written in Switzerland and completed in 1961
Helen in Egypt
When H. D., or Hilda Doolittle, completed her long poem Helen in Egypt in 1961, she explicitly construed it as a response to the rambling, ultimately unfinished modernist epic, The Cantos, by her contemporary, correspondent, friend, and sometime lover, Ezra Pound. More accurately, H. D. conceived of it as a counterpart to an early section of The Cantos, first published as The Pisan Cantos
(1948). H. D.’s long poem is both strikingly similar to and different from Pound’s poem—and a true feminised and even feminist response to both Pound and to the epic genre itself.
Inspired by versions of the life of Helen of Troy told by the Greek dramatist Euripides and the Greek poet Stesichorus, the poem recounts, in a series of imagist lyrics, how Helen was never in Troy, having been replaced by a phantom by Zeus and spirited away to Egypt instead. The story is profoundly ironic, since it posits that the prime cause of the historic watershed that is the Trojan War was false. It is also rich in potential, since it allows H.D. to explore Helen’s character more fully. As Pound had done, H. D. employs a Homeric allusion and a series of ostensibly disconnected images and personae in order to produce a text that is both self-consciously epic yet intentionally fragmented and, one could say, Modernist by virtue of its imagism. A sense of coherence is nevertheless latent within her text, not only because there is a palpable—if difficult—narrative, but also because its images and events are all perceived or remembered by a central protagonist, Homer’s Helen. As Jacob Korg states, ‘the whole Cantos, with its wide-ranging visits to all sorts and conditions of men, has a broad ethical dimension that contrasts with the interior monologue that occupies most of Helen in Egypt’.
H. D.’s utilisation of classical epic, moreover, is not as a source of inspiration or point of departure but rather as a text to be rewritten and reimagined. The poem possesses a concrete and consistent aim—the revisioning of a key Homeric figure and hence of Homeric epic itself. In repositioning the central female figure of this epic, H. D. presents a feminist rewriting of classical epic, positing what Susan Stanford Friedman calls a ‘women’s mythology’. Nonetheless, the poem is ultimately irresolute, and its conclusion seems to be that there can be no conclusion. As Claire Buck argues, incoherence is the ultimate aim of the poem inasmuch as it ends by ‘defining the knowledge of woman as something you can know only by knowing that you do not know it’.
Helen in Egypt proceeds in three parts; each part is divided into six or seven books, with each book further comprising eight lyrics, and each lyric composed of a series of mostly unrhymed tercets. The first part, the ‘Pallinode’ (literally, a ‘writing against’), depicts Helen in Egypt, where, alone in the temple of the Egyptian god Amen, she encounters Achilles, or, possibly, the ghost of Achilles. In the second, ‘Leuké’, Helen finds herself back in Greece, on the island of Leuké, where Paris had lived as a shepherd before he had been recognised as one of the princes of Troy. Helen encounters not only Paris but her first lover, Theseus, and sifts through, with Theseus’ help, the memories and meaning of her life. In the final part, the ‘Eidolon’, Helen is back in Egypt, where, in a dreamlike state, she seems to reconcile the various demands on her life posited by her various lovers, and to find some sort of resolution in bearing Achilles’ son.
This primary opposition of the two Helens—of Troy and of Egypt—becomes the basis of a dichotomy that runs through the poem. This dichotomy is that which divides war from love, masculinity from femininity, the external and power-driven from the internal and psychological. Significantly, H. D. also distinguishes patriarchal Greek myth from Egyptian hermeneutics, which she reads as feminised and maternalised, and as expressive of an earlier phase in human history of goddess-worship. In making these distinctions, H. D. draws on Freud’s identification of the two drives that underpin human psychology—the love-drive of Eros and the death-drive of Thanatos—and explicitly genders this. According to Friedman, however, H. D. ‘depart[ed] radically from Freud’s presentation’ and ‘associated Eros with the woman’s world and Thanatos with the man’s world’. This juxtaposition is expressed alternately within the poem as the split between Eros and Eris—the gods of love and strife, respectively—or between the forces of ‘L’Amour’ and ‘La Mort’. Additionally, Achilles seems initially to represent the masculine, martial impulse, whereas Paris carries with him connotations of femininity and love. Their enmity across the battlefields of Troy and the death of Achilles from an arrow aimed by Paris thus replay the schism at the heart of H. D.’s epic. The poem therefore revises the impulses at the heart of the Homeric heroic code. Masculinity and war as told by the Greek tradition are marginalised; in its place is a story of femininity and love located in the older, less knowable civilisation of Egypt. It matters not whether Helen of Troy was a phantom and whether the Helen we meet in Egypt is distinct and real. What the initial division between these two Helens achieves is a space in which the figure of Helen can be depicted outside the confines of the epic tradition. Within the Greek tradition, Helen is reviled and misunderstood. Where she is acknowledged as a victim of the fates, she is seen as the silent pawn of masculine ambition and desire and, paradoxically, where she is granted volition, she is construed as sexually deviant and destructive. As the poem opens, however, she finds herself, finally, in a place where she can define herself: ‘here there is peace / for Helena, Helen hated of all Greece’ (Pallinode I.1).
