Lawrence Durrell

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

Lawrence Durrell (DUR-uhl) wrote novels, plays, travel books, humorous sketches, and poetry. The differences in genre, however, cannot obscure his fundamental and single identity as a poet. He is best known for his novels, especially The Alexandria Quartet (1962) and The Avignon Quintet (1992). Any reader of these works will recognize the same hand at work in Durrell’s poems. The beauty of language, the exotic settings, and the subtle treatment of the themes of love, death, and time are elements common to all of Durrell’s work. In addition, the novels are rife with interpolated poetry. The characters not only speak poetically, but also quote at length from Greek, Egyptian, French, and English poets. Some have questioned this plethora of verse as unrealistic; others insist that Durrell’s use of language and interpolated poetry represents a more intense reality, not a fantasy.

Durrell’s poetic drama has inevitably enjoyed less attention than his novels, but it provides an excellent showcase for his skill at characterization and his poetic gifts. Durrell himself considered several passages from Sappho (pr. 1950) good enough to include in his Collected Poems, and most readers would agree. A later play, Acte (pr. 1964), shows that his drama does not rely entirely on the author’s magnificent command of English: It was first performed in German, three years before its publication.

Ultimately, Durrell was a word artist, a poet. All genres had for him their particular virtues, and he brought to them all a poetic impulse that no change in form could disrupt.


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Lawrence Durrell’s accomplishments in prose overshadowed his work in verse. Most readers will turn to the Collected Poems only after having read The Alexandria Quartet, or perhaps one of the travel books. Durrell won no major awards for poetry, despite his consistent excellence from the 1940’s on. His name rarely appears on the lists of major English poets of the twentieth century.

All this notwithstanding, Durrell’s achievement as a poet is sound and his eventual recognition assured. His success in other genres left him well-off financially and under no pressure; he could write poetry as he pleased, with no fear of disappointing expectant readers and no burden of leadership. Precisely because Durrell made his formidable reputation as a novelist, he could approach his poetry as an alternative. This does not imply that he merely dabbled—on the contrary, every poem shows the mark of craft and diligence—but rather that the wealth of material afforded by his diverse experience and wide-ranging mind could find its expression in pure poetry. He was free to write only those poems that his good judgment told him to write.

Neither rigidly traditional nor wildly experimental, Durrell’s poems represent the subtle innovations of a consummate and independent artist. In this respect, they are reminiscent of the work of Wallace Stevens. Like Stevens, Durrell balanced the demands of tradition and the modern psyche, creating poems that the eye and the mind can follow, but that the soul does not reject as obsolete. Some of them compare favorably with the best of the twentieth century and will someday be read for their own merits, not merely for their connection with the famous novels by the same author.

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Lawrence Durrell (DUR-uhl) was a prolific writer in many genres. As a successful poet, he published many books, including Ten Poems (1932), Bromo Bombastes (1933), Transition: Poems (1934), A Private Country (1943), Cities, Plains, and People (1946), On Seeming to Presume (1948), Deus Loci (1950), The Tree of Idleness, and Other Poems (1955), Private Drafts (1955), The Ikons, and Other Poems (1966), The Red Limbo Lingo: A Poetry Notebook for 1968-1970 (1971), Vega, and Other Poems (1973), and Collected Poems, 1931-1974 (1980). He wrote three plays in verse, Sappho (pr. 1950), An Irish Faustus (pb.1963), and Acte (pr. 1964). He also published travel books such as Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), Bitter Lemons (1957), Sicilian Carousel (1977), and The Greek Islands (1978). His essays and letters have been published in several volumes, including A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952), Art and Outrage (1959), Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence (1963), edited by George Wickes, and Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel (1969), edited by Alan G. Thomas. His publisher apparently persuaded him to identify one of his books, White Eagles over Serbia (1957), as being “for juveniles.” He translated Greek poetry by C. P. Cavafy, George Seferis, and others, as well as The Curious History of Pope Joan (1954; revised as Pope Joan, 1960) by Emmanuel Royidis. He published widely in periodicals as various as Mademoiselle, Quarterly Review of Literature, New Statesman, T’ien Hsia Monthly of Shanghai, and Réalités, and he edited anthologies of poetry and collections of letters. He also spent some time working on the screenplay for the 1963 film Cleopatra. His last book published during his lifetime was a nonfiction work titled Caesar’s Vast Ghost: A Portrait of Provence (1990). Since his death, additional volumes of his writings have appeared; these include Lawrence Durrell: Conversations (1998), edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, and The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader (2004), edited by Clint Willis.


