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.”
What Auden says of Whitman’s persona applies particularly to the “Calamus” poems, the section of Leaves of Grass which speaks most of comradely love, but which contrives to leave doubt in the mind about what is meant by any of its key terms. When we read, say, the erotic poems of Cavafy, we are in no doubt at all what is being talked about—a love life necessarily furtive but which constitutes the most highly valued experience of the poet. When we read Whitman, who appears to be proclaiming some message at the top of his voice, a message which is intended to transform the whole of society, we find ourselves in a quandary about what the message actually is. There is a Higher Furtiveness in Whitman, as the poet himself recognized. He told Edward Carpenter: “There is something in my nature furtive like an old hen! You see a hen wandering up and down a hedgerow, looking apparently quite unconcerned, but presently she finds a concealed spot, and furtively lays an egg, and comes away as though nothing had happened!”
Everything Whitman says about man-to-man love has a quality of deniability, precisely because, as Auden says, the “I” of the poems is not an actual human being. By an extraordinary feat of communication, Whitman managed to conjure up a homoerotic vision for those who wanted to hear about it, and indeed for those who were ready to be outraged; meanwhile those who wanted manliness, nudism, and elevated thoughts found manliness, nudism, and elevated thoughts.
Above all Lawrence did not turn to Whitman for his elevated thoughts. Whitman, he wrote,
was the first heroic seer to seize the soul by the scruff of her neck and plant her down among the potsherds.
“There!” he said to the soul. “Stay there!”
Stay there. Stay in the flesh. Stay in the limbs and lips and in the belly. Stay in the breast and womb. Stay there, O, Soul, where you belong.
Stay in the dark limbs of negroes. Stay in the body of the prostitute. Stay in the sick flesh of the syphilitic. Stay in the marsh where the calamus grows. Stay there, Soul, where you belong.
Thought is rooted in feeling, feeling is a function of the body, desire is a mystery, and all desires are holy. Lawrence does not see Whitman as a corporate being. He will not allow him his persona. He would have him write as a distinct individual, distinctness being a Lawrentian moral quality, and where Whitman is hesitant and cryptic Lawrence would have him explicit, committed, and queer.
Exasperation was the name of Lawrence’s Muse. A part of the exasperation in the published version of the Whitman essay becomes more understandable when you see what Lawrence had to suppress. The first version of the essay, which Lawrence anticipated would have to be either dropped or revised, confronts Whitman’s queerness in a way the published version does not. The published version talks about
This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time. All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe.
The unpublished version, which is summarized and excerpted by Kinkead-Weekes, pays tribute to Whitman’s exploration of the secrets of the “lower self,” but Lawrence finds that it amounts to a “monstrous, a shattering half-truth, a devastating, thrilling half-lie.” Whitman cannot “merge himself altogether into woman” (a) because such merging is impossible, and (b) because he is too proud: to “yield himself to complete absorption and inglutination by the woman” would be “a debâcle far too ignominious for a great man like Whitman.”
But behind the celebration of comradely love in the Calamus poems lies an ancient mystery: that of the “‘passional’ circuit between the lower ganglia of man with man.” Beyond the lower and sacral ganglia—beyond the intercourse of man with woman—beyond all this, says Lawrence in his weird way,
beyond all this is the cocygeal centre. There the deepest and most unknowable sensual reality breathes and sparkles darkly, in unspeakable power. Here, at the root of the spine, is the last clue to the lower body and being, as in the cerebellum is the last upper clue…. Here is our last and extremest reality. And the port, of egress and ingress, is the fundament, as the vagina is port to the other centre.
So that, in the last mystery of established polarity,…the last perfect balance is between two men, in whom the deepest sensual centres, and also the extreme upper centres, vibrate in one circuit, and know their electric establishment and readjustment as does the circuit between man and woman. There is the same immediate connection, the same perfection in fulfilled consciousness and being.
He is talking about sodomy, but not the nasty kind of sodomy that went on in Cambridge, or the pederastic sodomy of ancient Greece, in which the adult possesses and imposes himself upon the youth, but rather Lawrence is talking about a darkly sparkling democratic sodomy, a sodomy of the open road.
