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A Genius, But…

Frieda Lawrence: The Memoirs and Correspondence

edited by E.W. Tedlock Jr.
Knopf, 479 pp., $7.50

The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence

edited by Mervyn Levy, with essays by Harry T. Moore, by Jack Lindsay, by Herbert Read
Viking, 104, (16 plates in color, 31 monochromes) pp., $12.50

The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto, edited by F. Warren Roberts
Viking, (2 vols.) 576 & 516 pp., $15.00

Frieda Lawrence to Mabel Luhan. I April 1930: “Lawrence is dead for a month, but he doesn’t seem dead, not a bit. They are arguing and quarreling about him just as ever.” All the arguing and quarreling is summed up in the cumbrous but memorable title of Richard Aldington’s life of Lawrence: Portrait of a Genius, But…Lawrence would have been as lacerated by the praise as by the withholding. “They never called Lawrence a professional writer—always a genius. That made him angry. ‘That’s my label—a genius—and with that I am dismissed.’ ” To dismiss him seems now unthinkable, but there is still the question of the size of that But…By the end of her life. Frieda was understandably weary of all the arguments and counter-arguments, but how can anybody possibly hold his tongue about Lawrence? If a man has nothing new to say about Dickens or Conrad, then he can with equanimity merely listen to what everybody else is saying. But none of us can be expected to sit silent in front of Lawrence’s woundingly personal accusations. Not to reply to his cry of J’accuse would be to admit our guilt. The crucial question—one that is of course secondary to our duty to read and to admire—is whether or not we are nearly as guilty as Lawrence insisted.

Meanwhile here are three important books to make sure that we go on caring about it. Frieda Lawrence’s Memoirs and Correspondence is more than simply a vivid self-portrait and a notable re-creation of Lawrence the man. Her own attitudes and beliefs have the added interest that they are altogether Lawrentian and yet unprotected by Lawrence’s compelling words. She was clearly a remarkable person, and she certainly could strike some bitterly accurate phrases. But all the same the absence of Lawrence’s genius with words does give us more of a chance to judge the ideas as ideas. She seems to have been a very faithful exponent of what he most believed. Much of it we too ought to believe, but the rest of it we have a better chance to judge when we are out of the immediate range of Lawrence’s glittering eye. E. W. Tedlock Jr. has made a good job of the editing. The fragmentariness of her Memoirs (“And the Fullness Thereof…”) is frankly conceded, but the text is then neatly organized into coherence. Next comes the Correspondence (1890-1956), immediate, revealing, sympathetic, and wonderfully informative. No novelist would have dared to devise so novelettish a contrast as that between the settled husband Ernest Weekley, writer about words, and the young D. H. Lawrence, writer of words. Weekley’s letters after Frieda deserted him, and her later letters to her children, are unforgettable. But they are not so strange as a later series of exchanges in middleage between Frieda and John Middleton Murry—his letters an extraordinary combination of openness and inaccessibility. The last section of the book consists of a dozen essays by Frieda, almost all precipitated by comments on Lawrence.

It adds up to a remarkable book, even for someone who finds the tone of the Memoirs much more evasive and unsympathetic than the breathless bluntness of the letters. The Memoirs, for all their fiddling with the names (Frieda into “Paula,” Angelo Ravagli into “Dario”), never achieve a free-standing independence, never in fact justify the authorial manipulation and contrivance. On the other hand, they are badly damaged as straight autobiography by the fact that when there exist two manuscript drafts of an incident, these are almost frighteningly different. The result is an inept fiction or a suspect reminiscence. Take the event which looms largest in her early life: her marriage with Weekley. It is vital that she, and her readers, should be able to see this straight, without extenuation or malice. So much of the rest of her life, and of Lawrence’s, was an itchy debate as to the rights and wrongs of her deserting Weekly. But then what are we to think of the discrepancies in the account of the wedding night? She waits for Weekly in the bedroom:

(i) She saw a cupboard and on an impulse she climbed on top of it and sat and waited. After a while her husband knocked, he came in, looked at the bed, and then saw her, her legs dangling from the cupboard. “He looks scared,” she thought, and climbed down. In the morning she looked at the lake sadly. “So that’s that. It’s a sad affair, now the door has shut on my life and I must make the best of it.” [“basic MS text,” Tedlock]

(ii) Suddenly she climbed up the old cupboard, the frills of her knickers flapping from her climbing legs. Triumphantly she reached the top, and sat there, wondering what he would do if he couldn’t find her; she laughed, but as she thought of his serious, immobile face, she climbed down again sadly and quickly got into the great big bed that was let into a recess, it seemed like sinking into the earth…[sic]

Two hours afterwards she stood on the balcony in her light blue dressing-gown for only comfort. She was in an unspeakable torment of soul. It had been so horrible, more than horrible. “Oh God,” she thought. How she would love to fling herself from the window! “Only housemaids jump from windows,” she said disdainfully. Couldn’t she get away? “No, I am married, I am married,” rang in her ears She had expected unspeakable bliss and now she felt a degraded wretch…And he slept. He slept. She stamped her foot in impotent rage. He was sleeping while she was in utter despair. Oh God, how she hated him for it, hated him helplessly, miserably. She was bound to him nevertheless, that was the horror, she was bound to that man whom she could hear breathing. Her whole inner self was on fire. [later “notebook text,” Tedlock]

and so on. The whole tone of the second passage is false, and would be so even if we hadn’t got the first version. Not an utterly reliable witness, clearly. All of which shows how precarious a business self-justification is. But then the surprise is that Frieda Lawrence could so often speak quietly and convincingly.

