Friday, October 16, 2009

Writers on & under the Cliff-Edge (Part 2): H.D. at Heddon's Mouth

We have stopped for coffee, in the car park, just above Woody Bay and just to the east of the village of Martinhoe, having driven along a stretch of the coastal rim of the northern reaches of the county in search of the latest, and for me, central quest. I’m supposed to be walking to Heddon’s Mouth. At last. I am about to follow in the footsteps of H.D., (or Hilda Doolittle), the poet, who nearly a hundred years before, in 1916, whilst living in the area for several months in the middle of the first world war, used every afternoon, in the company of her husband and a group of friends, to tramp down the path alongside the Heddon stream to while away the Spring afternoons at the cove. The weather must have been clement, for there they would ‘bathe, scamper about on the rocks, build a drift-wood fire and have tea’.
 In one of my first blog posts I wrote a little about H.D. and her Devonian stay:

"From mid February 1916 she and Richard Aldington rented the Old Schoolhouse in Martinhoe and by 6th March they were in Woodland Cottage in the same village. The cottage is "wild and pagan" and has "a brook backed by a wooded hill with small mountain in front and the sea" is only "half a mile down the valley"; her Sea Garden is due to be published and she is apparently preparing another volume as well as writing a variety of other texts. The similarity between real landscape and inner landscape of the Sea Garden poems is startling, yet those poems were apparently composed before her trip to north Devon. She is probably working on her translation of Ion as well as drafting "Nossis" and "Heliodora", thus imprinting her beloved Greek material onto the wild, coastal scenery surrounding her."

     The sea-scape around here is dramatic and inspiring. (I have been to this scenic spot before). Down below ‘rollers shot with blue/cut under deeper blue’. But not today. We are enveloped in the thickest mist I’ve ever been in. It’s almost suffocating in its density. Quite scary too as we know the cliff edge is inches from the side of the car. Lines from the poet’s sequence Sea Garden, (written before her visit to the county, but published whilst she was staying in Devon), begin to beat inside my head:

the heavy sea-mist stifles me.
 I choke with each breath -
 a curious peril, this -
the Gods have invented/curious torture for us' ...
The gods wanted you back’
   and
Many warned of this,
’men said:
 there are wrecks on the fore-beach …
that edge that front of rock -
sea-gulls clang beyond the breakers,
 none venture to that spot.


     There is no one else around. Not even one other car. Curiously, I pick up an email on my mobile from my best friend, just across the Channel in south Wales. I can’t help but believe that the sea-mist cocoon has manifested itself for me so that I can experience something of the impact of the remote wildness and intuit the unseen disembodied presences surrounding this ‘sea-garden’. I know we won’t be finding Heddon’s Mouth today. There is nothing to be seen, although of course the cove is still there. Beating blue on blue waves. White ridges. Unfathomable mysteries. Thetis. She. It. Waiting to be found. A day later, a different world. Under a golden blaze of Autumnal sun we begin to walk in pursuit, from the side of Hunter's Inn along the Heddon valley and along the trodden paths. I feel as though I am retracing a Pilgrim route. I need to share this common ground.
What do I care
that the stream is trampled, the sand on the stream-bank
 still holds, the print of your foot:
 the heel is cut deep. ...
 But here a wild-hyacinth stalk is snapped ...
A patch of flowering grass,
 low, trailing -
you brushed this: the green stems show yellow-green
where you lifted - turned the earth-side
to the light:
this and a dead leaf-spine,
 split across,
show where you passed ...
here the forest ledge slopes ...
I can almost follow the note
where it touched this slender tree
and the next answered -
and the next ...
And you climbed yet further!
you stopped by the dwarf-cornel-
whirled on your heels,
doubled on your track.


     As we meander along the Heddon cleave and eventually reach the wide mouth of the cove, the lines of 'Oread', H.D.'s most famous poem merge with the larches and firs of 'Pursuit':
                                            Whirl up sea-
                                            whirl your pointed pines
                                            splash your great pines
                                            on our rocks,
                                            hurl your green over us
                                            cover us with your pools of fir.


There is no way that H.D. and her companions could enjoy their hi-jinx here today. People crowd into the cove from the path. All have cameras. All want to sit on the rocks and gaze at the sea. All want to sit and eat their picnic. But sea-sounds call, incessantly. And there is essence.Of absence. A seed-pod in the wind.  A sea-shell. A wave.

 Although the seascape is wildly exquisite, I know she has eluded me today. I will return. She will be here in the Spring.

 I can find no trace of you in the larch-cones and the underbrush (From 'Pursuit')

Sea Garden;The God; both sequences are in Collected Poems 1912-1944)