Beautiful Dreamers: Helen in Egypt and The Sleeping Beauty

by Charlotte Mandel

Copyright Charlotte Mandel. This article originally appeared in Clockwatch Review: a journal of the arts. Bloomington, IL : Dept. of English, Illinois Wesleyan University, c1994-1995. ISSN: 0749-9311. vol. 9, nos. 1-2, p. 155-159, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Charlotte Mandel.
       Call the muse Mnemosyne or Beatrice, Ewige Frau, Eve, Helen or Sleeping Beauty--for poets of either sex, the elusive inspirer materializes as a woman. On the game board of poetic quest, she is initiator, chief dice thrower, and the spiritual reality sought. Her image can never be physically possessed--what she represents is the power of the poet's dreaming self. Helen in Egypt, H.D.'s mid-century touchstone of woman's self-discovery, revolves around the beautiful dreamer. For a male poet to risk entrance into that feminine energy field requires rare gifts of sensitive awareness. Hayden Carruth, by his long poem The Sleeping Beauty, published a generation after H.D.'s death in 1961, marks a significant turn in literary gender evolution.

       While H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) delved for transcendence into projections of the self, her contemporary, William Carlos Williams, yanked his imagined woman by the hair. H.D. portrays her beautiful Helen "moving in a dream," and therein lies her ineffable power. Without dream power, the woman is dispossessed of her generative role. Practicing his preachment, "no ideas but in things," Williams depicts his "beautiful thing" as victim of a catalog of graphic beatings. He goes on to say, "The page also is the same beauty: a dry beauty of the page--beaten by whips" (126). Likened to the physical page his mind wishes to dominate, the poet's feminine subject becomes vincible object, significantly, she does not dream any part of his poem.

       The bravest of poets vibrate to a dynamic dilemma on twin cables of opposing tension--trustful surrender to the dream pilot against refusal to let go of the wheel. Male poets have often personified the ambivalent state of submission/control as a sexually seductive woman; by submitting to her attractive force, he nonetheless controls her as a device within his poem, a servant-muse who waits upon his poetic purpose. H.D., innovator, personified the muse as an extension or projection of herself, submission as exploration of the self, control as articulation of underlying dream energy.

       Carruth's poem resonates, as does Helen in Egypt, with a quest for beauty suspended in dream consciousness. Pound's Cantos and Williams' Paterson operate stylistically according to a masculine sense of conquest--the poems grab, almost hurl their separate parts into agglutinating series of juxtapositions that never form a true whole. These "epics" stop, rather than end. Within their accretions of historical and legendary images, fragments of feminine personae occasionally appear.

       In contrast, Helen in Egypt and The Sleeping Beauty circle in musical changings around a central quest, H.D.'s in free verse lyrics, Carruth's in sonnet sequence. Both long poems conflate historical or mythological juxtapositions into structural wholeness. And that sense of wholeness, the poems will conclude, emanates from feminine energy at the source.

       Must the dreamer be "beautiful"? Yes, because of the abstract working ideal she represents. "Beauty," H.D. wrote in 1927, is "goodness in its Hellenic sense...Beauty and Goddness [are] one thing...a curse, a blessing, a responsibility" (Close Up 27). In 1990, Hayden Carruth, defining his own feelings of artistic responsibility in an interview, stated, "To me, poetry and goodness are almost synonymous. They go be a poet, you have to have a vision at some point" (Weiss 133).

       Musical flow impels their poetic visions. Although Helen in Egypt's 160 sequences of three-line stanzas vary in length from four to thirteen stanzas, each flows as a single sentence, stopped at most by a semi-colon. A prose voice which introduces each sequence becomes another part of the whole, a participant who sounds a different level of consciousness, simultaneously narrating and questioning the story. Nearly all of The Sleeping Beauty's 125 poems (including one added in the 1990 reissue) follow a fifteen line sonnet-based rhyming "paragraph" invented by Carruth. In the interview cited above, he explains the "pivot" effect of a rhyming couplet shortened to tetrameter set in the middle to allow "flow through" the rhymed couplet "barrier" effect that would otherwise "break up the poem" (Weiss 135-36).

       Both long poems germinate in mysterious silence. H.D.'s opening envisions a timeless Egyptian tomb where Helen, alone, moves "as one in a dream." Achilles--or his ghost--appears, his memories differing from hers of "the whole phantasmagoria of Troy." Later, on the Greek island of Leuke, while dying Paris remembers/relives his passion for Helen, Theseus, a wise father-guide, leads a younger Helen through shifting labyrinths of myth. "Eidolon," the final portion of the long poem, carves the image of Thetis, the "Sea-mother," a compelling, feminine generative figure. H.D.'s language continually absorbs and alters the myths received by the poem's personae--and by the reader. Divine and legendary figures superimpose, absorb into new kinships. Through incantatory cinematic word-dissolves. Helen conflates gods of death and war with the name of Achilles, once her lover. "Cypris, Cypria, Amor/say the word over and over...War, Ares, Achilles, Amor" (178-79). Gradually, the shifting elements resolve: "the assembled host of spirits for the whole arc...the circle complete" (275). At the close, Helen, awake, no longer dreaming herself within a dream, believes she has discovered "the innermost/key or the clue to the rest/of the mystery" (303).

