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From Some Ashes No Bird Rises

It was a miserable war, a dirty war, a war fought low in the loins, in his tubercular chest, in the loving, bitter household of himself, the pits, in the flame he liked to fancy was an image of all honest healthy phallic life; his sharply burning beard and head circumnavigated in Brett’s paintings of him by a wake of holy light or by the ship of death—it was hard, sometimes, to tell which. “Savage,” he said (he and Henry Savage were sitting on the edge of a Kent cliff, and Lawrence was striking his chest), “I’ve something here that is heavier than concrete. If I don’t get it out it will kill me.” It was Lawrence, of course, who was in there, glaring past the ribs like Rilke’s panther past its bars, and there were always other bars before him, colliery chimneys and mother’s arms, banning judges, timid editors, tea-cup society, sycophants and sucking friends, abundant Frieda…the menacing female monolith.

His hand was often used to stop his mouth. His cough boiled by his fist. “…after our Crucifixion, and the darkness of the tomb, we shall rise again in the flesh, you, I, as we are today, resurrected in the bodies….” In the physical sense, what this meant was very simple. The flesh should rise; it should be swollen with the power of the blood; then, at last, it should be feasible and safe to enter women. But there was always that dangerous limpness after, that weakness, that depletion; there was always the fear, in the middle of success, that this was the end, the sexual ash; there was always in him this awareness, at the very moment of his exultation, when he had in fact triumphantly come through it (and a curse upon such consciousness), that the woman to whom he’d given his seed and feeling had won somehow a vital battle; that she had brought it off herself, committed theft, ensnared his soul as she’d enclosed his penis. Presumably, it was the great adventure, a fall into the future.

It is so arranged that the very act which carries us out into the unknown shall probably deposit seed for security to be left behind. But the act, called the sexual act, is not for the depositing of the seed. It is for leaping off into the unknown, as from a cliff’s edge, like Sappho into the sea.

For Lawrence, the green fuse celebrant, sex was suicidal. “It is so plain in my plant, the poppy,” he goes on to say in his study of Thomas Hardy^1 how the life-force flows through the stem to flower.

…a little hangs back, in reservoirs that shall later seal themselves up as quick but silent sources. But the whole, almost the whole, splashes splendidly over, is seen in red just as it drips into darkness, and disappears.

The famous doctrine is a futile deception, but the images are honest, and they graphically describe the danger. The poppy blooms, but it bleeds to do so. The snake of the well-known poem, for instance, who comes to drink at the water trough too, honors the poet with his presence; he induces reverence; and the poet overcomes the voice of an education which tells him the gold snakes of Sicily are venomous and must be killed—he’s even grateful to his guest—till the snake puts his head back in that dreadful hole he came from, that entrance to darkness, whereupon the poet throws a stick at the trough and misses his chance, as he says, with one of the lords of life. St. Mawr, the marigold stallion and color of Lawrence, still “don’t seem to fancy the mares, for some reason,” though he’s an animal enfleshment of potency.

There’s also a poem about the sex-scream of the tortoise (“half music, half horror”), in which the poet wonders why we were crucified into sex. This seed-fear often fruits in hate: the phallic sacrifice, and the expressionless, hard-eyed Indian who plunges a hard flint knife into a drowsy willing modern woman. “The clutching throb of gratification as the knife strikes in and the blood spurts out!” Sacrifice or crucifixion: were these the sole alternatives to a hermit’s isolation and lonely abstinence? Wrestling with his demons, Lawrence wrote of “The Escaped Cock” (a perfect title for him), of Quetzalcoatl, The Plumed Serpent, of The White Peacock, “The Flying Fish,” “The Fox,” and also of the almond tree, the gentian, wild animals, reptiles, bull fights, birds, neutering women and neutered men, the red geranium and other flowers, flowers which were, significantly, mostly male, except the snapdragon, which was not, and then of farms and mining towns and seaports, peasants, mating elephants, game keepers, indians, rectors, whales, of hillsides terraced with flowers, of deserts redeemed by flowers (he wrote endlessly of flowers, as, everywhere, the weather: sun, moon, stallions, stars), and found his safest and most hopeful symbol finally in the figure of the phoenix, bird of burning and rejuvenation.

