Among the still somewhat shocking early poems of D.H. Lawrence is a group of lyrics about his mother’s final sickness and death, in which the poet deliberately presents himself as his mother’s lover. He carries his mother downstairs, and later finds her hairs on his jacket. He contemplates her on her sickbed:
My love looks like a girl to-night, But she is old.
The plaits that lie along her pillow Are not gold,
But threaded with filigree silver and uncanny cold.
A few lines on, we discover that she is indeed dead, “And her dead mouth sings/By its shape, like thrushes on clear evenings.” He calls his dead mother “my love,” “the darling,” “like a young maiden,” “like a bride,” and indeed the poem itself is called “The Bride.” And its author is quite clearly the groom.
Next to it in the volume called Amores, Lawrence’s second collection, published in 1916, we find “The Virgin Mother”:
My little love, my darling,
You were a doorway to me:
You let me out of the confines
Into this strange countrie
Where people are crowded like thistles,
Yet are shapely and comely to see.
And under this stanza, in the manuscript, an exasperated hand has written “You love it, you say!!!!!” and in the margin, “I hate it,” and by the next stanza “I hate it” again. In the third stanza Lawrence develops the theme of his indebtedness:
You sweet love, my mother
Twice you have blooded me,
Once with your blood at birth-time
Once with your misery.
And twice you have washed me clean,
Twice-wonderful things to see.
Beside this verse the horrified scholiast has written “Good God!!!!!” and by the last stanza again “I hate it.” Here is how the poem was originally going to conclude:
And so, my love, Oh mother
I shall always be true to thee.
Twice I am born, my mother
As Christ said it should be,
And who can bear me a third time?
—None love—I am true to thee.
After which Frieda Lawrence, who was responsible for these marginalia, has written:
Yes, worse luck—what a poem to write! yes, you are free, poor devil, from the heart’s homelife free, lonely you shall be, you have chosen it, you choose freely, now go your way.—Misery, a sad, old woman’s misery you have chosen, you poor man, and you cling to it with all your power. I have tried I have fought, I have nearly killed myself in the battle to get you into connection with myself and other people, sadly I proved to my self that I can love, but never you.—Now I will leave you for some days and I will see if being alone will help you to see me as I am, I will heal again by myself, you cannot help me, you are a sad thing, I know your secret and your despair, I have seen you are ashamed—I have made you better, that is my reward—
Lawrence’s major poetry grew out of rows like this. It is true that Lawrence was a writer—a poet, a novelist—well before he met Frieda. It is true also that all her objections to that poem did not stop Lawrence from publishing “The Virgin Mother,” did not stop him from giving it an ending which is even more mawkish than the first:
Is the last word now uttered?
Is the farewell said?
Spare me the strength to leave you
Now you are dead.
I must go, but my soul lies helpless
Beside your bed.
It is true finally that many of Lawrence’s contemporaries thought Frieda’s pretensions to have anything to do with the development of Lawrence’s genius quite ridiculous. But contemporaries can be just as wrong as posterity, on occasion. The struggle with Frieda, from Lawrence’s point of view, was of the essence, and we have already heard an authentically Lawrentian note in her bitter comment on the poem: “I have tried I have fought, I have nearly killed myself in the battle to get you into connection with myself and other people….” The struggle is not, as the modern cliché has it, to get in touch with one’s own feelings. The struggle is with the Other, the struggle of Man with Woman.
We are told that when Frieda came up behind Lawrence and hit him over the head with a stoneware plate, Lawrence did not complain about being hit, only about being hit from behind. He hit Frieda in their rows, and she hit him. He felt free to hate her for a while, just as she was free to despise and mock him. This was all part of the process of becoming connected. What Lawrence despised in a person, what spelled death to him, was narcissistic self-enclosure. That is what he saw in the homosexuals he met in Cambridge and Bloomsbury, and what gave him the horrors so that he had nightmares about it.
Odd then, you might say, that Lawrence should turn so enthusiastically to Walt Whitman, the apostle of comradely man-to-man love; and not just to Whitman as a poet but to Whitman as a political, spiritual mentor. But it turns out that this was not some kind of inconsistency in Lawrence. It was part of the same development, the same inquiry into his own and human nature. When he was not chasing Frieda around the kitchen table in a white rage, he might also be found in the passionate pursuit of blood brotherhood—toiling in the fields alongside his friend, the self-educated Cornish farmer William Henry Hocking.
