On Poetry

Freud’s sixth case history

The poet known as H.D. was briefly analyzed by Freud in the 1930s; how their work together influenced both the poet and the analyst is explored in this essay

By Lowell Rubin

For brief periods in 1933 and 1934, Sigmund Freud analyzed the American poet H.D. in Vienna. At the time of the analysis Freud was 77 and H.D. was 47. She was an established poet, living in London, part of a new movement in poetry dating from 1912, defined by her friend and first love, Ezra Pound, as “Imagism.”

A brief example of one of Pound’s famous “imagist” poems is the haikulike “In the Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough

H.D. wrote similarly in the first stanza of her poem “Sea Rose” from 1916 but with significant differences to the psychoanalyst’s eye and ear. This is not just an objective description of a rose in accord with Pound’s dictate.

Rose, harsh rose,
Married with the stint of petals
Meager flower, thin
Sparse leaf
(H.D., 1986, p.5)

H.D.’s evolution as a poet and the nature and fate of her poetry is beyond the scope of this brief essay. My focus here is her analysis with Freud. H.D. went to Freud with the encouragement of her “companion,” Annie Winifred Ellerman (who changed her name to Bryher), who also paid for the analysis.

H.D. was anxious, depressed, and in a fallow period of her writing. Her first experience of analysis with Freud ended after only 3 months, as a result of a bomb planted by Nazi sympathizers in front of her trolley. The bomb was removed from the tracks before it exploded but H.D. was too frightened to stay in Vienna.

The Nazi threat hung over the analysis from the beginning. A Nazi “Death Head” symbol was chalked on the sidewalk in front of Freud’s office/apartment. H.D. worried about the possible threat to Freud and his family. There was even a point in the analysis where Freud mentioned his worry about his grandchildren and broke off crying, by H.D.’s account. Although she had her own serious war fears (Friedman, 2002, p. 343), she held back from telling Freud more about her concern for his welfare (Friedman, 2002, p.292).

When Freud’s daughter, Anna, underwent a long afternoon and evening of interrogation 4 years later, in 1938, Freud reluctantly decided to leave Vienna, in haste, for London. Before he left with his immediate family, Freud destroyed many of his papers. It is possible that the notes that we assume Freud kept about H.D. were destroyed then. He never wrote up the case, as he had done with five others, such as Anna O. and Dora. As he left his beloved Vienna, with his sisters and other family members staying behind, Freud signed the note that the Nazis required of him to assure the world he was treated properly. With bitter irony Freud wrote, “Ich kann de Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfelen” (I can highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone) (Shapiro, 2000, p.20).

  1. The poet H.D., who Freud analyzed briefly, was unique in many respects and is of special interest to us now. In contrast to other women Freud wrote about, she was a mature woman who had been married, who had a child (a daughter who at the time of the analysis was 14), and was a known writer with an international reputation. She led a bisexual life, and lived on and off with a lesbian “companion” (who took on most of the responsibilities of child care) in a complicated ménage à trois with H.D.’s lover, Kenneth McPherson (an early filmmaker). We might say that although H.D. was born in the 19th century (1886) and lived through some of the worst of the 20th century (the First and Second World Wars, in London), our own 21st century is only just catching up to her in terms of her lifestyle

    H.D. turned out to be an extraordinary match for Freud. She was versed in the classics, particularly Greek. When she first came to London she spent her days in the British Museum translating fragments of Sappho, which she read to Pound at tea time. Freud read part of her translation of Euripides’ Ion, before he saw her. It had been provided by Bryher’s analyst, Hans Sachs, the source of the referral to Freud.

    Moreover, H.D. came from a German-speaking, Christian Moravian community in Pennsylvania. She was descended from musicians, artists, and scholars on her mother’s side, steeped in that tradition. We remember that Freud came originally from a town in Moravia, before his family settled in Vienna.

    It is also noteworthy that Freud, not long before he took H.D. on as a patient, had written about female development and bisexuality. It was at that late time in his life and career that he began to understand the importance of the preoedipal period, particularly, he thought, for the development of women.

    As it turns out, Freud’s “Sixth Case History,” as I am calling it, exists in the various writings of his patient. Much of this is explored and put together in major works by the brilliant literary scholar Susan Stanford Friedman (1987, 2002, 2008).

    H.D. herself wrote about her analysis in many forms and at many different times. For the first 5 weeks of her treatment she wrote about her sessions daily in a notebook. Freud talked to her about “leaks” in the analysis when he understood that she was making notes. She said he “admonished her” to stop, as he felt it would interfere with the analysis and was a resistance (Friedman, 2002, p.549).

    H.D. experienced a powerful father transference to Freud, with all the ambivalence she felt toward her own professor father. This was analyzed more in her second period of analysis in 1934. The first few months of analysis focused more on her maternal transference and longings. At this time Freud famously said, according to H.D., that he did not feel comfortable being “the mother” in the transference. According to H.D., he said, “And I must tell you (you were frank with me. I will be frank with you). I do not like to be the mother in the transference—it always surprises me and shocks me a little, I feel so masculine” (Friedman, 2002, p. 52). However, he seemed to make his way deftly.