Once Lawrence had identified this mystery, he could, to all intents and purposes, forget all about it. It no longer troubled him or gave him nightmares. Auden thought that Lawrence was the only English poet to have been beneficially influenced by Whitman. There is a reason for this: there was never any danger of Lawrence mistaking his own personality for that of Whitman, no danger of his merging—he hated merging—himself with Whitman. Merging was death, because merging was the loss of self. Merging was Whitman’s fatal tendency:
Whitman came along, and saw the slave, and said to himself: “That negro slave is a man like myself. We share the same identity. And he is bleeding with wounds. Oh, oh, is it not myself who am also bleeding with wounds?”
This was not sympathy. It was merging and self-sacrifice. “Bear ye one another’s burdens”; “Love thy neighbour as thyself”: “Whatsoever ye do unto him, ye do unto me.”
If Whitman had truly sympathized, he would have said: “That negro slave suffers from slavery. He wants to free himself. His soul wants to free him. He has wounds, but they are the price of freedom. The soul has a long journey from slavery to freedom. If I can help him I will: I will not take over his wounds and his slavery to myself. But I will help him fight the power that enslaves him when he wants to be free, if he wants my help, since I see in his face that he needs to be free. But even when he is free, his soul has many journeys down the open road, before it is a free soul.”
The writer who makes such distinctions is not going to allow Whitman to impose upon him. Lawrence begins in exasperation, and he will only allow himself to admire when he sees how and where Whitman fails.
Compare that little poem by Ezra Pound, “A Pact.”
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.
That was first collected in Lustra, in 1916. Lawrence, surely, would have hated that last line. “Let there be commerce between us”—as if one turned to Whitman for commerce. And what, come to think of it, could Whitman gain from commerce with Pound? “We have one sap and one root”—this is a kind of identification that Lawrence would never make. Furthermore, Pound seems to be valuing Whitman for a poetic achievement on which he, Pound, can now build, or from which he can now profit. But Lawrence is not interested in poetic achievement in that way at all:
The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral.
But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.
And we have already heard Lawrence say that art itself doesn’t interest him, a remark which, like Wilfred Owen’s “Above all I am not concerned with poetry,” is designed to provoke the interest it affects to shrug off.
If we turn to what Eliot and Pound wrote about vers libre at around the time that Lawrence was wrestling with Whitman, we experience an inevitable pang of disappointment, since by that time both Eliot and Pound were, in different ways, washing their hands of it. “Vers libre does not exist,” says Eliot. “Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art.” And Pound more than once commends Eliot’s saying that “no vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.” Not such an inspiring way of putting things, when you come to think of it. Do you want to write a poem? Or do you want to write a good job? Do you want to be a poet? Or do you want to be a jobbing poet?
It is as if we had come upon Pound and Eliot when a subject had gone stale on them, and they were sitting nodding by the fire and wondering whether to turn in. But when we turn to Lawrence, in the same years, we seem to enter a different period. The terms in which Eliot speaks are irrelevant. If “there is no freedom in art” that doesn’t matter, since Lawrence isn’t interested in art. But he is interested in freedom, and he posits a kind of poetry
of that which is at hand: the immediate present. 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. There is no round, consummate moon on the face of running water, nor on the face of the unfinished tide. There are no gems of the living plasm. The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither…. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness…. We look at the very white quick of nascent creation. A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks around, gleams, and is gone.
There would be no point in trying to stop this rhapsodic flow and ask Lawrence what he thinks of Eliot’s observation that, in what passes for free verse, there is scansion, that behind much contemporary poetry there lies “the constant suggestion and skillful evasion of iambic pentameter.” Or to offer for his consideration Pound’s view that “the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation”—the sense of quantity as in Latin quantitative measures. Lawrence has no dialogue with such pedantry. He has nothing against traditional form, nothing against meter, nothing against rhyme. But he is talking about something completely different: not vers libre, as pioneered in France or Belgium in the 1880s, but that freedom claimed by Whitman in the 1850s. The freedom of the soul’s encounters on the Open Road. Free verse, he says,
is, or should be, direct utterance from the instant, whole man. It is the soul and the mind and the body surging at once, nothing left out. They speak all together. There is some confusion, some discord. But the confusion and the discord only belong to the reality, as noise belongs to the plunge of water.
