledge, mass culture popularized the act of revising and defining its ideas on one’s own terms. Additionally, many of the intellectuals in H.D.’s circle of friends, namely Frances Gregg and Bryher, read voraciously from these newly popularized texts, allowing her to take part in a dialogue among her peers about the personal significance of psychoanalytic ideas before becoming an analysand. As Susan Stanford Friedman argues in her landmark study Psyche Reborn, these exchanges encouraged Doolittle to continually revise and apply ideas from Freud, Jung, and articles published in such periodicals as The Psychoanalytic Journal, to which Bryher subscribed. Friedman describes these discussions: “By the late twenties, H.D. could hardly have escaped almost daily involvement with psychoanalysis; Bryher’s enthusiasm was leading her to plan a future as an analyst, and the two women were attending many lectures on psychoanalysis in Berlin.” As Stanford suggests, psychoanalytic philosophy became integral to H.D.’s daily life, and, in the process, Doolittle continually considered the significance that such theories held for her.

Doolittle approached her sessions with Sigmund Freud with a conception of psychoanalysis which, in some respects, diverged from the dominant view… she frequently conflated them with the mystical worldviews of the ancient texts with which she also engaged.

While certainly influenced by this cultural idea of psychoanalysis as a science to be applied to the individual psyche, Doolittle approached her sessions with Sigmund Freud with a conception of psychoanalysis which, in some respects, diverged from the dominant view of her time. Although mass culture of the 1910s and 1920s emphasized the scientific innovation inherent in Freud’s theories, she frequently conflated them with the mystical worldviews of the ancient texts with which she also engaged. Described by biographer Barbara Guest as “her various brews of Egyptology, Hellenic studies, tarot, astrology, numerology, and psychoanalysis,” this eclectic personal philosophy remained, in some ways, a product of the relativist approach to psychoanalytic theory that remained popularized in her time. As a result, however, she conceived of much of Freud’s revolutionary philosophy in unconventional ways, and the popular definition of psychoanalysis at the time allowed for such variation.

Although conflated with classical and mystical ideas, Doolittle’s personal vision of psychoanalysis remained inextricable from her background as a poet and novelist. As she herself writes in a letter she sent to Havelock Ellis after being accepted as a pupil of Sigmund Freud, she sought help from The Professor after a series of unfulfilling encounters with less well-known analysts in order to “come to enough balance and greatness and stability” to produce a great work of art. Having suffered a personal breakdown after the trauma of losing several family members and friends to World War I, she found herself unable to produce new literary work that she perceived as significant. She felt that this standstill remained a product of her having been shaken by the tragedies of her generation, a problem that could be solved by regaining her emotional balance. She states, for example, in this 1932 letter that, “I do not so far, consider my work at all… anything. Here and there, yes, a peak, an ice-flower. But if I can manage to straighten this out, to gain strength and power, it will be partly in order to return, in some literary form, the debt I owe the few…” For Doolittle, understanding oneself remained crucial to gaining insight about one’s surroundings and conveying them to readers. Approached within the context of her emotional state, this search for personal strength in order to create art speaks to her perceived loss of voice and agency long after the war’s end. As Jill Scott writes in Electra After Freud, “Like others of her generation, H.D. felt silenced by the breakdown of personal and public values in the wake of World War I and responded to these traumatic events with a quest for a new aestheticism based on the intoxicating beauty of a Greek statue.” For H.D., the personal and the artistic remained inseparable, even more so at the time that she initially began her engagement with psychoanalytic texts.

Tribute to Freud

Tribute to Freud
(New Directions, 2009)

Doolittle approached her sessions with Freud from a literary perspective, which privileged multiple readings of the psyche, as one would read, interpret, and reinterpret a text. Diverging from the dominant cultural view in this respect, which favored a single, definitive answer produced by modern science, she elaborates upon this literary approach to psychoanalysis in her memoir of her sessions with The Professor, entitled Tribute To Freud, which she published shortly before Helen in Egypt in 1956. In this work, she writes that “My imagination wandered at will; my dreams were revealing and many of them drew on classical or Biblical symbolism…. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often found to be part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory, therefore to belong together; these were sometimes skillfully pieced together like the exquisite Greek tear-jars…” In other words, she presents the mind as being inseparable from the literary and cultural texts that inhabit it, and, in this sense, becomes a text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in and of itself. Throughout this passage, as in many others in the book, she depicts recurring themes, symbols, and motifs as emerging within the text of the psyche, much like those that would surface in a literary text after careful examination and consideration.

…she presents the mind as being inseparable from the literary and cultural texts that inhabit it, and, in this sense, becomes a text
to be interpreted…

Additionally, throughout Helen in Egypt, as well as early texts like Tribute to Freud, Doolittle uses images to mirror the process of psychoanalysis in a literary way, allowing the reader to experience the challenges of “translating” objective images. Just as her epic poem conveys its claims about symbol and interpretation in psychoanalysis in a stylistic manner, the trajectory of Tribute to Freud progresses through connections between memories and the concrete things that inhabit the narrative. This use of associative logic suggests that, for Doolittle, the literary image remains an effective way to illuminate the text of the psyche. She writes in the memoir that “I wish to recall the impressions, or rather I wish the impressions to recall me. Let the impressions come in their own way, make their own sequence.” As in Helen in Egypt, she suggests an affinity between the written word and the remembered image, in which memories function in much the same way as artistic interpretations. Furthermore, she invokes images to complicate and illuminate other images, a technique that she confines to neither text or psyche.

One observes that in much of Doolittle’s work, reciprocity exists between the remembered or experienced image and the written one. As Claire S. Buck observes in her study H.D. and Freud, “H.D.’s poetic use of the image frequently became a form of self-exploration.” This literary vision of psychoanalysis permeates the text of Helen in Egypt, and allows for a multifaceted definition of both image and interpretation throughout it. The hieroglyph motif that she establishes early in the book encapsulates her complex, constantly shifting idea of what constitutes a symbol and the ways individuals find significance in them. Throughout the work, these definitions grow increasingly complex, just as the hieroglyphs themselves become increasingly fraught with possible interpretations for the reader.

