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 By the time the hundreds of pages of Lawrence’s unpublished notebook poems had been documented as well, painstaking accuracy would surely feel like grim editorial revenge.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.’
Sex is one dimension of this revelation, becoming overwhelmingly important in Lawrence’s fiction as children or parents matter less and less. Plots and consequences give way to intense moments of emotional codependency. But these moments of pure nowness exist simultaneously as solemn judgments on all that must be left behind. Lawrence hated making anything a means to an end not because he disliked ends, but because the real end must always be nigh. Nowhere was this more true than in the situation in which he found himself after eloping with Frieda von Richthofen, when he began his free verse career in earnest.
The two lovers went first to Metz to meet Frieda’s mother and sisters. Frustrated by being kept in the background, Lawrence forced Frieda’s hand by writing to her husband, Ernest Weekley, with the news of what had been done. She had wanted an open marriage with Weekley and to continue looking after her children, but neither man was prepared to countenance the arrangement. For Weekley it would have meant humiliation, and for Lawrence it would have been yet more ‘subterfuge, lying, dirt, fear’. But, waiting for a train at Hennef am Rhein while she stayed on with her family, Lawrence wrote her his first unreserved love letter, and later one of his first real unrhymed, free verse poems, ‘Bei Hennef’. It’s no great marvel, but its open-ended lines register nicely the uncertainty of the new life they had begun, which would have to be lived without links from the past or any predictable future:
The little river twittering in the twilight,
The wan, wondering look of the pale sky,
This is almost bliss.
And everything shut up and gone to sleep,
All the troubles and anxieties and pain
Gone under the twilight.
Only the twilight now, and the soft ‘Sh!’ of the river
That will last for ever.
While their arguments may have been temporarily soothed – you can still hear the retort ‘shut up and go to sleep!’ folded into the calm fourth line – the poem ends anxiously: ‘Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!’ It wasn’t strange. Lawrence had demanded that Frieda choose between him and everything else in her life, including her children. What was strange is that Frieda came to believe that her affair with this bad-tempered young novelist really had taken them to what he called ‘another world’. ‘He seemed to have lifted me body and soul out of all my past life,’ she recalled. ‘I only wanted to revel in this new world Lawrence had given me.’
But the old world kept claiming them back, and the experimental poems Lawrence wrote during their wandering across Europe are partly reconciliations of their endless quarrels about hearts still half-committed to others, and partly provocations to further quarrels, since intense rows are just as useful for blocking out other people as intense sex. Lawrence was completing ‘Paul Morel’, the draft for Sons and Lovers, at the time, and his inability to lay his own mother to rest is surely behind some of his more vicious insults. In ‘She Looks Back’, Frieda’s salty tears of ‘horrid sorrow’ turn her into Lot’s wife, that first figure unable to accept an apocalyptic judgment:
The mother in you, fierce as a murderess, glaring to England,
Yearning towards England, towards your young children,
Insisting upon your motherhood, devastating.
These repetitions are simultaneously discovering, testing and tasting what hurts both of them, and if they sound like Sylvia Plath, that’s because Plath took Lawrence’s vengeful intuitions as a model when she probed the weak spots in her own family. Even the most rapturous moments of ‘now’ are inseparable from the arguments. ‘You have stepped across your people, carelessly, hurting them all;/I have stepped across my people, and hurt them in spite of my care’, ‘Frohnleichnam’ announces, a little proudly:
Only to dance together in triumph of being together
Two white ones, sharp, vindicated,
Shining and touching,
Is heaven of our own, sheer with repudiation.
In this triumphal dance the partners seem to be at daggers drawn, each blade sharpened by the repudiation of everything past, and, one suspects, of much in each other.
One of Lawrence’s big technical discoveries in Look! We Have Come Through! was that dropping the demand for every line to culminate in a full end-rhyme makes all the other sounds within the line become more audible, as with the venomous sibilants in ‘She Looks Back’ or, more gently, in ‘Gloire de Dijon’:
When she rises in the morning
I linger to watch her;
She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window
And the sunbeams catch her
Glistening white on the shoulders,
While down her sides the mellow
Golden shadow glows as
She stoops to the sponge, and her swung breasts
Sway like full-blown yellow
Gloire de Dijon roses.
