Three Palimpsestic Layers of meaning in H.D.’s “The Master” by Nikitas Paterakis

H.D.’s psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud was undoubtedly a milestone in the poet’s life and writing career. Not only did Freud manage to cleanse H.D. from ghosts of the past – H.D. writes in Advent that “we are all haunted houses” (146) – but he also played an instrumental role in reconnecting the poet to her sphere of inspiration thus enabling her to write once more after defeating her writer’s block. H.D.’s surge of inspiration after her psychoanalysis by Freud culminates in Trilogy (1946) and Helen in Egypt (1961), but all that lay underneath the veil of her beneficial yet turbulent relationship with the Professor was masterfully portrayed in Tribute to Freud (1956) and “The Master”
(1981). And although the former presents a “muted display of conflict” (Duplessis, Friedman 419) between H.D. and Freud, the latter is “… a poem where that difference and confrontation are precisely and frankly the subject.” (Duplessis, Friedman 419)

These differences and confrontations between H.D. and Freud occurred on two levels: first, on a religious level as H.D.’s “… need to make the spiritual material, her mysticism and religiosity, became her deepest difference with Freud” (Holland 224); and second, “… Freud’s insistence on a gap or defect in woman, the idea of penis envy” (Holland 224) was angrily rejected by H.D. These confrontations are depicted in “The Master”, a poem which H.D. insistently refused to publish fearing that her analysis would be spoiled, and was eventually published by Rachel Blau Duplessis and Susan Stanford Friedman in the Feminist Studies journal in 1981.

Taking into consideration the aforementioned conflicts on religious and gender issues between H.D. and Freud, but also H.D.’s use of the palimpsest in her works, it can be claimed that the poem is structured upon three different layers of meaning each of which providing different answers to the question “who is the Master?”

On the first and most surfacing level of the poem H.D. hails Freud as the Master and praises him. Taking into account that the poem was written between 1934 and 1935, a period after H.D.’s analysis with Freud, and bearing in mind Freud’s salient contribution to H.D.’s recuperation, her praise is justified. In the first verse of “The Master” H.D. writes:


He was very beautiful,

the old man,

and I knew wisdom,

I found measureless truth

in his words,

his command

was final; (407)


Later, in the first section of the poem, H.D.’s reverence for Freud reaches its climax; the poet elevates Freud to a divine level as she recognizes that “he was beyond all-men, nearer to God” (408). In the last verse of the first section of “The Master” H.D. addresses God and asks him to cater for Freud’s posthumous welfare:


O God,

let there be some surprise in heaven for him,

for no one but you could devise

anything suitable

for him,

so beautiful. (408)


H.D. venerates Freud throughout the poem but her exasperation, stemming from the conflicts between her and the Professor, arises in the fourth section of the poem in a surprising burst of anger by repeating the line: “I was angry at the old man” (410).

H.D.’s shift from praise to indignation against Freud leads to the second layer of meaning in “The Master”. It is known that H.D. resented Freud’s Penis Envy theory according to which female imperfection is attributed to the realization of the missing penis in the adolescent stages of female development. Based on this theory Freud claimed that H.D.’s incapability to write was connected to the missing penis as reported in the Pallas Athena incident where Freud presented H.D. with a statue of Pallas Athena that was missing its spear, clearly alluding to the missing penis-pen as a reason for H.D.’s imperfection and inability to write. H.D.’s resentment to Freud’s theory of Penis Envy is directly portrayed in “The Master”:


I was angry at the old man

with his talk of man-strength

I was angry with his mystery, his mysteries

I argued till day-break; (410)


According to Norman N. Holland “’The Master’ expresses H.D.’s negative reaction to Freud’s interpretation of the missing spear, unexpressed in her other writings about the analysis.” (139)

Bearing in mind H.D.’s bisexual tendencies, her resentment to Freud’s theory of female imperfection, but also her constant quest for perfection and completeness, it can be assumed that this second, more profound yet still visible layer of “The Master” is the Master as the Perfect Feminine. H.D.’s negation to Freud’s theory of masculine strength and feminine dependency as portrayed in the poem is not only a statement but also a turning point upon which H.D. refocuses her writing lens from female imperfection to female completeness as portrayed at the end of the fourth section of “The Master”:


