377. (Hilda Doolitle)

          The relations of poetry to pattern are diverse. A poem is patterned by conventions of rhyme, exists in a pattern with other poems of its kind, and represents actions that are themselves known according to the patterns with which they accord. Hilda Doolitle’s translation of Euripides’ Ion, a peak of modernist translation, bears a special two-fold relation to pattern. On the one hand, she seems to have been drawn to the play because Ion is himself the source of the style of perfect (in HD’s mind) patterning that is Ionic Greek; on the other hand, it embodies in its method a patterning of language on the page that weaves and interlaces atomized phrases and words so that in their repetition across lines, and through the sparse syntax—stark declaration, invocation, interrogation—the meanings of words alters with the alteration of character and circumstance. The words are brought to the surface of the page like counters pushed back and forth, set in this order, then another, by each character; it is not a matter of images at all, if we are thinking of HD the images, but of intense interiority being given shape and expression by tokens that must bear new weight. I take it that this is a modernist innovation, something that would have been inconceivable to a Victorian translator—like Gilbert Murray—but that was also not common across modernist poets. HD gives us a way of understanding what she does, and how it accords with the subject of the play, when she writes, in one of the commentaries interleaved with the scenes she imposes on the play: “For this new culture was content, as no culture had been before, or has been since, frankly with one and but one supreme quality, perfection. Beyond that, below it and before it, there was nothing. The human mind dehumanized itself, in much the same way (if we may imagine group-consciousness so at work) in which shell-fish may work outward to patterns of exquisite variety and unity.”  Here is one of Kreousa’s magnificent speeches.





nay, soul, O, my soul,

be silent;

how can you name an act

of shame,

an illicit act?



be silent;

nay, nay, O, my soul,


what can stop you,

what can prevent?

is not your husband traitorous?

he has stolen your hope

and your house;

all hope of a child is lost;

great Zeus,

O, great Zeus,

be my witness;

O, goddess

who haunts my rocks,

by Tritonis

your holy lake,

be witness;

O, witness and help,

O, stars,

O, star-throne of Zeus;

I have hidden too long

this truth,

I must lighten my heart

of this secret;

I must be rid of it.

O, eyes,

eyes weep,

O, heart,

heart break,

you fell in a trap of men,

you were snared in a god’s net;

(are gods or are men more base?)

O, eyes,

eyes weep,

O, heart,

O, my heart

cry out

against him of the seven-strung lyre,

against him of the singing voice;


to you, you, you

I shout,

harmony, rhythm, delight

of the Muses;

you I accuse;

you, born of Leto,

you bright

traitor within the light;

why did you seek me out,

brilliant, with gold hair? vibrant,

you seized my wrists,

while the flowers fell from my lap,

the gold and the pale-gold crocus,

while you fulfilled your wish;

what did it help, my shout

of mother,


no help

came to me

in the rocks;

O, mother

O, white hands caught;

O, mother

O, gold flowers lost;

O, terror,

O, hopeless loss,

O, evil union,

O, fate;

where is he whom you begot?

(for fear of my mother,

I left

that child

on those bride-rocks;)

O, eyes

eyes weep,

but that god will not relent,

who thought of the harp-note

while his child was done to death

by hovering eagles or hawks;

O, heart,

heart break,

but your heart will never break,

who sit apart

and speak


I will speak

to you on your golden throne,

you devil

at earth-heart,

your golden tripod

is cursed;

O, evil lover

you grant

my husband who owes you naught,

his child to inherit my house,

while my child

and your child

is lost;

our son was torn by beaks

of ravaging birds,

he was caught

out of the little robes

I wrapped him in,

and lost;

O, terror,

O, hopelessness,

O, evil union,

O, fate,

I let him there on the rocks,


in a lonely place,

be witness,

O, Delos,

and hate,

hate him, O, you laurel-branch,


hate him

you palm-branch,


with the leaves of the laurel to bless

that other so-holy birth,


Leto’s child

with Zeus


heart weep,


O, my soul,

cry out,

harmony, rhythm, delight

of the Muses,

you, I accuse

who pluck from the soulless frame of the harp,

the soul of the harp.


