H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) maintained a longstanding interest in the material and artistic history of needlework, a practice that helped her conceptualize, theorize, and overcome traumatic wartime experiences. This essay presents, for the first time, an archive of H.D.’s needlework and demonstrates its relationship to her literary craft. With a new appreciation for the ways in which H.D. turned to needlework as a medium of psychological repair, I show how H.D.’s poetry and prose illustrate processes of survival and psychological coping through metaphors of needlework. Tracking alongside Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Cathy Caruth, I argue that to work through trauma requires innovative techniques, which for H.D. are embedded in craft practices and their ability to access figures of transhistoric significance.
Keywords: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) / craft / trauma / needlework / World War II / modernist aesthetics
Now, my mother is showing me a piece of tapestry embroidery. It is apparently my own. I am not satisfied with it, but “see,” she says, “the pattern is not broken.” I am sure the stitching is slip-shod and badly done but she says, “no, look, there is the one line running through it all.”
(H.D., Within the Walls 111)
H. D. penned these opening lines during the Blitz when she was living in London and enduring seemingly endless days of violence. A retelling of a dream, the scene connects mother to daughter through a domestic craft, but it also goes a step further: the “line running through it all” alludes to a condition of survival that sustained H.D. during the period. An analyst and Freud’s student, H.D. studied trauma throughout her life, in addition to struggling with her own wartime disturbances. Here, and in several other instances, we see her illustrating survival and psychological coping through metaphors of needlework. Of special significance is needlework’s ability to preserve images, experiences, aesthetic traditions, and family connections. As I will go on to show, H.D. seizes on craft’s ability to repair traumatized psyches as she adapts the figurative resources of needlework to a literary craft that works through transhistoric traumas, both personal and epochal.
H.D.’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner, recalls a memory from her childhood in London where she lived with her mother during the war: "[H.D.] now found it hard to concentrate on her beloved books. There was plenty of time in the afternoons and during the long evenings, but the times were “disintegrating”—one of her key words. Her psyche refused to lose itself in the printed page. So she turned to needlework" (“Unless a Bomb Falls” x). In one other instance, Schaffner remembers how H.D. described her daily writing routine: “Like working on a sampler […] So many stitches and just so many rows, day after day. If I miss even one day, I drop a stitch and lose the pattern and I feel I’m never going to find it” (Signets 5). While it is clear H.D. practiced needlework and that it was especially meaningful to her during the war, little has been known or recorded about her craftwork. The Beinecke Library holds an extensive collection of H.D. manuscripts and correspondence, but does not house any of the art objects she created. Even so, critics have long been compelled to speak about H.D.’s work through craft metaphors, motivated, no doubt, by H.D.’s own turns of phrase.1 This article argues that much is to be gained by bringing together the ways in which H.D. talks about needlework crafts and her actual craft practice. These literary and visual rhetorics reveal an enduring preoccupation with how trauma manifests across time and space. H.D. was an active crafter, and during the course of my research I uncovered an archive of textile arts—including needlework tapestries, supplies, and notes—of which I present portions here for the first time. This collection is currently held by H.D.’s estate in a private collection and brings to light an extraordinary piece of literary history that bridges art-making with sites of trauma in her poetry and prose.
This essay’s reading of H.D.’s literary output alongside her artwork puts the dense “fabric of history” at its center in order to put pressure on the critical assessment of relationships between literary craft and artistic craftwork in modernism (Altieri 778). Textile arts should challenge a critic like Charles Altieri to double down on a recent plea for the richness of “concrete examples” in literary studies. He argues for greater attention to the warp and woof of history as critics move between the general and specific relationships of literary context: "[T]he analogical model cannot engage very much reality if it stresses only similarities and ignores the other features that make for the density of the situation from which texts emerge […] But to the degree that one suppresses the differences, one also perforce ignores the various complexities that actually give the phenomena in question their place in the fabric of history, and their possible value as exercises in imaginative identification" (778).2 The imaginative leap between an author’s experiences and her artistic output produces the “various complexities” of literary production. In reading H.D.’s perspective on trauma and making across word and image, I not only champion a kind of critical complexity but participate in Jane Marcus’s early feminist call to a scholarship of “still practice,” a feminist aesthetic “materially grounded in process rather than exclusively concerned with the work of art as a finished product” (xvi). Craftwork was fundamental to H.D.’s conception of literature as an art form, and my fresh rediscovery of her needlepoint tapestries attests to the complex relationship between the verbal and visual in her work, and in modernism more broadly, at an interval when new approaches to the study of modernism are beginning to tackle questions about how we view verbal artifacts in an expanded cultural field. However, approaches to H.D.’s work stemming from the new modernist studies also challenge the ways critics negotiate the study of material artifacts that have not been viewed in concert with verbal artifacts.3
The cultural history of craft and design work pivots on hierarchies of gender, class, and aesthetic classification. Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker made radical inroads into gender and craft history with their co-authored Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology and Parker’s The Subversive Stitch. The former interrogates a hierarchy of arts in which craft occupies a lesser position than fine art, tracing these divisions in the Victorian period, from William Morris’s insistence that all art benefits from an emphasis on craft to particular genres practiced by upper-class women such as vanity painting, flower painting, and embroidery. In The Subversive Stitch, Parker reexamines her earlier work in the context of revolutionary art, asking how we might understand domestic crafts as ripe with activist potential from the Victorian period forward.4 For example, in a particularly striking assessment of embroidery, she calls the needle’s prick “a weapon of resistance” (“Forward”). In “educating women into the feminine ideal,” needlework paradoxically provides the means of expression for breaking the restraints of femininity in the so-called traditional sense (“Forward”). This paradox of subversion and tradition forms the basis of craft’s potential to disrupt the seemingly fixed categories in which women of a certain class participate, as well as its potential to rewrite the history of art.
Throughout her oeuvre, H.D. similarly historicizes craft practices as bound up in questions of gender and sexuality. While a comprehensive survey of such instances would prove valuable to literary scholars, I want to focus our attention more narrowly on H.D.’s needlework as a gendered response to trauma. In H.D.’s cross-media work, she invokes the materials, processes, and visual cultures of needlework as a means of preservation and repair. This particular focus not only changes how we read art in H.D. but reimagines how agency overlaps with gender in a transhistoric frame.5 In short, H.D.’s writings and craft practices show how the tactile dimension of art-making breaks down active/passive binaries, just as the history of high and low art becomes more complicated when we bring craft into the conversation. The binary between high/low art reflects the gendered binaries of cultural production (i.e. art) itself but also the ways in which women writers participate in their own narratives of trauma, survival, and remaking.