Eliot said that vers libre did not exist. If it existed it would have a positive definition, but it can only be defined by negatives: no pattern, rhyme, meter. Lawrence in one swoop gives exclusively to free verse what (in my definition) is the scope of the lyric itself—the present moment, the lyric moment. But this act of definition is nothing more nor less than the assertions of his rights as a poet.
Certain poets create in us an instant wariness. Pound, having hated Whitman, came to see him as the best of his tradition, “but he never pretended to have reached the goal. He knew himself, and proclaimed himself ‘a start in the right direction.’ He never said, ‘American poetry is to stay where I left it’; he said it was to go on from where he started it.” Pound is thinking: Where do I stand in relation to this, and what can I do next? He is thinking about building up a tradition of American poetry. Lawrence couldn’t care less about that. Lawrence fears Whitman at the same time as he respects him profoundly, and he reflects that
We should not fear him if he sang only of the “old unhappy far-off things,” or of the “wings of the morning.” It is because his heart beats with the urgent, insurgent Now, which is even upon us all, that we dread him. He is so near the quick.
And Lawrence himself is among those authors we dread. We dread turning back to him, in case he turns out to be other than we remember; in case, turning back to him, we encounter our former selves. We don’t want to be ambushed by disillusionment. Auden wrote:
Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane, once healers in our English land;
These are dead as iron for ever; these can never hold our hand.
Lawrence was brought down by smut-hounds, Blake went dotty as he
sang,Homer Lane was killed in action by the Twickenham Baptist gang.
Auden was lucky. The Lawrence he admired in his early days was the Lawrence of his “think” books, such as the Fantasia of the Unconscious. The poetry, he tells us, “offended my notions of what poetry should be.”
When a poet who holds views about the nature of poetry which we believe to be false writes a poem we like, we are apt to think: “This time he has forgotten his theory and is writing according to ours.” But what fascinates me about the poems of Lawrence’s which I like is that I must admit he could never have written them had he held the kind of views about poetry of which I approve.
A part of Lawrence’s wrongness, Auden thought, derived from his identification of art with life, his belief that a poem could grow in the way a flower grows. Lawrence fails to distinguish between natural growth and human construction. He does not see how the natural gesture of the ballet dancer derives from years of rigorous training—if it is to look natural.
But I think Lawrence can be defended from this charge, and defended much in the spirit of Auden’s essay. Auden says that
Very few statements which poets make about poetry, even when they appear to be quite lucid, are understandable except in their polemic context. To understand them, we need to know what they are directed against, what the poet who made them considered the principal enemies of genuine poetry.
In the case of Lawrence, whether or not the actual enemy was Eliot or Pound or someone else, the enemy was certainly the kind of arguments they were putting forward about vers libre. To continue a passage I quoted earlier, Lawrence says that
It is no use inventing fancy laws for free verse, no use drawing a melodic line which all the feet must toe. Free verse toes no melodic line, no matter what drill-sergeant. Whitman pruned away his clichés—perhaps his clichés of rhythm as well as of phrase. And this is about all we can do, deliberately, with free verse. We can get rid of the stereotyped movements and the old hackneyed associations of sound or sense. We can break down those artificial conduits and canals through which we do so love to force our utterance.
Lawrence goes on from here to evoke the notion of spontaneity, but it is quite clear in the context that spontaneity is a goal. Free verse is not like automatic writing (whatever that is supposed to be). In place of what Auden would call Making, Lawrence proposes Editing; all we can do is prune away the clichés of rhyme and phrase; all we can do is edit out the stereotypes.
This may be an incomplete description of the composition of free verse, but it hardly counts as a wrong theory. In Lawrence’s hands, free verse is a form of mimesis. There are a million forms of mimesis, as you know. If I sit down to listen to something called, say, “A Spring Symphony,” I shall expect to be affected in some way that I can associate with spring. But I do not demand that the instruments imitate birdsong. The object of Lawrence’s mimesis in his free verse is the motion of thought, the impulse of the spirit. The poems do not contain an argument; they sound like an argument going on:
You tell me I am wrong
Who are you, how is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.
They do not present finished perceptions so much as perceptions as they evolve. No value seems to be set on concision. Lawrence addresses the turkey-cock:
Your wattles are the colour of steel-slag which has been red hot.
