The evolutionary stages on the spiritual path of the American poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) determined her self-mythologizing literary personae from Imagism to Trilogy, her modernist masterwork. The bombing of England in World War Two precipitated her creation of a new literary persona—the poet as medium. From this view of herself came her poetics of psychoanalysis, her dream-interpretation skills praised by Freud, and magic in the form of spiritualism. In Trilogy, this poetics shapes the symbolic presences of a mother-goddess and feminine Holy Spirit who emanates poetry’s spiritual power—the power of words in themselves—to bring resurrection and peace to a devastated world.
The story begins at a spiritualist séance on a dark winter afternoon in London in early December 1941, but its roots go back to medieval Languedoc, also known as Occitania, whose language Occitan, also known as Old Provençal, is the language of the troubadours and the tradition of cortezia, courtly love, that sprang up in the twelfth century. Looking back and reading the poems of this innovative period, Ezra Pound said that the troubadours were “melting the common language and fashioning it into new harmonies” (Pound 24). With the language change came an elevated view of woman as set above man, the Lady who is the unattainable object of the poet’s passionate love and of his nearly religious devotion. The exemplar and supreme “poet of love” is Arnaut Daniel, who, according to Pound, “surpassed all verses of love and prose of romances” by other troubadours because of his imagistic style, his “terse vigor of suggestion”, as “he makes the picture in his poems neither by simile nor metaphor, but in the language beyond metaphor, by the use of the picturesque verb with an exact meaning” (Pound 23, 33). Thus, by extension of Pound’s admiration, Occitan can be seen as the root language whose musicality and vision infiltrated and transformed poetry in English to make it international and multi-tongued, though tinged with an American accent.
Hilda Doolittle was initiated into this tradition when, in 1912, Pound read her manuscript poems and praised them, using an affectionate nickname that referred to their early amours, “Why, Dryad, this is good”, and signed them “H.D., Imagiste” (Guest 40). She felt uplifted by this new androgyne identity as poet, not “poetess”, and her status in the still-nascent movement, so it is opportune now to look at Imagism—by no means a bygone historical episode—and to follow the rosy thread of romance woven by H.D. into the Imagist pattern she tailor-made (sur mesure) in the musical measure of poetry, to fit her body, significantly a woman’s body. For even from its earliest impulses it had meant much more than technical innovation. It was a new way to write poetry that, like the troubadour lyric, both captured and extended the spirit of the culture surrounding it. Pound’s manifesto “make it new” was a command to poets, expressing the intent and goal of the experimental writer, then as now, to be original, to use words as they had not been used before. The poet of the new also intends, Pound added, to “revive the mind of the reader—at reasonable intervals—with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase” (Pound 8).
To live in ecstasy, to be lifted beyond the ordinary, to be transported by beauty, to experience all the sensations of love—these romantic desires dominated H.D. all her life. She was possessed both by the personal erotic desire for sexual fulfillment and by the supra-personal spiritual desire for transcendence. These desires propelled her quest for the perfect union of sexual and spiritual love such as exists within divinity. She believed, as did the Romantic poets, that the gifted artist, said to be “inspired by the muse”, has a conduit to the divine, which takes form to human senses in the beautiful work of art. H.D. longed for evidence that she was gifted in this way. The first inklings came after Bryher, the wealthy shipping heiress Winifred Ellerman, rescued her from the traumas she suffered during World War One: a stillborn child; collapse of her marriage to Richard Aldington; the deaths of her brother and father, a brief affair in summer 1918 with the musicologist Cecil Gray that left her pregnant, and in winter 1918-19 her illness from influenza that made doctors predict death for either mother or baby or both in childbirth. But thanks to Bryher’s intervention, a plump healthy daughter, Perdita, was safely born on 31 March 1919. The two women pledged love and loyalty to each other and to raising the child together. Bryher, who had been frustrated and suicidal, now had a mission in life: she would use her vast wealth to support H.D.’s creative gift. H.D. wanted, not altogether unconsciously, to show that she had a gift worth supporting. In summer 1919, leaving the new baby well cared for by trained nurses in London, H.D. recuperated with Bryher in her beloved Isles of Scilly. There a supernormal episode overtook the poet; she and Bryher called it the “jelly-fish experience”. H.D. recorded it in Notes on Thought and Vision, a manuscript unknown and unpublished until 1982.
