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D. H. Lawrence possessed
I t is so manifestly an excellent thing to have Lawrence’s many poems brought together, edited by so punctilious and expert a scholar – and to have them presented in handsome volumes that do such credit to their publisher – that it feels the keener ingratitude to admit that the experience of reading them all through is, well, a bit of a slog. Mildly reassuring, then, to learn that D. J. Enright felt a similar mixture of gratitude and weariness when he reviewed the edition of Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (1964) which these volumes now triumphantly supplant. “It must be granted”, Enright wrote on that occasion, “that this Complete Poems – however grateful many of us will be to have it – makes for oppressive, confusing and blunted reading.” Enright hoped that “a critical selection”, judiciously done, might make of Lawrence-as-poet something more acceptable. It is a sensible enough suggestion, and it is a shame Enright did not take on the job himself, as he was an anthologist of great genius; but, in his stead, Keith Sagar and, more recently, James Fenton each made an excellent Selected Poems for Penguin, and both books can certainly be recommended.
D. H. Lawrence THE POEMS Edited by Christopher Pollnitz Two volumes, 1,440pp. Cambridge University Press. £130 (US $250). 978 0 521 29429 4
Published: 6 November 2013
The D. H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire Photograph: © Tracey Whitefoot / Alamy
Then again, perhaps there is something about concentrating on Lawrence at his best that does him an odd sort of injustice. It may well be that taking the poet all in all plays an important part in our coming to see the very odd sort of writer of verse that he was: the extraordinary unevenness, the repeated lapses of judgement, the readiness to bang on, the uncontained profuseness, all these come to seem not incidental deficiencies, but, rather, key elements in the full Lawrence effect. These poems do not come across as particular undertakings that have been finished off well or not so well, as poems by Thomas Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins do, but more as parts of a potentially unending series of provisional reports back from what it was to be Lawrence. T. S. Eliot’s view was that “he never succeeded in making a work of art”; but many of his most sympathetic readers have also intuited something like this. He wrote “poetry rather than poems”, is how Graham Hough puts it in The Dark Sun (1956), still one of the best accounts: “a body of work poetically felt and conceived whose individual units rarely reach perfection or selfsubsistence”. And in his remarkable D. H. Lawrence and “Difference” (2003), the novelist Amit Chaudhuri is thinking along the same lines, though in a more up-to-date idiom, when he describes a Lawrence poem as “part of a specific Lawrentian poetic discourse”, something to be read “both as itself and as an instance of that discourse” – rather as Chesterton once said we should appreciate the novels of Dickens, not as individual works but as “lengths cut from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens” (any length of which, as Chesterton went on to remark, “will be certain to contain a given proportion of brilliant and of bad stuff”). Hough and Chaudhuri are both responding to Lawrence’s own view of the matter. In the preface to the American edition of New Poems (1920), he contrasted the “measured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats” with the sort of
“How lovely it is to be at home / Like an insect in the grass / Letting life pass!” (“Last Hours”). “The Wild Common”. the poem that Lawrence placed first in his Collected Poems (1928). a way to be mildly disparaging about the formal achievements of the old style. as though emulating a painting by Whistler: “The factories on the Surrey side / Are beautifully laid in black on a gold-grey sky” (“Embankment at Night. rapt. Such “perfect. were “gods of love that tame the chaos”. the may-blobs burst out in a laugh as they hear!” The language looks as though it is drawing on some religious reasons for excitement. but rather what he calls the “multiform”: “what are you. “Transformations”. which nominates at once a purposeful