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H.D. (Hilda Doolittle): The Walls Do Not Fall

An incident here and there,
and rails gone (for guns)
from your (and my) old town square:

mist and mist-grey, no colour,
still the Luxor bee, chick and hare
pursue unalterable purpose

in green, rose-red lapis;
they continue to prophesy
from the stone papyrus:

there, as here, ruin opens
the tomb, the temple; enter,
there as here, there are no doors:

the shrine lies open to the sky,
the rain falls, here, there
sand drifts; eternity endures:

ruin everywhere, yet as the fallen roof
leaves the sealed room
open to the air,

so, through our desolation,
thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us
through gloom:

unaware, Spirit announces the Presence;
shivering overtakes us,
as of old, Samuel:

trembling at a known street-corner,
we know not nor are known;
the Pythian pronounces — we pass on

to another cellar, to another sliced wall
where poor utensils show
like rare objects in a museum;

Pompeii has nothing to teach us,
we know crack of volcanic fissure,
slow flow of terrible lava,

pressure on heart, lungs, the brain
about to burst its brittle case
(what the skull can endure!):

over us, Apocryphal fire,
under us, the earth sway, dip of a floor,
slope of a pavement

where men roll, drunk
with a new bewilderment,
sorcery, bedevilment:

the bone-frame was made for
no such shock knit within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:

the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead ember,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,

yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?

[This is the first section of the long poem The Walls Do
Not Fall by H.D. The text of the entire poem, as well as
an audio recording of a dramatic reading of it, can be
accessed for free at Voetica.

Hilda Doolittle (1886 – 1961) was an American poet, novelist, and memoirist, associated with the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets. She published under the pen name H.D.

H.D. was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and attended Bryn Mawr College. She moved to London in 1911. Young and charismatic, she was championed by the modernist poet Ezra Pound, who was instrumental in building her career. From 1916–17, she acted as the literary editor of the Egoist journal. During World War I, H.D. suffered the death of her brother and the breakup of her marriage to the poet Richard Aldington, and these events weighed heavily on her later poetry. Imagist authority Glenn Hughes wrote that ‘her loneliness cries out from her poems’. She had a deep interest in Ancient Greek literature, and her poetry often borrowed from Greek mythology and classical poets. Her work is noted for its incorporation of natural scenes and objects, which are often used to evoke a particular feeling or mood.

She befriended Sigmund Freud during the 1930s, and became his patient in order to understand and express her bisexuality, her residual war trauma, her writing, and her spiritual experiences. H.D. undertook a number of relationships with both men and women. She was unapologetic about her sexuality, and thus became an icon for both the LGBTQ rights and feminist movements when her poems, plays, letters and essays were rediscovered during the 1970s and 1980s.

Made up of 43 short, largely unrhymed sections, The Walls Do Not Fall (TWDNF) is H.D.’s striking response to World War Two. It was published in 1944, although H.D. completed the sequence in 1942. Followed by Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), it is the first book in H.D.’s Trilogy. She dedicates it to her partner Bryher, also known by her birth-name Winifred Ellerman.

H.D. wrote part of TWDNF while living in London through the Blitz (1940–41). The poem opens with the speaker walking through the devastated city after a bombing raid, a landscape of collapsed roofs and settling ash. In this opening section H.D. begins to powerfully layer the speaker’s impressions of the Second World War with allusions to past civilisations and world mythology. Inspired by H.D.’s visit to Egypt in 1923, London’s wrecked buildings remind the speaker of the ruins of ancient Egypt or classical Greece: ‘there, as here, ruin opens / the tomb, the temple; enter, / there as here, there are no doors’. Like many modernists, H.D. uses the classical past as a frame for the disordered, fragmented present. 

In the face of this destruction, however, the poem is pervaded by a sense of hope: ‘the frame held: / we passed the flame: we wonder / what saved us? what for?’. We have faced death, the poem tells us, but all is not destroyed. The summoning of ancient ruined architecture and surviving myths further strengthens the sense of endurance against the odds. The speaker’s personal response is symbolised by their transformation from shell, to worm, to butterfly.

TWDNF is as much a poem about war as it is about literature and the role of the writer. Or, as H.D. terms it, the struggle between the ‘Word’ and the ‘Sword’. Writing is a creative, regenerating act amongst destruction; ‘through our desolation, / thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us / through gloom’. H.D. casts the writer as a silk worm who consumes detritus and spins silk. She challenges those who declare ‘poets are useless’. To those who say, ‘so what good are your scribblings?’ she counters, ‘this – we take them with us / beyond death’. Her message is that literature and words endure, underpin civilisations, and bring order to chaos:

remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born, 

your Triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over, 

in the beginning
was the Word.

The bio of the poet and the analysis of the poem are adapted from the website of The British Library.

H.D. (1922)

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