And is going cold,
Cooling to a powdery, pale-oxidised sky-blue.
Why do you have wattles, and a naked, wattled head?
Why do you arch your naked-set eye with a more than comprehensible
The vulture is bald, so is the condor, obscenely,
But only you have thrown this amazing mantilla of oxidised sky-blue
And hot red over you.
Another poet might have hit upon that image of cooling steel-slag and thought: this is so accurate that once I have said it the turkey is there before the reader. I should simply say it and move on. But Lawrence is not describing a turkey-cock—he is dramatizing the contemplation of a turkey-cock. He returns to the wattle, returns to his image, and his reward for returning is the wild comparison of the wattle with a mantilla. And he hasn’t finished with that wattle yet, not by any means.
It is true as Auden says that most of Lawrence’s finest poems are in Birds, Beasts and Flowers!, but Auden seems harsh in his judgment that Lawrence “detested nearly all human beings if he had to be in close contact with them; his ideas of what a human relationship, between man and man or man and woman, ought to be are pure daydreams because they are not based upon any experience of actual relationships which might be improved or corrected.” That is to overlook the relationship with Frieda. Auden airbrushes Frieda out of the picture a few lines earlier than this judgment, saying that he finds Lawrence’s love poems embarrassing “because of their lack of reticence; they make me feel like a Peeping Tom.” Bertrand Russell, on reading the volume Look! We Have Come Through, remarked that he was glad for them but didn’t see why he should look. H.D. told Lawrence that the poems “won’t do at all; they are not eternal, not sublimated: too much body and emotions.”
But if you believe with Keats that “the Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man” and that it is better to leap headlong into the sea than to stay on the green shore, and pipe a silly pipe, and take tea and comfortable advice, then Look! We Have Come Through!—the book that forms the link between the Georgian Lawrence and the Classic Lawrence of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers!—is worth paying attention to. Those who saw Frieda and Lawrence when they were having a row might well have thought the book’s title a little optimistic, a touch “previous.” But it was a bold and unusual project to chart the course of such a stormy relationship in a mixture of traditional forms and the newly acquired Whitmanesque mode. One has to look far back, to Meredith’s Modern Love of 1862, to find anything like a precedent. Successors come more easily to mind, among them sequences of poems by Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes.
Lawrence set out to describe his coming of age as a man. Here is the “argument” with which he prefaces the series:
After much struggling and loss in love and in the world of man, the protagonist throws in his lot with a woman who is already married. Together they go into another country, she perforce leaving her children behind. The conflict of love and hate goes on between the man and the woman, and between these two and the world around them, till it reaches some sort of conclusion, they transcend into some condition of blessedness.
The summary is interesting because it includes a fact about Frieda which was indeed crucially important in the rows they had: Frieda had left her children behind and was at first forbidden to see them, and then humiliated to discover that they had turned against her; it was Frieda’s torment over her children that drove Lawrence wild with rage. But very little of this actually gets into the poems. Lawrence is not as ruthless with Frieda’s private life as he was capable of being with others’. On the other hand the “argument” only touches indirectly on a subject that the poems do indeed deal with—Lawrence’s grieving, and finally ceasing to grieve, over his mother. It was this grieving that sent Frieda up the wall, as we heard in the marginalia with which I began.
Lawrence was fully aware of the cost to Frieda, to her children, and to Ernest Weekley, Frieda’s husband, of what he and Frieda had decided to do: not just their falling in love but their abjuring of some halfway-house arrangement, whereby Frieda would pretend to have given Lawrence up in return for being allowed to live with her children. Lawrence’s honesty had come at a high price. And he had learned what it was to be hated. His Christianity had once been strong, and so was his sense of living in sin. This is one of those cases where biography does indeed help to unlock the poetry.
Read by itself, the poem called “Meeting Among the Mountains” might puzzle. The biography helps to make its meaning clear. Lawrence is in the Alps, contemplating a wayside crucifix. A peasant comes along the road in a bullock-cart. Something about the peasant disturbs Lawrence. He feels he is being hated. What the poem does not divulge is that the peasant reminds him of Weekley. Lawrence suffers an emotional hallucination: Weekley goes by in the bullock-cart, filled with Christian hatred for the wrong Lawrence has done him:
Then among the averted pansies, beneath the high
White peaks of snow, at the foot of the sunken Christ
I stand in a chill of anguish, trying to say
The joy I bought was not too highly priced.
