This excerpt from The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream) by Delia Alton
by H.D., edited by Cynthia Hogue and Julie Vandivere,
is reprinted courtesy of the University Press of Florida.
Photo of H.D. from 21 April 1947 is reprinted with permission of the Schaffner/New Directions H.D. estate and the Beinecke's digital collection of H.D. photographs at Yale University.
Interview with Cynthia Hogue
Cynthia's chapbook Under Erasure
Excerpts from The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton
A novel by H.D.
Notes by Cynthia Hogue
Excerpts from and notes on the first edition of H.D.'s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton. Eds. Cynthia Hogue and Julie Vandivere (Gainesville, FL: UP of FL, 2007). 336 pp. hardbound.
H.D.'s World War II roman à clef, The Sword Went Out to Sea, tells the story of how the H.D. surrogate, Delia Alton, developed a Spiritualist circle in London during the Blitz and began to channel the spirits of dead airmen. Sometime before Christmas, 1941 (shortly, in fact, after the attack on Pearl Harbor), H.D.-Delia decided that she would for the first time conduct psychic research work. H.D. had delved deeply into the study of occultism, the study of (or search for) a hidden or veiled reality and the arcane secrets of existence.1 In the 1920s, she had had a couple of ecstatic, out-of-time visions to which she would also return imaginatively in her poetry and prose for the rest of her life (in the excerpt that follows, she refers to one such experience, a vision with a shipboard acquaintance, Peter Rodeck, called in the novel Peter Van Eck, which she may or may not have imagined). H.D. was conversant with theosophy and also with the popularized image of psychic mediums as human telegraphic receiving stations,2 but she had never engaged in Spiritualism before 1941, when her decision to undertake psychic research coincided almost to the day with the U.S.'s decision to enter WWII.
H.D. spent the whole of the war in London in her apartment on Lowndes Square, which she shared with Bryher, her lifelong friend, during the Blitz. During the worst years, her spiritualist activities became the center of her life, her raison d'être. Initially, she joined a psychic research society, called in the novel Stanford House. From 1942-1944, H.D.-Delia and the more skeptical Bryher (Gareth) established a spiritualist circle, called in the Movement a home-circle, with the young Eurasian medium, Arthur Bhaduri (Ben Manisi), and his mother (Ada Manisi). In the following excerpt, Delia consults Manisi at Stanford House about her writing the story of the WWI years, which had stalled. The details that emerge from the session convince her of the authenticity of Manisi's gift.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stanford House started the whole thing. It was the young Eurasian. Before Christmas 1941, he suggested that, as a new member of his class, I might like to have an extra session. I went one chill afternoon. I explained that I had done no previous work of this sort. He drew the faded-rose curtains across the London fog. He felt around for a clue. To save time, I told him frankly that there was really no-one in my life that I wanted to discuss. I knew where I was or thought I did. Still, the past was there.
Yes; I explained, five years ago or ten years ago, I might have come for help about some person. In fact, it is because I have given up the thought of that person or people, in a personal sense, that I felt free to come at all. It is my writing that matters. I did not want to talk about my writing, but I felt frustrated when I looked back and recalled the number of times I had re-written that novel of myself and Peter van Eck, after the last war.
Having said that I didn't want advice about anyone here or communications from anyone there, Mr. Manisi went off at a tangent.
Wait a minute here is a stretch of desert; sand; it's so warm. Here is a wall, no, not a wall, yes I mean did you ever do any excavating? I said no, trying not to think of Peter van Eck. Here is a long track in the sand. It goes on. There are foot-prints. Now the foot-prints branch off. There are two tracks. This gentleman is no longer in your life. But I had not mentioned a gentleman and had been careful to imply that I didn't want to. Look he's running his hand over a box. It must be a coffin. Why, look this is very interesting. There's blue here, but very blue
Lapis-lazuli, I suggested.
Well, something stone and the pictures are set in the lid, not painted. He is measuring the the
Tomb, I said, remembering Mr. van Eck's descriptions of his work in Asia Minor and in Egypt.
Well, or temple. It's small. Mr. Manisi went on describing museum objects, but that was easy, even if he had never been to Egypt. I interrupted him:
Do you know Egypt?
