Saturday, February 16, 2013
The Flowering of the Rood: The Feminine Fulfillment of The Dream of the Rood in H.D.’s Trilogy
H.D.’s Trilogy and The Dream of the Rood present religious visions and dreams to the reader. Both poets stand in more than one place and time in their visions of the sacred, and they connect their own time period with redemption by God in the past. They are at an outer boundary of human knowledge and the normal function of the senses. H.D. describes her art in terms of artistic and religious vision: “and beyond thought and idea,/their begetter,/ Dream,/ Vision.”(1) There is the time and place of the poet, which is clearly established for H.D., but the poets move back in time to both literal and spiritual dream landscapes. The Dream of the Rood explicitly goes back to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while H.D. explores many mythical and religious symbols, characters, themes, and events, including the crucifixion. H.D. wrote during the bombing of London during World War II. The identity of the other poet is unknown, and the Vercelli Cathedral text of the The Dream of the Rood dates from just before 1000 A.D.(2) The Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, which includes a partial version of the poem, dates from the eighth century.(3) With sculptured vines winding up the massive cross, the Ruthwell Cross was to be seen as a living symbol, a Tree of Life. Its side depictions include the figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, two of H.D.’s most important biblical characters in Trilogy.(4) The dream visions of both The Dream of the Rood and Trilogy provide a sacred witness to the redeeming power of God in human history. In both poems, there is a dynamic change of the cross from an emblem of death to a sacred symbol of triumph. This transformation of the cross into the Tree of Life in The Dream of the Rood is dramatically extended by H.D.’s last poem in Trilogy, “The Flowering of the Rod.” Despite the uniqueness of the poems, and the separation of the poets by a thousand years or more, the two poems have much in common with each other, and much to say about each other. Each work can illuminate the other in timeless conversation over the centuries. Awakened in her own time, H.D. completes the first dream of redemption with a flowering rood, one that celebrates the masculine and feminine attributes of God and humankind in proper balance and communion. It’s as if she were standing at the foot of the Ruthwell Cross with her own modern offering.
H.D’s three poems from World War II and The Dream of the Rood present the poet as a seer in culture and history. The Dream of the Rood and Trilogy are propositions for the poet to be a partner in God’s redemption, the new thing that is happening. The poems are utterly unconventional, and it is difficult to compare them to any poems from their respective periods. The more apt comparisons are with the mystics who seem to be above time: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Dame Julian of Norwich. The Dream of the Rood is a religious meditation by a sophisticated poet, and no other medieval poem dramatizes the crucifixion from the cross’s point of view. This is an odd way of looking at the crucifixion now, and it was certainly a surprising way of seeing the death of Jesus in the period; “…scholars have not sufficiently considered how disturbing it must have been for an early English audience to imagine the Crucifixion in this new way.”(5) It is as jarring as the remembrance of Jesus’s death being called Good Friday. How could such a terrible day be good? How could such a cruel object of violence be beautiful?
The animated cross becomes at first the anti-hero of the poem, but then it participates in the victory of Christ. The poem encourages the reader to think about the cross in new ways; that is its primary artistic and religious purpose. The Dream of the Rood inspires a vision of the cross as a symbol of both death and of resurrection. How should Christians come before the cross? The crucifix as an object for piety and devotion in the Catholic tradition impedes its role as a symbol for resurrection; the body of Jesus is frozen in suffering without moving into the ecstatic reality of resurrection. Even the Mass itself is more bound to the sacrifice and death of Jesus, rather than to his new life. The empty cross of the Protestant tradition obviously diminishes the emphasis on the suffering Jesus, but also at a cost. It still remains mute or reticent in expressing the beauty of resurrection, the presence that changes the cross into a beautiful tree. The empty cross says that Jesus’s body has gone somewhere. How should resurrection be portrayed? How can the cross represent both crucifixion and resurrection? H.D. and the unknown poet are attempting to show the cross of Jesus as a dynamic symbol, not as a static or frozen image--of either suffering or resurrection. If you lack one, you lack both. Both poets are searching for the full circle of resurrection, in their own time. The poet in The Dream of the Rood gives humanity to the object that is the means of death for Jesus Christ; the poem makes the cross paradoxical. The cross kills Jesus, but it brings new life to humankind at the same time. The cross also brings a greater union to Jesus and God in his Easter identity and victory. Though the poet is describing the scene from Calvary that is well known from the gospels, the poem is quite free from the actual people and events of the biblical narratives. The cross as an animated character and voice is certainly not scriptural, and H.D. shares this tendency: to invoke scripture, but not necessarily follow it. The Dream of the Rood presents the cross as both a tree and a human character, one who has an unyielding and awful obligation to his master. The obligation is an ethical dilemma, as Eamonn O’Carragain describes it in Ritual and the Rood: “Only the Dream imagines, at the centre of its narrative, an ethical problem: that the Cross, loyal to its lord, is required by ‘the Lord’s word’ to destroy its lord’s life.”(6) The cross has the awful duty of Judas Iscariot, but it does not follow its duty out of treachery. The cross also has the faithfulness of John, the beloved disciple. John is the only male disciple to witness the actual crucifixion, but only in John’s Gospel. More accurately, the cross is faithful like the loyal women at the cross. The cross changes from the anti-hero to a tragic hero or partner to the tragic heroism of Christ. The cross is a character who must do what it does out of duty and love. It has no real choice because it loves his master. His lord has chosen him for this awful task: “I saw then the Saviour of mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.”(7)
Both poems directly engage the reader to share in the religious experience of the poem; the reader is invited to be part of the mystical vision. They extend their individual experiences with God in an intimate relationship: “We nameless initiates, born of one mother/companions of the flame.”(8) H.D. is speaking about people like her, and the reader as well. The reader is initiated into a sacred mystery through the entry point of the poem. This is a kind of baptism.
