Tribute to Freud. : The Poet and the Critics
A discussion of the interplay between criticism
and the text of H.D.’s Tribute to Freud
(c) Maurice G. London

As a text makes its journey from author’s thought to reader’s conception, it is obvious that there is much that stands in the way of an accurate translation occurring across the space and time which separate these two points from one another. When you examine the history of criticism of the memoir Tribute to Freud by H.D., you see the struggle to find meaning in a text written by a female poet, which, according to itself, has no deliberate structure and implicitly posits the psychoanalytic method of free association as its style. Therefore, there are at least two critical methods which seem to scream for application to this text: psychoanalytic criticism and feminist criticism.

Before choosing between an adherence to the theories of psychoanalysis or the adoption of a feminist perspective in order to interpret this relatively unique text however, one might wish to consider whether the voice of the writer herself or a theoretical method is more apt to supply what comes closest to the true ‘meaning’ of H.D.’s utterance. This would lead one to ask at least two other questions: (1) how can one ever know what the author intended, as there are both conscious and subconscious forces influencing a writer? (2) what is a valid interpretation of a text? I cannot say that I have the answers to these two questions, but I do place them in relation to Tribute to Freud in order to come up with a position which I feel is worth consideration.

Before stating that position, let me say that in preparing this essay, I asked myself another question: what is the beginning graduate student likely to know about these two critical approaches? I asked this question in order to help me present my position in a coherent form. In my essay I make the claim that the text of Tribute to Freud, like many other texts, has been blurred by the critical reaction in the English profession, and to recover Tribute to Freud and in order to prevent other writings from being (mis-) understood through theory rather than considered with the proverbial open mind it is a necessity that the English profession reevaluate the fundamentals of literary criticism

In the journey of Tribute to Freud, there are two approaches which influenced greatly the critical consideration of the text. Psychoanalytic criticism and feminist criticism, two critical approaches which are probably among the four or five any undergraduate English major will have come across in some form at some point before they graduate, as already stated, both seem to be applicable to the text of Tribute to Freud. However, only those who have studied and worked in these critical arenas in an advanced setting could possibly understand all of the vocabulary, let alone the intricacies of the theories. I will touch on this subject shortly.

Norman Holland and Joseph Riddel were among the first to write influential articles on Tribute to Freud, and so they had no other critics to refute in their first essays on the memoir. Their positions thus shaped the course of later interpretation, and the acceptance of the text in the profession as well. Regarding the memoir, Riddel in his 1969 essay "H.D. and the Poetics of Spiritualism" says:

"H.D.’s myth is as elementary as the fortunate fall. The identity of the creative self as woman is threatened not only by the incompleteness of the female but by the insubstantiality of subjectivity which characterizes the feminine ("Poetics," 449) In his 1969 essay "H.D. and the Blameless Physician" Norman Holland writes: "Psychoanalysis would…suggest that, in a woman, the wish to make her own body or another’s into hard, exact, and real parts derives from a wish to replace something that was lost - penis, mother, father, love - something" (Holland, 476) And later he says:
 "I feel sadness for a woman who had to become a royal and a mythic sign to make up for all those missing things" (Holland, 501)
For now, I will say only that it is apparent in these quotes that Holland and Riddel operate with assumptions that would seem to be firmly grounded in the basics of psychoanalysis.

Whereas psychoanalytic critics think the place of Freud in the text and his apparent influence on H.D. lend this text to a psychoanalytic interpretation, feminist critics such as Susan Stanford Friedman feel that H.D.’s femininity and apparent subversion of Freud lend her to a feminist interpretation. In 1975 Friedman wrote "Who Buried H.D.: A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in the ‘Literary Tradition’" in which she takes on the essays of Holland and Riddel. The lengths to which Friedman goes to refute these gentlemen is evidence of the influence their articles have had. Simply put, if they were nobody important and had little of interest or significance to say, then she would not have responded.

Holland and Riddel, and Friedman as well have vested interests in advancing the works of those who helped formulate their own method of thought. In the case of Holland and Riddel, they take the theories of Freud and psychoanalytic criticism for granted and do not concern themselves with the validity of their assumption they apply their concepts to Tribute to Freud. For Friedman, the silencing of female voices by subtle and overt patriarchal influences must be combated, and she does so on behalf of H.D. in many of her essays. Although there are many critics and many essays, I cite these critics and a few specific essays they have written as having had the most profound impact on the consideration of Tribute to Freud by later students and critics.