No, he had never been out of England. But he went on,
Now, if this were a little earlier, it would be
The Shepherd Kings.
I began to feel uneasy. I particularly wanted to get away from that time. I had lived too much with the memory of Karnak. I had tried to write about it, but the writing wouldn't come true. I again prompted him,
It's not the person, it's the story. The person went out of my life years ago. I hate to leave things unfinished. I wrote a sort of a sort of novel. I wrote it over and over. I can't finish it and I can't destroy it. What shall I do?
Mr. Manisi's thin hands emerged from the winter twilight. They were as golden as the sand he spoke of. I thought how beautiful his hands are. He said, Throw it away. He lifted it, as if it were surplus cargo on a boat, and flung it, as it were, over the deck-rail.
I don't know how long we had been talking, but I knew he was very busy so I fastened up my coat and began looking for my gloves. .
Wait a minute said Mr. Manisi. There's a lady here. I thought it was your mother, but she says, `Tell Sister and Garry that I never forget their Christmas.'
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . .]
I say, I was just shocked, shocked because this last remark, in its simplicity, meant so much more to me than the minute details Mr. Manisi gave me of things that Peter van Eck had described to me, on that boat. Certainly, Manisi had got hold of something. But this third winter of the war, after the dreadful nights and the growing squalor of the days, I was somehow too near reality to care any more for the dream that had kept me alive for so many years.
I thought this lady was your mother, but she calls you sister. She had always called me sister no, not always but it was my mother speaking.
In the excerpt that follows, Delia's home-circle has broken up and the war is over, but Delia who has been trying for some time to work with another Spiritualist, Lord Howell (Lord Dowding, who was Air Chief Marshall during the Battle of Britain in 1940 that kept the Nazis out of England)refuses to stop. She continues the table-tapping alone (against Lord Howell's and Gareth's counsel). Delia believes that the table is, in this scene below, tapping out messages from downed RAF pilots who are trying to communicate a message for Lord Howell through Delia, to warn the world about the dangers of the bomb. Delia agrees to help them.
What Delia first spells out, R-A (RA, as Amen-Ra), is All-Father, who figures centrally in the first part of H.D.'s long, syncretic poem, Trilogy, written during WWII. To aid the airmen, the Mayan (or Aztec) spirit guide, Z, also comes through to speak to Delia. By the excerpt's end, Delia has imagined that she is chosen to take the messages because of her training in rhythm, metre and musical notation as a poet. All civilians were put to work in London during the Blitz except for those over fifty, which H.D. was by then, so in some sense, Spiritualism gave H.D. a means to work, and significantly, a way to contribute to the war effort and, she hoped, to help others.
From Wintersleep. Part 1, chap. 2, Round Table, pp. 28-30
I was so happy with the table. I was tempted to make out a list of the words we had used, but I thought better of it. There would be time enough for that. R-A spelt the table. Well, that was no doubt, rare. We had had the word often enough. All right, rare; I said. Go on. The table tapped R, again. It was like that. The table didn't like being interrupted. It had taken me some time to convince it that it need not, inevitably, spell a familiar word to the end. It came back to A and stopped. I repeated, I said, rare, but that didn't satisfy it. A-B-C-D-E-F, the table tapped and stopped. "Oh, I see, this isn't rare, then?" The table said Yes, but that didn't mean anything. I don't understand, go on. It went on, R-A-F, it started all over again. R-A-F what? Go on, I said impatiently. R-A-F, the table repeated stubbornly.
R-A-F doesn't mean anything. R A-F doesn't mean anything.
Well, there it was. It was as if they had been waiting for a new telephone-girl to learn the technique of the switchboard, before they manifested or announced themselves. I say they for eventually, in fact almost at once, there were a number of them. But why for me? I didn't know any of them. They seemed to want me to work for them. I was deeply touched. It was Ralph who made me cry most. You see, I had not cried, except for occasional neurotic or purely physical outbursts (when I had an abscess, for instance) since Geoffrey Well, that was the worst of it. I hadn't accepted the fact of his death, nor of John's. John's? There was a slow, deliberate voice speaking. Re-incarnation is not a thing that really matters. No, no, it didn't matter. I was crying because Ralph said what was it Ralph said? I had said, Are you RAF boys who were lost in the Battle of Britain? Ralph said, Lost we are found.