“Listen, I will tell you the best of visions,
what came to me in the middle of the night
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest.
It seemed to me that I saw a more wonderful tree.”(9)
The poem is the substance of the best vision, the extraordinary, even supernormal, experience of the poet. While the subject of the poem is ostensibly one of sorrow, the tone of The Dream of the Rood is already the voice of resurrection. It presents the cross as a symbol of new life from the very beginning. The cross is the triumph of the church and humankind; it should be lifted high. It should be decorated with gold and gems and “wound round with light.”(10) There are five gems on the cross to mark the five wounds of Christ. Because the cross shared the agony with Christ, it is also decorated in his victory. This is the best vision that a human being can have; the poet declares it from the start.
The animated cross, that “more wonderful tree,” poetically conflates the Tree of Life as a symbol of resurrection or immortality with the tree of the cross, the actual wood used in the crucifixion. This is the often forgotten tree in the Garden of Eden: “And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”(11) To talk about the cross as a tree at all is to entertain a resurrection motif. The tree is alive; it will blossom in spring, when Easter is celebrated again by the church triumphant. The new tree of the “best vision” has redeemed the Tree of Knowledge that bedeviled man and woman in the Garden of Eden and caused the Fall. The cross as a tree takes us full circle back to the Garden of Eden, perhaps even back to a pure vision of male and female as equals in creation. This is the theological vision of gender in the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:3): “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”(12) The status of the cross as a tree, not merely as a Roman object of violence and death, also allows for the rood to be considered as a pre-Christian or Pagan symbol as well. The Ruthwell Cross, and others like it, certainly resemble Pagan fertility symbols. This would be a tricky area for the old poet who took great pains for his surprising poem to be acceptable within orthodox Christian doctrine. This perhaps explains the striking change of tone and piety at the end of end of the poem, which follows the formula of the Apostle’s Creed. The orthodoxy is needed after the wide freedom of exploration present in the religious vision. Still the poet chooses to compare the cross to a woman, albeit a perfect one.
“Listen, the Lord of glory, the Guardian of the kingdom ,
then honored me over the forest trees,
just as he, almighty God, also honoured
his mother, Mary herself, for all men,
over all womankind.”(13)
The perfect piety of the Virgin Mary makes this comparison acceptable, theologically. But the implications are far-reaching, especially in comparison with H.D.’s emphasis on the Mary characters: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany. The tree represents a feminine principle in human redemption, a restoration of proper balance. As Mary gave birth to Jesus’s life, Mary Magdalene was the mid-wife of his death: the one who anointed Jesus before his crucifixion. However, this would be following solely Luke’s Gospel, and only by a logical leap: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”(14) The woman is unnamed in Luke, but Mary Magdalene is introduced at the beginning of the next chapter: as a woman of means, not as a prostitute. In no biblical tradition is she described as a prostitute. The proximity of the woman who is a sinner (still not necessarily a prostitute) to Mary Magdalene in the text of Luke provides the connection; they must be the same woman. Mary Magdalene, the woman who is a sinner, is the one anointing Jesus so intimately. This connection was first made official by Pope Gregory in the sixth century; there is no proof for it. The fact that she was a woman of means is, in fact, proof against it. H.D. herself wrote from the assumption that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. But, lost in the sound and fury of Mary Magdalene’s alleged status as a prostitute is the fact that Matthew, Mark, and John all agree that Jesus was anointed by Mary before his death. But it was not by Mary Magdalene. It was more likely Mary of Bethany because the anointings all take place at Bethany. Only John’s woman is explicitly Mary of Bethany in his anointing at Bethany. A logical assumption would be that Luke’s unnamed woman is also Mary of Bethany because it follows the same structure of the anointing scene of the other three gospels; it just doesn’t locate it specifically at Bethany. At any rate, the cross in The Dream of the Rood compares herself to the first Mary, the Mary of Jesus’s birth. On the Ruthwell Cross there is the obvious Mary being visited by Gabriel in the Annunciation, but there is also a depiction of a woman anointing Jesus. This is considered to be Mary Magdalene. Despite the overwhelming agreement of three gospels, and the anonymity of Luke’s woman, the anointing tradition is most often associated with Mary Magdalene. The tradition of anointing the human body was not embraced by the early church, and there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene as a result. Bruce Chilton attempts to rectify this repression of this remarkable woman in his biography of Mary Magdalene.