As Cathy Caruth has forcefully argued, trauma unravels binaries of agency. In Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, she begins with the idea of repetitive thinking, asking, can the expression of traumatic experience through repetition also be the means for combatting it? Literature becomes the ideal test case for this conundrum “because literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing” (3). H.D.’s work, perhaps more than any other modernist, was entrenched in psychoanalytic discourse. This is why it seems so important to think about historical retellings across media, especially given new evidence about her art-making practices.
Craft’s slow processes create space for reflection and assessment, which, for H.D. were essential aspects of survival during war. From the perspective of the critic-crafter, Eve Kososfsky Sedgwick argues that “the craft aspect of art making—or, more simply put, of thing making—does seem (doesn’t it?) to be an exceptionally fruitful place for exploring those middle ranges of agency” (79). She continues, “to see texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous,” while also collapsing any hierarchical relationship between active and passive (84). Sedgwick’s foundational reading of art, particularly the tactile arts, makes clear the “middle ranges of agency” that emerge in gendered artistic contexts and in the work of makers especially interested in repair and preservation. H.D.’s relationship to craftwork offers a new perspective on how modes of expression (and the agency that underpins these expressions) saturated by the violence of modernity have been creatively remediated through cross-fertilization of different artistic media. As the following readings show, “fibers and textures have particular value, relationally and somehow also ontologically” (Sedgwick, Touching 24). The value of craft, from its material histories to its tools and processes, expresses modernist, gendered responses to war and violence. In both its historical and metaphorical significance, craft bridges modernist theory and practice; as a medium, it is capacious enough to account for the historical imagination of modernism, and as a practice, it places women’s experiences in the foreground of creative labor as a coping mechanism.
Out of the Tomb: Egypt and Needlework
In her poetry and prose, H.D. dramatizes the layers of meaning that connect modern perception to the aesthetics of endurance, repair, and remaking. She famously invoked the textual figure of the palimpsest throughout her career, using its tactile surface as a way to talk about not only history (how layers of the past exist between the surfaces) but also as a metaphor for the mind. Craft materials and processes, as well as the history of these media and techniques, provide rhetorics of durability, choice, and critique that show up across the full range of her works. Needlework—and its accompanying processes and tools—takes the metaphor of the palimpsest a step further by unraveling patriarchal narratives of history, domination, and violence, while crafting new responses focused on repair and preservation in the context of feminine craftwork. For instance, in “Secret Name: Excavator’s Egypt,” the third section of Palimpsest, H.D. develops a complicated critique of modernity out of the landscape (physical, historical, and imaginative) of Egypt, using needlework and textiles as her primary motif.6 Much like the palimpsest, this landscape contains hidden layers of historical significance and reveals new creative and metaphorical tools for writing agency.
While later Greek and Roman myths involving tapestry and needlework circulated in H.D.’s literary imagination, Egyptian needlework entered her consciousness materially. As Susan Stanford Friedman has observed, H.D., her mother, and her partner Bryher “were present at the dramatic opening of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt” (Web 221). The public opening of the tomb was especially significant to art and craft history because it contained one of the oldest, most elaborate examples of Pharonic decorative needlework ever found in the modernist period.7 As a result of this fertile combination, embroidery and needlework proliferate in H.D.’s literary works. In her poems, three of history’s most conspicuous textile artists appear in Helen (who embroiders the Trojan War in the Iliad), Penelope (who weaves and unweaves the tapestry of Odysseus’s lifeline in the Odyssey), and Ariadne (who gives Theseus a ball of thread that leads him back out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth). H.D.’s interest in the medium also extends the Victorian fascination with arts and crafts as a form of political activism, evidenced most clearly in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the work of William Morris, whom H.D. writes about directly in White Rose and the Red.8 Although Tut’s tomb produced the oldest example of needlework for the modernists, needlework was a familiar craft that spanned historical periods and cultural situations. During this period, for instance, much was made of Pliny’s expertise in the history of needlecrafts, and in 1875 the Royal School of Art Needlework in London was founded to advance the practical as well as aesthetic dimensions of these craft processes in ancient and contemporary contexts.9
It is no surprise that H.D. was fascinated with Egypt’s history, as well as the survival of that history into the modern age and its seemingly endless excavation, but her material investment in textile cultures requires further consideration. The excavation of Tut’s tomb does two things in H.D.’s work: it suggests the possibility that modern culture can endure epoch-ending trauma, and it complicates the ways in which aesthetic categories unfold along a historical progression. In Palimpsest, for example, time and history become fluid categories that move Helen between sensory and subconscious modes of perception. In one instance in the third section, a particular room in the tomb possesses “An almost too modern glitter one might have said, as if these tiny things needed only age to convince one of their authenticity. Age should have sullied them, they had not even ripened into dignity” (183). The tomb is a paradox, at once ancient and indescribably new—a space full of both history and potential: “In Egypt there was this unassuming comfort. One measured oneself by new and as yet unpremeditated standards” (209).
Palimpsest grapples with these questions of history and longevity directly. H.D. writes, “This was Egypt. America had been wiped out, she had thought, even before the heavy down-weight of London five war-years. Before the down-weight even of London five war-years. But it wasn't” (199). Egyptian ruins can be excavated for preserved bodies (the tomb is a protective space) in contrast to the symbolic and literal rubble of London after World War I. As Marsha Bryan and Mary Ann Eaverly have pointed out, the authority of Egypt in H.D.’s work hinges on its durability and “the longevity of Karnak, which was built of large blocks of stone and spans millennia,” an enduring visual and material monument that destabilizes the “terrors of airborne destruction” in modern warfare (79).10 Indeed, Palimpsest ends when Mary and Helen say goodbye as “modernity swept across them” in the midst of Egypt’s timeless architecture (238).
Beyond the affective, haptic dimensions of pictorial design (hieroglyphs) and handiwork processes, Palimpsest is fascinated with fabric in its most real sense. A character named Jerry criticizes Mary’s coat, which catalyzes repeated musings on the quality of fabric and its greater implications: “He took in his strong fingers, felt like some amateur of textures the rather sleezy gold and black […] ‘this stuff has no body, it’s pretty but I should think useless’” (220). In the subsequent pages, Mary struggles with a growing sense that she is wrapped in the “curious texture of golden cobwebs” and fears that she has “no body” just like the “amateur of textures” quality of her coat. Echoing this textural anxiety, Helen suggests that women are thought weak—and will thus be seen as “thin, frayed bits of feminine wreckage” (231). Throughout the “Secret Name” section, women struggle between submission and independence, even as they rewrite traditional gender roles through world travel, erotic relationships with other women, and physical toughness. The flimsiness of “thin, frayed” fabrics such as gauze and netting gradually give way to linen. Delicate textures of subconsciousness, ephemeral experience, and the psychic life are not the whole picture; rather, the real world, the durability of historical narratives, and strong female figures coalesce around linen as a medium for these experiences.
