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“The Immediate, Instant Self”

ISSUE:  Summer 1989
Self and Sequence: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence. By Holly Laird. Virginia. $35.
Lady Chatterley: The Making of the Novel. By Derek Britton. Unwin-Hyman. $44.95.

These books appear in a late phase of Lawrence studies—Laird’s is the sixth volume on his poetry, Britton’s the third on Lady Chatterley’s Lover—and both concern the genesis and revision of his works. Laird’s method and argument are sound and convincing. She rejects the arrangement of the Collected Poems of 1928, which Lawrence awkwardly divided into “Rhyming Poems” and “Unrhyming Poems,” and reordered to give his autobiography a significant, symbolic shape. She sensibly studies the poetic sequence as “a fundamental unit of poetic composition” and reads “the books of poems in the original order in which Lawrence wrote, revised, and published them.” And she argues that “Lawrence as an autobiographer has three aims: self-expression, self-transformation, and the transformation of the reader.”

It is certainly useful to analyze Lawrence’s extensive revisions—the way he gathered and shaped his poems into a book—but it does not make for interesting reading. The book is more descriptive than analytical; many paragraphs and pages are scarcely more than lists of titles; it virtually ignores the great poems on creatures (“Mosquito,” “Fish,” “Bat”); and it offers no striking or original readings of Lawrence’s most important works. In “Tortoise Shout,” “he records the sex act [and] taps the enormous energies of primal song.” In “Ship of Death” (where Lawrence has the last word on his own extinction), “when the naming of the season is followed, asyntactically, by a participial phrase modifying nothing but itself, its language seems unforeseen,” Her “discovery” of new influences on Lawrence—Richard Jefferies, Rachel Annand Taylor, Andrew Lang—are either familiar or insignificant.

There are also a number of errors in the book. Santa Fe is twice misspelled; The Lost Girl is not a “leadership novel”; Lawrence traveled to Ceylon, not India; the correct title is Lady Cynthia, not Lady Asquith; Sir William Joynson-Hicks was Home Secretary, not government censor; the theme of Last Poems is resurrection, not reincarnation. And Laird misses important allusions to “Sir Patrick Spens” in “Brother and Sister,” to Richard HI in “A Rose is not a Cabbage” and to Ecclesiastes 12:5 (“desire has failed”) in the late poems on impotence.

Lawrence’s poems and polemical prefaces, once the subject of a heated critical controversy about “expressive form” that was sparked by an attack by R.P. Blackmur and answered by Richard Ellmann, Al Alvarez, and Harold Bloom, are now almost universally accepted, despite their unfashionable didactic element, as a major contribution to modern poetry. In The Legacy of D.H. Lawrence (1987), Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Galway Kinnell, Karl Shapiro, Gary Snyder, and Stephen Spender all testified to his enormous influence on their work.

Lawrence’s best books of poetry are Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) and Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923). In her discussion of the former, Laird rightly emphasizes the idiomatic and nostalgic voice, the dramatic engagement, the rhetoric of crisis as well as attacks on Christian self-sacrifice, Frieda’s first marriage and her concept of motherhood. These poems, I believe, are unified by two dominant themes: the natural conflict between men and women, and the striving for transcendence and consummation. The poems follow a cycle from death to rebirth—a reversal of its prototype, Modern Love (1862). Meredith describes the extinction, Lawrence the growth of love; Meredith the breaking, Lawrence the forging of the bond of marriage. Both Meredith and Lawrence deal with the pain and suffering of modern love; but Meredith ends with suicide, Lawrence with rebirth.

Laird writes that Birds, Beasts and Flowers “bears traces of several genres, including the travelogue, the romantic crisis-autobiography, the book of mythologies, and the missal book,” but she is less persuasive in claiming that the subject is “the anxious quest for a Utopian frontier.” The themes of these two books are much closer than Laird suggests. With women in Look! and with animals in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, Lawrence experiences conflict, feels isolation, and attempts reconciliation. His persona is important in both volumes. He connects the secret power of animals with the mysterious force of sex, and his penetration of the strange being of beasts helps him to understand the essentially alien nature of women. He is interested in what animals reveal about himself, man’s nature and moral understanding, and the human condition itself.

