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.

Hemingway is controlled but terribly mannered. Lawrence is more refined and at the same time more natural. He is paradoxical in this way. Just as he is a mystic literalist, so too he is a natural stylist. He knew this. He wrote to Edward Marsh about his poetry, thus: ‘I have always tried to get an emotion out in its own course, without altering it.’ And yet, he added, ‘it needs the finest instinct imaginable, much finer than the skill of the craftsmen.’

Lawrence’s naturalness as a writer has to do with the way his voice is audible in his fiction. He is always there, hesitating, hectoring, colloquialising (how often in Lawrence that Nottinghamshire negative, ‘Nay’, appears), repeating, joking. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot said, was humourless. Actually, the appeal of his voice lies partly in its comedy. This is less obvious in the longer novels than in the stories, novellas, travel writing and poems, forms to which Kinkead-Weekes gives full and overdue attention. Lawrence’s enemies still deny his comedy, which was often self-deprecating. John Carey, who wants all writers to be nice (ideally, as decent as Arnold Bennett), wrote a book about the nastiness of various modern writers called The Intellectuals and the Masses. In it Lawrence is scolded for his ‘fascism’, his ecstasies of annihilation. Carey plucks a sentence from a letter written in 1915 to Ottoline Morrell. The war had ravaged Lawrence. Before it began he had felt that English life was on the edge of a resurrection. The slaughter in France undermined his foundations. Lawrence was given, like Céline, to overstatement: ‘It would be nice if the Lord sent another flood and drowned the world,’ he wrote to Lady Ottoline. This is the sum of Carey’s quotation. But Lawrence’s letter continues: ‘Probably I should want to be Noah. I am not sure,’ which is funny and human and fallen – not that Carey would have been amused.

Lawrence’s comedy emerges in his prose as a briskness, a polemical dastardliness, a kind of trick. It is the verbal equivalent of cheating at cards: the writer slips something past the reader. And it is the social equivalent of cheating, for Lawrence’s most characteristic humour is aimed at the English upper classes. The writer who wrote a poem called ‘The Oxford Voice’, shrewdly judged the mediocrity of many of his competitors. How swiftly the pretensions of the protagonist of his story, ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ (1927), are dispatched: ‘He was not a great scholar: the usual public school equipment.’ But Lawrence is most appealing when he is both satirical and aware of his own absurdity. Kinkead-Weekes reports that when Lawrence and Frieda arrived in Turin, in 1919, they stayed a night at the house of an industrialist called Sir Walter Becker. This was Lawrence’s judgment, in a letter:

The old knight and I had a sincere half-mocking argument, he for security and bank-balance and power, I for naked liberty. In the end, he rested safe on his bank-balance, I in my nakedness. We hated each other – but with respect. But c’est lui qui mourra. He is going to die – moi non. He knows that, the impotent old wolf, so he is ready in one half to murder me. I don’t want to murder him – merely leave him to his death.

This has charm, the kind of charm that one finds throughout the travel books, Twilight in Italy and Sea and Sardinia. And the writing has such crooked vitality: the vernacular bumping against the spoilt, jaunty French, the slap of the phrases. What is most appealing is the quality of self-mockery. It is hard not to feel that Lawrence finds himself as absurd as the old knight – that if Becker is an ‘old wolf’ then Lawrence is a young fox. The passage is comic because of the overstatement, as if ‘naked liberty’ could possibly be an adequate opposition to ‘security and bank-balance and power’. Stylistically, the passage is comic because it is built on contradictions: the two hate each other, ‘but with respect’; Lawrence tells us that he doesn’t want to murder Becker, but he is verbally murdering him before our eyes. And then, the bristle of that phrase, ‘impotent old wolf’, foxily inserted in the sentence to look casual, yet drawing all the attention to itself.

Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s excellent biography, the second of a Cambridge trilogy, abounds in such moments. He shows us how self-conscious Lawrence was about class, and with what good reason. The man who emerges from his portrait is quick-tempered, warm-gutted, intensely lithe, an inspired mimic. Everyone who met him, even those who disliked him, felt his vitality. David ‘Bunny’ Garnett noticed his ‘beautiful lively, blue eyes’, and that he was ‘very light in his movements’. He also maintained that Lawrence’s hair colour, or non-colour – it was reddish-fair – was characteristically working-class. When a young admirer called Ivy Low came to visit him, one of Lawrence’s first questions was whether he seemed working-class. He complained when she said yes. John Middleton Murry saw that when Lawrence went to a party given by H.G. Wells in 1914, it was with sickly determination that Lawrence insisted on evening dress. ‘Now Lawrence,’ wrote Murry, ‘who looked his lithe and limber self in many kinds of attire, did not resemble himself at all when locked into a dress-suit ... But something warned me ... that this initiation into the dress-suit world was for him a serious ritual affair.’