Through the Egyptian material history of cloth, women recast the delicate as durable. Flax, harvested in Egypt (and extremely strong), was woven into linen, the base fabric for the earliest needlework ever discovered, and it became the material for mummies’ preservative textile wraps. This cloth, linen, appears repeatedly in the rest of Palimpsest through a layering of textural references that demonstrate how needlework’s media and processes capture the paradoxical strength and vulnerability of women in a transhistorical context. For example, Mary’s nets, gauzes, and veils of the earlier descriptions turn to a meditation on the “cold of her sheets” (223). Wrapped up like a mummy in her bed, she finds new bodily awareness, becoming “in those sheets a little less stoically discomforted, as the sheets warmed, drew her to a more human, a more cynic outlook” (223-24). The materiality of the tomb (in this case, the wrapped, preserved body) recreates the primal security of the womb. In another instance, Mary switches to a linen coat, her delicate bones now wrapped in something more durable: “She felt under her hand, beneath the cool thick linen of the dust-coat, bones of the girl’s thin shoulders and the fibre of her being” (233). This encounter with “the fibre of her being” emerges from a series of textures, all of which seem particularly loaded with significance as Mary struggles to assert her agency.
Textures and the tactile, as Mary’s coats suggests, circulate in various forms across H.D.’s literary works. Weaving is the necessary prerequisite for generating a base fabric on which to embroider with dyed yarns, and, at another level, needlework consists of weaving a top decorative layer onto the supporting fabric underneath. In H.D.’s poems, women often weave to preserve, and however difficult the process (of either weaving or unweaving), it serves as an important site of transhistoric feminist solidarity and significantly impacts how their lives unfold. While Helen, Penelope, and Ariadne belong to Greek myth and history, their thoughts often turn to an Egyptian craft origin. In Helen in Egypt, H.D. gives voice to Helen’s experience of language and history. The volume consists of three titled sections—“Pallinode,” “Leuké,” and “Eidolon”—each divided into six or seven numbered books, with several poems in each book. In an epigraph to Poem 3 in Book 6 of “Pallinode,” Helen rejects the oral and text-based oracles and hieroglyphs in favor of beauty, or the tightly-woven web of fate. H.D. writes, “’God does not weave a loose web,’ no. Perhaps it is the beauty and proportion of the pattern that amazes Helen. It is not ‘in the oracles of Greece or the hieroglyphs of Egypt’ that she finds the answer.” Rather, she finds an answer in the patterns of textile craft as a site of access to empowered femininity at a creative point of origin.
At the same time, H.D.’s focus on textile craft in the context of antiquity leads her to reflect on the significance of unmaking. Penelope, for instance, weaves an image she must destroy in “At Ithaca”:
Over and back,
the tangled thread falls slack,
over and up and on;
over and all is sewn;
now while I bind the end,
I wish some fiery friend
would sweep impetuously
these fingers from the loom. (Collected, ll. 8–15)
In bringing her craft to life, she must confront the impossibility of her situation. Penelope’s loom represents her lack of agency, on the one hand, because it defines her captivity. On the other hand, she uses the loom to maintain some element of control in her life. She both embraces and loathes the process, which results in an act of undoing as she stops to “tear the pattern there” even though it represents her desire and fantasy (Collected, l. 21). Unweaving the threads of her tapestry, Penelope participates in her undoing, even as she weaves as a form of survival.
Unmaking and preservation find themselves repeatedly bound together in H.D.’s reflections on textile arts. In “Ariadne,” another mythic weaver searches for her agency in the threads of her craft after being abandoned. Ariadne, the story goes, saves Theseus from the Minotaur when she uses a thread to help her hero-lover navigate the multiple routes of the labyrinth. Setting a scene after “an island monster,” presumably Theseus, abandons Ariadne, H.D. writes:
I am weaving here;
the colours glow
with blue, sea-blue and violet;
I have dipped deep my thread
it will not fade,
I have long practised stitch and counter-stitch;
the frame is firm;
the pattern clear but spaced
with subtlety and symbol
those will know,
who have faced at the last
ultimate fear (Collected, ll. 58–72)
Concerned with the archival preservation of her needlework, Ariadne “dipped deep” her thread in the dye, suggesting the endurance of her tale and her participation in the history of Egyptian needlework. While Penelope longs for destruction (“I wish some fiery friend” would end her work at “the loom”), Ariadne’s pattern regards “the ultimate, / ultimate fear” with “subtlety and symbol.” Her (text)ile speaks in symbols, but the message is also subtle and enduring. Not just in a linear manner, she weaves “stitch and counter-stitch” within the fabric’s frame. The frame sets her textile “firm” in the process of making, and suggests that life itself is woven into the fabric of trans-aesthetic experience.
These mythic considerations underline how materials used in needlecrafts and textiles become tools for survival in H.D’s poetics and in her life. Particularly striking is the way in which H.D.’s mythic figures must negotiate their own compromised volition in relation to the unknowns of fate and divine intervention. Hecuba, in “Sea-Choros,” pleads for freedom as she is being transported to slavery:
be claimed by another
am I doomed
to the court
of far Pallas? (Collected, ll. 80–89)
Hecuba fears the loom’s prophecy, which may depict her death or fate as a “doomed,” imprisoned woman. However, she realizes that the same craft tools can help her appeal to the gods and possibly escape. She asks,
glowing crocus and red,
shall I thread
upon multiple thread,
til the pattern unfold
son of ever-great Cronos?
shall I prick
the flight of the giants,
Athena’s yoked chariot? (Collected, ll. 90–102)
She offers her services as an embroiderer to the gods in exchange for an escape from the ship carrying her to Pallas. Red thread, patterns, and the prick of the needle promise visual masterpieces depicting great narratives and give her an “out.” At first, Hecuba is convinced that she will read her fate in a narrative tapestry—she will interpret the image, condemned to its message, lacking agency entirely. But when she enacts the making, she can work the pattern with a different outcome by paying homage to the gods. Hecuba claims the role of Clotho, the spinner of fate and destiny, to exercise some element of intervention in her own life. In these poems, the vulnerable subjects of patriarchy recast their agency between the threads of textile arts.
