A Feminist Psychoanalysis of H.D.'s Poetical Symbols

In today’s age, feminism is one of the most heavily debated subjects on the internet. Whether or not we still need feminism in today’s society, this article does not pretend to hold an argument in support of one perspective or another. At the end of the day one thing is certain: the humble wishes of women have become complex theories and ideologies which have inspired the fight for equality of many other minorities, supporting them and intersecting them in different aspects. These ideas have managed to be communicated and shared through the means of published texts which were not necessarily literary, though women have created a space for themselves in literature. One of the women who found their identities through literature is Hilda Doolittle or H.D. This paper strives to analyze her expression of feminism through word association and symbols, a characteristic of her writing which is highly influenced by psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis in Literature

Applying psychoanalysis to literature is like trying to apply an equation to an apple: it will not work unless the theoretical tool is set in place. One would need to see what they are looking for in measuring an apple and deciding the frame of what to calculate, the diameter and the height, the particles of coloring, the length of the stem, and other possible aspects. Likewise, one needs to see what exactly it is that they are looking for in applying the theory of psychoanalysis to literary texts. One could look for the theory of dreams from a symbolic, hermeneutical perspective or rather choose to approach this issue from the developmental theory of the self. The twentieth-century feminists did not agree with most of Freud’s theories of sexual desire and the theories related to female reproduction overall; as a result, feminist psychoanalysis was born. There are, of course, many theories out there in regard to feminist psychoanalysis; Juliet Mitchell explains how the feminist theories intertwine with the psychoanalytical approach and how they are applied together in the field of literature. In her book, Psychoanalysis and Feminism - A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis, Mitchell (1974) discusses the implications of biology on gender, the Oedipus and Electra complexes, and the uterus envy concept, as parts of the “femininity”, “feminine”, and “female” elements which feature in feminist theories on what it means to be a woman. After the writer has explained a lot of in-depth concepts of psychoanalysis and feminist theories that clash with Freud’s work (either agreeing or disagreeing with some aspects), the author goes on to analyze how culture was revolutionized through psychoanalytical writings, as well as feminist writings.

Image 1: Valentinova, Tina, Self-Portrait with Figs.

One important point that she makes is based on the theory of the object relations: the self and the others exist in psychoanalysis as well as in literature, as there are a main character and other characters. Knowing the self and being able to differentiate it from the others is a very important aspect of identity formation. Feminism describes this process in regard to different aspects: the biological difference, the psychological difference, and the social difference between genders.

When discussing feminist literature, one must assess the changes implied in the field of literature. Culture is a great part of this change, as literature can only exist in a society that has a language – and language is a part of culture. With that in mind, one can see how language is used to express thoughts, feelings, and why “writing is a key for social change” (McCann, Carroll, Duguid, Gehred, Kirillova, Kramer, Holmes, Weber, Mangan, 2019, p. 332). Rewriting the rules of writing and creating an écriture feminine, as Héléne Cixous has envisioned can be seen as a way to revolutionize and bring change to society (McCann et al., 2019, p. 331) – when women can finally claim their place and focus on what is feminine, we will be one step closer to undermining the culture of the patriarchy.

Image 2: A stack of feminist books.

Hilda Doolittle’s Psychoanalytic Lenses in Poetry

Hilda Doolittle was a writer born on September 10th 1886. She lived through the two world wars all the way to the beginning of the Second Feminist Wave, until the 27th of September 1961. She is known under the alias “H.D.” which she has used during her writing career to publish her work. She wrote a myriad of texts, such as poems, essays, short stories, novels, and articles, in which she either expresses her own view on the male-dominated society or her view on the female voice's expression, or her own perspective on Freud’s theories about psychoanalysis. H.D. was quite close to Freud, and she has worked with him and under his guidance in the field of psychoanalysis, while at the same time being treated for her mental illnesses which were revolving around trauma she experienced with this doctor. (Snodgrass, 2000, p. 61-62)

In between the two world wars, she had a break from poetry to recover from the loss of her brother, her unborn child, and her father. During and after the Second World War, she did write Trilogy and Tribute to Freud, exploring psychoanalysis in texts while changing her poetic voice to one with a more powerful impact, from which “the figure of Woman as poet, mystical seer, and god” sprouts (Doolittle, 2010, p. 5). In the destroyed and bombed London, she sees a way of touching the unconscious, a way in which she can fight without fighting, using words to go against the actual battle ongoing all around her. In this first volume, she underlines that faith is something that connects all religions and that it is the difference between beliefs that start wars. The title Trilogy can be seen as a reflection of the Christian gods’ trinity, but also the layers of the mind from a psychoanalytical perspective, as it is discussed in the introduction to Trilogy (Doolittle, 2010); the ideology of the dream stands at the foundation of interpretation – it is no longer a divine gift, but a way to explore the unconscious mind and maybe even heal. The heroes are no longer very powerful mythical creatures, but they are “the marginalized beings of women, animals, vagabonds, and mystics” (Alfrey, 2000, p. 99).

Image 3: H. D., The Walls do not Fall.

The meaning of her poetry moves from finding knowledge in the interaction between symbols of the genders to finding associations between words that through their interaction create and release meaning. According to Elizabeth Hirsh, “in H.D.’s later writings, psychoanalysis, and modernist poetics not only intersect, but actively interrogate one another” (Alfrey, 2000, p. 99). Hence, the process of actively using psychoanalysis to represent hidden symbols in her modernist poetry is not only a tool, but it is transformed in another type of interaction that holds knowledge.

