Reflective Essay on "Thistledownflight" Poems

"Thistledownflight" by Helen Lucille DeVinney

(View "Thistledownflight")

Else1 von Freytag-Loringhoven may be a minor figure in literary history, but a forgettable one she is not. Von Freytag-Loringhoven is often remembered for her outrageous behavior in Greenwich Village during the teens and early 1920s, as well as her association and participation in the Dada movement.

Else von Freytag-Loringhoven was born Else Hildegard Ploetz on July 12, 1874. She was born in Germany and had a difficult childhood, much of this was due to the strain young Else witnessed between her parents. Her mother fought depression, and when Else was just 18 years old her mother died of uterine cancer. Her father remarried only three months after the death of her mother, which led to Else running away to Berlin.

She refers to her mother as a "beautifull [sic] saint-martyr" who "gave me what I am." She also makes the statement that "She is I." It is also worth noting that the Baroness saw Barnes as a "second mother." These factors encourage us to recognize the clear maternal association of "Thistledownflight" for von Freytag-Loringhoven.

A series of love affairs drew her further into the artistic circles she gravitated toward and also moved her around Germany. In 1901 she married a well-known architect, August Endell, but left him shortly thereafter for his friend Felix Paul Greve. Greve used biographical events from von Freytag-Loringhoven's life to create his second novel The Master Mason's House (1906). In an effort to leave Germany behind and reinvent himself, Greve faked his own suicide and moved to Canada. Von Freytag-Loringhoven joined him a year later in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The couple moved to Sparta, Kentucky; within a year, Greve left her.

Despite emotional hardship and the newness of English, von Freytag-Loringhoven made her way from Kentucky eventually to New York; little is known about this time in her life, though it is known that she did model for artists along the way. In New York she met and married Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven. Her husband returned to Germany shortly after the war began, where subsequently committed suicide. The Baroness remained in New York and became active in the Dada community there; during this time she worked as both artist and influence. The works best known by von Freytag-Loringhoven are her sculptures, collages, and performance art of this time.

Many American and French expatriates who von Freytag-Loringhoven counted as her friends returned to the Paris scene in the early 1920s; she longed to follow them and returned to Berlin in 1923, in the hopes of going on to France. Von Freytag-Loringhoven was not successful in her attempts and lived out the remainder of her life in desperation. She continued to write poetry, which she sent to her friend, and later literary executor, Djuna Barnes. During this time, von Freytag-Loringhoven's letters also documented her stay in numerous insane asylums, as well as her outrage at being reduced to selling papers on a street corner.

In 1926 von Freytag-Loringhoven eventually made it to France. There she began modeling again and fervently tried to have poetry published. In the spring of 1927 she decided she would start her own modeling school and hoped it would open that August. Sadly, it was not to be; additionally, much of the poetry that she wrote and tried to submit during this time was also rejected. On December 14th of 1927, von Freytag-Loringhoven was found dead in her apartment. She had died of asphyxiation from an open gas line. The circumstances of her death have never been fully understood. Though von Freytag-Loringhoven often spoke of suicide in her correspondence, those closest to her, particularly Barnes, maintained unconvinced. Though Barnes had hoped to one day publish a biography of the Baroness, she never did. 2

Notes about presentation of "Thistledownflight:"

The poetry of von Freytag-Loringhoven is not well known, particularly those poems that seem to have been written after she returned to Germany in 1923. The poem featured here "Thistledownflight" is such a poem. Correspondence suggests that this poem was written sometime after her return to Germany and, like much of her poetry from that time, was never published. The poem itself must be described as visual. Von Fretag-Loringhoven's final presentation of the work is hand-written on a fiber-based paper that would have been expensive for her at the time.3 Additionally, she includes hand-painted visuals on the layout of the poem itself. These indicators alone suggest the importance of the visual aspect of the poem's presentation. The correspondence that makes mention of an early draft of this poem suggests that some further biographical history of von Freytag-Loringhoven is appropriate.

