Wednesday, 11 June 2014

D. H. Lawrence's Pansies and Nettles

D. H. Lawrence’s final poems were gathered in two collections: Pansies and Nettles. These poems were radical ruptures with his previous, more conventional poetry. No longer was he concerned with alliteration, sounds, extended metaphors and natural imagery. These poems were punchier, more aggressive, seething with anger, often politically didactic and a window into his problems with British society’s conservative moralities and hypocrisies. Lawrence, despondent with the poor reception of his work, not to mention the actions to confiscate his work, especially his paintings, on obscenity grounds, poured all his rage into these poems. For that reason they are a sort of soul diary of his final years, revelling in his bitterness and outsider status. Finally, it’s important to point out the comical value of many of Lawrence’s diatribes.

We can start with this sarcastic attack on the elite mentality (at least I think that’s what it is)

To be Superior

How nice it is to be superior!
Because really, it's no use pretending, one is superior,
isn't one?
I mean people like you and me.
Quite! I quite agree.
The trouble is, everybody thinks they're just as superior
as we are; just as superior.
That's what's so boring! people are so boring.
But they can't really think it, do you think?
At the bottom, they must know we are really superior
don't you think?
Don't you think, really, they know we're their
I couldn't say
I've never got to the bottom of superiority.
I should like to.

Lawrence was the son of a coal miner. Was this poem his way of venting his anger at the fact that he’d never be part of the establishment, or at least be invited by Mrs. Woolf for the Bloomsbury Group?

When Wilt Thou Teach the People?

When wilt thou teach the people,
God of justice, to save themselves - ?
They have been saved so often
and sold.
O God of justice, send no more saviours
of the people! ....
Or Napoleon says: Since I have saved you from the
you are my property, be prepared to die for me, and to
to work for me. -
Or later republicans say: You are saved,
therefore you are our savings, our capital
with which we shall do big business. - ....
And so it goes on, with the saving of the people.
God of justice, when wilt thou teach them to save

Ah, here it is, the man who changed his own fate thanks to sheer effort, study and willpower. As you can imagine, Lawrence’s politics are complicated, and he didn’t side with either left or right, as we shall see in further poems.

All that we have is Life

All that we have, while we live, is life;
And if you don’t live during your life, you are a piece of dung.

And work is life, and life is lived in work
Unless you’re a wage-slave.
While a wage-slave works, he leaves life aside
And stands there a piece of dung.

Men should refuse to be lifelessly at work.
Men should refuse to be heaps of wage-earning dung.
Men should refuse to work at all, as wage-slaves.
Men should demand to work for themselves, of themselves, and put their life in it.

For if a man has no life in his work, he is mostly a heap of dung.

Another self-made man poem. The directness and harshness of the poem reminds me of V.S. Naipaul’s first sentence for A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Could Naipaul be a fan?

Then we have four anti-money poems that may trick the unwary reader to think Mr. Lawrence was a dangerous anarchist:


Why have money?
Why have a financial system to strangle us all in its octopus arms?
Why have industry?
Why have the industrial system?
Why have machines, that we only have to serve?
Why have a soviet, that only wants to screw us all in as parts of the machine?
Why have working classes at all, as if men were only embodied jobs?
Why not have men as men, and the work as merely part of the game of life?

True, we’ve got all these things
Industrial and financial systems, machines and soviets, working classes.
But why go on having them, if they belittle us?
Why should we be belittled any longer?

O! Start a Revolution

O! Start a revolution, somebody!
Not to get the money
But to lose it all for ever.

O! Start a revolution, somebody!
Not to install the working classes
But to abolish the working classes for ever
And have a work of men.


Money is our madness, our vast collective madness.

And of course , if the multitude is mad
The individual carries his own grain of insanity around with him.

I doubt if any man living hands out a pound note without a pang;
And a real tremor , if he hands out a ten-pound note.
We quail, money makes us quail .
It has got us down , we grovel before it in strange terror .
And no wonder, for money has a fearful cruel power among men .

But it is not money we are terrified of ,
it is the collective money - madness of mankind.
For mankind says with one voice : How much is he worth ?
Has he no money ? Then let him eat dirt , and go cold -

And if I have no money , they will give me a little bread,
So I do not die,
but they will make me eat dirt for it.
I shall have to eat dirt, I shall have to eat dirt
if I have no money

It is that I am afraid of .
And that fear can become a delirium .
It is fear of my money-mad fellow-man.

We must have some money
To save us from eating dirt .

And this is wrong.

