Lethe Study Guide

"Lethe" can be found in H.D.'s 1924 collection Heliodora, which contains many other poems that allude to Greek mythology. Lethe is a fixture in Greek mythology—a river in Hades that causes those who drink the water to forget their past. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. The word itself literally means "oblivion," "forgetfulness" or "concealment." Writers have long been inspired by the mythical river, and poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Baudelaire have made mention of it in their work.

H.D.'s poem "Lethe" marks an important point in her career during which she still gravitated toward the spare, purist lines of imagism, but was beginning to harness the fruitful scenes of mythology. Alongside her strong interest in psychoanalysis and her experience with trauma—as well as explorations of oblivion in her other work—"Lethe" stands as a rich poetic endeavor, holding much personal and historical weight. Further, the poem is highly characteristic of H.D.'s corpus, and speaks to her powerful contribution to matters of the psyche. The poem also exhibits her masterful use of natural imagery to evoke overwhelming, universal experiences.

Literary critic Northrop Frye writes of "Lethe, "The sense is in the sound. Every line murmurs—easing forgetfulness into being." Indeed, the poem entices and allures—captivating the imagination, and evoking a longing the reader may not know he had. Perhaps the poem became highly influential for this reason. One could even argue that after H.D. wrote "Lethe" in 1924, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay drew inspiration to write her own poem "Lethe" in 1928, which bears a striking resemblance. Millay's poem includes the lines:

Ah, drink again

This river that is the taker-away of pain

Immerse the dream.
Drench the kiss.
Dip the song in the stream.

Years later, artists have continued to probe the mythical concept of lethe and the body of work surrounding it, including poets such as Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Billy Collins.