In a letter to Djuna Barnes that included a draft of "Ghinga," the early title of what would be "Thistledownflight,"4 von Freytag-Loringhoven details a great deal about her mother and the connections she observes between their lives.5 Within this same letter, in response to an apparent inquiry by Barnes about how much of these details might be shared in an effort to either publish the poem or a later biography, von Freytag-Loringhoven suggests that her mother wanted her story to be told through the Baroness. She states, "I am her trumpet." Von Freytag-Loringhoven accounts for Barnes her mother's attempted suicide and later abandonment of the family in a so-called fit of "strangeness." She emphasizes the incompatibility of her parents, citing not only the differences in their natures and previous society, but also her claim that her mother is "Slavic" in contrast to her "German" father. (Due to the stream-of-consciousness style of the letter, one is never certain how things relate, but von Freytag-Loringhoven seems to link this issue of ethnicity to why neither her mother nor she fits in or can be happy with Germans or Germany.) Von Freytag-Loringhoven also details here how her mother contracted syphilis from her father, was too ashamed to seek treatment, and died as a result. (Von Freytag-Loringhoven had often stated elsewhere that her mother's death from uterine cancer was a direct result of the untreated syphilis; she also suggested that she shared in her mother's fate through her own diagnosis of syphilis, which she claimed was congenital.6) In this letter and others, von Freytag-Loringhoven emphasized her mother's artistry and difference; here she repeatedly asserts that her mother's unique way was misunderstood as insanity, and if any insanity were truly present it was a result of being so isolated from both her family and the world. Most strikingly, von Freytag-Loringhoven complains in this letter that she was increasingly having difficulty separating her thoughts from her mother. She refers to her mother as a "beautifull [sic] saint-martyr" who "gave me what I am." She also makes the statement that "She is I." It is also worth noting that the Baroness saw Barnes as a "second mother." These factors encourage us to recognize the clear maternal association of "Thistledownflight" for von Freytag-Loringhoven. This becomes more clear as one looks at earlier drafts where the list of words indicate more of the story from which von Freytag-Loringhoven was pulling.

Bearing the previous statements in mind, it must be stated that within the presentation of the poem, the editor has resisted the tendencies to read into and apply the biographical associations, to provide extraneous theories of meaning or word meaning, or to simplify the work with a didactive explication. The biographical information provided here is only done in attempt to replicate the context that was provided for the original reader (Barnes).7 My efforts here are reflective of a desire to honor the poet's wishes for what knowledge her reading audience would bring to the poem. As she never stated this explicitly, one can only evaluate her papers and determine what information, if any, she would most want shared in relationship to her work.

This final note is in reference to the physical presentation that follows. The first version of the poem suggests how the text might have been presented if it had been published. The visuals that are on the original are not reproduced, as Von Freytag-Loringhoven's convictions about being an artist would be cheapened by such imitation. Instead, the text itself is presented in parallel with a facsimile of the original facing the transcribed and annotated copy. The facsimile appears on the verso and the transcribed and edited copy is on the recto. For readers who are interested in understanding von Freytag-Loringhoven's writing process, additional versions have been presented also in parallel. Notes have been added in order to assist readers with understanding physical aspects of the text or editorial choices. The spelling and layout of the manuscripts has not been standardized or changed, but instead reflects the authority of the texts as they remain. Most editorial decisions have followed two edicts: first, the poems have been annotated in a way to further a reader's understanding of the poet as an artist. Second, the poems have been transcribed only for purposes of clarity due to bibliographical disturbance and accessibility; the intention here is not to make the poem easier for a reader to understand but easier for a reader to gain access to and read. All choices reflect the desire to preserve the individuality and complexity of von Freytag-Loringhoven.


  1. Although her name has been regularized to "Elsa" in most publications, the Baroness consistently signed her name as "Else" in correspondence, even after her time in America. Here the spelling reflects her choice. Back to text
  2. For a more detailed account of the biography of Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, see either the biography section of the "Guide to the Papers of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven" at the Archives and Manuscripts Department of the University of Maryland Libraries or Baroness Elsa by Irene Gammel. Back to text
  3. See the correspondence of von Freytag-Loringhoven to Djuna Barnes for a detailed account of her troubled finances located in the papers of the Baroness at the University of Maryland, College Park. Back to text
  4. Von Freytag-Loringhoven seems only to use the word "Ghinga" in the poem "Thistledownflight." Given that the first word of the poem is "Ghingha" and that at least one early version is untitled, it seems logical to conclude that the Baroness might have referred to the poem by its first word. Back to text
  5. All discussion here refers to an undated letter to Djuna Barnes. Series II, Box, Reel 2: Travel correspondence and documents, 1922-1925 and n.d. Archives and Manuscripts Department of the University of Maryland Libraries, College Park. Back to text
  6. See Baroness Elsa, Gammel. p. 69-71. Back to text
  7. Although Gammel suggests this poem is a personal "present" to Barnes, there is little to suggest that von Freytag-Loringhoven would not have wanted it published had the opportunity arisen. Further, her belief that her biography would be appearing suggests that she believed readers of her poetry would bring the very knowledge she was giving Barnes in the letter with the draft of the poem. Back to text.