It is Lawrence’s unbuttonedness, his free eccentricities, that make his writing so remarkable. It is because he is not locked into any kind of dress-suit that the prose can wave its arms and ball its fists. E.M. Forster, so loyal to Lawrence, is constrained, and his writing, even at its finest, has more or less the kind of liberty that one expects to find within constraint. But Lawrence is unaccountable. Christmas roses, ‘the lovely buds like handfuls of snow’; ‘the powerful, silver-pawed cypress tree’; ‘In the silence, it seemed he could hear the panther-like dropping of infinite snow’; ‘the flat unfinished world running with foam and noise and silvery light, and a few gulls swinging like a half-born thought’.

Yet Lawrence is rooted, too. He was a practical man, as Kinkead-Weekes reminds us. Strangers – in England, Italy, Germany – were astounded to see him cooking, cleaning, gardening and building. When he and Frieda moved to Hampstead in 1915, he knitted a loose cover for their sofa. He made hats for Frieda, and two sheepskin coats for the daughters of friends. ‘While with us,’ wrote one host, ‘he cooked an omelette; furbished a hat of his wife; examined a Dutch cupboard my wife had recently bought, and said what its period was; came out into the garden and gave me hints on transplanting cabbages.’ This practicality finds its way into the writing as a fine simplicity or homeliness of imagery – as when Katherine Farquhar, in the story ‘The Border Line’ (1924), realises that her dead husband still possesses her, ‘not just through one act ... But as a cloud holds a shower ... as the scent of a pine-tree when one stands beneath it.’

Lawrence’s simplicity produces one of the most beautiful passages in all his writing, and one of the most beautiful passages of speech in English fiction. In his novella St Mawr (1925), a Welsh stable hand, Lewis, accompanies a rich American lady, Mrs Witt, on a horse-ride through the English countryside. Darkness has fallen and in the sky the couple can see shooting stars. Mrs Witt has been teasing Lewis about his various rural superstitions, and in particular for his stubborn belief that a shooting star represents some kind of cosmic signal. She asks him if he knows that a shooting star is just a chemical spasm:

Yes, Mam, I’ve been told. But stones don’t come at us from the sky for nothing. Either it’s like when a man tosses an apple to you out of his orchard, as you go by. Or it’s like when somebody shies a stone at you, to cut your head open. You’ll never make me believe the sky is like an empty house with a slate falling from the roof. The world has its own life, the sky has a life of its own, and never is it like stones rolling down a rubbish heap and falling into a pond. Many things twitch and twitter within the sky, and many things happen beyond us. My own way of thinking is my own way.

This is the novella that Maddox’s biography of Lawrence dismissed as ‘a forest of abstractions, repeating words carelessly’.

The biography begins with Lawrence meeting Frieda Weekley in 1912. Much of the material is familiar: the first, ecstatic trip to Italy in 1912, which produced Twilight in Italy; Frieda’s unhappiness at being separated from her three children, and Lawrence’s apparent indifference about this; the hot day in July 1913 when the two were married in London (a photograph shows the Lawrences and Murry and Katherine Mansfield standing in a London garden, with a line of washing hanging behind them like a white flag of truce or surrender); Lawrence’s severed friendship with Bertrand Russell; the suppression of The Rainbow in 1915; the dim years (1916-17) in Cornwall, when the Lawrences were being investigated by government authorities as possible German spies, and where he wrote most of Women in Love; the growing hatred of England, and the second departure to Italy in 1919, followed by the decision to leave England for good.

Lawrence’s critics tend to slight his unhappiness during the war years, noting that it was self-indulgent of the non-combatant Lawrence to complain while thousands of his compatriots fell in France. But Richard Aldington felt that Lawrence never recovered from the banning of The Rainbow, and Kinkead-Weekes follows him by placing this event at the centre of his narrative. The judge ruled that there was ‘no justification whatever for the perpetration of such a book’. It was ‘utter filth’. Methuen, the publishers, agreed. At the Glasgow Herald, a young reviewer, Catherine Carswell, who became one of Lawrence’s most loyal friends, was sacked for writing a largely positive review. ‘A monotonous wilderness of phallicism,’ wrote one reviewer. ‘Such was England’s official verdict on one of the great novels of the language,’ Kinkead-Weekes valedictorises, in a moment of rare grandiloquence. ‘It would not be available in Britain again for another 11 years.’