I say, how can you accept reincarnation? Because any of these boys might have been John come back or even Geoffrey.
That is how I felt about them. There was Lad, there was Larry. There was John, but whether this was the original John or another, I didn't know. Someone was in the background. I had called him John, at first, but finally I decided he must be Z. (Of Z, more later). Z would say, Wait and I would wait. Then he would announce Lad or Larry or Ralph or John. When he first announced or introduced John, I decided that John must be one of them, after all. John said, Are you ready? Of course, I'm ready, I said and suddenly realized that that was how the wing-commander ordered the squadron to be off. It wasn't a command, really. It was an indication only that he himself was waiting. Well, it was like that. John spelt, J-O-H-N.
I said, Yes, I know. Z for they called him Z, too has told me it's you, John.
He spelt J-O-H-N again.
What is it? Is this another John?
Well, all right, what can I do about it?
J-O-H-N T-A-B-L-E, he spelt.
Yes, I know, John. The table is for you. I was so happy when you all came. It seemed that we were stuck, somehow. I had said all this before. I waited, wondering. He waited too. Is there anything I can do about it? I mean, anything special.
Yes, he said, and waited again. (This is a most subtle and intriguing form of communication. I suppose it's a sort of thought transference. He wanted me to find out what he wanted, what they wanted.)
Will you help me, John? Will you give me some clue, some word?
D-O-O-R O-P-E-N-S, spelt John.
I knew that a door had opened. I know, John, I said. It was like speaking to a child. No doubt, they too, felt they were speaking to a child. I could feel their burning intensity, but I did not want them to feel my own frustration, my impatience. May I wait a minute? Yes. They did not stay very long at first and I was afraid they might go away. It seemed to be a sort of tradition or convention to use first names only. But I felt they wanted another John. If they wanted me to help them, they must break what apparently, was their rule.
Well, I'm afraid you'll have to tell me John's other name, I said.
H-O-W-E-L-L, spelt John.
It is true that Lord Howell had not always been Lord Howell. He had signed his name, as is customary, Howell only. I remembered then a reference in the news cutting that Manisi had brought me, to the brilliant career of Sir John How-ell, in the last war.
I'll do everything I can, I promised them. I'm afraid I can't do much. Now I knew why they had come. They hadn't come for me at all. They had come for Lord Howell.
Table will very well do, spelt John. This was a little later.
Now I confess, I began to overdo things. I mean, the books, the papers, the lecture notes, the trip to America even, seemed unimportant beside this burning fact, this fact that I was needed.
Roses red, spelt Larry one day, and roses white, came later from Lad.
I'll do my best, I kept assuring them. You know he's a little difficult.
Yes, said Lad emphatically. It seemed they had an idea. I knew nothing of the technical or scientific side of flying or of flight mechanics. But it wasn't flying in that sense, it was the old Homeric winged word, that they were after. It could be done. It wouldn't be difficult. They would explain it to Lord Howell. Apparently they couldn't explain it to me, but if Howell would come, they could indicate through me, a new means of communication. They didn't want anyone else, and they didn't want me to tell anyone of this.
They gave me numbers and letters which they said Howell would understand, but they needed help. They asked me to tell Lord Howell of this, not to write him.
Later, they would indicate others. I would be able to help in the beginning. Afterwards, the others would not need me. It would need a perceptive ear and to a point, a person trained in rhythm, metre and musical notation to take the first tests. They seemed to think that I would be able to do this. I was mad enough or glad enough to believe it myself.
In the passage below, she has transmitted the substance of the RAF pilots' messages to Lord Howell, but he has repudiated her work and the spirits of the airmen contacting her (he calls them "beings of a lower order). Delia is both shocked and offended, and contrasts Lord Howell's cheery reports of life after death in his own Spiritualist writings (to comfort those who have lost loved ones) with the dark warnings she is receiving about the atom bomb, which could augur the end of the world. Delia transcends the very particular concerns of self-preservation in the passage below. Her question of whether the world beyond ours might be a winter-land (rather than the luminous summer-land that Lord Howell envisions) looks eerily ahead to the cold war imagination of a nuclear winter that would result from a limited nuclear war.
