Circe

Hilda Doolittle

‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle is a poem that gives voice to Circe, a goddess and master of magical enchantments. Despite her power, she laments that she cannot control love.

Hilda Doolittle

Nationality: America

Hilda Doolittle was one of the leading members of the Imagist movement.

Her work is packed full of beautiful, memorable images.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Love is uncontrollable, even for the gods

Speaker: Circe

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Confusion

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Circe' by Hilda Doolittle is an experimental poem that uses sound and unique structure to illustrate Circe's longing

‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle (HD) is a free-verse poem from Doolittle’s collection titled Hymen, published in 1921. This period of Doolittle’s work, right after the dissolution of the imagist movement, was heavily inspired by Classical mythology and feminity. 

While ‘Circe’ maintains Doolittle’s “crystalline” use of language, it is exploratory in form, representing the beginning of Doolittle’s exploration into developing an independent style as a poet. As such, in this poem, Doolittle experiments with sound, color, and repetition to create a poem that stands out from the rest of her work. 

Circe
Hilda Doolittle

It was easy enoughto bend them to my wish,it was easy enoughto alter them with a touch,but youadrift on the great sea,how shall I call you back?

Cedar and white ash,rock-cedar and sand plantsand tamariskred cedar and white cedarand black cedar from the inmost forest,fragrance upon fragranceand all of my sea-magic is for nought.

It was easy enough—a thought called themfrom the sharp edges of the earth;they prayed for a touch,they cried for the sight of my face,they entreated metill in pityI turned each to his own self.

Panther and panther,then a black leopardfollows close—black panther and redand a great hound,a god-like beast,cut the sand in a clear ringand shut me from the earth,and cover the sea-soundwith their throats,and the sea-roar with their own barksand bellowing and snarls,and the sea-starsand the swirl of the sand,and the rock-tamariskand the wind resonance—but not your voice.

It is easy enough to call menfrom the edges of the earth.It is easy enough to summon them to my feetwith a thought—it is beautiful to see the tall pantherand the sleek deer-houndscircle in the dark.

It is easy enoughto make cedar and white ash fumesinto palacesand to cover the sea-caveswith ivory and onyx.

But I would give uprock-fringes of coraland the inmost chamberof my island palaceand my own giftsand the whole regionof my power and magicfor your glance.


Summary

‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle is a free verse lyric poem told from the perspective of Circe as she laments that the person she loves does not love her back. 

‘Circe’ opens with the phrase “It was easy enough,” which the speaker, Circe, repeats many times throughout the poem. 

The goddess explains that, for her, it was easy to bend other men to her will. To her, it was simple to transform these men into animals. However, she speaks directly to an addressee — likely Odysseus — questioning how she can call him back to her island. 

She states that, although she has gathered many different types of wood and incense to summon him with, it was all “for nought,” and has not worked to bring him back to her. 

Circe then recalls how, in the past, sailors have pined for her and come from all edges of the earth to touch her. Pitying them, Circe “turned each to his own self” or turned them into the animals they truly were. 

The goddess lists the animal-men on her island, who cover up the lands and the sounds of the sea with their presence as they circle her, searching for an escape. Still, Circe laments that she does not hear the voice of her addressee. 

While Circe thinks it is easy to cast her spells, summoning men to her island to turn them into animals, she says she would give all of it up for just a glance from the man she loves. 

Mythological Context

Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the name HD, was passionate about powerful female figures from Greco-Roman mythology, especially near the beginning of her writing career as an imagist poet. As such, this poem fits well within the context of some of her other famous poems, such as ‘Helen,’ ‘Oread,’ ‘Demeter,’ ’Hymen,’ and ‘Leda.’

In this poem, the poet gives voice to Circe, a minor goddess from the Greco-Roman pantheon and a main character in Homer’s Odyssey. 

By most ancient accounts, Circe is an enchantress or witch. Homer calls her polypharmakos, or the one of many medicines, since she was an expert in crafting potions from herbs, wood, and other natural materials. 

However, most notably, she seems to have enjoyed turning men into various animals.  According to ancient accounts, Circe lived alone on an island called Aeaea, drawing in weary travelers to cast spells on them, mutating them into panthers, lions, dogs, and other creatures. For example, in the Odyssey, when the men on Odysseus’ crew leave the ship to scout Circe’s island, she turns them into pigs. 