Artists, she wrote in Notes, need “certain physical relationships” to develop their talents. These, allied with the artist’s concentration on creative work, produce an “over-mind”, a super-consciousness, which she visualized as a cap over her head, transparent and fluid “like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone” in which thoughts are “visible like fish swimming under clear water”. This over-mind, she said, is also
centered in the love-region of the body or placed like a foetus in the body … Is it easier for a woman to attain this state of consciousness? It was before the birth of my child that the jelly-fish consciousness seemed to come definitely into the field or realm of the intellect or brain. (H.D. 1988, 18-19)
The over-mind and womb-mind are “capable of thought. This thought is vision” (22). Certain works of art, she wrote, such as “words and lines of Attic choruses, any scrap of da Vinci’s drawings, the Delphic charioteer are … straight, clear entrances, to me, to over-world consciousness” (24). These works are like jellyfish with far-reaching tentacles, or like seeds that, as “it takes a man and a woman to create another life” are needed “to make a new spiritual birth” (50). This “jelly-fish” of spiritual energy she saw as transformed into a concentrated light, a pearl, in her forehead: “I am in my spiritual body a jelly-fish and a pearl … so I understood exactly what the Galilean means by the kingdom of heaven being a pearl of great price” (50-51). She ends the Notes in an Imagist paean that syncretizes Christian myth and the fertility myths of Mediterranean religions:
Christ and his father, or as the Eleusinian mystic would have said, his mother, were one … Christ was the grapes that hung against the sunlit walls … the white hyacinth of Sparta … the conch shell and the purple-fish left by the lake tides. He was the body of nature, the Dionysus, as he was the soul of nature. (H.D. 1988, 52-53)
Celebration of the sex act and the conversion of Christ into Dionysus, Bacchus, the fertility god whom the Bacchantes worshipped in drunken dancing orgies of ecstasy—these mythic projections animate H.D.’s volumes of the 1920s. What had become of the proper woman poet of restrained “crystalline” lyrics, the baffled critics wondered, as they read Hymen (1921) and Heliodora (1924). These poems teem with overwhelming sexual passion, all-consuming agonized love, fatal lusts and fears conveyed through the personae of Greek drama, its ceremonial masks and over-life-sized heroines. In “Hymen”, a script for a marriage liturgy including instructions for staging, Eros appears as “a figure … a flame … the wings deep red or purple” who enters the bridal chamber as a bee searching for a flower:
Crimson, with honey-seeing lips
The sun lies hot across his back,
The gold is flecked across his wings,
Quivering he sways and quivering clings
(Ah, rare her shoulders drawing back!)
One moment, then the plunderer slips
Between the purple flower-lips. (H.D. 1983, 109)
H.D.’s imagist method here conveys a voyeuristic clarity in celebrating marital sex and consummation, but by 1931, when Red Roses for Bronze was published, the scene had radically changed. Her method had gone flat, formulaic and overly repetitive, the emotions forced, the poetic persona still passionate but desperate. The cause: H.D.’s lover Kenneth Macpherson preferred men. The core story in her novella Nights, which she also composed in 1930-31, depicts in sexually explicit terms her efforts to “counteract her bitter sense of the loss” of Macpherson, whose “psychic desertion” had “maimed her” (H.D. 1986, 23-25). The central character is a woman writer, like H.D., in a deteriorating ménage à trois in Switzerland who, on twelve successive nights, tries to come to orgasm with a new lover. By H.D.’s own evidence in the frame-tale she added later, she wrote these scenes immediately after the lovemaking in hopes that the “white lightning” and “radium ray” of ecstatic experience would ignite a literary flame as well. The sex fails because there was no true love—“there could be no ‘other’”—and the fictionalized heroine commits suicide (H.D. 1986, 23-29).
