Roger Sale is an independent critic because he looks for himself. He uses his eyes (and they are not glazed), and what he is looking for is himself: discovering his sense of being a certain person, with established but (if need be) changeable allegiances, convictions, impulses, and experiences. He has energy of judgment, he is modestly intrepid, and he can write with a proper polemical urgency. Yet Modern Heroism isn’t altogether a good book; though the subject would seem to be made for him, there is too persistent a sense that Sale is making for it. “Not so much an idea as a sort of magnetic field,” he says at once. But if there is one thing that so combative a critic can’t risk being, it is disarming.

The argument is that, in this century, heroism as it has been known in the Western world is dead and the modern writer is haunted by the “Myth of Lost Unity,” which “invites nostalgia and despair and the sense that large and heroic actions are possible now only as the schemes of fools and lunatics.”

If the despair is created by the sense that History has overwhelmed the world, then the heroism will be created in defiance of that same History. This means the modern heroes must be themselves historians…. To know what the creators of the Myth know, to feel that history may indeed have led us to a dead end, to be tempted to weep and despair, but then to defy, to weave active and new human possibilities out of all the unraveled threads of the cloth that was once whole, to insist that the human spirit need not be overcome despite all that is eager to annihilate it—that, it seems to me, is heroic activity for a modern man.

But the trio who are to embody all this are extravagantly beyond the pull of any single magnetic field: D.H. Lawrence, William Empson, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I honor Sale for honoring Empson (as much as I deplore his honoring Tolkien), but the particular niche hewn for Empson has a belated and improvised look. Mr. Sale says some telling things about Empson’s greatness, but they are said in the teeth of the hero-mongering. Mr. Sale can’t get over the fact that when he published an earlier version of this Empson essay, half a dozen years ago, he felt himself under no serious obligation at all to have much recourse to Empson as hero—the word “hero” blessed Empson lightly in passing. Moreover, Mr. Sale now does nothing—though he says much—to persuade me that Empson belongs with the tragic deplores of the modern world, those who despair of politics.

Empson’s central convictions are many and various, but strong among them is an old-fashioned liberalism which asserts its vivid loyalty to utilitarianism, progress, and politics. Mr. Sale is enabled to write excellently about Some Versions of Pastoral because there Empson is writing explicitly about heroes; but to dunk all of Empson in the same magnetic field is to warp him, producing a saddening disparagement of The Structure of Complex Words—a book which has some of the richest of Empson’s historical shafts and which Mr. Sale (delighting in Empson as historian) would have done justice to were it not that he is here at the mercy of his own notions. Aristotle and Copernicus, Empson once said, “were more intelligent (less at the mercy of their own notions) than Mr. Burtt wishes to think them.”

Then there is Tolkien. For me, the preposterous ripens to the farcical in these hushed juxtapositions:

In Shakespearean tragedy the hero is never properly understood by those around him, but Hamlet is given a soldier’s burial and Lear’s death is greeted, as Empson says, “with a sort of hushed envy.” But for Frodo none of that is possible….

“Here all that is promised in the first volume is delivered, and with a rare and wonderful and modern majesty.” But this delivers nothing but advertisers’ excitements; Tolkien’s fris-sons by guesswork have sapped Mr. Sale’s words and thoughts. “This is a stunning passage,” says Mr. Sale, palpably unstunned. Well, a great many intelligent people in the eighteenth century were stunned by Ossian, and Tolkien is our Ossian—a flaccid relief and release from the exigencies of life, with prophet’s swirlings and skirlings, and with the soupy ample cadences of instant ancient mist and instant ancient myth. Mr. Sale’s criticism here widens its eyes and its mouth to a big kid’s gosh. His main argument—that Tolkien’s imagination is a heroic confrontation of modern life, rather than a donnish decamping from it—seldom rises to the level of implausibility. “Tolkien has never said anything to lead one to believe that he recognizes that what is greatest and most poignant in his imagination is its modernity, and anyone who tried to convince him of this would be both foolish and rude.” To try to convince us, not rude, but scarcely less foolish.