These poetic narratives of women’s agency align questions of gender with survival, both in the local experience of surviving violence but also in the larger scope of historical patterns of war, patriarchy, and modernity. Needlepoint’s processes and tools (needle, thread, and the woven base fabric) convey H.D.’s fascination with craftwork as a mode of repair and preservation, a theme that emerges most clearly in her writings that deal with war and trauma. And yet, despite this outward-looking craft ethic, this fascinating relationship between making and trauma often remains rooted in domestic space. For example, handicrafts, such as a frequently mentioned “embroidered table-cover,” furnish H.D.’s The Gift, and her father is compared to William Morris, the great nineteenth-century leader of the craft revival (8). In The Gift, H.D. constructs the story of her intellectual gifts and her Moravian childhood through needlework: “The needles are on the table, the whole of Mama’s workbasket is on the table. There is a strawberry of wax for thread and a strawberry with emery powder for sharpening needles and getting the rust off” (40). As a child, she is told of her Aunt Mercy who “died when she was a very little girl” (42). “Mercy had done a sampler,” and she wonders, “Where was the sampler? Had Aunt Rosa the sampler?” (42). These references ultimately connect death to the history of iconic crafts for young ladies, and for H.D.’s women, Mercy/mercy often appears in the form of needle and thread with ties to the craft’s Egyptian past.11
For example, reflecting on her ancestral land, she continues, “There were the Egyptians who lived along the river. They built little houses to live in when they were dead. In these underground houses they piled up furniture, chairs, tables, boxes, jars, food even. Some wheat taken out of a tomb (it had been buried thousands of years) grew when it was planted” (5). The tomb brings forth new life, a symbol of the durable-ephemeral dialectic that keeps H.D.’s works both historically grounded and ever new, even as German bombs turn London to rubble. The wheat’s divine rebirth (in the wake of an account of Aunt Mercy's death) corresponds directly to Madelyn Detloff’s insightful reading of H.D.’s “apocalyptic rhetoric [which] can help a culture cope with catastrophic loss by suggesting that such loss happened for divine reasons that will be revealed in the future” (81). As the foregoing readings suggest, H.D.'s “resistance to the ideology of death” exposes the trauma of war from a gendered perspective, and needlework becomes a central material framework for understanding how it unfolds (Detloff 83).
A Stitch in Time: Embroidering the Blitz
H.D.’s longstanding interest in the material and artistic history of needlework travels alongside her war experiences, revealing an interest in the craft processes that helped her conceptualize, theorize, and overcome the trauma of both world wars. Suggestively, The Gift begins with a symbol of hope in the form of ancient wheat springing to life from a tomb in the twentieth century, but it ends with one of the most powerful accounts of life during the Blitz bombings of World War II.12 H.D.’s childhood merges suddenly with the moment of the memoir’s composition: 1943 in the center of London. She writes, “I would sink down and down and all the terrors that I had so carefully held in leash during the great fires and the terrible bombing of London would now break loose” (131). Her terror, a thread about to break, finds an outlet in artistic expression, in both literary craft and handicraft.
H.D.’s needlework archive makes the material relationship between literature and craft visible. An especially poignant example, I discovered her needles stored in a tiny handmade linen book as I delved into the old boxes (Fig. 1).
Secured to tiny felt book pages, this needle holder intertwines literary and artistic histories. The miniature book composed of felt and linen matches her yarn carrying roll, and the materials of needlework (needle, yarn, and a woven linen background) are all present, creating a needlework-themed reproduction of a book. In using the physical space of the book to contain her needles, H.D. draws a connecting line between her artistic and literary crafts.
To work through trauma requires innovative techniques, which for H.D. are embedded in craft practices and their ability to access figures of transhistoric significance. Like the crumbling architecture of London, the body and mind strive to endure, but often problematically and in traumatic conditions:
We had had too much. The mind, the body is not built to endure so much. We had endured too much […] It is true that the psyche, the soul can endure anything. But one did not want the body broken—we must not think about that […] It has been worthwhile to prove to oneself that one’s mind and body could endure the very worst that life had to offer—to endure—to be able to face this worst of all trials, to be driven down and down to the uttermost depth of subconscious terror and to be able to rise again. (136–38)
On the one hand, as this passage suggests, H.D. (and Bryher, who was with her during this period in London) produced activist meditations on war, agency, and history. On the other hand, on a more mundane level, they endured the bombings as a matter of course. As Leo Mellor suggests, these routines, accompanied as they were by confusion and unease, were deeply entrenched in the material realm. In Reading the Ruins, Mellor urges us to “acknowledge a material basis to disorder and the possibilities for narratives of reclaiming, rebuilding and remaking” (2). For example, Egyptian fibers shape Bryher’s experience of war in a no less significant but perhaps very different way than H.D.’s readings of needlework. She explains in her memoir of World War II how camel hair was used to make thread and fabric: "Camels, however, seemed to haunt me. I opened the newspaper one April morning to find that the Zoo was offering to sell clippings from their coats without coupons. Our clothes by now were wearing out but even Robert was uninterested although he was temporarily in London getting his bomb-damaged house repaired, so I dashed off alone at lunch hour" (60).13 Walking through the deserted zoo, Bryher recalls that “once I had ridden on a real camel across hot sand,” referring no doubt to her Egyptian adventures with H.D. Camel hair is both durable and light, and despite H.D.’s protestations, she keeps the wool until it can be sent to Scotland: “Then without warning six skeins of rough and prickly wool, together with a startlingly small bill arrived with the morning post” (62). This exchange highlights the quotidian and also quite extraordinary role of textiles in their lives and helps us extrapolate further the metaphorical dimensions of needlework’s complex layers in modernism.
Very interested in complicated continuities, H.D. pulls threads of meaning through layers of history, weaving these strands around modern questions of endurance and nonviolent protest (often enacted through literary craft, or, as I am suggesting, handicraft itself). In poem 15 of The Walls Do Not Fall, she writes, “we are the keepers of the secret, / the carriers, the spinners / of the rare intangible thread / that binds all humanity / to ancient wisdom, / to antiquity” (ll. 5–10). The thread that binds humanity (reminding us also of bookbinding) exists with the spinners manufacturing the materials of psychic wisdom and the literary traditions that tell the story. H.D. then reveals that her notoriously allusive poems take the imagined form of textile art in poem 38: “This search for historical parallels, / research in psychic affinities // each has its peculiar intricate map, threads weave over and under” (ll. 1–2, 11–12). Notably, The Walls Do Not Fall proliferates writing surfaces, from burning books and hieroglyphs to papyrus and parchment. Traversing the map of traditions and locations, H.D.’s poems overspill the temporal and spatial frames of modernity. Her poetry and fiction, concerned primarily with (un)consciousness, rarely give the reader something straight; instead she crafts figurative anchors, reworking what Žižek (thinking through Lacan) calls “quilting points” of ideology, or points de capiton, that anchor the reader to a larger meaning (87). Aesthetically nebulous while tacked to the narrative histories most often dealing with the history of war and women’s agency, these historical, mythic, and literary allusions weave through her text, producing a stable-yet-subjective “knot of meanings” (95). As the backside of her needlepoint canvases demonstrate, history’s design (especially when extricated from its patriarchal, narrative patterning) is a messy web of abstract weavings, much like the unconscious mind (Fig. 2).
