D. H. Lawrence had written poetry all his creative life, but he did not set his poetic theory down until 1923. His poetry, as with nearly everything that he wrote, is uneven; and he knew it, distinguishing between his early self-conscious verse and the “real poems” that his “demon” shook out of him, poems he called “a biography of an emotional and inner life.” In a preface to another man’s poetry, Lawrence defined the process by which he himself transmuted “inner life,” the core of his work, into art: “a bursting of bubbles of reality, and the pang of extinction that is also liberation into the roving, uncaring chaos which is all we shall ever know of God.” Lawrence’s poetry is thus best seen in the context of his life and through the painful paradox of his creativity, rooted in his most profound basic concept, the theory of human regeneration that he conveyed so often in the image of Paradise Regained.
As Richard Hoggart has observed, Lawrence’s inner life spoke with both “the voice of a down-to-earth, tight, bright, witty Midlander” and “the voice of a seer with a majestic vision of God and life and earth.” The Midlands voice first announced the major themes that Lawrence never abandoned: class, religion, and love. Lawrence very early felt the strictures of a workingman’s life and the humiliation of poverty as keenly as he felt the happiness he shared at the Chambers’ farm, among birds, beasts, and flowers threatened by encroaching industrialism. His “Rhyming Poems” also reflect his youthful love, quivering between the extremes of idealistic “spirituality” pressed on him by his mother and Jessie Chambers, so fatally alike, and a powerful sexual drive crying out for satisfaction. At sixteen, he abandoned his mother’s harsh Congregationalism, though the “hymns of a man’s life” never lost their appeal for him, and from 1906 to 1908, he was affected deeply by his experience of Arthur Schopenhauer’s “Metaphysics of Sexual Love,” which places sex at the center of the phenomenal universe, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, probably including Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik (1872; The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1909), which sees Greek tragedy as the result of creative tension between Apollonian rationalism and Dionysian ecstasy. Lawrence’s prophetic voice had begun to whisper.
Although his mother’s slow death gradually disengaged him from her domination, Lawrence tried to weave his early concerns of class, love, and religion into an organic whole. Once he recovered from his own severe illness late in 1911, he looked toward new physical and creative horizons, and after his elopement with Frieda, he at last was able to complete Sons and Lovers in a new affirmation of life. There were, however, characteristic growing pains. Frieda’s aristocratic connections in Germany afforded him the social position that he, like his mother, had always envied while decrying its values, and he delighted in using his wife’s baronial stationery at the same time that he was undergoing inevitable agonies at her cavalier disregard for sexual fidelity. The first book of Lawrence’s “Unrhyming Poems,” Look! We Have Come Through!, records the resolution of his complicated marital relationship in a form completely liberated from Georgian poetic convention. During World War I, Lawrence tried to locate humanity’s vital meaning in a balance of power between love and friendship, replacing the God he had lost with the human values promised by his The Rainbow and the four-part sexual harmony of Women in Love.
After the debacle of The Rainbow , Lawrence’s social message became more strident. From 1917 to...
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1925, rapt in his dream of human regeneration—now fixed on the figure of a patriarchal political leader—Lawrence went to the ends of the civilized earth. The fiction that he produced during that period urges progressively more primitive reorganizations of society, culminating in a faintly ridiculous neo-Aztec pantheon imposed on Mexico inThe Plumed Serpent, a novel embedding Lawrence’s highest hopes in stubbornly incantatory verse and sometimes turgid prose.
At the midpoint of his career, a substantial conflict was brewing between Lawrence’s urge for social reform and his prophetic sense of responsibility. The religious voice was clear in the poems of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, where, as Vivian de Sola Pinto has observed, “the common experience is transformed and invested with mythical grandeur.” Such a stirring transmutation proved incompatible with the “down-to-earth Midlands voice” calling for political answers to social questions. By 1923, possibly with memories of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, Lawrence had defined his “simple trinity” as “the emotions, the mind, and then the children of this venerable pair, ideas.” Lawrence also insisted that God’s traditional position relative to human beings had changed, so that Christ could no longer serve as the pathway to the Father; the Holy Ghost would have to lead human beings to a “new living relation,” nothing less than the spiritual regeneration that Lawrence hoped to bring to humankind from the wreckage of modern Western civilization.
When Lawrence collapsed on completing The Plumed Serpent, he was forced to abandon his old dream of social rebirth through politically enforced primitivism. In the poetic “The Flying Fish,” he announced that the Indian’s “primeval day” and the white man’s mechanism “nullified each other.” Now, as de Sola Pinto remarked, Lawrence’s “ecstasy controlled by the rational imagination” produced memorable poetry in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, foreshadowing the affirmation of life eternal that Lawrence finally was to achieve.
