A Reading of H.D.’s ‘Evening’

A Reading of H.D.’s ‘Evening’

Evening

The light passes

from ridge to ridge,

from flower to flower –

the hypaticas, wide-spread

under the light

grow faint –

the petals reach inward,

the blue tips bend

toward the bluer heart

and the flowers are lost.

 

The cornel-buds are still white,

but shadows dart

from the cornel-roots –

black creeps from root to root,

each leaf

cuts another leaf on the grass,

shadow seeks shadow,

then both leaf

and leaf-shadow are lost.*

Hilda Doolittle

Love them or hate them, the Imagists were a group of poets who knew how to conjure up concrete images particularly well. Although it’s often difficult to determine precisely what an Imagist poem is, in the early years it was quite clearly outlined by Ezra Pound’s A few don’ts.

H.D.Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), more commonly known as H.D., is one of my favourite Imagist poets. She had the gift of presenting detailed images to evoke a vivid effect in the reader. ‘Evening’ is no exception to that rule.

Of course, H.D. had a complicated relationship with the Imagists. Or rather, a complicated relationship with Ezra Pound (not that many people who knew him didn’t have a complicated relationship with him…). They were lovers in their youth, but Pound eventually fell in love with Dorothy Shakespear.

H.D. captured her thoughts and feelings on her former fiancé in End to Torment: Memoir of Ezra Pound. Despite the ominous sounding title, it’s actually quite a heart-warming account of what started out as a love affair but developed into a life-long poetic friendship.

Her style is very immediate and effective, exceptionally particular in its selection of details, and thus always flows beautifully. It’s a pity she’s occasionally overlooked since her gorgeous sensitivity is something that could also inspire contemporary poets.

 

Reading ‘Evening’

 

The light passes

from ridge to ridge,

from flower to flower –

 

Through the straight-forward title, we are presented with the time of day – obviously – placing us in the evening when the light begins to reach its arms in strange ways throughout the landscape. As H.D. succinctly puts it, the light is reaching ‘from ridge to ridge’, ‘from flower to flower’, giving us the impression of how the light connects everything. It gives you a sense of movement, as the light ‘passes’, rather than ‘shines’, which is also evoked by the repetition of the phrase, ‘from x to x’.

 

the hypaticas, wide-spread

under the light

grow faint –

 

H.D. gives us more detail to evoke the tangible image. We know that we’re looking at hepaticas (please don’t ask me why she spells them hypaticas), lilac or blue liverleaves. We find them spread across the entire hillside (the ridges from the first lines implicate that it is a hill), and we know that they grow faint as the light darkens.

 

the petals reach inward,

the blue tips bend

toward the bluer heart

and the flowers are lost.

 

This beautiful description indicates how the flowers are ‘going to sleep’, in that the flowers wilt and seem to shrink on themselves, moving towards the ‘bluer heart’, a lovely description of how the flower ‘is more itself’ in the centre (around the stigma?). However, the more the flower bends in on itself, the more it becomes ‘lost’ – is this just because it fades from sight in the darkness, or is it that the act of reaching inward means it is dying and losing itself?

 

The cornel-buds are still white,

but shadows dart

from the cornel-roots –

 

Here, H.D. presents another plant – the dwarf cornel, but the buds, at this time, are ‘still white’ – immature. As the evening progresses, the ‘shadows dart’ from the roots, making the small flowers look threatened.

 

black creeps from root to root,

each leaf

cuts another leaf on the grass,

 

I love this description and the contrast to the first stanza. The shadow – the black – doesn’t ‘pass’, but it ‘creeps’ from root to root, a more shady and ominous movement than the performance of the light; and the shadows on the grass ‘cut’ each other – as though there are indications that the cornel’s leaves won’t get along.

 

shadow seeks shadow,

then both leaf

and leaf-shadow are lost.

 

The final lines of the poem, and a fitting close. In the way that the shadows are cutting each other, they are also seeking each other out. ‘Then both leaf / and leaf-shadow are lost’ could either mean that the shadows become so intermingled that it becomes impossible to distinguish the details of the scenery anymore – or, and more likely because of the progression of light, it becomes so dark that the threatening nature of the shadows disappears from sight.

A few thoughts on analysing ‘Evening’

So, to provide a brief summary: Dusk is imminent, and the light is fading. We’re on a hill where we have hypaticas and cornels. The hypaticas gradually ‘go to sleep’ until there isn’t enough light to make them out anymore. The small cornels, their flowers still immature and innocent, nevertheless throw threatening shadows along the ground.

The most remarkable aspect of the poem is how it not only evokes the passing of time during one evening, as one might assume when first reading the poem, but the passing of time throughout the seasons. The plants have completely different flowering times – so the poem encompasses a much longer time frame than initially expected. Hepaticas blossom in very early spring and wilt completely by the time cornels start breaking into bloom in July to August; the white buds of the cornel wouldn’t appear until early July. H.D. captures these impressions perfectly in a rather short poem!

I’d be rather inclined to avoid interpreting the poem too much and just to suggest that it provides the impression of two plants fading from sight as the light grows dim – one concentrating on an aging flower as it is wilting, the other on a youthful flower as it is being engulfed by shadows.

That being said, the different tone of the stanzas opens a wide range for allegorical interpretations. The fading of the old hypaticas could indicate the decline of Western traditions (supported by the fact that both plants are native to Europe and the U.S.) – a common theme in the 1910s. As evening – time – progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate the blossoms, until we lose sight completely. The petals bending inward to touch the ‘heart’ of tradition also evoke this interpretation – individuals in support of the ‘heart’ of civilisation move closer and closer to the foundations, until they fade entirely from view.

Conversely, the cornel, only just beginning to blossom, appears lost in a threatening atmosphere, where the shadows are creeping from root to root. Does this mean that we cannot make out the danger concretely and that the problem is lying at the root, creeping around and infecting everything in its way without us being able to perceive it? The only thing we can make out is the conflict, seeing how leaf cuts leaf until everything is in darkness.

Read in this way, the poem may recall the insecurities people felt just before the wake of the First World War, with the fading of the light and the disappearance of the plants in the shadows serving as a metaphor to capture the sentiment. The first stanza depicts the coming of age and consequential decay with the plants wilting. Later, we see the potential of shadows, of darkness, consuming something that is unripe. In both cases, we are in the evening, at the end of an era – and the imminence of war casts its shadow across the scene.

But, as is the case with many allegorical readings, this is purely speculative and assumes that we can exchange x for y. Whether my allegorical reading is what H.D. had in mind, or whether it’s just a beautiful impression of an evening at a hilltop throughout the seasons, it’s a beautiful poem. H.D. certainly deserves more attention. Her talent of observation and natural accuracy is absolutely flabbergasting.

Did you enjoy this reading? Got anything else to add? Then please leave a comment below. Otherwise, please do share it on the social media of your choice by clicking on one of the tender buttons below.

*Quoted from H.D., ‘Evening’ in Imagist Poetry, ed. by Peter Jones (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 63.