• The Polyphony Team

Modernist Men and Women: Constructions of Gender in the poetry of T.S. Eliot and H.D.

by Amy Hagan

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 2 First published April 2020, Manchester


This essay analyses the poems of H.D. and T.S. Eliot in relation to gender and constructions of femininity and masculinity. ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Eliot and ‘Sea Rose’, ‘Helen’, and ‘Oread’ by H.D. are interesting examples of how gender categories are imagined and how it can be difficult to pinpoint where authorial power lies in the poems. In the essay, I argue how H.D. – a female poet – does not need to ‘lose’ her femininity or must ‘write like a man’ in order for her poetry to have a place in canonical literature, which is dominated by the ‘Men of 1914’. H.D is in the unique position to use her marginality as a female poet to explore and critique ideas of gender relations and constructions. In the case of Eliot, although misogyny and sexism are evident in his poetry, he depicts both the female and male forms in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ as well as emphasising masculine insecurity, fragility and anxiety.

After his death in 1965, there was intense scrutiny of T.S. Eliot’s own personal relationships with women and his literary depiction of them. Defenders of his work argued that although he ‘should not be regarded as a saint’, he should also not ‘be demonised [or have] his work reduced to any single issue’ (see note 1). Critics like Robert Crawford argue for Eliot’s retention as a poet because of the significant nuances in his biography and writing, and because looking at central Modernist figures like Eliot can help us with broader questions on social and cultural issues like gender relations and sexuality. However, as Susan Friedman asks, why are we not reading poet Hilda Doolittle’s (H.D.) work to the same degree as Eliot’s? She is ‘part of the same literary tradition that produced the mature works of the “established” artists’ like Eliot and Ezra Pound (see note 2). Friedman’s answer is that H.D. is a woman and therefore immediately cast out to the margins of the canon of modernist writing. Poems are ‘masculine, as well as myths, symbols and cult objects’ and the fact H.D. is a female poet ‘becomes the subtle ground on which she can be ignored’ (see note 3). While I agree with Friedman that the ‘canonical narrative of modernism, focused on the “Men of 1914, neglected women writers’, today H.D.’s work appears regularly in the modern poetry canon ‘by women’ (see note 4). The question that should be asked now is if Eliot can be argued by critics like Crawford for his retention as a canonical modernist writer despite apparent misogyny in his works, why can’t H.D. regardless of her gender? Her poems also help to answer broader questions about gender and sexuality, or at the very least question the stiff and simplistic gender binaries Friedman relies on in her essay, ironically undermining it. This essay analyses Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’ (1915) and H.D.’s poems ‘Oread’ (1917), ‘Sea Rose’ (1916) and ‘Helen’ (1924), and how gender and gender binaries are highlighted by the poets. Both poets depict the female and male forms, refer to classical mythology and mysticism, and ask the question of whether the authorial voice lies with the subject or the object of the poem. I argue that H.D. does not need to ‘overcome, destroy, or transcend her femininity and write like a man’ in order to have a place in canonical literature (see note 5). Instead, she uses her marginalisation as a female poet to her advantage to explore and comment on social and cultural ideas of gender relations, often leaving us with ambiguous answers or no answer at all. In the case of Eliot, there is evidence of misogyny and sexism in his poem, but also innovation as he depicts the male form as well as the female and emphasises masculine anxiety and insecurity.

In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘Oread’, both poets posit the debate of where the authorial voice of the poem lies, with the speaker or the object. In Eliot’s poem, the speaker can control and omit the speech of the lady. The use of quotation marks and ellipses suggest editing and the speaker being selective of the dialogue used: ‘I shall sit here, serving tea to my friends…’

