Neil Rathmell – writer

100+ essays on literary topics

D.H.Lawrence and the urge to write

The urge to write is not unusual. When I was a teacher I saw it in many of the children I taught. But not all. Some had a greater urge to talk, which they were least able to control when the rest of the class were writing.

Opportunities to indulge the urge to write are available to everyone now on Facebook and Twitter. Many children grow up to take advantage of that without becoming writers in the narrow sense of being a novelist, poet or playwright. The urge has to be strong to take a writer from debut tweet to debut novel.

The stronger the urge to write, the more prolific the writer. The less prolific the writer, the more controlled the writing. E.M.Forster wrote five novels, each whittled to perfection before it was published. (Most people agree that the sixth novel, published posthumously, would have been better whittled away to nothing.)

D.H.Lawrence was so prolific, so unable to control his urge to write, that he wrote in every form available to him during his relatively short life. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, travelogues and translations. So strong in him was the urge to write that only death at the age of 44 could stop him.

The attraction of poetry for someone whose urge to write was so strong as to be almost out of control must, at least in part, have been the speed of its execution. A poem, especially one written in free verse, can be quickly scribbled down.

Most of Lawrence’s poems are short, some very short.

When I wish I was rich, then I know I am ill.
Because, to tell the truth, I have enough as I am.
So when I catch myself thinking: Ah, if I was rich!
I say to myself: Hello! I’m not well. My vitality is low.

Riches can’t have taken long to write, but its brevity and simplicity are deceptive. Though not a formal quatrain, it is nonetheless a quatrain, with a purpose to each line. It has individuality as well as immediacy. The voice is his. The rhythm is the rhythm of his speech. It comes up short at the end. Unexpected, ‘vitality’ anchors the poem.

In a slightly longer poem, Lawrence goes boldly where a more reticent poet might have chosen not to go at all.

It’s no good, the women are in eruption
and those that have been good so far
now begin to steam ominously,
and if they’re over forty-five, hurl great stones into the air
which are very likely to hit you on the head as you sit
on the very slopes of the matrimonial mountain
where you’ve sat peacefully all these years.

Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,
but the women are my favourite vessels of wrath.

He called these poems Pansies. They were written towards the end of his life and, as many of them were likely to have been banned then, were not published until after his death. They were quite different in their throw-away idiom from his earlier, more carefully crafted poems. His Pansies were pensées, thoughts, or even – to use a modern idiom – tweets.

Snake, an earlier poem, published in his Collected Poems before he died, describes an encounter with a venomous snake one hot day in Sicily. It is more than a single thought, but in many ways it prefigures the Pansies. It is a thought expressed in the context of the experience from which it grew. Lawrence’s skill as a writer is in the realisation of that experience and of the introspection which it provokes.

To begin with, he sets the scene.

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

The skill is in the spareness of the description, the repetition of ‘hot’ and ‘heat’. Also in the control of pace, interrupting the flow of the sentence with a subordinate clause.

He goes on to evoke the mystery of the place with a piling on of words that contrasts with the simplicity of the opening.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree

In the third verse, he paints a vivid picture of the snake.


He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough

Lines from a poem that could just as well have been a sentence from Sons and Lovers or The Rainbow, where there is little to distinguish poetry from prose apart from how the words are set out on the page.

The sixth verse introduces the theme that is developed in the rest of the poem as introspection competes with observation.

The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

He pursues that thought over the next few lines, before taking us back to the snake with a closely observed description.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air

The voice of education takes over again, causing him to pick up a log and throw it at the snake, which nevertheless escapes, disappearing rapidly into a hole in the wall.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

The poem ends in a way which is curiously similar, in both sense and rhythm, to the last line of Riches.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness.

The urge to write is not enough on its own to make a writer. It has to be combined with other qualities. In the case of D.H.Lawrence, I would say that one of these was honesty, the other a kind of fearlessness.


D.H.Lawrence in Sardinia

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This entry was posted on August 27, 2020 by in Literature, poetry and tagged , , .
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