The Hieroglyph as an Imagist Poem in “Pallinode”

Helen in Egypt

Helen in Egypt
(New Directions, 1974)

In the first book of Helen in Egypt, which is named “Pallinode” after classical defenses and apologies that often depicted Helen of Troy, Doolittle establishes several different, but often complimentary, functions for the hieroglyph motif. Because the hieroglyphs operate as symbols, in which layers of meaning are superimposed upon one another, they serve as a metaphor for the works themselves, as imagist poems function in a similar manner. Biographer Janice Robinson argues, “The poem, like the hieroglyph, presents an image that is larger than life.” Pairing such concrete and imagistic poems with interpretive prose sections, the individual works within Helen in Egypt often explore the relationship between subjective and objective through this formal decision. By juxtaposing the immediacy of the image with the secondary language of its interpretation, Doolittle suggests difficulty of attaining a complete “translation” of an objective image. Moreover, she uses the hybrid form of the poem to convey not only the problems of comprehensive interpretation, but also to offer the possibility of ongoing reinterpretation to the reader. The strophes at times attempt to explain phenomena, but one finds these interpretations constantly problematized by the expansive nature of the poetic images these explications evoke. As the individual works progress, their hybrid form allows them to open into increasingly complex networks of images and possible readings, rather than attempting to reduce the image to a single definitive “translation.”

This use of objective images to complicate subjective interpretations remains especially apparent in Doolittle’s sequencing of the prose and verse sections. By offering an explanation and then problematizing it with a host of concrete images, she allows the form of the poem to create an open question for the reader, rather than an exhaustive explanation. In this respect, the poems, like the strange Egyptian friezes Helen encounters, function in a generative fashion. As Elizabeth Caroline Dodd writes in The Veiled Mirror and the Woman Poet, this emphasis on the evocative image or symbol remains a vestige of Romantic poetic technique, which Modernist poets like Doolittle then revised, often to comment on cultural phenomena like psychoanalysis. Additionally, while at times privileging this type of evocative image over one’s attempt to explain it, Doolittle perceived the two forms of discourse as being more complex than merely a set of binary opposites. H.D. rarely posits “subjective” and “objective” as dichotomous, but rather as vastly different modes of expression, which prove at turns oppositional and complimentary. Throughout the strophes of Helen in Egypt, Doolittle often uses the two forms of discourse to illuminate and comment on one another, at times suggesting reciprocity. In the strophes of “Pallinode,” subjective explanation is used both to convey and to celebrate the multiplicity of meanings that can be taken from a single poetic image.

By juxtaposing the immediacy of the image with the secondary language of its interpretation, Doolittle suggests difficulty of attaining a complete “translation” of an objective image.

Such techniques are exemplified by the seventh poem of the first book of “Pallinode,” which essentially introduces the hieroglyph motif to the text. In this piece, Doolittle uses the hieroglyph as an extended metaphor for the creative process, which, for Helen, involves concentrating a host of subjective ideas into a concrete image. The prose section essentially offers a narrative account of Helen’s first reading of a hieroglyph, which, although filled with concrete images, explains their function to the reader. A “night-bird” that “swooped” toward Helen on the shores of Egypt, for instance, serves to interrupt the heroine’s reverie on the beach with a companion. She writes, for instance, in describing the bird’s flight, “In any case, a night-bird swooped toward them, in their first encounter on the beach.” Within the verse section of the poem, however, the bird acquires a host of subjective interpretations not present in the prose passage. H.D. uses the inherent complexity of the poetic image to offer other possibilities, writing, “I said there is mystery in this place, / I am instructed, I know the script, / the shape of this bird is letter…” She then suggests an affinity between the “time-less” and “ancient” hieroglyphs and the image of the bird itself. Likewise, just as the “night-bird” becomes both “carrion creature” and “a letter” to be interpreted within the context of the poem, H.D. suggests a similarity between the generative quality of the ancient Egyptian friezes and the concrete style of her poems. This multiplicity of interpretations associated with the image, as with Helen’s hieroglyphs, offers possible readings and interpretations long after the secondary language of analysis has reached its expressive capacity.

Likewise, throughout the early poems of “Pallinode,” Doolittle continues to use poetic imagery, along with its myriad possible interpretations, to complicate these explanatory prose sections. In this sense, the poems, on the whole, function much like hieroglyphs. In a later piece in Helen in Egypt, she presents an image, that of the shell, as a loci for infinite possible interpretations within both Helen’s life and the poem, stating in the prose section, “the infinite is reduced to a finite image.” As Doolittle transitions to verse, such poems continually function in a similar fashion as the hieroglyphs that Helen encounters, ultimately illustrating this notion of the infinite being contained within an object. H.D. writes in describing Helen delving into possible meanings that the shell holds for her, “O the tomb, delicate sea-shell, / rock-cut but frail, / the thousand, thousand Greeks // fallen before the walls, / were as one soul, one pearl…” As foreshadowed in the prose passage, the poem itself remains riddled with possible interpretations, which derive from the emotionally fraught context in which the image of the shell is presented to the reader. H.D. conflates the historical in which the object appears, in which the “thousand Greeks” had “fallen before the walls” with the personal significance that the shell holds for Helen. Thus the image of the shell, like that of the “night-bird” in the previous piece, serves a generative function, offering possibilities for the reader not present in the prose paragraph.

H.D. and the Image

H.D. and the Image
BY Rachel Connor
(Manchester University Press, 2005)

In establishing this reading of the hieroglyph motif, the poet draws from the imagist tradition of her early career, namely as she imbues concrete images with many conflicting possible readings, which derive not from the image itself but from its surrounding context in the poem. Differing from the Symbolist tradition in this respect, her tendency to use images to illuminate and complicate other images also was characteristic of early twentieth century modernist writers, such as as Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore. Described by Susan McCabe in her book Cinematic Modernism as being “implicitly a reaction to the ‘vague’ excesses and emotions of Decadent” poetry, this new aesthetic resembled emergent film technologies in its use of images to evoke an emotional response from the spectator or reader, largely as a result of the context in which the image appears. Likewise, as critic Rachel Connor suggests in her book H.D. and the Image, this aspect of early modernist writing continued to remain an integral part of her writing as she diverged from the Imagist tradition in the strict sense, experimenting with long poems, novels, and memoir. Connor quotes H.D. on the role of the poetic image in her work, “For what is crystal or any gem but the concentrated essence of the rough matrix, of the energy, either of over-intense heat or over-intense cold that projects it. The poem as a whole… contains that essence or that symbol, symbol of concentration and of… energy.” Connor presents the poetic images as being a locus for the recurring themes and emotional undertones of in H.D.’s work, an idea that emerged during the Imagist period and proved highly influential throughout her career.

