Posts Tagged ‘lawrence’


I am that I am
from the sun,
and people are not my measure.

(“Aristocracy of the Sun“)

In Lawrence’s poetry, more than in his prose, we see frequently the spontaneous discovering of Being. To Lawrence the beauty of the universe is a perpetual creation. The universe is not an abstraction, not an intellectual discovery or deduction. Though to him the novel remained the one “bright book of life” because of its dramatic rendering of the complex interrelatedness of life, it is in his poetry that his ability to show the unique beauty of the passing moment. Even the passing psychological moment is most clearly illustrated in his poetry.

Lawrence’s poems are blunt, exasperating, and gives the readers a feeling of fragmentation. The poems are a part of the whole which is too vast to be envisioned. They are meant to be spontaneous works, spontaneously experienced; they are not meant to give us the sense of grandeur or permanence that other poems attempt, the fallacious sense of immortality that is an extension of the poet’s ego. Yet they achieve a kind of immortality precisely in this: that they transcend the temporal, the intellectual. They are ways of experiencing the ineffable “still point” that Eliot could approach only through abstract language.

For Lawrence life predates art, and art predates any traditional form. He was fascinated by the protean nature of reality, the various possibilities of the ego. Throughout his poems, there is a deep, unshakable faith in the transformable quality of all life. Even the elegiac “The Ship of Death” ends with a renewal, in typically Lawrentian words: “. . . and the whole thing starts again.” He says, “No poetry, not even the best, should be judged as if it existed in the absolute, in the vacuum of the absolute. Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole.”

Lawrence says coldly in the poem “Blank”:

At present l am a blank and I admit it.
. . . So I am just going to go on being a blank, till some-
thing nudges me from within,
and makes me know I am not blank any longer.

The poems themselves are nudges, some sharp and cruel and memorable indeed, most of them a structured streams of consciousness. They are fragments of a total self that could not always keep up the strain of totality. Sometimes Lawrence was anguished over this, but most of the time he believed that in his poetry, as in life itself, what must be valued is the springing forth of the natural, forcing its own organic shape, not being forced into a preordained structure. He is much more fluid and inventive than the imagists, whose work resembles some of his cooler, shorter poems, in his absolute commitment to the honoring of his own creative processes. Lawrence utilized and valued spontaneity. He says:

Ours is the universe of the unfolded rose,
The explicit,
The candid revelation.

(“Grapes”)

For Lawrence it is the beauty and mystery of flux, of “Becoming,” that enchants us; not permanence, not “Being.” Permanence exists only in the conscious mind and is a structure erected to perfection, therefore airless and stultifying.

Lawrence loves the true marriage of heaven and hell, illusory opposites; he loves to exalt the apparently unbeautiful. For instance, in the poem “Medlars and Sorb-Apples” from his best single volume of poems, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), he says:

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness
I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid. . . .

He sees these fruits as “autumnal excrementa” and they please him very much. Earlier, in the poem called “Craving for Spring,” he has declared that he is sick of the flowers of earliest spring—the snowdrops, the jonquils, the “chill Lent lilies” because of their “faint-bloodedness, /slow-blooded, icy-fleshed” purity. He would like to trample them underfoot. (What is remarkable in Lawrence’s “nature” poems is his fierce, combative, occasionally peevish relationship with birds, beasts, and flowers-he does them the honor, as the romantic poets rarely did, of taking them seriously.) It is with a very different emotion that he approaches the sorbs-apples, a kind of worship, a dread:

Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I say, wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Orphic, delicate
Dionysus of the Underworld.

A kiss, and a spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of farther isolation. . . .

These poems are remarkable in that they refuse to state, with the kind of godly arrogance we take for granted in Shakespeare, that they will confer any immortality on their subjects. As Lawrence says in his short essay ‘Poetry of the Present” (1918), he is not attempting the “treasured, gemlike lyrics of Shelley and Keats,” though he values them. His poetry is like Whitman’s, a poetry of the “pulsating, carnal self,” and therefore Lawrence celebrates the falling away, the rotting, the transient, even the slightly sinister, and above all his own proud isolation, “Going down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely alone,” until hell itself is somehow made exquisite:

Each soul departing with its own isolation,
Strangest of all strange companions,
And best.

(“Medlars and Sorb-Apples”)

In 1929, Lawrence says in his introduction to Pansies: “A flower passes, and that perhaps is the best of it. If we can take it in its transience, its breath, its maybe Mephistophelian, maybe palely ophelian face, the look it gives, the gesture of its full bloom, and the way it turns upon us to depart. . .” we will have been faithful to it, and not simply to our own projected egos. Immortality, he says, can give us nothing to compare with this. The poems that make up Pansies are “merely the breath of the moment, and one eternal moment easily contradicting the next eternal moment.” The extraordinary word is eternal. Lawrence reveals himself as a mystic by this casual, offhand critical commentary on his own work as much as he does in the work itself. He can experience the eternal in the temporal, and he realizes, as few people do, that the temporal is eternal by its very nature: as if a piece of colored glass were held up to the sun, becoming sacred as it is illuminated by the sun, but also making the sun itself sacred. To Lawrence the sun is a symbol of the ferocious externality of nature, the uncontrollable, savage Otherness of nature, which must be recognized, honored, but not subdued—as if man could subdue it, except by deceiving himself. The sun is “hostile,” yet a mystic recognizes the peculiar dependency of the eternal upon the temporal; the eternal being is made “real” or realized only through the temporal. Someday it may be taken for granted that the “mystical vision” and “common sense” are not opposed, that one is simply an extension of the other, but, because the mystical vision represents a natural development not actually realized by most people, it is said to be opposed to logical thought.

