The Taming of D. H. Lawrence

Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence

by Anthony Burgess
Arbor House, 276 pp., $15.00

D. H. Lawrence: Life into Art

by Keith Sagar
University of Georgia Press, 372 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Class, Politics and the Individual: A Study of the Major Works of D. H. Lawrence

by Peter Scheckner
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 176 pp., $24.50

D. H. Lawrence: A Centenary Consideration

edited by Peter Balbert, edited by Phillip L. Marcus
Cornell University Press, 261 pp., $25.00

The White Peacock

by D. H. Lawrence, edited by Andrew Robertson
Viking, 416 pp., $22.50

The Prussian Officer and Other Stories

by D. H. Lawrence, edited by John Worthen
Viking, 272 pp., $18.95

Letters, Volume III

by D. H. Lawrence, edited by James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson
Cambridge University Press, 762 pp., $49.50

If there is one quality about D. H. Lawrence that wins the wholehearted approval of Anthony Burgess in his very readable tour through the life and works, it is Lawrence’s Englishness. Lawrence was “the most English of writers,” writes Burgess, “the sort of good Englishman I can never myself be”: a sound animal-loving man full of blunt empirical sense squarely in “a tradition of British Non-conformist decency.” If he does sometimes go on a bit about sex, “he knows in time when to leave off.”

A second feature that gets good marks from Burgess is Lawrence’s professional approach to his job. “He demand[ed] neither silence nor seclusion…. He never whined about distraction or writer’s block; he got on with his trade…. He belongs to [an] Edwardian tradition of steady application to the craft,” a tradition with which Burgess—author by now of nearly thirty novels, as well as books about Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Joyce—fully identifies himself. “It seem[s] to me, as it must have seemed to [Lawrence], reasonable to sit down at a table every morning and fulfill a minimal daily quota of a thousand words.” The blame for bringing such honest professionalism into disrepute, Burgess suggests, should be laid at the door of Lawrence’s foes, the snobs and poseurs of Bloomsbury.

As a technician of the novel, Burgess’s Lawrence went about his writing blithely unaware of the pitfalls that contemporaries like Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Joyce, heirs of Flaubert, saw all about them in narrative point of view. “What was good enough for Thomas Hardy, and even George Eliot, was good enough for him.” In his indifference to theory he was “very British.” “[He] seems to bypass [art] and interpose nothing between the reader and the vision…. To read him is to feel oneself in contact with a personality that has broken through form and rhetoric and confronts one in a kind of nakedness.”

Despite his down-to-earth approach and his tendency to dismiss Lawrence’s more extravagant flights in favor of his shrewder, more self-aware side (“He is never without humor or irony”), there are depth and generosity enough in Burgess’s response to Lawrence. But I wonder whether the no-nonsense treatment always serves Lawrence well. I will give one instance.

Burgess is at some pains to downplay any homoerotic element in Lawrence, particularly in his discussion of the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love and of Lawrence’s proposal of a pact of blood-brotherhood to Middleton Murry. He rejects any sexual interpretation of the latter episode, suggesting instead that “an innate power hunger…had to be exercised over some chosen man, since it did not work with the chosen woman [i.e., Frieda was too tough], and this was implausibly presented as a mere longing for fraternal love.”

But it seems to me that we would be taking Lawrence more seriously if we viewed these and other explorations of the potential of male friendship in the light of Lawrence’s erratic, tentative, but persistent efforts to discover a basis on which to build, or at least conceive, a community larger than the married couple—a community whose ideal form he blessed with the name “Rananim.” We might also see his emphasis on a plighted brotherhood as a reaction to what Sandra M. Gilbert (in an essay discussed below) diagnoses as his fear of the Great Mother, of female generative power. In any event, the passional relation of man to man is too fundamental an issue in Lawrence to be categorized as other than passional.