“Mary and her nameless colleague in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel both show what other ancient documents demonstrate: Women in Jewish antiquity, particularly within the folk wisdom practiced in Galilee, exercised a prominent role as anointers. Their domain extended far beyond the conventional household, and there is evidence that significant groups of practitioners looked to these women to guide them in their quest to leave this world behind them and experience the divine world.”(15)
Mary Magdalene’s suppression as an early leader in the church, as well as the first apostle—the first witness to resurrection, is likely the result of the early church’s discomfort with physical anointing, especially its potentially erotic component, one body to another in the physicality of touching. There is an unhidden element of eros in all four gospel traditions with the woman anointing Jesus with oil from the alabaster jar. Jesus is not embarrassed by it; he is instead deeply moved by her love and tender devotion. But the male witnesses are quite alarmed. In all but one case, they are too disturbed to even name the woman directly. The evangelists share the taboo panic with the witnesses; or rather they project it on to them. If this is what anointing looks like in public, what would it be in private? This scene suggests that physical anointing might go even further; it was potentially sexual and therefore dangerous to the early church. The scenes with the anointing woman only show that the evangelists and the early church were uncomfortable with anointing as a spiritual practice of the church, yet it was too important for them to fully cover it up. Jesus also approved of it; all the gospels agree on that point, however reluctantly. Despite this institutional discomfort, the church has retained the remnant of the anointing tradition in four of its seven sacraments: Baptism (with the chrism), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Last Rites. These all involve the head of the anointed, but the early tradition practiced by Mary Magdalene would have included the body in some fashion. That the sculptor of the Ruthwell Cross chose to depict the two (or three) Marys in connection with the The Dream of the Rood text makes perfect sense. They are the two boundaries of the life cycle of Jesus. By full implication, the tree can then be seen as a symbol of Mary Magdalene herself, the woman whose name means tower. The tree is the one who gives birth to Jesus’s death. The tree of the poem may or may not be connected with Paganism, and a feminine experience of God, but it certainly is connected to the Marys in the poem and the Ruthwell Cross. It also may be time to call it a she. We will definitely need H.D. to clarify the Mary characters and keep them straight. It also seems increasingly likely that H.D. was responding directly, and personally, to The Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross in her Trilogy.
H.D. mythically plays with the same organic symbolism of the tree as a feminine religious symbol, but with far greater openness. There is no fear about orthodox Christianity, or even heresy: “unintimidated by multiplicity,/ Of magnified beauty.”(16) Unlike the poet in The Dream of the Rood, she explores the spiritual experience with Pagan symbols like the Caduceus, and with goddess figures like Isis and Astarte. Jesus blurs with Osiris and Mithra in her poetry. For H.D., Paganism represents the same holy search by humankind: for love from, and with, the divine. Her poetic journey also openly acknowledges the great syncretistic elements that formed Christianity from the very beginning. It was a great and wonderful garage of world religions all along. Beyond the mighty rivers of Judaism and Hellenistic philosophy, H.D. also follows the streams of Paganism and mystery religions, mixing together in the great sea of so-called orthodox Christianity. Only the male figures of Plato and Aristotle are acceptable in their pre-Christian influence on Christian theology. The Christian tradition has suppressed, and even rejected, the female principle of the divine that was so freely expressed and celebrated in Paganism. H.D. recovers it on her own terms, and in communion with Jesus Christ. The heterodoxy of her religious search is presented without apology; there is no Apostle’s Creed formula at the end. But her poem does end with the birth of Jesus, and the full redemption of all of the Marys. One poem is orthodox; the other is religiously heterodox. But both are Christocentric.
Trilogy begins during a time of war, when the cross was twisted by Nazism. Her poem is directly intended to straighten out human values—to straighten out the swastika: “The Christos-image/ is most difficult to disentangle.”(p. 17) The “incidents” of the bombing of London, as the British press called them, provide the context for a new sacred witness: “An incident here and there,/ and rails gone (for guns)/ from your (and my) old time square.”(18) The destroyed neighborhoods are the setting for H.D. to search for God in a world at war. As the cross was a paradox as a life giving symbol for the other poet, this poet stands in her own time, but also goes back to the moments of ancient witness to God, the moments of revelation: “there as here, ruin opens/…the tomb, the temple; enter,/ there as here, there are no doors.”(19) H.D. is entering the sacred temple on one level of her composition. Back in London, she is literally walking through the damaged churches of her adopted city: “the shrine lies open to the sky.”(20) War paradoxically produces intimacy with the sacred; or perhaps it is just that we need God the most during wartime. H.D. is yearning for the sacred experience of the ancient world. The beginning motif of destroyed churches and the broken human body convey that the human spirit has been shaken from its moorings. But the churches haven’t lost God; God just needs to be sought, and found, by the seer, the new prophet. The Spirit of God is loose in the world, and the female poet responds to the Word of God like the first prophet of old: “unaware, Spirit announces the Presence;/ shivering overtakes us,/ as of old, Samuel.”(21) H.D. had many religious dreams and visions in London, including a vision of her own death.