A topic of study in psychoanalysis is the relationship between the subject and the object, and this can be seen in H.D.’s Tribute to Freud (Doolittle, 1985) in which the author examines the positioning of subjectivity, thus creating a new kind of knowledge. Moving the woman to the state of an active participator instead of a passive object, H.D. encouraged women to step into their own power (Johnston, 2007, p. 112). Her need for discovering knowledge in interactions has transcended the natural world in these later writings. In Tribute to the Angels Doolittle explains that the new woman, the new Eve she envisions, is the one to redeem humanity.

Ah (you say), this is Holy Wisdom,

Santa Sophia, the SS of the Sanctus Spiritus,

so by facile reasoning, logically

the incarnate symbol of the Holy Ghost;

you Holy Ghost was an apple-tree

smoldering – or rather now bourgeoning

with flowers; the fruit of the Tree?

this is the new Eve who comes

clearly to return, to retrieve

what she lost the race,

given over to sin, to death;

she brings the Book of Life, obviously. (Doolittle, 2010, p. 103)

Image 4: H.D. in 1922.

Freud has commented on H.D.’s poetry, either saying that she suffers from megalomania (Doolittle, 2010, p. 9) because she is trying to found a new religion through her poetry, centering the woman as the salvation, or saying that the questions she asks must be answered. The uncertainty of her questions is what brings the woman to the center, and H.D. likes the question marks because she believes answers are the final level of existence, death in themselves (Alfrey, 2000, p. 100). The symbol of “SS” in this poem is representative of her uncertain existence: “these eternal questions are Gnostic (which means one who knows), since they point to a quest for knowledge” (Doolittle, 2010, p. 12).The “S” has long been interpreted as the snake that made Eve wish for knowledge, which historically has been considered a sin, but Hilda Doolittle is redeeming this symbol by placing it on the shoulders of “Sanctus Spiritus” – and the tree of knowledge presented in the Bible has been transformed into“the Book of Life” (Doolittle, 2010). The owning of this “Book of Life” empowers the personification of Eve to be independent and write her own destiny. The connection between the spiritual world and psychoanalysis is presented later on, in the 20th fragment of "The Walls Do Not Fall" (Doolittle, 2010). The “Holy Ghost”, the “SS” of “Holy Wisdom”, as well as the “apple-tree” is in itself “childhood’s mysterious enigma,/ is the Dream […]/ it explains symbols of the past/ in today’s imagery/ it merges the distant future/ with most distant antiquity”. The supernatural power of the Dream is shown to be directly connected to the idea of the Holy Ghost, of the Spirit that has all the questions and holds all the knowledge. Moreover, in the interaction that Eve has with the elements of the Garden, she becomes “Psyche, the butterfly/out of the cocoon”, thus enhancing the transformational power of the woman. This image of the butterfly has been a recurring theme in Trilogy (Doolittle, 2010) as a whole “worm-cycle” has been presented in the sixth part of The Walls Do Not Fall (Doolittle, 2010).

In me (the worm) clearly

is no righteousness, but this –

persistence; I escaped spider-snare,

bird-claw, scavenger bird-beak,

clung to grass-blade,

the back of a leaf

when storm-wind

tore it from its stem;

I escaped, I explored

rose-thorn forest,

was rain-swept

down the valley of a leaf [...]

I eat my way out of it;

gorged on vine-leaf and mulberry,

parasite, I find nourishment:

when you cry in disgust,

a worm on the leaf,

a worm in the dust,

a worm on the ear-of-wheat,

I am yet unrepentant,

for I know how the Lord God

is about to manifest, when I,

the industrious worm,

spin my own shroud. (Doolittle, 2010, p. 24-25)

The worm is a symbol for small, unimportant things (Alfrey, 2000, p. 105). It is not a coincidence that this poem is placed at the beginning of the volume: the worm becomes a butterfly after transforming itself into a cocoon – this image is a classic representation of the death and resurrection of the artist in his art. It is the metaphor for Doolittle’s changing style of writing from her previous work.

Image 5: A butterfly's life cycle.


Many of the symbols found in Hilda Doolittle’s work revolve around the image of the woman in a man’s world, which is one of the main feminist traits of her work. Combining the feminist thought pattern with an in-depth psychoanalytical perspective, her poetry underlines the power of women over their destiny as long as they can be aware of the knowledge that blooms in the interaction of two distinctive forces of nature. If in the beginning the flower was ravaged, but not destroyed, by the wind, further on her poetry path we find the woman as a worm eating nature in order to become a butterfly and transform its subjugate existence. In Hilda Doolittle’s poetry, there is no good without bad, no power without the object, no life without death; all these elements reflect her life back onto the page, releasing her artistic force which would empower the generations of women to follow.

Bibliographical References

Alfrey, S. (2000). The Sublime of intense sociability: Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Gertrude Stein. Associated University Press Inc., USA.

Doolittle, H. (2010). Trilogy. Carcanet Press, Indiana University, 1973, Digitalized 15 Dec 2010, Retrieved from https://3lib.net/book/2643957/82c417

Doolittle, H. (1985) Tribute to Freud. Carcanet Press LTD., Revised Edition, Manchester.

Johnston, G. (2007) The Formation of 20th-Century Queer Autobiography: Reading Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Wolf, Hilda Doolittle, and Gertrude Stein. Palgrave MacMillanTM, New York.

McCann, H.; Carroll, G.; Duguid, B.; Gehred, K.; Kirillova, L.; Kramer, A.; Holmes, M. S.; Weber, S.; Mangan, L. (2019) The feminism book: Big ideas simply explained. eBook: First American Edition ed., New York, DK.

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and feminism - A radical reassessment of Freudian psychoanalysis. Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York. Snodgrass, M. E. (2000) American Poets of the 20th Century. Cliffs Notes, USA.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Raluca Reinerth

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