THE FIRST VOLUME of Lawrence’s posthumous papers was published thirty-two years ago, and now, with yet another volume to companion it, this important collection has been handsomely reissued. There are no letters, poems, or plays, but otherwise the total range of Lawrence’s writing is represented: articles, reviews, translations, travel sketches, stories, religious and philosophical effusions, prefaces to his own poems, autobiographical snippets, forewords and fragments, from every period and of every quality except flat. Lawrence may weary his reader with his railing, but his work is never lifeless; he is fully there in every line, for they are cries of his, these lines, and they are as he is, and go as he goes, whether well or ill, precisely. Nowhere in these pieces does he touch bottom as he does in parts of Kangaroo or The Plumed Serpent; nowhere is he as sick as he was when he wrote “The Woman Who Rode Away”; seldom is he as silly as when he did parts of The Fantasia of the Unconscious, though portions of his book on Hardy are; rarely, also, did he write with such luminous and original beauty as he manages in “Flowery Tuscany,”2 or “The Flying Fish,”3 or display his remarkable powers of characterization more completely than in his Preface to Maurice Magnus’s Memoirs of the Foreign Legion,4 and never, I think, is he as sane and cogent in argument as in the essay, “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”5 The set is certainly superbly titled, for Lawrence lives, as the kids say: bright, burning, acrid, and smoky.

Lawrence dreamed of black beetles. “You must leave these friends,” he commanded Garnett, “these beetles, Birrell and Duncan Grant are done forever.” Bloomsbury gave him nightmares. How the name would have chilled him, like a piece of ice, had he bitten it in half! Beetles, he said, live and feed in a world of corruption; their knowledge ends in the senses, with decay. The force of his fears was so great that the pages of his work, especially these in the volumes of Phoenix, are like shouts he’s raised up in his sleep, and we are bothered when such insistent realities seem to issue from a distant, dreaming mouth. Cuddling was decay; doting, cooing, was decay; it was licking out the bowl before spooning out the porridge. This seemed impossible and sickening to Lawrence. The mind, he claimed, had become a servant of abstraction, industry, and sensuality.

Thus there is less kissing in the later novels: neither Mellors nor Cipriano is inclined to woo; and though the flint knife phase finally passed (he even considered calling Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in a woeful moment, Tenderness), he never allowed love to become an individuating matter. “You can’t worship love and individuality in the same breath,” he writes in “…Love Was Once a Little Boy.”6 Petting is personal; fucking is not. And he goes on in this essay to admire the impassivity, the separateness, of Susan, his cow. So what does tenderness turn out to be? “dirty” words spoken softly? a gentle pat on the ass? a phallus girt with flowers like a filling station ringed with flapping plastic celebrational pennants? The lady’s satisfaction was to come from the size of her master’s passion (spiritually speaking), and the completeness of her submission to it: “Ah! and what a mystery of prone submission, on her part, this huge erection would imply!” It’s felt by Kate, by Alvina, by many other heroines, to be a form of death. Well—better a she than a he.

SUCH LOVE-MAKING is ultimately abstract: Man coming to Woman. Me—Tarzan. You—Jane. And part of its primitive quality is due to its generality, the alleged universal sameness of instinct. The Id has no personality; it doesn’t take snuff or wear spats; it entertains no opinions; it is utterly without eyes; and every expression of it that isn’t straight is bent, and bent perversely, mainly by the mind. It’s this love-making mush that’s sex in the head. So every act of intercourse involves a risk, a loss of individuality, of separateness. Yet the dark gods of the mines provide the fuel for life, for the vital burning of the bird; the descent must then be risked, however dangerous or humiliating; even if Tarzan is tiny, with a sunken chest; even if he’s the smaller of the two tortoises in those revealing poems.

