New Research from the Beinecke Collections

April 9, 2012

(Re)Storing Happiness: Toward an Ecopoetic Reading of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton, from Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 2011, an essay by Cynthia Hogue, 2005 H. D. Fellow at the Beinecke Library – Full text PDF


The modernist poet H.D. described her postwar novel, The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), as an “exploratory” roman vecu, a description which points to the work’s experimental structure and its basis in autobiography. Sword is a palimpsest; the contemporary plot and characters in the first section, “Wintersleep,” are layered over—and recast in earlier eras—in the second section, “Summerdream.” The novel’s subject, Spiritualism and reincarnation, is esoteric. H.D. wrote the novel under the name she also gave her main character, the Spiritualist Delia Alton, a nom de plume that she adopted, as Demetres Tryphonopoulos suggests in his scholarly edition of H.D.’s Majic Ring, “for her psychically ‘gifted’ and mystically inspired authorial alter ego.”1 Sword includes details not only about H.D.’s Spiritualist activities, but also about her acquaintance with Lord Dowding, a Spiritualist who had been Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. The novel was drafted soon after H.D. recovered from a psychotic breakdown in 1946 that is often attributed to Lord Dowding’s repudiation of her psychic gifts, a series of events that has colored the novel’s reception.
In the essay that follows, I shift the terms in which this work has been placed. I begin with its esoteric context and proceed to its ecopoetic concerns, in order to explore the novel’s environmental awareness and what I argue is a gynocentric vision of a replenished natural world. Sword cultivates a precision of attention—an “ethics of looking,” to invoke Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s definition of feminist ecopoetics3—brought into sharp focus by duress. The novel is a poet’s prose, so highly attuned to its environment—dramatically, insistently, a city under siege in a world at war—that H.D.’s experience of the intensity of civilian life in London during war-time is palpable even some 60 years later. To be sure, she testifies to that intensity more lyrically in Trilogy, written before the war ended, and the contrast between the two works is instructive. Sword spells out what Trilogy encodes, as if its author were too traumatized by war’s aftermath to sublimate the actual events, the personal and global devastation in the context of which she wrote. Sword does not transcend its circumstances, because the novel is grounded in them, literally thinking-through war’s aftermath. But in the end, I suggest, H.D. transposes what she construes from the Second World War into a profoundly ecopoetic vision of a healed and restored earth.
Read the rest of the essay here: (Re)Storing Happiness, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 2011 18: 840-860

Image: Bookplate from H. D.’s library