With love’s ending H.D. felt that life itself had ended. She composed “Epitaph”, the second to last poem in Red Roses, as, despite her despair, she kept in mind her literary reputation. In the first stanza she addresses herself, in the second the literary critics, and in the third the spirit of poetry who hovers over her eternally and the discerning few who render true judgment:
So I may say,
“I died of living,
having lived one hour”;
so they may say
“she died soliciting
so you may say
“Greek flower, Greek ecstasy
reclaims for ever
one who died following
intricate songs’ lost measure.” (H.D. 1983, 299-300)
Writing this poem of hope did not, however, lift her severe depression. Her pursuit of the ideal union of sexual and spiritual love had failed utterly. “Greek ecstasy” had evaporated. Her Greek persona was gone. She had no idea what self-image could take its place.
Her writer’s block and attendant grieves brought her to Freud in Vienna in spring 1933. Bryher had arranged and paid for three months of six sessions a week. H.D. began not by saying anything about her writing but by telling him about her childhood in Pennsylvania. She wrote in her daily letter to Bryher that Freud “was very excited and pleased that I had been born in Bethlehem” (Friedman 44). When she told him about the Moravian Christmas Eve candlelight service at which each child, the girls as well as the boys, received a lighted candle, “he said … ‘that is the true heart of all religion’” (H.D.1998, 115; 1984, 123). She was surprised by the famous scientist’s interest in religion: “its [sic] all very uncanny, much more ‘magic’ than I had anticipated” (Friedman 44). She told Freud about Notes on Thought and Vision; he was again pleased with her and her “life-in-myth that I seem to have had ‘pockets’ of, what with Bethlehem, the Greek cult and the fish [jellyfish] experience” (Friedman 55). When she told him she supposed the jelly-fish experience to be “some sort of pre-natal fantasy”, he replied “‘Yes, obviously; you have found the answer—good’” (H.D. 1984, 168). When she told him about the “writing on the wall” in Corfu, he was less approving. He said it showed her “desire for union with [her] mother”, which he feared as a regressive flight from reality (H.D. 1984, 44). She wrote to Bryher: “F. says I got stuck at the earliest pre-OE [oedipal] stage and ‘back to the womb’ seems to be my only solution, hence islands, sea, Greek primitives and so on” (Friedman 142). She made the transference to him as mother, and they devoted many sessions to unraveling her “mother-fixation”, focusing not only on H.D.’s actual mother, Helen Wolle Doolittle, but permutations on the theme: H.D. as mother to Bryher, Bryher as mothering H.D., and both of them mothers to Perdita and to the boyish Macpherson. H.D. then made the second and psychoanalytically “proper” transference to Freud as father—often in private she had referred to him as “papa”—and worked through her war terrors with their masculinist associations. Because of this two-fold transference, Freud pronounced her “the perfect bi-[sexual]” (Friedman 497). As the end of their sessions neared in 1934 and H.D. was getting ready to leave Vienna, the theme of her childhood re-emerged. She reported to Bryher:
I had a dream about my “baby brother” or sort of Christ child off the Xmas tree … all mixed up with God … and very Moravian. All that seems to please papa—and he says I have the sort of dreams he would expect of a “woman poet”. Also he says my “majic complex” is simply poetry, that poetry is majic—but I don’t swallow everything he says whole, we argue it out. But all that majic coming up is most fascinating, and he puts it down to “majic is poetry, poetry is majic” which is very Wien [Vienna] somehow. But stabilizing. (Friedman 482)
Praise from “Papa” Freud, in his semblance of God-the-Father, delivered her again, at least briefly, into the realm of the gods, but the psychoanalytic emphasis on her mother and her Bethlehem childhood laid lasting ground for the new literary persona stimulated by the war.
