Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

H.D. and "The Contest": Archaeology of a Sapphic Gaze

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

H.D. and "The Contest": Archaeology of a Sapphic Gaze

Article excerpt

What need - yet to sing love, love must first shatter us.

- H.D., "Fragment Forty" (Collected Poems [CP] 175)

Scholars have long documented the relationships between Sappho and her poetic successors.(1) More recently, a few critics have unearthed those between Sappho and H.D. Thirteen years ago, for example, Susan Gubar insisted that "Sappho's status as a female precursor empowered a number of female modernists" (44), including H.D., and enabled them to "try to solve the problem of poetic isolation and imputed inferiority" (46) that they experienced as women writers. Two years later, while acknowledging that H.D. never explicitly names Sappho in the poems of Sea Garden as the "crucial source of lyric power" ("Rose Cut in Rock" 529), Eileen Gregory viewed Sea Garden as "a consciously crafted whole" (536) in which H.D. "attempts to recover the imagination of goddess-centered Lesbos" as exemplified by Sappho, "the first love-possessed lyricist" (528-29).(2) Robert Babcock, indicating that Thomas Swann was the critic who "established a canon of [H.D.'s] Sapphic verses" (43), extended Gregory's thesis in 1990 by demonstrating that H.D.'s "Pursuit" from Sea Garden was based specifically on Sappho's fragment 105. Babcock proposed that "[t]he failure of [H.D.'s contemporary] critics to recognize the sources of her work or to treat her writing as a serious engagement with a literary tradition may have led H.D. to begin explicitly detailing sources in her later books" (44). Babcock referred to "Pursuit" as "H.D.'s earliest published version of Sappho" and concluded that it could "contribute to a fuller appreciation of the range and depth of the Sapphic influence on her writing" (46).

Today, seven years after Babcock's work, it is my intention to add my voice in order to reenvision the link between Sappho and H.D. However, I will argue that Sappho's influence on H.D. extends beyond what Gubar labels "the dynamic of collaboration" (58); beyond what Babcock identifies as H.D.'s "startling but simple" treatment of an image as an image (46); and beyond what Gregory calls "the aesthetic of H.D.'s early work," which conjures and reenacts "the experienced power of the image" ("Rose Cut in Rock" 545). I suggest that Sappho also teaches H.D. "the experienced power" and sexual erotics of a gaze that initiates not a fixed subject/object exchange but an oscillating sense of subjectivity. In this essay I demonstrate that H.D., rather than encountering a male-dominated tradition of "the gaze," creates a gaze influenced by what she interprets as the "viewing" employed by Sappho in the sixth century BC.

In the first section of this essay, I explain why readings that rely solely on ways in which male authors have oppressed women without including ways in which female authors are part of a women's literary tradition can be reductive - in a destructive as well as an analytic sense. I then examine the literary tradition of Sappho that would eventually influence H.D. In the second section, I attempt to reconstruct the ways in which I believe H.D. inherited and interpreted that tradition. In the third section, I examine H.D.'s early poem "The Contest" from Sea Garden as part of a Sapphic vision of poetry that is something other than an oppositional, perpetuating, or marginal discourse against a "patriarchal" tradition. And in the concluding section, I speculate on why H.D. might have refrained from both mere imitation and direct translation of Sappho.

I dare more than the singer offering her lute,

I offer more than the lad singing at your steps,

I give you my praise and this: the love of my lover for his mistress.

- H.D., "Fragment Forty-one" (CP 184)

I want to explain my use of the terms archaeology and gaze in this essay's title. The latter undoubtedly recalls film theorists such as Laura Mulvey and her articulations of visual pleasure and the "male gaze."(3) Considering H. …

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