To think of Ossian and its wispy heroics is to ask again about history, but Mr. Sale’s book stands oddly to the history (or History) which it claims to respect and fear. The outstanding name that outstandingly does not get into the index is that of the man who wrote the brilliant, substantial, luridly profound and lividly maladroit book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. “It is a thing for ever changing, this of Hero-worship: different in each age, difficult to do well in any age. Indeed, the heart of the whole business of the age, one may say, is to do it well.” To refuse to listen to Carlyle, and so not to profit from him, has its willfulness; Mr. Sale could have defined and refined his argument (with both more vigor and more scruple) if he had cared about Carlyle, and especially about “The Hero as Man of Letters.” Carlyle’s trio—Johnson, Rousseau, Burns—is more interanimating than Mr. Sale’s. Carlyle was well aware that “few shapes of Heroism can be more unexpected.”

This same Man-of-Letters Hero must be regarded as our most important modern person. He, such as he may be, is the soul of it all. What he teaches, the whole world will do and make. The world’s manner of dealing with him is the most significant feature of the world’s general position. Looking well at his life, we may get a glance, as deep as is readily possible for us, into the life of those singular centuries which have produced him, in which we ourselves live and work.

So many of the features of modern heroism posited by Mr. Sale were limned by Carlyle more graphically—and more precisely. To read On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History again after Modern Heroism is to see that some of the arguments will not advance so long as they bypass Carlyle. Especially as Mr. Sale’s true hero—the man on whom he writes most convincingly because most convinced by—is D.H. Lawrence, and Lawrence’s greatness is partly that of a true heir of Carlyle. Even now, in academic snuggeries, it is still offered as a denigration of Lawrence, not a glory, that he so often brings Carlyle to mind. “But, on the whole, we are not altogether here to tolerate.” “Small thanks to a man for keeping his hands clean, who would not touch the work but with gloves on.” Carlyle said much that Lawrence rightly felt urged to say again, in Lawrence’s case more powerfully, because in a closer affinity with action, with daily life, and with the supplenesses of impulse.

Mr. Sale does not keep his gloves on when he touches Lawrence. The strength of his criticism here is its subtle incarnation of its larger arguments—concerning Lawrence’s sense of history, his visionary power, his feeling for the passage of time—in the details of Lawrence’s very words. There is the amplitude of a mere change of tense:

“During his recuperation, when it was really over between them, both made an effort to come back somewhat to the old relationship of the first months of their marriage. He sat at home and, when the children were in bed, and she was sewing—she did all her sewing by hand, made all shirts and children’s clothing—he would read to her from the newspaper, slowly pronouncing and delivering the words like a man pitching quoits. Often she hurried him on, giving him a phrase in anticipation. And then he took her words humbly.”

The shift in tense in the second sentence, from the simple past of “He sat at home” to the imperfect of “he would read to her,” is one of Lawrence’s most powerful weapons for simultaneously giving his scene the particularity of a specific event, as though it happened only once, and the generality of a pattern in the relationship, as though it happened in effect many times over.

Or there is Lawrence’s way with prepositions; or a remarkably unremarkable extension of “when” so that it becomes “whenever”; or the urgency, assured and definitive, that can accrue to the simplest of sentences: “He wanted her to come back.” Where with Tolkien Mr. Sale was forced to be full-blown and exclamatory, with Lawrence he can be—has to be—patient. He is enabled to express a new thing, in sincerity—the words are those of a Lawrence letter which he quotes:


You know how willing I am to hear what you have to say, and to take your advice and to act on it when I have taken it. But it is no good unless you will have patience and understand what I want to do. I am not after all a child working erratically. All the time, underneath, there is something deep evolving itself out in me. And it is hard to express a new thing, in sincerity.

Frank Kermode’s Lawrence doesn’t come alive to me as a new thing, and this is partly because it so little conveys any sense the Lawrence remains new in an important way to Professor Kermode—or indeed conveys any sense of why people ever found Lawrence exhilaratingly, intimidatingly, or enablingly new. Mr. Kermode writes with his gloves on. “We shall need to remember, in speaking of the sexual aspect of his ‘metaphysic,’ that his most extreme speculation had a substructure of experience.” Experience suffocates below substructure; as it does when “using some ‘metaphysic’ as an heuristic instrument,” or in “reflections on the genital-excrementatory syndrome.” “For Connie it is a ritual death, with the phallus as psycho-pomp.” Of Lawrence’s rewriting: “the most remarkable of these agons attended the gestation of The Rainbow and Women in Love.” But agon, so equably uttered—as if a man were placidly to place the Laocoon by remarking “these agons.” Or there is the defensiveness of “tiresome,” a word twice wagged at Lawrence—defensive because it prefers to deprecate rather than deplore or repudiate.