Her method is that of the most rudimentary pattern-formation: repetition with simple difference, line by line, with “soul” as a base of sorts, appearing repeatedly, then disappearing, then appearing with less frequency, until returning in the final superb lines with “soulless frame of the harp” and “the soul of the harp.” Was it Loxias, Apollo, who made the harp soulless by plucking its soul, or was it miracle that he could pluck a soul from the soulless frame? Both, since he is both violent towards souls and indifferent towards all but the soulless harp and yet, in his care for that, able to summon what seems a soul, music. The relationship to music is crucial to the sort of patterning that HD achieves; it is not that the words are written as if they could be sung, but they are written as if each line would strike or sustain a note, as if we are moving note by note, some lines perhaps richer and resolving into chords; it is the sense of sequence that she insists on, and the sense that what is sequenced is not a set of images, but a narrow set of concepts, of relations, in which she is snared. If it were sung, we would hear a voice set free within the claustrophobia of language and circumstance alike. And it is like music in so far as each word, each note, rings out only to fade; the lines relate to one another, but the relationships are anaphoric, and without coordination. What unites them into an arc is the action that has transpired and the action that she contemplates; but in the present in which they are spoken, each thought, each line, is a handhold that she slips from almost as soon as it is reached, and this sustained ephemerality, or sustained helplessness, is capable of representing moments of joy as well as despair. When Kreousa recognizes that Ion is her son:



there’s one thing more;

O, olive

Of Athens,

O, crown of wild-olives,

I plucked

from the very holy rock;

it is sacred;

the very branch,

the goddess herself


it never loses its silver



it is there;



my mother,

most dear—



O, light,

more lovely than Helios

(and the god will pardon this)

you are in my arms

at last,

I had thought you lost,

long ago,

with the ghosts

in death—



and dead,




what cry is there,

what joy from the lips

can answer

the joy in my heart?


speed joy

through the luminous

high air:


this has happened

more swiftly

than thought—


I tremble still

with terror—


did you ever dream

of this?



where is the prophetess?

I would ask

who brought you here—


be happy,

why ask?

it was the god’s wish—


how did I bring you forth?

O, tears—

how did I let you go?

I breathe at last—


I, too—


mine is no barren house;

Erekhtheus puts forth a branch

and flowers;

the earth-born race

again sees light;

O, light,



my father

must know of this—

She is gasping for light, with the word “light,” the light that permeates everything, unable to stay in her grasp, or in her mind, slipping from the figure of the root of Erektheus’ house again breaking into the light, to her own looking to the light, to seeing the light as Helios, the god. The light passes on the page; it passes through the verse, through Kreousa’s consciousness of it, through her language, but each time also becomes more itself, means more to her and to us.  I’m especially drawn to the lines “speed joy | through the luminous | high air.” I cannot say why, or what it is they do that catches at me, but I suspect it has to do with the imperative “speed joy,” giving joy the physicality of an object, and the intention of an animate soul, against the open inert immensity of “high air,” with “through the luminous” between them, so that the air is luminous, but also so that “through the luminous” suggests light itself as a medium for joy. But there is most of all the transformation of thought in the progress, as if the wish that joy could speed, becomes a reflection of the light, and then of what is beyond or encompassing or diffused by the light, the “high air,” the breathless escape from the gravity of earthly joy and its speed.  Both scenes I’ve quoted are touch the sublime. But the same technique of patterning is capable of carrying moments of humble contemplation:


And now,

I weep;


my own mother

(secret bride)

hid me in this very box;

I never touched her breast;

I am nameless

I really lived a slave’s life

in this place:


the god,

always was exquisite;

the rest?

bad luck;

O, all those years



how she must have suffered;

O, my cradle,

I offer you to the god,

(although I am yet ignorant,

as to whether I am a slave’s son;

perhaps it will be worse

to find that mother,

than not);


I consecrate this

in your precinct;

what shall I do next?

I must do what he asks;

I must look inside it;

I must open the basket;

I dare not fight


O, sacred fillets,

why were you kept

from me?

O, cords

rounds the basket,

what have you hidden?

how fair,

this basket,

so carefully kept—

for what?

