After being enchanted by Bryher in Borderline, I thought that I would research and report on his* relationship with H.D. from beginning to end, how it evolved, what the complications of it were and finally what its resolution ended up being. It is important to note that, throughout H.D.’s life, she “was attracted to the physical unification of male and female,” as Barbara Guest exemplifies through her seeing the statue of The Hermaphrodite in the Diocletian Gallery for the first time (Guest 51). As we could see from the film, Bryher is probably the closest that H.D. ever found in her own life of a male-female hybrid.
As Guest repots, Bryher “was a boy to herself” (Guest 122). Bryher insisted on being referred to as a “he” and was extremely involved in her father’s business matters. He even spoke to his father about taking over the company, but was told that the business world would never admit a woman—that he would be eaten alive. Though giving up on taking direct control, Bryher still asserted his masculinity in other ways, particularly through his adventure stories that he wrote. As Guest tells us, “there was always a battle and there was always a boy” ready to conquer every obstacle (Guest 115).
These traits must have obviously attracted H.D. for she was drawn to Bryher during the time that when she was first acquainted with him. But it’s not as though there was not tension, as our reading in Asphodel and discussion in class has clearly shown. There initial exchange was just that—“[H.D.] would have to give Bryher the strength to go on living” in order to carry out the plans that they had made with each other and the seemingly stable and happy life that Bryher was offering, both emotionally and financially (Guest 106). And though H.D. did in fact give him the assurance he needed, it was not without realizing “something repellent about this concentrated love that…[made] H.D. both cautious and fearful” (Guest 106).
Perhaps it was the strong admiration of intellect that we witnessed in Bryher and H.D.’s Q and A sessions in Asphodel or perhaps his domineering personality, but in any case, H.D. seemed to have given Bryher reason enough to live and, when she had taken ill, Bryher took action by providing for a nursing home for H.D. while she was in the final stage of her pregnancy with Perdita. After the birth, H.D. and Bryher carried out their travel plans, but not without more strain for Bryher had assumed the role of protector—“A guardian, yet not a housekeeper; Bryher would never content [himself] with a merely passive role” (Guest 118). Bryher insisted on drawing out H.D. as a poetic figure, which Guest describes as his “irritating emphasis on performance” (Guest 118).
After H.D.’s “bell-jar” incident, Bryher understood it as “a pleasurable poetic account” and not the “symptom of depression” it was likely to be (Guest 119). In fact, when the “writing-on-the-wall” episode happened, Bryher was so taken that “like an excited child [he] demanded more” and went so far as to “[take] up where [H.D.] left off,” stating that he “read” the wall himself (Guest 126). None can say whether or not Bryher actually saw anything on the wall and Bryher “did not discuss [the visions] later” (Guest 126). But this intense fixation of Bryher’s was not entirely uncalled for. Guest tells us that “H.D. would use her sexuality…to retain her hold over Bryher,” possibly** without ever being physically attracted to her (Guest 120). Regardless, this “excessive urge” for control, “to plan every moment of the other person’s day” lasted well into their relationship and was explicitly observed and commented on by Robert McAlmon, a close friend from their later years (Guest 152).
This somewhat distanced H.D. from Bryher emotionally, admitting that she was lonely in a letter to Ezra Pound around 1930 (Guest 201). Though this must be taken with at least one grain of salt, for Pound, as H.D. knew, was no big fan of Bryher and it may be that H.D. “[did] not hesitate to sacrifice Bryher in order to console Pound” (Guest 201). Whether or not H.D. was sweet-talking Pound in that particular correspondence, it is clear that she was unhappy in some ways with Bryher as her sessions with Freud revealed (and, hopefully, as we’ll see in Tribute to Freud). Guest goes so far as to claim that what Freud has done for H.D. was to give her dignity, to restore her confidence in her own writing and escape “the yoke of Imagism. The yoke of perfectionism. The Bryher work yoke” (Guest 218). This will be interesting to look out for in Tribute to Freud to see if it’s evident from H.D.’s own account of it.
After this H.D. has more confidence, as Guest said, and Bryher also matured somewhat, away from what both H.D. in Asphodel and Guest described as his childlike nature. It wasn’t until H.D.’s mental breakdown that Bryher was able to “[prove] [his] mettle and [his] ability to handle a very bad crisis when a woman whom [he] loved appeared to have lost her mind” (Guest 278). And then, in 1960, Bryher proved his love and his maturation once and for all in allowing the confidence that Freud had instilled into H.D. to take full effect, unhindered by Bryher’s motives. H.D. was to take a final trip to New York that year, which Bryher had encouraged, but refused to join her for. Guest seeks to answer the question of why Bryher did not go by saying that “[he] deliberately chose to remove [himself] from the scene; remaining at Kenwin was a conscious act of selflessness on Bryher’s part” (Guest 325). Guest makes it clear that Bryher followed H.D.’s movements in the States and showed genuine love in many of his letters.
I think that knowing more of the complexity of the relationship between the two of them is both elucidating for H.D. as a person and lover, but also (and perhaps more importantly for the class) as a writer and poet. But a word of caution: Guest often takes an authoritative stance on this biographical information, which it is not always clear to me she should take. I think it would have been more prudent of her if she had kept in mind what she says to undermine Brigit Patmore’s biographical testimony in No Tomorrow: “an outsider is never fully acquainted with the intricacies of another’s relationship” (Guest 152-53).
*Throughout this essay I will be referring to Bryher as a “he” for, as Guest makes clear “[Bryher] cautioned H.D., as Gertrude Stein had her friend Alice Toklas, never to refer to her as a ‘she’” (Guest 122). I will be replacing Guest’s pronouns to respect Bryher’s wishes as well.
**Guest claims “probably” (Guest 120).
Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: the Poet H.D. and Her World. Garden City, NY:
Doubleday, 1984. Print.