artistic decision and the lack of something. “But how splendid it is to be substance. But in fact. announces the master-theme of his poetic career: it is a description of a tussocky landscape. the voice is not very well disposed to what Empson called “argufying”. a suggestion floated by Sandra Gilbert forty years ago: he would certainly have agreed with Pater that. but if this reminds us a little of Hopkins. The early . from the volume Look! We Have Come Through! (1917): “The great gold apples of night Hang from the street’s long bough Dripping their light On the faces that drift below . it is a Hopkins without the theodicy (which is to say. he enquires. but his poetry genuinely shared something of the end-stopped quality that marks Imagist verse. but it is continuous with those more substantial achievements all the same. of “planlessness”. R. celebrating not the triumphs of form. are “inordinately there”. Given such unacknowledged affiliations. when it comes to art. Lawrence runs a whole tradition of poetics in reverse. by which time Lawrence had successfully liberated himself from the shackles of being lovely. it is difficult to say quite what is being celebrated. depicted in a breathless. nothing crystal. “not the fruit of experience. That is. As Christopher Pollnitz points out in the course of his lengthy and consistently illuminating commentary. . I am royally here! I am here! I am here! screams the pee-wit. Blackmur picked up on the observation. thought Coleridge. it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the younger Lawrence’s poems should so lovingly capture the exquisite atmospherics of the fin de siècle. brilliantly confusing presenttense of jubilation. It is a poetry. though a disinclination to entangle the strangeness of experience in a “rational” explication of its significance is less a shortcoming of the verse than its entire raison d’être. it is nothing much like Hopkins). in an early poem. P. but I. in Sandra Gilbert’s well-chosen word. a bracingly counter-cultural kind of “charm” – a good example of the “nicely bloody-minded” quality that Richard Hoggart admired in him. a lovely way of putting something with which most thinkers about poetics from Jonathan Swift to Wallace Stevens would. with barely disguised self-reference: “It is a glimpse of chaos not reduced to order”. “How gorgeous that shock of red lilies. Before the War”) or. Poets.verse he preferred. In fact. . claiming in a once celebrated essay that Lawrence’s poems lacked “the protection and support of a rational imagination”. ungraspable poetry of the sheer present”. Certainly. claiming for itself the unanswerable quality of merely being possessed by the life-forms that it repeatedly celebrates: “It does not want to get anywhere”. The apples of night. and larkspur cleaving / All with a flash of blue!” (“Two-Fold”). Lawrence said of the verse he wanted to write. intently. Lawrence’s planless aesthetics are thoroughly indebted to Pater. like the much more robust baby tortoise in “Tortoise Family Connections”. oh multiform?”. as the early poems make especially clear. as Lawrence wrote in the preface to a volume of Harry Crosby’s poems. “the unrestful.” Lawrence’s early association with the Imagists placed him among uncongenially tepid company. Beasts and Flowers (1923). “It just takes place”. a Lawrence poem appears to make itself up as it goes along. permanent”. here! My shadow is neither here nor there. as though the poet were required to place his trust in some invisible hand that will makes things come right. in their different ways. which is perhaps partly what Eliot had in mind when he noted in Lawrence “an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking”. which is no doubt true as far as it goes. a poetry of “living plasm” with “no plasmic finality. thoroughly concur. and in a way there isn’t much more to be said other than to enjoy the fact. the reference that Lawrence makes to “gem-like lyrics” brings Walter Pater to mind. “the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present”. is the end”. but experience itself. Analogously. “And therein lies the charm”. other than something wonderful but conceptually elusive such as a thereness which won’t stand still. bright experience” (“Moonrise”) isn’t very like the greater poetry of Birds.
