In this previously unpublished essay, the legendary Imagist H.D. muses on the Greek bucolic poet Theocritus.
Photo of H.D. taken from a postcard inscribed “To Marianne Moore, H.D.,” ca. 1921. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Where the Greek voice speaks there are rocks. But these Sicilian rocks of Theocritus, particularly of the twentieth Bucolic with which I specifically deal, are sunk a layer beneath rich soil. Theocritean rocks are covered with earth, rich loam and successive sun-baked, sun-broken and un-crumbled layers of oak leaves, blades of rank grass and reeds and many feathery, dusty, dried, and broken herbs and flowers, witches’ herbs and vine leaves and withered berries of grapes. Only by study of this surface, ripe, rich, decadent only in the sense in which a brittle sun-baked July leaf is decadent, do we realize the real quality of those rocks … Greek even if once-removed, Sicilian. In Theocritus are layers of rocks, and under the rocks is fire, ever ready to break out volcanic, infernal one might say, were there for the Greek any inferno but that of suppression and inhibition and actual bodily death.
This is the world of Theocritus, as different from that of Euripides as black earth from limpid water, water surface that reflects images of Olympians, pure spirits, as if the sun threw color and fire, different yet the same, passing through that Athenian intellect. For at Athens there is light and one has never seen such light, not in dream, not in vision, not light reflected from rock-pools, nor light from the ridges of mountains. There is gold in Egypt, there is air doubtless, warmed and colored and steeped in gold in Assyria, in Phoenicia, in Libya, gold beneath and above, there is heat in Assyria; there is color everywhere, there is light in one city.
But there is shadow elsewhere. There are spaces of blackness, warm and soft and restful; blackness which spreads soft cushions where we may rest, blackness of dream, witchcraft, blackness, too, of rest, of mirth, blackness as of a great curtain against which the figures of Theocritus stand, brilliant images, red and rust-color, black-purple, mops of tangled hair, goat-herd, goat and kid and bull, and divine images, drawn with the richness of a Rubens, designed not to draw us toward the sky and its enchantments but to bring us close to wholesome, passionate things of earth.
She hates me and I sweat with agony “as a rose with dew” says the boy.
We have often met this boy. We have known him throughout the whole of Hellenic literature. We had grown weary of his fifth-century perfections; we had grown tired of him, friend and companion of the great, pupil, essence of the divine, drawing his master to contemplation, through repression, of the abstract and geometrical. We had seen him, tall and serene, amid the banqueters of the early dramatist, Plato, man of the world, Athenian and poet. We had worshipped him, “the morning star among the living”, but all stars, all suns, must set. So we followed him again, half furtively into the hidden gardens of effete, outlying suburbs; followed him and again, loved him half furtively. Till we grew sick of the roses and the myrrh and turned with relief to the late epigrammatists who made of him a mark for poignant satire.
Satire, the death-blow, resounding of hammer-strokes on already broken bones, virulent acid to eat away decay, has, too, its death-blow, meets in the end defeat. For when the body is purged or slain or dead, there is a new body, whether of individuals, of nations, of modes of thought, of literatures, or feelings, or emotions. Beyond life there is death, beyond exuberance, there is inevitable decay. Equally beyond death, there is life, old forms in new environments.
Through the medium of this boy, a traditional figure for inspiration and for mirth, Theocritus, for the first time, weds beauty with the jeer at beauty. The Greek country boy loves Eunica. He has found her in the city. He has never before seen rose and pink so divinely mingled on so white a face. With a tittering sneer of Eunica at “dank lips, black hands, rank smell,” by a subtle, inner reading of the poet, we sniff not so much the grosser sweepings of the ox-stalls as fresh hay and new-turned loam.
Rather it is from the girl Eunica we turn. Not because of the boy’s crude tirade at her, not because he tells us, “she spit at him, mouthed and played the whore” but because we ourselves see her with our own eyes, standing on that squalid pavement (the Alexandria of Theocritus’ later period), her pleated shawl dust-stained and hinting of dead myrrh, the tattered fringe of her under-vest gray and lusterless in the noonday sunlight, her yellow-tinted curls showing the marks of a too-ambitious iron beside the boy’s clustering locks, burned crisp with Sicilian sun.
Beauty and the jeer at beauty meet. Look, he says, am I not a man? My hair curls like the selena-flower, my eyebrows are lustrous black, and such and such and such fine phrases he uses, parsley, honeycomb, inept and futile embellish the description of his own charms.
The poet jeers at beauty, destroying with one hand, rewelding with the other. We hear him play two themes upon a double-pipe. The girls may jilt me, says the boy, and he becomes a figure of satire comparing his stupid eyes to the beauty of the Athenian goddess, but his music he says is sweet and we know that this is true.
At the end of this idyll, the poet lets the boy play for us soft, yet full and ripe music, under great wind-swept pine-trees, a tone lower, no shrill Dionysic ecstatic flute-note, but reeds, rich and quiet.
Here the names we have met and worshipped in distant stars, again worshipped in temples and loved on earth, and loved over-familiarly and grown to tire of, are renewed for us beyond their death, a renewal, a new life. For Kypris, white star, met Adonis in the shadow of great oak-woods and clinging to the rough trunk of an oak-tree wept for him there, and the Moon herself, white slaying scimitar, stood, only a Lady, after all, tired, with disillusioned feet, upon a hill in Latmos.
Born Hilda Doolittle, H.D. (1886–1961) was an American poet and novelist notably associated with imagism, an avant-garde literary movement that emerged in London during the early twentieth century. Though somewhat overshadowed by her contemporaries in historical and critical accounts of the male-dominated modernist movements, H.D. is considered one of the most important and inimitable writers of her time.
“Curled Thyme,” by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), copyright © 2019 by The Schaffner Family Foundation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. From Visions and Ecstasies: Selected Essays, by H.D., published by David Zwirner Books.
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