Just as Helen presents the poetic image within Helen in Egypt as acquiring multiple and often contradictory significances from the reader, Doolittle’s early poems imbue tangible things with more figurative possible interpretations.

The descriptions of hieroglyphic images in the seventh poem of the first book of “Pallinode” remain comparable to the poetic images in works like “Sea Rose” and “Sea Iris” from H.D.’s first volume of Imagist poetry, Sea Garden, which she published in 1916. In early works like these, Doolittle tends to imbue concrete images, in this case flowers, with a host of possible interpretations as a result of the other surrounding images and descriptions that complicate them. In “Sea Rose,” the “harsh rose, / marred with stint of petals” conveys the speaker’s feelings of abandonment and powerlessness through the poet’s presentation of the desolate, inhospitable landscape that surrounds the flower. Just as the flower itself remains “caught in the drift” after it has been “flung on the sand,” Doolittle implies that the speaker of the poem has suffered a similar fate, which he or she imposes onto the landscape being viewed and described, in effect allowing the image of the flower several possible levels of interpretation, which range from literal to metaphorical and autobiographical. Just as Helen presents the poetic image within Helen in Egypt as acquiring multiple and often contradictory significances from the reader, Doolittle’s early poems imbue tangible things with more figurative possible interpretations. Similarly, “Sea Iris” invokes a “brittle flower” and the inhabitable earth that surrounds it to convey the speaker’s feeling of fragility, which he or she also reads onto the landscape being viewed. As in Helen in Egypt, our poet uses the poetic image to illustrate subjective concepts for the reader, frequently rendering such things as flowers and “night-birds” representative of larger, more difficult concepts through the images that surround them and the contexts in which they appear.

While similar in this respect, the strophes of Helen in Egypt prove distinctive in their incorporation of sustained images and motifs. As the work unfolds, images not only complicate other images, but they reappear within the epic poem, constantly acquiring new possibilities for interpretation. In this respect, the style of the poem reflects H.D.’s view of psychoanalysis as a process of discovery, in which new readings of one’s life remain inevitable. As the book unfolds, she allows the hieroglyph motif to encapsulate an ever-broadening definition of both “image” and “interpretation,” in which the boundaries between the poetic image and lived experience remain constantly in flux.

Hieroglyphs as the Recurring Symbols and Motifs of the Analysand’s Life in “Pallinode”

Throughout “Pallinode,” Doolittle extends this interpretation of the hieroglyph motif to encompass the recurring symbols and motif within Helen’s life, suggesting an affinity between the poetic image and the experienced or remembered one within the text of Helen in Egypt. During her analysis with Freud, she consistently envisioned the two as linked, writing in Tribute to Freud, “Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, and analyzed, shelved, or resolved.” Doolittle’s concrete images often convey subjective ideas within a poem, and thus lend themselves to interpretation and reinterpretation, retaining an affinity to the evocative images that appear in thoughts and memories. By linking the literary image to the remembered one, she posits “symbol” and “interpretation” as expansive categories, which grow more inclusive as the book progresses.

Doolittle’s concrete images often convey subjective ideas within a poem, and thus lend themselves to interpretation and reinterpretation, retaining an affinity to the evocative images that appear in thoughts and memories.

Additionally, this connection between the literary and the psychological remains prominent in Freud’s own writing, especially throughout texts like The Interpretation of Dreams, from which Doolittle worked during her psychoanalytic sessions. Freud compares the topography of memory to that of a literary work, suggesting that the process of interpretation for both remains similar. He writes in describing the symbols within dreams, “…if, on the contrary, I take the trouble to replace each image by a syllable or work which it may represent by virtue of some allusion or relation. The words thus together are no longer meaningless, but together might constitute the most beautiful and pregnant aphorism.” By suggesting that the written work can often illuminate the text of one’s life, he constructs a similar relationship between the two as that which H.D. puts forth in Helen in Egypt. In both of these works, reciprocity exists between the written image and recurring symbols of one’s existence that would be encountered in psychoanalysis.

Throughout Helen in Egypt, Doolittle depicts her heroine’s life as being riddled with such symbols, for which the hieroglyph motif often serves as a metaphor. She establishes this interpretation of the hieroglyph image in the third poem of the second book of “Pallinode.” Doolittle elaborates in the explanatory prose passage, “Helen herself denies an actual intellectual knowledge of the temple-symbols. But she is nearer to them than the instructed scribe; for her, the secret of the stone-writing is repeated in natural or human symbols…” H.D. implies that, for Helen, the interpretation and reinterpretation of objective symbols remains a familiar process, often resembling the manner in which she considers the recurring symbols and images within her own life. As she transitions to verse, Doolittle writes that such memories function “as if God made the picture/and matched it/with a living hieroglyph.” By making such statements, she suggests that, within Helen’s story, the interpretation of hieroglyphs often illuminates the process of considering the symbols of her own life, namely as hieroglyphs often function as a means by which to evoke both subjective ideas about the heroine’s life and other concrete images derived from memories of Helen’s recent past.

