Friday, 6 June 2014

D. H. Lawrence, Poet




D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) is principally remembered for his novels. But I have a tendency to investigate writers from their least-known achievements, and in Lawrence’s case I was surprised to find out he was a poet too. In fact he wrote something like 600 pages’ worth of poetry (I’m using the Wordsworth Edition as a reference). In my ignorance I like to split it in two big groups: first there’s the Romanticism-fuelled, lyrical poetry of the Edwardian Age, not that different than what Housman or Yeats produced around the same time. Then there’s the Pansies, (a pun on pensées, French for thoughts), that is, poetic diaries where he registered what was going on around him. Those are my favourite ones. But there are treasures from his Edwardian period.

I remembered to post this because of many formal and technical similarities with Yeats’ poetry. For instance, the musicality of the verses. Just consider this:

From a College Window

The glimmer of the limes, sun-heavy, sleeping,
   Goes trembling past me up the College wall.
Below, the lawn, in soft blue shade is keeping
   The daisy-froth quiescent, softly in thrall.

Beyond the leaves that overhang the street,
   Along the flagged, clean pavement summer-white,
Passes the world with shadows at their feet
   Going left and right.

Remote, although I hear the beggar’s cough,
   See the woman’s twinkling fingers tend him a coin,
I sit absolved, assured I am better off
   Beyond a world I never want to join.

The l-sound is repeated with ascents and descents, the vowels opening and closing in a sing-song melody (low, law, lue) that carries us through the verses. I miss this musicality a lot from modern poetry. And then there’s the ironic turn of the poem. It begins with a stock description of Nature, idyllic, but then he narrows it; suddenly it’s no longer just Nature, virgin, innocent Nature, but nature around a paved street; the human element has entered it, defiling. And it ends with a college student watching, not nature, but a beggar receiving a coin, anxious not to be part of that scene. Lawrence was the son of a coal miner and only through diligence did he achieve a scholarship that allowed him to pursue his studies and eventually enrol in a college. Is this autobiographic? The dread of a self-made man at returning to the poverty of his childhood?

Better than his nature poems, are his metaphysical poems, full of allusions and uneasy images. One of his pet themes is that innovative, bold people are usually met with scorn and hatred by society:

Prophet

Ah, my darling, when over the purple horizon shall loom
The shrouded mother of a new idea, men hide their faces,
Cry out and fend her off, as she seeks her procreant groom,
Wounding themselves against her, denying her fecund embraces.

Then there’s something like this little nightmare poem:

Thief in the Night

Last night a thief came to me
   And struck at me with something dark.
I cried, but no one heard me,
   I lay dumb and stark.

When I awoke this morning
   I could find no trace;
Perhaps ‘twas a dream of warning,
   For I’ve lost my peace.

A characteristic from his early poetry is the length of the poem. He wrote very long poems. His Pansies, by turn, are very compact. Some of his best poetry, however, can be found inside his long poems. From “Dreams Old and Nascent” we get a stanza like this:

Over the nearness of Norwood Hill, through the mellow veil
Of the afternoon glows still the old romance of David and Dora,
With the old, sweet, soothing tears, and laughter that shakes the
   sail
Of the ship of the soul over seas where dreamed dreams lure the
   unoceaned explorer.

Which contains another one of his pet themes, man, the artist, as an explorer, wrestling with life to find new truths. The poem “New Heaven and Earth” also has several of my favourite verses by Lawrence:

I

And so I cross into another world
shyly and in homage linger for an invitation
from this unknown that I would trespass on.

I am very glad, and all alone in the world,
all alone, and very glad, in a new world
where I am disembarked at last.

I could cry with joy, because I am in the new world, just ventured in.
I could cry with joy, and quite freely, there is nobody to know.

And whosoever the unknown people of this unknown world may be
they will never understand my weeping for joy to be adventuring among them
because it will still be a gesture of the old world I am making
which they will not understand, because it is quite, quite foreign to them.