Lawrence’s irritation with Western materialism erupted once more late in his life in the angry little poems that he called his Pansies and Nettles, glimpses of humankind’s stupidity, conceit, and boorishness encapsulated in stinging doggerel. Hardly his finest poetic achievement, these poems nevertheless represent more than a sick man’s impatience with human frailty. They also demonstrate a quality of Lawrence’s insight that he called “quickness,” “the breath of the moment, and one eternal moment easily contradicting the next eternal moment.”
By 1928, already gravely ill, Lawrence had turned almost completely to examining “the pang of extinction that is also liberation,” the paradox, as he saw it, of physical death. His prophetic voice far outstripped the satiric note as he painted and wrote in the familiar archetypes of the Garden of Eden, regained, he felt now, through the apocalypse of death. His three original themes had coalesced into a great hymn of humankind’s essential renewal, the “religion of wonder” that he had glimpsed in the Etruscans: “The whole universe lived; and the business of man was himself to live amid it all.” Lawrence paid a heavy price for restoring humankind to Paradise, the unification of his Midlands voice and his prophetic voice in the acceptance of death as life’s necessary other half. At last, he was able to create a convincing myth as he had created all his work, from the ideas born of his own mind and emotions. Lawrence’s Last Poems, like Rainer Maria Rilke’s terrible and beautiful angels, burst the bubbles of reality, and Lawrence closed his poems, like his life, on the noble vision of resurrection.
Lawrence’s “biography of an emotional and inner life” begins with his “Rhyming Poems,” written between 1904 and 1912. Those he called “imaginative or fictional,” he reworked twenty years later, mostly in his Midlands voice, “to say the real say,” because “sometimes the hand of commonplace youth had been laid on the mouth of the demon.” The subjective poems of his early years, “with the demon fuming in them smokily,” were unchangeable.
One of the lessons that Lawrence had to learn as a young poet was when to leave his “demon” alone. “Discord in Childhood,” a pain-filled record of the elder Lawrences’ marital combat, had originally been a long poem, and, he said, a better one. Frightened by his own creativity, Lawrence burned the first poem as a young man, although he later worked the scene into Sons and Lovers. Characteristically, even the preserved version connects violent human emotion with nature and its forces: “Outside the house an ash-tree hung its terrible whips,” while within, “a male thong” drowned “a slender lash whistling she-delirious rage” in a “silence of blood.”
A similar sensuous absorption in brutal natural forces appears in the “Miriam” poems, darkening the mood of “Renascence,” which celebrates “The warm, dumb wisdom” that Lawrence learned from his “Eve.” The woman was to provide his pathway to creativity, the means to his apprehension of nature, and the viewpoint of sensitivity, but for now, Lawrence received only “Strange throbs” through her, as when “the sow was grabbing her litter/ With snarling red jaws”; and, as in “Virgin Youth,” “We cry in the wilderness.”
Later, when he lived in Croydon, Lawrence saw violent urban deformation of nature, and it nearly shattered him; in “Transformations,” beauty spills continuously into decay before him as men, “feet of the rainbow,” are “twisted in grief like crumpling beech-leaves,” and Lawrence is left to wonder at humanity’s destiny: “What are you, oh multiform?”
He began to sense an answer looming in the growing recognition of his prophetic mission. In the poem “Prophet,” he proposed “the shrouded mother of a new idea . . . as she seeks her procreant groom,” using familiar biblical symbolism to stress the religious aspect of his utterance. Before the “shrouded mother,” “men hide their faces,” the fear bred of artificial social pressures forcing them to deny the powerful enriching role of sexuality in their lives. At last, in “Dreams Old and Nascent,” Lawrence called for violent social action: “to escape the foul dream of having and getting and owning.” For the first time, he attempted to define his affirmation of the vital impulse: “What is life, but the swelling and shaping the dream in the flesh?”
Look! We Have Come Through!
Lawrence shaped the dream of his own “crisis of manhood, when he marrie[d] and [came] into himself” in the cycle Look! We Have Come Through!, attempting in these highly personal poems a crucial connection between the lives of the flesh and the spirit. Greeting physical love in intimate Imagist lyrics like “Gloire de Dijon,” he passed through “the strait gate of passion” in “Paradise Re-entered,” in which his typically fierce human love must be “Burned clean by remorseless hate.” His religious sense, too, had already departed materially from orthodox Christianity. In the same poem, he abandoned both God and Satan “on Eternity’s level/ Field,” and announced, “Back beyond good and evil/ Return we,” with a distinctly Nietzschean echo suggesting his burgeoning preoccupation with spiritual evolution.