The connection between the historical and individual unconscious as a mode of repair runs through much of H.D.’s work and comes together in striking form through her consideration of tapestry embroidery. In a 1935 letter to George Plank, she explicitly compares the work of psychoanalytic memory and storytelling to tapestry work, writing, “The things I wrote you were simply spot-light bits that I can’t talk about. There are lots of other things, a woven tapestry of back-ground; I hope eventually to shape it” (Analyzing 542). A few months later, in a letter to Bryher about starting analysis with a new analyst, she writes “There is and will be no change in my personal triangles, simply that he is helping me fill in threads, on the tapestry that F. [Freud] and I pretty well outlined” (Analyzing 533). Throughout her war experiences, H.D. tried to make sense—to draw a clearer picture—of her unconscious, as her numerous writings on Freud and psychoanalysis can attest. This additional, material layer of psychological depth, reading, and coping reveals how metaphorical tapestries helped her “outline” the very real layers of human experience central to her work.
Like H.D., Walter Benjamin connects literary craft to needlecrafts. In “The Storyteller,” he cites Paul Valéry’s reading of embroidery to underscore the bridge between narrative production and working with the hands:
“Artistic observation,” [Valéry] says in reflections on a woman artist whose work consisted in the silk embroidery of figures, “can attain an almost mystical depth. The objects on which it falls lose their names. Light and shade form very particular systems” […]. With these words, soul, eye, and hand are brought into connection. Interacting with one another, they determine a practice. We are no longer familiar with this practice. The role of the hand in production has become more modest, and the place it filled in storytelling lies waste. (107–108)
Benjamin admires craft’s ability to stitch together storytelling and the “soul, eye, and hand” in complex systems of meaning making; however, he also claims that such a mode of literary production “lies waste.” Despite his insistence that craftwork is outdated in the age of mechanical reproduction, H.D.’s work reclaims that connection, making artistic practice central to storytelling. Storytelling becomes witness, activism, and a mode of coping in the face of trauma. Rather than losing connection to “mystical depth,” this practice highlights the transformative capacity of art. In spite of Benjamin's lament, H.D. shows us how the “role of the hand” aligns storytelling and craft in modernism, developing “particular systems” for reading between the lines of mind, body, and emotive experience.
H.D. as Artist-Crafter
H.D. crafted at least four needlework tapestries, one of which is completed and framed. The other three are in various states of completion and were simply folded up and stored in boxes with her yarns, notes, sewing materials, and other odds and ends. Even though they are not dated, we do have clues that H.D. was particularly invested in her craftwork during the World War II years, a fascination that would seem to originate in childhood and certainly occupied her until the end of her life. Based on her daughter’s account, it is clear that the framed [Fruit Grove] needlepoint was worked during the Blitz.14 Remembering this period of her mother’s work, Schaffner describes “an elaborate masterpiece which hangs on my wall. Strange hybrid animals prowl an overladen fruit grove” (“Bomb” x). We also know that she had amassed a large collection of wool, “lovely skeins of every shade,” which she kept in a bag (“Bomb” x). All of her works feature animals and plants, which index the media of needlepoint: wool and linen. Given the richness of H.D.’s meditation on textile craft in her writings, we can read her craft work in direct conversation with her literature as an extension of her creative life —a form of interpretation that challenges and deepens our readings of her literary production. These incredible artifacts expose a range of literary and artistic histories that come together around modernist literary aesthetics, and more significantly, modernist visual culture—bridging the gap between the two in the process.
H.D. writes about her needlework in a small handful of letters to Viola Baxter Jordan, a friend introduced by Ezra Pound, dated circa 1946–1949. She admits to only working from patterns, but the needlepoints themselves indicate some improvisation, and she often sought out special or historically significant patterns, such as a bag design described as a “relic of the famous Ladies Royal Needlework Shop” (YCAL MSS 175, October 18 ). These letters explicitly connect her needlework practice to the World War II period. In one letter, she writes, “I am already planning how to finish off some of my pieces; I started a number of large ones in London while we sat around waiting for the last trump” (YCAL MSS 175 Sept. 5 [circa 1946–1949]). And in another letter to Jordan, she states outright, “I can not tell you how this [needlework] simply saved my life, working there in our living-room under the lamp, while the bombs dropped” (YCAL MSS 175 Oct. 18 ). From these accounts, we can see craft occupying several positions: a pastime that often brought H.D. the “greatest joy” as a creative pursuit, evinced by the relish with which she selected patterns and worked on her “pieces,” as well as a mode of survival during the traumatic experiences of bombings and blackouts (YCAL MSS 175 Sept. 5 [circa 1946–1949], YCAL MSS 175 Nov.19 [circa 1946–1947]).
The tapestries also shed light on H.D.’s vision of needlework as a reparative medium. In her [Fruit Grove] needlepoint, elements combine to form a visual message of regeneration and renewal—a stitching together of icons and the medium itself that persists. The work depicts large fruit-laden trees against a fairly simple background with large birds, dogs, and an insect scattered among the trees (Fig. 3).
The border design frames this tightly-packed scene, compressing its busy pattern and nuanced shades much like H.D.’s terse poems. The warped perspective of the piece—clusters of what appear to be grapes are as big as dogs, birds as big as dragonflies—underlines its poetic density as the eye focuses in on large pears, abstracted leaves, and the delicate shading of the animals. In particular, the dogs (especially the one positioned in the center) recall the Egyptian beasts so influential to H.D’s imagism, and the birds resemble phoenixes. Furthermore, the pear motif recalls H.D.’s famous imagist poem, “Pear Tree”:
O white pear,
thick on branch
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts. (ll. 12–16).
The poem’s “silver” color scheme and abundant flowers indicate visual excess, which, in turn, suggests a poem ripe with deeper meanings (ll. 1, 5, 11). Like an imagist poem, [Fruit Grove]’s complexities and oddities offer a rich interpretive yield, even though it at first presents rather simply.
The uneasy relationship between nature’s regenerative power and threats posed by haunted histories emerges again in H.D.’s [Woodland Interior] needlepoint (Fig. 4).