The Paintings of D. H. Lawrence are very different matter, and it might a good idea not to let them fall to the hands of anyone other than Lawrence’s unwavering admirers. There is some apologetic “Not of course that…” even from the present cloud of witnesses on their behalf Harry T. Moore, Jack Lindsay, Herbert Read). A reviewer who doesn’t know much about art is perhaps entitled to hope that the final expert option will deplore what seems in so many of the paintings to be brutal mindlessness. The delicacy of Lawrence’s intuitions about the body could hardly be divined from these hunking self-travesties. Fortunately The Complete Poems are enough to restore anyone’s faith in Lawrence. They really are astonishing in their mercurial versatility of observation, mood, and judgement. R. P. Blackmur, in the good days when he was still writing critical essays rather than “Essays in Solicitude and Critique,” mounted a cognent attack on them for being formless and arbitrary. I can’t feel that Mr. de Sola Pinto manages to rebut Mr. Blackmur, and this partly because Mr. de Sola Pinto, like many critics of Lawrence, seems committed to praise of what is most Lawrentian rather than of what is best in Lawrence. Like many of the great egotistical writers, Lawrence was at his best as an artist when his intense idiosyncrasy had to fight it out with his intense feeling for tradition. We may learn more about Lawrence the man from the later poems, the Whitmanesque fulminations or the hand-grenades tossed as “Pansies” and “Nettles,” but rage and order seem more fruitfully, more artistically, in balance in many of the earlier poems. We owe to Lawrence himself the rough and ready division into “Rhyming Poems” and “Unrhyming Poems,” and the rhyming ones still seem to be undervalued, partly because of guilt by association with the Georgians. Many people greet the fact that Lawrence contributed to Georgian Poetry by lowering their opinion of Lawrence rather than by raising their opinion of Georgian Poetry.

This is not to deny that he had an extraordinary gift for the kind of poetry which he advocated in “Poetry of the Present” (1918): “In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon…The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet is neither.” But we ask of the greatest poetry that it have both this plasmic immediacy and also a perfection or consummation. Who would argue that Shakespeare’s Sonnets or Keats’s Odes achieve their formal beauty only at the expense of vibrating life? There is in Lawrence’s theory and practice exactly that lurch into one-sidedness which for me characterizes almost all he wrote. The virtues of so lovely a poem as his “Sorrow” simply cannot be subsumed under his theories. Perhaps as virtues they matter less in the end than does the apocalyptic fieriness which he prized so much, but they remain virtues all the same, and Lawrence did violence to himself and to the world when he came to underrate them:

Why does the thin grey strand
Floating up from the forgotten
Cigarette between my fingers,
Why does it trouble me?

Ah, you will understand;
When I carried my mother down- stairs,

A few times only, at the beginning
Of her soft-foot malady,

I should find, for a reprimand
To my gaiety, a few long grey hairs
On the breast of my coat; and one by one
I watched them float up the dark chimney.

So final and so uncomplacent a serenity is less and less to be found as his years go by, and when we do come across a line in a later poem which seems serene in its crystallization, then it grates against its context—and often is not Lawrence’s at all;

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
But tell me, tell me, how do you know
he lost any of his brightness in falling?

Ought not the editors’ notes to have told us that the magnificent opening line is from Macbeth? Lawrence certainly had the right to argue with what the line says, but by this date his own poetic style simply could not begin to argue with such superb harmony of phrasing. But the more important juxtaposition for the early poem “Sorrow” would be one of those late aperçus, like “Dead People,” direct and total in its hatred of industrial man:

When people are dead and peaceless
they hate life, they only like car- rion.

When people are dead and peace- less
they hate happiness in others
with thin, screaming, hatred,
as the vulture that screams high up, almost inaudible,
hovering to peck out the eyes of the still-living creature.

It is a poem such as that which utterly forces me to shout that “But” to define my moral disagreement with Lawrence, to insist on how much there is in his later work which nobody ought to believe or live by. We must say Yes with his Yes, but No to his No. Again and again he insists that men who are not living a deep-rooted and instinctual life are in fact dead:

Don’t ever be kind to the smiling, tooth-mouthed dead
don’t ever be kind to the dead
It is pandering to corpses,
the repulsive, living fat dead.

(He would never have spoken like that of an animal or a bird or even a plant, which is one reason why those are his best poems.) The accusation of deadness is even crueller than old-fashioned snobbery or middle-class morality. Adulterer or vulgarian you can argue about; corpse you cannot. And Lawrence was doctor, judge and jury. The inevitable consequence of insisting, as he does with maddened persistence in the late poems, that “when people have gone utterly sunless they shouldn’t exist,” must surely be that other men will take it on themselves to judge and annihilate not merely (what justice already finds excruciating enough) crime, but also “sunlessness.”