Burgess treats us to some mildly surprising revaluations of individual works. He devotes twenty pages to Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, concluding that it is “even an important novel” (F. R. Leavis called it “painfully callow”), and twenty-four pages to Kangaroo, which he labels “the strangest but in some ways the most satisfying novel of his entire career.” He gives high praise to the poems, claiming that lines from the Look! We Have Come Through! sequence bring tears to his eyes as he copies them out. On the other hand, he admits with relief—now that it is no longer a holy cow—his dislike of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Demystification is not always a good thing,” he suggests, apropos Lawrence’s use of taboo words, and buttresses his disapproval with an etymological excursus on “fuck” to prove that the word has always stood for a brutal, aggressive, and impersonal act.

The “phallic tenderness” Lawrence preaches in Lady Chatterley Burgess considers to be “a doctrine of escape, an extrapolation of [Lawrence’s] own success in getting away from the squalor of his boyhood by marrying Frieda and plunging into the land of grape and olive and the smiling priapic statues.” From what was the adult Lawrence trying to escape? Burgess suggests it was from the industrialization and mass culture whose ugly evidences he witnessed on visits to his native Midlands in 1925 and 1926. But the escape into sex may also have been from increasingly desperate and unconvincing efforts—the last in The Plumed Serpent—to portray a future society based on brotherhood and proud male independence.

Burgess’s book is a decent, unpretentious one—in this respect very “British” itself—aimed at ordinary intelligent readers. His purpose is to take Lawrence’s life and work together and make sense of them, and by and large he achieves this purpose, though at the cost of overemphasizing the shrewd craftsman in Lawrence and taking less than wholly seriously the vatic prophet and priest of love. There is perhaps a touch too much of anecdotalism, and the dark motive Burgess imputes to the censors of The Rainbow—that they acted against the book because they recognized Lawrence to be a great novelist—was almost certainly not there. (Has the time not come for a moratorium on gibes about censors, particularly when the censors are dead and one is anyhow preaching to the converted?) Whether Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature gave quite the fillip to American literary studies that Burgess claims is to be doubted: the discipline was already a thriving one in 1923. The most eloquent words in the book are, finally, not Burgess’s but the tribute he quotes from Lawrence’s friend Aldous Huxley:

He had an extraordinary sensitiveness to what Wordsworth called ‘unknown modes of being.’ He was always intensely aware of the mystery of the world, and the mystery was always for him a numen, divine.

Keith Sagar has already published two books on Lawrence, one a work of criticism, one a biography. In this, his third, he goes back to Lawrence’s manuscript drafts and letters in order to trace, not so much the evolution of the final versions from the drafts, as the genesis of Lawrence’s ideas. He devotes himself mainly to the novels of early maturity (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love), to the novellas St. Mawr and The Escaped Cock, and to the poems and plays.

The danger of an approach like Sagar’s is clear: that of giving undue attention to themes and episodes for which written sources exist at the expense of those for which sources have not survived. But since Sagar is not attempting to base any overall interpretation of Lawrence on his researches, this bias does not matter much. His book is an honest product of the Lawrence research industry (the Modern Language Association Bibliography, a year-by-year index of international scholarly activity, records seventy-two books and articles on Lawrence in 1983, as against sixty-five on George Eliot and fifty-seven on Hardy; Joyce notches up 137). Its interest for the general reader lies in the picture it gives of Lawrence at work, dissecting Hardy’s metaphysics in order to develop his own philosophy of metaphysical marriage, or worrying at his own premises, through draft after draft, till sometimes these are transformed into their polar opposites.

Sagar knows his Lawrence well and, as far as he is prepared to take us in the maze of texts he has assembled, is a reliable guide. He is not prepared to lead us into the deeper chambers, where such questions are asked as: How does one respond when Lawrence writes the unwritable: “We might [easily] spare a milion or two of humans / And never miss them. / Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of [a] slim yellow mountain-lion”? Sagar’s words of mild chiding, insofar as they turn a lazy eye to a very Lawrentian piece of provocation, come down to no less than a taming of Lawrence’s subversiveness. We should be wary of centenary years: they offer opportunities to celebrate, but temptations to domesticate too.

In his short book, Peter Scheckner traces the course of Lawrence’s political thinking. Scheckner’s contention is that Lawrence wrote his best work while he was most deeply engrossed with the question of the relation of private to public life, but that he was unable to reconcile his desire for the end of industrial capitalism with his reluctance to commit himself to mass action to destroy it; he therefore ended his life retreating from social concerns into an idyll in which the importance of sex became artificially magnified.

