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On H. D.’s “Oread”
One of H.D.’s earliest and best-known poems, "Oread," illustrates how the visual
language of imagism parallels the mechanisms of the dream-work as Freud described
them. This important similarity helps to establish how the poetic epistemology of
imagism laid a foundation that made H.D. particularly receptive to psychoanalytic;
influence.
Since most imagist poems present images from nature, it is easy to assume that
imagist poetry is about nature. But "Oread" and most of H.D.'s imagist poems are
phenomenological in emphasis; they are poems about consciousness, not the world of
objects external to consciousness. The center of "Oread," as the title indicates, is not the
sea; it is instead the perceptions and emotions of an oread, a nymph of the mountains,
as she regards the sea aroused in a whirling passion of intensity. Analogous to the
manifest and latent content of the dream, the poem presents images of the sea in order
to embody an "intellectual and emotional complex," which is the real subject of the
poem.
The images that simultaneously obscure and reveal the emotions of the oread are
not surrealist images emerging from the unconscious. "Oread" is a controlled poem, not
the achievement of the dream-work. But the waves made of pine trees and the trees
made of water have a quality analogous to the dream. The rational eye of the conscious
mind would not see pine-tree waves, splashing pines, or "pools of fir." Such vision
belongs to the "Kingdom of the Illogical." If H.D. were to report such dream-images to
Freud, he might well have called them an illustration of "dream-distortion." Through
"condensation," the poem presents a distortion of reality that suggests a whole range of
interrelated ideas and emotions encoded in a few images. Decoding these condensed
distortions would have to begin with the recognition that they result from a
picture-making mode of thought, rather than an analytic mode. The poem significantly
does not rely upon similes, which by definition remind the reader that the images only
make comparisons, not equivalences. The speaker does not say that a rough sea looks
like pointed trees; she sees tree-waves. just as the dream-work gives the dreamer a
visual representation of unconscious impulses, so the poem conjures an illustration of
nonrational reality that conveys an "intellectual and emotional complex" in a highly
condensed form.
"Condensation," Freud believed, also allowed the dream-work to express
"contraries" and outright "contradictions" in a single dream-picture. The condensation
of imagist technique accomplishes just that fusion of opposites in "Oread." The poem's
pronouns--"us" and "you"--establish the oppositions in the poem imaged in the land and
the sea. The oread is the land and consequently identifies with the shore and addresses
the waves as "you," As the spirit of the land, she understandably perceives her fluid
opposite in her own terms: waves are pointed pines that whirl up, crash, and make pools
of fir. This nonrational mode of thought gives motion, fury, and a watery stillness to the
land; conversely, it gives stature and stability to the sea. But these images condense
opposites into a contradictory whole; they simultaneously affirm and deny the division
of land and sea.
The fusion of land and sea in "Oread" does not in itself explain the emotional
intensity of the poem. The parallel verbs of the poem--"whirl … crash," "hurl," and
"cover"--create the oread's sensation of being submerged in the violence and then
stillness of the waves. Robert Duncan wrote perceptively that many of H.D.'s "nature
poems" have a sexual dimension: they "betray in their troubled ardor processes of
psychological and even sexual identification.... [there is a] poetic magic in which the
natural environment and the sexual experience are fused." The imagery and rhythm of
"Oread" suggest that Duncan is correct. The waves whirl up to become phallic pines that
crash down "on our rocks . . . over us." The poem ends on a final note of protectiveness as
the waves "cover us" in quiet pools. The oread's commands throughout the poem
emphasize that the sea acts while the land is acted upon. H.D.'s images may be
identifying a traditional masculinity with the waves (movement; sexual assault) and a
traditional femininity with the land (passivity; sexual receptivity). The action of the
waves on the shore combined with the emotion intensity suggest that the poem can be
read as a correlative of sexual experience or emotion. Since the synthesizing "logic" of
the image has already created a fusion of land and sea, the poem additionally may be
suggesting an androgynous identity for the oread. The experiential reality of the poem
illustrates
that
externally
opposite
qualities
such
as
active/passive
or
masculine/feminine coexist within single individual.
Freud's syntax of the dream-work includes the important technique he called
"displacement," by which intense feelings are projected onto a relatively unimportant
person or set of events. "Oread," the oread's identity and sexual emotions are
"displaced" onto a natural event, the meeting of the land and sea on the shore line. More
significantly, the poet's relationship to her speaker is analogous to the dream-work's
displacement of emotion. The oread is persona for the poet herself as well as an
anthropomorphic embodiment of the land. She is a personal metaphor whose experience
gave indirect, and therefore permissible, expression to the intense passion that
characterizes much of H.D.'s early poetry. To give form and expression to her own
experience, H.D. displaced her voice into that of the oread and substituted the oread's
emotion for her own. Norm Holmes Pearson warned that H.D.'s use of Greek masks as a
distancing device has all too often been ignored by her critics. He told his interviewer, L
S. Dembo: "When you said that she used Greek myth to find her own identity, you hit
upon an aspect of H.D.'s poetry which, rather surprisingly, has gone unrecognized. She
has been so praised as a kind of Greek publicity girl that people have forgotten that she
writes the most intensely personal poems using Greek myth as a metaphor." The oread
may be Greek, but the setting for "Oread" comes from a past not more remote than her
visits to the Cornwall seacoast and her childhood summers on the shores of the Atlantic
Ocean. The ultimate subject of the poem is the consciousness of the poet herself, the
intellectual and emotional complex of perception that finds its clearest expression in the
picture-making mode of imagist epistemology. H.D.'s poetic apprenticeship with
imagism laid the groundwork for her rapid absorption of Freud's related theories of the
encoding and decoding of the unconscious.