From Wintersleep,, Part 1, Round Table, p. 34
I said I wasn't frozen, but I was. I was like a tree that bends over in an ice-storm. My top seemed about to touch the ground, but it didn't snap off some connecting wire or a connecting wire the ice might melt. I didn't know what to do. Automatically, I went back to the table. Wait, they said.
Perhaps I should have stopped the work there. After all, who was I to think I could do anything to stop or stem the dreadful thing that loomed heavy in all our minds? They had come, in a sense, with the coming of the atom-bomb. I had felt that they had come to stop that.
Psychologically, any-one can work this out. Garry and I were not afraid of the atom-bomb for ourselves. Having sat up all night through so many raids, we agreed that the bomb would be quick, anyway. That was the short view or the selfish view to take of it. What of other people? What of the rest of the world? One was afraid of the end of the world. It was the end of this world, anyway. There must be another world, but where was it? It was there, somewhere. I had never doubted that. But I had made no real emotional connection with it, as my work with Manisi had been for the most part, either impersonal or literary. Lord Howell had stood out for some sort of extension of consciousness. I wanted anyhow to feel things in that way, in a rational way. Perhaps that was what was wrong. Perhaps I was too rational. He had written somewhat extravagantly at times, of luminous scenes and summer-land felicity. Yes, I could accept that too, but I felt there was a qualification about summer-land. It might be winter-land, without being Hell or without containing beings of a lower order.
If we felt that way about the atom-bomb, what must they feel?
To-morrow is Palm Sunday. Last night or early this morning, the Synthesis of a Dream manifests. We are in America. There is a wooden bench. This is the front-porch of a friend of my mother's. Her husband has lately directed a production of Iphigenia, given by his students. Therefore, the dream-year must be 1903. The months must be June. I am therefore, sixteen. But my companion is sixty-three. There is no disparity in our ages, however. We are the same age.
My mind has satisfied itself. l have written or projected the story of my war years in London. I have grieved for my friends there, but a benign Providence has decreed that I am to be spared further suffering. It would be blasphemous to turn back, to reverse this decree of fate.
A friend and her daughter who lost their home in the bombing, are in my London flat. So, seated on Mrs. Atherton's front-porch (Philadelphia, 1903), overlooking a small town-garden, I explain to Lord Howell, that is the worst of being philanthropic. l can't ask you to come and talk in my flat. I open my handbag. I offer him a cigarette. He accepts it.
Now, I continue the conversation, when l get over there, I want to be cremated. Do they cremate people over there?
Lord Howell, true to type, replies, But we need not worry about what happens to our bodies when we are dead.
But these things are important I say. You wrote somewhere of someone sloughing off, not one but many bodies. He was running across the sand, throwing off his bodies like old clothes. You can't leave the desert cluttered up with old bodies.'
But, Lord Howell said, we won't have many bodies, you and I, to throw away. We will step out into nothingness.'
In my dream, this did not alarm me. However, a body is a useful appurtenance. Why throw it away ?
But soon, said Lord Howell, I will see myself looking at myself, in your eyes. You will see yourself looking at yourself in my eyes.
1. Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004), 22. Owen distinguishes occultism from mysticism, the latter defined as an immediate experience of and oneness with a variously conceived divinity, although, as she notes, those involved in promoting an ancient wisdom tradition that would be crucial to the establishment of a spiritually enlightened new age used the two terms interchangeably (22).
2. For a discussion that relates Notes on Thought and Vision to H.D.'s WWII masterpiece Trilogy, see Leonora Woodman, H.D. and the Poetics of Initiation, in Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition, ed. Leon Surette and Demetres Tryphonopoulos (Orono, ME: 1996), esp. 139-41.
Excerpts from: Eds. Cynthia Hogue and Julie Vandivere, The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream) by Delia Alton, 2007, pages 6-8, 28-30, 34, and 73. Reprinted courtesy of the University Press of Florida.
I would like to thank my Research Assistant, Claire McQuerry, for help with scanning this excerpt, and to Rebecca Seiferle, great thanks for inviting me to read from the novel with her in Tucson (October 2007) at Casa Libre, www.casalibre.org and to curate this excerpt. And to my husband, the economist Sylvain Gallais, for his patience and support and humor, endless love.