    With respect to her complicated transferences, H.D. showed her continued “resistance,” and/or independence, by no longer writing in her notebook, but instead writing almost daily to her companion Bryher, who was in Switzerland. These letters, housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale, are a fascinating, detailed history of another view of her analysis. Freidman has mined them with scholarly authority as well as psychoanalytic sophistication.

  2. Thus there were the notebooks she had written in at the time of her analysis (which H.D. was able to find after the Second World War). They were the basis for one of H.D.’s versions of the analysis, her book Tribute to Freud. Then there are the letters, just alluded to, that H.D. wrote to her companion, Bryher, while the analysis was going on. Yet another version of the analysis is described in H.D.’s Advent, and a later memoir, The Gift, reviews her childhood and crucial developmental events, as H.D. reconstructed them herself, with the help of her analysis.

    In a poem that H.D. never published in Freud’s lifetime, “The Master,” there is an homage to Freud, as well as a contrary view of women’s power and beauty. The whole poem of 11 pages is quite extraordinary in many ways. A few relevant bits of it follow:

    I was angry with the old man
    With his talk of the man-strength,

    I could not accept from wisdom
    What love taught,
    Woman is perfect

    you are near beauty the sun,
    you are that Lord become woman

    And it was he himself, he who set me free
    to prophesy…
    (H.D., 1986, p. 451)

    Of course, the entire corpus of H.D.’s writings, both before and after her analysis, as well as the numerous biographies, are full of riches that amplify H.D.’s psychological states. Together, all these different works comprise what I am calling Freud’s “Sixth Case History.” It is a wide-ranging story of a very contemporary woman who fulfilled her mission, as she saw it, and inspired by Freud, to show how analysis could be helpful to an artist and to a woman with a complex sexuality.
    At the end of the analysis Freud gave her a bough of orange leaves with a cluster of fruit (Friedman, 2002, p. 535), saying casually, “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zirtronen Bluhn,” a line from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1881). The translation of the whole first stanza is fascinating:

    Knowest thou where the lemon blossom grows,
    In foliage dark, the orange golden glows. A gentle breeze blows from the azure sky, Still stands the Myrtle and the Laurel high.
    Dos’t know it well.
    ‘Tis there, ‘Tis there
    Would I with thee, oh my beloved, go.

    Clearly, H.D. felt that she was anointed to be the prophetess she dreamed of being. Despite continued psychological difficulties that plagued her on and off until her death in 1961 (Freud got glimpses of her vulnerability to more severe regression in some of the experiences she recounted), she nevertheless overcame her writing block and went on to become a major feminist voice through her poems, novels, essays, and reviews.

  3. H.D.’s daughter, Perdita, named after the benighted child in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, ultimately returned to the US, married someone in publishing, had her own children, and became her mother’s literary executor. She lived to oversee an industry of writings by other poets, critics, and biographers about her mother and her work.

    Bryher’s analyst, Hans Sachs, immigrated to Boston, where he became the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute’s first training analyst, leaving behind, I believe, a bequest from Bryher, H.D.’s “companion,” which was one of the seeds of the library there.

    What I hope I have conveyed in this brief essay is that for psychoanalysts, H.D.’s oeuvre and the critical writing about her provides extremely rich case material. Freud is seen in her analysis as highly respectful of a woman and an artist. As she writes in her poem “The Master,” he said, “We won’t argue about that you are a poet.”

    Was this a platonic love affair of Freud’s later life? H.D. wrote him a note accompanied by his favorite flowers, gardenias, on his arrival as an exile in London in 1938, proclaiming “the return of the Gods.” Freud knew immediately from whom it came.

    In the analysis, as she portrays him, Freud is very natural, enthusiastic, excited, or sad. He could be chatty and familiar but at the same time demanding and serious in terms of the analytic work. He made many mistakes, as we would see it. But as we learn more about the dreams that were analyzed and the interpretations that he made, we have to be in awe of the amount of work that was accomplished in little more than five months, in two periods of analysis that were separated by almost a year.

    It has to be added that Freud had in H.D. an extraordinarily well prepared and dedicated patient who went to Vienna exclusively, on her own, to live in a hotel and devote herself to the analysis. The fruits of that encounter are still being harvested.


Friedman, S. S. (1987). Psyche reborn: The emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Friedman, S. S. (2002). Analyzing Freud: The letters of H.D., Bryher, and their circle. New York, NY: New Directions Books.

Friedman, S. S. (2008). Penelope’s web: H.D.’s fiction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Goethe, J. W. (1881). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship and travels. Carlyle (trans). NY: American Book Exchange.

H.D. (1956). Tribute to Freud. New York, NY: New Direction Books.

H.D. (1986). Collected Poems 1912–1944. New York, NY: New Direction Books.

Shapiro, M. (2000). The Jewish 100. New York, NY: Citadel Press.