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Birds, beasts and flowers

Gerald Dawe

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D H Lawrence: The Poems (Vols I & II), edited by Christopher Pollnitz, Cambridge University Press, 1,425 pp, £130 ISBN: 978-0521294294

It is as well to begin with the extraordinary record, not solely of DH Lawrence (1885-1930) but also of The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D H Lawrence, which, according to Christopher Pollnitz’s introduction to his glorious two-volume edition of Lawrence's poems is now (almost) at an end. One final poetry volume (a third) remains to be published which will include Lawrence’s “uncollected and unpublished poems, together with a variorum apparatus and comprehensive manuscript listing”.

When it is finished [Pollnitz writes], this edition of Lawrence’s will complete the Cambridge Edition … which issued its first two volumes, Vol.1 of The Letters and Apocalypse from the Works, in 1979. The Cambridge Edition has published in total eight volumes of The Letters of D H Lawrence as well as a Selected Letters. When complete, the Works will number thirty-nine volumes, including Lawrence’s twelve novels, four volumes of early versions of novels, eight volumes of short fiction, three volumes of poetry, one volume of plays, three volumes of essays, four travel books with other travel essays, and four volumes of non-fiction prose. In such ways, the Cambridge Edition celebrates not only the extraordinary range of Lawrence’s work but also one of the great achievements of twentieth century writing in English.

The Cambridge University Press has, in a word, produced a masterpiece of book production and under the editorial board with general editor James T Boulton fulfilled a huge challenge of cultural significance that, in the more than three decades of continual production, has secured Lawrence’s writing as scholarly text, human artefact and as literary document. Anyone genuinely interested in literature will praise this as a magnificent achievement in its own right given the economics of book production and the invidious commercial pressures with which serious publishers of all kinds are currently facing.

It is only when one looks at the sheer range of Lawrence’s writing during a relatively brief life (dying of TB atforty-four) that was characterised from 1912 onwards when he was in his late twenties, with ceaseless travel (within England and throughout Europe, North America, Australia, Ceylon and Mexico) and ongoing struggles with publishers, agents, misunderstandings and disaffection from friends as well as foes, real and imagined, ‑ when all this is put upon the shoulders of a miner’s son born in Nottingham in the industrial heartlands of northern England in the dying decades of the nineteenth century, that the scale of his achievement rises like a Leviathan out of the questionable ideals and loony prejudices he espoused from time to time, particularly when his mind frayed with ill-health.

Lawrence’s instinct for the natural world, the ample engagement with physical desire and the knowledge of passion (not the debased word of today) brought both excess and reality to his art as if he was discovering the world in language for the first time. As one of his greatest admirers, fellow countryman Philip Larkin, would have it in his poem “The Trees”: “Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

No one will forget the original discovery, not to mention the emotional and artistic impact, of reading Gertrude Morel’s eviction from the family home at the hands of the drunken and troubled husband Walter in Sons and Lovers (1913). Pregnant with Paul and becoming disillusioned with her early married life Gertrude struggles through the enchanted night-scented garden at the back and side of the family house as we inhabit with her this Cézanne-like world of livid, heightened reality:

The tall white lilies were reeling in the moonlight, and the air was charged with their perfume, as with a presence. Mrs Morel gasped slightly in fear. She touched the big, pallid flowers on their petals, then shivered. They seemed to be stretching in the moonlight. She put her hand into one white bin: the gold scarcely showed on her fingers by moonlight. She bent down to look at the binful of yellow pollen; but only appeared dusky. Then she drank a deep draught of the scene. It almost made her dizzy … Languidly she looked about her; the clumps of white phlox seemed like bushes spread with linen; a moth ricocheted over them, and right across the garden. Following it with her eye roused her. A few whiffs of the raw, strong scent of phlox invigorated her. She passed along the path, hesitating at the white rose-bush. It smelled sweet and simple. She touched the white ruffles of the roses. Their fresh scent and cool, soft leaves reminded her of the morning-time and sunshine. She was very fond of them. But she was tired and wanted to sleep. In the mysterious out-of-doors she felt forlorn. There was no noise anywhere. Evidently the children had not been wakened, or had gone to sleep again. A train, three miles away, roared across the valley. The night was very large, and very strange, stretching its hoary distances infinitely. And out of the silver-grey fog of darkness came sounds vague and hoarse: a corncrake not far off, sound of a train like a sign, and distant shouts of men.