(22) In “The Walls Do Not Fall,” H.D. experiences a sanctuary of the human soul that God protects, even when human beings are doing their worst to the human body: a sacred center that can hold the individual psyche, as well as human civilization, together. The terrifying war triggers a search for wholeness in a female writer. As a modernist poet, H.D. returns to the ancient stories of the sacred to hold together the human soul, among the broken bodies and crumbled buildings. A biographer Janice Robinson examined how H.D. was putting her world back together; H.D. was searching for new values in the wreckage of London: “The impetus of her poem is toward recognition of religious and poetic realities in the face of twisted values…H.D. reaffirms her dedication to the task of the poet: to create new modes of communication, to discover new values. It is the poet’s task to re-create language. H.D. presents us with a vision of the hoped-for heaven, or haven, hoped for peace.”(23) Holding her world together and holding the whole world together overlap as artistic and religious objectives for the female poet. In the first two poems of Trilogy, H.D. gives thanks to God for her and our spiritual survival during wartime: “…we pause to give/ thanks that we rise again from death and live.”(24)
Though less directly apparent, the poet in The Dream of the Rood was well acquainted with warfare as well, possibly as a participant. The first reference to this experience of medieval combat is a subtle one in the words of the cross: “I was all wounded with arrows.”(25) Though the crucifixion of Calvary was certainly a scene of violence, it was not a scene of warfare. The cross was never covered with arrows. A tree with arrows in it is from a different scene in the memory and psyche of the poet. The poet is likely moving forward to his own time, just as H.D. did to describe the “incidents” with Hitler’s bombs. He is allowing the cross to speak in his medieval period, in the tragic events that he has seen firsthand. The poet refers to Jesus himself as a warrior, and he also refers to warriors taking care of the body of Jesus: “There they took almighty God,/ lifted him from that oppressive torment.”(26) This would have been the Roman centurions, but the Roman tradition was actually to leave bodies on the cross to decompose, or be eaten by animals. These gruesome bodies provided a warning to all those entering a Roman city. Crucifixion was as much a collective warning as it was an individual punishment. Broken bodies were tended by family members after death, if they were cared for at all, and this would have been the women at the cross in the case of Jesus. There are three women at the cross in the four gospel traditions, and Mary Magdalene is the only constant in these female trinities. There are sometimes three Marys, though Mary of Bethany is never specifically one of them. However, Mary of Bethany might be “the other Mary” in Matthew’s resurrection appearance.(27) Mary of Bethany is more suppressed than Mary Magdalene in many ways, though we know about her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus, which gives Mary of Bethany an association with resurrection while Jesus was alive. Nothing is known about Mary Magdalene’s family. The mother of Jesus is present in John’s gospel, along with John the beloved disciple. Obviously, none of these biblical figures are warriors. The poet has invoked the centurion at the cross by the reference to warriors: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”(28) The centurion’s affirmation of the Christian faith at the foot of the cross is then combined with the character of Joseph of Arimathea, the kindly Jewish man who purchased the tomb for Jesus. Like the women and Joseph, these new warriors begin to fashion a tomb for the Son of God, and they don’t know about the deep devotion of the rood toward its master. The cross is only a killer to them: “warriors in the sight of the slayer.”(29) But the biblical departure in The Dream of the Rood hints at something other than a scriptural event. Warriors are coming to pay homage to the cross: “Yet there eager ones came from afar/ to that noble one; I beheld all that.”(30) This is a later historical scene of pilgrimage, perhaps to a site like the Ruthwell Cross, or the Bewcastle Cross. It certainly refers to a later time, when the cross was properly venerated; when the character of the poem had been understood, finally. The Dream of the Rood is a poem written especially for warriors. In The Web of Words, Bernard Huppe argues that the poem is written particularly for men who have experienced war: “The Dream of the Rood would then have been intended to promote the veneration of the Cross by men for whom death in battle held a traditional place of honor. It functions to give to the difficult doctrine of penitential renunciation a vivid and immediate metaphoric value as a battle where dying to the world is crowned by victory over death in battle.”(31) H.D.’s Trilogy can definitely be considered an anti-war poem. It would be too much to say the same of The Dream of the Rood, though the poem was written for those who had experienced the trauma of warfare in mind, body, and soul. The character of Jesus is also an inversion of the warrior ethos; the cosmic victory comes paradoxically from his death. But he is still presented in a way that men of battle would understand. Jesus, the warrior, is actively involved in his own death; he is not a victim.
“He stripped himself then, young hero-that was God almighty-
Strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
Brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.”(32)
The moral conflict of the cross is likewise expressed in terms of a warrior’s bravery: “…but I had to stand fast/ I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,/ I did not dare bend.”(33) The anti-war critique would have to wait 1000 years for a female poet in London, but there is a kind of post-war liturgy in the mysterious warriors who take care of Jesus’s body; and the medieval warriors who have made their pilgrimage to venerate the beautiful cross. This cross is a vision of the last battle on earth for every man, one that a dying Jesus has already won for them.
