Sea Garden (1916)

Sea Rose

Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem --
you are caught in the drift.

Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.

Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?

from Sea Garden (1916)


Michael Boughn

Yet for H.D. herself, the issue of writing was clearly tied to the issue of vision, or rather writing was the issue of vision. Her first book of verse, Sea Garden, opens with a poem called "Sea Rose." An exemplary Imagist poem, its very particularity resonates with rich, multiple correspondences:

The rose is a rose but an unusual type. Compared to the wet rose, the sea rose carries a "complex of emotion, as Pound put it, suggesting a new, or more precisely a renewed way of being, free from the accumulations of sentimentality, a sparse, hardened, "pagan" renewal of spirit.

At the same time, like Pound's rose in the steel dust, Williams' obsolete rose and Stein's rose rose, H.D.'s sea rose (which precedes them all) also speaks to a tradition of writing. The rose is not only a rose; it is an inescapable convention of writing that even a proposition such as "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" necessarily invokes, if only in its attempt to negate it. The sea rose proposes a new imagination of that convention, one that resonates with the renewed spirit. The poem itself is the rose, and the acrid fragrance is literally "hardened in a leaf, " a leaf made of pulp.

This "fragrance" issues from the prosodic structure of the poem, its sonal field. Understanding of H.D.'s prosodic techniques has remained consistently underdeveloped since critics first wrote in generalities about her "chiselled form" and "delicate cadences." To a certain extent, this lack of understanding is due to the over-exaggerated importance placed on Ezra Pound's perceptions and analysis of H.D.'s work and imagism in general. While Pound's observations are acute and essential, they are neither complete nor unbiased, reflecting his specific concerns and limitations at the time, including his involvement with T. E. Hulme's philosophy. The philosophical dimension of Imagism continues to be the focus of most critical attention. Pound's adoption of Hulme's ideas and his adaptation of them in his own Doctrine of the Image have been recounted, analyzed and reanalyzed numerous times, while technical discussions of the actual poetic innovations remain confined to observations of the correlation between the poetry and the "Dont's" of the manifestos.

Yet as Charles Hartman points out, it is not content that makes a "poetic fact" poetic, but shape (132). A list of objects in "Sea Rose" does not necessarily mean anything, much less inspire vision. The "complex of emotion" that corresponds to the "poetic fact" only occurs when the language is organized in an adequate form. Just as the Image arises from the perception of a dynamic, generative relation among things, form arises from the perception of a dynamic, generative relation among the basic units of language in the poem: At the center of both relations is the activity of correspondence or equivalence, to use Jakobson's term (360). To simply talk of H.D.'s powerful images begs the question. The issue is how she organized language so that it continues to be "endowed with energy."

from "Elements of the Sounding: H. D. and the Origins of Modernist Prosodies." Sagetrieb Vol. 6, No. 2.

Gary Burnett

In the standard Imagist terms of crystalline beauty and hard outlines, a sea garden would be such a collection, with each poem an object, an identifiable and discrete plant in the garden which is the book. The first poem of the book, "Sea Rose," initially appears to reinforce such classically Imagist assumptions in its clear exposition of a single flower from the garden:

The short, carefully measured free verse lines, together with the slightly archaic (though still direct) diction and the insistence on the sparseness of the flower tend to give the poem a simplicity and solidity, a feeling of the visual or sculptural realness of the sea rose—"Sea Rose" could almost be a poem of image and little more. But the initially stable flower is "caught in the drift" of the shoreline which is the sea garden and is thus implicated in the complications which inhere for H.D. in that shoreline. Like "Hermes of the Ways," "Sea Rose" inhabits a land which is distinctively H.D.'s, a land of boundaries and difficult juxtapositions:

The Sea Rose is a flower for Hermes—a creative growth in a perilous landscape—and thus a "Stunted" figure for the effaced "H.D.," a complex image holding its ground against a force which would limit it to a denial of identity as well as to the sculptural and static terms of Imagism. The "you" of the poem—the sparse rose—is implicitly an "I," an "H.D."

from "The Identity of 'H.': Imagism and H.D.'s Sea Garden." Sagetrieb 8.3.

Eileen Gregory

The title of the collection points to the governing experience in all its poems. The garden is traditionally the place of consummation of love. In H.D.'s poems the garden is still the place of love, but love washed with salt. It is a sea garden, inimical to all but the most enduring. The sea represents here the harsh power of elemental life, to which the soul must open itself, and by which it must be transformed or die. H.D. need not have known, but probably did, that sea/salt is the arcane alchemical substance linked to the mysterious bitterness and wisdom essential to spiritual life. "Without salt," it is said, "the work [the alchemical opus of transformation] has no success" (Jung par. 329). To experience sea/salt is to be within the visceral elements of bodily life, the "common salts" (Hillman, "Salt" 117). It is to feel open wounds, to suffer desire without fulfillment, to be made aware of vulnerability and fear. More importantly, the psychological experience of salt specifies and clarifies pain: "No salt, no experiencing—merely a running on and running through of events without psychic body. Thus salt makes events sensed and felt, giving us each a sense of the personal—my tears, my sweat and blood, my taste and value" (Hillman, "Salt" 117). It gives ground and substance to subjectivity, to feeling and desire.

This salt experience and the wisdom and beauty born of it are the central mysteries to which H.D.'s Sea Garden allows access. C. G. Jung associates alchemical salt with the sea, thus with Luna and with the "feminine," with Eros and feeling (par. 330). One need not fix its mysterious character in Jung's terms. But nevertheless it is clear that for H.D. these associations—marah ("bitter"), mar, mer, mater, Maia, Mary—to some degree pertain. Indeed, they are at the heart of the network of imagery informing her longer works and centering in the Goddess, who is both hetaira and mother, who is "sea, brine, breaker , seducer, / giver of life, giver of tears" (CP 552). Working the mystery of salt, H.D. in Sea Garden explores in a deeply interiorized and careful way the very matter of subjectivity.

In the opening three poems we move from an intense, static focus upon a mysterious icon ("Sea Rose"), to a choice for movement and engagement with the sea ("The Helmsman"), and, finally, to a ritual passage of entrance into the sacred mysteries of the sea garden ("The Shrine").

H.D.'s flowers, like Sappho's, represent a moment when a certain poignant beauty takes on "the stature of an eternal condition in the spirit" (McEvilley, "Sapphic Imagery" 269). "Sea Rose" (CP 5) immediately reveals to the reader the necessity to look through the image to read that eternal condition. The initiate's work begins with learning clairvoyance. This "harsh" rose, "marred and with stint of petals, / meager . . . thin, / sparse of leaf ," has no conventional worth, but, marked by the inimical elements, is altogether poor. Yet it is "more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem." Here the typical standards of beauty are reversed, and in the last stanza the "spice-rose" is deficient for not possessing the "acrid fragrance" of this harsh flower. The relentless elements in action are annihilating ("you are caught in the drift . . . you are flung on the sand"); yet they exalt ("you are lifted / in the crisp sand / that drives in the wind"). The beauty is in the mark of sea-torture.

from "Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H.D.'s 'Sea Garden.'" Contemporary Literature 27:4 (Winter 1986).