It appears to be a work in progress, with needles stuck in the canvas and neither border design nor binding. The plants and animals are arranged against a William Morris-inspired black backdrop in a traditional mille-fleur tapestry design, but the aesthetic is more abstract and spaced out. As a decorative Eden, the needlepoint’s black background dramatizes the fertile fruit trees and highlights the juxtaposition of animals and flora. Interestingly, in a modernist paradox of form and abstraction, the piece promises symmetry but, upon closer examination, does not deliver; all of the trees, flowers, and animals are different on facing sides. Because of this arrangement, it is not a realistic geography, with the various parts arranged in a flat spatial dimension.
The H.D. needlepoint collection and the Beinecke correspondence contain clues about this work’s possible origins. In a letter to Jordan she describes some particularly beloved patterns: "I treasure them as they are mostly things that went off the market, three huge original Cluny designs meant for mantle-piece; they are copied from originals at Cluny Museum in Paris. Bryher always said, “but what will you DO with them?” I have just loved them and the designs of huge grape leaves, pomegranates and small animals, just kept me alive" (YCAL MSS 175 Sept. 5 [circa 1946–1949]). This description evokes some imagery from the [Fruit Grove] piece, but on a more thematic level, likely refers to the [Woodland Interior] needlepoint. In the boxes of needleworks and sewing supplies I examined, she kept most of her yarn in brown paper wrappers, and on one of them, she wrote “Cluny 3 Panels” before scratching it out. The yarn in this wrapper may consist of leftovers, but the most well-preserved bundles clearly match the [Woodland Interior] color scheme. The multiple references to the Musée de Cluny are suggestive because in certain ways, H.D.'s needlework resembles the Cluny panel called “Sight” (each panel is an allegory of the senses) (Fig. 5).
The trees on each side are slightly different, just as they are in H.D.’s needlepoint.15 Friendly animals in profile look more like static monuments or illustrations than realistic creatures and are dispersed evenly in the planes of both pictures. In the “Sight” unicorn tapestry, a rabbit is closest to the top center, and a similar rabbit crowns H.D.’s needlepoint. The inner circle flower designs and colors in the unicorn panel are also similar to the flowers in [Woodland Interior]. The tapestries’ purely decorative elements mingle with the trees, which resemble support beams or pillars and the flying-buttress-like patterns of the floating flower clusters further call attention to the works’ architectural dimensions. H.D.’s short white flowers around the bottom edge of the lighter inner circle resemble supports for a foundation, mirrored by a similar white edge around the inner circle in all of the unicorn panels. These interarts connections open up an entirely new world of referential possibilities through access to a new medium and its unique representational capacities.
H.D. also explores intertextuality and visual abstraction as modernist aesthetics through her textile crafts. The [Sanctus Hubertus] needlepoint, for instance, is more abstract than the others, with bright technicolor merging textures and a tribal, or Egyptian, border (Fig. 6).
The legend of St. Hubertus recounts a great hunter who receives a divine message from a stag; as a result, he spent the rest of his life advocating compassion for God’s creatures and more ethical hunting practices. In H.D.’s rendering, Hubertus sits atop his horse, already surrounded by a yellow halo in the moment of his famous vision. He draws his bow towards his body and the dogs are calm. H.D.’s interpretation of the saint’s encounter with the divine hart speaks intertextually to her own written visions and spiritual experiences, which similarly condemned suffering and slaughter. It is possible that H.D. contemplated the gray area of killing from the center of World War II by underscoring the tale in vivid, modern color. As if commenting on the veneration of the hart, she labeled and preserved the leftover yarn, an animal product-turned-relic by archivization (Fig. 7).
As in her literary texts, the materials of history help to give H.D. purchase on the present in her tapestries. There are noticeably hybrid elements to [Sanctus Hubertus], with the horse spotted like a giraffe, and the fauna ranging from pointillist trees to tropical undergrowth. Hubertus’s name is written across the banner, but his figure is noticeably androgynous. It’s possible that H.D. had another hunter in mind, Artemis or Diana (also often depicted as redheads). Artemis likewise held the hart sacred, and H.D. writes directly about her experience of the hunt in another imagist poem, “Huntress,” or her lament in “Orion Dead”: “I once pierced the flesh / of the wild deer, / now I am afraid to touch / the blue and the gold-veined hyacinths” (“Orion” ll. 8–11). The hyacinths hover symbolically between life and death, between murder and regeneration, just as the Hubertus and Artemis tales negotiate the complexity of life and death in a historical register that continues to generate artistic and literary meaning.
Continuing the thread of intertextuality, H.D.’s [Pastoral] tapestry similarly bridges medieval imagery—the castle or fortress amidst rolling hills flocked by idyllic animals—with a more understated, but still quite surreal, vision of ruin (Fig. 8).
Multiple shades of green, blue, and gray constitute rolling hills with trees and shrubs. But the striking blue hue of the hills also recalls water, strangely merging land and sea (the sky is notably not blue, lacking color, clouds, and fowl altogether). Two buildings, perhaps a country house, and a castle or a fortress, are connected by a mysterious pink ridge and seem to be enveloped in plumes of smoke. The brown and gray threads of the plumes match the chimney smoke, so it’s suggested that the hillside and houses are on fire. This dreamlike vision of a devastated bucolic scene manipulates its viewers’ expectations, much like a Breugel or Bosch painting might feature some distant battle in tension with the Arcadian scene. As in some of the other needlepoints, the animals are worked in very fine stitching, in contrast to the looser, long horizontal stitches in the background (Fig. 9).
By juxtaposing detailed stitching with sections of broader darns, H.D. makes evident her agency as a crafter—she sometimes lets the background show, revealing the base fabric, and at other times conspicuously demonstrates her technical skill. This pastoral is a scene full of contrasts, in terms of stitching, color, and content. If we read the pink swatches as flames (rather than flowers) and the plumes of smoke as fire (rather than fog or clouds), certain possible narratives begin to unfold. [Pastoral] is a noticeably pretty, long panel with bright colors—it looks like a Victorian sampler. As a result, its actual content knocks against the aesthetic presentation, creating the kind of visual-psychological contrast that runs throughout the pieces.
