In Memory of Sigmund Freud

by Sam Alexander

W.H. Auden's “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939) reflects on the similarities between psychoanalysis and the work of the poet and attempts to adapt the traditional elegy to a world in which violent and impersonal death on a massive scale had become an inescapable reality. Freud died, in fact, in the same month in which Hitler invaded Poland, and the poem that Auden wrote in response to this atrocity already suggests the psychoanalytic inheritance of a poet who differed from his modernist forebears in his readiness to use Freud’s ideas without irony. In the famous final stanza of "September 1, 1939," the poet claims that we are all composed “Of Eros and of dust.”[1]

W.H. Auden in 1939. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
W.H. Auden in 1939. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,

The Freud elegy begins, “When there are so many we shall have to mourn…,” and the first four stanzas confront the difficulty of writing an elegy in an age of mass death.[2] As he does in his elegy to William Butler Yeats (“You were silly like us”), Auden makes the very commonness of Freud’s life and death into a reason to praise him. Like those others who “were doing us some good,” Freud’s desire was only to do more work, but this was not to be: “his wish was denied him,” as Auden puts it, using wordplay to pit Freud’s earliest explanation of dreams as wish-fulfillments against the reality of death that he confronted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Like his fellow doers of good, Freud “closed his eyes / upon that last picture, common to us all, / of problems like relatives gathered” (13-15). Like the word "wish" in the preceding lines, this analogy has deeper resonance given the subject of the elegy. Most of the problems that Freud tried to solve involved relatives and their role in the psychic lives of his patients: the vehicle here hints at the tenor.

In these lines as elsewhere in the poem, a deliberately simple style—the conversational syllabic meter inspired by the experiments of Marianne Moore[3] —belies nuances that demand interpretation, much as the manifest content of a dream, for Freud, both hints at and disguises its latent meaning. And Auden may well have intended this comparison or something like it. Reading carefully through The Interpretation of Dreams, as Auden clearly has, one cannot help being struck with Freud’s admiration for the poetic artifice of the dream-work: its ability to condense meaning, to pun, to yoke ideas with the finesse of a metaphysical poet. As Auden points out near the end of the Freud elegy, the aim of analysis is to transfer this poetic power, which the superego (stemming from childhood, the “smaller” part of life) uses only for evasive purposes of disguise and self-punishment, to the “larger” adult ego:

… He would unite
the unequal moieties…
would restore to the larger the wit and will
the smaller possesses but can only use
for arid disputes, would give back to
the son the mother’s richness and feeling… (94-97)
The analogy between poetry and psychoanalysis as liberators of “wit” is the central theme of the poem, and it emerges most explicitly when Auden compares the analytical method of telling “the unhappy Present to recite the Past” to a “poetry lesson” (34-35). Also telling in this regard are the metaphors Auden uses to describe the remnants of the past that form the content of this recitation—the “problems” which we have already seen compared to relatives, and which are subsequently called “the fauna of the night," and then “shades that … waited to enter / the bright circle of his recognition” (18, 19-20). The image of fauna entering a "circle of recognition" recalls Yeats’s circus animals. More explicitly, in calling these animals "shades," Auden represents the heroic recovery of the past with a motif dear to the modernists, especially Ezra Pound: the nekyia, or descent to the underworld, that Pound links in the first Canto to his own descent into literary tradition. There is a specific echo of Canto I (in which the revived Tiresias’s first words are “Stand from the fosse”)[4] in a stanza that ostensibly links Freud to Dante:
… he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
to the stinking fosse where the injured
lead the ugly life of the rejected …
This conception of the poet’s task as one of recovering the past through a descent to a nocturnal underworld also echoes the end of Auden’s Yeats elegy, in which he commands (in a gentle parody of “Under Ben Bulben”), “Follow, poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night"-- and again (more faintly) Yeats's own "Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in which the move from abstract forms to real suffering is also represented as a descent: “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” And the comparison of repressed wishes to the shades of the underworld is particularly appropriate in an elegy on Freud, who used the very same analogy in The Interpretation of Dreams,  writing that repressed wishes "are not dead in our sense of the word but only like the shades in the Odyssey, which awoke to some sort of life as soon as they had tasted blood."[5]

Sigmund Freud and dog in his study, by Hilda Doolittle. Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Bibliographic Record Number: 39002035067041.
Sigmund Freud and dog in his study, by Hilda Doolittle. Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Bibliographic Record Number: 39002035067041.

Auden views Freud both as a liberator of unconscious memories and as politically liberating, but he makes clear that the social work of psychoanalysis, like poetry, must proceed at the level of the individual. It is interesting that like D.H. Lawrence, who also engaged directly with Freud, Auden was deeply troubled by the loss of individual identity and the ascendancy of large-scale epistemologies like statistics (as a poem like “The Unknown Citizen” makes clear). But unlike Lawrence, who faulted psychoanalysis for obscuring the irreducible difference of each individual in a general theory of psychic development (see Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious), Auden saw Freud as standing with the poets against  such homogenizing forms of knowledge. If Freud had succeeded, he writes, “the Generalised Life / would become impossible” (49-50). The social power of psychoanalysis for Auden seems paradoxically to lie in its self-restriction to the world of the individual (this is a particular version of Freud, a point to which I will return below). He makes this point in a 1934 essay entitled “Psychology and Art Today”: 

The task of psychology, or art for that matter, is not to tell people how to behave, but by drawing their attention to what the impersonal unconscious is trying to tell them, and by increasing their knowledge of good and evil, to render them better able to choose, to become increasingly morally responsible for their destiny. For this reason psychology is opposed to all generalizations. You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and particular needs may draw his own conclusions.[6]
The case can certainly be made that Freud’s oeuvre should be read as a series of parables, and Auden seems to point to one, the game of fort-da described in the second chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, when he refers in the Freud elegy to “games we had thought we must drop as we grew up, / little noises we dared not laugh at…” (85-86). In this poem and in the essay written three years earlier, Auden advances a theory of Freud’s work as an instructive mythology. He sets aside any notion of a general psychology that could explain human history, or of a normative developmental narrative that should be prescribed for the child to achieve a “correct” sexual organization.