Helen’s questioning of the masculine code and her discovery of an alternative feminine wisdom express themselves in the poem’s symbolic vocabulary, which posits the base elements of weaponry—flint, steel, and iron—against less tangible aspects of nature—the stars and the sea, embodied by their presiding goddesses Astarte, Thetis, Ishtar and Isis. This dichotomy recurs, too, in the many events that unfold or that Helen recalls. First, Helen’s union with Achilles is a clash of her love for him and his famous bellicose wrath. Achilles in his guise as Greek warrior is one of a council of bearers of masculine honour, ‘the iron ring of war or the death cult’ (Leuke VII.4) that also includes Agamemnon and Odysseus. Achilles’ and Helen’s consummation is then figured first by his attempt to strangle her ‘with his fingers’ remorseless steel’ when he discovers her identity and then by the ‘star in the night’ that shines over them (Pallinode I.8). Achilles’s own development, we are reminded later in the poem, was marked by a turn from femininity and passivity to manhood and martiality. His mother’s plans for him to live in peace, which included disguising him as a girl and placing him on the island of Scyros, were firmly rejected and forgotten when he embraced war at Odysseus’ goading: ‘He forgot his mother / when the heroes mocked / at the half-god hidden in Scyros’ (Eidolon VI.3). It is only after his union with Helen and his reconciliation with the feminine alternative she represents that Achilles can recall his failure to abide by his mother’s wishes when he had instead ‘followed the lure of war’. It is only at this post-coital moment that, as ‘he stared and stared / through the smoke and the glowing embers’, he ‘wondered why he forgot / and why he just now remembered’ (Eidolon V.8).
In the poem’s most important subtext—Helen’s recurring preoccupation with the fate of her sister Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon—the schism between love and strife is explicitly replayed as women’s oppression at the hands of men. Clytemnestra and her lover famously killed Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan war. Yet Clytemnestra, like Helen, is transformed by this poem from a figure of hate and betrayal into a defender of feminised love against the masculinised demands of war and strife. As Friedman states, ‘Deep in family history, … Helen finds Clytaemnestra’s motivations to be her defense of the woman’s world. […] In contrast to the metallic world of war, [the woman’s world] is characterized by the ascendance of peace and harmony’. The reasons for Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon are located in his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis and enable his ships to set sail for war. Though we are told that ‘Clytaemnestra’s problem or Clytaemnestra’s ‘war’ is not Helen’s’, we do learn that ‘her Lord Agamemnon and Achilles do have the iron-ring of the war or the death-cult in common’ (Pallinode VII.4). Clytemnestra’s revenge of her daughter is emblematised by love and purity. Both mother and daughter are linked through bridal innocence and floral beauty, for Iphigenia, sacrificed at what she thought was her bridal altar, resembles Clytemnestra on her own wedding day. Helen remembers that ‘She was a bride, my sister, / with a bride’s innocence, / she was a lover of flowers’ and how ‘she wound in her hair, / the same simple weeds / that Iphigenia wore’ (Pallinode V.6). But this love is marred by masculinist, martial strife; though ‘it was a moment / of infinite beauty’, instead ‘a war-Lord / blighted that peace’ (Pallinode V.6). Clytemnestra’s revenge is specifically a woman’s revenge; a revenge against warfare, symbolised by its steel weaponry, and a revenge seemingly approved by Astarte, ancient goddess of fertility, whose name also associates her with the stars:
if a woman fights
she must fight by stealth,
with invisible gear;
no sword, no dagger, no spear (Pallinode VII.3)
With these two opposite terms of masculine instruments of war and a feminised imagery of nature marking Helen’s progress, the poem moves tentatively toward a resolution that will somehow unite them. Assisted by Theseus, who unites the roles of lover, father and analyst, Helen gropes her way toward an understanding of her disparate selves. Friedman has pointed out how Helen moves through three phases in the poem, phases associated with the three manifestations of the goddess identified by Robert Graves, whose book White Goddess greatly interested H. D. Her own notes for the poem state: ‘the New Moon is the white goddess of birth and growth; the Full Moon, the red goddess of love and battle; the old Moon, the black goddess of death and divination’. According to Friedman, Helen similarly moves from a phase of youthful love with Paris; to a mature, almost maternalised relationship with Achilles, particularly in her identification with Thetis; to a repositioning of herself as a figure not unlike Persephone, bride of the god of the underworld, whose marriage symbolises seasonal rebirth. Helen’s union with Achilles is, ultimately, the fusion of feminised love with masculinised war and strife. ‘The essence of H. D.’s pallinode’, writes Friedman, ‘is the growing understanding and acceptance of power and values in a woman’s world’.