Although the aspects of psychoanalytic criticism are numerous, here is a basic summary that most beginning graduate students could be expected to be familiar with:

"Literature and the other arts…consist primarily of the imagined, or fantasized, fulfillment of desires which are either denied by reality or are prohibited by the standards of morality and propriety that have been established by society…The disguised fantasies that are evident to consciousness constitute the ‘manifest’ content of a dream or work of literature; the unconscious wishes and their objects which are expressed in this distorted form are the ‘latent’ content…The chief enterprise of psychoanalytic criticism…is to reveal the true content, and also to explain the effect on the reader, of a literary work by translating its manifest elements back into their latent, unconscious determinants (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 228-229)
Riddel and Holland, take psychoanalytic criticism as the tool with which Tribute to Freud is to be analyzed. Both of their 1969 articles take for granted the assumptions of psychoanalysis (even though the entire system of psychoanalysis itself is based on assumptions) and therefore are unable to reconcile all of what H.D. herself says in the text, much of which directly contradicts what they state. For instance, H.D. often states that Freud "was not always right" (Tribute, 18, 98), that they "never argued but there was an argument implicit in our very bones" (Tribute, 13), and her "intuition challenges the Professor" (Tribute, 99), but these two critics are unable to address this in their essays. For Holland, "one of Freud’s great achievements in the analysis was to get his patient to accept herself as wingless" (Holland, 497). Likewise Riddel says regarding the symbol of the wingless Nike: "from all indications of the text, both she and Freud recognized as a projection of her anxiety over the incompleteness of woman, the phallus-less self" ("Poetics," 448). In contrast, H.D. interprets the wingless Nike as "Nike A-pteros, the Wingless Victory, for Victory could never, would never fly away from Athens" (Tribute, 69), thus pointing out her positive interpretation of this figure. Where in the text the examples of final acceptance exists that they seem to have found is never made clear by the critics, and in suggesting that H.D has merely come to Freud to learn, to accept all that he says, and to be healed ignores a large portion of the text where she asserts her own will and way of thinking because "things had happened in my life, pictures, ‘real dreams,’ actual psychic or occult experiences that were superficially, at least, outside the province of established psychoanalysis" (Tribute, 39). In a 1984 essay entitled "H.D.’s Scene of Writing - Poetry as (and) Analysis" Riddel says that these pictures "which H.D. fancied she saw as a dream writing in a room" ("Scene," 158, italics mine) were not real. Why do Holland and Riddel seem to ignore or question the words of H.D. which is all that they have to analyze? If we are to apply a theory which forces us to relinquish certain parts of the text and to implicitly deny the validity of others, then we are placing the integrity of our critical approach above that of the text.

I believe that if we are to apply our own field of knowledge to a text (as we must do as critics), then we should at least hold the primary assumption that everything the writer tells us is valid. In the case of Tribute to Freud, if we don’t operate on the assumption that H.D.’s statement regarding a real-life vision is true within the framework of the text, then we are in essence saying that we cannot rely on her words to give us a glimpse of the original form of her thoughts. If that is the case, then how can you analyze the text in a psychoanalytic framework?

You may say, ‘ah, but of course there are meanings that are to be expressed both through the conscious mind and the subconscious.’ This is, most likely, true, but in the absence of extraordinary powers of perception how can anyone hope to see and tell the difference between conscious and subconscious intentions behind a piece of art? Given the fact that H.D. was well aware of the theories and assumptions of psychoanalysis, if she chose to, H.D. could have written her text in a way that is the complete opposite of what she intends. How would you know what to believe in this case? Obviously the psychoanalytic critics would be stuck trying to open a door that doesn’t unlock with their lock-picks in order to enter a room that doesn’t really exist. The writer is capable of doing things in the name of her art and her need for catharsis which others cannot account for in the name of their critical theories, and for one to operate from one’s own preconceptions only limits the ability to understand and appreciate the whole.