By all accounts, Circe is a bitter and powerful woman, but her bitterness seems to come from jealousy and rejection. 

In each story where Circe is in love, the man spurns her. The men that reject Circe include Picus, who she turned into a woodpecker, and Glaucus, who was in love with Scylla. Likewise, although Circe and Odysseus share a bed and, by some accounts, have three children together, in the Odyssey, Odysseus eventually leaves the island of Aeaea to return to his wife, Penelope. 

Thus, from the perspective of Doolittle’s poem, Circe is heartbroken. Although she has the power to manipulate men in many ways, she laments that no one has ever returned her love. 

Poetic Devices

Some of the most notable poetic devices in ‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle include: 

  • Anaphora – Doolittle creates many lists in this poem, repeating many words at the beginning of her lines. For example, the repetition of “they” in the lines “they prayed for a touch, / they cried for the sight of my face, / they entreated me” increases the speed of the poem.
  • Enjambment – Using her unique free verse structure, Doolittle incorporates enjambment to set the speed of the poem and generate imagery. For example, the lines “then a black leopard / follows close—” divide the subject from the verb, generating a verbal image of the black leopard following behind the other animals. 
  • Alliteration – This poem is full of alliteration, with the poet favoring the letters “e,” “s,” and “r.” These letters work to generate the tone of frustration and incredulousness, creating hissing sounds and hard, sharp r sounds. For example, you can almost hear sand blowing in the wind in the line “the swirl of the sand.” The nasal “e” in “easy enough,” sounds whiny and complaintive. 
  • Apostrophe – Circe directly addresses Odysseus in this poem, but it is clear that he has already sailed away from her island, leaving her alone with her animals. 


Form and Structure

While the verse is free, Doolittle uncharacteristically puts great importance on sound in this poem. 

There are several instances of rhyme, but they are all very subtle. For example, “enough” and “touch” form a slant rhyme in stanza one. The end-line repetition of “enough” also creates identical rhyme, where a poet rhymes a word with itself. 

Speaking of repetition, the poem includes many repetitive phrases and words such as “It was easy enough,” “and,” and “they.” The repetition of these words and this phrase works a bit like meter in the poem, creating emphasis and rhythm. Additionally, they draw attention to the actions that Circe or the unspecified men-animals that come to her island do.  

The stanza lengths are very irregular. However, the shorter stanzas create more pauses and a slowness to the poem, while the longer stanzas add more energy and speed to the poem. In this way, Circe’s emotions are made more apparent. 

Ultimately, the poem sounds a bit like a one-sided argument as Circe builds up to the height of her frustration, only to let herself become vulnerable at the end. 

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

It was easy enough
to bend them to my wish,
it was easy enough
to alter them with a touch,
but you
adrift on the great sea,
how shall I call you back?

‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle opens with the speaker, Circe, stating that “it was easy enough” to bend men to her wish and “alter them” into animals “with a touch.” 

However, Circe quickly makes her intended audience very specific, as she addresses a “you” in an apostrophe to a man who is “adrift on the great sea.”

She asks this sailor, “how shall I call you back?” 

Here, Circe’s tone is very conflicting, but that conflict is what drives the poem. The slightly indignant, independent, baffled, and conversational tone of the phrase “easy enough” paints the speaker as a powerful woman who has no trouble getting what she wants. 

However, in line five, the “but” standing all alone creates a long pause as Circe lengthens the syllables of her words, questioning the man who has left. The last three lines of the stanza convey a tone of longing, desperation, and powerlessness. 

Thus, the crux of the poem is that while Circe is a powerful sorceress and a goddess, she has no power over the man who is currently sailing away from her island. While she is proud, she is also in love, wondering why her spells don’t work on this man. 

From these details, the listener can surmise that the man in question is Odysseus, the polutropos, or man of many ways / wandering man from Homer’s Odyssey. In this account, with the help of Athena and Hermes, Odysseus discovers a flower that makes him invincible to Circe’s spells. 

Stanza Two

Cedar and white ash,
rock-cedar and sand plants
and tamarisk
red cedar and white cedar
and black cedar from the inmost forest,
fragrance upon fragrance
and all of my sea-magic is for nought.

In stanza two, Circe continues to experiment with rhyme as she lists the incense and herbal potions that she has tried to use to lure Odysseus back to her island. 