In the poem that follows the prose explanation, Doolittle presents the reader with a series of images that Helen remains unable to interpret subjectively:

I had only seen a tattered scroll’s
dark tracing of a caravel
with a great sun’s outline,

but inked-in, as with shadow’
it seemed a shadow-sun,
the boat, a picture of a toy,

I was not interested,
I was not instructed…

Throughout this passage, the poet suggests an engagement, from Helen’s end, with symbols like hieroglyphs that has enabled her to similarly interpret the recurring images within her past. Conveyed in terms of of “tattered scrolls,” a “boat,” and “a great sun’s outline,” this connection between the strange Egyptian friezes and the recurring memories of Helen’s psyche appears as images, for which Helen nearly always fail to evoke a subjective response. In doing so, H.D. conflates Helen’s “instruction” in interpreting the hieroglyphs with an overall ability to access subjective ideas through the objective, an idea that she conveys when the significances of both the images of her life and the hieroglyphs are simultaneously elucidated for her, namely as a doorway to emotions and memories that must be resolved. Throughout the early works in Helen in Egypt, the heroine serves as her own instructor, allowing her to inhabit the roles of both patient and analyst. As her earlier poem states, “this is intuitive or emotional knowledge, rather than intellectual.” The hieroglyph motif, then, comes to represent a greater push and pull between subjectivity and objectivity within the work, as well as the analysand’s ability to negotiate the two.

Contextualizing Helen’s Hieroglyphs

Throughout “Pallinode,” the hieroglyph motif serves to highlight a larger conflict within the text for the reader, namely the tension between symbols and their interpretation. H.D.’s complex construction of hieroglyphs within the text allows for her heroine to adopt and later discard a variety of postures toward myth and symbol as well as the secondary language of their analysis and interpretation. When the motif first appears within the text, she depicts Helen as favoring a scientific, exact translation of them, ultimately suggesting that, if approached correctly, all subjective meanings can eventually be extracted from a single image. “I am instructed, I know the script, / the shape of a bird is a letter…” she wrote. In other words, she portrays Helen as approaching the interpretation of symbols scientifically, believing that they can eventually be dominated by reason and intellectual scrutiny.

Such an empirical approach to understanding symbols and their interpretation remains especially apparent in the early poems of “Pallinode,” particularly the seventh poem of book one. She writes in describing Helen’s understanding of the language of hieroglyphs in the prose preface, “She knows the script, she says, but we judge that it is emotional knowledge, rather than intellectual.” The notion that a “script” exists, in which one hieroglyphic symbol corresponds to a presumably correct translation, evokes a scientific logic of which Doolittle remains skeptical. As the prose passage unfolds, she continues to cast doubt on Helen’s reasoning, stating, “She says she is ‘instructed,’ she is enchanted, rather.” In distinguishing between reason and emotion, the author suggests that Helen unwittingly draws from the latter. While Helen styles herself as being capable of empirically translating the strange Egyptian friezes, Doolittle ultimately cautions the reader against the veracity of such claims.

H.D.’s complex construction of hieroglyphs within the text allows for her heroine to adopt and later discard a variety of postures toward myth and symbol as well as the secondary language of their analysis and interpretation.

As the book progresses, other postures emerge, in which Helen adopts a stance of aesthetic appreciation without the ideologically fraught rhetoric of science. Particularly apparent in the later poems of “Pallinode,” this attitude contrasts sharply with the personnage’s earlier exactitude. Doolittle writes in the prose passage of the eighth poem of the second book, that “It is not necessary to ‘read’ the riddle,” suggesting that Helen has discarded her prior scientific posturing. As she transitions to verse, Doolittle suggests the hubris inherent in an authoritative approach to something so complex. She writes in verse spoken by Helen, “let Helen’s imperious quest / through this temple, to solve the riddle / written upon the walls / be shed.” Such a presumptive attitude risks simplifying and limiting the possibilities that “the riddle” holds, rather than elucidating it.

In many ways, Helen, like H.D., recognizes the dangers inherent in such an authoritative approach. In Doolittle’s own life, the hubris of an authoritarian attitude remained prominent in her encounters in the literary world. As Kathleen Fraser argues in “The Blank Page,” Doolittle’s own life had witnessed language as both a vehicle for patriarchy as well as personal discovery, namely as Doolittle simultaneously sought the approval of a male literary tradition and her own voice. Fraser writes, for example, in her essay, “Reviewing H.D.’s progress toward the trust of her own ‘page,’ a contemporary poet might well identify with this struggle to circumvent the tremendous pressure of prevailing male ideology that had so conveniently persisted, historically viewing women contemporaries as “receptacle like muses rather than active agents,” thus reinforcing long-dominant ‘notions of what was properly and naturally feminine.'” As Fraser argues, at the time of authoring Helen in Egypt, these questions were of paramount importance to Doolittle, and the rhetoric of psychoanalysis presented similar conflicts between the dangers of ideology and the rewards of such personal discovery.

As Doolittle increasingly valued Freud’s help in resolving her memories of loss and trauma during World War I, she also struggled to resolve the more patriarchal aspects of psychoanalysis with her ardently feminist views. As Susan Edmunds observes in Out of Line, Doolittle constantly negotiated such Freudian ideas as female hysteria with a feminist view of both history and the mythic quest of introspection, “Freud identifies the typically female hysteric’s practice of registering repressed memories on the body’s surface and in hallucinations, her inability to compose coherent life histories, and her appropriation of other people’s bodily traits and symptoms as debilitating manifestations of a neurotic disorder. In H.D.’s hands, however, these same symptoms of hysteria function as effective strategies of revisionary reform.” Likewise, Doolittle continually revises Freudian theory while positing alternatives, and, in depicting Helen, she often favors an unmediated experience of myth, symbol and the sub-conscious, thus placing her heroine in the role of both analyst and analysand.

From “Pallinode” to “Leuke”

When she transitions from “Pallinode” to the second book of the text, “Leuke,” Doolittle explores the intersection of the several possible and complimentary readings of the hieroglyph motif that she has established in the first section of the book-length poem. Throughout the second book of Helen in Egypt, Doolittle conflates the symbols of Helen’s life with the hieroglyph motif that appeared throughout the first section of the text, creating a paradoxical relationship between actuality and artistic representation. In “Leuke,” the two become one and the same, suggesting that artistic renderings often become a point of entry to understanding one’s own life.

…Doolittle suggests that just as one extricates multiple and often conflicting interpretations of such artistically generated symbols as hieroglyphs, the symbols of one’s life, as well as the place they hold within one’s memory, can be interpreted in a similar fashion.

