In 1933, modernist poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), then 46 and suffering from a severe writer’s block, traveled to Vienna to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud. The “Professor,” as he was often called, was 77; “the work,” as she referred to it in letters to loved ones, took place over several months in the spring of 1933 and again in the fall of 1934. The multilayered relationship that evolved between analysand and analyst incorporated their common passion for classical art and culture, their fears in the face of coming war, and their personal fondness for each other, manifested in friendly gossip, shared family news, and the exchange of affectionate gifts. In her letters, journals, and writings from the period, H. D. threaded these elements into her private analytic narrative of memory, dream, and imagination.
H. D.’s poetic memoir of the experience, Tribute to Freud, provides a window into her treatment and a view of her relationship with the founder of psychoanalysis. In the H. D. Papers and related collections at the Beinecke Library, we can see still more fully the complex dramas taking place in the consulting room and beyond. An uncommonly rich record of the peculiar intimacy of analysis, the collections document, too, something of the role psychoanalytic theory and treatment played in H. D.’s creative process and in her writing.
Among the most important writers of the modernist period, Hilda Doolittle left her native Pennsylvania in 1911 and traveled to London, where she joined the circle of writers around her friend and one-time fiancé, poet Ezra Pound. The following year Pound “created” the poet “H. D.” when, without her knowledge, he signed her poems “H. D., Imagiste,” and sent them to Poetry magazine. There is reason to believe that H. D. was first introduced to Freud’s work around that time; her interest in psychoanalysis was later matched and encouraged by Bryher, her life-long companion and partner. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman, Bryher was a novelist and heiress to one of the largest fortunes in Europe. After she was introduced to psychoanalysis by Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in the field of the psychology of sexuality, Bryher pursued treatment with Freud’s student, Hanns Sachs; she became convinced of the healing power of analysis and supported the development of the profession, funding publications and training in the field.
Both H. D. and Bryher were curious about ways analytic ideas might be understood outside of therapeutic treatment. As the principals of Pool Films along with writer and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson, they explored their abiding interest in psychoanalysis and the possibilities it might represent for experimental artistic expression in film as well as literature. A unique creative collaboration, the trio also formed an unconventional family characterized by a private language of nicknames, associations, and in-jokes; their correspondence reveals intricate relationships between love, family, creativity, imagination, and their deep and shared interest in understanding the workings of their own and others’ minds.
“We travel far in thought, in imagination or in the realm of memory,” H. D. wrote in Tribute to Freud; “… here and there a memory or a fragment of a dream-picture is actual, is real, is like a work of art or is a work of art.” The profound effect of her analysis is evident in H. D.’s work, her own realm of memory and imagination, in both her layered writings about her relationship with Freud and in the ambitious body of poetry, novels, essays, and memoir written in the decades following the writer’s block that occasioned her treatment.
—Nancy Kuhl, Curator of Poetry-Yale Collection of American Literature
Image: H. D., Notebook, 1956–7. From the H. D. Papers. In this journal, H. D. remembers her analysis with Freud nearly twenty-five years earlier. She recalls the pleasure Freud took in their exchange and in his analytic work in general: “… the Professor said, ‘there is always something new to find out.’ I felt that he was speaking for himself (an informal moment as I was about to leave). It was almost as if something I had said was new, that he even felt I was a new experience. He must have thought the same of everyone, but I felt his personal delight, I was new. Everyone else was new, every dream and dream association was new. After the years and years of patient, plodding research, it was all new.”