Seeing in the Darkness

James Wood

  • D.H. Lawrence: Triumph To Exile 1912-22 by Mark Kinkead-Weekes
    Cambridge, 943 pp, £25.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 521 25420 5

Taking the clapper out of the bell makes no sense, but this is what we do too often with D.H. Lawrence. The writer who seemed to believe in dualisms – blindness over sight, blood over mind, pagan over modern, and so on – gets broken into two like a stable door. Readers, critics and biographers insist on splitting Lawrence into writer or preacher, dogmatist or poet. On the one hand, there is the marvellous animist, the quick, vital writer of physical descriptions – the poet, say, who sees a kangaroo with its ‘drooping Victorian shoulders’, or a mosquito moving like ‘a dull clot of air’. On the other, there is the preacher, the tiresome Lawrence of hoarse doctrine, the bully of blood, the friendless hammer coming down again and again in the prose.

But Lawrence is one of the century’s greatest religious writers, and it is impossible to canalise the tides of his writing. His descriptions are sermons, too; but his sermons are also descriptions. When Lawrence writes about flowers or animals or people, his most gorgeous evocations have an insistent, repetitive didacticism whose impulse is the religious need to know; equally, however, when Lawrence sermonises religiously about the need to die into a new life or the shadowy life beyond consciousness, he is not gesturing rhetorically but describing a reality that is as present as a flower or an animal. Lawrence is a mystic literalist. He is always a poet and always a preacher. He should not be opened into two. In his book, Apocalypse, which was published posthumously in 1931, one of the pleasures he takes in the book of Ezekiel and the book of Revelation is the literalism of their half-pagan world of gods and flames and wheels and beasts. He is delighted that, in this vision, God is ‘a great actual figure, the great dynamic god, neither spiritual nor moral, but cosmic and vital’. For Lawrence is not in fact a trader in dualities, despite appearances; he is devoted to oneness.

Of course, there are people who will not even allow him greatness as a writer, religious or otherwise. But he is a great writer, not simply by virtue of what he dares, but by virtue of what he achieves. Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s biography, which covers the years 1912 to 1922, the years of The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1921), many major stories, the travel books, Twilight in Italy (1916) and Sea and Sardinia (1921), and just misses his superb book of nature poems, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), shows us both great daring and great achievement.

‘Great’ is silly: to oppose his critics, one should say that he is precise and not only rhapsodic, that he is a practical writer as well as a vatic one, that he has not only superb powers of visual metaphor and visual concretion but an almost abstract delight in language. This last combination is rare: Shakespeare and Keats have it. Take, for example, a phrase from his celebrated story, ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911): a miner lies dead in a living-room, stretched out in ‘the naive dignity of death’. Or a moment in Lawrence’s travel book about Italy, when he sees ‘the eternal, negative radiance of the snows’. These kinds of phrase, rich in nouns and adjectives, are everywhere in Lawrence, and provide one of the reasons readers find him clothy, heavy, perhaps a bit Germanic. Certainly they do not make anything immediately visible. But what they suggest is a delight in the way in which adjectives and nouns can be, precisely, anti-pictorial.

Lawrence savours the way language at its densest becomes its own medium, like night. At such moments one feels its lack of transparency as a new kind of visibility; and this enables one to see the old transparency as a new kind of obstruction. One sees this in something that, over the years covered by this biography, became one of Lawrence’s best-known habits: repetition. It is true that Lawrence was profligate with a technique that is best rationed. But repetition is certainly a style, and a style of control. He is not just stuttering. Yet Brenda Maddox is typical of many commentators when she hints, in her acclaimed biography of 1994, D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage, that it was hardly a style at all: ‘Whether such passages echo the hypnotic refrains of the chapel hymns of his boyhood, the rocking of an anxious infant, or, as Lawrence maintained, the rhythmic thrust of the sexual act, they were deliberate.’

Hemingway, by contrast, has a reputation as a cold master of repetition, an icicle formed from the drip drip of style, while Lawrence is most often seen as a hothead who fell over himself, verbally. But Lawrence is the more flexible artist. This is Lawrence, writing in 1916:

And then the tussocks and tussocks of primroses are fully out, there is full morning everywhere on the banks and roadsides and stream-sides, and around the olive roots, a morning of primroses underfoot, with an invisible threading of many violets, and then the lovely blue clusters of hepatica, really like pieces of blue sky showing through a clarity of primrose.

And here is Hemingway, writing in 1929:

The fields were green and there were small green shoots on the vines, the trees along the road had small leaves and a breeze came from the sea. I saw the town with the hill and the old castle above it in a cup in the hills with the mountains beyond, brown mountains with a little green on their slopes.

Both writers, as it happens, are writing about Italy. Both writers use one word three times (‘green’ for Hemingway, ‘primroses’ for Lawrence), and repeat two other words. Hemingway’s passage is static. He is layering, using the coincidence of words to suggest a coincidence of colours, a serene pastoral monotony. But Lawrence’s words enact what the writer is feeling: an ecstasy of discovery. This is a verbal awakening. Lawrence is describing dawn breaking on a hillside. At each moment of richer light, the landscape is changing, but remaining the same. What is being revealed is merely a fuller essence of the same landscape, as the light builds – ‘a morning of primroses’, culminating in Lawrence’s realisation that the hepatica looks like the blue sky that has finally cleared above the writer’s head. We move into ‘clarity’. And this is exactly what is happening to the language as it struggles to capture this mystery: it is staying the same but altering. One sees that to repeat a word, for Lawrence, is not simply to replicate it but to change it, as light changes but is the same; it is to see a word from an improved angle. Hemingway, one feels, knows in advance just what his repetitions will be; Lawrence discovers them as he proceeds.

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