On 6 Lines from HD’s The Walls Do Not Fall

Recently, the Guardian Poem of the Week focused on sections 9 and 10 of HD’s The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book in her Trilogy. Writing during and in response to WW II, HD, ever the classicist, tries to make sense of the war and its consequences through the lenses of myth and ancient history. 

The reader discussion at one point focused on her use of the word “cartouche” in this passage: 

… folio, manuscript, old parchment

will do for cartridge cases;

irony is bitter truth

wrapped up in a little joke,

and Hatshepsut’s name is still circled

with what they call the cartouche.

Most readers thought the word in this context was needlessly clumsy and broke the reader’s flow. Moreover, it added little meaning to the poem.  

However, after spending some time with these lines, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion: in 31 words, HD links several layers of history and language into a revelatory continuum. It would have taken her ex-boyfriend, Ezra Pound, 31 pages (with quotations in 6 or 7 languages) to pull this off!  

Let’s take a look: 

We start in the present. In the first two lines, we have the obvious irony of “folio, manuscript, old parchment"—essential vehicles of the word—being used as cartridge cases. (For those unfamiliar with firearms, a cartridge is the whole ammunition package: bullet, gunpowder, and primer). The wartime scarcity of resources made this practice necessary. 

This irony is compounded by the origin and history of the word "cartouche”: during the French Campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798–1801), when Napolean’s soldiers saw that oval doodad around names of Egyptian pharaohs, they called it a cartouche (French for cartridge) because they thought it resembled a gun cartridge. 

Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC) was the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. Her reign is commonly referred to as the “reign of peace.”

So through a historical fluke, the name of a ruler known for peace is enclosed in a gun cartridge, figuratively speaking.

Manuscripts wrapped around powder and bullet: cartouche. A cartouche “wrapped around” a ruler known for peace: HD is pointing out some fascinating (and distressing) convolutions of history and language, the intertwining of war and peace. I don’t see how she could have written it any other way. 

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