Bread should be free ,
shelter should be free ,
fire should be free
to all and anybody , all and anybody , all over the world.

We must regain our sanity about money
before we start killing one another about it .
It's one thing or the other.

Kill Money

Kill money, put money out of existence.
It is a perverted instinct, a hidden thought
which rots the brain, the blood, the bones, the stones, the soul.

Make up your mind about it:
that society must establish itself upon a different principle
from the one we've got now.

We must have the courage of mutual trust.
We must have the modesty of simple living.
And the individual must have his house, food and fire all free like a bird.

But Lawrence was in fact not a man for revolutions. For one thing he lacked the idealism of revolutionaries, hated dichotomies, and to my mind saw the future revolution as the product of self-deluded people. Lawrence, you see, was very much the writer of Caustic Truth and mocked whoever accommodated himself in illusions:

The Optimist

The optimist builds himself safe inside a cell
And paints the inside walls sky-blue
And blocks up the door
And says he’s in heaven.

Bourgeois and Bolshevist

The bourgeois produces the bolshevist, inevitably
As every half-truth at length produces the contradiction of itself
In the opposite half-truth.

A Sane Revolution

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don't make it in ghastly seriousness,
don't do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

Don't do it because you hate people,
do it just to spit in their eye.

Don't do it for the money,
do it and be damned to the money.

Don't do it for equality,
do it because we've got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the apple-cart
and see which way the apples would go a-rolling.

Don't do it for the working classes.
Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracies on our own
and kick our heels like jolly escaped asses.

Don't do it, anyhow, for international Labour.
Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of.
Let's abolish labour, let's have done with labouring!
Work can be fun, and men can enjoy it; then it's not labour.
Let's have it so! Let's make a revolution for fun!

Lawrence’s belief in truth was also the reason why his work was so often confiscate, edited and forbidden. This was not only related to his novels but also to his sexually graphic paintings. One day the police apprehended his paintings from a gallery, a traumatic event that the author mentions several times in his poems:

Thirteen Pictures

O my thirteen pictures are in prison!
O somebody bail them out!
I don’t know what they’ve done, poor things, but justice has arisen
In the shape of half a dozen stout
Policemen and arrested them, and hauled them off to gaol.

O my Boccaccio, O how goes your pretty tale
Locked up in a dungeon cell
With Eve and the Amazon, the Lizard and the frail
Renascence, all sent to hell
At the whim of six policemen and a magistrate whose stale
Sensibilities hate everything that’s well?


The body of itself is clean, but the caged mind
Is a sewer inside, it pollutes, O it pollutes
The guts and the stones and the womb, robs them down, leaves a rind
Of maquillage and pose and malice that would shame the brutes.

Finally the Pansies and Nettles are a great read because they’re the clearest, most direct pathway into Lawrence’s weird brain, and it’s a joy to just read his impressions on whatever theme he writes about:

When I read Shakespeare

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
that such trivial people should muse and thunder
in such lovely language.

Lear, the old buffer, you wonder his daughters
didn't treat him rougher,
the old chough, the old chuffer!

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folks' whoring!

And Macbeth and his Lady, who should have been choring,
such suburban ambition, so messily goring
old Duncan with daggers!

How boring, how small Shakespeare's people are!
Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.


I wish people, when you sit near them
Wouldn’t think it necessary to make conversation
And send thin draughts of words
Blowing down your neck and your ears
And giving you a cold in your inside.


Man knows nothing
Till he knows how not-to-know.

And the greatest of teachers will tell you:
The end of all knowledge is oblivion,
Sweet, dark oblivion, when I cease
Even from myself, and am consummated.


There is nothing to be look at any more,
Everything has been seen to death.

Men Like Gods

Men wanted to be like gods
So they became like machines
And now even they’re not satisfied.

Men and Machines

Man invented the machine
And now the machine has invented man.
God the Father is a dynamo
And God the Son a talking radio
And God the Holy Ghost is gas that keeps it all going.

And men have perforce to be little dynamos
And little talking radios
And the human spirit is so much gas, to keep it all going.

Man invented the machine
So now the machine has invented man.


  1. Thanks for posting these. There is a lot to say about these.

    Men and Machines is very much in line with the theme of some of his novels.

    His insights into Shakespeare seem to get to the point of not just Shakespeare but a lot of great art.

    1. I love how he accuses Macbeth and his wife of "suburban ambition," as if they were a modern middle-class couple with ambitions above their station. Class and class prejudice were never too far from Lawrence's mind.