The Walls Do Not Fall by H.D.


H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961) was an American poet and novelist known for her role in Imagism, the early 20th-century poetry movement that contributed to the birth of literary modernism.

Made up of 43 short, largely unrhymed sections, The Walls Do Not Fall (TWDNF) is H.D.’s striking response to World War Two. It was published in 1944, although H.D. completed the sequence in 1942. Followed by Tribute to the Angels (1945) and The Flowering of the Rod (1946), it is the first book in H.D.’s Trilogy. She dedicates it to her partner Bryher, also known by her birth-name Winifred Ellerman.

What are some of the key themes in The Walls Do Not Fall?

H.D. wrote part of TWDNF while living in London through the Blitz (1940–41). The poem opens with the speaker walking through the devastated city after a bombing raid, a landscape of collapsed roofs and settling ash. In this opening section H.D. begins to powerfully layer the speaker’s impressions of the Second World War with allusions to past civilisations and world mythology. Inspired by H.D.’s visit to Egypt in 1923, London’s wrecked buildings remind the speaker of the ruins of ancient Egypt or classical Greece: ‘there, as here, ruin opens / the tomb, the temple; enter, / there as here, there are no doors’. Like many modernists, H.D. uses the classical past as a frame for the disordered, fragmented present.

In the face of this destruction, however, the poem is pervaded by a sense of hope: ‘the frame held: / we passed the flame: we wonder / what saved us? what for?’. We have faced death, the poem tells us, but all is not destroyed. The summoning of ancient ruined architecture and surviving myths further strengthens the sense of endurance against the odds. The speaker’s personal response is symbolised by their transformation from shell, to worm, to butterfly.

TWDNF is as much a poem about war as it is about literature and the role of the writer. Or, as H.D. terms it, the struggle between the ‘Word’ and the ‘Sword’. Writing is a creative, regenerating act amongst destruction; ‘through our desolation, / thoughts stir, inspiration stalks us / through gloom’. H.D. casts the writer as a silk worm who consumes detritus and spins silk. She challenges those who declare ‘poets are useless’. To those who say, ‘so what good are your scribblings?’ she counters, ‘this - we take them with us / beyond death’. Her message is that literature and words endure, underpin civilisations, and bring order to chaos:

remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born,

your Triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over,

in the beginning
was the Word.

Full title:
The Walls do not fall. (Poems.) By H. D.
1944, London
Oxford University Press
H.D. [Hilda Doolittle]
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‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ from Collected Poems by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) reprinted by permission of Pollinger Limited ( Copyright © 2014 by The Schaffner Family Foundation. Used by permission. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

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