(see note 6). Moreover, the use of hyphens conveys the idea that the speaker is choosing for us, the readers, what parts of the lady’s conversation are interesting and valid enough to be made privy to us: ‘- And so the conversation slips’ (see note 7). The conversation ‘slips’ the interest of the speaker, who we can presume to be male and possibly the voice of Eliot. The verb suggests that interaction with others and embracing conversation is rejected by the speaker and so he maintains his distance and detachment from the lady and her opinions of ‘Chopin’ and ‘high art’. He remains estranged from the scene around him, and from the upper-class societal lady. The casual and detached tone of ‘let us say’ portrays the speaker as being completely aware of his actions in selectively choosing and editing the conversation of the female figure in the poem (see note 8). Therefore, it seems the authorial voice of the poem lies with the speaker, the subject, rather than the lady or object. The way the lady’s speech is portrayed emphasises there is a conversation happening in the scene but we are not hearing it, prompting the question why. There is an issue of trust throughout the poem as the speaker’s judgment and perspective of the lady is questioned. If language is being omitted, what else about the lady, her character and her emotions are being omitted by the speaker? Eliot’s poem is a ‘portrait of a lady’ and is therefore a portrait of the artist’s - or speaker’s - perspective of the lady. Portraits are depictions or illustrations of a person with the intent to display their likeness, personality and mood. But the action of portraiture objectifies the person, in this case the lady, reducing her to an object to be recreated and to an extent reimagined. Authority lies with the speaker of the poem and, ironically, the poem becomes a portrait of the speaker because it is his perspective or rendition of the female form. And if we take the speaker to be the authorial voice of Eliot, the poem is immediately gendered and portrays a man objectifying the female, reducing her autonomy and imposing his own idea or perspective on her. As Derek Roper suggests, ‘we know the lady only through her speeches’, which the speaker manipulates and controls (see note 9). There is no other way of reading her feelings, expectations and intentions except through the male speaker’s perspective.

According to Tim Armstrong, one reason for female disappearance from visibility is ‘the fact that women often played supportive rather than agonistic roles (see note 10). In H.D.’s poetry, the female figure takes on a more authoritative and ‘agonistic’ role in comparison to Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’. ‘Oread’ is a very short poem by H.D., a sestet almost, in being made up of only 6 lines. The title is a reference to the mythological nymph from Ancient Greece. The oread was believed to have inhabited the mountains and was depicted in mythology and literary tradition as a beautiful young maiden. Titling the poem after an oread immediately genders the poem and at first places authority with the female nymph. The poem appears to be a statement by the oread who does not take on a submissive role. She takes control of the situation or is at least trying to, as highlighted by the series of imperatives ‘whirl up’, ‘splash’, ‘hurl’, and ‘cover’ at the beginning of each line (see note 11). A complex portrayal of power is being conveyed as the nymph commands and attempts to control the sea, another part of her domain as an element of nature. The sea becomes a male counterpart to the female nymph through the use of phallic imagery in ‘pointed pines’ (see note 12). H.D. is presenting the dynamic relationship of power between the nymph and the sea, between female and male. The boundary between land and sea, female and male, disintegrates by the end of the poem as the ‘rocks’ of the nymph become ‘cover[ed]’ with the sea’s ‘pools of fir’ (see note 13). A hybrid image of the land and sea is created by juxtaposing images of fir trees and pools of seawater. The land and sea are joining together, and it becomes difficult to decipher where the authority or dominant power lies. The sea takes on characteristics of the land, losing control of the situation, yet the land and rocks are covered in ‘pools of fir’. The poem puts forward the idea of the subject and the object meeting and becoming entangled with one another. Where the authorial voice lies is ambiguous as it is not clear who dominates the other.

