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At one level, the speaker’s transformation from shell, to worm, to butterfly in The Walls Do Not Fall signifies H.D.’s emergence from the structural confines of Imagism to the more ambitious–yet riskier–domain of the myth-making long poem. Like much of the Trilogy, poem #6 opens by recovering the power of symbols deemed negative in Judeo-Christian traditions. The opening lines allude to Psalm 22 ("I am a worm and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people"). The speaker must reject narrow conceptions of "righteousness," just as H.D. must revise the mythic traditions that anchored the long poems of her brother modernists, Eliot and Pound. For H.D., the archaic meaning of "worm" (serpent) links this symbol to the healing power of Hermes’s caduceus, which is entwined with snakes. Serpents were also sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and many poems in The Walls Do Not Fall draw from this culture that pre-dates (and thus re-codes) Judeo-Christian myths. "Unintimidated by multiplicity," H.D. embarks on a quest to recover and reassemble the fragmented legacies of earlier cultures–a quest that parallels both the reassembly of Osiris by Isis, and the reconstruction of relics by archaeologists. (H.D. had witnessed the excavation of Tutankhamen’s pyramid in 1923).

While the speaker draws power from her new position as worm/serpent, she is also more vulnerable than the mollusc who "limits its orbit / of being" [poem #4]. The worm/serpent must "escape" menace from the sky (like Londoners during the Blitz), from thorns, and from pursuit. Persistent, the worm ingests her hostile environment and "profit[s] / by every calamity." Note how the "separate ravellings / of encrusted gem-stuff" that she deposits on grass blades resemble writing–a self-reflexive comment on H.D.’s process of producing her first modernist long poem. Finally, the speaker-as-worm assumes a hostile interlocutor who accuses her of unrighteousness. She counters her accuser by refusing to repent, and by claiming that the shroud/cocoon she will make from within is a sign of divinity. Later in The Walls Do Not Fall [#39], the worm transforms to a butterfly hatched from the "little boxes" of cryptic words.

© 1999 by Marsha Bryant