What’s wonderful here is how first the word “really” is not a part of any pattern at all, but represents a human colloquial voice breaking through the most intense patterning, as if Ion could not act a role at this instant of becoming unsure of his own actual identity—and, then, shortly after, the perfect “exquisite,” where Ion offers a loving appreciation for the God, aesthetic but also moral, the word “exquisite” suggesting something of how the God conducts himself in his divinity. In this speech, unlike the others, we see an action resolving itself into being, each phrase unit, on each line; the patterns are found less in the nouns and more in the shape of the phrases, their modes of first-person declaration, timid inquiry, and sensitive address coming in and out of view until the final helpless, “for what?” There are interesting parallels along the way (“the god” and “the rest,” a rudimentary division of the world, or “O, all those years” and “O, my cradle” with the suggestion of the cradle of time). But more than anything else, the effect of these lines depends on Ion’s moving away from a pattern as he loses his sense of himself; and so it is a clue to what we find elsewhere, that the patterning of language, in despair or joy, is also a gauge of the intensity of selfhood in the play, of self-understanding or self-willing or the action that is identity.

HD’s technique is most surprisingly effective where two characters are most antagonistic, their selves most intensely pitched against one another; here two patterns are established and maintained simultaneously, overlapping against one another in counterpoint. Sometimes the one takes its course from the other, borrowing a term or cadence, but at other times, they spar to diverge (I abbreviate the speakers):


I am safe with the god;


what is the god to you?


my body is his, by right;


who would have killed his priest;


you are your father’s, not his;


I was always his near-son;


you were—but my day has come;


you are his in crime, I, in beauty;


I fought the enemy of my own city;


I came, didn’t I, with a mighty army?


you did, to destroy the house of Erekhtheus;


—what flame, what torch?


—dishonesty, theft—


—my father’s gift—


his—the city of Pallas?


—his sword saved it—


—he never owned it—


—you feared my future—


—your death or my death—


—you envy my father—


—you steal from the childless—


—my father’s property—


—a sword, a spear—


—let go the altar—


—so? find your own mother—


—you’ll pay for this—


—on the altar-step?


why should you wish to die

mid the laurel-wreaths?


so I may grieve One

who brought me grief;


this is preposterous;


it is not right

that evil should crouch

in this marble,

holy place;

only the saintliest hands

should touch

the laurel;

only the priests,

by right,

should mount this stair;


away with her—

In an earlier post on T.S. Eliot, I suggested that modernist poetry might be understood in the same terms that James Trilling says account for modernist visual arts: the elevation of indeterminacy, especially as regards ornament. In that earlier post, I suggested that Eliot seeks to make rhetoric indeterminate; HD’s translation of Ion draws its strength from another type of indeterminacy, and one that I think is like Trilling’s notion of ornament. What she rejects, implicitly, in her translation is syntax as it would usually be asked to function, bearing the burden of either a high or low style; of course, such a style depends also on register, and HD favors a register that is mostly plain—but it is mostly her insistence on patterns between lines and words rather than syntax within or across them that achieves an effect of making syntax itself indeterminate. On the one hand, syntax is an arrangement of language, and her translation is highly arranged; on the other hand, syntax as it is usually understood involves some adherence to a set of patterned norms, and her language, even though it accords with these norms within and between lines, seems to generate local verbal meaning from arrangements that cannot be described by them.  Is it syntactical or not? Yes, and no. The punctuation is a symptom of the indeterminacy, the colons and semi-colons serving to clarify semantic relations between parts, but also seeming to do something else, something not classifiable as syntactical. Why does she want this? I’m tempted to answer with a play of words: in her indeterminacy of syntax, she seeks a syntax of indeterminacy suitable to Euripides, for whom the relations between man and woman, humankind and god, fate and chance, joy and despair, and even, in a play such as Helen, tragedy and comedy are indeterminate. Her translation is not just an exercise in a field of modernist technique, the technique of syntactical indeterminacy pioneered by Ezra Pound and described by Donald Davie in Articulate Energy; it turns modernist technique to a subject of which it is worthy.


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