She had survived Hitler’s night blitz of 1940, she thought miraculously. She wondered why she had been saved and asks this question in the first section of The Walls Do Not Fall, begun in the spring of 1941. The poem’s central image is drawn from her direct observation of half a house wall standing in the rubble of the bombings, an image of herself and of England refusing to collapse, refusing to give in to the constant fear of death, united to fight back against cosmic evil and unprecedented destruction. She wrote:
the bone-frame was made for
no such shock within terror,
yet the skeleton stood up to it:
the flesh? It was melted away . . . .
yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for? (Trilogy 4)
This question lingered through summer 1941 and into September when she wrote the poem “R.A.F”. that re-creates her meeting a young Royal Air Force pilot on a train from Cornwall. She felt herself united with him, a hero, one of “the few”, the courageous young flyers of the Battle of Britain who, in summer 1940, prevented the German land invasion of England (1983, 486). As she sat at her desk writing about him, she believed he appeared to her in spirit, “the coming-one//from a far star”, the avatar or Christ in the Second Coming who, she believed at that time, would have to come to end the war (2009a, 31). She took this vision of the transfigured war hero as a sign:
the invisible web
whatever we thought or said,
we were people who had crossed over,
we had already crashed,
we were already dead. (H.D. 1983, 486)
This sense of herself as resurrected, impervious to death, brought into sharper focus the question of why she had survived the blitz. To get an answer she went in early December to a private session with Arthur Bhaduri, a spiritualist medium, at the International Institute for Psychic Investigation on Walton Street, an episode she described both in her wartime novel Majic Ring and her postwar novel The Sword Went Out to Sea. In November she had gone to public sessions with Bhaduri, had found him “distinctly gifted”, and now was meeting him in a “tiny room set apart for private work” where they “sat in seclusion in the warm glow” of the curtains drawn against the fog (2009a, 66; 2007, 6). She told him her problem. She could not finish the novel she had been writing about the trip in 1920 with Bryher on Bryher’s father’s ship, the Borodino. She explained: “I met a man on the boat on the way to Greece. There were strange repercussions—I had a curious psychic experience … after this man left us … He was going on to India” (2009a, 67). Bhaduri asked if this man had been in Egypt; she said yes. The medium told her:
“There seems to be some connection with someone who has been about Egypt … here is a stretch of desert sand … a long track in the sand. It goes on. There are foot-prints. Now the foot-prints branch off. There are two tracks …
Let the story go. It’s no good to you at all … Throw it out. … You will eventually write this story, only it won’t be this story”. (2009a, 67-9, 71; 2007, 7-8)
This answer was not what H.D. wanted to hear. She was writing about the “Man on the Boat”, Pieter Rodeck, an architect traveling with them on the ship, with whom she believed she had stood on deck one evening and had seen land to the west that, she thought, could only be Atlantis. She could not stop writing about this connection to the first man who had fallen in love with her after the birth of Perdita and her pact with Bryher; he was the Eternal Lover. In her 1932 story “Pontikonisi: Mouse Island” she speculates that he was asleep in his cabin when she met his spirit-double or ka or soul on deck above (2011, 38-40). Or, she conjectures, perhaps he has the magical power to be two places at once, or he was immortal like Louis Saint-Germain, one of theosophy’s Twelve Ascended Masters (2009b, 12, 16, 203). And who was she if she had been able to step out of time? Throw out this story? It was impossible.
Disappointed, she got up to end the séance and was fastening her coat, looking for her gloves, when suddenly Bhaduri said, “Wait a minute—there is a lady here. I thought she was your mother, but she calls you sister” (2009, 67; 2007, 7). H.D. stood still in shock. Here was her mother, she thought. Her mother’s appearance—not that she had actually seen or heard her—meant much more, she felt, than “all the minute details” Bhaduri had relayed of what Pieter Rodeck had told her on the boat. She remembered that “Sister” was the traditional way older Moravian women in Bethlehem greeted one another. Her grandmother was “Sister Elizabeth”, and she was “Sister” (1998, 115, 178). As H.D. was the only girl in her family, her mother had “always called [her] sister—no, not always—but it was my mother speaking” (2009a, 67; 2007, 7).
The conviction that her mother was there gave the poet the answer she wanted, confirmation that she was endowed with a psychic gift allied with her literary gifts. As she had stepped out of time with the “Man on the Boat”, she believed she could now step out of time, in the midst of war, and see into past lives, her own and others’, because her dreams and visions came, according to her view of Freud’s thought, “from an unexplored depth that ran like a great stream or ocean underground” uniting all mankind in the unconscious (H.D. 1984, 71). Now she felt sure of her identification with the Biblical prophets who had the skill of dream interpretation, Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and Daniel who saw the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. She understood her gift to be an endowment from her mother’s Christian background in the old church of Bohemia, Unitas Fratrum, Unity of the Brethren and from its charismatic eighteenth-century leader, Count Nicholas Zinzendorf. He was a mystic who, with his followers, including H.D.’s German-born ancestors, had founded Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, her birthplace, whose history by J.M. Levering she had recently been reading (H.D. 1998, 16, 257; 2009a, 20, 206).
