“Why did you come” by Hilda Doolittle is the opening poem from section one of the poet’s final book, Hermetic Definition. Written in 1960, “Why did you come” uses the symbol of a rose to represent the aged poet’s affection for a younger man.
This modernist poem captures the speaker’s fear of judgment and intrusive, self-critical thoughts as she observes her uncontrollable, blossoming affection.
Explore Why Did You Come
"Why did you come" by Hilda Doolittle is a poem in which the speaker expresses her powerlessness over love and emotions as she develops an attraction for another person. Told in the first person, the speaker’s intrusive thoughts and judgments create unresolved conflict.
“Why did you come” by Hilda Doolittle features the poet as the first-person speaker. Throughout the poem, she speaks to an unnamed visitor to whom she has developed an attraction.
Doolittle opens the poem by questioning the other person’s motives for coming to see her. She expresses that the visitor’s presence has only made her old age more troublesome, though she feels younger when she is around him.
Doolittle expresses her growing love in metaphor, stating:
the reddest rose unfolds,
However, she is at war with herself over this natural, uncontrollable affection. She calls her love “ridiculous,” “unseemly, impossible, / and even slightly scandalous.”
Still, the poet resigns herself to it, admitting that nothing, not even her older age, can stop her love-rose from blossoming.
At the poem’s end, the poet surrenders herself to the unfolding rose that is her affection, though her intrusive thoughts remind her that other people will judge her for it.
Background and Context
Hilda Doolittle was one of the leading poets of the short-lived Imagist movement, taking place from 1913 to 1917. The Imagists praised concise, clear language, rejecting the older tradition of filling poems with archaic words and overly complicated vocabulary.
Doolittle became involved in this movement via her romantic associations with Ezra Pound. Although her relationship with Pound was fraught with infidelity and distrust, he was the person who made a name for Hilda Doolittle as one of the best-known imagist poets.
Her relationship with Pound did not last, though. She had many lovers over her lifetime, many of whom were also famous poets, writers, and artists of her time. These include Frances Josepha Gregg, Richard Aldington, Cecil Gray, Annie ‘Bryher’ Winifred Ellerman, and Kenneth Macpherson.
Hilda Doolittle had a very complicated love life and often incorporated it into her poems.
Hermetic Definition was written in 1960 when Doolittle was 74 and 75. In her old age, she penned this longer collection of poems to reflect on her life and reexamine the people and things that influenced her throughout her career.
Most notably, though, Doolittle revealed that ‘Red Rose and a Beggar,’ the first part of Hermetic Definition, is about an unreturned romantic attraction she developed for the younger man Lionel Durand, an eminent journalist who interviewed Doolittle in 1960.
There are just a few forms of figurative language in “Why did you come,” yet they dominate the poem. Here are the most significant of these devices:
- Enjambment: Hilda Doolittle regularly uses enjambment, or the division of lines and stanzas before they hit a natural stopping point. Almost every line break of this poem contains enjambment. However, the best example is between stanzas four and five, where the parenthetical statement is broken up.
- Imagery: The line “the reddest rose unfolds” creates a vivid image of the rose, using rich words to describe the color and movement of the flower.
- Alliteration: This can be seen in phrases like “the reddest rose” and “slightly scandalous.”
- Parenthesis: Parenthesis is when a poet adds explanatory statements into a poem, usually using parentheses or other punctuation to denote the addition. There are many examples of parenthesis in this poem. An example is “(I was old till you came);” from line three of stanza one.
Figurative Language and Symbolism
Metaphors and symbolism dominate “Why did you come” by Hilda Doolittle.
The most noticeable metaphor in “Why did you come” is the rose, which holds a wealth of meaning. Primarily, Doolittle uses the rose to symbolize her femininity, lust, and love.
By choosing this flower, the poet may be drawing on Freudian associations between flowers and female genitalia. After all, Hilda Doolittle was a dedicated and admiring patient of Sigmund Freud.
Still, the rose is an apt symbol for Doolittle’s emotions because it is a natural thing that human thought and behavior cannot easily control. One cannot stop a rose from blooming, unfolding, or opening, just as one cannot stop love and lust from developing inside of themselves.
Doolittle also uses “the weather, / blighting out summer fruit” as a metaphor for her old age, indicating that she is no longer young and fertile.
Structure and Form
‘“Why did you come” by Hilda Doolittle is a free-verse poem organized into five stanzas with three lines each.
The division of the stanzas into three lines works well within the context of the poem, representing the speaker, the visitor, and the internal voice that the speaker has to contend with.
Thus, the line division alone implies that something is always coming between the speaker and the visitor, keeping them from being together.
Doolittle was a pioneer of free-verse poetry. As part of the imagist movement, she incorporated breath into her poems instead of using a poetic meter.
So, instead of focusing on the stresses of syllables in this poem, she uses punctuation, spacing, and sound to create pauses and speed where they best fit within the poem’s action.
Why did you come
to trouble my decline?
I am old (I was old till you came);
The speaker of the poem, presumably Hilda Doolittle, questions an unnamed person in the first stanza.
She asks the other person why they have come to see her, even though she is old and struggling with her elderly age. However, she also says, “I was old until you came,” which implies that the speaker feels younger with the arrival of this visitor.