With the feminist influenced critics, I find more strengths than weakness in their consideration of Tribute to Freud, but I interpret this as stemming from the fact that they had the models of Riddel and Holland to consider and respond to. There are however, some interesting oversights revealed when you examine what they have chosen to focus on in the text.

Here are some standard characteristics which may be considered essential to a beginning graduate student’s accurate conception of feminist criticism

    1. Our civilization is pervasively patriarchal
    2. While one’s sex is determined by anatomy, the concepts of ‘gender are largely, if not entirely, cultural constructs, effected by the omnipresent patriarchal biases of our civilization.
    3. This patriarchal ideology pervades those writings which, in our culture, have been considered great literature, and which until recently have been written almost entirely by men for men
    4. a major interest of feminist critics in English-speaking countries has been to reconstitute all our dealings with literature so as to do justice to female points of view, concerns, and values.
Susan Stanford Friedman argues for the importance of including the work of H.D. in discussions and treatments of ‘great literature.’ For Friedman the answer to why H.D. has been largely ignored is that "she was a woman, she wrote about women, and all the intellectual heroes of her epic poetry and novels were women" ("Buried," 803). Friedman is apparently angered by the criticism that has predominantly written about H.D. from a male perspective, particularly the work of scholars such as Norman N. Holland and Joseph N. Riddel:
  "Refusing to take seriously H.D.’s own comments about the impact of Freud on her artistic identity, Riddel and Holland dissect her with all the Freudian terminology they can muster… For these critics, a central issue of H.D.’s psychoanalysis is ‘penis envy’…H.D. supposedly self-evident longing for a penis (don’t all women want one?) becomes the focus for their discussion of her artistic identity and poetry ("Buried," 804)
In contrast to the tendency of the psychoanalytic critics such as Riddel and Holland to make their assumptions appear to be given facts, Friedman has her critical approach plainly stamped on her essay. Her approach may more accurately be called an agenda, and this may be to unravel the coils of the patriarchy which she perceives to be encircling the canon of literature and preventing H.D.’s entry therein. As a direct response to the essays of Holland and Riddel, this essay uses subjective perspectives although she herself claims "this type of political and cultural subjectivity that so pervades Holland’s and Riddel’s work is symptomatic of the prejudiced inadequacies of much literary criticism, non-psychoanalytic as well as that heavily influenced by Freud" ("Buried," 807). She is writing from the subjective, (albeit in my opinion accurate) perspective, that H.D. is being "buried" by an outside force. She even says at one point that "From my single, necessarily subjective perspective, there is no doubt that her poetry is magnificent" ("Buried," 803). Now, this would seem to be an odd way to argue against subjectivity in criticism, as if it’s okay for her to do so because her views are not influenced by the insidious patriarchy.

Friedman in this article says much in line with what I myself argue ("If there is to be any growth in the understanding of literature by women, or by any other group not accepted within the recognized literary tradition, or even by the established artists, these hidden biases and the necessarily subjective nature of all criticism (as all art) must be confronted" ("Buried," 808). So, it would seem that Friedman is confronting the same problem as I. However, in looking at later essays of hers, she does not seem willing to move beyond her agenda of emphasizing H.D.’s strength as a poet and as a women in order to concede that there was a certain amount of agreement between Freud and H.D., that he had given her something which she did not have before coming to him. In "Woman is Perfect: H.D.’s Debate with Freud" written with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, it is advanced that H.D.’s poem "The Master" reveals the same ideas displayed in Tribute to Freud, but provides more insight into H.D.’s time with Freud. Concerning Tribute to Freud, they state that the "work is a tribute precisely because it uses the methods of reflection and analysis that Freud taught her" (418). However, DuPlessis and Friedman focus on the times when there are conflicts between analyst and analysand, an "undercurrent of wordless argument" ("Debate," 418). They cite as examples, H.D.’s inability to reconcile Freud’s Jewish rejection of the immortality of the soul and her anger at the analyst’s description of the Athena without her spear. In "The Master," DuPlessis and Friedman see H.D.’s rejection of Freud’s concept of imperfection (symbolized by the spearless Athena and the wingless Nike) more explicitly than it is dealt with in Tribute to Freud. The critics also state that in Tribute to Freud H.D. only indirectly connects Freud’s religious prescriptions to her sexuality, in the poem this connection is fully explored. The words in the poem are H.D.’s final word on her indirect debate with Freud, and for DuPlessis and Friedman they reveal much more on the surface than Tribute to Freud reveals beneath it.