Scheckner is surely correct in his claim that the “thematic dynamism” of much of Lawrence’s fiction emerges from an evenly balanced distaste for both capitalism and mass movements, reflected in an ambivalence toward working men which he recognized very clearly in himself: “I love them like brothers—but, my God, I hate them too.” Lawrence thought of himself as one of the working class, at least in “blood affinity.” But he felt that the British working class betrayed itself by joining in the patriotic fervor of the First World War. When the general strike came in 1926, he recoiled from the violence that went hand in hand with it, as well as from what he regarded as its disappointingly materialistic objectives.

As the son of a genteel mother who had married into the working class, and later as a member of a declassed intelligentsia, Lawrence’s emotional involvement in class relations was deep. In his writing his great theme is freedom. But about politics and particularly about economics, his ideas are often worse than naive. Had he lived deeper into the age of fascism, he would undoubtedly have made as much of a fool of himself as Ezra Pound was to do: there was certainly in him enough of a mix of furies of hatred (which, to give him his due, he recognized as “vicious against the deep soul that pulses in the blood”), yearning toward the strong man or leader, and utopianism.

Lawrence’s creative life provides yet another chastening demonstration that simple, even simple-minded ideas, explored to their uttermost with passionate persistence, can issue in great art. Somewhere in the back of his mind Lawrence knew this, knew that his own feelings and desires were mere grist for artistic processes whose operations he had best not interfere with or scrutinize too closely. “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance,” he wrote. “When the novelist puts his thumb on the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.”

Scheckner’s study is most useful when it gives attention to the neglected plays and to the so-called leadership novels: Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent. It is a rather airless book, concentrating myopically on Lawrence’s texts with barely a glance at fellow members of an intelligentsia squeezed, like Lawrence, between a right and a left equally indifferent to their interests. In order to prove that Lawrence jettisoned his working-class sympathies too precipitately in 1914, retreating into a sterile misanthropy, Scheckner presents working-class resistance to the Great War as rather more principled and uniform than it really was—as a reading of his main source, G. D. H. Cole’s Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789–1947, will confirm. Most surprisingly, Scheckner pays no serious attention to the thesis that Lawrence was never a socialist in embryo, but rather a radical conservative hankering after a preindustrial world of organic agricultural communities and craftsmen.

Of the collection of eleven essays by diverse writers on miscellaneous Lawrentian topics, D. H. Lawrence: A Centenary Consideration, three concern literary history and biography. A. Walton Litz discusses Lawrence’s brushes with Ezra Pound between 1910 and 1914, when Pound was trying to claim him as a member of the Imagist group; Charles Rossman outlines Lawrence’s life in Mexico and the uses he made of Mexican material; and Phillip L. Marcus analyzes congruences and divergences between Lawrence and Yeats. The remaining essays are heterogeneous, though never less than interesting. Peter Balbert discusses marriage in The Rainbow as a means by which the male may be reborn into the future. Robert Kiely explores Lawrence’s ambivalent desire for nature to be both itself and symbolically expressive. George J. Zytaruk gives a useful synopsis of the “doctrine of individuality” set out in scattered form in Lawrence’s polemical writings. Marjorie Perloff discusses the poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers as “performance arenas” in which fusion of subject and object (man and fish, man and pomegranate) may take place, making a stronger case for Lawrence as an innovatory poet than he perhaps deserves. Mark Spilka sketches the evolution of the critic Mark Schorer’s thinking about Lawrence. (Is this last a truly significant addition to Lawrence studies, one wonders?)

The three essays that stand out are by Sandra M. Gilbert, Avrom Fleishman, and Maria DiBattista. Gilbert traces the explorations into the Great Mother archetype by the anthropologists J. J. Bachofen, J. G. Frazer, and Jane Harrison, and Lawrence’s response to his reading of them, namely, overt admission of the power of the female balanced by a covert element of dread and rejection. She follows the nuances of this response in a reading of the novella “The Ladybird,” which she reveals to be a highly ambivalent story about the creative powers of the female. Fleishman traces the effects on Lawrence’s fictional craft of reading and translating Giovanni Verga, showing how, by the time of St. Mawr, Lawrence had come to master, in a phrase of Mikhail Bakhtin’s, a “dialogized heteroglossia,” a technique of interchanging and opposing linguistic registers.