       Carruth's poem opens to the dreamlike silence of invisible snow: "Out of nothing." The poem's silence is attuned to capture "the echo of coincidental voices" in history. Names of poets are called upon, of philosophers, heroes, cities, and even the apocalyptic persona, "Hydrogen Bomb." Within the structural frame, each stanza achieves a separate tine, diction and rhythm--from medieval, to rural contemporary Vermont, to insertions of American Jazz wherein the spirit of "Saint Harmonie" is invoked. And yet, with all the differences in voice, plaint, content, and pace, The Sleeping Beauty, like Helen in Egypt, travels to final cognitive resolution.

       Carruth's poet ultimately hears "in the beating universe/the poem alone and free" (123). Helen as she unravels the cords of bequeathed history that bind her (and the reader's) mind, liberates the poem of herself: as the poem states, "She herself is the writing" (91). The goal is revealed to have been the poem itself--the poems evolving in struggle toward vision embodied and transformed into a living work of art. This sacred grail carries the healing regeneration.

       The lyric/narratives of Helen in Egypt and The Sleeping Beauty offer healing of the original male/female cosmic division within our spiritual identities. By ritual enactment of what has gone before, the poem attains a new state of existence, rhythmically paced to the passage of time coeval with transformation. From silent stirrings of conception, Helen in Egypt and The Sleeping Beauty grow into life--the poem's ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny through metamorphoses of past images--and come to terms. A new identity is born.

       Carruth's poem strives to acknowledge the world's debt to the feminine principle as we may know it in woman, nature, and history. His axial image, intermittently seen, is a woman's face of stone, visible under a stream, originally sculpted and placed in the brook by a woman who thought it was "flawed." The face in the water, states the poem, is "Our eternity." Carruth brings in a witness who confirms the presence of the stone woman in the water--Amos, ghost of a Vermont farmer. Speaking in twenty-four of the stanzas, Amos functions as guide or teacher, comparable to the character of Theseus in H.D.'s poem. The chiming echo of Dante's Virgil heard in the voices of these guide-figures subtly suggests that H.D. and Carruth are in quest of an ideal. The Vermont farmer says, (his words identified in the poem by italics): "I knowed her afore you was thought of'...Down in the watergrass, just as plain, as calm". The poet asks, "Asleep or awake, Amos?" "Both," replies his guide from the past (39-40).

       Helen, too, marvels at a sculpted image of a woman linked to water--the carved figure of Thetis upon the prow. "She is the "sea-mother," a goddess who changes embodiment through the ages. "Did her eyes slant in the old way?/was she Greek or Egyptian?/had some Phoenician sailor wrought her?...had the prow itself been shaped to her mermaid body,/ curved to her mermaid hair?" (245) She is the mother of Achilles, "his childhood's secret idol, the first Thetis-eidolon" (284).

       Answering his own question, "Why is the face in the water a woman?" Carruth asserts, "...the image is basal,/From before the beginning of all imagining,/The a priori of human feeling, ineffaceable/for good or ill,/and as such it is, it must be, feminine" (75). He affirms the feminine principle as source of artistic energy for both sexes. Personified as the fairy tale princess, she dreams poems which address societal cruelty to females--binding of feet, accommodations of the harem, mutilations of war. Interspersed are struggles of male persona (sometimes the "prince," awake or dreaming) whose memories include the trauma of institutionalized strapping down for electric shock treatments. The male persona's dream of a menstruating young woman is overturned by a psychoanalyst into a battle between father and son, a castrating anger. But "the prince who is human, driven, and filled with love" recalls the myth of creation as division by divine sword blade, male and female equally wounded; his dream seeks, in fact, wholeness, the healing to be found in loving sexual connection. "...for a long (eternal?) moment/His being and hers were indistinguishable,/So intermingled that he could not tell/Which was man, which woman...He knows his feminine aspect,/Always his, deeply and dearly his (75)."

       The above passage soars beyond the impression of one critic that The Sleeping Beauty calls forth the Provencal troubadour poetic adorations of a woman loved (Solotaroff 600-05). But Provencal tradition treats the woman as an erotic object. In her perceptive study of reclamation of the muse by women poets, Mary K. DeShazer states, "muses have typically been portrayed as passive catalysts who stimulate lyricism in the active male poet, helping him 'give birth' to a new entity" (10). Hayden Carruth literalizes the traditional metaphor in one of the prince's dreams: "And his belly is brilliantly broad...the birth is easy, a mere gush/or a happy purging, and behold! in the flash/Of newborn radiance is a beautiful translucent child...and he is wild/With joy, joy, joy...Because he has done it at last,/the real thing,/he has done it himself!" (43). Carruth, fully conscious of the practice of muse-appropriation, ironically illustrates the male dream with eureka-style shouts of "joy, joy, joy!" The birth dream stanza adds to the catalog of oppressions against women. It is not exploitation of a passive erotic muse, but consonance of masculine-feminine energies that charges The Sleeping Beauty.