Again, here we have a case where the text is ignored to a certain extent. H.D. says at one point "It was the very love of humanity that caused the Professor to stand guardian at the gate" (Tribute, 103). And in characterizing Freud as Janus, the patron of doors and beginnings, she develops her belief that Freud showed her the doors even if she felt that she was the one who knew how to open them. I must agree that the tension between H.D. is there in the text, but I would also say that some of what Riddel and Holland have said regarding the notions of transference in which the analyst becomes either the mother or the father to the analysand is a valid consideration as well. Friedman and DuPlessis seem uncomfortable entering into a discussion of this aspect of the memoir, but it is there to be considered not ignored or treated offhandedly.

In "A Most Luscious Vers Libre Relationship: H.D. and Freud" and in her novel Psyche Reborn Friedman argues strongly that "H.D.’s ability to disagree with Freud was fundamental to his influence on her" ("Vers Libre," 330). Again, this may be true, but Friedman makes it plain that for her the disagreement is central and not the doors which Freud opened for her. Are either of these aspects ‘most’ important to H.D. as she presents herself in the text? No one can truly say, so to emphasize one over the other pushes one major aspect aside simply so that one’s argument can be made to seem consistent.

Elsewhere, the (apparently) feminist critic Claire Buck makes a distinction between Friedman and Holland in her book H.D. and Freud: Bisexuality and Feminine Discourse, saying "whether feminist like Friedman, or non-feminist and psychoanalytic like Norman Holland" (Bisexuality, 15) yet says that both tend to see in H.D.’s poetry expressions of "feelings and difficulties of a female self" (Bisexuality, 15). Elsewhere she says that "Norman Holland and Joseph Riddel, both psychoanalytic critics, and Friedman as a feminist critic, all look to psychoanalysis as a model of interpretation which can explain the relationship of author, or authorial desire to its symbolisation" (Bisexuality, 36). I use the example of Buck’s book mainly as evidence of Friedman’s, Riddel’s, and Holland’s effect on later H.D. criticism, and we can see in this book how she must address the text of Tribute to Freud through considering what they have said:


"Friedman explains the necessity for symbolisation in terms of social censorship, while Holland and Riddel are concerned with the symbolisation of a female lack. In both cases, however, symbolisation is treated as a transformation of an original authorial subjectivity into a disguised form, the key to which transformation can be located and used to reveal the original. For all three critics the reference to the author as a source of the poems proceeds via the appeal to a method which could be used to interpret the author, and not the author as a position of knowledge. Thus, in so far as the gender of the self who is the subject of the poems is located by means of the author’s gender, then femininity becomes identified as a problem of the authorial subject’s knowledge of herself, or rather a split in that knowledge. The subject of H.D.’s writing for these critics is not the knowing, humanist self" (Bisexuality, 36)


"The debate with the phallic definition which is thereby initiated within H.D.’s work implicates both H.D. and her critics, from Holland and Riddel to DuPlessis and Friedman, in a structure which is itself defined by the phallus…The terms of the opposition, wholeness and unity versus lack and division belong together however…each term in this structure implies its opposite so that while the two choices remain mutually incompatible, each depends on the demands of the other. The dependence of both readings on the same structure prevents either argument from successfully countering the other" (Bisexuality, 100)
  We have here an example of another critic who sees this interaction between Holland and Riddel and Friedman as a struggle between opposing arguments. This conflict is what I see as a symptom of the larger problem of literary criticism as it is manifested in the essays surrounding many pieces of art.