It’s a kind of aural dappling, where the ‘r’s of ‘rises’, ‘shoulders’ or ‘her sides’ come together in ‘roses’, while the hidden ‘w’ in ‘gloire’ or ‘shoulders’ picks up all the more obvious w-words in an effect Lawrence later described as ‘sound and touch and sight all running into one another, blending into a vagueness which is a new world’. But taking the rose as sign of the heavenly now has the apocalyptic demand to reject the ordinary present hidden within it, as the next but one poem, ‘Rose of All the World’, reveals more overtly:
How will you have it? – the rose is all in all,
Or the ripe rose-fruits of the luscious fall?
The sharp begetting, or the child begot?
Our consummation matters, or does it not?
To me it seems the seed is just left over
From the red rose-flowers’ fiery transience;
Just orts and slarts; berries that smoulder in the bush
Which burnt just now with marvellous immanence.
Lawrence is borrowing the rhyming iambics of Yeats’s ‘The Rose of Battle’, which croons over Maud Gonne, the rose of all the world, her ‘beauty grown sad with its eternity’. In Lawrence’s brisker reply, eternity happens in the flower’s ‘fiery transience’, ‘unchidden and purposeless’. But the moment desire’s roses become the flames on a burning bush, its fruit, including Frieda’s children, become merely the smoking remains.
This is free verse made in a confined space, for the way they began meant neither Lawrence nor Frieda had anyone to turn to in those early months, and by the time he came to revise the poems early in 1917, they had become autobiographical justification for his conviction that creative regeneration comes only through vital conflict. In Lawrence’s great poetic manifesto, the 1919 preface to New Poems, we are told to sense in ‘the immediate present, the Now’ of free verse a ‘still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition’, which might be the inrush of the ever-turning tides, but might just as well be describing one of his furious sulks.
Lawrence’s detractors have often complained that by dropping the restraining tension between form and material or ends and means that is built into metrical verse, he also abandoned any emotional self-restraint, leaving his free verse poems formless, whingy, didactic and generally unable to know when to stop. But, with the arrival of free verse and Frieda, the poetic tension was just relocated, into the poems’ edgy relationship with her, their source, and later, with their readers. Their defiant, blurted confession of Lawrence’s ‘dumb, aching, bitter, helpless need’ (‘Manifesto’) is deliberately embarrassing to read, because as Lawrence’s criticism of mechanised relationships developed through the war years, he came to think of neutrality as sinister. Metrical verse would have kept the topic and the reader at too safe a distance; the poems are tuned instead to pick up ‘magnetic vibrations of warning, pitch-dark throbs of invitation’ from all sides.
Polite civilisation had muffled this ‘vivid relatedness between the man and the living universe that surrounds him’, Lawrence complained in 1924’s ‘Pan in America’, but the palest of faces can still feel it when hunting: ‘He projects his deepest, most primitive hunter’s consciousness abroad, and finds his game, not by accident, nor even chiefly by looking for signs, but primarily by a psychic attraction, a sort of telepathy; the hunter’s telepathy. Then when he finds his quarry, he aims with a pure, spellbound volition.’ This was the compositional tension of 1923’s Birds, Beasts and Flowers, too, the poem becoming absorbed by the creature it is in the process of sniffing out, circling round and turning on. In ‘Mosquito’, Lawrence winces at the insect’s ‘small, high, hateful bugle in my ear’:
Why do you do it?
Surely it is bad policy.
They say you can’t help it.
If that is so, then I believe a little in Providence protecting the innocent.
But it sounds so amazingly like a slogan,
A yell of triumph as you snatch my scalp.
Blood, red blood
I behold you stand
For a second enspasmed in oblivion,
Sucking live blood,
Such silence, such suspended transport,
Such obscenity of trespass.