The Dream of the Rood is unique in presenting the cross as a character. But the piety of the poem reflects a devotion to the cross that was not new; it went back to the fourth century, which was the same time that crosses were adorned with gold and jewels, as described at the beginning of the poem. The Sign of the Cross dates from the third century, and this is part of the same piety that venerates the cross’s power.(34) Though built several hundred years later, the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses are also part of this tradition of devotion in the Northumbrian Renaissance. Holy Cross Day began in 335 A.D., and this was unusual because it was, and still is, observed like a saint’s day.(35) In many respects, it proposes the cross in the context of sainthood, which the poet fulfilled, in the full logic of this day in The Dream of the Rood. Early church fathers attested to the discovery of the real cross during the time of Constantine, and the traditions surrounding St. Helen made the cross perhaps the most important relic in all of Christendom. The cross was associated with healing power, and this was power not limited to the relics of the original cross. The tradition of kissing the cross on Good Friday dates from the fifth century, and this veneration continues in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and High Church Anglican services on Good Friday to this day.(36) Christians have prayed to the cross throughout the centuries, and monastic orders like the Roman Catholic Passionists and the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross view the cross as the most central element of their Christian spirituality. Rather than being suppressed, the cross has become the most dominant and accepted symbol of the entire Christian religion: “With the seventh century the cross became an all pervasive symbol of ecclesiastical life. It is found lifted up in processional use and adopted as a form of pastoral crosier; jeweled pectoral crosses seem to be first found at this time.”(37) The poet is presenting the cross triumphantly extending in every direction, in the triumph of the poem: “When describing the cross as ‘lifted in the sky’ and extending to ‘the corners of the earth,’ the poet has in mind the universal and figurative cross of tradition, which visualized the cross from the heavens above to the infernal regions below, and from the furthest East to the furthest West.”(38)
Despite the difference in time for these two works, their subjects and their understanding of the role of their poetry are strangely, even eerily, similar. In The Dream of the Rood, the poet writes of having his vision “When voice bearers dwelled in rest.”(39) This description is in the voice of the poet, but the tree also describes the new revelation of the cross. It was “most hateful to the people,” but now the cross has been revealed in its true glory: “for the voice-bearers, the true way of life.”(40) Who are the voice-bearers? Why are they in rest? As the voice-bearers are silent, the poet is saying that he has found “the true way of life.” One possibility is that the voice-bearers are those who bring the Word of God to humankind. This could refer to the clergy, but the fact that they are in rest would seem to be a criticism of the church in the poet’s day. A more likely answer is that the poet is referring to those who wrote the Bible, those who recorded the sacred revelation of God. The voice-bearers are at rest because the canon of scripture is closed. Then The Dream of the Rood is something very much like scripture, according to the poet. The voice-bearers are speaking again, this time through him. The poet is speaking for God: “All those fair through creation/ gazed on the angel of the Lord there.”(41) The angel of the Lord appears to the poet. Rather than writing his own words, he seems to be transcribing them from the tree: “it began to speak words, the best of wood.”(42) The poem is also a medium for grace outside the sacerdotal administration of the church, and the poet seems to be proposing a revelation outside the context of the biblical canon. All of this is very is very familiar ground for H.D.: “Spirit announces the Presence.”(43) Like the poet of The Dream of the Rood, H.D. claims religious authority for her writing; she claims the mantle of the prophet. A woman poet writes with God’s inspiration in the modern world.
“In no wise is the pillar-of-fire
that went before
different from the pillar-of-fire
that comes after.”(44)
The angel of the Lord and the Holy Spirit are invoked in both works. Despite the orthodoxy of The Dream of the Rood, the poet’s witness has a surprising plural version of the Holy Spirit: “…the holy spirits beheld it there.”(45) H.D. seems to respond directly to The Dream of the Rood: “Let us, however, recover the Sceptre,/ the rod of power.”(46) This relationship between the two works will become even more explicit in “Tribute to the Angels,” the second of the three poems, when she frequently refers to her spiritual renaissance as “the flowering of the rood.” But here, like the cross of ancient veneration, the mysterious Sceptre has the power to heal: “it is Caduceus; among the dying/ it is healing.”(47) Easter symbols grace the new version of the old rood: “it is crowned with the lily-head/ or the lily-bud.”(48) H.D. connects the healing mystery of the cross with the healing power of the Caduceus, the rod of Asclepius, and the symbol of Hermes. H.D. sees her authority in Christian terms as the prophet of God, and she is just as comfortable with the role of scribe in ancient Egypt: “he takes precedence over the priest,/ stands second only to the Pharoah.”(49) In Psyche Reborn, Susan Stanford Friedman shows that H.D. is binding Pagan and Judeo-Christian symbols of healing together: “The ‘rod of power’ is Aaron’s rod, the magician staff of religious transformation. It ‘bears healing’ because it is linked through mythological association with Caduceus, the rod of Asclepius that is entwined with the dual snakes of wisdom and resurrection…Rooted firmly in the unconscious as they were for Freud, religion and art are the twin serpents wound round her Caduceus of poetry.”(50) H.D.’s Sceptre connects the Caduceus to The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, and she also connects it to the cross itself, the flowering rood as the fulfillment of the staff of Moses.
