Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in September of 1886. Her parents, Charles and Helen Doolittle, a professor of astronomy and a passionate lover of music, raised their daughter in a Moravian community. Of the couple’s five children, Hilda was the only surviving daughter. In the mid 1890s Doolittle’s father was named Flower Professor of Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and the family moved to Upper Darby. It was here that Doolittle attended high school, graduating in 1905.
It was also around this time period that Doolittle met Ezra Pound, who is known today as one of the most prominent modernist writers and the founder of the Imagist movement. He would have a great influence on Doolittle’s life and writing. In the same year that she graduated from college Pound created for her a book of love poems titled, Hilda’s Book.
Doolittle went on to attend Bryn Mawr College, a private women’s college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. While there she studied Greek literature, but was forced to leave the institution after a period of bad health and poor grades. Her time at Bryn Mawr, although short, did allow her to meet fellow poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams.
Doolittle’s first works, which were mainly stories for children, were published in The Comrade, a paper run by a local Presbyterian church. She did not use her own name, but instead published under the pseudonym Edith Gray. This would become her habit in later life. Around this same time Doolittle was briefly engaged to Ezra Pound. The relationship ended due to a lack of approval from her father and Pound’s sojourn to Europe.
In 1911, after entering into a relationship with a female art student, Doolittle also moved to Europe. It was here that she would embark on a truly professional career as a poet. She lived mainly in England and Switzerland and remained friends with Pound while residing there. He would help her get her first poems published in Poetry magazine. At this time her work appeared under the name she is known by today, H.D. She, along with Pound and another poet, Richard Aldington, considered themselves to be the founders of the Imagist movement.
In 1913, Doolittle and Aldington married and two years later Hilda gave birth to their one and only child, who was still-born. Aldington soon enlisted in the army and the couple separated, perhaps due to Aldington being unfaithful. Doolittle’s first volume, Sea Garden, was published around this time. She was also soon appointed as the assistant editor of The Egoist, a role her husband had previously held. She would publish The God and Translations, in 1917 and 1920.
Doolittle continued to meet and befriend men and women who would become known as some of the greatest poets of the modern age. This included D.H. Lawrence with whom she remained close friends with for a number of years. It was through this connection that she met and moved in with Cecil Gray. Doolittle fell pregnant with Gray’s child, only realizing what had happened after moving back to London.
Although separated from her husband Aldington, the couple were still legally married. When he returned to London from the war he was suffering from PTSD, this sent the couple even further apart. It would be many years before the two eventually divorced in 1938.
Doolittle’s next collection was Hymen published in 1921. Throughout her life Doolittle also published a number of volumes of prose. In the early 1920s three of her books, Paint it Today, Asphodel, and Palimpsest were published.
Around 1920 Doolittle entered into a long-lasting relationship with Anne Winifred Ellerman, more widely known as Bryher, who was also a writer. The two would remain lovers for the rest of Doolittle’s life, but were far from exclusive. They spent time traveling, going from Egypt, to Greece and eventually to Switzerland where Doolittle remained.
In the spring of 1946 Doolittle suffered a mental breakdown. She was confined to an asylum in Switzerland for most of the year. She underwent a number of treatments during the later years of her life, including being analyzed by Sigmund Freud.
Hilda Doolittle died in the United States after suffering a stroke in July of 1961. She was visiting the country to collect an American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. During the final years of her life she wrote prolifically. Including one of her better known pieces, Helen in Egypt. Her final prose work, Bid Me to Live, was published a year before she died. Since her death a number of works have been issued posthumously. These include never before published works like Pilate’s Wife and The Mystery.