In her essay on Women in Love, Maria DiBattista sees Lawrence engaged with the notion of fate, both as the destiny of the individual life and as the overall plot form of the novel. If plot conventions, Lawrence ruminates in his study of Hardy—that is to say, established, canonical representations of what forms individual destinies can take—can be liberated, might life not follow art, and individual liberation ensue? But into what alternative plot of life should such liberation take place? Might life not find itself trapped in another set of conventions, a false fate? Caught up in these questions, Lawrence the prophetic leader in the wilderness of the modern world and Lawrence the explorer beyond the safe “walled city” of the novel become the same person.

In DiBattista’s reading, Women in Love does not fully succeed in charting a road into the future for the novel. But in its ending it at least repudiates the classic novelistic closure of marriage in favor of the “true fate” for which Rupert Birkin somewhat inarticulately longs: the venture into the unknown.

This brief synopsis can give little idea of DiBattista’s wide-ranging and provocative essay. DiBattista has fruitful things to say about the interplay between Lawrence and Nietzsche (“Marriage: the sphinx-riddle of modern times”), Hardy (on work as a way to rediscover every day the elements of reality: matter, weight, light, heat), and Lévi-Strauss (totemism as a principle of honoring the law of difference and therefore as a guide to democracy in which otherness can flourish). In DiBattista’s reading, Women in Love begins in a rejection of the conclusion of The Rainbow (to which it was originally coupled as a novel called The Sisters): the rebirth of the world in the visionary ecstasies of Ursula, the redeemed woman. Thereby Lawrence abjures his claims to knowledge of female desire and restores to women their difference, “their mystery and freedom as novelistic subjects.”

Three more volumes have appeared in the Cambridge edition of Lawrence, which, under the general editorship of James T. Boulton and Warren Roberts, will eventually give us reliable texts of all the works. It is not generally realized how corrupt some of the Lawrence texts are on which we have hitherto based our judgments. The White Peacock, Lawrence’s first novel, is a case in point. Begun in 1906, it went through numerous metamorphoses before emerging in 1911 to critical acclaim in no small part orchestrated by an admiring Ford Madox Ford. But what appeared in print was far from what Lawrence had written, and even further from what he had wanted to write. Every time his manuscript passed through strange hands there was a censoring pressure: even for the sake of gentlewoman copyists it had first to be sanitized. After the sheets had been printed, his publisher was still fussing over words that might offend sensitive readers and asking for deletions. The Cambridge editor has therefore gone back to Lawrence’s manuscript, making thousands of corrections (mainly of copyists’ errors) and giving us a White Peacock we have never seen before.

The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (not the title Lawrence wanted) came out in 1914, collecting stories written over the previous seven years. It was neither a critical nor a commercial success. It was labeled “morbid” and “brutal,” this response foreshadowing the hostility with which The Rainbow was to be met a year later. The collection includes “The Odour of Chrysanthemums,” the story that convinced Ford that Lawrence was a great writer in the making.

In 1914 Lawrence was invited to write a book on Hardy. Of all English novelists, it was Hardy that he felt closest to. He accepted the commission and began a rereading of Hardy’s oeuvre. The book, however, was never written. Over the next few years he reembarked on it at least six times. The emphasis gradually shifted from Hardy to Lawrence himself, and the book became “a sort of Story of my Heart,” an exploration of his own beliefs. What had happened was that Lawrence had discovered a need in himself to clarify the thoughts that were going into The Rainbow, and was using the Hardy study as a workbook. Most of the Study of Thomas Hardy we have is an exposition of an anti-Darwinian philosophy in which “the final aim of every living thing…is the full achievement of itself,” not mere survival, and in which the sexual act is interpreted as a step by the male into the unknown at the same instant that he leaves his seed behind in the female as a pledge to the future. But some twenty pages of the Study are devoted to Jude the Obscure, one of the great readings (or creative misreadings) of our time, in which Lawrence relives the Jude–Arabella–Sue triangle as if the three were characters in one of his own novels, and re-visions their experience from the inside. He thus reimagines Hardy, as he was later to reimagine Cooper and Melville, in ways that would have bewildered his originals.