Much of Lawrence’s writing, it seems to me, is symptomatic speech, controlled only by his inner reality, and measurable by little else. His work cries out to the world: accept me! and sotto voce: maybe then I can accept myself. And just as Nietzsche, sick too, overwomaned, powerless to put into the world the power he knew, within, he had, was driven to work his will, instead, with words; so Lawrence wrote novels, stories, essays, of challenge and revenge, composed elaborate and desperate daydreams, disposing of his problems and his friends, recreating himself, rewriting his forlorn history. Still, at night he had other dreams. “I hate your love,” he once shouted at Murry, “I hate it. You’re an obscene bug, sucking my life away.”

LIFE was daily to be started in a new spirit. Lawrence would found a colony, Rananim. Bertrand Russell could be president. In Florida. In, perhaps, New Mexico. On the Marquesas. It would be a place “apart from this civilization” where he’d have a few other people by him “who are also at peace and happy, and live, and understand,” and where he’d “be free.” Free. With Russell and Mansfield, and Murry and Frieda and Brett, with Campbell, the Cannans, Koteliansky, and Gertler…peaceful, happy, kindred spirits all.

If he could only live in his dream. And it seemed so reasonable. He asked only to be free, free of himself, free and proud, a man. Then, and only then, would his agony be ended, and Lawrence would enter his nature, enter into a nature in a way no animal had to, for no animal was separate from itself in this fashion, no animal had to knock on the door of its being and ask for entrance, no animal had, malformed, alone, to struggle toward itself. Even a rose, moving out from its stem and flowering finally, did it all easily, thoughtlessly, according to harmonious law. Oh to be shed of this Protestant skin, this shame, this hesitation, these many weaknesses, these phallic inadequacies!

Lawrence among the flowers and the animals: how free he felt, how accepted, how alive—until he returned to Frieda who stood in the doorway, absorbing the light. Behind her: publishers, reviewers, judges, critics, Bloomsbury. When the rabbit wrinkled its nose it was wondrous; when Lytton did it, it was not. This human world attacked him, robbed him of his manhood, reminded him constantly of his background, his social origins, his shortcomings, his inability to reason off the cuff. Consumed with rage—impotent rage—he felt himself superior yet cut down, a genius made a fool of, a prophet mocked, while St. Mawr burned like a jewel in his paddock, and the stars burned in the skies like the eyes of wild animals. Meanwhile Lawrence burned with fever, his soul consumed itself, his body wasted, and the only place it was cool was in the sun, in the rarer airs, in the burned dryness of the desert. Rejected by publishers and the public, harried out of Cornwall like a spy, sick, he writes an utterly hateful note to himself, and mails it to Katherine Mansfield: “I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption…. The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you.” From some ashes, no bird rises.

This restless, articulate, flashing, impassioned man mistook taciturn, slow-spoken, stupid, selfish, stubbornly absorbed, immovable types—tenders of horses, gamekeepers, indians (the one in “St. Mawr” is called Phoenix)—the touch-me-nots, those who seldom “came to women,” who held themselves aloof or lived alone like the wooden heroes of the West, in whom there seemed to remain something wild and untamed as their origins or surroundings were—he mistook these for the true Males of Nature, representatives of (may some god aid us!) the “twilit Pan.” Earlier, before he’d begun to think of himself as the Nottingham indian, he carried on with the farmer, a similar romance. For example, in The Rainbow. Incredibly (unless we understand the myth he’d thrown up like a barricade), what he admired were amputees; but Lawrence could not—he dared not—see the missing member.

So while the public Lawrence cooked, and cleaned, and kept house, and was sweet and gentle with the sick, and leaned against women, and railed against them like a woman, too, and fought with his tongue and threw crockery (and was cracked in the head from behind once by Frieda—with a plate), and was mean and cruel as a squaw in a home where harpy often flew at harpy; the private Lawrence knew his acts were passive, his love was passive, his rages, too, were passive, and he hated his life, and regarded it as essentially unmanly, a life lived at low wick.

