Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In March of 1933, H.D. went to Vienna for the special purpose of beginning a series of psychoanalytic sessions with Sigmund Freud because, as she later noted, “there was something that was beating in my brain,” and she believed that Freud would help her “take stock of her modest possessions” and guide her in discovering “how best to steer her course” through her troubles.

H.D.’s sessions lasted until the middle of June. She returned for a five-week series in the autumn of 1934, and she saw Freud briefly four years later, after he moved to London to escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna. From London in 1944, during the conflict that was part of the troubles she had feared and that had brought her to Freud, H.D. described her psychoanalysis with Freud, her “whole translation of the Professor and our work together”; this short work she called “Writing on the Wall,” but it was published as Tribute to Freud.

H.D.’s memoir interweaves details from her sessions with idiosyncratic insights about psychoanalysis and personal feelings about Freud, whom she called the “Professor” or the “Master.” The eighty-five separate entries of “Writing on the Wall” vary from one paragraph to several pages. They provide as much of a profile of Freud as they do of H.D., as she reveals details about her ancestry, childhood, and imagination.

“Writing on the Wall” and “Advent,” the diary H.D. wrote while in Vienna during the first sessions, were published together in 1974 as an updated version of Tribute to Freud. Many editions since 1974 have included selected letters that Freud wrote to H.D. between 1932 and 1937. “Advent” comprises nineteen entries that H.D. made from March 2 to March 25, 1933. Freud sensed that she was writing these entries; by preparing for her daily sessions, she was inhibiting them, he thought, and so he insisted she stop writing the diary. H.D. made one final entry on June 12, after the sessions were over and she was preparing to leave Vienna.

Written a decade apart, “Advent” and...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

H. D.’s Tribute to Freud is her memoir of her psychoanalysis over a period of five or six months in 1933-1934 at Berggasse 19 in Vienna with Sigmund Freud. Since Freud’s intention was to turn H. D. back upon herself, the book is in some ways more about H. D., her life and her poetry, than about Freud himself. The work is in two parts: “Writing on the Wall” and “Advent,” which is “the continuation of ‘Writing on the Wall,’ or its prelude.”

“Writing on the Wall” consists of eighty-five numbered sections or meditations written in London in 1944 from memory—without reference to the notes that H. D. had taken, against Freud’s suggestion, during the course of her analysis. It was also the first part to be published, first in Life and Letters Today in 1945-1946 and then as a book under the title “Tribute to Freud” in 1956. It is dedicated “to Sigmund Freud, blameless physician.” “Advent” is both a gloss on “Writing on the Wall” and in a sense its raw material. It was written when H. D. returned to Lausanne, Switzerland, after World War II and recovered her original notes of her analysis: It is thus both closer to the source of her experience than “Writing on the Wall” and able to comment upon it. Nine of Freud’s letters to H. D. form an appendix. Tribute to Freud also contains a foreword by Norman Holmes Pearson and an introduction by Kenneth Fields.

H. D. begins “Writing on the Wall” with an account of the approach to Freud’s...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The redoubtable Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer, called this work “surely the most delightful and precious appreciation of Freud’s personality that is ever likely to be written. . . . It will live as the most enchanting ornament of all the Freudian literature.” Many psychoanalysts have indeed turned to “Writing on the Wall,” hoping to learn something about Freud’s methodology from it. Norman Holland writes: “I know of no account by an analysand that tells more about Freud, his techniques, or the analytic experience as it seems from within.”

Clearly, Tribute to Freud is first and foremost the account of an analysis with Freud, and its primary impact is therefore in the realm of psychoanalytic studies. Yet H. D.’s life and work have, as Appignanesi and Forrester note, “served as something of an exemplum in feminist literary history.” Her struggle to find a voice true to her erotic and creative life as a woman—whether that struggle involved wrestling with Erza Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Freud, or (as always) with herself—lies at the heart of that life. It is that which has made her life paradigmatic for so many later readers.

Paradoxically, because that true voice comes from the mothers—that is, from the realm of intuition, dream, and myth—H. D. is perhaps more likely to find a sensitive reading among the goddess-feminists, who are Jungian in sympathy, than among their Freudian counterparts. It is this more sympathetic reading of H. D. herself in Tribute to Freud that finally permits her to emerge from the shadow of Erza Pound and to be seen by writers such as Margaret Dickie as so much more than an early Imagist. She was an important figure in the transition to modernism and, more than that, a major poet of feminine erotic and mystical sensibility.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Appignanesi, Lisa, and John Forrester. Freud’s Women. New York: Basic Books, 1992. A major work dealing with Freud’s opinions on and relationships with women, ranging from Dora to Anna Freud and from Sabina Spielrein to Lou Andreas-Salomé. The section devoted to H. D. portrays their relationship as among the warmest and most sympathetic of his life. With notes and an index.

Chisholm, Dianne. H. D.’s Freudian Poetics: Psychoanalysis in Translation. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. An extended study of H. D.’s later poetry in the light of her reading of and analysis with Freud. Some knowledge of standard Freudian terminology (such as “screen memory”) helps. Offers extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Dickie, Margaret. “Women Poets and the Emergence of Modernism.” In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. A sensitive essay offering an extended treatment of H. D., Marianne Moore, and Gertrude Stein. Dickie views them as figures who were rendered marginal by the assumptions of their male colleagues in literary modernism. They had to wait almost a century for the recognition that they deserved and the readers who would cherish them, because they were “at least that far ahead of their times.”

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. The definitive biography of Freud, in which for the first time his theories and writings are fully integrated into his life story. H. D. is given only slight mention, but this work is the simplest and most complete introduction to both the life and the work of Freud and thus provides an invaluable tool in understanding H. D.’s very personal and idiosyncratic sense of the man. Notes, a bibliographical essay, and an index are included.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. London: Collins, 1985. An excellent biography of H. D., tracing the many strands that, woven together, constitute the complex life of a woman whose work was always autobiographical, always rooted in the concrete event as it flowered in symbolic and mythic thought. With a bibliography and an index.

Robinson, Janice. H. D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. A biography of H. D. which puts slightly greater emphasis on the psychoanalytic aspect of her life than Barbara Guest’s work (above). Contains notes, a bibliography, and an index.