Thus, H. D. actively questions the values that underpin Homeric epic. The ‘numberless / tender kisses, the soft caresses’ that mark Helen’s life according to H. D. had no role in the traditional epics—’none of these / came into the story, / it was epic, heroic’ (Eidolon VII.1). Her poem is not just a simple retelling of Helen’s story, but an active reclamation of epic territory in order that it may include a feminine principle of love and an acknowledgement of female power. The epic form is linked by H.D. to the dominance of masculinist values of war over the feminised principle of love. But, as a result, and somewhat perversely, the mythical foundation to H. D.’s poem can offer no foil to the troubles of the modern world, when it is itself a source of those troubles—as we shall see.
In telling the story of a woman marginalised by the epic tradition, H. D. attempts also to tell her story as a poet—just as Pound’s fragmentary visions in the Cantos were indicative of his poetic quest to transcend confusion in a united artistic vision. Helen is readable on one level as a version of H. D., for the men in Helen’s life correspond to those in H. D.’s, most notably Achilles with H. D.’s lover, Lord Dowding, and Theseus with Freud. According to Friedman, the relationship between Helen and Theseus echoes H. D.’s own experiences under treatment from Freud, and encapsulates her very real desire for resolution ‘in the epic as well as in her life’. Helen’s quest for integration as a woman, then, is also interpretable as H.D.’s quest for wholeness and resolution as a woman poet.
Nonetheless, troubled by its irreconcilable tensions, H. D.’s poem eschews any readily available resolution, for either poet or protagonist. The fruit of Helen’s union with Achilles is never presented in the poem, only prefigured. Moreover, the child, Euphorion, possesses a dual identity, reflecting the dichotomy that splits the worlds his parents inhabit. Euphorion, remarks Friedman, ‘is the androgynous One that incorporates both the archetypal polarity of mother and father and the dualities within each of them’. Helen states, ‘If I think of a child of Achilles’, it is both ‘the child in Chiron’s cave’ and ‘a child that stared / at a stranger’ (Eidolon VII.1); that is, it is both the boy Achilles and the girl Helen. The two principles of love and war come together in H. D.’s epic but they do not fuse. For Buck, this duality is, indeed, part of the poem’s feminist message: ‘H. D.’s formulation of the woman and her knowledge in Helen in Egypt provides a model for the representation of femininity which moves beyond the opposition of wholeness and lack, unity and division’. The result is a feminist modernist epic: a feminist appropriation of Homeric epic and a modernist celebration of the flux that is life specifically identified as feminine.
 Jacob Korg, Winter Love: Ezra Pound and H. D. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 172.
 Korg 180.
 Susan Stanford Friedman, ‘Creating a Women’s Mythology: H. D.’s Helen in Egypt’, Signets: Reading H. D., ed. Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) 373-405.
 Claire Buck, H. D. and Freud: Bisexuality and a Feminine Discourse (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) 164.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D. (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1981) 256-57.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 266-67.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 257.
 H. D., Helen in Egypt (New York: New Directions, 1974); references are to book and lyric numbers.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 261.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 269.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 269.
 Korg 176-77.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 294.
 Friedman, Psyche Reborn 294.
 Buck 164.
Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (China)
Adapted from “H.D.’s Helen in Egypt,” in The History of the Epic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 173-9.