Laird makes a serious attempt to defend the poems in The Plumed Serpent, which are commonly regarded as embarrassments and skipped by most readers of the novel. She mentions that Lawrence incorporates “translations of Indian religious songs that [he] knew through Lewis Spence’s” Gods of Mexico, 1923 (much more could have been said about Lawrence’s use of Nahautl sources), but does not mention the influence of Congregationalist hymns. “Someone will enter the pearly gate . . . . Taste of the glories there await . . . . Someone will knock when the door is shut. . . . Hear a voice saying: I know you not” (Moody and Sankey, No. 499) is used, almost verbatim, in the third poem in the novel.

When discussing the genre of these poems, Laird calls them hymns, psalmlike narratives in the I-voice and manifestoes; and writes: “Lawrence has adopted a simplified version of standard formal English, colored with the vocabulary of Mexican legend and a repetitive use of ritualistic emblems . . . . The vocabularies he unites are those of English sexuality and Mexican mysticism.” But she ignores the vital question, especially important in the context of the novel: would these convoluted abstractions—”The snake of my left-hand out of the darkness is kissing your feet with his mouth of caressive fire”—be likely to appeal to illiterate Mexican peasants?

Lawrence was a spontaneous, rapid writer as well as a critical reshaper of his poems. And Laird predictably concludes—as Parkinson did about Yeats’ poetry and Stallworthy about Wilfred Owen’s—”The last form this poetry took in the 1928 Collected Poems is in some ways an improvement on the original publications, especially in individual revisions.” Lawrence might not have approved of the revelation of his methods of composition, for in his essay, “Hymns in a Man’s Life,” he observed that these songs “live and glisten in the depths of the man’s consciousness in undimmed wonder, because they have not been subjected to any criticism or analysis.”

Britton’s book on the genesis of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is well-written and extremely perceptive. He has made excellent use of interviews and Ordnance Survey maps, and has mastered the biographical background, the local geography, and the three versions of the novel as well as all the relevant texts of the final phase of Lawrence’s career. Michael Squires’ study of this novel, published in 1983, provided a close textual analysis. Britton gives the rich social, psychological, and medical context of the novel, shows how Lawrence absorbs and assimilates experience, and comes closer than anyone else to understanding how his imagination transformed actuality into art. This is the best book on Lawrence since Ross Parmenter’s Lawrence in Oaxaca (1984) and establishes Britton, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, as the new star of Lawrence studies.

Britton reveals how Lawrence’s illness, marriage to Frieda, friendships, return to the Midlands, and response to the miners’ strike all contributed to the making of his last and boldest novel. After his hemorrhage in Mexico in February 1925, and especially after his second series of hemorrhages in July 1927, when he entered a phase of unrelenting decline, Lawrence was confronted with imminent death. He never admitted this or mentioned the word “tuberculosis,” but his “realization that an early death might now be inescapable made him bitterly angry, unbalanced, and determined on a fight to the last gasp.” Mellors’ lung problems in Lady Chatterley reflect Lawrence’s own disease just as Clifford’s impotence and Connie’s infidelity reflect the loss of Lawrence’s potency as a result of consumption and Frieda’s consequent affair with Tenente Angelo Ravagli. At the beginning of the novel Clifford’s friends conduct a symposium on human sexuality. And, Britton argues, the novel “is as much concerned with impotence and sexual apathy as with the fulfillment of desire.”

Lawrence’s strife with Frieda—which inevitably diminished and turned into relative calm when Lawrence weakened after his second hemorrhage—was expressed when he grafted her traits on to the portrait of Faith Mackenzie in his story, “Two Blue Birds” (1927), and when he portrayed Mellors’ agonizing problems with his estranged wife, which caused him to retreat from the world to the woods. Lawrence’s beautiful lady friends, Cynthia Asquith and Rosalind Thornycroft, were compounded with Frieda to create Connie Chatterley. Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield made a cameo appearance in the second version of the novel, John Thomas and Lady Jane, as Jack and Olive Strange ways. The successful popular novelist Michael Arlen ( Dikran Kouyoumdjian)—who was also tubercular, said he suffered from “pernicious Armenia” and was “every other inch a gentleman”—became Connie’s early lover, Michaelis. Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, as well as their children, were models for the Chatterleys: “Osbert and Edith became Clifford and Emma Chatterley, brother and sister; Lady Ida’s family background as daughter to a viscount was given to Clifford’s mother; and Sir George’s character was . . .attributed to the father, Sir Geoffrey.” Renishaw Hall, the Sitwells’ home in Derbyshire, which Lawrence visited, was combined with Lamb House Close, home of the colliery-owning Barber family of Eastwood, and became the model for Wragby. Frank Harris’ sensational autobiography, My Life and Loves, may have encouraged Lawrence’s sexual candor. And Norman Douglas, who printed his books privately with Pino Orioli, certainly stimulated Lawrence to follow his profitable example.