I could not accept from wisdom

what love taught

woman is perfect. (411)


This line is repeated throughout the poem as H.D. forcefully states her rejection of masculine strength as expressed by Freud. However, it would be unfair to isolate this second layer of the poem and assume that H.D.’s indignation and anger was the residue of feminist polemics against Freud’s theories. Such a limited and biased interpretation would constitute a digression from a thorough and in-depth reading of the poem since H.D.’s layers of palimpsest do not refute one another but instead, they are interconnected and constitute a conglomeration of meaning as their edges fall together and interact. In this sense Norman N. Holland comments that:


In this context, I think it makes sense to read the Athené interpretation somewhat differently from the way it appears on the surface, as a simple interpretation of penis envy. Freud was saying she is perfect, the woman is perfect, only she has lost her instrument, her tool, her spear, which was, for H.D., poetry; (140)


Holland’s comment places the repeating line of “The Master” – “woman is perfect” – within a poetic framework highlighting Freud’s contribution to H.D.’s rediscovery of poetic inspiration after having defeated her writer’s block. Moreover, and within this framework, a third, deeper level of the poem unfolds.

The end of the analysis was sealed with a symbolic gesture by Freud as described by H.D. in a letter to Bryher written in 2/12/1934: “Papa. . . solemnly presented me with one of the orange branches with leaves and oranges, all terribly symbolical. Well–I just managed to get through my hour, but had a very weepy time when I got back” (H.D. 510-511). Among various interpretations, this symbolic gesture “could have expressed a wish that now she would “bear fruit,” that is, write.” (Holland 170). Thus, taking into account that H.D. successfully tackled her writer’s block under Freud’s guidance, the third layer of “The Master” is the poet herself having become a “Master” in producing quality poetry, and the poem itself is a product of her achievement in dissolving the shackles of her writer’s block. Norman N. Holland praises H.D.’s poem mentioning that “The poem is a truly astonishing work. Like some of the poetry of Yeats’ middle period . . . I am deeply moved, reading it simply as a poem. I find it lush and gorgeous and fleshy yet, in H.D.’s manner, transcendent and rhapsodic.” (180). Therefore, on a level beyond the poem’s meaning, “The Master”, with its perfection as a poem, stands as proof that H.D. succeeded in her quest for completeness by retaining her “lost spear” – poetry- , thus becoming “a Master” herself.

In short, “The Master” can be read as a companion or supplement to Tribute to Freud. The poem sheds light in H.D.’s autobiographical essay by unveiling the tensions between her and Freud in a direct and sharp way. However, this relationship between the two texts is reciprocal as Tribute to Freud allows the reader to interpret the details of the poem through an autobiographical lens and create a more complete image of H.D.’s relationship with the Father of Psychoanalysis. It is remarkable though how H.D. builds the poem as a three-layered palimpsest. The poem’s title becomes an all encompassing circle in three layers each of which manifests as Freud, the Perfect Feminine and eventually the Poet. “The Master” is a bright example of H.D.’s multidimensional writing aiming to create inclusive literary narratives for the purpose of perfection and completeness.



Works Cited

Doolittle, Hilda. “The Master.” Feminist Studies 7.3 (1981): 407-16. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

—. Tribute to Freud: With an Introd. B Peter Jones. South Hinksey, Oxford: Carcanet Pr., 1971. Print.

Duplessis, Rachel Blau, and Susan Stanford Friedman. “”Woman Is Perfect”: H.D.’s Debate with Freud.” Feminist Studies 7.3 (1981): 417-30. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

Freud, Sigmund, H. D., and Bryher. Analyzing Freud: Letters of H.D., Bryher, and Their Circle. Ed. Susan Stanford. Friedman. New York: New Directions, 2002. Print.

Holland, Norman N. “H.D.’s Analysis with Freud.” PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. N.p., 22 Apr. 2002. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.



About the Author 



Nikitas Paterakis holds a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens and is currently a postgraduate student of The Greek Element in Anglophone Literature programme of the same department. He has been working as an English teacher since 2007. His comments on William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies were published in the novel’s 60th anniversary ebook. His research interests focus on rewritings of ancient Greek Tragedy in contemporary Anglophone theatre, myth criticism, cultural and political theory and the English novel.

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