Quite how the relationship with Hocking should be defined is a question which the Cambridge biography discusses at length and convincingly. There is no evidence of a consummated sexual relationship, and Mark Kinkead-Weekes, the author of the second volume of the three-part biography, concludes that it should be impossible to charge Lawrence with being “a homosexual who would not admit his true nature, or one who after furtive acts concealed himself in a lifelong hypocrisy.” If he had wanted a sexual relationship with Hocking, or if he had discussed such desires with him (as it seems he did—for Hocking warned his younger brother about Lawrence), it would have been for him, says Kinkead-Weekes, “an adder in the marsh.” Lawrence’s answer to himself in the face of this adder would have been that “once that dark anal fount of corruption had been openly confronted, the thought could lie down peacefully in the mind’s sunshine, its taboo neutralised, but also no longer powerful through the fascination of the forbidden.”
“There is all the difference in the world,” Lawrence wrote in a letter from 1917,
between understanding the extreme and awful workings of sex, or even fulfilling them, responsibly; and abnormal sex. Abnormal sex comes from the fulfilling of violent or extreme desires, against the will. It is not the desires which are wrong, nor the fulfilment, per se; but the fixed will in ourselves, which asserts that these things should not be, that only a holy love should be.—You see it is impious for us to assert so flatly what should be, in face of what is. It is our responsibility to know how to accept and live through that which is. It is labouring under the burden of self-repudiation and shame which makes abnormality. And repudiation and shame come from the false doctrines we hold. Desire is from the unknown which is the Creator and the Destroyer, beyond us, that which precedes us and brings us into being. Therefore Desire is holy, belonging to the mystic unknown, no matter what the desire.—Abnormality and insanity comes from the split in the self, the repudiation and the condemning of the desire, and the furtive fulfilment at the same time. This makes madness.
And in the next paragraph Lawrence says: “Art itself doesn’t interest me, only the spirit content.” Frieda’s attack in the margins of his notebook, her sense of herself wrestling Lawrence away from his sickly eroticizing of his mother’s death, her desire to force him into contact with her, Frieda—this is all entirely apropos in the case of Lawrence. Frieda’s literary judgment is not at issue. It is her spiritual judgment which counts.
And when Lawrence turns to Whitman it is not for literary but for spiritual reasons, and it is not to sit at his feet as a disciple—it is to wrestle with Whitman. “In Whitman,” he says in the essay “Democracy,” “at all times, the true and the false are so near, so interchangeable, that we are almost inevitably left with divided feelings.” And in the essay on Whitman in Studies in Classic American Literature, in which the poet is placed at the end of the American Tradition, among what Lawrence calls “post-mortem effects” are listed: “A certain ghoulish insistency. A certain horrible pottage of human parts. A certain stridency and portentousness. A luridness about his beatitudes.” It hardly sounds like the start of a eulogy, and in the next instant Lawrence’s fury has seized upon a line of Whitman’s:
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
And he rolls it around his mouth and spits it out. And then he picks it up again and puts it back in his mouth and rolls it around some more and spits it out again:
Think of having that under your skin. All that!
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn’t include all Amorous Love, by any means. If you ache you only ache with a small bit of amorous love, and there’s so much more stays outside the cover of your ache, that you might be a bit milder about it.
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
CHUFF! CHUFF! CHUFF!
Reminds one of a steam engine. A locomotive….
And he hasn’t finished yet, by any means.
Auden, in his Lawrence essay, defends this grand manner in Whitman:
Whitman quite consciously set out to be the Epic Bard of America and created a poetic persona for the purpose. He keeps using the first person singular and even his own name, but these stand for a persona, not an actual human being, even when he appears to be talking about the most intimate experiences. When he sounds ridiculous, it is usually because the image of an individual obtrudes itself comically upon what is meant to be a statement about collective experience. I am large. I contain multitudes is absurd if one thinks of Whitman himself or any individual; of a corporate person like General Motors it makes perfectly good sense.
Auden goes on to say that, while Whitman appears to have been very unlike his persona, Lawrence “wrote for publication in exactly the same way as he spoke in private” and “it is doubtful if a writer ever existed who had less of a persona than Lawrence.”