In September 1926 Lawrence returned to Eastwood for the first time since January 1924, He saw his childhood friend, Gertie Cooper, who was living with his sister Ada and dying of consumption; and was profoundly depressed by “the desolation of the countryside and memories of an intensity of joy that could never be relived.” He took a well-documented walk with his local mentor, the Socialist Willie Hopkin, which “provided him with fresh emotional and imaginative responses that made it possible for him to write, with immediacy and from a different point of view, of the old landscape that had figured prominently in The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers.”

During this crucial visit, Lawrence also witnessed the despair and class hatred engendered by the imminent collapse of the miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire. He shed his long-held antipathy to labor, feared a destructive class war, and decided to set his novel in the early 1920’s, a period of economic and industrial unrest that led to the General Strike of 1926. Britton convincingly concludes: “If there was a single dominant factor which impelled Lawrence to break his vows never to write another novel [he had almost died after completing The Plumed Serpent], it was the strike of 1926, and what Lawrence saw of its effects on the mining communities.” In the novel, Clifford, who attempts to make the mines pay by dehumanizing the industry, fosters the conditions of class warfare and revolution.

Though Britton’s argument is persuasive, there are a few errors of fact and interpretation that demand comment. He says that Etruscan ruins “could only be studied at the Vatican, the Florence Museum and the British Museum,” and then contradicts himself by stating that Lawrence examined the treasures of Cerveteri at the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome. I cannot agree that Lawrence presented Lady Chatterley and his paintings to the world with “a fear of failure.” He knew they would have a hostile reception, but he had a profound belief in the truth of his own convictions and great moral courage in opposing the prevailing puritanical views about how sexual relations should be represented in art.

A more serious fault is Britton’s credulity in examining certain biographical evidence. He rejects Janice Robinson’s absurd notion that Lawrence was the father of Hilda Doolittle’s child. (In her Introduction to the recent Virago edition of Doolittle’s autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live, that child confirms she was the daughter of the composer Cecil Gray.) But Britton accepts the far-fetched tale, related by Frank Lyons in the privately printed The Hills of Annesley (1973), that the teenage Lawrence was once discovered kneeling on the floor and biting the buttocks of a miner in his bath!

Britton also naively accepts Dorothy Brett’s story, first quoted in the epilogue of the 1974 reprint of her memoir, Lawrence and Brett (1933), and restated in Sean Hignett’s life of Brett (1985). According to this late addition, in Ravello in March 1926, after a quarrel and temporary separation from Frieda, Lawrence entered Brett’s hotel room and said: “I do not believe in a relationship unless there is a physical relationship as well”—though no woman other than Brett ever reported that Lawrence made this a condition of their friendship. After their second unsuccessful attempt to have sex, Lawrence said: “Your pubes are wrong” (“your boobs are wrong” in the 1974 version) and stalked out of the room. Immediately afterward, he ordered Brett to leave Ravello and never saw her again.

Lawrence’s behavior in this bizarre anecdote is completely out of character. Lawrence was never promiscuous or unfaithful to Frieda after their marriage. He was not attracted to Brett and exclaimed: “I can’t stand it when she clings too tight.” He would not have wanted to reveal to her the impotence he suffered after his tubercular collapse in Mexico in 1925. He would never have used the expression “boobs” (or “pubes”), which was clearly based on American slang picked up by Brett during her long years in New Mexico and retroactively transposed to 1926. My recent interviews with three close friends of Brett—Julian Morrell Vinogradoff, Lady Juliette Huxley, and Harwood Brewster Picard— confirm that the whole story is surely a fantasy of Brett’s (which shows the working of her imagination) to compensate for Lawrence’s frustrating rejection of her love.


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