Though Lawrence would not begin to look tubercular until the Twenties, it was during the war years that he grew the shrubby claw of beard that became his distinctive feature, and it was during this time that his vital, bastard twinkle disappeared. In bleak Cornwall, where he had a kind of breakdown, Lawrence became the shovel-faced reed of the later photographs. It was also in these years that his ‘doctrine’ took on some of its unpleasantness, its glittering almost-fascism, its impatience with democracy (though an impatience with Bertrand Russell’s naivety explains much of his swerve). Yet Lawrence’s thought, for all of its undoubted irrationalism, is not much more offensive than some of the early Church heresies, and has transparent similarities with early Christian mysticism. In Twilight in Italy and Apocalypse, for instance, the Christian, trinitarian pattern of the thought is clear – along with the desire for a religious resting-place, a balance of opposites. One can take or leave the historical schema, the determination to see the Renaissance as a gate in modern consciousness (though this is not much nuttier than Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, or even Lukács’s shift from the age of epic to the age of the novel).

Lawrence believed that, since the Renaissance, modern man had oscillated between an over-assertion of the self (through the supremacy of the flesh) and a loss of self (by dissolution into the greater self of Christ). He longed to resolve this discord, and to produce a stronger, purified selfhood that would blend the strength of self-assertion with the strength of self-abnegation. The balancing agent would be a kind of ‘Holy Ghost’, which ‘relates the dual infinites into one whole’: ‘The Infinite is twofold, the Father and the Son, the Dark and the Light, the Senses and the Mind, the Soul and the Spirit, the self and the not-self, the Eagle and the Dove, the Tiger and the Lamb.’ But Lawrence felt that this new self was not visible; it would have to be found, and it could only be found by a kind of blindness, a dying into new consciousness. The Christian basis of the inversion is clear: the loss of self in order to find new self; the blindness that is true vision.

The obsession with seeing, with darkness and light, may well have had its roots in the grim, coal-black inversion of life in the Nottinghamshire of Lawrence’s childhood. The life of the miner was a life of seeing in the darkness, and of emerging (in winter, at least) from underground at nightfall. Lawrence’s father, Arthur, began work in the mines at the age of seven. Yet he knew the names of all the local plants, and shared them with his son. So Arthur Lawrence was an embodiment of the paradox of vision. From his earliest days, he had been deprived of the visible world; yet he saw the world intently. Perhaps the entire colliery landscape seemed just such an inversion to Lawrence. In Women in Love, Gudrun tells Ursula that ‘it is like a country in an underworld ... The colliers bring it above ground with them, shovel it up.’ The blackened land seems ‘as if seen through a veil of crape’.

Lawrence is the greatest mystical novelist in English. His writing is built on the desirability of feeling, or knowing something, rather than seeing it. His story, ‘The Blind Man’ (1920), is explicitly about the desirability of sightless seeing. In it, a silent blind man teaches a knowing, sighted, overconfident rival, how to feel. More important, Lawrence’s fiction, in particular his short fiction, strives obsessively to make the invisible visible. In story after story, Lawrence writes about death or the moment of dying, of crossing over. In ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’ (1925), a woman ensnared and drugged by American Indians begins to sense a higher world beyond vision. She can hear ‘the actual crystal sound of the heavens, as the vast belts of the world-atmosphere slid past one another’. The soldier who dies in ‘The Prussian Officer’ (1914) finds himself ‘conscious of a sense of arrival’. The soldier who dies at the Front in ‘England, My England’, a story Lawrence wrote in a borrowed cottage in Sussex in 1915, is thrown into ‘the great forgetting of death. To break the core and the unit of life, and to lapse out on the great darkness. Only that. To break the clue, and mingle and commingle with the one darkness, without afterwards, or forwards.’

If Lawrence’s descriptions are mystic texts they are not mystically vague but involve literal appearances, a kind of clumsy reality of the unseen. Partly this has to do with the kind of writer Lawrence was: he was not an ecstatic, and was suspicious of religious ecstasy. But it must also have to do with his increasing interest, over the years covered by Kinkead-Weekes, in theosophy and anthroposophy. Lawrence was exposed as a child to Nonconformist Christianity, but lost his faith, under the pressure of William James and Herbert Spencer, in 1908 and 1909. Kinkead-Weekes reports that in 1917 he read various hermetic and occult books. He wrote to Philip Heseltine that he had been reading Madame Blavatsky, but that he was not a theosophist. However, he wrote, he was drawn to the idea of ‘a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd’. In 1918 he was reading ‘another book on occultism’.

