150+ essays on literary topics
D.H.Lawrence was simply a writer, in the way that a composer is a composer or an artist an artist. He wrote prolifically in every literary form and showed that he could do them all. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems and essays. He translated the work of other writers too, notably the nineteenth century Italian, Giovanni Verga, whose novels and stories he introduced to the English-speaking world. Whatever he wrote was recognisably his, in the same way that a painting by Monet is a Monet. (Some say that the same applies to his translations of Verga.) He is as individual as William Blake and belongs in that tradition: the rebel, the outsider, the untutored genius.
Lawrence’s poetry has several distinctive features that mark him out as different from other writers and, taken together, add up to the quality that is often called, rather lazily, because the term is understood in different ways by different people, Lawrentian. They are almost all written in the present tense; some of them are written in an assumed persona which is sometimes working class and often female; they consist largely of direct observations of things seen and heard; the thoughts and feelings they convey are an immediate reaction to a particular experience rather than a reflection on it; the language is personal, direct and intimate.
What links all these is their immediacy. His poetry is not Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. It is closer in this respect, leaving aside the question of style, to the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to Sir Thomas Wyatt or George Herbert. There are similarities too with John Clare, another working-class boy with a genius for words.
Browsing the complete poems (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994) is like leafing through an artist’s sketchbook. Each poem gives the impression of having been written al fresco, drawn from life. They have the immediacy (there is no better word for it) that a sketch or a study often has and that a finished painting sometimes lacks.
There are poems written when he was a teacher that give the impression of being written in the classroom, while the children are getting on with their work. The atmosphere these poems conjure up may be different from that of today’s classrooms, but it takes me straight back to the classrooms I taught in for twenty years. Last Lesson in the Afternoon ends on a note of sullen resentment that must have been felt by more teachers than just Lawrence and me.
I shall keep my strength for myself; they can keep theirs as well.
Why should we beat our heads against the wall
Of each other? I shall sit and wait for the bell.
But most of the poems are about love and most of the love poems are about pain of one sort or another, misunderstandings, disappointments, failures of communication, sexual failures. Both Sides of the Medal has more than a faint echo of the best known of Catullus’s poems, Odi et amo.
And because you love me,
Think you you do not hate me?
Ha, since you love me to ecstasy
it follows you hate me to ecstasy.
In First Morning he writes in the aftermath of an unsatisfactory first night.
The night was a failure
but why not – ?
In the darkness
with the pale dawn seething at the window
through the black frame
I could not be free,
not free myself from the past, those others –
and our love was a confusion,
there was a horror,
you recoiled away from me.
Lawrence’s entire œuvre, but above all his poetry, was unashamedly autobiographical. There is more than a passing resemblance to Strindberg in the way in which his own life finds its way into his writing, not least in his ambivalent attitude to women.
Another side of this appears in what he called his Pansies (‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts’) short poems or epigrams in which he gives unrestrained expression to his feelings about the world – or, more particularly, England. A Tale Told by an Idiot is typical.
Modern life is a tale told by an idiot;
flat-chested, crop-headed, chemicalised women, of indeterminate sex,
and wimbly-wambly young men, of sex still more indeterminate,
and hygienic babies in huge hulks of coffin-like perambulators –
The great social idiot, it must be confessed,
tells dull, meaningless, disgusting tales
and repeats himself like the flushing of a WC.
The disgust is reminiscent of Swift or the cartoons of Gilray and Hogarth. Also, again, of Catullus because, with him as with Lawrence, it’s personal. Take Innocent England as an example.
Oh what a pity. Oh! don’t you agree,
that figs aren’t found in the land of the free!
Fig trees don’t grow in my native land;
there’s never a fig-leaf near at hand
when you want one; so I did without;
and that is what the row’s about.
The row was about the exhibition of his nudes in a London gallery (he painted too) which so scandalised the nation that twelve thousand people came to see them, before they were taken away by the police and put in a cell – the paintings, that is, not the people. (The Bloomsbury set were on his side and encouraged him to fight the case in the courts. But if he had lost the paintings would have been destroyed and he couldn’t bear the thought of that, so he gave in and the paintings stayed where they were, detained at His Majesty’s pleasure. It was the reaction of a working man, less confident than he seemed, wary of litigation, and the difference between him and his posh friends.)
A few years ago, a review in The Guardian of a book about these paintings began with this sentence: ‘It’s hard to imagine that David Herbert Lawrence will ever again be read with the passion and recognition that people evidently felt forty years ago, when his cultural war was still not won.’
I think that says more about the reviewer’s understanding of culture than it does about D.H.Lawrence. Lawrence has been out of fashion for a long time. He was never entirely in fashion, working class writers never are in England, so it is not surprising that he should quickly go out of it.
Lawrence is known as a novelist, but his poetry is just as good as his prose and, taken as a whole, perhaps better. It is in his poems above all that we find the immediacy, the intimacy, the working-class honesty, which seem to me to be the essence of what we mean by Lawrentian – or what we should mean.
Click on the link below to read a small selection of poems by D.H.Lawrence, chosen to illustrate the qualities mentioned in my essay.