The motif of the palimpsest is an important one for H.D. in Trilogy. This came from the tradition of reusing parchment in ancient manuscripts. The parchment was subjected to a treatment where its surface was wiped clean, or thereabouts, and new writing could be put on the old page, effectively covering up what had been written before. Manuscripts have survived to the present day by being discovered underneath other texts. This motif is both a serious and playful one for H.D. in Trilogy: “jottings on a margin,/ indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over.”(51) This theme functions in more than one way for the poet. The early manuscript that has been scraped off and covered over could be the Paganism underneath Christian theology and its holidays. Her poetry could then be seen as a discovery of the feminine principle of God underneath the patriarchy of the church. Or the palimpsest can be her own modern writing, her “jottings on a margin,” being applied to a sacred text from an earlier era. The writing of a woman is the new sacred text that we are finally prepared to read. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, the palimpsest can represent the emergence of a previously repressed symbol or thought, something that had been covered over by the ego because it was too confusing or painful. In her experience of psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, H.D. began to see her poetry as a palimpsest of personal liberation: “Translation of the unconscious was for H.D. not only the personal quest of Psyche for the meaning of her identity, but also Psyche’s search for the source of religious and artistic inspiration.”(52) As an analyst, Freud encouraged her use of religious symbols to understand her identity and struggles as a woman, and he specifically affirmed her exploration of the figures of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene: “This identification held a special meaning for H.D.; it was given to her by Freud in the context of her psychoanalysis and was no mere academic equation. H.D. had loved out of wedlock, as had Mary Magdalene, and she had borne a child out of wedlock, as had the Virgin Mary.”(53) Both biblical women seem to be spiritually present to H.D. in her sessions with Freud, and in her own artistic exploration. While H.D. explores the woman or women who anointed Jesus, she also identifies just as deeply with the Virgin Mary: “how could I imagine/ the Lady herself would come instead?”(54) The Virgin Mary has been just as misunderstood as Mary Magdalene, perhaps even more so. The many references in the Gospels to Jesus having brothers attest to this. H.D.’s self-acceptance, as an artist and as a woman, seems to be in the full reconciliation of these two women. As a feminist, H.D. was surprisingly comfortable with Freud and his theories, in a way that most feminists today are not. H.D.’s biographer Janice Robinson tries to describe the poet’s admiration for her analyst.
“H.D. saw Freud as a peacekeeper, in that he had developed a secular language for speaking of matters of the heart which, while cumbersome and prosaic, is potentially free from the old religious connotations that divide people into warring camps. Not only did H.D. see Freud’s philosophy as a hope for peace in the world, but it was Freud who had brought peace to her own soul.”(55)
Other scholars are more skeptical of the relationship and see greater intellectual separation between H.D. and her analyst: “…H.D. took Freud’s theories, dismissed their evaluative framework, and developed his ideas in a direction ultimately antithetical to his own perspective.”(56) For his part, Sigmund Freud found H.D. to be simply enchanting
The psychoanalytic framework is a helpful way of contrasting the heterodoxy of H.D.’s spirituality with the confessional or creedal Christian faith of The Dream of the Rood. The unconscious is an untidy place. It is not a place for creedal statements. Despite their many differences, H.D. and the poet claim and maintain their religious authority by direct experiences with Jesus Christ. They are Christocentric in their artistic explorations. Both poems portray a deep intimacy with the person of Jesus, and the spiritual authority of his cross. One of the most dynamic passages that reflects this spiritual intimacy is the moment when the jeweled, golden cross dramatically starts to shift and morph before the poet’s eyes. The cross of veneration begins to go backward in time: to the suffering of Jesus’s death.
“the ancient hostility of wretches, so that it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all drenched with sorrows.
I was frightened by the beautiful vision; I saw that urgent beacon
change its covering and colours: sometimes it was soaked with wetness
stained with the coursing of blood; sometimes adorned with treasure.”(57)
The cross is sharing the passion of Jesus, and the poet is witness to the suffering changes in the cross. The moisture of the blood of Christ almost mingles with the poet’s own tears. The poet is connected to Jesus intimately through the cross as it begins to speak for the first time. The poet is filled with fear; yet he is also touched by the beauty of the royal wounds. The intimacy of the cross with Jesus continues in the words of the tree describing the ecstatic pain of the crucifixion: “I trembled when the warrior embraced me.”(58) The emotional and physical union allows the tree to directly experience what Jesus experienced: “They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood.”(59) There is something like an apostolic succession here, one that that establishes the authority of the poet. The writer is bound to the tree who is bound to Jesus who is bound to God. The Christology of the poem becomes higher as the connections are more deeply experienced and understood: “I saw the God of hosts/ violently stretched out.”(60) Jesus and God are one. The cross even seems to take on another biblical character in the shared suffering: the merciful role of Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross: “On me the Son of God suffered for a while.”(61) The apostolic succession continues on to the reader who has shared this vision with the poet.
