Hilda Doolittle is much more well-known by initials, H.D. “Sea Rose” is one of the poems which belongs to her “sea garden” series of verse in which she makes coded examinations of themes related to gender, sexuality, conformity, idealization of feminine beauty and other associated attributes through the metaphor and symbolism of flowers. This series of poems represents her first published collection, Sea Garden (1916).
Among other titles included in that collection are the similar “Sea Violet,” “Sea Poppies” and “Sea Lilly” along with other less similarly titled poems such as “The Helmsman,” “Evening” and “Storm.” From that initial collection, however, “Sea Rose” has become one of the poet’s most anthologized works. The feminization of the rose, violets and other flowers contained within the collection trace a line connecting the Imagist symbolism of H.D.’ s poetry to the eroticized paintings of southwestern flowers by Georgia O’Keefe and all the way to the less controversial photographs of flowers by the otherwise highly controversial Robert Mapplethorpe.
“Sea Rose” is not just ahead of the game in the feminization and sexualizing of flowers, but also in taking on the topic of body image and self-esteem. The “sea” flowers of these poems are usually placed in opposition to the garden variety or display versions of the same flower in a way that expresses through imagery and context how the “sea” version fails to live up to societal conventions and expectations of the feminine ideal. “Sea Rose” may well have become the most popular of these poems for reasons that serve to underscore and potentially undermine the very point the poet is making. After all, what flower is held in the highest esteem as the most perfect gift to soothe a wronged woman’s scorn or disappointment? The rose.