Nor does Mr. Kermode let himself (and it really seems to be a case of not letting himself) attend heartedly to Lawrence’s exact words; at no point was I made to notice anything about how Lawrence precisely impinges upon those who read him. The criticism is about the relation of Lawrence’s ideas to his art, but the criticism itself remains obdurately ideate.

But Connie, though moved by this talk of “the resurrection of the body” and a “democracy of touch” (VII) finds more than words in Mellors; even as she deeply senses “the end of all things” she is capable of receiving “in her womb” the shock of the vision of the gamekeeper’s body as he washed: “the pure, delicate, white loins, the bones showing a little, and the sense of aloneness” (VI).

“More than words”: and yet, within the novel, never less than words; the quick assimilation of descriptive fragments within the critical argument does Lawrence’s words damage.

Yet in some curious way it was a visionary experience: it had hit her in the middle of the body. She saw the clumsy breeches slipping down over the pure, delicate, white loins, the bones showing a little, and the sense of aloneness, of a creature purely alone, overwhelmed her. Perfect, white, solitary nudity of a creature that lives alone, and inwardly alone. And beyond that, a certain beauty of a pure creature. Not the stuff of beauty, not even the body of beauty, but a lambency, the warm, white flame of a single life, revealing itself in contours that one might touch: a body!

Lawrence’s lambency asks this whole paragraph, because it shines from the play of “she” and “her” and “it” against the now powerfully unspoken he, him, and his (words which had rung eleven times in the preceding paragraph); and from the play of singularity and plurality, the beautiful singularity and singleness of a body—the few plurals (breeches, loins, bones, contours) at one with the single, in “aloneness,” in “a creature purely alone,” and in “a single life.”1

Mr. Kermode announces “the important job” at once: “to show how the visionary is contained by the novelist, how the prophetic fury is woven into the silk.” I don’t know what that reminiscence of Othello’s handkerchief is doing there (on the face of it, it has a weird pungency of inappositeness), but the nub—visionary/novelist—is indeed an old true nub. “And here Lawrence tames and uses an old theory of his”—tames? Still, fifty years ago these were the terms adopted by Lawrence’s greatest antagonist, T.S. Eliot.

One writer, and indeed, in my opinion, the most interesting novelist in England—who has apparently been somewhat affected by Dostoevsky, is Mr. D.H. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence has progressed—by fits and starts, it is true; for he has perhaps done nothing as good as a whole as Sons and Lovers. He has never yet, I think, quite surrendered himself to his work. He still theorizes at times when he should merely see. His theory has not yet reached the point at which it is no longer a theory, he still requires (at the end of Aaron’s Rod) the mouthpiece for an harangue. But there is one scene in this book—a dialogue between an Italian and several Englishmen, in which one feels that the whole is governed by a creator who is purely creator, with the terrifying disinterestedness of the true creator. And for that we can forgive Mr. Lawrence his subsequent lapse into a theory of human relationships. [The Dial, 19222 ]

But the hauteur of Eliot’s last sentence is made tense by the previous “terrifying.” Eliot does write as if Lawrence has put or might put the fear of God into him. Mr. Kermode doesn’t write as if Lawrence has ever put the fear of God into him, or even into anybody. “But the truth is again that no source is necessary; with his own variations, Lawrence is conforming to a prophetic typology.” Yet should the saying of this, in its tone, come to rest so much in feeling relieved? Not relieved by Lawrence—that is a true power of his art—but relieved of him.

At the start of Mr. Kermode’s “Epilogue,” there is a disconcerting double misquotation—“the apples in ‘The Ship of Death,’ that fall ‘to bruise an exit for themselves.’ ”

The apples falling like great drops
   of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from

In this book on Lawrence, who is the most taxing of those writers in whose service a critic must put himself greatly at risk, Mr. Kermode has effected a sadly bruise-free world; he hasn’t succeeded in either the right kind of exit from himself or the right kind of entry into himself. Safe, he has vouchsafed what Carlyle calls “only a profession and assertion from the outworks of the man, from the mere argumentative region of him.” I wish that he had not written it.

This Issue

January 24, 1974