‘Portrait of a Lady’ suggests that although the reader has to rely on the speaker to depict the lady of the poem, there are multiple ‘portraits’ of the female form. There is an immediate switch from ‘a Lady’ to ‘the wench’ in the epigraph at the beginning of the poem (see note 14). They are juxtaposing terms to describe a female. ‘Lady’ is capitalised, suggesting the high social and even moral status of the woman, and is typically used to describe a genteel woman. A ‘wench’ is an alternative name for a prostitute, immediately linking the woman’s character to her sexual behaviour. The epigraph immediately signals the attitude of the speaker towards the female of the poem. It suggests that the female can inhabit multiple ‘portraits’ of herself, but also that the male perspective categorises females into such terms and simplistic gender binaries. The determiners further emphasise this by separating such portraits of females. The determiner ‘the’ indicates that ‘the wench’ is a representation of a whole social category – the social category of woman. The determiner ‘a’ emphasises that any female can be ‘a Lady’ depending on their ‘scene’ and how they ‘arrange [themselves]’ (see note 15). The female in the poem is identified by the unspecified pronoun ‘it’ and is presented as ‘the scene’. At first it seems the lady has agency and autonomy as she ‘arrange[s]’ herself as a scene she wants to portray: ‘a Lady’. Yet she is referred to as ‘it’, which undermines her female autonomy. To the speaker, the artist of the portrait and poem, the lady is an object to be interpreted and presented through the male artist’s perspective. In masculine modernist poetry according to Friedman, women are ‘feminine principles […] and not particularized human beings’ (see note 16). H.D. also portrays the idea that there are multiple ‘portraits’ of the female by inverting traditional symbols and motifs of femininity, beauty and female sexuality. In her poem ‘Sea Rose’, the inverted symbol of the rose is used to portray female sexuality and the feminine body as being ‘stunted’ and suppressed by patriarchal and sexist ideas of what it means to be feminine and a woman (see note 17). The ‘rose, harsh rose’ is traditionally associated with love and female beauty (see note 18). Again, the poem is immediately gendered because a conventional feminine symbol is used as its subject. In Ancient Greece, the rose was identified with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality. In Christianity, roses became connected with the Virgin Mary, a female figure of virtue, purity and chastity. The rose motif is representative of what it means to be female, to be chaste, have a delicate nature and epitomise beauty and love. But H.D.’s rose is a ‘harsh rose’. The adjective suggests the rose has a cruel exterior, like thorns, and is ‘marred […] with a stint of petals’ (see note 19). H.D.’s rose has very few petals, therefore losing its delicate and pure nature. The ‘harsh rose’ symbolises the female figure that goes against patriarchal notions of femininity as it has opposite qualities compared to conventional readings of the flower. The rose, or feminine figure, has been ‘caught in the drift’ and is slowly being moved or deviated from its expected course (see note 20). This is a course of enforcing patriarchal and societal expectations of the woman to be chaste, virtuous and delicate in nature by having the female ‘stunted’ and ‘flung’ (see note 21). The harsh verbs conveying the idea that the female has been prevented from growing or developing properly and has been carelessly and violently cast aside, and so is ‘harsh’. What is produced is an ‘acrid fragrance’ (see note 22). The oxymoron reveals how the sweet, pleasant smell of the rose has turned bitter and acidic, just like the female has become bitter because of the stiff gender binaries and patriarchal boundaries placed on her. Female modernists like H.D. ‘responded differently to the powerful feminine subjectivities of their early reading’, one way being to invert conventional readings of feminine symbols and myth (see note 23).

Furthermore, the traditionally feminine ‘portrait’ of Helen of Troy from classical mythology has been inverted by H.D. in her poem ‘Helen’ and deconstructed as a muse of beauty and female sexuality. The mythological figure of Helen often features in canonical literature as a beautiful female muse, used to describe beautiful women desired by men and has been ‘the symbol of woman in her most perfect form’ (see note 24). But it was this intense male desire for Helen that resulted in the Trojan War and immense death and destruction. H.D. inverts the conventional symbol of Helen of Troy by portraying Helen as a symbol of the destructiveness of male desire and anxiety, and how female beauty and sexual behaviour is used as a scapegoat. Helen, who is depicted as the epitome of femininity and beauty, is blamed for starting the Trojan War despite the fact it was male desire to possess and own her that drove the men to fight. The repetition of ‘All Greece hates […] All Greece reviles’ emphasises this scapegoating and the verbs illustrate the blame, hatred and abuse hurled at Helen (see note 25). Female beauty and sexuality are described as ‘past enchantments and past ills’, weapons for females to use against men who succumb to them and fall under their spell (see note 26). H.D. expresses in her poem that it is ‘the dominance of masculine values [which] has brought destruction and suffering’, not the female scapegoat (see note 27). In the poem, Helen is frozen like a statue, one that is ‘hate[d]’ and ‘revile[d]’ vehemently and blamed for so much death and destruction (see note 28). As the poem progresses, the repetition of ‘white’ and ‘wan’ and the lack of action gives the sense of the statue becoming paler and more ill. Similar to the rose in ‘Sea Rose’, the female figure becomes hardened and statue-like and is reduced to an object of male desire and expectation of femininity. Helen is reduced to ‘white ash amid funeral cypresses’ (see note 29). Cypresses do not lose their leaves during the year, just as Helen remains like a statue yet is not forgotten as a muse of female beauty, or for her ‘past ills’. H.D. emphasises the hypocrisy of scapegoating Helen, who is an archetypal feminine woman. If she is truly hated and condemned for being the cause of war and death, why is she also hailed as a figure of immense female beauty? Helen in the poem is missing an identity that is separate from being the object of male desire and target of female condemnation. The woman ‘searches […] for a direction and purpose which is so often denied to women’ (see note 30). H.D. challenges the mainstream understanding of what classicism is doing in literature and why it is used.