Until ‘slogan’, Lawrence has been tensely drumming his fingers, but ‘yell’ suddenly triggers the volley of images through which Lawrence discovers why he is so annoyed: cowboy and Indian wars, vampires, erotic parasites and sympathetic magic. The outrage is comically out of proportion with the mosquito itself, which is duly splatted (‘Queer, what a dim dark smudge you have disappeared into!’). By then Lawrence’s own blood – a fluid with a specially frightening dimension for him, even before he was diagnosed with tuberculosis – is smeared all over the table too, and we are left with the feeling that he has lost this particular fight.
The ‘queer’ feeling which absorbs Lawrence here and in all the animal poems is the recognition that the other creature’s behaviour is his own. The brilliant perception of the ‘elastic shudder’ of bats in flight, for instance, twitches simultaneously with Lawrence’s own horror at it. The little pup Bibbles on a ranch in New Mexico is taunted with the whip not just because her desperate willingness to be petted reminds him of soft-bellied Western voters, but because of Lawrence’s fear that he, too, has become a lapdog. In ‘Tortoise Shout’, the ‘frail, torn scream’ of the mating tortoise suddenly brings back other stomach-twisting gasps:
I remember my first terror hearing the howl of weird, amorous cats;
I remember the scream of a terrified, injured horse, the sheet-lightning,
And running away from the sound of a
woman in labour, something like an owl whooing,
And listening inwardly to the first bleat of a lamb,
The first wail of an infant,
And my mother singing to herself
And the first tenor singing of the passionate
throat of a young collier, who has long
since drunk himself to death
The first elements of foreign speech
On wild dark lips.
With that last comparison, we realise that this poem is, to Lawrence, another involuntary howl, the product of pain, pursuit, intimacy and shame. The form is individualistic, but the poetic moments come from vulnerability, or just being provoked.
Perhaps this is the reason the next volume, Pansies, takes such care to irritate. Like the mosquito, these anti-poems are biting, whining and pestering, and come to abrupt and unsatisfactory endings. They snub not only the censor but also Lawrence’s remaining admirers, by reinstating many of the poetic attitudes Lawrence had fought so hard against 15 years earlier. Many of the jeers at the nerveless middle classes who won’t fight the money economy are written in a jerky music-hall verse which sounds like Kipling, allowing for a few skips of the metrical needle:
It’s either you fight or you die
young gents, you’ve got no option.
No good asking the reason why
it’s either you fight or you die
die, die, lily-liveredly die
or fight and make the splinters fly
bust up the holy apple-pie
you’ve got no option.
‘Free verse toes no melodic line, no matter what drill-sergeant,’ Lawrence had pleaded in 1919, but there’s little irony to this piece of frog-marching. Putting the ‘pensées, anglicé pansies’ into verse was supposed to avoid the ‘didactic element’ of prose thoughts, but Lawrence’s technique of issuing multiple variations actually makes each one more plainly a demonstration of some overwhelming idée fixe:
Why don’t we learn to tame the mind
instead of the passions and the instincts and feelings?
It is the mind which is uncouth and overweening
and ruins our complex harmony
Why, so it does. Even when Lawrence is calling for the end of ‘this endless, imbecile struggle of combat’ (in ‘The Combative Spirit’), the wheedling and the needling won’t go away:
One free, cheerful activity stimulates another.
Men are not really mean.
Men are made mean, by fear, and a system of grab.
The young know these things quite well.
Why don’t they prepare to act on them?
This irritating habit of not practising what he is preaching may be the point. The tension in all Lawrence’s poems comes from their mixture of attraction and repulsion, and so perhaps the poems work as poems only when they get up their readers’ noses. The first draft of the introduction to Pansies runs: ‘No, if a pansy doesn’t occasionally make you sneeze, you may be sure it’s a pressed and dried one. Live beauty will always be a bit “shocking”, and pansies will always have their roots in dung and humus.’
As Pollnitz explains, it took several goes to draft the final collection, because Lawrence knew that its first readers would be Joynson-Hicks’s Home Office, the confiscators of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and was torn between wanting to get it published and wanting to tell the censors off for their squeamish minds. When the manuscript was duly confiscated by the Royal Mail in 1929, he retyped the whole thing and expanded it further. This is not Lawrence writing despite censorship, but Lawrence writing to his censors – including the admirers who would censor him with enthusiastic acceptance.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.