The title of the collection points to the governing experience in all its poems. The garden is traditionally the place of consummation of love. In H.D.'s poems the garden is still the place of love, but love washed with salt. It is a sea garden, inimical to all but the most enduring. The sea represents here the harsh power of elemental life, to which the soul must open itself, and by which it must be transformed or die. H.D. need not have known, but probably did, that sea/salt is the arcane alchemical substance linked to the mysterious bitterness and wisdom essential to spiritual life. "Without salt," it is said, "the work [the alchemical opus of transformation] has no success" (Jung par. 329). To experience sea/salt is to be within the visceral elements of bodily life, the "common salts" (Hillman, "Salt" 117). It is to feel open wounds, to suffer desire without fulfillment, to be made aware of vulnerability and fear. More importantly, the psychological experience of salt specifies and clarifies pain: "No salt, no experiencing—merely a running on and running through of events without psychic body. Thus salt makes events sensed and felt, giving us each a sense of the personal—my tears, my sweat and blood, my taste and value" (Hillman, "Salt" 117). It gives ground and substance to subjectivity, to feeling and desire.
This salt experience and the wisdom and beauty born of it are the central mysteries to which H.D.'s Sea Garden allows access. C. G. Jung associates alchemical salt with the sea, thus with Luna and with the "feminine," with Eros and feeling (par. 330). One need not fix its mysterious character in Jung's terms. But nevertheless it is clear that for H.D. these associations—marah ("bitter"), mar, mer, mater, Maia, Mary—to some degree pertain. Indeed, they are at the heart of the network of imagery informing her longer works and centering in the Goddess, who is both hetaira and mother, who is "sea, brine, breaker , seducer, / giver of life, giver of tears" (CP 552). Working the mystery of salt, H.D. in Sea Garden explores in a deeply interiorized and careful way the very matter of subjectivity.
In the opening three poems we move from an intense, static focus upon a mysterious icon ("Sea Rose"), to a choice for movement and engagement with the sea ("The Helmsman"), and, finally, to a ritual passage of entrance into the sacred mysteries of the sea garden ("The Shrine").
H.D.'s flowers, like Sappho's, represent a moment when a certain poignant beauty takes on "the stature of an eternal condition in the spirit" (McEvilley, "Sapphic Imagery" 269). "Sea Rose" (CP 5) immediately reveals to the reader the necessity to look through the image to read that eternal condition. The initiate's work begins with learning clairvoyance. This "harsh" rose, "marred and with stint of petals, / meager . . . thin, / sparse of leaf ," has no conventional worth, but, marked by the inimical elements, is altogether poor. Yet it is "more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem." Here the typical standards of beauty are reversed, and in the last stanza the "spice-rose" is deficient for not possessing the "acrid fragrance" of this harsh flower. The relentless elements in action are annihilating ("you are caught in the drift . . . you are flung on the sand"); yet they exalt ("you are lifted / in the crisp sand / that drives in the wind"). The beauty is in the mark of sea-torture.