There is, of course, a good deal of "generalization" in Freud, and there is more than a little prescriptivism. Auden, who  had complained in a 1929 journal entry that “[t]he trouble with Freud is that he accepts conventional morality as if it were the only one,"[7] was clearly aware of this side of Freud's work; however, part of what makes Auden's mode of elegy distinctive is the honesty with which he acknowledges and forgives the faults of his subject. Thus he addresses Yeats with what might seem in isolation to be a back-handed compliment: “…your gift survived it all: / The parish of rich women, physical decay, / Yourself."[8] The lines in which Auden recognizes and excuses Freud’s faults have become famous in their own right:

If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
clung to his utterance and features,
it was a protective coloration
for one who’d lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives … (61-69).
These lines reflect not only Auden’s generosity, but also the tempered and realistic attitude about the political potential of intellectual discourse that he would later say had been missing in “September 1, 1939” (which he called “incurably dishonest”).[9] Freud’s work—like poetry in the Yeats elegy—both does and does not “make things happen.” It can create a"climate" conducive to change, but not change itself, and despite this indirect social impact, it remains rigorously individual in its orientation. One has the sense that the "absurd" Freud for Auden is the Freud of cultural psychology, the Freud of the highly speculative works culminating in Moses and Monotheism.

The tension between the individual and the social marks the final stanza of the poem, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved;
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite. (110-114)
One rational voice is dumb: here we are in the world of the individual, the single reasonable man who was able to liberate the repressed "impulses" of each patient through persistent recitation and analysis of the past. In allowing Eros a role in mourning Freud, however, I think Auden nods to Freud's importance for understanding human civilization as a whole. Eros is responsible for the most basic kind of community, Freud tells us in Civilization and Its Discontents, because it instigates the formation of families. Later, however, civilization works to censor the sexual expression of Eros in order to submit it to the process of sublimation by which it comes to be used for higher ends (the building of cities): “[L]ove comes into opposition to the interests of civilization [and] civilization threatens love with substantial restrictions."[10]

While Freud distinguishes two historically separated relationships between civilization and love-- alliance and antagonism-- Auden splits love itself in two. On the one hand, there is Eros, the sublimated love responsible for the great cultural achievements (the building of cities). While the intuitive antithesis to Eros would be Thanatos, the death instinct that Freud claims startin in 1920 is the second great drive, Auden uses the end of his poem to draw a different distinction. To Eros he opposes what I take to be its antecedent: "anarchic Aphrodite," the polymorphously perverse libido that the earlier Freud of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1907) had treated as basic rather than aberrant (had treated, in fact, as the source of all mature love) in a destabilization of normative sexuality that would have appealed to Auden. These final lines, then, do more than make a useful distinction in terminology. They extract from Freud's work a kind of psychology that can accommodate both human civilization—significantly, one based on Eros rather than on aggression, a product of the death drive—and the anarchic complexity of individual sexuality.

  1. This theory of two primary instincts, love and death, which both struggle with and reinforce one another, is the most important of Freud’s theories for Auden. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud had concluded that because it seeks quiescence, the dissipation of libidinal tension, the pleasure principle that dominates in sexual life ultimately serves the death drive. The similarity and proximity of love and death, one of the great topoi of Western literature, surfaces throughout Auden’s work. Even in the early ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the clocks warn an infatuated lover, “Time watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss” (27-28). Similar in this regard is Auden’s “Lullaby” (1937) which begins jarringly “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm…” Faithlessness serves metonymically here to remind us of the mortality that has resulted from original sin.
  2. All references to "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" are to W.H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (Vintage, 1991), pp. 273-276.
  3. For a brief discussion of meter in this poem in relation to Moore, see John Hollander, The Work of Poetry (Columbia UP, 1997), p. 255.
  4. The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1993), p. 4, l. 62.
  5. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 282.
  6. In The Complete Works of W.H. Auden, vol 1.: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, 1926-1938, ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton UP, 1988), p. 103.
  7. Quoted in John Fuller, W.H. Auden, A Commentary (Princeton UP, 1998), p. 294.
  8. See stanza 2 of the Yeats elegy in the Collected Poems.
  9. Fuller, p. 292.
  10. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (Norton, 1960), p. 58. Freud’s attitude to these restrictions is complex. He writes at one point that communities are “perfectly justified” in circumscribing the sexual life of children, since it is this external repression that (in the latency period) helps the process of sublimation to which he attributes human civilization. At the same time, however, he warns against “going to the length of actually disavowing” sexuality, and he makes clear, in a striking passage that would have appealed to Auden, the social dangers of overly strict sexual mores: “The requirement …. That there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice.” (60)