Author H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961)

First Published 1916, in Sea Garden

Type of Poem Lyric

The Poem

"Oread" is a six-line poem. In Greek mythology, an oread is a wood nymph. By giving the poem this title, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) frames it as an address by the wood nymph to the sea. Although there is no "I," the poem’s first-person point of view is further suggested by many of the descriptive words themselves. For example, the second line orders the sea to "whirl your pointed pines" and the third line repeats the image with "splash your great pines." Clearly, the ocean has waves, not pines, yet the waves could be referred to as trees if the oread was speaking and transposed the objects with which she is familiar onto something different. Similarly, the last line uses the image "pools of fir"; again, the reader has the sense of the oread addressing the sea through her frame of reference.

Through this action of speaking, the poem creates a picture of the wood nymph standing on the rocks, addressing the sea. What is important, though, is that the oread is not speaking in singular terms; for example, line 4 states "on our rocks" rather than "on my rocks." This plural form is not only consistent with the first person point of view (that is, it is "our rocks" rather than "their rocks"), but also adds another visual element to the poem. Although it is only one oread speaking, the plural possessive implies either many oreads or many trees. Either way, the picture created is one of thick forests and jagged coastlines, the oread standing on the rocks, the sea pounding below her, the salt spray splashing her. This is a picture of elemental nature.

Adding to this elemental picture is the fact that the verbs are all declarative in form: "whirl," "splash," "hurl," and "cover." It would be more accurate to say that the oread is invoking, not asking, the sea to perform these functions. That invocation adds to the poem’s elemental nature.

Finally, this image is one of enormous unleashed energy, an impression that is further developed by the poem’s brevity. Because it is so short, every word carries an importance that it might not carry in a longer poem. Not only are the actions in the poem dramatic, but the length of the poem itself suggests that everything extraneous has been stripped away, exposing the core of the experience. The reader is left with this immediacy.

Forms and Devices

H. D. is well-known for her use of ancient Greek imagery. Many critics have suggested that this imagery is a metaphor through which the poet discusses other issues of either emotional or political import. Therefore, the images of trees and water, and by extension, the entire landscape, can be seen as metaphorical. Since the poem lends itself so heavily to an imagistic reading, the entire poem can be read as metaphor.

This sense of the poem—and the poetic landscape—as metaphor is suggested by the metamorphosis that the images undergo. When one approaches the poem, he or she has an image of trees as a category and an image of ocean as a category; those two categories are clearly separate. By the second line, however, when the oread invokes the sea to "whirl your pointed pines," the poem is beginning to blur those seemingly distinct categories. If one wants to maintain that trees and ocean are still separate, it is possible to say that the sound of waves crashing onto the rocks is similar to the sound of wind whipping the trees, or that the image of a wave rising has a similar shape to that of a tree. What is clear, though, is that the poem is, at the least, making connections between objects that are normally seen as having none.

In lines 2 and 3, even if the oread sees the waves as pine trees, the reader still sees waves and pine trees as separate. In line 5, however, the oread directs the sea to "hurl your green over us." Green is the color of pine trees, but it can also be the color of the sea; these two categories, thus, are moving closer together. This combining of categories culminates in line 6, where the oread names the water "pools of fir." This image can refer either to the frothy texture of the water or to the liquid texture of the motion of trees. Either way, what were separate at the beginning of the poem are, despite the poem’s brevity, much less separate by the poem’s end.

This blurring of categories gives the trees and water a metaphorical quality. Clearly, this is no ordinary landscape, for in the day-to&dh;day world objects may be similar, but they do not take on qualities of each other. Furthermore, in the day-to-day world, it is difficult to see how trees and water are at all similar; any coastline, for example, clearly delineates where water begins and earth ends. The poet, though, is weaving a very different world, and seems to be pushing the reader to look beyond the surface of things into a landscape where objects that are normally distinct take on similar attributes, or even become each other.

The title also works on a metaphorical level to suggest a look into another world—or, at least, another way of looking at this one. Because the poem is in the first person, it would seem as if the reader is merely viewing everything through the oread’s eyes. If this were so, however, there would be no need for the poet to shift the boundaries between objects from the poem’s beginning through to the end; the oread’s view of those objects would remain the same throughout. The fact that the categories do shift suggests that the oread herself is merely a metaphorical distancing device through which the poet can lay claim to her deeper vision.

Themes and Meanings

"Oread" is a poem through which H. D. calls into question traditional constructs that she sees as being inherently bipolar and unequal. The poet accomplishes this questioning by establishing several dualities, and then blurring the basis by which those dualities are established. By the end of the poem, the reader is in a world where traditional ways of seeing and thinking have begun to break down.

Clearly, one duality is that of trees and ocean—or, perhaps, land and water. Yet as already seen, that duality, which was distinct at the beginning of the poem, is much less distinct by the poem’s end. Another duality is between passive and active; this distinction also becomes rather murky. The oread can be seen as passive and the sea as active, for the sea is crashing onto the oread. The oread can also be seen as active, for she is the one invoking the sea to do that crashing. Yet is she really? Is the sea crashing because the oread has invoked it to do so, or is the sea crashing because that is what it does, and the oread is merely attempting somehow to personify an action that would happen anyway? It becomes difficult to tell which party is being active and which is being passive.

A third duality established is between violence and nonviolence. Although much of what the oread is addressing to the sea is fairly violent both in its declarative form and in the specific actions invoked ("whirl," "splash," or "hurl"), the poem ends on a nonviolent gesture ("cover us with your pools of fir"). Is this that moment of quiet eddying after the waves have crashed, or is it that what seems violent through most of the poem is not as violent as one would think?

The poem clearly does not answer these questions but only raises them. This seems to be the poet’s intent: to question the basis on which bipolar thinking is established. H. D. herself was a strong feminist; this poem was written early in the twentieth century, before women even had the right to vote. Much scientific and medical research at that time was done with the intent of proving the natural superiority of men to women. Traditional thinking had set up a very clear category of polar opposites—male and female—with men having social power and women having almost none.

In the poem, the poet is questioning both a society that subordinated women, and by further extension, the entire concept of bipolar thinking, which she sees as a social construct that is inherently unequal. Through the blurring of traditionally distinct categories, H. D. is suggesting a different way of viewing the world, one in which traditional, bipolar thinking falls away and a more egalitarian and fluid world emerges.

Robert Kaplan

Author Biography

The Poetry of H. D. (Masterplots Classic)