Alpha and Omega

Dan Jacobson

  • Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation by D.H. Lawrence, edited by Mara Kalnins
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £12.50, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22407 1

Lawrence on the Revelation which was vouchsafed to the biblical John of Patmos? Those who know both writers can only fear the worst. Woozy metaphysics. Wild history. Blood-stained theology. Vituperation galore. Promises of chaos to come. Even more dismaying glimpses of redemption to follow.

Well, one does find something of these in Lawrence’s Apocalypse. But there are other elements in it which, given the author and given the text he is explicating, may come as more of a surprise. Much of the book is witty and ironic and insouciant in tone; almost all of it shows a fertile, restless intelligence hard at work; in some respects, it is a model of how to make a little learning go a long way. The resourcefulness with which Lawrence uses his reading of Nietzsche, and of Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy, and of a couple of exegetical works on the book of Revelation, puts one in mind of T.S. Eliot’s dry observation about our differing capacities to draw sustenance from what is available: ‘Some men can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most could get from the whole British Museum.’

Before going further, however, the reader is entitled to some explanatory remarks on what is contained in this edition of Apocalypse; and a few remarks also on the Revelation itself – a document with which not all subscribers to the London Review of Books are likely to be well acquainted. As far as the Lawrence text is concerned, this version of Apocalypse, which comes together with various related items by him, is the second volume of the new, complete scholarly edition of his works which is being issued by the Cambridge University Press, under the general editorship of Professor James Boulton. (The only other volume in the series to have been produced so far is the first of a projected seven which are to be devoted to the letters alone.) The present book includes a review by Lawrence of a scholarly exegesis of the Revelation; his introduction to an astrological interpretation of it entitled The Dragon of the Apocalypse and written by Frederic Carter, who was instrumental in getting Lawrence going on the subject; and three lengthy rejected fragments from his book, which contain some of the liveliest and most interesting material in the entire compendium. We are indebted to the editor of the present volume for providing us with them. There is, in addition, a copious set of editorial notes: some devoted to the provenance of the various texts presented; some to explaining allusions of all kinds which appear in the work. On the whole, the latter are very useful, though one does feel a certain lowering of the spirits on seeing that it has been thought necessary to gloss references to Lenin, Alexander the Great, the Archangel Gabriel, Plato and Nirvana. It might be added that line-numbers (in fives) are given in the margins throughout the texts: an ugly and unnecessary mode of typographical embalming.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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