His despair in the face of modern industrial civilization precipitated a hideous irresponsibility about the social consequences of what he wrote. The world is, heaven knows, full enough of people eager to kill and annihilate in the name of idealisms, without Lawrence of all people handing them the warrant that is implied in so appalling an image as “There are certain persons with a sort of rabies, who live only to infect the mass.” Or so callously frivolous a sentiment as this:

The tree of humanity needs pruning, badly,
it needs thoroughly pruning, not as in the late war, blasting
with unintelligent and evil destruc- tion
but pruning, severely, intelligently and ruthlessly pruning.

For me there is no option but to reject all these sentiments in Lawrence as utterly, monstrously, and pathetically misguided.

A Genius, But…The qualification defines itself in one of Middleton Murry’s questions: “But why, why did he so often preach, and act, hate?” Frieda’s reply is one of our most mischievous “stock responses” (now as stock as anything that Lawrence fought against): “Maybe after all L’s hatred was love.” But hate is hate, and not all Lawrence’s persuasiveness should make us think otherwise, any more than we ought to agree with Norman Mailer that “So long as you use a knife, there’s some love left.” “It’s ‘hate’ that makes the world go round,” exclaimed Frieda in 1915 to Bertrand Russell, but no sprinkling of inverted commas will make that more than a puerile paradox. What is perhaps just tinged with truth as part of the fierce relationship between young lovers becomes dangerous untruth when Lawrence applies it to all human relationships. The limitation of Lawrence is exactly there: that he took the relationship between young lovers as the one and only paradigm for all relationships. Frieda was right to exclaim after eloping: “It is love, but thank the Lord passion as well.” But a man’s relationship with his children neither is nor ought to be one of passion—hence Lawrence’s grave limitations (most of the time) when writing about children, artistic limitations that were aggravated by his jealousy of Frieda’s children. It was right for him to describe sexual intercourse as “the creative act that is far more than procreative,” but in practice his writing too often shows the act as creative rather than procreative. It is the same thing with friendship. Believing as he did that affection is the middle-class substitute for passion, he had no choice but to portray friendship as a passion—rather than as a real and enduring affection, something different in kind from newly married love and not merely a tame and tepid version of it. Hence the recurring tinge of homosexuality, at its silliest in the posturings of The Plumed Serpent. Of course in one sense it is a good thing that, in Frieda’s words, “Lawrence did not disbelieve in homosexuality,” and possibly she was right to insist that “the homosexuality in him was a short phase out of misery—I fought him and won.” The trouble is that the insistence on passion meant that he failed to portray (or too rarely portrayed) whole areas of human feeling which are passionate only when distorted.

But the major objection is that Lawrence so seldom gave the devil his due. It is reasonable, and may often be right, to insist that affection, kindness, gentleness, and tolerance are no substitute for deep instinctual and sensual life. And certainly no writer has ever expressed more vividly than Lawrence just what the springs of life truly are or can be. But such a writer has the further duty of justly representing affection and kindness in order that we may then with justice dethrone them. This he almost never succeeded in doing. English niceness may not be profound, and it may be often a cloak for complacency. But it is not utterly false, it is not invariably the beastliness which Lawrence everywhere sees it as. Agreed—everybody would agree—that we must not be narrow-gutted. It is easy, all too easy, to go along with Lawrence’s wholesale disapprovals:

The British Public, once more be it said
is summed up in a nice, narrow- gutted old maid.

But what exactly is your definition of narrow-gutted? Whom exactly do you have in mind? Lawrence, after all, called Jane Austen “a narrow-gutted spinster.” At which point something has gone wrong with Lawrence’s scale of measurement—and his scale of values. Before we agree to think less highly of the liberal virtues, the virtues represented by men like George Orwell and E. M. Forster (men with less genius than Lawrence, perhaps, but with an equal right to be heard)—before we agree to such de-valuing, we have to believe that Lawrence himself is saying with fairness what may be said on their behalf. He could not. So Clifford Chatterley has to be described (in A Propos) as kind when it is clear from the novel that he is about as unkind as a man could be. Appalled by the corruptions of gentleness, Lawrence was to flee it needlessly, a victim always of an urge to take needed paradoxes as literal truths. The Blakean ideal is a wonderful thing: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” Provided that we never for one moment forget that we must also hold to its opposite, sooner nursing unacted desires than murdering an infant in its cradle.

The hateful siege of contraries does not, and will not, ever let up, and Lawrence should not have written as if courage and violence would force it to. We need kindness, and even niceness, too. Something of this was clearly in Middleton Murry’s mind when at the end of his life he wrote to Frieda with generosity but without abdication:

But why, why did he so often preach, and act, hate? There’s always something that eludes and baffles me in this. I wish you would explain it, if you can: because I feel it was this in Lorenzo, that I always,—often blindly and stupidly—resisted. I don’t profess to be a genius as he was: and very likely I’m not even a talent. But I suppose I do want to feel that in my way I was trying to stand for something true.

Letters

Letters January 14, 1965

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