The Poem

“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is an elegy to the famous psychologist written in twenty-eight alcaic stanzas. W. H. Auden read works by Sigmund Freud when he was very young, and Freudian theories played an important part in Auden’s poetry throughout his life. Although the poem is a fitting tribute to the creator of psychoanalysis, it is better studied as a description of Freud’s importance to Auden and his influence on Auden’s own psychological, political, and aesthetic theories than as a precise description of Freud’s character or theories.

The first two stanzas remind the reader that Freud died during World War II, when many others were dying, and strike the moral note that will dominate the poem. Stanza 6 records Freud’s death in England, where he had fled when the Nazis occupied his native Austria in 1938. The remaining stanzas shift back and forth among metaphoric descriptions of Freud’s theories, Auden’s evaluation of those theories, and his discussion of his contemporary world. The “problems” of stanza 4 anticipate the complexity of Freud’s theories and Auden’s description of them.

Freud’s psychoanalysis rests upon the belief that psychological problems are provoked by emotions repressed in the unconscious. Stanza 3 concerns the lack of control of the unconscious and its determining effects upon individual lives. In stanzas 5 and 25, the unconscious is compared to “shades” and the “night.” Patients are...

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Forms and Devices

“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is an elegy in alcaic stanzas. Auden uses Freud’s death not only to commemorate him, but also to meditate upon good and evil and to comment upon the malignity that infested the Fascist powers in World War II. This is typical of elegies, which traditionally reach beyond their immediate subjects to broader, often social, concerns. Usually this comment is in the form of protest. John Milton, for example, took the occasion of the death of Edward King to attack the corrupted clergy (as well as materialism and the aspiration for fame) in “Lycidas.”

The poem also resembles other elegies in that it offers consolation for Freud’s death: His theories, like art and literature in earlier elegies, survive him. It elaborates upon this consolation in much less detail than most elegies do, however, and it observes very few other elegiac conventions. Most elegies, for example, are really meditations upon death and upon human effort to deal with life’s transience. Auden spends very little time reflecting upon death itself. Nor does he use pastoral elegiac conventions, such as the pathetic fallacy or the procession of mourners. This nonconformity marks the difference between earlier, traditional, coherent cultures and the troubled modern world.

Auden was one of the most brilliant and innovative prosodists among modern poets. No other twentieth century poet uses as many old and new verse forms. An alcaic stanza has four...

(The entire section is 493 words.)