At this point I wish to exclaim that "H.D. did not write for or in the academic circle!" but that, of course would be outside the standard boundaries of a literary essay. Stating the root of that desire, however, is not, and this can be characterized as my perplexity over how critics often couch their arguments in the terms which only the critics who already understand their approach can understand. Considered in another way, the question may be 'what is the point if all an interpretation does is open up endless doors for reinterpretation, and obviously misinterpretation, of itself?' For instance, in discussing the text, Riddel at one point says in defense of his first article on H.D. and Tribute to Freud:

"If the essay is seriously flawed, it now seems to me that the problem issues from its reliance on a phenomenological language, particularly its stress on reconstruction of the authorial cogito" ("Scene", 152)
Here we see that Riddel himself recognizes the limitations of writing from the stance of a psychoanalytic critic, but he doesn’t relent in any way or show any change in his basic approach to the text although fifteen years have passed, new theories have come and gone, and others have considered different aspects of H.D.’s writing. The language the critics use to interpret the text is obviously not meant for the same audience that H.D. wrote for. Now, one might argue that there is a need to have a higher level of discussion of literature than those outside the profession can have, and that these critical essays are not meant for those outside of the academic environment. And I would agree that there is a need for us to discuss the issues of criticism and interpretation in their own language, and to use the examples of certain texts to help substantiate our ideas and theories. However, in the case of H.D.’s Tribute to Freud we have a text whose place is being defined more by the theories which can be applied to it than by the text itself.

One might ask "why have you not looked at the recent feminist or psychoanalytic approaches?" or "why not focus more on the current crop of critics who have treated the text of Tribute to Freud and not dealt so much with the issues behind the text?" The answers to both of these questions is quite simple. As already implied, I do not wish to concern myself with the current criticism because I am interested in what made Tribute to Freud a memoir to be examined by these later critics, not in what the later critics have said specifically. That is another topic entirely. I have, however, looked at these articles, and in each one of them there is a citation to either the Holland and Riddel articles in Contemporary Literature or the work of Friedman. This is enough to show me the influence of these three critics, and their critical approaches, on this writer, and this is my concern.

The approaches of many critics begins not with the text as a piece of art but as a specimen from which their theory will squeeze ‘meaning’. However, the understanding and acceptance of a piece of art should be gained joyfully through the application of a broad range of interpretive approaches which are as natural to and readily at hand mentally for the trained professional critic as the intricacies of language are to the seasoned writer.

Allow me to forward yet another question to you: as I wind down my essay: can any one critical stance give you an uncluttered view text? The answer may be an obvious ‘no,’ but let me suggest that the critics who operate with a single theory or agenda behind them probably feel that they can apply their mind to any piece of literature, and given enough time can say something interesting and valuable in response. Therefore to them their view, whether it is based on deconstruction, structuralism, or any other approach, is the correct way to look at a text. But does the text itself benefit from this type of mind-set? No.

What counts as ‘meaning’ of something like a text may be found in a consistency of signifiers (not to use the term in any other way than may be found in a standard dictionary, mind you). Each signifier may represent some part of this whole that we see as a text in a way different from any other signifier in the text, but may share characteristics with many others, Therefore to me it would seem to make sense to have an understanding of many theories in order to facilitate the discovery of consistencies in the text which may indicate deeper implications. No solitary theory or stance can possibly account for the variety of human existence, the way we interpret our existence, and the way we relate our perceptions to others.

Therefore when asking the question ‘is Tribute to Freud best understood by looking at it from the perspective of Holland and Riddel or that of Friedman and DuPlessis? The answer, for the sake of the poor text, is neither. None of the essays written to date and none that will ever be written can give us the answer to what Tribute ‘means’ because no one can ask H.D., no one can read her mind, no one can transcend their human limitations and give ‘the answer’ to what she intended. Therefore, in the absence of such supernatural powers of investigation it would seem to be sheer folly to rely on any one method to provide us with ‘solutions’ to the puzzle of signifiers within a text.

I believe that metaphor is within the boundaries of the essay form, so perhaps in closing I will use one to help emphasize my point. If you for some reason think that it is very important for people to unlock doors in order to help others understand and perhaps appreciate the rooms beyond, then it seems to me sheer folly to carry only one lock-pick and force this into every lock you come across. First of all you may never again find a lock similar to the one which your lock-pick was made to work on. Second of all, you are more inclined to force your lock-pick into the locks you come across knowing that this one tool is the only chance you have. At some point you may actually force a door to come open at the insistence of your straining hand, and the way may be clear for you to enter the room beyond. But in opening the door in this fashion you have destroyed the room. For that room beyond, perhaps composed of four walls, also was made with a door that could be locked (whether intentionally or offhandedly by its builder you may never know), and through the forceful application of your key you may have damaged the lock, forever clouding the creator’s original form for that room.