Beginning in this stanza, the poet divides the text using parenthesis. The parenthetical statements, such as “(I was old until you came)” in line three, create both an internal and external dialogue in the poem, representing the speaker’s thoughts alongside the words she says to the other person.
Additionally, this stanza is the only one that contains a complete sentence:
Why did you come
to trouble my decline?
The rest of the poem is one long run-on sentence, only held together by semicolons, commas, and parenthetical statements. This structure adds speed and breath to the poem, a feature of imagist poetry.
Imagists used punctuation and breath to create rhythm in their work and rarely used rigid poetic meters.
Additionally, as seen in the abbreviated form, “till” for until, Imagists rejected overly complicated language. Instead, they used the shortest, most concise words to make their point.
the reddest rose unfolds,
in this time, this place,
In stanza two, the speaker introduces the main symbol and metaphor of the poem: “the reddest rose.” This flower, made to sound harsh with the hard alliteration of r’s, introduces the theme of love and lust.
In line one, the rose “unfolds,” indicating that the speaker’s love is blooming, expanding, and opening up. This dynamic movement implies that the speaker is becoming vulnerable, exposing her love for her visitor and opening her heart to the possibility of a relationship.
However, after this vivid imagery, the speaker begins to judge herself for feeling affection and letting her guard down.
In her parenthetical statement in lines two and three, she calls her love “ridiculous,” especially considering her age, the time, and the place. The tone of this statement is also harsh, emphasizing the voice’s criticism and judgment.
Thus, stanza two creates an internal and external conflict between the speaker’s affection and her judgemental, logical, and self-conscious mind.
the reddest rose unfolds;
In stanza three, the speaker continues criticizing her blooming affection for her visitor, calling it “unseemly, impossible,” and “slightly scandalous.”
However, this self-critical internal dialogue is complete by line three, when, again, “the reddest rose unfolds.”
By sandwiching the speaker’s internal dialogue between two iterations of “the reddest rose unfolds,” Hilda Doolittle emphasizes that the affection she feels is undeniable.
No matter how much she debates with herself and criticizes her affection, she can’t stop it from growing. It will always grow back, much as a rose does.
(nobody can stop that,
not even the weather,
In stanza four of “Why did you come” Hilda Doolittle again stresses that nothing can stop her from developing affection and love for her visitor.
In line two, Doolittle writes that “no immanent threat” can stop her from loving again. Interestingly, here, the poet intentionally misspells the word imminent, suggesting that her emotional, feminine nature can overcome any masculine force or ideas that threaten her feelings.
In the parenthetical statements of stanza four, the speaker briefly stops judging herself and admits that nothing can stop her love from blooming. She is coming to terms with her love or lust, and she is beginning to accept it.
blighting out summer fruit),
(they’ve got to take that into account).
The break between stanzas four and five creates a notable enjambment between the lines “not even the weather” and “blighting out summer fruit).” This break shows a shift of perspective from external forces, such as the “air” and “weather,” back to the speaker.
Here, in stanza four, the speaker refers to her old age. Again, she uses a metaphor, indicating that she is in the autumn of her life, and the fruits of her younger years have all decayed. Additionally, she is no longer fertile, which is why the fruits are “blighted” or diseased.
However, despite her maturity, she admits that no matter how old she is, nothing will stop her love from blooming.
Thus, again, she states that “the reddest rose unfolds,” underscoring that, no matter what she thinks or does, the rose keeps unfolding, and her love keeps growing.
In the last line of the poem, though, the speaker’s judgemental inner voice returns with one final statement:
(they’ve got to take that into account).
In closing the poem this way, the speaker reveals that she still fears the judgment of others. Though she admits she is powerless over her love for her visitor, her intrusive thoughts and fear of vulnerability still get the last word.
Thus, there is no resolution for the speaker, and she will continue developing an unwanted and forbidden affection for the visitor in the poem. Additionally, the speaker is just as powerless over the criticism she offers herself and the criticism of others as she is over her blossoming affections.
Hilda Doolittle’s pen name was H.D. Ezra pound gave her this pen name near the beginning of the Imagist movement, signing her letters and poem submissions for her. She kept this pen name for most of her career, even titling her last work, Hermetic Definition, to match her pen name.
Hilda Doolittle was a modernist and an imagist poet. She began her writing career as an imagist, but after imagism dissolved in 1917, she began to develop a unique style as part of the modernists.
The themes in “Why did you come” are love, lust, aging, and psychoanalysis. Hilda Doolittle drew on her knowledge and deep appreciation for psychoanalysis to take an unforgiving look into her own history and emotions in ‘Red Rose and a Beggar.’
The tone of “Why did you come” by Hilda Doolittle is regretful, judgemental, and vulnerable. The speaker of the poem is unhappy that she has developed an attraction for another person, especially considering her old age, but must face the fact that she cannot control her feelings.
If you enjoyed ‘“Why did you come” From Hermetic Definition: ‘Red Rose and a Beggar,‘ you might also like:
- ‘The Tree‘ by Ezra Pound – a short poem by Hilda Doolittle’s first love. It was inspired by Hilda, whom Pound called ‘Dryad,’ a classical spirit that inhabited trees.
- ‘Images‘ by Richard Aldington – an essential and classic imagist love poem about Hilda Doolittle.
- ‘Fool’s Money Bags’ by Amy Lowell – an imagist poem about devoting oneself to an unworthy cause.