Last spring, I got dumped. It was pretty bad. Last spring I also took a Survey of American Literature class. It was pretty rad. Although we never covered H.D. in class, my curiosity had me looking for awesome female poets in the anthology. I stumbled upon H.D. by chance (As it was intended, the acronym had me unsure about H.D.’s gender). I read her poem “Eurydice” and fell in love. Then I read as much of her poetry as I could get my hands on, finally writing a paper on her for the class. H.D.’s poetry is excellent, but it’s hard to articulate how much “Eurydice” echoed with me without remembering the bittersweet sorrow of a terrible breakup. So with that in mind, this week I want to talk about “Eurydice” and the song “Manhattan” by Sara Bareilles. Take a listen, and stay with me. It’ll be worth it.
H.D. defined the imagist movement. She didn’t start it, but scholars agree that she embodied it. It is impossible to read “Eurydice” without imagining several of the intense images H.D. evoked in her writing. I especially enjoyed her use of the idea of both a breaking rock and a blooming flower near the final stanza:
hell must break before I am lost;
before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.
The contradictory images of breaking and blooming echoes the paradox of the entire poem: Life in death. H.D. gives a voice to Eurydice, and in doing so creates a speaker who once held out hope of returning to life, but when she is let down by her love, instead turns the situation around. Eurydice says she is more happen in Hades than she ever would have been if she returned to life with Orpheus. The images are striking. Eurydice is flourishing in the land of the dead, which is broken before her spirit. She turns the pain and torment of death into joy and growth.
The song Manhattan doesn’t mirror the mythic theme of Eurydice, but the emotions of the two works are similar. Eurydice begins in sorrow and eventually grows into self-empowerment. Manhattan remains sorrowful, but holds out hope towards the end of the song. One of the starting images of the song, reminds me of H.D.’s imagist style.
I’ll gather up the avenues
And leave them on your doorstep
And I’ll tip toe away
So you won’t have to say
You heard me leave.
Again, two close but different images dominate. The first, of the speaker physically gathering the streets, as if they were something to be held and moved, is beautiful in the depiction. Then the image of sneaking away echoes the secretive nature of the speaker’s leaving. She does not openly return the streets, or leave while saying goodbye. This is a private and lonely retreat, but obviously a heartbreaking one. The speaker of Manhattan, like H.D.’s Eurydice, does not want to leave the ideal land. But both eventually come to find that their new locations, the West Coast and Hades respectively, are better places for them. The “you” of each poem, the implied man who has hurt the speaker, is left in the place of origin, but despite sorrow, both women come out stronger for leaving and being satisfied.
The poem and the song are starkly different is many ways, but both use images to portray the loss of love and how it is possible to grow stronger through such loss.