Splitting the Atom in H. D.’s ‘Winter Love’

30 September 2021

Hannah Voss, Durham University 

During the First World War, the Imagist poet H.D. suffered a series of traumatic events that she directly attributed to the stress and fear of living in London throughout the conflict. In Bid Me to Live (1960), first drafted in 1927, she recounts this period of her life, linking the fear of physical annihilation from without — signalled by air raid sirens — to the psychological annihilation that clawed from within after her late-term miscarriage. In this autobiography and her novella, Nights (1935), H.D. begins to hint that annihilation can act as a precursor to poetic creation or vision, theorising that ‘[t]he greater the gap in consciousness [. . .] the more glorious would be the opening up into clear defined space’.[1] It is unclear whether H.D. saw annihilation as a necessary precursor to poetic vision, or whether she was crafting a theory of creativity that took into account her own war trauma. Regardless, the tension between destruction and creation within the annihilatory event became central to her poetics, and took on a new urgency with the advent of atomic weapons. H.D.’s scientific understanding of the Atomic Bomb gave her new imagery to depict annihilation as ordered under the woman poet’s power for creation, establishing her own role in averting future nuclear annihilation.

In 1947, H.D. wrote to Richard Aldington that her latest novel warns that ‘the world [. . .] will be “crashing to extinction”’ if the powers that be would not “stop smashing up things with fly-bombs, V2 and the ubiquitous (possibly) so-called ‘atom’”.’[2] Not only was H.D. aware of the ‘atom’ and its destructive capabilities, but she relayed these concepts in their contemporary language. Elizabeth Willis (University of Iowa) writes that ‘the Bomb had taken on the very grammar of the sun’, with its technology viewed as a ‘“harnessing” of the sun’s secrets’.[3] This ‘secret’ of nuclear fission, or splitting the atom, created a structure that H.D. could then use in her post-nuclear work. An understanding of the 1950s sun-language of the Bomb alongside H.D.’s awareness of the ‘atom’ allows for a distinctly nuclear reading of her final poem, ‘Winter Love’ (1972).  The poem is a coda to her earlier Helen in Egypt (1961), an epic poem about Helen after the events of the Trojan War. ‘Winter Love’ turns to Helen in her old age to undertake a retrospective of her past, radically suggesting that Helen’s former lovers could have all been Apollo in disguise. As a result of these encounters, Helen has taken ‘the sun-seed from the Sun’, and has become godlike in her own right, as ‘Helios-Helen-Eros’.[4] The image of the ‘sun-seed’ draws directly from nuclear language: the essential particle, or seed, that fuelled the sun which has been co-opted to fuel the Bomb — the atom. At the same time, however, the ‘sun-seed’ is an image of Helen as poet. In carrying the seed of Apollo, the god of poetry as well as the Sun, Helen holds the germ of poetic creation, the ability to give life to verse, alongside her power for ultimate destruction.

The dual implications of the ‘sun-seed’, as the as-yet unsplit atom and the creative fruit of the woman poet, are explored as the poem is then ‘split’ along two choruses presenting contrasting post-nuclear visions. The first describes a scene of war, where ‘Furies clang dissonance with iron wings’ — war planes in myth — while ‘fetid air brings | [. . .] death to the closed | walled-in fruit garden’.[5] The diseased air reflects the devastation of radiation, while the whole image references H.D.’s prior statement that ‘[t]hey could do something with the atom — better than smashing cherry-orchards’.[6] In this vision, Helen, destroyer, is condemned as wholly responsible for the war. The second chorus begs Helen as Helios-Helen-Eros to ‘conjure a magic circle of fruit-trees’, a restoration of the bombed cherry orchards, whose roots hold together the physical space of an enchanted island.[7] In the aftermath of Helen in Egypt, this holding together is a reunification of fractured post-war landscapes and identities. Helen grants ‘greater bliss’ to her past lovers through her newfound power, inverting the image of the Bomb’s destruction to that of the agony of sexual ecstasy — H.D.’s ‘something [. . .] better’ to be done with the atom?

‘Winter Love’ does not resolve its split imagery; both are real in their possibility, existing as facing pages of text, simultaneously occurring. These dual visions reflect the tensions of the post-war years, where prosperity grew under the looming cloud of nuclear threat. Through the sun-seed, a mythical revision of the power of nuclear fission, Helen unites destruction and creation in her own body, correcting the imbalance of Love and Death which H.D. believed, after Freud, was the source of human violence.[8] While H.D.’s earlier works, especially Bid Me to Live and Nights, saw women artists fashioning a poetic consciousness in the aftermath of annihilation, ‘Winter Love’ makes the woman the agent of destruction, rather than its subject. In doing so, H.D. comes to the final realisation of her work on annihilation, a conclusion she hints at in Helen in Egypt. She suggests that in their unique ability to create, or bring life, from destruction, women poets gain power over destruction itself. The woman poet is able to rewrite herself, not simply into blank spaces given her by male annihilation, but into spaces she has wiped clean for herself.

This social repositioning of women’s writing was necessary to H.D.’s self-conscious project of averting war and nuclear devastation. Jane Augustine (Pratt Institute) writes of a séance during which the spirit of H.D.’s mother was reportedly present, an event that convinced the poet that her words were as much prophecy as poetry; she was ‘divinely intended to do something to [. . .] bring peace and unite all nations’.[9] ‘Winter Love’ reflects the monumental ambition of its poet, exhibiting a kind of nuclear creativity and so positioning the figure of the woman poet as a necessary actor in crafting a world beyond mutually assured destruction. By presenting both possibilities of the ‘sun-seed’, simultaneously split and joined in the text, H.D. delineates the power of the woman poet as prophetess, mother, and midwife, ushering forth a new creation that warns of future annihilation while offering the promise of a different path, itself an image of beauty amidst the ruins.


Image Credit / Caption: Paul Nash, We are Making a New World (1918). © IWM Art. IWM ART 1146

Sources:

[1] H.D., Bid Me to Live (London: Virago, 1984), p. 13.

[2] H.D., ‘Letter to Richard Aldington’ [6 June 1947], quoted in Lara Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Modernist Prose (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017), p. 78.

[3] Elizabeth Willis, ‘A Public History of the Dividing Line: H.D., the Bomb, and the Roots of the Postmodern’, Arizona Quarterly, 63 (2007),  81–108 (p. 83).

[4] H.D., ‘Winter Love’ in Hermetic Definition (Oxford: Carcanet Press, 1972), p. 105–06.

[5] Ibid., p. 95.

[6] H.D., ‘Letter to Richard Aldington’ [6 June 1947], quoted in Vetter, p. 78.

[7] ‘Winter Love’, p. 106.

[8] H.D. writes extensively of her engagement with Freud’s concepts of Eros and Death in her late memoir, Tribute to Freud (Boston: David R. Godine, 1974).

[9] Jane Augustine, ‘“Do You Want to Be the Founder of a New Religion?” H.D.’s Spiritual Politics and Path in Modernity’, in H.D.’s Trilogy and Beyond (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2014), 11–18 (p. 18).

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