Within the text of Helen in Egypt, the treatment of the hieroglyph motif in the book of “Leuke” embodies this intersection of possible interpretations and paradoxes, namely as Doolittle presents the island itself as the penultimate hieroglyph to be deciphered. In doing so, she continues to portray Helen as appreciating such indecipherable symbols as ends in and of themselves, particularly as engagement with the objective serves as a point of entry to subjective ideas and emotions. For Helen, the island of Leuke similarly remains a doorway to the myths, symbols, and memories that inhabit her past, just as her engagement with friezes on temple walls allowed the heroine to access insights about both her life in Greece and her sojourn in Egypt. Doolittle establishes this interpretation of the island in the final poem of “Pallinode,” which introduces the section. She writes in the introductory prose passage of the eighth poem of the seventh book of “Pallinode,” “But the timeless, hieratic symbols can be paralleled with symbols in-time… There are other hieroglyphs, Thetis had reminded her, a grasshopper, a flying fish, an octopus…” In this passage, Doolittle suggests that just as one extricates multiple and often conflicting interpretations of such artistically generated symbols as hieroglyphs, the symbols of one’s life, as well as the place they hold within one’s memory, can be interpreted in a similar fashion.

While drawing a parallel between the symbols of one’s life and artistic, “timeless” symbols like ancient Egyptian friezes, Doolittle presents Helen’s engagement with the two as being fundamentally different, namely as the symbols of one’s life remain constantly in flux, unlike a static work of art. In conveying this distinction, she presents the island of Leuke as being comprised of a host of constantly fluctuating smaller symbols, rendering it her most complex engagement with objective images thus far. As she transitions to verse, the style of Doolittle’s poem often complicates this discussion of interpreting living symbols, which, unlike fixed hieroglyphs of earlier strophes, constantly acquire new subjective connotations as one strives to decipher them. She accomplishes this illustrative quality through her use of syntax and anaphora, as well as poetic imagery:

let rapture summon
and the foam-flecked sand,
and the wind and hail,

rain, sleet and the bewildering snow
that lifts and falls,
conceals, reveals…

In this particular poem, H.D. compares the “reading” of the island of Leuke to the constantly changing shores in a rainstorm, and, in doing so, she mirrors the shifting of the ocean landscape through her use of syntax and anaphora in the poem. By creating a series of lines with parallel syntactical constructions, such as “and the foam-flecked sand” and “and the wind and hail,” the rhythm of her poem mirrors both the tumultuous tides and the constantly shifting nature of the symbols she must interpret on the island of Leuke. Similarly, by incorporating a caesura between “conceals and reveals” and repeating the word “and” throughout the piece, the poem mirrors the swaying of the island’s shores while conveying the difficulty of interpreting its literally erratic symbols. In doing so, the author problematizes the application of literary methods of interpretation to the symbols of one’s life, which continue to acquire new subjective connotations as one attempts to decipher them. Although differentiating between fixed and living symbols, Doolittle portrays Helen as constructing her own relationship to the secondary language of analysis, which at times appears as critical as it is celebratory.

The Introduction of Theseus

As the book of “Leuke” unfolds and Helen explores the significances that the island holds for her, Doolittle introduces Theseus, a character loosely based on Sigmund Freud. In her own experience with psychoanalysis, H.D. perceived Freud as being a conjurer or magician of sorts, a perception that surfaces throughout her depictions of Theseus in “Leuke.” While Doolittle remained aware of the contemporary cultural view of psychoanalysis as science, her understanding of it remained tempered by her interest in mysticism and hermeticism. As Barbara Guest explains, “…she wanted to go to the original magician, the Merlin, or the Theseus, as she would later call him. Superstition and intuition were the controls under which she worked, which Freud instantaneously must have recognized.” Doolittle’s depiction of Theseus in the seventh poem of the seventh book of “Leuke” embodies this aspect of the poet’s psychoanalytic journey. Although presenting the character as a grand mythical hero, he also appears as a conjurer of language and metaphor, often invoking hyperbole, anaphora, and a stately tone while counseling Helen, a stylistic decision that suggests the mythical journey inherent both introspection and psychoanalysis.

She conveys this idea stylistically when he speaks at the beginning of the poem, invoking both anaphora and lush garden imagery that contrasts sharply with the book’s desert setting:

What flower from the wan water?
nenuphar, you say;
what flower with a crown of gold,

or a heart or a core or a zone,
a flower within a flower;
what scarlet, what purple, what fire…

In establishing Theseus’s voice, Doolittle’s continual use of repetition and anaphora in such phrases as “What flower…”, “what flower with a crown of gold,” “what flower, what purple, what fire…” create a regal tone, ultimately characterizing him as a mythical hero through both style and description. She describes Theseus as a guide through the introspective process, who would “recall, revitalize, reawaken Helen.”

In doing so, the poet portrays Theseus as using this ability to conjure and command metaphor to guide Helen, particularly as he describes the perils of her relationship with love interest Achilles. Using repetition and hyperbole (such as a “flower within a flower” and a “flower with a crown of gold”) to create an expectation on the part of the reader that the language will grow increasingly grand and exaggerated, Doolittle, in writing Theseus’s monologue, squelches this anticipation at the end of the poem. She writes, in conveying his opinion of Achilles, “…too great a suspense to endure, // too high the arrow, too taut the bow, / even a Spirit loves laughter, / did you laugh with Achilles? No.” Just as Helen’s interactions with her lover are “too great a suspense to endure,” the tone of Theseus’s soliloquy proves too hyperbolic to maintain, and the author ultimately punctures it with a terse “No.” Although depicting Theseus as both a conjurer of language and metaphor and a mythical hero, Doolittle suggests that Helen maintains her own interpretation of the recurring symbols of her life, which at times conflict with those of her guide. The overwrought hyperbole and lavish imagery at times suggest parody, rather than adulation.