Editorial Musings:
A Graduate Student's Brush with Greatness

Someone unfamiliar with textual editing or manuscript work can understand that "textual critics are required to judge and choose" as inherent in the task itself; someone who has actually attempted textual editing, however, may come to embrace that famous statement by Fredson Boers as a matra (1). In my amateur experience with manuscript work and editing, I often found myself agonizing over decision. I often felt if I thought on something long enough, an opinion would materialize that somehow cleared me from blame and did not seem to hinge on a subjective decision, As I learned time and again, the only way I could ultimately move forward each time was by repeating to myself, "Textual critics re required to judge and choose," and then make a decision.

When I worked on exploring the editorial issues implicated in the presentation of a critical edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, I learned a great deal about the complexities surrounding each phase of the decision-making. Though the choices seemed complicated, it still seemed relatively painless to position myself within the debate and to side with some critics' decisions over others. When I began working with "Thistledownflight" by Elsa von Freytag-Lonringhoven, I became much more entrenched in the decisions inherent in the editorial process. It seemed like I could not approach any aspect of the project without facing a decision between at least two choices for which I could see both positive and negative outcomes. Many of the choices I struggled with brought me back to the readings of scholars whose work I had understood but had not absorbed the way one does when an opportunity arise to apply new learning to her own work. The most difficult judgments in my work revolved around issues of authorship, manuscript scholarship, and presentation. More specifically I found myself trying to resolve questions such as: Where dies the text end and begin? How, if at all, does von Freytag-Loringhoven's relationship with Djuna Barnes change the role of authorship? When something is illegible, how should it be transcribed Should a final copy stand alone or with the versions that preceded it? Can the order of the versions be determined, and, for that matter, with what certainty can it be asserted that there is a final version? How does an editor present the artistic quality von Freytag-Loringhoven took such pains to include? There are just some of the most specific aspects of the editorial process that were problematic for me. The confines of this discussion does not permit an exploration of all of the editorial issues that were addressed in relation to this poem, so I have selected a few issues that were the most problematic for me as I moved from reading, to transcribing and annotating, to finally presenting "Thistledownflight."

In regard to issues of authorship, the essays of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jerome McGann because much more urgent. The idea of authorship and the Baroness is probably a large enough topic for its own paper. Here I am only going to mention a couple of the questions tied into this that are compelling. In the case of von Freytag-Loringhoven, the assertions regarding the "dead of the author" in both Barthes and Foucault are worth considering. Barthes speaks at length about rejecting the idea of "Author" and all of the associations inherent for readers in it (222). This idea seems in direct opposition to von Freytag-Loringhoven's own ideas of authorship and artistry. In an irate latter to Margaret Anderson of The Little Review, von Freytag-Loringhoven raged about the indignity of Anderson having sent her only twenty dollars when she was an "artist," Von Freytag-Loringhoven had clear ideas about art and artist, and as a poet, it is difficult to believe that she would have ever embraced the idea of divorcing herself as a person from the work. Indeed this poem "Thistledownflight," like many of her others, is a personal poem that seems to make use of biographical information. Von Freytag-Loringhoven wanted both her person and her life to be associated with her art, and I think she would have rejected suggestions that it was in any way associated with her art, and I think she would have rejected suggestions that it was in any way a collective experience or that anything was owed to the context in which she lived.

The whole idea of social context, authorial intention, and editor brought me back to rereading McGann's article "The Socialization of Texts." The statement that seemed to reverberate the most was, "What is at issue is how absolutely the concept of authorial intention is to be understood so far as editing of literary works is concerned" (McGann 41). Of course, McGann's statement refers to the arguments between Bowers and his own handling of "authorial intention" and this alone suggests the contention within the terms themselves. Not every scholar views authorial intention or the editor's role in it in the same way. The case of von Freytag-Loringhoven seemed particularly problematic for two reasons: first, little of the work from this period in her life was published and so it is difficult to even compare existing printed works with a new editorial venture. It seemed only fair that her works should be presented as closely to what she had left as possible. Subsequent versions might imagine something more idealized or synoptic, but it does not seem appropriate without the naked text appearing anywhere. Second, she also was convinced during this time that an autobiography or biography of her life was going to appear, and she was writing within that understood context. Considering how heavily she seemed invested in this, it is difficult to look at the poems she wrote during that time without the context of the biography and the information that she assumed would have been public about her. A final issue of authorship that was problematic was her name itself; it seemed wrong that she consistently signed her name "Else," as her given name was spelled and that it has come to be regulated as "Elsa." For a woman who valued her own journey and individuality so highly, it seemed unjust to re-name her. Further, she states repeatedly in letters how names have meaning for her and often determines how she values someone; she viewed herself as "Else" and thus that had been preserved in my work.