Eliot in his poem makes reference to masculine anxiety and insecurity over female agency and dominance through the male speaker. For the speaker, the relationship he has with the lady has an ‘atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb’ (see note 31). This reference to Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet promotes the idea that the male, like Romeo, will die because of the love and beauty of the female. The psychological drama of the poem ‘unfolds in the consciousness of one person’, the male speaker (see note 32). That is, masculine anxiety over the female body. The constant referral to the lady of the poem as ‘it’ and an object reinforces this anxiety. The lady is called ‘the voice [that] returns like the insistent out-of-tune of a broken violin’, identifying her by her voice and comparing it to a broken instrument that is irritating and ‘out-of-tune’ with masculine expectations of femininity. The simile is a sexist and archaic stereotype of the exasperating, unrestrained woman but Eliot uses it to highlight underlying unease of the female returning and threatening the male speaker’s sense of reality and fantasy. The lady of the poem is not the patriarchal stereotype of a woman who is delicate in nature and appealing to men in both character and the body. She is an ‘out-of-tune [...] broken violin’ and not a ‘static, symbolic object’ of feminine principles (see note 33). Women are dehumanised  because they are ‘both threatening and life-giving’ and it is this duality or multiple portraits that results in the male speaker feeling anxious over the lady (see note 34). The lady is reduced to an object so as to distance the male speaker from her and prevent masculine anxiety from increasing. 

Studying the poems of Eliot and H.D. can help to understand gender relations and ideas of sexuality and gender. Although Eliot’s poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’ is misogynistic in his literary depictions of females, he does shine a light on underlying tones of masculine insecurity and anxiety over female agency and power. His male speaker is ‘invulnerable’ and has ‘no Achilles’ heel’ on the surface because he is the authorial voice of the poem and controls what parts of the female’s conversation can be heard and written about. But there is a sensitivity in the masculinity of the male speaker which is consciously insecure. This invulnerable exterior proves illusory when, anxiously, the speaker wonders ‘how can I make a cowardly amends for what she has said to me?’ (see note 35). H.D. constructs her ‘uncanonical status as an important source of alternative knowledge and ability’ and uses her marginalisation as a female modernist poet to depict different ‘portraits’ of femininity and the female form (see note 36). The inclusion of H.D. in the canon of modernist literature should not be based on gender as there is the possibility of H.D. being reduced to a ‘token female poet’. Rather, the same argument by Crawford that calls for the likes of Eliot to retain his ‘canonical status’ should be applied to H.D. and her works. H.D. should not have her work ‘reduced to any single issue’ as her poems like ‘Sea Roses’, ‘Oread’ and ‘Helen’ ‘may also teach us about the “feminine” desires, subterfuges, and secrets of her male contemporaries’ (see note 37). Both poets convey social expectations and binaries of gender, and the threatening potential of disrupting such binaries and social categories to patriarchal systems of dominance and control.


1: Robert Crawford, ‘T. S. Eliot: the poet who conquered the world, 50 years on’, Guardian, 10 January 2015, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/10/from-tom-to-ts-eliotworld-poet> [accessed 15 January 2019].

2: Susan Friedman, ‘Who Buried H. D.? A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in "The Literary Tradition"’, College English, 36.7, (1975), pp. 801-814 (p.802)

3: Ibid., p.803

4: Tim Armstrong, ‘Mapping Modernism’, in Modernism: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), pp.23-46 (p.41).

5: Friedman, p.806.

6: T.S. Eliot, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44213/portrait-of-a-lady-56d22338932de>

7: Ibid.

8: Ibid.

9: Derek Roper, ‘Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’ Restored’, Essays in Criticism, 57.1 (2007), pp. 42-58 (p.42).

10: Armstrong, p.41.

11: H.D., ’Oread’, Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48186/oread>

12: Ibid.

13: Ibid.

14: Eliot, ’Portrait of a Lady’.

15: Ibid.

16: Friedman, p.803.

17: H.D., ’Sea Rose, Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48188/sea-rose>

18: Ibid.

19: Ibid.

20: Ibid.

21: Ibid.

22: Ibid.

23: Cassandra Laity, ’Introduction’, in H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.ix-xix (p.xi).

24: Friedman, p.810.

25: H.D., ’Helen’, Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46541/helen-56d22674d6e41>

26: Ibid.

27: Friedman, p.811.

28: H.D., ’Oread’.

29: Ibid.

30: Friedman, p.810.

31: Eliot, ’Portrait of a Lady’.

32: Roper, p. 43.

33: Friedman, p.803.

34: Ibid.

35: Eliot, ’Portrait of a Lady’.

36: Miranda Hickman, ’”Uncanonically seated”: H.D. and literary canons’, in The Cambridge Companion to H.D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp.. 7-22 (p.9).

37: Cassandra Laity, ’Feminine Abjection and Trilogy’, in H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.170-184 (p.183).

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