Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) is a prolific feminist author who published her works between the first and the second feminist waves. At the beginning of her writing career, the author exposed the matter of gender inequality delicately, establishing her imagery through small symbols such as the flowers from her Sea Garden (Doolittle, 1916). H.D.’s first books were published during the First Feminist Wave (1848-1920), and these feminist influences can be found in between the lines of her work as well as directly in the message of female empowerment the author tries to convey. The focus of the first wave of feminism was the women's suffrage movement, that expanded to the fight for not only political, but also social and economic equality. As women were not allowed to vote and could not own any belongings to their name, women from the upper-class started calling out these inequalities in status and spoke up in regards to the rights they were missing, as well as to their non-existent presence in the political scene of the time. Having been born in 1886, the author was raised in a society with blatant inequality and started dreaming, as many budding feminists did, of the possibility of equality, and she would later take matters into her own hands by contributing to the feminist movement through her art. Susan Edmund asserts that “H.D.’s strongest critique of authority and power is in her psychoanalytically informed treatment of the relation between women and patriarchal culture” (Alfrey, 2000, p. 87). H.D.’s poetry at the beginning of her writing career revolves around the ins and outs of this power relationship between men and women which society imposed upon them. The purpose of this article is to discuss the feminist elements present in H.D.'s "Eurydice" (Doolittle, 2012).
One prominently feminist aspect of H.D.'s writing was her habit of rewriting the role of women in historically male narratives; H.D. had a tendency to rewrite Greek myths from a female perspective, one which was already present in these narratives but was often overlooked (Doolittle, 2012). In "Eurydice", the poet explores a feminist perspective of the Greek myth holding the same name. Eurydice is the wife of Orpheus, and the original myth’s story line tells the tale of a couple who are in love but are separated when a character, infatuated with Eurydice, becomes jealous of Orpheus and sends a snake to bite her (Roman and Roman, 2010). Eurydice dies and is brought to the Underworld, but Orpheus loves her so much that he does everything in his power to bring her back to life. He travels into the Underworld and manages to convince Hades to release her, who agrees under one condition: Orpheus must not look back (Daly, 2009). Sadly, he does, and so her soul is taken back to the Underworld, only to be reunited with Orpheus in the afterlife.
Image 1: The book cover of the Collected Poems of H.D (Doolittle, 2008)
In H.D.'s "Eurydice", the titular female character takes center stage as H.D. explores the perspective of Eurydice after she has been condemned to the Underworld, starting where the original Greek myth ends. In the first part of the poem, Eurydice does not seem to approve of the fact that she was taken into the Underworld way too soon, saying “for your arrogance/ and your ruthlessness/ I am swept back/ where dead lichens drip” (Doolittle, 2012, p. 29-30). H.D. articulates Eurydice’s anger in a very feminine way, building it up with each line that is written, thus allowing emotion to contribute to the transformation of Eurydice beyond the mere object of love that Orpheus designated her to be. Eurydice's status in the original myth was one of a woman who was solely dependent on a man, but H.D. evolves this status through empowerment, giving this character a voice of her own, the power to think and to judge actions, as well as the power to act. In the second part of the poem, she blames her lover for looking back and demands him to justify his actions: “why did you hesitate for that moment?” (Doolittle, 2012, p. 29-30). Eurydice feels condemned by someone else’s will, betrayed by the one who was supposed to love her, and from these emotions her sense of self-empowerment increases as her voice becomes that of a woman who can now create her own destiny.
So for your arrogance/ and your ruthlessness/ I have lost the earth/ and the flowers of the earth,/ and the live souls above the earth,/ and you who passed across the light/ and reached/ ruthless;// you who have your own light,/ who are to yourself a presence,/ who need no presence;/ yet for all your arrogance/ and your glance,/ I tell you this:// such loss is no loss./ such terror, such coils and strands and pitfalls/ of blackness,/ such terror/ is no loss;// hell is no worse than your earth/ above the earth (Doolittle, 2012, p. 29-30)
Image 2: Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, Orpheus and Eurydice (Kratzenstein, 1806).