The contrast between perception and experience encapsulates larger issues of gender for H.D.—in particular, the experience of women in war. She does not deny the violence of contemporary experience but she does cast it in historical terms, and the medium itself insists on a subversive femininity. In 1943, H.D. gave her first public reading. She read a poem entitled “Ancient Wisdom Speaks to the Mountain” in which wisdom, a woman, “speaks of the endurance of art” (Debo 80):
remember these (you said)
who when the earth-quake shook their city,
when angry blast and fire
broke open their frail door,
did not forget
beauty. (qtd. in Debo 80)
How can art, especially a gendered craft practice, “remember” those who enact agency and endure through beauty? What survives when the “frail door” of war-torn London caves in? In her carefully stitched [Pastoral], the house and landscape in flames recalls the destruction of medieval estates by mobs and riots often depicted in Victorian engravings, such as the 1831 fire at Nottingham castle.16 These acts of political protest by arson resonated in the twentieth century for two reasons; not only were estates burned during the Blitz, country houses were abandoned for Britain’s radically shifting class system. Country homes were repurposed to house war offices and hospitals, and then often returned to their owners in a state of disrepair. Starting with World War I, soldiers convalescing in these make-shift hospitals were often prescribed needlework as a form of therapy. Their work, overseen by the Royal School of Needlework, focused on social uplift and veteran rehabilitation through art and craft.
In considering the history of World War II, it can be easy to overlook the difficulty of life in wartime London. For soldiers, as well as for H.D., the tedious attention to detail that needlework demands occupied the hands and the mind, and the act of embroidering gave H.D. an outlet for the fear and helplessness associated with her experiences of war. It also gave her a figure for writing as an act of civilizational preservation and repair. For H.D., writing was like a sampler, the words on the page “so many stitches and just so many rows,” a pattern that remained continuous (Schaffner, Signets 5). The very materials of preservation, wool and linen, function as material manifestations of H.D.’s complex relationship to history and women’s artistic work. Each of H.D.’s tapestries skew perception in order to point up the epistemological antinomies of modern life that resonate with prior historical experiences. Their abstraction of mythic, traditional images is mirrored by the pairing of very loose, revealing lines of yarn with extremely tight, small stitching, especially on animals. These layers of texture mirror the close-up and panorama shots of cinema, visual techniques that not only fascinated H.D. intellectually but also may have informed her approach to needlework’s capacity for shade, detail, and depth.17 The shading in all of the needlepoint canvases is thoughtfully varied, moving between solid lines of abstract coloration to intensely concentrated, realistic color shadowing. They are visual indices of H.D.’s relationship to artistic hierarchies and the continuity of narrative across time and place.
Likely written during the time of her most prolific needlework practice, Within the Walls centers mostly on January 1941, a time when, according to H.D.’s account in the text, “There are already 40,000 civilian casualties” as a result of World War II (113). During this period, H.D. suffered debilitating headaches, hunger and malnutrition, bleeding ears, thoughts of suicide, evacuation, shock, and other effects of war.18 London is “desolate,” pockmarked by “gaps in our rows of houses” left by the bombs (123). These holes allow the unconscious to filter in as traumatic gaps in perception that the memoir, like H.D.’s needlepoints, attempts to repair through reflections on history and women in war. The narrator of Within the Walls describes her political vision as “a dream of peace and hope. It seems to indicate that though our houses and our minds have been sliced open by the attacks of the enemy overhead, that, overhead is as well, the great drive of stars, and those stars found entrance into the shattered house of life” (128). London’s architecture splits open, and so too does the traumatized mind; but H.D. creates a space for both beauty and critique through the agency of craft.
To some extent, the reparative agency found in craft practice stems from its conceivable depth and complexity. Writing in The Invention of Craft, Glenn Adamson celebrates the theoretical potential of craft:
It is certainly the case in H.D.’s work that memory must reconcile the drive to preserve thoughts and experiences with the human need to repair the damage done by trauma. Craft's “temporal impurity” drives the agent to connect with a historical present while also creating something new. Thinking once again alongside Altieri, we might say that attention to the concreteness of literary production illuminates strikingly a dialectic of survival and repair in modernism. He writes, “Making it new involves foregrounding craft and the decisions it sponsors in order to win imaginative sites sufficiently intense, complex, and self-aware that they cannot be subsumed within any culture's business as usual” (769). H.D.'s craft moves creative, feminine agency beyond the bounds of business as usual, not just because of the extraordinary circumstances in which she practiced her craft, but because her works continue to live on the page and in the hand. The “imaginative sites” produced by the reading of her work across media and modalities suggests a powerful new account of H.D.’s particular engagement with gendered responses to trauma. In calling on craft as both a way to survive and make something new, she taps a long history of art in order to bring modernism’s present into relief.
Craft's relation to time is complex—rather like a novel set in times past, but written in the authorial present. When the potential of this temporal structure is realized, craft can be a powerful mediator between the present and the past, and therefore between the individual and the collective […] In short, modern craft is potent not in spite of its temporal impurity, but because of it. Its dynamic relation to memory provides a framework in which traumatic experiences can be processed, forms from the past renewed, questions of agency brought to the fore, and new possibilities explored, all at once. (210)
The archival escapades which resulted in this article were made possible by H.D.'s exceptionally thoughtful grandchildren. I am particularly thankful for Valentine Schaffner, who inspires me as a friend and collaborator well beyond what might be suggested simply by his family's illustrious literary dynasty. I am grateful for the opportunity to have maintained exclusive access to these works, reproduce them here, and quote from H.D.'s correspondence. I also want to thank the anonymous readers at The Space Between who enriched this project tenfold through their generous, insightful feedback.
1 For examples of craft rhetoric in H.D. studies, one can start almost at the beginning. In his introduction to the original edition of H.D.’s Palimpsest, Robert McAlmon quotes an anonymous “good author” who says H.D.’s book is “a tapestry hung between heaven and hell” (241). Or in Susan Stanford Friedman’s preface to Penelope’s Web, she invokes the “weave of H.D.’s modernity as it is patterned by gender, genre, and history” (ix). And, more recently, the Poetry Foundation’s website calls H.D. a “master craftsman,” describing imagism (the movement most closely associated with H.D.) as “a philosophy of art [that] evolved into a craft.”
2 Altieri prompts us to “Consider the difference between a case that analogies are interesting or even show some deep cultural interests, and a case where one shows how writers struggle to integrate analogies and differences for a given purpose” (778). The value of the latter, he insists, is that writers work out the stakes of media engagement in a way that goes beyond mere analogy. In his example, there is a “difference between showing how Henry James’s work shares some characteristics with the telegraph, and showing how James thought about working out ways to have his style take on telegraphic properties” (778). In other words, there is something still to be said for intention, the notion that authors, as literary crafters, make texts that are intellectually entrenched in the density and complexity of modern life.