The rhythm in the first three lines of this stanza is remarkable. Line one consists of a dactyl and a spondee. The following line adds another syllable by hyphenating “rock-cedar,” then, again, finishes with a dactyl and a spondee. Then, “and tamarisk” is a heavy line with many stressed syllables. This meter flows very musically, almost convincing the listener’s ear that there is a close rhyme between “ash” and “plants.” 

This stanza also creates wordplay, as “cedar” is a pun on Circe’s “sea-magic.” 

These tree names also create a color palette for the poem, with white, red, and black dominating the landscape. These colors are intensely tied to magic, aggression, and the cycle of life and death. 

Despite her widespread gathering of this incense and her skill in magic, Circe has yet to succeed in calling Odysseus back to her island. 

Stanza Three

It was easy enough—
a thought called them
from the sharp edges of the earth;
they prayed for a touch,
they cried for the sight of my face,
they entreated me
till in pity
I turned each to his own self.

In stanza three of ‘Circe,’ Circe continues explaining how easy it was to enchant other men. 

She states that a thought called these men to her island. This thought, though it might just be a happenstance whim, is likely the result of Circe’s magic, as she casts spells to draw in men much like a siren. 

These men came from the “sharp edges of the earth,” driving a contrast between Circe’s presumably soft “touch” and the harsh homes from whence the sailors come. 

Lines four through six of this stanza are an excellent example of anaphora, as the word “they” occurs at the beginning of each line. This list-like structure emphasizes the verbs describing the men’s actions as they “prayed,” “cried,” and “entreated.” 

Interestingly, men come to Circe as supplicants or as subordinate beggars who ask favors of her. This stanza is not just about how men worship Circe and fall victim to her but about how powerful Circe is. 

Despite her power, she still has emotions, turning men into animals “in pity.” Furthermore, she turns these men “each to his own self,” implying that all of these men who come to her island are essentially animals who function on instinct rather than reason. 

Thus, to Circe, the men who fall victim to her spells and enchantments are already weak animals, and she only reveals their true forms. 

Stanza Four

Panther and panther,
then a black leopard
follows close—
black panther and red
and a great hound,
a god-like beast,
cut the sand in a clear ring
and shut me from the earth,
and cover the sea-sound
with their throats,
and the sea-roar with their own barks
and bellowing and snarls,
and the sea-stars
and the swirl of the sand,
and the rock-tamarisk
and the wind resonance—
but not your voice.

In stanza four, sound dominates ‘Circe’ as the speaker discusses the various animal men on her island. This stanza is far longer than the others as the speaker’s frustration climaxes.

Circe lists the animals, as if recalling each one in chronological order of when she transformed them. These animals all fit the bleak color palette established by the incense of stanza two, as she has three black panthers, a red panther, a black leopard, and a “great hound.” 

Under the reasoning that Circe turns these men into the animal they most closely resemble, the listener can infer that the men she describes here are all predators and hunters. So, they likely were not very nice men. 

These animals circle Circe, cutting “the sand in a clear ring, which divides the goddess from the rest of the earth. Here, the animals create the shoreline, wearing down the sand until it turns into an ocean. In doing so, the beasts make a sacred circle, like those of pagan rites, to imprison Circe. 

However, the “ring” in line seven of this stanza transforms itself to sound, as well, as the animal men “cover the sea-sound / with their” “barks,” “snarls,” and “bellowing.” 

The sounds of these beasts also cover up not just the sounds of the sea, but the visual components of it, too. They conceal “the sea-stars,” “the swirl of the sand,” and the “rock-tamarisk.” 

This description implies that Circe’s island is like its own universe, the sands swirling like the earth around the sun, the sea-stars replacing the stars, and the rock-tamarisk at the center of it all on land. Thus, she is the god of that little world, ruling over the noisy man-animals that live there. 

It is also worth noting here that the animals serve many purposes as they circle the island. These half-man-half-animals are likely pacing along the coastline, seeking a way to escape. However, like Circe, they are trapped and tied to the land. 

However, the men are also the subjects of the goddess Circe, and since they are confined, Circe is their supreme god. It seems that Circe gets a power trip from this level of control, as she is a prisoner on her island as an exile of the gods. 

