The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

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“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 cured through uncovering repressed emotions by probing their pasts through free association. Stanzas 8 through 11 describe this process of “looking backto recite the past” in order to heal the “unhappy present” and the well-known “Freudian slip,” by which the unconscious inadvertently betrays itself in describing the past “falter[ing]at the line where/ long ago the accusations had begun.” This illumination frees one to be less inhibited and to accept many facets of oneself, which Auden illustrates in stanzas 20-22.

Freud also identified certain instincts that govern conscious and unconscious behavior. Central to his theories—and to the tremendous controversy that they incited—is Eros, or the sex/love instinct, which (like the Greek god for which it is named) is both creative and destructive. Eros is implicit in many details of the poem, such as the jealousy portrayed in stanza 4 and the appeal of the unconscious’ “creatures” in stanza 26. It appears explicitly in the last two lines of the poem, which also invoke Aphrodite, the goddess of love and mother of Eros. Auden believed that Eros, together with the release of unconscious emotions, allows one to reconcile internal conflicts, including the tension between the reason and the emotions. He describes this in stanzas 23 through 27.

Auden celebrates these theories because he believes that they enable people to live more virtuous lives; he makes this claim in stanza 2 and elaborates upon it throughout the poem. They allow one to escape involuntary behavior and make self-conscious, moral decisions. Because Freudian theory reconciles warring contraries and makes a person whole, the synthesis that Auden describes in the last six stanzas of the poem is, to him, inherently moral.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

“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 lines: The first two have eleven syllables; the third, nine; and the fourth, ten. Auden and Marianne Moore are two of the very few poets in English successfully to employ syllabic meter rather than accentual-syllabic meter. Determined by the number of syllables per line rather than the number of syllables and number of accents, syllabic meter is common in languages such as Italian and Japanese but is rare in English.

The verse of “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is also technically unusual because of its heavy use of enjambment or run-over lines, in which the sense of a line and its punctuation do not pause at the end. The enjambment is so extreme that many stanzas are not even end-stopped. This creates a ruminating, meditative effect, which is reinforced by the fact that—contrary to normal practice—the first words of most lines are not capitalized. This enjambment means that, in spite of its contrived form, the poem lacks strict demarcations, and its ideas are fluidly connected.

The importance of connection can also be seen in many of the poem’s metaphors, the most distinctive of which are topographical. These geographic metaphors are typical of Freud, who often explained the psyche by dividing it into different territories. The most sustained use of these metaphors describes Freud’s pervasive influence by comparing him to a “climate of opinion” or a “weather” which “extends” everywhere and penetrates “even the remotest miserable duchy” (stanzas 17 through 21). This metaphor and its enjambment create an impression of expansion, dispersal, and flow.