There is a rhythmic, vital relationship between the eternal and the temporal, the one pressing dose upon the other, not remote and cold, but mysteriously close. Lawrence says in “Mutilation”:

I think I could alter the frame of things in my agony.
I think I could break the System with my heart.
I think, in my convulsion, the skies would break.

Inner and outer reality are confused, rush together, making up a pattern of harmony and discord, which is Lawrence’s basic vision of the universe and the controlling aesthetics behind his poetry. It is significant that when Lawrence seems to us at his very worst—in The Plumed Serpent, Kangaroo, much of Apocalypse, nearly all of the poems in Nettles and More Pansies—he is stridently dogmatic, authoritative, speaking without ambiguity or mystery, stating and not suggesting, as if attempting to usurp the position of the Infinite (and unknowable), putting everything into packaged forms. When he seems to us most himself, he is more fragmentary, more spontaneous, inspired to write because of something he has encountered in the outside world—a “nudge” to his blankness, a stimulus he is startled by, as he is by the hummingbird in the poem with that title, imagining it as a jabbing prehistorical monster, now seen through the wrong end of the telescope; or as he is by a doe in “A Doe at Evening,” when he thinks:

Ah yes, being male, is not my head hard-balanced, antlered?
Are not my haunches light?
Has she not fled on the same wind with me?
Does not my fear cover her fear?

Questions, and not answers, are Lawrence’s real technique, just as the process of thinking is his subject matter, not any formalized structures of “art.” Because of this he is one of the most vital of all poets in his presentation of himself as the man who wonders, who asks questions, who feels emotions of joy or misery or fury, the man who reacts, coming up hard against things in a real world, both the creator of poems and the involuntary creation of the stimuli he has encountered—that is, he is so nudged by life that he must react, he must be altered, scorning the protection of any walls of “reason” or “tradition” that might make experience any less painful.

In Lawrence we experience the paradox—made dramatic by his genius—of a brilliant man trying to resist his own brilliance, his own faculty for dividing, categorizing, assessing, making clear and conscious and therefore finite. It seems almost a dark angel of his, this dreaded “consciousness,” and he wrestles with it throughout his life, stating repeatedly that we are “godless” when we are “full of thought,” that consciousness leads to mechanical evil, to self-consciousness, to nullity. He yearned for the separateness of an individual isolation, somehow in conjunction with another human being—a woman—but not dependent upon this person, mysteriously absolved of any corrupting “personal” bond. It is the “pulsating, carnal self” he wants to isolate, not the rational self, the activity of the personality-bound ego he came to call, in a late poem entitled “Only Mao,” the “self-apart-from-God”—his only projection of a real hell, a fathomless fall into the abyss:

For the knowledge of the self-apart-from-God
is an abyss down which the soul can slip
writhing and twisting in all the revolutions
of the unfinished plunge
of self-awareness, now apart from God, falling
fathomless, fathomless, self-consciousness wriggling
writhing deeper and deeper in all the minutiae of self-knowledge, downwards, exhaustive,
yet never, never coming to the bottom. . . .

He uses his intellect not to demolish the mind’s attempts at order, as David flume did, but to insist upon the limits of any activity of ‘pure” reason-to retain the sacred, unknowable part of the self that Kant called the Transcendental Ego, the Ego above the personal, which is purely mental and sterile. So intent is he upon subjecting the “personal” to the “impersonal” that he speaks impatiently of tragedy, which is predicated upon an assumption of the extraordinary worth of certain individuals, and there is in his mind a curious and probably unique equation between the exalted pretensions of tragedy and the rationalizing, decasualizing process he sensed in operation everywhere around him: in scientific method, in education, in industry, in the financial network of nations, even in new methods of war that resulted not in killing but in commonplace murder. Where to many people tragedy as an art form or an attitude toward life might be dying because belief in God is dying, to Lawrence tragedy is impure, representative of a distorted claim to prominence in the universe, a usurpation of the sacredness of the Other, the Infinite. Throughout his life he exhibits a fascination with the drama of the self and its totally Other, not an Anti-Self, to use Yeats’s vocabulary, but a truly foreign life force, symbolized by the sun in its healthy hostility to man. It is a remarkable battle, fought for decades, Lawrence the abrasive, vitally alive individual for some reason absorbed in a struggle to deny the primacy of the individual, the “catastrophe” of personal feeling.

(“Climb Down, O Lordly Mind”)—

The blood knows in darkness, and forever dark,
in touch, by intuition, instinctively.
The blood also knows religiously,
and of this the mind is incapable.
The mind is non-religious.