Any flunky burglar can tell you that it would be better, if showing others these rooms is important to you, to be a master of your craft and to carry many lock-picks, to have the knowledge and skills of pick making and to have many different picks at hand for you to use to open doors or simply to admire and discover what makes each of your tools unique. As you approach a door, you will not feel inclined to flex your muscles for you know that should the first pick not succeed in opening the door, another one might. If however, none of your collection, gently applied, grants you entry, you will still not be perturbed, for there are numerous possibilities in the mind of the astute professional. You may take several picks that seem to almost work and use them at once, or even copy characteristics from several different ones and combine them in an entirely new one that does the job nicely. Or you can take one of these picks that seems almost to fit and find out even more about it than you did before. You may discover that this pick has several different methods of application you were unaware of, and with your new knowledge you may find your way into the room beyond. As the metaphor breaks down, the point is not, I hope, lost: if the objective is to examine the room, then maintaining the form of the room is essential, and you must find some way to open the door without damaging it. And if you’re going to open up doors with your lock-picks as a livelihood, then why should it be strange to be forever learning more about your craft and never assuming that your way of doing things is ‘right’. In this way you will never be outmoded, and the rooms you open for yourself and others can be locked again, and others are still free to choose between seeing the wisdom of using your pick or trying to open it on their own. Either way, we all, as critics hope that they gain something in the process.

In the case of Tribute to Freud we have the room of a woman who wrote her impressions of a time in the thirties when she visited with the (in-?)famous Dr. Sigmund Freud. It is clear that the critics who have responded to H.D.’s impressions of Freud find something of worth therein, but they seem to want to force their methods of entry onto others in an effort to show them the worth of the room rather than allowing the enticing mystery of the room itself to beckon them to try and enter. Unfortunately, as a result of this critical history, H.D.’s room is likely being introduced to newcomers through the approaches of psychoanalysis or feminism, and this has kept it from gaining general acceptance among all scholars as a room which anyone, regardless of the influences on their inquiry into the text, can find enjoyment, or even displeasure.

Dare we hope that despite this history, Tribute to Freud will one day enter the standard diet of literature for undergraduates and graduates alike? Although one should never give up hope on a text with such obviously appealing and intriguing characteristics, I don’t see this as likely. The legacy of Tribute to Freud may forever be defined by the tension between the critics who have shaped the history of this text in English departments, and so it may never gain the general support and approval of its content that would increase its popularity as a text to be considered in colleges and universities. As in the case of this memoir, it is often the critical treatment that decides a text’s place in the academy, not the popular conception of its worth, or even the text itself. Holland, Riddel, Friedman, and all the others were only doing what they knew best, writing most eloquently in the standard essay form that we all must abide by. But as that form limits us as critics, so too do we often limit the writers of whom we speak by shouting out our own words, trying to be heard louder than the others, not aware that we are drowning out the voice of the writer herself.

  Works Cited

2) Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1988.


2) Buck, Claire. H.D. and Freud: Bisexuality and a Feminine Discourse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.


3) DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, and Susan Stanford Friedman. "’Woman is perfect’": H.D.’s Debate With Freud." Feminist Studies 7(3) (Fall 1981): 417-429.


4) Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Who Buried H.D.? A Poet, Her Critics, and Her Place in The Literary Tradition," College English 36 (March 1975): 801-814.


5) Friedman, Susan Stanford. "A Most Luscious Vers Libre Relationship: H.D. . and Freud," 319 -343. Despite exhaustive efforts on my part, I could not figure out from where I copied this article. All I have is the date 1985 at the end of it.


6) Friedman, Susan Stanford. Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.


7) H.D. Tribute to Freud. New York: New Directions Books, 1974.


8) Holland, Norman. "H.D. and the Blameless Physician," Contemporary Literature 10 (Autumn 1969): 474-506.


9) Riddel, Joseph. "H.d. and the Poetics of ‘Spiritual Realism,’" Contemporary Literature 10 (Autumn 1969): 447 - 473.


10) Riddel, Joseph. "H.D.’s Scene of Writing: Poetry as (and) Analysis," American Critics at Work 12 (1984): 143-175.