       The initial "H"--an oddly relevant coincidence--suffuses the consciousness of both poets. Hilda Doolittle preferred the use of her initials as her published signature, played upon them in the title of Hermetic Definition, named an autobiographical heroine Hermione/Her, and poetically absorbed the identity of Helen (of Troy, and also her mother's name).(1) The Sleeping Beauty plays variations upon persons and entities whose names begin with the poet's initial, the letter "H": Homer, Helen, Hero/History, Herod, Holderlin, Heraclitus, Hermes, Herr Husband, Hendryk Hudson, Hitler, Heathcliff, Heliopolis, Hiroshima--personae and things that appear in the princess's dreams, or those of her prince. What cousins to the self may the poet be seeking? In English, these names are initiated by a voiceless exhalation of breath, a sound that evokes the beginning of life and its fragile continuance, just above the border of silence.

       At the resolution of Helen in Egypt, Helen/H.D. is awake, her consciousness freed by the poem's work of reassembling memories and cultural definitions. Carruth's princess is also awake. The poet has filtered reason and feeling through immersions in past and present literature as well as loves and separations of his own life to an integration of consciousness. The closing stanza speaks with the voice of a mature male poet:

Princess, the poem is born and you have woken,...
              The sun
Will rise on the snowy firs and set on the sleeping
Lavender mountains as always, and no one
Will possess or command or defile you where you belong,
Here in the authentic world.
              The work is done.
My name is Hayden and I have made this song. (124)
The poet is named--he is Hayden, himself. The poem is the song that frees prince and princess who have been entangled in the trance-dreaming and brings into harmonious completion the male and female elements of our natures, an androgyny innate within the universe.

       For Helen, harmony breathes within the timeless center of herself: "there is no before and no after,/there is one finite moment/that no infinite joy can I know the best and the worst" (303). A passage in H.D.'s early autobiographical novel, HERmione, surprises the moment of awakening/passing of a winter dawn; "There is a quivering, a slightest infinitesimal shivering. The thing that was is not" (HERmione 212). The Sleeping Beauty envisions the "intricate purity" of invisible snow whitening a branch of pine in a gray world; "Out of nothing...or out of a cold November/Dawn that anyone could see, this grace/That no one can ever quite remember" (1). The reader, awake within the poems' dreaming visions, hears, in isolated silence, the notes of H.D.'s and Hayden Carruth's questioning/answering. Helen's self-discovery of the dreaming muse reverberates "the seasons evolve around/a pause in the infinite rhythm/of the heart and of heaven" (304).

       Carruth has said that imagination makes it possible for a poet to become "existentially free, and the same time...come into some kind of sympathetic understanding with other imaginations which are also existentially free." Feminist scholars, notably Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, have sweepingly recorded as a "war of the words' reactive angers that have informed twentieth century literature...."(2) The Sleeping Beauty comes into existence during a century of imaginative re-vision by women poets. Such re-imagining by a male poet may signal new landscapes. Will it be possible to abstract the dream entirely? Not for H.D. and Carruth, poets whose stance is basically humanistic. Seeking a moral vision, they trust in the terms set by the dreamer. The dreamers within the poems of H.D. and Hayden Carruth envision goodness, a state of healing. By poetry's intellectual and intuitive grace, their visions breathe within the reader's consciousness as well.


1.Adelaide Morris discusses H.D.'s preoccupation with the letter "H" in "Reading H.D.'s 'Helios and Athene,'" Iowa Review 12 (Spring/Summer 1981): 55.

2.See Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1987, 1988, 1992).


Carruth, Hayden. The Sleeping Beauty. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1990.

DeShazer, Mary K. Inspiring Women: Reimagining the Muse. New York: Pergamon Press, 1986.

Doolittle, Hilda (H.D.). "The Cinema and the Classics: Beauty." Close Up 1 (July 1927): 22-33.

-----. Helen in Egypt. New York: New Directions, 1961.

-----. HERmione. New York: New Directions, 1981.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. "When a 'Long Poem' is a 'Big' Poem: Self Authorizing Strategies in Women's Twentieth Century 'Long Poems.'" Literature Interpretation Theory 2 (July 1990): 1, 9-25.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (3 vols.). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, 1988, 1992.

Mandel, Charlotte. "The Redirected Image: Cinematic Dynamics in the Style of H.D." Literature/Film Quarterly 11 (1983) 35-45.

Morris, Adalaide. "Reading H.D.'s 'Helios and Athene.'" Iowa Review 12 (Spring-Summer 19481[sic]): 2-3, 155-63.

Solotaroff, Ted. "One of Us." The Nation (November 16, 1992): 600-605.

Weiss, David, Editor. In the Act: Essays on the Poetry of Hayden Carruth. A Twentieth-Anniversary Special Edition of Seneca Review 20 (1990): 1.

-----. "Interview with Hayden Carruth," In The Act (cited above) 128-46.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson New York: New Directions, 1963.

With this essay, Charlotte Mandel has published poetry, fiction, and prose in Clockwatch Review. Her most recent books of poetry include The Life of Mary and The Marriages of Jacob, two poem-novellas which re-vision biblical women.

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