From the same nontraditional quarter came the promise that Lawrence incorporated into “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” one of the closing poems of this cycle. Lawrence willingly yielded himself up to “the wind that blows through me,” “a fine wind . . . blowing the new direction of Time.” The wind of his prophetic aspect, to prove at times tempestuous, was the vehicle that Lawrence hoped to use “to come at the wonder” he sensed in the act of being, and with it he fashioned the personal experiences recorded in this set of poems into The Rainbow and Women in Love.
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers
The major poetic work of Lawrence’s middle years was Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, which R. P. Blackmur called “a religious apprehension” and de Sola Pinto has described as an “exploration of what may be called the divine otherness of non-human life.” The social criticism that Lawrence vented in this volume is chiefly directed at the United States, “lurking among the undergrowth/ of Many-stemmed machines.” Lawrence plainly confirmed his simultaneous fascination with and repulsion for “Modern, unissued, uncanny America” in “The Evening Land”: “And I, who am half in love with you,/ What am I in love with?” Although Lawrence distrusted the American reliance on the machine, he saw “Dark, aboriginal eyes” in the American “idealistic skull,” a “New throb,” which, like his dramatic character David, he finally concluded was “the false dawn that precedes the real.” The aspect of humanity that had always most repelled him, inflexible will, was even less acceptable to him in the United States than it had been in Europe, as he noted in “Turkey-Cock,” “A raw American will, that has never been tempered by life.” In several pieces of fiction, including “The Woman Who Rode Away” and The Plumed Serpent, he attempted to subdue that will by sheer force of primitive emotion and even compulsive self-sacrifice. Reversing that position in “Eagle in New Mexico,” Lawrence candidly acknowledged the necessity of opposition to bloodthirsty will, negating his own proposal of primitivism as a remedy for modern civilization: “Even the sun in heaven can be curbed . . ./ By the life in the hearts of men.” Finally, Lawrence unleashed considerable venom at “The American Eagle,” which he had come to consider the symbol of civilization’s disaster, “The new Proud Republic/ Based on the mystery of pride.” Contradicting the very concept of political dominance by an “aristocracy of the spirit” that he had advocated for so long, Lawrence denounced the “bird of men that are masters,/ Or are you the goose that lays the . . . addled golden egg?”
None of the rancor of Lawrence’s American-directed diatribes is present in the finest poetry of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, in which de Sola Pinto finds “an affirmation of the grandeur and mystery of the life of nature.” Working from a mundane incident, a visit by a poisonous Sicilian snake to his water trough on “a hot, hot day,” “Snake” illustrates Lawrence the poet at his most capable, commanding a deceptively simple style, ordinary speech, and a consummate adaptation of rhythm to meaning. The resulting interior monologue evokes a passionate mythopoeic response. The snake “had come like a guest in quiet,” and Lawrence described himself as “afraid,” but “honoured still more/ That he should seek my hospitality.” In one of Lawrence’s flashes of intuitive perception, the snake “looked around like a god” before retreating through a cranny in the wall. Lawrence’s “voices . . . of accursed human education” impelled him to toss a log at the creature, a petty act that he shortly regretted profoundly: “And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.” “Snake” realizes a striking balance between mind and emotion, penetrating the mystery of civilized humanity’s destruction of nature and eclipsing the conventional Christian symbolism of Evil Incarnate. In the snake’s deathly potential, too, is the premonition that “the lords of life are the masters of death,” an insight not developed fully until Lawrence had returned to Europe.
Still closer than “Snake” to expressing humanity’s most archetypal need, the yearning after life renewed, Lawrence’s “Almond Blossom” opens “a heart of delicate super-faith/ [in] . . . The rusty swords of almond-trees.” Much of Lawrence’s poetry has been assailed for supposed incoherence of utterance and Whitmanesque repetitiousness, but in “Almond Blossom,” de Sola Pinto notes, Lawrence is “thinking in images.” Lawrence’s old Christian path to God, “The Gethsemane blood,” bursts now into “tenderness of bud,” a splendid annunciation of “A naked tree of blossom, like a bridegroom bathing in dew.” The “new living relation” of humankind with God that Lawrence was proclaiming in his philosophical essays now assumed fulfillment in an emboldened image that merged social consciousness, love, and religion: “Think, to stand there in full-unfolded nudity, smiling,/ With all the snow-wind, and the sunglare, and the dog-star baying epithalamion.”