The powerful visual poetry of the scene (“the white ruffles of the roses”, “the silver-grey fog of darkness”), the hallucinogenic quality that pervades the rhythm and pulse of the prose (the corncrake, the train and the ominous “shouts”) is something that Lawrence would increasingly call upon in his poetry, particularly when he started to trust his own voice more and more and left the conventional zone of his “Rhyming Poems” along with the chastening expectations of the Imagist poetry, the anthologies of which he contributed to regularly.

There is a coherence to Lawrence’s poetic voice that cannot be boxed into “periods” of development and The Poems allows the reader to hear Lawrence move from a known and inherited world of his upbringing towards his experience of London, and the world at war (which, along with other poems, he charts in All of Us, “the first of three notebook sequences which DHL was unable to publish, or was only to see partially published, in his lifetime”), and the amazement he captures in the landscapes and cultures he moves into, from France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland to much further afield. There is an expansiveness of vision and, one can say, a lessening of the need to insert the “self” into the setting, even while the poet is clearly there, telling us what he sees and feels. That urgent desire to prove himself as the focal point of contact diminishes as the creaturely and natural life gain primacy as well as, it has to be said, the rhetorical flourishes of his argumentative mind. The sentiment becomes toughened as life becomes, literally, more precarious.

From such classic poems as “Piano” the emotional values of Lawrence’s earlier poems are sounded:

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
with the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Lawrence uses colloquialism to show how ordinary speech can make the difference, bearing in mind that when he was publishing these poems poetry was still viewed publicly through the proprieties of “received English”. It took, first the Georgians, then the Modernists, to destroy that conventional wisdom for good. There is a “folklore” side to Lawrence that many of his poems call upon ‑ not unlike Yeats, but without Yeats’s doctrinaire reasoning ‑ and both the formal and subject-matter draw upon his North Country background. It is out of this grounding that the dramatic contrasts his poems revel in take flight:

A snake came to my water-trough
on a hot, hot day and I in pyjamas for the heat,
to drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.

The curious explanation for his attire (“for the heat”) is his old English self, set alongside the “great dark carob tree” and the awesome snake-world; “Snake” is indeed a wondrous hymn to difference and the sufficiency of the natural world in the face of Lawrence’s (as our own) temporary fearfulness and petty rejection of the visitor from this otherworld. His poems are full of such ecological lessons. Birds, Beasts and Flowers, from which this and so many other of Lawrence’s truly great liberating poems come such as “Cypresses”, “Man and Bat” and “Eagle in New Mexico” are like blasts of fresh air.

The rhetorical conversations with his imagined audience that rage through “Pansies” (Lawrence’s chronicle of pet-hates and pet-sounds) certainly pander to some of his weaker moments but also crackle with ill-tempered alienation from the predominant mores of the 1920s Anglophone world. As a result he had to accept editorial cuts throughout before publication could be achieved; no wonder there is a sense of evangelical vexation. But while the anger is pointed

How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species ‑
Presentable, eminently presentable ‑
shall I make you a present of him?

the resolution is beyond the pale, particularly when we bring to bear upon these late poems of Lawrence what we know was about to engulf Europe shortly after his death in 1930:

Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp England
what a pity they can’t all be kicked over
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly
into the soil of England.

But a poet cannot be held responsible for history, only his or her fractional part of understanding it. In that regard Lawrence’s poetry offers a timely and unflinching record of one man’s sense of what makes our living and being meaningful ‑ the powerful current of physical pleasure, the elusive joy of witnessing that which is different, beyond us, and the kind of opinionated prickliness when things are not what they seem to be, or as “good” as they should be.

In his “Last Poems” notebook, Lawrence also wrote one of the great poems about mortality, “The Ship of Death” and also in “Bavarian Gentians” ( the two versions of which are included in The Poems) managed to merge unsentimentally his own imminent death with the classical influences of his reading to the simple bounty of flowers:

Not every man has gentians in his house
in Soft September, at slow, Sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime torchlike with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom
...
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.

The poem, written not long before his death, returns the reader, as Christopher Pollnitz’s impeccable notes remark, to an exchange between Connie and Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), and to presiding literary figures such as John Milton but also, perhaps, to that garden in the opening chapter of Sons and Lovers where Mrs Morel “rested with the hills and lilies and houses, all swum together in a kind of swoon”.

June 17th, 2013

Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published by The Gallery Press (2012). He is professor of English at Trinity College Dublin.