3 In their paradigm-shifting essay, “The New Modernist Studies,” Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz argue that we should expand modernist scholarship along three axes: temporal expansion in which “periods seem inevitably to get bigger,” spatial expansion in which “texts produced in other quarters of the world” receive more attention, and vertical expansion in which the “quite sharp boundaries between high art and popular forms of culture have been reconsidered” (737–38). H.D.’s needlework archive recasts each of these categories by expanding the transnational reach of her historical imagination, most notably to Egypt; by widening the periodization of modernism through WWII at least; and by advancing the media field of modernism to include the sources and processes of art making in a new register of historical critique. In her celebration and criticism of the new modernist studies, Anne Fernald suggests that women writers offer notable contributions to literary and artistic production (778). In that context, it seems especially significant that craft provides access to rich, gendered histories of making and that it has received relatively little attention in modernist literary studies (with a few notable exceptions, such as Julie Gonnering Lein's study of Mina Loy's lighting designs, the recent contributions on Bloomsbury making from The Cambridge Companion to the Bloomsbury Group, and some limited discussions of craft in Abbie Garrington's Haptic Modernism).
4 For a detailed account of H.D.'s engagement with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and Decadents, see Marina Camboni's “Between Painting and Writing: Figures of Identity in H.D.'s Early Poetry.” Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics underscores the role of craft histories in activism, arguing that art, in practice to some degree but mostly as a philosophy, challenges social hierarchies, especially when it comes to labor activism. He uses the traditional view of craft as a labor rather than an art—and the subsequent complications and retaliations against that organization of aesthetic categories—to define modernism and progressive politics.
5 Helen Sword examines the issue of agency in H.D. through the “prophetic dilemma”—her long process of claiming an authoritative voice while firmly entrenched in the realm of visionary poetics (120).
6 The “Secret Name” section is narrated by “crafty” Helen Fairwood, secretary to Bodge-Grafton, “the famous Egyptologist” (189). She is sent to record the “new Tutankhamen excavation” in Egypt (189).
7 Virginia Smyers’s catalog of H.D.’s books in Bryher’s collection includes her well-thumbed Baedeker guide to Egypt, complete with H.D.’s owl-themed bookplate and an inscription: “Hilda Aldington Jan 11 1923.” H.D. and Bryher visited in February 1923, just a few months after Tut's tomb was initially discovered. Dated to around 1500 B.C., Tut’s tomb was excavated by archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered decorative needlepoint stitching in the cave. In his notes and catalog, Carter identifies traditional linen robes: “The opening for the neck and at the chest were adorned with richly woven pattern. One of the vestments with field plain, has narrow sleeves like the tunicle and needlework representing animals and floral design applied to its broad hem at the collar” (TAA.i.2.10.62 © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford). In addition to these decorative designs, ancient Egyptians also used what is known in decorative embroidery as tent stitch to stitch together canvas tents—a practical application of early embroidery. Various other instances of Egyptian weaving and embroidery (from the utilitarian to the ornate) were discovered in the mid-to-late-19th century as numerous tombs were excavated and mummies began to circulate in the art market—but this was the earliest.
8 In addition to William Morris’s lasting influence, May Morris remained the figurehead of late-Victorian needlework. See her book, Decorative Needlework from 1893. For a more detailed account of H.D.'s investment in revising narratives of Pre-Raphaelite womanhood, see Cassandra Laity’s H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence.
9 For a contemporary account of Pliny and Homer’s influence on the history of needlepoint, see The Hand-book of Needlework by Miss Lambert (Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1851).
10 In their chapter on H.D.’s Egypt, Bryant and Eaverly expertly detail H.D.’s conviction that Karnak was a central concept for surviving modern warfare. The enduring textuality symbolized by hieroglyphic writing encapsulated the paradox of literary craft, or the “the physical vulnerability of her writing” during the Blitz, set against the “permanent chronicle” of hieroglyphic inscription (79).
11 Underscoring the regeneration of art and aesthetics in H.D., Raffaella Baccolini argues that H.D.’s Trilogy section entitled The Walls Do Not Fall seeks “inspiration in devastation,” suggesting that “Art that is despised and deemed futile is reevaluated in this section with a defiant tone that celebrates its persistence (124). The persistence of art, emerging from the ruins, announces itself in the dedication, “for Karnak 1923 / from London 1942” (509). H.D.’s 1923 visit to Tut’s tomb is connected directly to the present moment of war and of the poems’ composition.
12 See Madelyn Detloff’s “Burnt Offerings or Incendiary Devices? Ambivalence, Trauma, and Cultural Work in The Gift and Trilogy” (Approaches to Teaching H.D. eds. Debo and Vetter, 127-34) and Debo’s comprehensive introduction to H.D.’s Within the Walls and “What do I Love?” for a detailed account of the Blitz and H.D.’s WWII cultural context. In her account of H.D.’s war poetics, Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick observes “An insistence on a female perspective defines H.D.’s war writing” (59). For a broader account of Blitz literature and the shape of modernism in the period of total war, see Marina MacKay’s Modernism and World War II, which follows Patrick Deer’s extraordinary, comprehensive account of WWII British literature and literary culture, Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature.
13 Vita Sackville-West similarly sent Virginia Woolf wool from her sheep at Sissinghurst to offset the rations. See The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (eds. Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska, 374).
14 I have given the needleworks titles for purposes of clarity.
15 I make much of the trees in these tapestries because, in H.D.’s poetry and prose, trees are often metonymic symbols of self-realization and identity formation, such as the following reflection by her roman à clef narrator in HERmione: “Tree on tree on tree. TREE. I am the Tree of Life. Tree. I am a tree planted by the rivers of water. I am…I am…HER exactly” (70).
16 See University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections Library for the diaries of Henry Pelham Fiennes Pelham Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne (1785–1851), which detail the Reform Bill Riots and his reaction to property destruction.
17 Christina Walter reads H.D.’s poems as “imagetexts,” borrowing W. J. T. Mitchell’s term, “as part of a scientific vernacular of vision that mixes psychology, psychology, and optics,” and especially influenced by Freudian dis-order (93). Walter most interestingly reads scientific visualities through H.D.’s engagement with cinematic technology, writing, “H.D. suggests that recent film technologies, from closeup and panorama to the layered and depth effects produced by splicing or superimposing negatives, were now offering her a new language for approaching the subject’s incoherence” (102).
18 In addition to questioning how and why one goes on during war, H.D. also reflects on Woolf’s recent suicide: “The late Mrs. Woolf who walked into a river, but a few weeks ago, was real. She was real. Her death was a sign of failure, or not?” (141).
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- Fig. 2: Reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 3: [Fruit Grove], 17” x 37 ½”; reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 4: [Woodland Interior], 12 ½” x 16”; reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 5: The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry (Sight). Musée de Cluny, Paris
- Fig. 6: [Sanctus Hubertus], 15”x22”; reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 7: Reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 8: [Pastoral], 21”x50”; reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 1: Reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation
- Fig. 9: Reproduced courtesy of the Schaffner Family Foundation