But he has gone, motionless, hating me,
Living as the mountains do, because they are strong,
With a pale, dead Christ on the crucifix of his heart,
And breathing the frozen memory of his wrong.
Still in his nostrils the frozen breath of despair,
And heart like a cross that bears dead agony
Of naked love, clenched in his fists the shame,
And in his belly the smouldering hate of me.
And I, as I stand in the cold, averted flowers,
Feel the shame-wounds in his hands pierce through my own,
And breathe despair that turns my lungs to stone
And know the dead Christ weighing on my bone.
It is hard to pick up a book with a thousand poems and read one’s way straight through, and it is hard to read Lawrence using the Complete Poems. Ideally one should start with a copy of Birds, Beasts and Flowers! (but be aware that the paperback reprint by Black Sparrow Press omits all the tortoise poems): this is where “Snake” is to be found, and the two poems about bats, and the fig poem which found its way as a monologue by Alan Bates into the film of Women in Love, and the incomparable flower poems, and “Bibbles,” which Auden correctly called the best poem ever written about a dog. (From the description given by David Ellis in the last volume of the Cambridge biography of the row Lawrence had with the original Bibbles, one may conclude that Auden was right to say that Lawrence was “no person to be entrusted with the care of a dog.”)
Next one should turn to an edition which unfortunately does not yet exist: a single-volume paperback containing all of Look! We Have Come Through! in the correct order, and with just a few notes of a biographical kind. Thereafter there is much to discover among the earlier and later volumes, including the important late poems “The Ship of Death” and “Bavarian Gentians.” But one should not turn Lawrence into a task, a devoir, an impegno. Lawrence is the least difficult of modern poets from the point of view of simple comprehension. But he was a famously difficult man to get on with, and when you find him difficult in that sense you should put him down, leave him to cool off, turn to whatever is more congenial.
The authors of the Cambridge biography did not have this luxury; they had to stick by him, daily, through thick and thin. And they are, all of them, exemplary. Lawrence used to be a cause, served by bad-tempered fanatics. In these three volumes he is treated equably—Othello’s plea, “Nothing extenuate,” seems to have been their policy—with the result that, in the end, because he trusts the biographers, the reader may end up feeling more sympathetic to Lawrence than he expected. John Worthen is particularly good on the background—the nuances of class, what was poverty, what was a respectable income. In Ellis’s final volume Lawrence goes back to his native Midlands just after the General Strike of 1926, by which time the miners were defeated, impoverished, and radicalized. Lawrence already hated socialism, let alone Bolshevism, but Ellis makes it clear that, shocked though he was by what he found back home, Lawrence was not, in the years of his declining health, any longer a political animal. His ideas, such as they were, would not translate into action. Abelief in natural or sacred authority would not translate into violent authoritarianism. He was not spared by an early death from becoming a fascist.
Death, though, had been one of his themes. His view of life was predicated on a view of death. One should make a good death. One should even look forward to the mystery of death. That is the theme of both “The Ship of Death” and “Bavarian Gentians.” But as Ellis’s story progresses, life and poetry diverge. Lawrence was dying of pulmonary tuberculosis, but had a horror of admitting out loud that it was anything worse than a condition of the bronchial tubes, or a recurrent malaria, or the grippe, or an asthma caused by the activity of the vagal nerve and provoked by eating the wrong sort of food. He tried stiff porridges and yogurt and fruit, interlaced for a while with small doses of arsenic and phosphorus.
Meanwhile in his poetry he was welcoming the dark, and, though there is in the mythology an implication that Persephone will return from the dead, that spring will follow winter, there is no implication in “Bavarian Gentians” that the wedding guest will return from the dark. The poetry embraced death. The dying man saw with horror his own dead body on the table opposite his bed. When Frieda was out of the room for a moment, he grasped Maria Huxley’s wrists and said, “Maria, Maria, don’t let me die.” Those were his last words, according to one version. According to another, his last words to Frieda were “Wind my watch.”
Wind my watch, don’t let me die: they seem to be the same last words.
October 22, 1998