D(avid) H(erbert) Lawrence 1885-1930
English poet, novelist, essayist, and short story and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Lawrence's life and career from 1913 through 2000.
Lawrence is considered one of the most influential literary figures of the twentieth century. Best remembered as a novelist, he wrote prolifically in other genres, as well. In his poetry and fiction, he rejected industrialization and what he saw as its dehumanizing effects and presented instead a vision of men and women freed from the restraints of society, in harmony with the natural, physical world.
Lawrence was born in central England on September 11, 1885. His father was a coal miner who drank heavily. His mother, to whom he was devoted, was an unhappily married former schoolteacher who steered her son toward a university education and away from his father's way of life. Lawrence's Nottinghamshire upbringing was marked by family discord. Money was scarce and financial hardship caused him to rely on scholarships and periods of factory work in order to complete his education. In 1905 he graduated from a teacher-training course at University College, Nottingham, and began teaching in Croydon, a suburb of London. He had begun writing by this time, and in 1909 he began publishing verse. When his first novel, The White Peacock, was published in early 1911, his success was tempered by his grief at the recent death of his mother from cancer. Throughout the next several months he was plagued by ill health and depression. The following year he decided to quit teaching and support himself exclusively as a writer. He managed to maintain a simple lifestyle by selling a steady stream of short stories, essays, articles, and poetry to magazines, while continuing to write novels that more fully addressed his dreams of a changed world.
In 1912 Lawrence also began a passionate and stormy relationship with Frieda Weekley, the German-born wife of one of his former professors. They ran off to Germany together, returning to England in 1914 to be married after she was granted a divorce. During World War I, they were not allowed to leave England; his outspoken antiwar sentiments and her German heritage caused officials to suspect them of being spies. In 1915 the government took action against Lawrence's work by officially censoring his novel The Rainbow (1915) for its descriptions of sex and use of vulgarities. After the war, the couple left England permanently and Lawrence delighted in his own escape from the “coffin” he thought England had become. From 1919 until his death in 1930, Lawrence and Frieda lived a nomadic existence, residing first in Italy; their travels led them to France, Germany, Mexico, the United States (New Mexico), Australia, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The experiences of these years are reflected in Lawrence's fiction, poetry, and nonfiction writings of the period. Near the end of his life came the episode for which he would be most remembered. Lady Chatterley's Lover, a novel written and printed privately in 1928 in Florence, Italy, was censured by British officials for its explicit description of the physical relationship between a noblewoman and one of her husband's servants. An expurgated edition appeared in England in 1932, after Lawrence's death in 1930. His most explicit version was not published commercially until 1959, in the United States, and 1960, in England; it was the subject of heated legal debate until courts in both countries finally upheld its publication. Unaware of the legacy his controversial novel would ultimately have on the artistic and literary freedom of generations of writers, Lawrence died in the South of France on March 2, 1930 of tuberculosis.
His first published poems appeared in the English Review in 1909. Lawrence’s first volume of poetry, Love Poems and Others, was published in 1913. Subsequent collections of poetry, Amores (1916) and Look! We Have Come Through! (1917), deal with similar subject matter—primarily, the sexual and psychological relationships of men and women. Significantly, Look! We Have Come Through!, was Lawrence’s first sustained experiment in the “poetry of the present.” It was organized by an autobiographical but novelistically defined plot, a structure that emphasizes the intimate connection between Lawrence’s life, his prose, and his verse. Most of the poems in this volume are not yet artistically mature, but they are a remarkable advance towards poetic honesty. In his critically-praised volume Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), Lawrence drew upon his travel experiences in the Meditteranean and the American southwest. Written in the years right after the war, the collection is profoundly affirmative, even exuberant, as if in these poems Lawrence had resolved to express the pure “life-rapidity” he still felt, despite everything, both in himself and in the nonhuman world of nature. Later collections, Pansies (1929) and Nettles (1930), show Lawrence at his wittiest, slangiest, and most acerbic. Brief, casual verses, composed in what the writer himself described as “a loose little poem form, Frieda says with joy: real doggerel,” these pieces, as he punningly explained, were “meant for Pensées... not lyrical poetry” even while they were also intended, like pansies, to be fleeting yet rooted in “corrosive humus.” Lawrence’s death-haunted Last Poems, published posthumously in 1932, appears to be a set of prayerful meditations designed, like the spiritual exercises practiced by traditional religious thinkers from ancient Egypt to seventeenth-century England, to prepare his soul for its passage from life to death to mystical rebirth. “I intend to find God: I wish to realize my relation with Him,” the dying poet evidently told an old friend in conversation one day, and that is what he did, especially in such famously resonant and sonorous works as “Bavarian Gentians” and “The Ship of Death.” These not only explore more varied emotional and psychological territory in subject matter, but they exhibit a maturity of form, structure, and pacing not found in his previous works.
Lawrence's frank approach to writing about human sexuality led to censorship of several of his works, including the novels The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the poetry collection Pansies. More than fifty years after his death, Lawrence's controversial writings seem tame. However, during his time, Lawrence's creative vision threatened orthodox political and religious standards, with his descriptions of the natural, physical aspects of human relationships and his expressed belief that sexual freedom was a necessary cure for what he saw as the ills of an industrialized society.
Lawrence is best remembered as a novelist, not as a poet. During his life, and for a number of decades following his death, his poetry was frequently ignored or underrated. Ultimately, Lawrence’s verse has received equal respect and scholarly attention, but even staunch advocates of Lawrence note that his work exhibits an unevenness of quality, particularly among his prolific output of poetry. Marked by high emotion and intensity, some of Lawrence's lesser poems have been said to suffer from repetitive language, carelessness in metaphor, and deviation from established structural techniques and poetic norms. The poet's recurring themes, including grief for his lost mother, nostalgia for a pre-industrialized world, and the quest for sexual freedom and fulfillment, invite high emotion and, in the minds of some critics, are themselves worthy of blame in the assessment of the success or failure of particular poems. However, Lawrence's poetic voice managed to evolve from youthful uncertainty and unrestrained expression to a more refined, mature mastery of form that still conveys the sense of freedom, spontaneity, and emotional immediacy so important to the writer. Adrienne Rich lauds Lawrence as a major poet, emphasizing that the “the organic shape and movement” of the poems found in The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1957) “has nothing mindless and happenstance about it: he knows what he is doing with line-length, with diction, with pause, repetition, termination.” Keith Sagar, in the introduction to his edition of Selected Poetry (1989), is more cautious in his praise, pointing out that of the hundreds of poems Lawrence wrote, “we must concede that an unusually high proportion are unsuccessful.” Yet Sagar also asserts that in considering the best of Lawrence's verse, “we can support the claim that Lawrence is a great poet in every sense, including the technical.”