In terms of working with the manuscript itself, Derek Pearsall's article "The Use of Manuscripts: Late Medieval English" had man applicable points. Although the article is referring to a different time period and type of manuscript, many of the ideas are transferable. His ideas about the authenticity of the manuscript itself are appealing to me, if not somewhat idealized considering the general inaccessibleness of them. His reverence for the knowledge contained within the manuscripts, however, is quite practical. When he points out the different messages of manuscript and printed text, his point is worth considering. (Pearsall notes that the manuscript of The Canterbury Tales tells a reader it is "unfinished" and that the tendency of editors is to present a printed text as a finished document that does not reflect the work's "provisionality" (32.) In the case of "Thistledownflight" which is never published and where the apparent final version is unsigned, I have incorporated Pearsall's comments about including that potential "openness" of the text in its manuscript form, particularly by including the versions that accompany the most finished version. Of course the most obvious application of Pearsall to the poetry of von Freytag-Loringhoven is his handling of punctuation and the issues of "in being forced into final fixed decisions" (33). Certainly, "Thistledownflight" has punctuation issues, though not to the extent of many of her other poems. Interestingly, even in her letters, the Baroness often uses one color to write the text itself and another for the punctuation. Moreover, the issue of English being her second-language complicates how she used punctuation; it seems without direction, it is best to leave it as she presented it, even with the possible problems associated with the fixity of that decision. Stephen Ratcliffe's chapter "Grenier's Scrawl" was also useful in my work with the manuscript; his attention to the topics of color, how to read the poems, and how to deal with invented language were all useful.

As I prepared the poem itself to be presented, I found myself struggling with how to represent the poem justly. Of course it is impossible to separate out the issues of authorial intention, but here I want to focus on the difficulty of presenting the manuscript in print. The most final version of "Thistledownfligh" has elements that simply do not transfer to print. Her use of a fabric-based paper, the penmanship as a part of the presentation, and the use of visuals all complicated the editorial decisions. The guiding principle for me was to represent the original with as little change or interference as possible; this was difficult to do because of the "calligraphic orthography [as] her typeface" (16). Though von Freytag-Loringhoven used this distinctive hand in her day-to-day writing, my decision to select a typeface that imitated it for the final presentation is supported by the act of publishing inherent in the other aspects of Freytag-Loringhoven's presentation. Much like the discussion in the article, the argument could be made that the Baroness was using what she had available to her to lend meaning and intention. The visuals themselves did not seem reproducible to me and thus were lost in the transcription and presentation. In this way, I am interested to see what happened with the eventual mounting of the poems on the online archive. I think that in the case of the visual poetry of the Baroness, it would be useful to be able to see her work in its original format and color.

In closing, it seems appropriate to return to Bowers, his work, and his philosophy. In studying examples of both bibliographic and scholarly presentations, I came across the work of Bowers again and again. His article "Unfinished Business" had made me view him in a somewhat pejorative light due to his own self-aggrandizement as editor, particularly in his statement that the "editoris the servant of the servants of God" (1); thus, particularly in respect to my own editorial bungling, his meticulous scholarship was a humbling discovery. Repeatedly his examples showed, if nothing else, diligence and attention to details. Upon reflection, it was useful to see those examples and then re-read his article. An editor does, in many ways, possess a great deal of power, and I can imagine that it would take resolve not to develop an inflated ego in successfully bringing a work out of the archives, particularly when works with the types of iconic figures with which Bowers has. My purpose here is not to suggest that I have become a convert of the philosophy of Bowers but instead to suggest that perhaps the biggest issue one must wrestle against in textual scholarship is not authorial but editorial intention. Like the intention of the author, it is not an easy term to define: often the intention of editor and the publisher are also likely to be in conflict. And in turn, an editor's intentions immediately color how she perceives the authorial intention. The most beneficial aspect of working with "Thistledownflight" was realizing the complexity and necessity of the interplay of various intentions and that it is probably a dangerous thing when an editor's intentions have become so all-consuming that they no longer wrestle with the intentions of others but instead silence them.


Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge,2003. 221-224.

Bowers, Fredson. "Unfinished Business." Text 4 (1988), 1-11.

Foucault, Michel. "What is an Author?" The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge,2003. 225-230.

McGann, Jerome. "The Socialization of Texts." The Book History Reader. Ed. David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery. New York: Routledge,2003. 35-46.

Peasall, Derek. "The Uses of Medieval Manuscripts: Late Medieval English." Harvard Library Bulletin. New Series 4:4 (Winter 1993-94).

Ratcliffe, Stephen. Listening to Reading. Albany: SUNY press, 2000.

Smith, Martha Noll. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

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