To my dark heart, gods are.
In my dark heart, love is and is not.
But to my white mind
gods and love alike are but an idea,
a kind of fiction.

Calvin Bedient in a brilliant study of Lawrence argues that his flight from personality had been, in part, an effort to “keep himself separate from others so as to be free to face toward the ‘beyond’ where his mother had become ‘intermingled.'” Because of this, his mysticism is “somewhat morbid.” However, the mystic in Lawrence is fierce to insist upon salvation, even in the face of madness and dissolution, when the merely mental might give way. It is significant that the delirious fever Ursula suffers at the very end of The Rainbow brings her to a mystic certainty of her strength, her unbreakable self; if it is deathly—she evidently suffers a miscarriage—it is not her death, not Lawrence’s idea of death at all. Ursula’s real or hallucinatory terror of the horses (that attempt to run her down in a field) is the means by which she is “saved,” absolved of Skrebensky’s child, which is to her and to Lawrence hardly more than a symbol of the finite, the deathly personal and limited. Nothing in Lawrence is without ambiguity, but it is possible that much that seems to us morbid is really Lawrence’s brutal insistence upon the separation of one part of the self from the other, the conscious self from the unconscious, and both from the truly external, the unknown and unknowable Infinite.

In the cycle of confessional poems called Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) the most important poem is the very mysterious, yet explicit “New Heaven and Earth,” which invites reading in a simplistic manner, as another of the love poems—indeed, Lawrence does more harm than good with his prefatory foreword and “argument” when he suggests that the sequence of poems is about a young man who “marries and comes into himself. . . .” Certainly the spiritual crisis Lawrence suffered at this time had something to do with his private life, with the circumstances of his elopement, but not all marriage is attended by such a radical convulsion of the soul. Lawrence’s marriage, like everything else in his life, must he considered epiphenomenal in relationship to the deeper, less personal emotions he attempts to comprehend. This poem bears a curious resemblance to the very beautiful late poem “The Ship of Death,” though it is about a mystical reaffirmation of life.

Lawrence betrayed no moral, aesthetic, or intellectual timidity in experiencing the unknown or the forbidden. His novels are a proof of that. Sexual conventions in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) to his fictional rendering of other characters probe into the human psyche. He insists on leveling conventions, overturning expectations, and unsettling complacency. The essential starting point for new readers of Lawrence is his early novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), in which conflicts force the protagonist, Paul Morel, toward a complicated struggle for an identity of his own. This autobiographical fiction reveals the many powers that compete for the young hero’s soul. The novel unmasks a husband battling a wife, a son rebelling against a father, a mother scorning her son’s lovers, a son pulling away from the bonds of possessive early loves, a lover confronting rivals, and finally the son fighting desperately against the soul-crushing force of his mother’s love and memory. Lawrence had grown up amid the mining-town society of the English midlands, and in Sons and Lovers he subtly analyzes tensions and family politics in his working-class background. Sons and Lovers is an eminently readable novel for perceptive high school students. Its intense, complex portraits of Paul and Gertrude Morel remain some of the most forceful character studies in modern fiction. Students recognize the psychological tensions and the moral problems faced by Paul, and discussion usually produces insights into larger questions about the relationship between autobiography and art.

In “The Fox” (1923) and Women in Love (1920), we recognize the uneasy balance that gives love such power in human lives. “The Fox” presents a simple struggle between a man and a woman for the possession of another woman they both love and want. Even when one has triumphed, by literally killing the rival, the love object cannot be easily possessed. While others fight to possess her, she struggles to re- main free, but the temptation to submit to love, security, and peace always lurks

The Rainbow (1915) details three penetrating studies of loves within a single family. The Plumed Serpent (1926), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, St. Mawr (1925), The Virgin and the Gypsy (posthumously published 1930), and “The Princess” (1925) study a favorite subject-lovers of different nationalities, races, and social classes. “The Prussian Officer” (1914) and Kangaroo (1923) analyze the temptations of power, authority, and politics as substitutes for wholesome love relationships. From these varied portraits of love’s dominion, we get Lawrence’s message: the force of love is beyond the consciousness of even the most sensitive of lovers.

Lawrence’s writings are characterized by his primitivism and pantheism, his criticism of “civilized” bourgeois culture, his sensitive, reverential attitude toward animals, his vatic stance as a poet who knows with certainty the pure truth, his outrage at all individuals or ideas that disagree with his convictions, and his deep and sincere insights into himself.

Bibliography:

Harry T. Moore, “Lawrence from All Sides”, The Kenyon Review, Kenyon College, 1963, pg. 555-558.

J. Charles Mullen, “D. H. Lawrence”, The English Journal, National Council of Teachers of English, 1982, pg. 69-70.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Lawrence’s Götterdämmerung: The Apocalyptic Vision of Women in Love”, Critical Inquiry, 1978.

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D.H. Lawrence”, American Poetry Review, 1972, The Massachusetts Review, 1973, Black Sparrow Press, reprinted in New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature.

Vincent Mahon, “Review of Acts of Attention. The Poems of D. H. Lawrence”, The Review of English Studies, Oxford University Press, 1975, pg. 244-246.