Despite H.D.’s religious syncretism and pluralism, or perhaps because of it, the female poet is drawn towards the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Her identification with the crucified Jesus is both intimate and idiosyncratic. After seeing an exhibit of Diego Velasquez’s paintings in Geneva, H.D. uses the painting Crucifixion by the Spanish artist to express the power and presence of Jesus Christ, and her personal experience of him.(62)
“He might even be the authentic Jew
stepped out from Velasquez;”
“I assure you that the eyes
of Velasquez’ crucified
now look straight at you,
And they are amber and they are fire.”(63)
The reader is bound by the shared experience of Velasquez’s Crucifixion, though we might have seen it in Madrid. The painting shows Jesus looking downward in his death agony. In order for eye contact to be made with the writer, or the reader, Jesus would have to look up. He would have to lift his head, slightly: for us to meet his suffering gaze. H.D. is presenting not a static or frozen Jesus, but one who is animated and connected, like the cross in the dream, to the modern age and its collective anguish during World War II.
Both works are establishing a kind of sacramental relationship with the reader; the outward design of the art is efficacious in sharing the inward grace and spirit of God. While skirting the outer edges of heresy and the institutional authority of the church, both poets seem to be quite sincere: in offering the ministry of Jesus Christ, the ostensible administration of the church’s sacraments, in their works of art from different periods.
“Thus it is that the words of the cross can bring us dramatically close to the events of the crucifixion, enabling the reader to share in a unique imaginative reconstruction of Christ’s suffering, but at the same time evading the bewildering problem as to the nature of Christ’s consciousness, and without the assumptive blasphemy that might have been involved. However, in coalescing the persona of the cross with that of Christ himself the poet draws upon a concept implicit within the liturgical use of the cross and explicitly propounded in the Paulician doctrine that the real cross was not the gallows but the body of Christ himself.”(64)
Without much surprise by now, H.D. is willing to go further into this unique sacramental territory by invoking the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation.
“We are part of it;
we admit the transubstantiation,
not God merely in bread
but God in the other-half of the tree.”(65)
This invocation of transubstantiation seems to directly extend the claims of both her poem and The Dream of the Rood at the same time. H.D. is referring to the cross as a tree, and she has explicitly used the term rood throughout “Tribute to the Angels.” Who else has written about the cross as a tree? H.D. is exploring the reality of God in the Eucharist with the reality of God in the cross. There admits no symbolism, but only real presence between the two. She makes the connection implicit in The Dream of the Rood completely explicit: that the voice of the tree is the same voice of God in the transubstantiation of the poem. If there is still doubt about the relationship between The Dream of the Rood and Trilogy, H.D. seems intent on dispelling it, completely, once and for all: “this is the flowering of the rood,/ this is the flowering of the wood.”(87) For the unconvinced, she actually makes this declaration twice in “Tribute to the Angels.” H.D.’s experience of destruction and warfare has been redeemed by a vision of a simple tree flowering in wartime, one that hearkens back to the old rood that came to a medieval poet in a dream. The modern poet embraces the image as a symbol of the same cross in nature. Was it a real tree or just a dream?
“we were there or not there,
we saw the tree flowering;
It was an ordinary tree
In an old garden-square.”(67)
The third and last declaration of the flowering rood modifies it slightly: “This is the flowering of the rod,/ this is the flowering of the burnt-out wood.”(68) The closest connection between the two works is at the point of this declaration. H.D. has not only doubled it; she has tripled it by the end of “Tribute to the Angels.” The Sceptre of power has been reclaimed by a woman, just as it was first claimed by a man in The Dream of the Rood. This Sceptre of power is the flowering rod. It the writing instrument of the poet, and the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
The last poem of Trilogy is “The Flowering of the Rod,” the poem which celebrates the ecstasy of the cross in the full joy of resurrection. The recovered writing implement celebrates the full creativity of the masculine and the feminine, in the divine and in humankind. Their balance has been restored: “The rod, a traditional symbol of masculinity, is affirmed by H.D. in connection, we will remember with ‘the half-burnt out tree…blossoming.’ The half-burnt out tree is a feminine image. Blasted by the war, blasted by the years (she is now fifty-eight), the tree flowers again in remembrance of things past—a world of peace and satisfied love.”(69) The flowering of the rood and rod is thus the full circle of resurrection that is merely touched upon in The Dream of the Rood: “Death he tasted there;/ nevertheless the Lord rose again./ with his great might to help mankind.”(70) The more reticent resurrection is in marked contrast to the full glory of resurrection in “The Flowering of the Rod.” What does it say about human culture that it is far easier for us to imagine crucifixion than resurrection? H.D. not only imagines resurrection; she presents the real experience of it in this world.
“do not think of His face
or even of His hands;
do not think how we will stand
The Velasquez painting has come fully to life, and Jesus is not only off the cross; he is out of the tomb. The resurrected Christ is not a static image, but a moving reality loose in the world.
“Now having given all, let us leave all;
above all, let us leave pity
and mount higher
The cross and tree as one united symbol present a spiritual and artistic androgyny—of masculine and feminine communion--in the closing poem of Trilogy. However, there are still significant phallic overtones to the rod and Sceptre, even as they have been separated from that of weaponry from the medieval and modern experience of warfare. Despite the glory of resurrection in the last poem, it is still necessary for H.D. to go back the two Marys, which she does at the end in “The Flowering of the Rod.” She still has to make these women whole, or bring them together into complete union in herself: “She rejects the prevailing stereotypes that would split the image of woman into chaste Madonna or devil-ridden whore, thus denying her the strong sense of identity necessary for self-representation, and she reinstates an integrated female perspective into the moral, religious, and linguistic status quo.”(73) The final key to understanding the full spiritual vision of H.D. is actually in the middle of Trilogy, as the female poet reveals the place where her poems are born.