However, despite her power and the animals’ roars, the one sound missing from the island is Odysseus’ voice. Thus, this stanza implies that Circe wants to control Odysseus. She is accustomed to being in complete power, but Odysseus’ escape has questioned her authority, making her even more attached and curious about him. 

Stanza Five

It is easy enough to call men
from the edges of the earth.
It is easy enough to summon them to my feet
with a thought—
it is beautiful to see the tall panther
and the sleek deer-hounds
circle in the dark.

In stanza five, Circe returns her focus to simple tasks, such as enchanting men “from the edges of the earth” to come to her and bow down at her feet. For Circe, it only takes a single thought to “summon” them. 

She then breaks away from restating herself, admitting that the sight of the man-animals encircling her island in the dark is “beautiful.”

Here, Circe’s simultaneous compassion and bitterness shine through. Since Circe sees her enchantments as a way to turn men into their truest forms — into animals — she enjoys watching them orbit around the island like planets circling in space. 

Though they are “in the dark,” these men continue, driven by impulse, to find some way off the island. However, they cannot find a way, and any onlooking sailor would likely row away from them out of fright. 

Stanza Six

It is easy enough
to make cedar and white ash fumes
into palaces
and to cover the sea-caves
with ivory and onyx.

Stanza six of ‘Circe’ is noticeably shorter than the rest of the stanzas. The length of this stanza indicates that Circe slows in her speech, as if deep in thought and emotionally moved. 

Each line reads like a solemn statement as Circe stresses how easy it is for her to turn a plume of smoke into her own palace and cover rocky sea caves with onyx stone and ivory. 

As in the rest of the poem, this stanza keeps with the poem’s bleak color palette, juxtaposing white ivory with black onyx stone and reddish-colored cedar wood with white ash and dark smoke.

Stanza Seven

But I would give up
rock-fringes of coral
and the inmost chamber
of my island palace
and my own gifts
and the whole region
of my power and magic
for your glance.

In the final stanza of ‘Circe,’ the goddess finally ceases bragging and gets to her point. She explains that she would give up all of her power over men, the little world she built for herself, and all of her divinity just for one look from Odysseus. 

This softer, more emotional ending de-escalates the indignant tone of the preceding stanzas, revealing Circe’s insecurity which she hides in her “inmost chamber.” 

Circe has become one of her own trapped animals, recalling the line “they cried for the sight of my face.” In this poem, Circe cries not for the sight of Odysseus’ face but just a glance from him, putting him in the position of power as the agent. Thus, Circe, defeated, sees Odysseus as a god who compels her, even though he is not present. 

FAQs

When did HD write ‘Circe’?

HD wrote ‘Circe‘ sometime between 1919 and 1921, and the poem was published in her 1921 collection “Hymen.” This book represented Doolittle’s early efforts to develop an independent style outside the imagist movement. Additionally, “Hymen” emphasized women’s role in poetry, often taking inspiration from Greco-Roman people and places.

What is the poem ‘Circe’ by HD about?

The poem ‘Circe’ by HD is about the mythological Greek goddess Circe and her inability to enchant Odysseus into staying with her on her island. The poem, similar to a monologue in tone and speech, directly addresses Odysseus as Circe states that she would give up all of her power for just a glance from the man she loves.

What are the themes in ‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle?

The themes in ‘Circe‘ by Hilda Doolittle are love, feminine power, magic, longing, and rejection. While the majority of the poem consists of Circe explaining how powerful she is, she ultimately resigns herself to her unrequited love, stating that she would give all of her power as a goddess and her home up just for some attention from Odysseus.

Is ‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle an Imagist poem?

‘Circe’ by Hilda Doolittle is an imagist poem but also a modernist one. ‘Circe’ represents Hilda Doolittle’s departure from being a strict imagist poet. Its use of sound, irregular meter, and unique stanza structure indicate that the poet was attempting to branch out from the short, very concise poems associated with imagism.


Similar Poetry

‘Circe” by Hilda Doolittle is a much easier poem to read than most of the poet’s other works, as it doesn’t contain too much allusion or excessive meaning in each word. Instead, it emphasizes sound and structure, using words to carry the poem’s intensely complex tone.

So, ‘Circe’ is not precisely a great representative of Hilda Doolittle’s other poems. However, some other poems that use a similar style as ‘Circe’ include:

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About
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.
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