and they are certainly something”. and enjoys. as he wrote to John Middleton Murry. but the bad weirdness of the tone must have something to do with their disinclination to imagine how this all might have seemed from Miriam’s angle. but a lot of the verse increasingly has the air of someone talking out heedlessly in a spirit of take it or leave it. And disgustingly upside down. but nothing remotely precious. “She has not realised yet. from D. as Graham Hough puzzled it out – this aspect of Lawrence’s voice is occasionally taken to an extreme. but they are not prose either. and the result is then only as interesting as his ideas about the proper way to conduct your sex life. / she thinks we are all of one piece” (“Manifesto”): Lawrence seems to me altogether better at evoking the “otherness” of birds. “that a plant or an animal has its own kind of existence which is unlike and uncomprehending of man’s. an interest in the reality of someone else is not so easy to discern. of course (especially “of course”). adroitly splicing our round-eyed differentness with his own round-eyed wonder. oh strange up-starting fig-tree!” “To be a tortoise!” “To be a fish!” “Bats!” Everyone recognizes Birds. “Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag. as Santanu Das says in his excellent account of the poems. Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags And grinning in their sleep.) “Ego-bound women are often lesbian. one tactic of which is to criticize the author in question for lacking what he was famous for possessing in spades. Beasts and Flowers as his masterpiece. That is delicious. but Potter was a good critic and had written well about Lawrence. “Formlessness becomes the form of this sort of investigation”. H. Bats!” The repetitious texture of the verse here implies. to be sure. how I admire your fidelity. the male and female element in life”. / So I failed to give you the last / Fine torture you did deserve”: those lines from the early “Last Words to Miriam” are meant to express a difficult sort of spiritual honesty. The lines to Miriam are an extreme case. was the consciousness of sexual relationship. Auden. like his companions in the book. H. said an admiring W. a view that Lawrence himself shared. beasts and flowers. and like many of his bookish jokes this one turns out to have an unexpected truth buried in it – not to the novels. that is. as in “Spray” (“It is a wonder foam is so beautiful”) or the artless fun of his fish (“The tiny fish enjoy themselves / in the sea”). of course.” “Yellow eyes incomprehensible with thin slits / To round-eyed us”. Approaching the subject purely as a matter of style. a pleasure in incorrigible oddity: all the creatures have the quality of the American eagle whom Lawrence ends the book by addressing: “You’re such a huge fowl! / And such a puzzler!” The eagle. Generally. and that turns out to be an important precondition for the addressee of a successful Lawrence poem. is hardly in a position to answer back. Potter’s best example of “Newstatesmaning” is about Lawrence: “the one thing that was lacking. Lawrence’s novels. / Dark cypresses!” “Oh many-branching candelabrum. “No flesh responded to my stroke. the feeling comes through as comedy. The poetry discovers as its default mode – one to which it gratefully reverts whenever possible – the apostrophe and the cry. Lawrence’s one-word poem would be: “It!”. he writes in “Wedlock”. “The sensuousness of the early verse is extended into a lingering act of sensing”. (Not very. Lawrence says in his poem about the he-goat. to sleep. his finest poems of human relationship are written from a position of detached observation where there is no question of making contact: “She spreads the bath-cloth underneath the window . and I suppose such syntax is not best given to what Coleridge called “the connecting acts in the mind”. which don’t seem especially switched on by a consciousness of relationship. that I am the other. Gavin Ewart once wrote a one-word love poem: “You!”. “I find people ultimately boring”. There is rapture here. / perhaps always”: thanks for that. but. the imagination’s renewed attempts to get at something that remains perpetually elusive. perhaps because. needless to say. the sort of thing that Blackmur was looking for.poetry’s Paterite annotations of loveliness modulate into the great mature voice. in truth. And yet in the same volume the old creaturely magic will flash back into view again. “Lawrence never forgets – indeed this is what he likes most about them”. In Pansies (1929) – “perhaps doubtfully poems at all. In Lifemanship Stephen Potter describes a scurrilous brand of book-reviewing called “Newstatesmaning”. that fearful thing. freshly invigorated by a new knockabout boisterousness and a rich sense of the ridiculous. but to the poems. a good account of his development could probably base itself on his gradual mastery of the exclamation mark: “Ah. which devote themselves most assiduously to imagining what Lawrence called “subtle inter-relatedness”. curiosity. “But how lovely to be you!”.