“Now polish the crucible
and in the bowl distill
a word most bitter, marah,
A word bitter still, mar
sea, brine, breaker, seducer,
giver of life, giver of tears;
Now polish the crucible
and set the jet of flame
under, till marar-mar
are melted, fuse, and join
and change and alter
Mer, mere, mere, mater, Maia, Mary,
Star of the Sea,
This is the point at which both Marys become active participants in God’s redemption, just as the male poet was a partner in The Dream of the Rood. This is the moment of feminine poetic conception. The partner to the flowering rod is the mysterious womb of womanhood, both in terms of childbirth and in the birth of art in the female psyche. Neither role should be seen as passive: “H.D.’s use of the alchemist’s bowl to symbolize the womb’s transformative power represents a revision of traditional vessel imagery that implies women’s passivity in the creative act. (Consider the Christian idea that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit as He overshadowed the virgin.).”(75) It is in the active participation with God by a woman poet that the two Marys are finally one. The poem ends in the sacred events of birth, where both poems began in the life of Jesus, the moment when a young mother was once visited by wise men. There are gifts presented, and the living miracle of God is again in the world: “the fragrance came from the bundle of myrrh/ she held in her arms.”(76)
1. H.D., Trilogy, (New York: New Directions Books, 1973), p. 18.
2. Eamonn O Carragain, Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition, (London and Toronto: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2005), p. 1.
3. Ibid, p. 213..
5. Ibid, p. 2.
6. Ibid, p. 7.
7. The Dream of the Rood, lines 33-34.
8. H.D., p. 21.
9. The Dream of the Rood, lines 1-4.
10. Ibid, line 5.
11. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), Genesis 2:9.
12. Ibid, Genesis 1:27.
13. The Dream of the Rood, lines 90-94.
14. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Luke 7:37.
15. Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography, (New York: Doubleday, 2005), p. 60.
16. H.D., p. 11.
17. H.D., p. 27.
18. H.D., p. 3.
22. Janice S. Robinson, H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982), p. 306.
23. Ibid, p. 314.
24. H.D., p. 110.
25. The Dream of the Rood, line 12.
26. Ibid, lines 60-61.
27. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Matthew 27:62.
28. Ibid, Mark 15:39.
29. The Dream of the Rood, line 66.
30. Ibid, lines 57-58.
31. Bernard F. Huppe, The Web of Words, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970), 104.
32. The Dream of the Rood, lines 39-41.
33. Ibid, lines 43-45.
34. Sandra McEntire, “The Devotional Context of the Cross Before A.D. 1000,” Old English Literature, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 394.
35. Ibid, p. 393.
37. Michael Swanton, The Dream of the Rood, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987), p. 47.
38. Huppe, p. 75.
39. The Dream of the Rood, line 3.
40. Ibid, lines 88-89.
41. Ibid, lines 9-10.
42. Ibid, line 27.
43. H.D., p.3.
44. H.D., p.36.
45. The Dream of the Rood, line 47.
46. H.D., p. 7.
49. Ibid, p. 15.
50. Susan Stanford Friedman, Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., (Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1981), p. 76.
51. H.D., p. 42.
52. Friedman, p. 79.
53. Robinson, p. 304.
54. H.D., p. 92.
55. Robinson, p. 304.
56. Dianne Chisholm, H.D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), p.4.
57. The Dream of the Rood, lines 19-26.
58. Ibid, line 42.
59. Ibid, line 48.
60. Ibid, lines 51-52.
61. Ibid, lines 83-84.
62. Robinson, p. 309.
63. H.D., p. 28.
64. Swanton, p. 68.
65. H.D., p. 87.
67. H.D., p. 83.
68. H.D., p. 110.
69. Robinson, p. p. 328.
70. The Dream of the Rood, lines 101-102.
71. H.D., p. 113.
72. H.D., p. 114.
73. Diana Krolik Hollenberg, H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991), p. 125.
74. H.D., p. 71.
75. Hollenberg, p. 130.
76. H.D., p. 172.
Carragain, Eamonn O. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images and the Old English Poems of The Dream of the Rood Tradition. London and Toronto: The British Library and University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Chilton, Bruce. Mary Magdalene: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
Chishom, Dianne. H.D’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Doolitte, Hilda. Trilogy. New York: New Directions Books, 1973.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
Hollenberg, Diana Krolik. H.D.: The Poetics of Childbirth and Creativity. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Huppe, Bernard F. The Web of Words. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1970.
McEntire, Sandy. “The Devotional Context of the Cross Before A.D. 1000.” Ed. R.M. Liuzza. Old English Literature: Critical Essays. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
Robinson, Janice S. H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982.
The Dream of the Rood. Ed. Michael Swanton. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1987.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.