Theseus Discovering
His Father’s Sword
, 18th Century
(Oil on canvas, 287 x 159 cm)
BY Antonio Balestra

While presenting him in an idealized manner, Doolittle also depicts this character’s entrance as secondary to Helen’s existing engagement with the symbols of her own life and their interpretation. As Georgia Johnston argues in The Formation of 20th Century Queer Autobiography, in her own experiences with Freud, Doolittle perceived herself as laying the foundation for her sessions with the famed analyst, and for extending his work long after. In other words, although Freud remained a mythical hero of sorts within her life and the text, Doolittle perceived herself being a peer or an equal, and depicts Helen in similarly egalitarian manner. Johnson writes, in describing H.D.’s own writings on her sessions with Freud, “Even so, Doolittle presents other scenes as if she is documenting actual occurrences, scenes that reiterate both her equality with Freud and his understanding that she will extend his work…Their relationship, despite her ‘tribute’ and acclamation of him as a ‘Master,’ was also one in which she perceived herself as an equal, as his successor.” In other words, she perceived herself as being both patient and analysand, and depicts her autobiographical counterpart in Helen in Egypt in terms of this revisionary model of psychoanalytic practice.

This double-minded view of Freud, in which he serves at turns as a necessary guide and a foil to the analysand’s own introspective work, recurs throughout earlier works like Tribute to Freud. Although Doolittle introduces him as the “blameless physician” in the dedication to the book, she seeks to problematize this view of the analyst throughout Tribute, much as she does in Helen in Egypt. She writes when describing her reaction to Freud’s grandiose observations in the memoir, “I have just readjusted the rug that had slipped to the floor. I have tucked my hands under the rug. I am wondering if the Professor caught me looking at my wristwatch.” In many ways, Doolittle questions the novelty of Freud’s interpretations by expressing her boredom. This reaction and its documentation in the memoir, however, must be read in light of Freud’s teaching methods with his pupils.

Doolittle’s depictions of Theseus as both necessary and unnecessary in Helen in Egypt, then, might be read as one of these challenges encouraged by the Professor. The paradoxical relationship between Helen and Theseus remains particularly apparent in Doolittle’s presentation of Theseus as espousing a similar model of symbol and interpretation as the one that Helen has devised for herself throughout the first half of the book. In the first and second poem of the fifth book of “Leuke,” for instance, Theseus elaborates on the connection that Helen has established between the poetic image and the remembered or experienced one, suggesting that one must interpret the symbols within one’s life as one would delve into the many possible readings of a text. Resembling Doolittle’s own model of the psychoanalytic process, Theseus merely presents an extension of Helen’s own personal philosophy, rather than offering new and revelatory insights. In short, Helen becomes both patient and analysand in much the same way that Doolittle perceived herself:

…a certain sheen of cloth
a certain ankle,
a strap over a shoulder?

remember these small reliques,
as on a beach, you search
for a pearl, a bead,

a comb, a cup, a bowl
half-filled with sand,
after a wreck.

In this piece, which is spoken by Theseus, H.D. presents the mythical hero and his wisdom within the framework that Helen has already devised, in which objective images serve as a point of entry to the subjective emotions one must overcome in psychoanalysis. Conveyed within the poem in terms of concrete images, which represent the recurring symbols and motifs in Helen’s life, her perception of such objective images as being merely a means toward the interpretations and associations that they generate remains equally prominent in Theseus’s worldview. Read with these ideas in mind, Doolittle’s presentation of Helen’s relationship with Theseus offers an egalitarian view of psychoanalysis, in which one can become both patient and analyst through such introspection, as well as by engaging with the symbols that surface within one’s life.

Because Doolittle defines “symbol” and “interpretation” so broadly, this idea of serving as one’s own analyst encompasses greater possibilities for interpretation than merely thinking about one’s own life. Rather, her vision of “analysis” represents a greater level of critical engagement with cultural, historical, and artistic symbols, which inhabit the analysand’s life while raising larger questions about his or her place in society. The role of analyst, then, entails a constant interrogation and reinterpretation of questions larger than oneself, to which one’s lived experience remains merely a point of entry.

Symbol, Interpretation, and Science in “Leuke”

By presenting such an egalitarian view of psychoanalysis, in which an individual might become one’s own analyst, Doolittle cautions against the emergent rhetoric of science and psychology that frequently mediated many analysands’ experience of the realm of dream, symbol, and the subconscious. Although both H.D. and Helen found these aspects of consciousness revelatory when first experiencing them, the text of Helen in Egypt frequently cautions against an external and definitive interpretation of one’s psyche, a theme that grows increasingly prominent within the pages of “Leuke.” As Adelaide Morris argues in her book, How to Live/What to Do, “…[for H.D.] science is a process rather than a product, a way of knowing rather than a thing that’s known…” Likewise, psychoanalysis appears throughout Helen in Egypt as an ongoing process, in which knowledge of the constantly changing self remains merely an approximation of a complete understanding of one’s psyche, a stark contrast to the rhetoric of modern, empirical science that remained prominent in the 1930s.

Several poems within the second section of Helen in Egypt caution against a single definitive interpretation of a symbol, often while, at the same time, highlighting the myriad possible readings of any given text or thing. In the sixth poem of “Leuke: Book Five,” she begins with a description of Theseus guiding Helen as she comes to terms with the traumas of her past. Although the mythical heroine appears closer to finding a sense of resolution, the two characters approach her story with a different understanding of Achilles and his relationship to Helen. Particularly apparent in the verse section of the piece, which Theseus narrates, this disparity manifests itself as he names various women in Achilles’ life while the heroine continues to idealize him as “Helen’s Achilles on the desolate beach.” For Theseus, this discrepancy between the two characters’ interpretations of the past raises questions about any analysand’s attempts to “decipher” and find definitive meaning in the symbols of his or her past. The poem ends with Theseus asking, “how do you know that? / can you read the past / like a scroll?” Evoking the symbols, friezes, and hieroglyphs of the earlier poems of “Pallinode,” the question of attaching fixed meanings to the ever changing symbols of one’s life remains central to both the text and Doolittle’s analysis with Freud — a theme that Doolittle conveys both descriptively and through the structure of her poem.

In this particular work, Doolittle divides the piece into an analysis of plot and character in the introductory prose passage and a verse section with less clearly delineated implications for the text. The verse section itself mirrors the process that Helen undergoes with Theseus, particularly as the introductory passage attempts to explain and interpret it, whereas its images and recurring symbols lack a single definitive interpretation within the book. Again, as Joseph Riddel writes in The Turning Word, Doolittle’s poems frequently implement the type of double meanings one would encounter in a session of psychoanalysis, ultimately problematizing Helen’s recurring attempts to definitively “translate” and “decipher” the events of the past:

I begin to remember the story,
do I remember what you remember?
but could you know of the sacrifice

of Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter,
the sister of Paris?