The first wave's focus was not only political and meant to achieve the right to vote, but also talked about the status of a woman as a wife and/or a mother, being defined only by these roles and nothing more. The prison in which Eurydice was thrown came as a result of a man's action. As a woman of the first feminist wave, H.D. could not yet see it possible for women to entirely separate from men due to the fact that women could not own money, but she started to see the possibility for a woman to create her own environment in certain circumstances, in a similar way in which Eurydice forged her new present. In this fragment of the poem, it is shown how Eurydice begins to gain a voice to call out the man who doomed her and castigate him for his actions that led her to being imprisoned in Hades’ world. This voice brings light to the darkness of the Underground as well as to the darkness in the character’s mind. Pursuing a self-analysis, Eurydice continues using her voice to encourage herself, and eventually, she finds the much-needed strength within herself.
At least I have the flowers of myself,/ and my thoughts, no god/ can take that;/ I have the fervor of myself for a presence/ and my own spirit for light;/ and my spirit with its loss/ knows this;/ though small against the black,/ small against the formless rocks,/ hell must break before I am lost. (Doolittle, Poems 30-31)
Eurydice concludes her monologue with a repetition, thus enhancing her empowerment. She articulates a new version of her destiny which she takes upon herself to create. In this short fragment the reader is able to spot another mention of flowers, which demonstrates that the association of womanhood with the symbol of delicate flowers still is present in H.D.’s work: "before I am lost, / hell must open like a red rose/ for the dead to pass" (Doolittle, 2012, p. 31).
Image 3: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Wounded Eurydice (Corot, 1868/70).
The heroine of this poem insists on her own power to save herself, displaying a clearly feminist stance. She consoles herself with the thought that she has her “own spirit for light”, even if she is feeling “small against the black” (Doolittle, 2012, p. 30-31), as small as the flowers in her Sea Garden (Doolittle, 1916). She has the power to save herself. Indeed, the whole “hell must break before” she is “lost”; with this line she emphasizes the impossibility of ever losing herself, no matter how dire the circumstances. The female power of the First Feminist Wave came from a place of subjugation and of acknowledgement of the political chains they were wearing. "Eurydice" is an example of a woman finding her power in a place where there is no hope, thus reflecting the feminist ideas of the era.
This movement of female empowerment is what gives H.D.’s poetry the strength to articulate the needs of the women of the first wave, and what they need is freedom, liberty, and equality. Writing these stories in a poetic way, she manages to foreground female power and displays her ability to overpower the male-dominated world. In "Eurydice", the main character does not manage to remove herself from the situation caused by a “ruthless” god, but she does make the best of it. She is no longer the victim needing to be saved; instead, she transforms her “hell” into a space where she can thrive - this is the lesson H.D. wishes to transpire in the poem. "Eurydice" encapsulates the whole spirit of the first feminist wave, a first wave of female self-empowerment.
Alfrey, S. (2000). The sublime of intense sociability: Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Gertrude Stein. Associated University Press Inc., USA. Daly, N. K. (2009). Greek and Roman mythology A to Z (3rd Ed.). Chelsea House Publishers, USA. Doolittle, H. (2012). Poems. Classic Poetry Series. Retrieved from: https://www.poemhunter.com/i/ebooks/pdf/hilda_doolittle_2012_6.pdf Doolittle, H. (1916). Sea Garden. Constable and Company LTD., London. Retrieved from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28665/28665-h/28665-h.htm Roman, L., & Roman, M. (2010). Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology. Facts on File, USA.
Cover photo: Corot, J. B. C. (1861). Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld. Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/orpheus-leading-eurydice-from-the-underworld-jean-baptiste-camille-corot/1QH79DCxW2Tj3A
Image 1: Doolittle, H. (2018). Collected poems of H. D (Classic Reprint), Forgotten Books, London. Image 2: Kratzenstein, C. G. (1806). Orpheus and Eurydice, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurydice#/media/File:Kratzenstein_orpheus.jpg Image 3: Corot, J. B. C. (1868 -1870). Wounded Eurydice, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean_Baptiste_Camille_Corot_-_Wounded_Eurydice_-_1894.1042_-_Art_Institute_of_Chicago.jpg