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Although Lawrence Durrell was highly respected as a poet and travel writer, it is generally agreed that his greatest accomplishments were The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet. There is little doubt that Durrell’s place in twentieth century literature rests on these extraordinary works. Throughout his career, Durrell had a sensuous, ornate, and lyrical style that sometimes degenerated into overwriting—a tendency to which he freely admitted. In his best books, however, the style reflected his Mediterranean surroundings of Greece, Egypt, or Provence, France. Influenced by Henry Miller but by no means an imitator of him, Durrell appealed to so-called literary tastes beginning with The Black Book. The popularity of The Alexandria Quartet, however, seems to be the result of the blend of an exceptional style with an exotic setting and characters, wit, and exciting plot elements such as murder, conspiracy, and unrequited love. The Avignon Quintet has these same elements and is no less a literary triumph for its lack of public acclaim.

Discussion Topics

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Does Lawrence Durrell’s intrinsic restlessness pervade his novels?

How did Durrell’s understanding of Albert Einstein influence his theory of characterization?

What in Greece, apart from its “battered vestiges,” is most interesting to Durrell?

In what ways did Durrell’s experiences between 1952 and 1957 prepare him for The Alexandria Quartet?

Contrast Plato and Durrell’s methods of examining the varieties of love.

Characterize Durrell’s lyrical response to the Mediterranean world in his poetry.


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Bengal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. Limited to Durrell’s major fiction, these essays reflect the variety of critical responses the novels elicited “from metafiction to close textual analysis to deconstruction to reader response theory.” “Overture” by Durrell gives his own understanding of the forces that shaped him. Contains a useful bibliography of secondary sources.

Bowker, Gordon. Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Bowker reveals Durrell to be a complex man beset at times by incredibly painful circumstances that he was somehow able to transmute into his fiction.

Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals. 1956. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2000. This memoir by Durrell’s youngest brother, a naturalist, covers the time the family lived in Corfu before World War II. Although hardly complete as a strict biography, this book, along with Fauna and Family (1978) offers an interesting and amusing picture of Lawrence Durrell and his literary circle.

Fraser, George S. Lawrence Durrell. London: Longman, 1970. A perceptive pamphlet-length study of Durrell’s major literary output up to 1970. Contains a select bibliography.

Herbrechter, Stefan. Lawrence Durrell: Postmodernism and the Ethics of Alterity. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999. An investigation of the notions of alterity that underlie the work of Durrell and postmodernist theory.

Kersnowski, Frank, ed. Into the Labyrinth: Essays Concerning the Art of Lawrence Durrell. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1991. This collection of critical essays and biographical reminiscences contains essays on all forms of Durrell’s writing and painting. The reproduction of art by Durrell and the chronology of his life provide information not readily available elsewhere.

MacNiven, Ian. Lawrence Durrell: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Written with Durrell’s cooperation. MacNiven had extraordinary access to both his subject and his papers (including notebooks and letters). His interviews with Durrell’s friends and lovers are integrated into a probing look at the sources of his writing. Includes illustrations, chronology, family tree, and notes.

Morrison, Ray. A Smile in His Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2005. Morrison, a friend of Durrell, analyzes his early works, including the poetry, seeing in them a connection to the later works.

Vander Closter, Susan. Joyce Cary and Lawrence Durrell: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. This annotated bibliography of secondary material is essential to anyone writing about Durrell. Reviews, essays, and critical studies from 1937 to 1983 are listed chronologically. The first half of the book concerns Joyce Cary, and the second half concerns Durrell.

Weigel, John A. Lawrence Durrell. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This revision of the 1965 study provides a clear overview of Durrell’s life and writing. The discussion of individual works is useful for students approaching Durrell for the first time. Although Durrell’s poetry, drama, and criticism are discussed, the study focuses on the novels.

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