Doolittle often idealizes the possibilities inherent primary language of images and symbols, suggesting that a empirical approach to psychoanalysis remains at once infeasible and inferior to a more pluralistic attitude. Likewise, she uses the mythical framework of the book to extend this claim beyond the science of psychoanalysis to include other types of authoritative approaches to interpreting personal and cultural symbols. By presenting her autobiographical experience within a broader literary and cultural context through myth, she situates the scientific rhetoric of psychoanalysis within a trajectory of such authoritative interpretations within American and European history. In this respect, she posits authoritative interpretations of symbols as existing long before the psychoanalysis, which, in Doolittle’s presentation, could conceivably perpetuate oppressive power structures within society.

“Eidolon” and the Dangers of Interpreting Symbols

Throughout the final book of Helen in Egypt, entitled “Eidolon,” or “the image,” H.D. continues to caution readers against attempting to interpret any symbol in a definitive or authoritative manner, ultimately applying Helen’s narrative to larger social questions of the time. H.D. expands her definition of “symbol” and “interpretation” from primarily artistic and often personal images to encompass shared, historical symbols. In doing so, she suggests that Helen herself became a symbol to be deduced during the Trojan War, an event in which a false (and presumably authoritative) interpretation led to unnecessary violence and destruction. And, for the Helen that H.D. has created, the dangers of ideology remain most apparent in the notion of a single, definitive interpretation that it often calls for. As H.D. “gesture[s] towards the deepest… levels of the psyche,” as described by critic Liz Yorke, she frequently emphasizes its multiplicity. Deviating from the contemporary perception of psychoanalysis as an empirical science, Doolittle offers an alternative model, in which value is placed on the process of interpretation and reinterpretation, as opposed to the verifiable final product.

…Doolittle frequently refers to not only the possibility of false interpretation of shared historical symbols, but the tendency of such authority to define and interpret to fall into the hands of socially dominant groups. Her depictions of Helen as a collective symbol for the Greeks embody this concern.

In her presentation of Helen’s role in the Trojan War, Doolittle frequently refers to not only the possibility of false interpretation of shared historical symbols, but the tendency of such authority to define and interpret to fall into the hands of socially dominant groups. Her depictions of Helen as a collective symbol for the Greeks embody this concern. Likewise, in the fifth poem of the second book of “Eidolon,” she presents the reader with an explanatory prose section, in which she compares the events of the poems to “a play, a drama” in which “the players have no choice in an already-written… script.” In doing so, she suggests that as in any work of art, the characters of Helen in Egypt have come to represent larger historical conflicts and questions, their roles being an honor that fate has conferred upon them. She posits the poem as an attempt to interpret these symbols, spoken in the voice of a chorus drawn from the classical dramatic tradition she invokes in the prose passage. This chorus invokes and attempts to decipher symbols of the Trojan War that have appeared throughout the book — the kiss, the lyre, the battering ram — only to find that their interpretations problematize and contradict previous answers, as well as generating new symbols to be interpreted. Doolittle conveys this rejection of attempts to definitively decipher symbols through her use of poetic imagery, which relies on images to illuminate and interpret other images, ultimately conveying the impossibility of the chorus’s task of interpreting without generating new and unfamiliar questions.

Particularly apparent in the opening of the poem, which contrasts the minutia that initiated the war with its devastating effects, Doolittle’s effort to illuminate an image with other images unravels into a labyrinthine series of questions and symbols that prove even more complex than the first. The chorus asks, at the start of the piece, “Was Troy lost for a kiss, / or a run of notes on a lyre?” Conveying subjective ideas about the causes of war through concrete images, such as the kiss and the lyre, she introduces a host of additional questions by doing so, which are also encapsulated in concrete objects. By using these images to contrast the loss of Troy with both the romance that initiated the war and the works of art that were produced as a result of its tragedies, she raises another question that recurs throughout the text, that is, whether or not poems like Helen in Egypt justify the suffering that made them possible. Posing the question — “was the lyre-frame stronger // than the bowman’s arc, / the chord tauter?” — H.D. similarly uses images to embody subjective connotations, the lyre being associated with artistic pursuits and the bowman’s arc with martial ones.

The speaker(s) of the chorus find that this question of justification raises yet another, that of the transient of nature suffering when compared to the omnipresence of such works of art in contemporary society. They ask, “was it a challenge to Death, to all song forever?” suggesting both the immortality of works like Helen, the “Pallinode” of Stesichorus of Sicily, and Euripides’ The Trojan Women, as well as the influence such works continue to wield over Western art and the social criticisms within their pages that remain relevant to the First World War and its generation. In the end acknowledging the labyrinthine quality of such questions, the speaker(s) ask, “was it a question asked, / to which there was no answer?” This statement, while revealing the futility of interpreting such symbols, does not stop such attempts to decipher them within the chorus, as similar questions comprise the remainder of the poem. The imagistic quality of the poem, as well as its descriptions of the Trojan War, suggest that while these interpretations remain a labyrinthine effort that begets new challenges, the process remains a necessary endeavor, one that forces both introspection and the critical view of history and society that emerges as a result of this generative process. While positing this self-reflexive method of interpreting symbols as an ideal, which reconciles subjective and objective within the poem, Doolittle also recognizes the ways in which individuals fail to enact this idea. In doing so, she grounds her analysis of symbol and interpretation in the currents of history, all the while recognizing the possibility of negotiating subjective with objective.