Pansies and Nettles
There is a marked shift in tone from Birds, Beasts, and Flowers to the following volumes of poems, Pansies and Nettles. In Pansies, Lawrence was immediately accused of obscenity for using “the old words [Lawrence’s italics], that belong to the body below the navel.” Those who knew him intimately, like Frieda, often referred to him as a puritan in sexual matters, and a purpose far different from obscenity motivated both his Pansies and Nettles; he had a stern, almost Calvinistic urge to destroy what he considered genuine pornography, “the impudent and dirty mind[s]” that had condemned Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence had never been patient, and his introduction to Pansies is one of his most savage jeremiads: “In the name of piety and purity, what a mass of disgusting insanity is spoken and written.” Such social “insanity” was his greatest enemy, and he fought the mob “in order to keep sane and to keep society sane.” His chief weapon was a hard-edged Swiftian wit that did not shrink from the scatological to make a point. In Pansies, Lawrence assailed most of the sacred cows of his time: censorship, “heavy breathing of the dead men,” “our bald-headed consciousness,” “narrow-gutted superiority,” the “Oxford cuckoos,” “ego-perverted love,” even “elderly discontented women.”
Lawrence’s short series of Nettles must have stung his detractors even more viciously. In “13,000 People,” a poem on the public reaction to the brief exhibition of his paintings abruptly terminated by British police, he flailed the “lunatics looking . . . where a fig-leaf might have been, but was not.” He even figuratively neutered his “little Critics”: “brought up by their Aunties/ who . . . had them fixed to save them from undesirable associations.”
Despite his ferocity when assaulting social “insanity,” the unhealthy forces of repression and censorship, Lawrence was still approaching a positive solution for modern humankind’s woes in both Pansies and Nettles. In the little poem “God” in Pansies, he declared: “Where sanity is/ there God is,” linking his own beliefs to the Supreme Being. Lawrence also dedicated several of the longer Pansies (pensées, or even heartsease, he had suggested in the introduction) to the Risen Lord, the new subjective path to God by which humanity could serve as its own Savior: “A sun will rise in me,/ I shall slowly resurrect.” In “More Pansies,” a still later group, Lawrence came even nearer the mystery of human being, identifying the Holy Ghost as “the deepest part of our own consciousness/ wherein . . . we know our dependence on the creative beyond.” Finally, as Lawrence struggled both in his poems and in his philosophic essays with the immensity of his apocalyptic vision, his satiric voice became only an overtone of the religious message he was attempting to enunciate. That message sprang from his “strange joy/ in a great [new] . . . adventure.”
Last Poems and Apocalypse
None of the poetry that Lawrence wrote during his life became him more than the Last Poems, which he wrote while leaving it. In his final prose work, Apocalypse, he was still clinging to the physical life he had celebrated so long and so rapturously, but in the Last Poems, Lawrence was setting out gladly into a new country whose borders he had glimpsed in Etruscan Places, his vivid sense of place even capturing the paradoxical “delight of the underworld” in ancient tombs, “deep and sincere honour rendered to the dead and to the mysteries.”
In “Bavarian Gentians,” Lawrence powerfully enlarged the mythic role of nature’s archetypes of resurrection as he descended into the “new adventure”: “Reach me a gentian, bring me a torch!” Previously concentrating on Eve as man’s mediator with Paradise Regained, Lawrence now saw woman as symbolic Persephone, “a voice . . . pierced with the passions of dense gloom.” The image of biblical mystical marriage could satisfy him no longer, and Lawrence now looked toward the mythic “splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.”
With the relatively minor exceptions of poems dealing with the symbols of his Apocalypse and a few more prickly observations on humanity’s social vicissitudes, Last Poems represents the birth pangs of Lawrence’s incomplete poetic masterpiece, “The Ship of Death.” He had seen a little model ship in an Etruscan tomb, and it had carried his imagination toward the possibility of one long poetic testament, where, as Richard Aldington suggests, “suffering and the agony of departure are turned into music and reconciliation.” The extant fragments of Lawrence’s radiant vision center on a new concept in his stormy artistry, the peace of a soul fulfilled at last in its greatest adventure: “the long and painful death/ that lies between the old self and the new.” Lawrence’s long struggles with the nightmares of humankind’s collective insanity were finally over, and he had “come through” his early preoccupations with the stresses of class and love and even religion, finding again within himself the possibility of a new dimension of human perception. At last body and mind, life and death had become one for him, “filling the heart with peace.”
Lawrence’s poetic development from conventional Georgian verse to mythopoeic vision spanned only the first thirty years of the twentieth century, yet his ultimate vision approaches the universal. In his “moments of greatness,” far from a willfully obscene Weltbild, he opens a breathtaking vista of the potential of the human condition in its entirety, not only body, not merely soul, but also a creativity as vital as the Greek tragedy that Nietzsche had earlier proclaimed as the result of Apollonian-Dionysian tension. Lawrence’s occasional Midlands lapses from literary propriety seem a small enough price to pay for the validity and vitality of his finest poetry, described best in the tenderly honest words of his fellow poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “act[s] of reverence toward life.”