In a note to his COLLECTED POEMS of 1928, D. H. Lawrence explains that he tried to arrange the poems in chronological order “because their personal nature made them, in effect, a biography of inner life and experience. Lawrence’s poetry, which is not widely read, succeeds for just this reason; reading through the volumes, one must agree with the poet, for the poems, rough as they often seem, sometimes even crude and apparently rapidly composed, are everywhere alive; they pulse with the currents and cross currents of their author’s tempestuous life and affairs. This effect is remarkable in any body of poems, and Lawrence’s are also remarkable for their haunting, incantatory cadences. In other words, the poems are seldom witty or intellectually complex; they do not sustain, nor often require, a great deal of explication or analysis. Perhaps better, they require, even demand, that the reader open himself to them, to the gusts of emotions—anger, bitterness, tenderness, outrage, nostalgia, regret, love—which make up their form and content, and which are artistically controlled and expressed chiefly in haunting though generally a-metrical rhythms.
The poems, up to 1923, revolve around Lawrence’s early loves, and his mother, especially. The background of these poems, which are all rhymed, may be supplied easily by anyone familiar with his autobiographical novel, SONS AND LOVERS. Then there is the death of his mother, which completes the volume of rhymed poems and forms, as Lawrence says, the “climax” of the first volume of the collected poems. Chronologically overlapping these poems, which run through the war into 1918, are the unrhymed poems of LOOK! WE HAVE COME THROUGH, the poems which deal mainly with the love and torments of his marriage to Frieda, who left a husband and two children to marry Lawrence, and their life in Austria and in England during the war. The poems in “Birds, Beasts and Flowers” are mainly of the Mexican and New Mexico sojourn of 1920-1923, and conclude the first volume. Beyond these, Lawrence’s poems, most notably in PANSIES and NETTLES, become stridently political and anti-social. Roughhewn and full of disdain, anger, and even hate, often near hysteria, full of preachings and pronouncements, these poems are mostly ephemera. Then, with last poems like “The Ship of Death,” he reaches the apex of his poetic career. Haunting, mysterious, religious, the poem is a unique contribution to modern verse.
It is nearly impossible to illustrate the nature of Lawrence’s poetry with short quotations, for the poems build slowly from a perception, an image, to a flash of realized emotion. They are deceptively simple, for the curve of feeling is often very complex. They are organic growths, and the art with which Lawrence can build a poem to a climax is disarming. Details are introduced; they slowly become focused and symbolic as a persona, a viewpoint, is established, a conflict—emotional, sexual—is gradually engaged and developed through incremental repetition. Then the full experience blossoms forth, usually directly stated, and the poem, a little drama built out of the countercurrents of image and response, is completed. To quote a line or stanza hardly reveals the process, for it is a process, a chaffing, rhythmic movement building a tension and bringing a release, that is Lawrence’s method. There is, therefore, more intensity and significance in the cadences and reiterations of detail than in single images or memorable lines. The poems grow, develop; they are not set pieces at all. Of course, all poems work in some such way, but Lawrence’s more purely so, and with the attendant risk of flatness, prosaic-ness, and loss of form.
At his best, however, the accumulating reiteration of line, image, and thought has the effect of a chant or incantation. The poem becomes, as in “The Ship of Death” or in “Bavarian Gentians,” a kind of ritual; or, in a poem like “Snake,” it is as if the...
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