As the work unfolds, the chorus introduces questions that challenge the status quo, as well as trivial questions about the masculine world of war, suggesting that the interpretation of history’s symbols often falls into the hands of socially dominant groups. By pairing substantial questions that ask who controls the currents of history, such as “who set the scene? / who lured the players from home / or imprisoned them…?” with others that address masculine pride (such as “was Paris more skillful than Teucer?”), Doolittle suggests that the more substantial interpretations of history’s symbols are overshadowed by culturally privileged groups. By ending the poem with such a trivial question about Achilles’ being more skillful “than Hector,” she ends the poem on a dark note, recognizing the possibilities inherent in such efforts to decipher symbols and the manner in which their subjectivity often becomes a vehicle for other agendas. In doing so, she acknowledges and pays tribute to the language of analysis and interpretation, but because individuals often misuse it, privileges an unmediated experience of myth and symbol. Such an approach emphasizes the possibilities for discovery inherent in interpretation, rather than imposing authoritative readings of any type of symbol.

This theme of privileged and marginalized interpretations of cultural recurs throughout Helen in Egypt, and often serves as a foundation for her criticisms of the rhetoric of science, psychology, and interpretation. As Louis L. Martz argues in Many Gods and Many Voices, H.D. assumes the role of a visionary, in which she cautions against the problems civilization has experienced as a result of these falsely authoritative interpretations of cultural and historical symbols. He writes, “To say that Helen speaks throughout as the prophet or priestess of Isis would be to sum up the meaning of the work; for Isis, that benevolent, creative goddess, was known throughout the Mediterranean world as the ‘Goddess of many names.’ For H.D., in this poem, her name is Helen.” As Martz suggests, Doolittle assigns Helen the role of a cautionary prophet, whose connection with the goddess Isis evokes the process of interpretation and reinterpretation inherent in the creative arts. As the poem progresses, she explores the intersection of cultural and artistic interpretation, namely as Helen and the legends surrounding are depicted in the proliferation of art that followed the Trojan War.

The Artistic Symbol in “Eidolon”

Casting doubt upon the efforts of culturally dominant groups to interpret and define symbols, she often invokes the great art produced as a result of the Trojan War, suggesting that the process of artistic creation remains rooted in existing symbols and methods of interpretation. In this respect, the historical definition of “symbol” and “interpretation” that Doolittle posits near the end of the book contrasts sharply with the primarily literary and personal one that appeared in earlier poems. She suggests that the definitive scientific interpretations offered by contemporary psychoanalysis risks becoming part of this cultural mechanism, in which the ability to interpret cultural symbols is restricted to culturally dominant groups. Cautioning readers, analysts, and analysands against this possible outcome, Doolittle continually depicts these undesirable frameworks of interpretation as authoritarian, rather than pluralistic.

The poem itself becomes a symbol which, like many others, will be misconstrued within existing frameworks of analysis. The culturally pervasive and burgeoning institution of psychoanalytic science, in many ways, endangered the multiplicity of interpretations made possible by such artistic endeavors, namely by valuing the definitive explication produced by modern innovation over the process of exploration and revision. Read within the context of many of her observations on the Trojan War and World War I, such definitive interpretations of culture and the individual psyche often endanger the ability to value difference. hese ideas remain particularly apparent in her presentation of the hieroglyph motif in “Eidolon,” which frequently highlights Helen’s interpretations of such artistic symbols as being culturally constructed.

H.D. uses the hieroglyphs as a metaphor for the creative process, in which one uses one’s life experience to generate such symbols as artwork or poetry. Like the act of artistic creation, interpretation remains inextricable from one’s own experiences and cultural background.

In the fifth poem of the fourth book of “Eidolon,” Doolittle presents the reader with an explanatory prose passage, which states that, for Helen, the hieroglyphs she attempts to decipher remain inextricable from the classical Greek aesthetic to which she has been exposed over the course of her life. As she describes the strange Egyptian friezes, she proposes that they operate in a similar manner as do imagist poems, namely by presenting layers of meaning superimposed upon one another. The poem itself mirrors this description of the way hieroglyphs function, particularly in its incorporation of both autobiographical material from the author’s life and Greek myths. H.D. uses the hieroglyphs as a metaphor for the creative process, in which one uses one’s life experience to generate such symbols as artwork or poetry. Like the act of artistic creation, interpretation remains inextricable from one’s own experiences and cultural background.

In conveying these ideas, H.D. presents the reader with a discussion of Helen’s continual reading of her own autobiographical experiences into the symbols she interprets. She writes, “…superimposed on the hieroglyphs is the ‘marble and silver’ of her Greek thought and fantasy.” The poem that follows embodies this conflation of Greek mythologies with Egyptian symbols, particularly as she compares the Egyptian frieze to “the intimate labyrinth // that I kept in my brain, / going over and over again…” In this passage, she implies that, like the winding halls of the labyrinth in the myth of Ariadne, Helen’s interpretations of the hieroglyphs continually raises new and unfamiliar questions about her life and psyche, which keeps generating new ideas and emotions to be dealt with. By introducing such a metaphor to the poem, Doolittle hints that for Helen, the symbols of Egypt continue to evoke a series of subjective ideas rooted in her life in Greece, which remains inextricable from her interpretation of the emblems and hieroglyphs of the foreign landscape that surrounds her.

Although her statement that Helen’s life in Greece remains inextricable from the symbols of Egypt illuminates one’s reading of the poem that follows, Doolittle complicates the idea she has introduced, namely by conflating the emblems of her own experience with those of the heroine. Conveyed through a series of concrete images that appear in Doolittle’s autobiographical writings, such as “the spiral-stair” of colleague and love interest D.H. Lawrence’s home, which becomes part of the “intimate labyrinth” that Helen “learned by rote,” she suggests that her own life remains inextricable from her interpretation of the symbols of Helen’s existence. Read with these ideas in mind, the poem uses such images to convey subjective ideas about the role of autobiographical material in artistic pursuits. The poem suggests that, just as Helen fails to extricate “the maze” of the labyrinth from “the painted ibis in Egypt, / the hawk and the hare” that she encounters there, Doolittle’s own life remains embedded in the symbols of Helen’s existence. Ultimately problematizing the explanation that prefaces the poem, which suggests merely a conflict within Helen’s psyche, the ideas that such images as the “the spiral-stair” convey suggests a greater issue of portraying one’s own life through the symbols of Helen’s, as well as interpreting the recurring symbols of another individual’s narrative. Approached within the context of her psychoanalytic approach, H.D.’s hieroglyph motif suggests the inevitability of false interpretation, both of her own message and those of other poets and analysands.

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