Holy Apple Pie

Peter Howarth

  • BuyThe Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence: The Poems edited by Christopher Pollnitz
    Cambridge, 1391 pp, £130.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 521 29429 4

I admit that the advert announcing this authoritative critical edition of D.H. Lawrence’s poems made me snort. The painstaking collation of every textual variant seems an odd aim in the case of a writer like Lawrence, who wrote of ‘mutation, swifter than iridescence, haste, not rest, come-and-go, not fixity, inconclusiveness, immediacy’. Hadn’t he advised the readers of his final and longest volume, Pansies, not to bother poring over poems? ‘A flower passes, and that perhaps is the best of it,’ the preface to Pansies says. Wouldn’t freeze-framing every shifting mood of these ‘casual thoughts that are true while they are true and irrelevant when the mood and circumstance changes’ inevitably pit the edition against the poetics? By the time the hundreds of pages of Lawrence’s unpublished notebook poems had been documented as well, painstaking accuracy would surely feel like grim editorial revenge. Even the poems censored from Pansies, Lawrence admitted, were ‘amusing, not terribly important’.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Christopher Pollnitz’s scrupulous documentation of every tweaked comma and reworked typewriter carbon shows just how much variants and revisions really mattered to Lawrence. It’s not just that he heavily revised his earlier rhyming verse before issuing his Collected Poems (1928), claiming that ‘the young man interfered with his demon’ while the older man was less inhibited. Or that this edition faithfully tracks all the adjustments made by timid publishers’ readers, and the versions sent to different agents as Lawrence played cat and mouse with the censors. Both sorts of revision imply that somewhere there remains a concealed original, now rediscovered. But Lawrence wasn’t all that interested in ur-versions of his poems: the more he threw off self-censorship, and the set forms and other tasteful packaging which came with it, the more he wanted the poems to feel like drafts. If free verse meant ‘there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished’ then his poems’ artistic quality would lie in their still being in the process of working things out, relentlessly interrogating their every emotional resolution. The exclamation marks of his first free verse collection, Look! We Have Come Through! (1917), are more excited than convinced; the final lines pray: ‘Ah, do not let me die on the brink of such anticipation!/Worse, let me not deceive myself.’ By the time of Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), Lawrence was staring in fascination at tortoises and pomegranates because living creatures were now a set of drafts too, their morphology and mythology prototypes of his own body and feelings, while he in turn was only another of nature’s experimental recombinations ‘to bring forth creatures that are an improvement on humans’. In the late note-to-self style of Pansies, three or four brief poems are plainly versions of one another’s ideas, while scraps of phrasing reappear in half a dozen more poems in the surrounding pages, as if Lawrence were now putting all his genetic variations on display. For an artist of the process rather than the product, there could be no better edition than one which keeps all these possibilities possible.

Tracking the changes in style over Lawrence’s poetic career, however, will disappoint anyone who thinks that open-endedness always means open-heartedness. Lawrence’s innovations all stem from finding out what happens when you don’t submit the poetic means to an ulterior poetic end, whether that end is metre, final rhyme, or just the feeling of the well-wrought poem. Making finished poems feel the same as drafts is another way to make means and ends coalesce, of course, and in this sense Lawrence’s experiments with spontaneous composition and with multiple versions come to much the same thing. But he never really got rid of poetic ends, or the final judgments they imply. His instincts were for the apocalyptic, and if he writes like an angel, it is usually the angel announcing the imminent condemnation of the present rulers of this world in favour of a new realm of emotion and spirit. In his more millenarian moments, the powers we should discount include not only industrial and imperial England, but the family, and all other social arrangements that enable continuity between past and future. The new spiritual realm – the realm of free verse – is an intense, personal now, not so much a point in time as a certain quality of being which breaks through time: ‘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. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation.’

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