Now she was sure of the reason she had been saved from death. She was to use her literary gift to help end the war. She felt joined to the energetic women doing war work all around her in London, and especially joined to her daughter Perdita, now twenty-two years old, who lived not far from Lowndes Square and was driving an ambulance as a volunteer. H.D. saw herself as standing with the British in defending their country and in saving civilization itself, as the young flyers had done in the Battle of Britain. She left Walton Street dazzled and went home to tell Bryher what had happened. By early 1942 she was at work converting the Rodeck episode into a memoir of her childhood, The Gift, and Bhaduri was coming to Lowndes Square every Friday evening to hold a séance (2009a, 68-9). His English mother, May, along with Bryher, made the necessary four, the minimum required by spiritualist tradition for a “home circle”. Long-dead Native Americans first spoke to them through table tapping, but more often the medium went into semi-trance and produced a “picture” for Hilda (H.D. 2007, 10). A great creative outpouring ensued for H.D., as it had ensued for Yeats after his new wife in 1917 began receiving messages by automatic writing. Yeats believed in the “practice and philosophy of … ‘magic’” defined as the “evocation of spirits” (Yeats 1961, 28). When the spirits told him, through his wife’s mediumship, that “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry”, he could unhesitantly believe that the words came from on high through her conduit to the divine. The words were true beyond all doubt or criticism. All he had to do was obey their direction to shape the poems (Yeats 1966, 8). A lifetime of powerful poetry followed from this belief.
Similarly, when H.D. became her own medium she believed that whatever she wrote was inspired and unassailable; the words were delivered from on high. Bhaduri’s role, she thought, was passive; he merely relayed the images he saw in trance. She was the one who knew what they meant, as in psychoanalysis the dreamer is the one who knows the true meaning of the dream. Even the séance session with its fixed time and format, the quiet and darkness, resembled the psychoanalytic hour. H.D’s literary blockages disappeared. As she went on doing weekly séances, she went on writing The Walls Do Not Fall, using the original method of imagism, direct perception of the thing. Ecstasy returned. She says in section five of Walls:
When in the company of the gods,
I loved and was loved,
never was my mind stirred
to such rapture,
my heart moved
to such pleasure,
as now, to discover
over Love, a new Master.
His, the track in the sand
from a plum-tree in flower
. . .
His, the Genius in the jar
which the Fisherman finds.
He is Mage,
bringing myrrh. (Trilogy 10)
The new Master over Love for H.D. is wisdom and power, both the magician and the djinn or genius in the bottle who obeys the magician’s commands. The image of the “track in the sand” has echoes of the first séance with Bhaduri, while the “new Master” suggests Freud in his association to the eternal Father who transcends living and dying. Freud is also a mage, one of the wise men of the East in the Biblical Christmas story. H.D. is carrying on the religious syncretizing she began in Notes on Thought and Vision but now with the assured sanction of divine authority. In section three of Walls, the images of life-saving power are phallic but touched with feminine succor:
Let us, however, recover the Sceptre,
the rod of power:
it is crowned with the lily-head
or the lily-bud:
it is Caduceus; among the dying
it bears healing:
or evoking the dead,
it brings life to the living. (Trilogy 7)
The Walls Do Not Fall was finished and in press by 1943. By 1944 H.D. was at work on Tribute to the Angels, the second volume of Trilogy. In it the poet-priestess enacts ritual magic to transform the patriarchal view that sex is sin and women are evil into a redemptive vision in which the Holy Spirit is feminine, a mother and “the Comforter” whom the risen Christ promised to send after his death (Jn. 14:26; H.D. 1998, 269; 2009b, 215). The transformation is achieved in section 8 of Angels by means of H.D.’s spiritual etymology, her conception that similar sounds of words connect their meanings, and by images taken from alchemy, the proto-scientific attempt to change base metal into gold. Here H.D.’s ritual magic is invoked to change bitter words into comforting ones and thus to change attitudes in herself and others from destructive enmity to prevailing maternal peace:
Now polish the crucible
and set the jet of flame
under, till marah-mar
are melted, fuse and join
and change and alter,
mer, mere, mère, mater, Maia, Mary,
Star of the Sea,
Mother. (Trilogy 71)
In sections 11 and 12 of the poem, H.D. links the mother and the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, to the Greco-Roman love goddesses by free-associating the “Star of the Sea” to the planet Venus, “white, far and luminous/incandescent and near,//Venus, Aphrodite, Astarte.//star of the east/star of the west”, redeeming the name Venus from its denigratory associations with venery and lasciviousness (Trilogy 74-75). The generative flame, as opposed to the destructive flame of war, is to be re-lit under the alchemist’s alembic to bring back the love-goddess’s purified presence:
return, O holiest one,
Venus whose name is kin
This ritual brings the Lady herself to H.D. in a dream linked to “Venus-Annael, the pre-Christian Roman Bona Dea, the Byzantine Greek church Santa Sophia and the SS of the Sanctus Spiritus”, and the portrayals in art of the Madonna (H.D. 1973, x). But for H.D., the Lady is more present when the dream is gone. Then she is present not in words, not as a symbol frozen on the page, but beyond poetry as a living spirit who carries not a baby but a book.
It was not only the ritual that brought the Lady, but an even more powerful image that came through H.D.’s direct perception of real life in London in the midst of unending war: an old tree half-dead, half blossoming, actually present to her, but “it was a vision/it was a sign//It was the Angel which redeemed me,/it was the Holy Ghost—//a half-burnt-out apple-tree/blossoming”, she wrote in section 23 of Tribute to the Angels (Trilogy 87). She continues: “This is the flowering of the rood” that through her spiritual etymology becomes “the flowering of the rod”, the combined image of the Rider-Smith tarot cards’ green-leaved wands and the “rood”, the Old English word for crucifix, church icon of Christ’s death that grants resurrection. The apple tree flowering reveals both masculine and feminine in the godhead to produce ongoing and everlasting life—the perfect union of the sexual and spiritual H.D. had always sought.
While she was writing Trilogy she was also reading “an extraordinary book called L’Amour et l’Occident (with the English title Passion and Society) by the Swiss writer M. Denis de Rougemont” (H.D. 1998, 265). With Rougemont we are back in Languedoc, for he argues strongly that the troubadours’ songs were not erotic invitations but secret hymns to the Virgin Mary expressing allegiance to the divine feminine principle that ruled the Cathars’ allegedly heretical “Church of Love”. The troubadours employed the symbols of human passion to express this longing to be united with the greatest love of all, embodied in God, however named or depicted. H.D. too believed in this love supreme. Through Freud’s permissive benediction, “poetry is magic”, she remains the poet of love, both a troubadour reincarnate and the great Lady, midons and madonna, Queen of Heaven, whom he adores. Through the evolutionary stages of H.D.’s spiritual path and personae Trilogy emerges as both a major literary achievement and a notable landmark at the cultural intersections of science, religion and art in modernism.
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—–, The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream by Delia Alton), C. Hogue and J. Vandivere, ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
—–, Tribute to Freud, N.H. Pearson, intro., New York: New Directions, 1984.
—–, Trilogy, N.H. Pearson, foreword, New York: New Directions, 1973.
—–, Trilogy, A. Barnstone, intro. and notes, New York: New Directions, 1998.
Pound, Ezra, The Spirit of Romance, New York: New Directions, 1968.
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DOI : 10.1007/978-1-349-00618-2
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Jane Augustine, « Ecstasy’s Alembic: H.D.’s Poetics of Magic and Psychoanalysis in World War Two », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 35-50.
Jane Augustine, « Ecstasy’s Alembic: H.D.’s Poetics of Magic and Psychoanalysis in World War Two », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 16 December 2014, connection on 22 November 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/229 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.229
Essay first published in Caliban (Creative Commons). Photo in the public domain.