…there is no real truth in ecstasy,” he informed Gordon Campbell. “Ecstasy achieves itself by virtue of exclusion; and in making any passionate exclusion, one has already put one’s right hand in the hand of the lie.”

But Lawrence’s life was built on passionate exclusion, and every book was a battle, vast lines of good and evil rushing pell mell at one another…fanatics of the single sword. And this is the Lawrence we are asked to admire, Lawrence the warrior, the champion of sexual apartheid. Well, minds with sore teeth prefer their foods soft boiled. Certainly, it is no service to an author to admire him for his moments of disaster. Driven by his demons to write about sex, he was prevented by the animosity among them to write well about it; for when Lawrence wishes to render these feelings, he turns to an abstract, incantational shorthand, often full of biblical overtones and antique simplicities, phrases which are used like formulas, reiterated until they become meaningless: hearts grow bitter and black and cold, souls melt or swoon, bodies freeze or burn, people are rapt or blind, they utter strange blind cries, their feelings ebb and flow (much, indeed, is watery), they are rigid or langorous, they “go mad with voluptuous delight,” they over-master or submit, bowels move poignantly (with sentiment enough to fertilize the earth), and their eyes sing, laugh, dance, stab, harden, burn, flash, seize, subside, cool, dim and die. One lust could do for another, angers are peas, nothing is clearly envisaged, nothing is precise, and we pass through them soon in a daze.

Yet when Lawrence felt he could go unprotected, when he allowed things, landscapes, people, to enter him, when he didn’t befog them first with his own dark dreams, but took his feeling naked through his eyes, alert in all his senses as an animal, then there was no greater sensualist, no more vital, free, and complete a man, no more loyal and tender a lover. How remarkably he renders the rabbit, “Adolf,”7 or the dog, “Rex”8 ; how perfectly, in a few pages, he puts “The Miner at Home”9 before us; while books like Sea and Sardinia are perfect miracles of living form and sensuous language.

EVEN AT HIS BEST, though, his mind is held back, for the mind is memory and argument, the mind is self-awareness, the mind is guilt, and the mind is that which looks down when you are crossing a high place; it puts all in confusion, doubt; and many of his essays reprinted in the Phoenix are efforts made by his feelings to harness reason, to make it serve him, and then he takes nothing in, sees nothing but himself. There is no landscape, there are no hills, no stones; there are only sermons, defenses, wailing and gnashing of teeth, only enemies, and agony of spirit, whittling him, pairing him, cutting him down. Lawrence was right, there was a lover living in him, a great one, an übermensch, a celebrator of life, a healthy soul; but there was also Lawrence the weasel, the little frightened momma-boy, the death-seeker, the denier, the sick and terribly weak one, opening his coat to flourish before us a phallus in the form of a flower.

Still, life was daily to be started in a new spirit. Letters, essays, bubbled by his fist. Tolstoy has wet on the flame of life! A new spirit…a rabbit held trembling in the hand of his father. Men must have the courage to draw near women, expose themselves. Lawrence grew a beard: “behind which I shall take as much cover henceforth as I can, like a creature under a bush.” So to found Rananim. “I shall die of a foul inward poison.” The rabbit’s white tail, as it flees, is a flag of spiteful derision. Merde, it says: merde! merde! merde! A new spirit…”I curse England, I curse the English, man, woman, and child, in their nationality let them be accursed and hated and never forgiven.”

From such ashes, no bird rises.

  1. 2

    Phoenix I.

  2. 3

    Phoenix I.

  3. 4

    Phoenix II.

  4. 5

    Phoenix II.

  5. 6

    Phoenix II.

  6. 7

    Phoenix I.

  7. 8

    Phoenix I.

  8. 9

    Phoenix I.

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