It seems likely that he had been exposed several years earlier to the ideas of the German anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (whom Kinkead-Weekes does not mention), who was giving lectures in Germany during this time. Steiner believed in the return of the dead and the recurrence of historical epochs. Lawrence consoled an aunt who had lost a son in France in 1915 with the thought that the dead ‘come back and live with one, in one’s soul’. In his fine story, ‘The Border Line’ (1924), a woman breaks her journey in Strasbourg. Walking from her hotel in the evening, she sees the ghost of her late husband, standing in a corner of the square. She goes up to him, takes his hand and walks the streets with him in thrilled silence. The simple insistence with which Lawrence endows the ghost, the unembarrassed surrealism, the daylight ordinariness of the encounter – all these carry the story, and allow the invisible an entirely natural domain.

Kinkead-Weekes pays lavish attention to the short stories and their development. But perhaps he makes too little of Lawrence’s occultism. For one sees in his writing not only many of the tropes of early Christian mysticism but even, at times, a strain of Gnosticism (an early Church heresy which proposed a knowledge of God rather than a faith in Christ). There is the emphasis on the ‘religious’ elements – wind, flame, water and light. In one of his travel pieces, Lawrence described the arrival of light at sunrise as ‘the light steps down’ – an intensely religious formulation. (Swedenborg saw ladders of light ascending to and descending from heaven.) There is the stress on the heavens as a system of belts and wheels; and on the literal return of the dead. In various interpretations of the Apocalypse, we are told that it will bring time to a stop: in Lawrence’s repetitive mystical prose, the ‘time’ of the prose relaxes and is abolished.

Above all, one finds again and again in Lawrence the idea of knowledge as a kind of secret, an occultism of the senses. Here, the Gnostic idea of ‘knowing’ the divine and being known via the spirit (pneuma), seems to combine with a hermetic or occult idea that knowledge is secret. Lawrence wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1915 that she should cheer up, because ‘at the bottom one knows the eternal things, and is glad.’ An exceptionally delicate passage in Twilight in Italy provides an example of the way in which so many of Lawrence’s descriptions conceal sermons whose quarry is the secret of knowledge itself. Lawrence is sitting on a ledge. It is late afternoon and, suddenly, beneath him walk two monks, apparently in conversation. Lawrence cannot hear them, and he can barely see them. Instead, they must be divined:

And then, just below me, I saw two monks walking in their garden between the naked, bony vines, walking in their wintry garden of bony vines and olive trees, their brown cassocks passing between the brown vine-stocks, their heads bare to the sunshine, sometimes a glint of light as their feet strode from under their skirts.

  It was so still, everything so perfectly suspended that I felt them talking. They marched with the peculiar march of monks, a long, loping stride, their heads together, their skirts swaying slowly, two brown monks with hidden hands sliding under the bony vines and beside the cabbages, their heads always together in hidden converse. It was as if I were attending with my dark soul to their inaudible undertone ... I could hear no sound of their voices.

All of Lawrence’s qualities as a writer seem to me to be gathered here. There is the brilliance of his repetitions, so that the language becomes an abstract swoon, a religious nudging. There is the humble, rooting, practical mention of the cabbages, beside which the monks walk. And there is the uncovering of the ‘brown’ monks – their ‘hidden hands’, the ‘glint of light’ in their footfall – and the revelation of their affinity with the vines. Lawrence refers to their ‘hidden converse’, but this passage is itself a piece of hidden converse, both pure poetry and, in a sense, pure religion.

In November 1921, Lawrence received a letter from the eccentric American philanthropist Mabel Dodge Sterne. The letter invited Lawrence to join a community in Taos, New Mexico. It was there that he would write the greatest book of his last years, St Mawr, and one of his greatest mystical texts, ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’. There, the ancient American vastness would be bent by the mystical vastness of Lawrence’s prose, and he would give voice to a new landscape, to the ‘vast, eagle-like wheeling of the daylight’. There he would become properly sick while breathing the fine high air. Physically he would wither; isolate, he would become as unapproachable as a cactus. Lawrence’s ashes – they are thought to be his – are buried outside Taos. You go up a long, five-mile track above the main road. It was winter when I went, a few years ago, and there was snow on the road. Mountains are ahead, and below are plains and canyons like throats, with massive rocky abandonments. In winter it is dulled, but in the summer it is religiously aflame and peppery red. Lawrence described it well: ‘It was always great, and splendid, and, for some reason, natural. It was never grandiose or theatrical. Always, for some reason, perfect. And quite simple, in spite of it all.’ Of course, it is his writing he is describing here. He had become the landscape.