Ethel Rackin

“Unvirtuous Ornament: Imagism and H.D.’s Sea Garden”

Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language.

–T. E. Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism,” 1912

Haven’t we had enough of the passion and of the sentiment that passed for passion all through the nineteenth century? And isn’t it almost time to remind us that there is a beauty of restraint and stillness and flawless clarity? The special miracle of those Victorian poets was that they contrived to drag their passion through the conventional machinery of their verse, and the heavy decorations they hung on it.

–May Sinclair, “Two Notes,” 1915

T.E. Hulme’s distinction between images and “mere decoration” was taken up as a tenet in Imagism, the movement that permanently altered the reception of H.D.’s work. In a similar gesture, May Sinclair defends H.D.’s early poems on the premise of their “beauty of restraint.” What is at stake in the rhetorical grounding of H.D.’s poetics on the notion of an historical break with Victorian decoration, embellishment, or ornamentation? And in what ways does H.D.’s early work actually comply with or diverge from the demands of aesthetic minimalism? This paper follows critical studies of H.D.’s middle and late poetry by Cassandra Laity and Diana Collecott that have proposed a closer alignment between H.D. and her Decadent predecessors than her affiliation with Pound’s Imagism would suggest. In the early poetry, I have also discovered a continuing concern with Fin de Siècle notions of material excess, on the one hand, and spiritual essence, on the other. My paper is intended to contribute to studies of H.D.’s poetic inheritance through a reconsideration of Sea Garden (1916), along with unpublished poems and other archival material from this early period. This reconsideration seeks to resuscitate the talismanic power of H.D.’s early poetry.


Ethel Rackin is completing her dissertation, Ornamentation and Essence in Modernist Poetry, which reframes the twentieth-century preoccupation with objects by considering adornment, decoration, and embellishment as essential elements in the poetry of H.D., Gertrude Stein, and Marianne Moore. Before joining the graduate program at Princeton, she taught English and Creative Writing at Penn State University and Haverford College.