II

I was so weary of the world
I was so sick of it
everything was tainted with myself,
skies, trees, flowers, birds, water,
people, houses, streets, vehicles, machines,
nations, armies, war, peace-talking,
work, recreation, governing, anarchy,
it was all tainted with myself, I knew it all to start with
because it was all myself.

When I gathered flowers, I knew it was myself plucking my own flowering.
When I went in a train, I knew it was myself travelling by my own invention.
When I heard the cannon of the war, I listened with my own ears to my own destruction.
When I saw the torn dead, I knew it was my own torn dead body.
It was all me, I had done it all in my own flesh.

III

I shall never forget the maniacal horror of it all in the end
when everything was me, I knew it all already, I anticipated it all in my soul
because I was the author and the result
I was the God and the creation at once;
creator, I looked at my creation;
created, I looked at myself, the creator:
it was a maniacal horror in the end.

I was a lover, I kissed the woman I loved,
and God of horror, I was kissing also myself.
I was a father and a begetter of children,
and oh, oh horror, I was begetting and conceiving in my own body.

IV

At last came death, sufficiency of death,
and that at last relieved me, I died.
I buried my beloved; it was good, I buried myself and was gone.
War came, and every hand raised to murder;
very good, very good, every hand raised to murder!
Very good, very good, I am a murderer!
It is good, I can murder and murder, and see them fall
the mutilated, horror-struck youths, a multitude
one on another, and then in clusters together
smashed, all oozing with blood, and burned in heaps
going up in a foetid smoke to get rid of them
the murdered bodies of youths and men in heaps
and heaps and heaps and horrible reeking heaps
till it is almost enough, till I am reduced perhaps;
thousands and thousands of gaping, hideous foul dead
that are youths and men and me
being burned with oil, and consumed in corrupt
thick smoke, that rolls
and taints and blackens the sky, till at last it is dark, dark as night, or death, or hell
and I am dead, and trodden to nought in the smoke-sodden tomb;
dead and trodden to nought in the sour black earth
of the tomb; dead and trodden to nought, trodden to nought.

V

God, but it is good to have died and been trodden out
trodden to nought in sour, dead earth
quite to nought
absolutely to nothing
nothing
nothing
nothing.

For when it is quite, quite nothing, then it is everything.
When I am trodden quite out, quite, quite out
every vestige gone, then I am here
risen, and setting my foot on another world
risen, accomplishing a resurrection
risen, not born again, but risen, body the same as before,
new beyond knowledge of newness, alive beyond life
proud beyond inkling or furthest conception of pride
living where life was never yet dreamed of, nor hinted at
here, in the other world, still terrestrial
myself, the same as before, yet unaccountably new.

And let’s not forget his famous eroticism and interest in open sexuality. One of his best uses of metaphors comes from the very long poem “Figs,” which I only post here partially. It starts with him describing a fig and suddenly it turns into a woman, amazing:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic:
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit:
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

Involved,
Inturned,
The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled;
And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.
Symbols.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.
That’s how it should be, the female should always be
   secret.

A good poet, Lawrence, certainly his poems are worthy of more attention. Next time we’ll read some of his Pansies, which are a different type of poetry.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. I really am impressed with some of Lawrence's novels but have not read any of his poetry.

    The thing about humans interacting and interfering with nature that you mention is such a reoccurring theme with Lawrence.

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    1. Brian, I only knew Lawrence's Woman in Love, which I thought was a fine novel, very heartbreaking at the end. His poetry was a pleasant surprise, and I even rate it higher than Yeats'.

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  2. Agreed on "Women in Love." I thought that its prequel, The Rainbow, was just a little more compelling. It's theme was a bit more coherent and the character development was very impressive.

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    1. Brian, I thought the characters were well defined in Women in Love too; but I especially loved the language, it was sensuous and lyrical at times. I shall read The Rainbow one day.

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