Responding to the rhyme of time : a comparative reading of H.D. and Chen Jingrong's poetry of 'New Beauty' in the context of modernism.
Thesis DisciplineCulture Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis reveals the relationship between women’s modernist experiments with poetic language and their political aspirations to freedom through the examination of the poetic images of beauty created by American poet Hilda Doolittle (also known as H.D.) and Chinese poet Chen Jingrong in their early poetic careers. To elaborate this assumption, I unpack the poetic image by returning it to its conditions of signification and investigate it by following two threads: one is how language as a medium forms a discourse of beauty with a female subject-position through poetic estrangement and the other is the judgment of beauty and its political implications. In so doing, I present here a much more integrated approach that seeks to overcome a centre/periphery duality. On the one hand, this thesis is an interdisciplinary inquiry crossing the boundary of poetics, aesthetics, and cultural criticism that both resists a static traditional formalist perspective and equally avoids a fashionable inclusive cultural-political criticism. On the other, as a cross-cultural study it resists the traditional concern of recreating an West/East duality, focusing on neither Western nor Chinese culture, but resting its argument on the conversation between them. This new approach provides a rethinking of both the concept of beauty in the poetry of these two poets and their poetic praxis.
Through the examination of the poetic image of beauty, this thesis unfolds the construction of a mode of feminist discourse and then reveals its revolutionary power in society by examining its negotiation with the dominant masculinist discourse. By linking H.D. and Chen’s body-based poetics to their pursuit of beauty as the solution to their respective war crises, I argue that both poets articulate a female-centred judgment of beauty through creating unconventional poetic images of beauty. I term this female-centred view of beauty as ‘new beauty’ by borrowing H.D.’s expression in her poetry “Sheltered Garden”. By poetic estrangement, the images of ‘new beauty’ form a female subject position and make the poetry of ‘new beauty’ a discourse articulating a new notion of beauty from a female-centred view. In this discourse, beauty is empowered as active and dynamic, originated by the encounter between two equal parties. The so-called ‘new beauty’, in this sense, revises the notion of beauty within the Burke-Kantian dualistic aesthetic tradition, which defines it as passive and inferior. Furthermore, I argue that ‘new beauty’ breaks the masculinity/femininity binary which is the foundation of masculinist discourse. The empowerment of beauty thus empowers women. Through this empowerment, women reclaim their agency and assume a subject position in social activity, equal to men. As a mode of feminist discourse, the poetry of ‘new beauty’ narrates women’s ‘reality’ based on their bodily experiences, because poetic estrangement as a device that re-personalises poetic images, positing a relationship between the human body and the external world. The images of ‘new beauty’ shed light on a new relationship: women’s bodies directly and autonomously communicate with the external world.
The innovative examination of the images of ‘new beauty’ thus reveals H.D. and Chen’s creation and exploration in formulating a new aesthetic intervention in modernism by the revolutionary power of poetic language. The poetry of ‘new beauty’ responds aesthetically to the modern experience of temporality and fragmentation. The poetry of ‘new beauty’ also responds politically to the emergence of New Woman, a new social group which calls for women’s independence and autonomy. In this sense, both H.D. and Chen actively engaged with rather than escaping from the world. H.D. and Chen’s exploration as the examples of individual achievements from different cultures thus provide a paradigm for the construction of feminist discourse and the ongoing liberation of women.