By creating a vacuum, [Sue] could cause the vivid flow which clarified [Jude]. By rousing him, by drawing from him his turgid vitality, made thick and heavy and physical with Arabella, she could bring into consciousness that which he contained.

It is Lawrence’s material imagination, his poetics of blood, rather than Hardy’s moral imagination, that we see at work here.

Volume III of the Letters covers the period from late 1916 to mid-1921, when Lawrence was writing Aaron’s Rod and a fair amount of poetry, and trying to find a publisher for Women in Love. The period includes the darkest years of Lawrence’s life, when he was trapped on the British Isles by a war he loathed, kept under surveillance as a suspected enemy agent, hounded out of his home by the military police, and subjected to vilification as a filthy pornographer. Lawrence was a busy correspondent, but most of his busyness can be attributed to (a) not having a telephone and (b) living apart from his circle of friends, rather than to (c) a desire to set down his profoundest thoughts in letters. Of the more than two thousand letters in the volume, the vast majority are quick notes about money, literary business, social arrangements. After the Lawrences move to Sicily in 1919 the quality of the letters to friends back in England picks up: they become relaxed, descriptive, often gay and humorous.

Tucked among the ephemera, however, one can find uncompromising enough opinions on art and the public (“There should be a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything. Pure thought, pure understanding, this alone matters”—1917); on England (“a country accursed physically and spiritually…. Let the seas swallow it, let the waters cover it”—1917); on the Italians (“really rather low-bred swine nowadays: so different from what they were”—1920); as well as on the unending slaughter in Flanders (“My soul, or whatever it is, feels charged and surcharged with the blackest and most monstrous ‘temper,’ a sort of hellish electricity…. I am no more a man, but a walking phenomenon of suspended fury”—1918). Every now and again he gives us the purest of insights into what he is up to as a writer (“It seems to me, if one is to do fiction now, one must cross the threshold of the human psyche”—1918). If any correspondent is singled out as worthy of his deepest communications, it is the writer Katherine Mansfield.

What is happening to D. H. Lawrence in his centenary year is part of the inescapable fate of the classic. His excesses and provocations are being absorbed, his dark places illuminated. Recuperated into the main stream of English literary culture, he is accepted on all sides as one of our great teachers: a diagnostician of the illnesses of the psyche brought about by industrial culture, a poet of visionary insight into buried levels of life. Consigned during his lifetime to the periphery, he is now firmly at the center. His politics, his psychology, his metaphysics, once so outrageous, no longer shock us: we have satisfied ourselves that, in his art, they are subjected to flames of fictional experience hot enough to burn all the dross out of them. In the documentary materials he has left behind we can follow this purifying process stage by stage.

It must at once be said that Lawrence is the strongest ally of this recuperative effort. Trust the tale, not the teller, he said over and over again. No one has, to my knowledge, pointed out that this piece of advice, being one of the teller’s own utterances, is a Cretan Liar paradox. Logically, there is no more reason for taking it as a claim for the primacy of the creative unconscious than as an expression of ambivalence and defensiveness on the part of Lawrence the teller. Why has it been adopted as the foundation stone of Lawrence criticism? First, I would guess, because it seems to authorize the kind of exclusive concentration on the text with which our critics are most comfortable; and second, because it allows us to push much that is scandalous in Lawrence (“What our blood feels and believes and says, is always true,” for example) to the periphery of our attention.

Being admitted as a classic always involves a risk of emasculation. Lawrence had a liking for foxes: sharp-smelling, sharp-toothed, hairy beasts; crafty outlaws, stealthy thieves. The pillars of Edwardian society, to their credit, smelled the fox in Lawrence and harried him without mercy. If Lawrence is losing his power to scandalize, then either we are missing something in our reading of him or his day has passed. I would prefer to believe the former.