H.D.'s Volume of Dickinson's Poems; and, a Note on Candor and Iniquity

by Eileen Gregory

Copyright Eileen Gregory. This article originally appeared in The H.D. Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 1, p. 44-46 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Eileen Gregory.
Among H.D.'s books in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale is The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, with an introduction by Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924). As she did on occasion with other collections, H.D. made special note of some of the poems in the volume; on the inside back cover she listed by number poems in section 5 of this edition. (1) Here is her list of numbers and, given in brackets, the first line of each corresponding poem as well as the standard number according to the edition of Thomas H. Johnson.(2)
1. [Adventure most unto itself: stanza four of 822 (This Consciousness that is aware) ]
36. [She died at play: 75]
48. [March is the Month of Expectation: 1404]
54. [A Cap of Lead across the sky: 1649]
58. [Lightly stepped a yellow star: 1672]
71. [Not any sunny tone: 1674]
98. ["Sown in dishonor": 62]
104. [The Bible is an antique Volume: 1545]
109. [Candor--my tepid friend: 1537]
114. [The Sea said "Come" to the Brook: 1210]
Of course more of Dickinson's poems captured H.D.'s attention than these few, noted casually in a book at an indeterminate time and within fairly inscrutable contexts of association. One is tantalized to imagine some of those contexts, some of the play of mind and imagination at work within this fairly unusual selection.

One poem in particular (1577) suggests a remarkable mirroring between Dickinson's poetic disposition and that of H.D.

Candor - my tepid friend -
Come not to play with me -
The Myrrhs, and Mochas, of the Mind
Are its iniquity -
Dickinson is well aware that according to the then current norms of lyric poetry-- sincerity of sentiment, earnestness, piety--she would be considered "iniquitous." In an uncanny way she anticipates her critics. Remarks by Harold Monro, though relatively late (1925), suggest the characteristic acerbity of early commentators: "She gives the impression of wanting to keep some secret. Clarity of thought is constantly veiled in obscurity of expression. She was not candid; she does not seem to have been moved by any overruling instinct for truth." (3) She refuses simply to reveal herself; she is not "straight"; she is not "true." But her motive in rejecting "candor," in choosing covert operations, is not merely to disguise or veil. It comes from an erotic preference: friend candor is tepid, but the elect imaginative playmates are, one infers, hot. "The Myrrhs, and Mochas, of the Mind"--sensuous, exotic, subliminal in their affects (fragrance or taste or color), cloudy with primary associations--this was a preferred imaginative territory for Dickinson, one that, itself obscure, profited all the more through the graceful, oblique concealment of lyric expression.

Like Dickinson, H.D. as a lyric poet understands this primary conflict between "Myrrh/Mocha" and censorious "candor." Though the restrictive poetic norms that govern her time are different from those of Dickinson (for sincerity read objectivity and impersonality), she too is prone to iniquitous luxuries. Myrrh-mindedness by its nature is aphroditic, illicit, incestuous.(4) It works by indirection, affective confluence, and latency; and it is always in conflict with a disposition toward the straight and clear. However much in her early poetry H.D. realized the severe tenets of Imagism grounded in the direct, clear presentation of the image, she had other poetic agendas. Her words in a review of a volume by fellow Imagist John Gould Fletcher describe her own dispositions: "[H]ow much more than the direct image to [the lover of beauty] are the images suggested by shadow and light, the flicker of the purple wine, the glint across the yellow, the depth of the crimson and red?"(5)

A certain "candor"--an apparent simplicity or directness--is for these two poets part of the lyric fiction; but that fiction is continuously animated by desire and the play of mind within mood. Much as H.D. admired in Dickinson a parallel to her lyric, "crystalline" qualities,(6) she also remarked the erotic substrata, which, as in her own poetry, give the crystal its depth of color and light.

1. For permission to publish these marginalia I am grateful to Perdita Schaffner and to the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

2. The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belnap Press of Harvard University, 1955).

3. Criterion 3 (1925): 324.

4. See the discussion of Aphroditic rites, myrrh and the myth of Myrrha (the mother of Adonis through incestuous union with her father) in Marcel Detienne, The Garden of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology, trans. J. Lloyd (Hassocks: Harvesters, 1977); and for a discussion of this myth in H.D.'s work, see Judith Roche, "Myrrh: A Study of Persona in H.D.'s Trilogy," Line no. 12 (Fall 1988): 88 ff.

5. A review of Fletcher's Goblins and Pagodas, The Egoist 3 (1916): 183.

6. H.D. in a 1924 letter to Bryher speaks of Dickinson's poetry as "really very nice crystalline stuff"; quoted in Susan Stanford Friedman, "'Remembering Shakespeare Always, But Remembering Him Differently': H.D.'s By Avon River," Sagetrieb 2.2 (Summer-Fall 1983): 47, fn.7. For a discussion of the poetic convergences between Dickinson and H.D., see the note by Martha Nell Smith, "Not Each in Isolation," H.D. Newlsetter 2.1 (Spring 1988): 48-51.

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