is. Lawrence’s own division of his works is important. Lawrence told Edward Marsh. not the obvious form”. Auden. this is a vastly greater undertaking than the old Complete Poems . on the grounds that Lawrence would have put them among the “rhyming” had he published them. In fact. but by Pollnitz’s own admission it is an obscure way of presenting his development. “It is the hidden emotional pattern that makes poetry. What is an editor to do? In his Penguin selection. a decision which seems more consistent even if. Altogether. and in fact contains many rhymed poems. and works from manuscript in separate sections. In this new Cambridge edition. a sequence from 1916 entitled “All of Us”. in adopting the rhyming/unrhyming organization of the 1928 edition. the opening volume in the “Unrhyming” section. eschewing such obviousness. One of Lawrence’s models was Walt Whitman. Christopher Pollnitz has chosen to follow his precursors. and whose poetry. The poems that survive so magnificently somehow come off in a spirit of fortuitousness that is evidently related to the happy chanciness of the encounters with the non-human which they represent – “Luckily for us”. and. whom he both adored and deplored. unfree verse”. whole man” that he felt constituted verse free from “Law”. he says in The Dyer’s Hand. he says. a poem of delighted outrage about the indiscriminate affection showed by his scruffy mutt. as he chooses to print the texts of his poems in their final revision. existed in “the quick of the universe”. although it is complicated in the execution. the older man was “a much better poet”. posthumously published works. there was clearly much at stake in his decision to arrange his 1928 Collected Poems in two sections. the way he shapes an individual collection – all this can contribute to our sense of his development”. which is going to include a full variorum apparatus. what he holds back or fails to publish. as poetry should. he adopted instead the “direct utterance from the instant. thus leaving them in what Pollnitz calls “an ambiguous historical space”. respectively labelled “Rhyming Poems” and “Unrhyming Poems”: the implication is of a poetic career that has moved from one to the other. It will be good to have lists of the contents of the original collections in the forthcoming third volume of this edition. of course. “Bibbles”. liberating itself from constraint and into creative freedom. and Pollnitz has a small coup. belongs. in both life and poetry. it seems to me. limited. what he publishes. and her swung breasts Sway like full-blown yellow Gloire de Dijon roses. as . but also revised many of them for their Collected appearance. And they are extraordinary pieces of writing. as Sagar himself remarked in his introduction. While down her sides the mellow Golden shadow glows as She stoops to the sponge. could not have disagreed more thoroughly: “what fascinates me about the poems of Lawrence’s which I like is that I must admit he could never have written them had he held the kind of views about poetry of which I approve”. an immense enterprise: the apparatus is both enormous and intricate. as Lawrence says in his lines of puzzled admiration about the hummingbird. Pinto and Warren. which he has decided to slip in between “rhyming” and “unrhyming”. “What a poet does with his work as he goes along. seems to me to have been much more profound than Lawrence’s. Lawrence organized the poems in ways which did not obey chronology very precisely at all: for example. Given the significance that free verse had for Lawrence. but to rescue the late texts from the intercessions of censors and compositors. the first roughly consisting of early poems and the second of later. but gave the texts as they appeared in those books. midway through the four books of rhymed poems. The lesson of Whitman was that the patterns of rhyme or regular rhythmical scheme had no place at the quick: “Free verse toes no melodic line” and so escapes the hindrance of “restricted. Look! We Have Come Through!. is not to depict Lawrence’s development as a poet. Sagar’s earlier Penguin also organized the works by their first appearances in book form. and then adding Pansies .” The object of desire has become momentarily gifted with all the saving alienness of an animal – or a rose-bush – about its business. or near-full. chronologically. then.And the sunbeams catch her Glistening white on the shoulders. whose thinking about the necessary interdependence of freedom and discipline. James Fenton looks back past the 1928 collection and organizes the poems by the volumes in which they originally appeared. he said. authority: the principal editorial enterprise. and his decision was a good one. But adopting Lawrence’s organization more or less follows from Pollnitz’s decision to base this edition on the latest versions over which Lawrence had full. Lawrence not only organized the poems in a way that was only very approximately chronological.
with David Vallins and Kaz Oishi. of Coleridge. At the same time. Romanticism and the Orient: Cultural negotiations . “it makes clear that Lawrence was no person to be entrusted with the care of a dog”. Auden went on.Auden reasonably judged. which appeared earlier this year. “the best poem about a dog ever written”. Oxford. He is the co-editor. Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College. .
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