D.H. Lawrence: The Other Face of the Coin

At the height of the San Francisco Renaissance — the first focus of the Post-War Two rejection of the war-making State, the exploitative economy of both capitalism and Bolshevism, and the system of lies which those in power pretend is the Judaeo-Christian ethic — back in those gaudy and giddy days there was a middle-aged anarchist woman who was always getting up in meetings and saying, “Comrades, why don’t we reprint Kropotkin’s Appeal to Youth and distribute it upon the campus at the University of California and San Francisco State College?” She was quite convinced that that one simple act would bring the revolution a generation nearer.

Lawrence is one of those people like Emma Goldman, Isadora Duncan, Henry Miller whom the aged persist in assuming appeal to youth. Youth have never heard of Emma Goldman or Isadora Duncan. Henry Miller makes them giggle. Lawrence, I am afraid, exasperates them. So many revolutions have been won in our century and found not worth the winning. As Paul Mattick once remarked, Hitler fulfilled the entire emergency program of the Communist Manifesto and in addition made May Day a legal holiday. Few people are prepared to face the fact that the concentration camp (not the extermination camp) represented juridically, theoretically, on paper, the most progressive penological notions. Of all the revolutions which have come home to roost, the Sexual Revolution has turned out to be the most unwieldy cuckoo of all.

It was D.H. Lawrence’s great misfortune that he permitted himself to be swept up in a fugitive cause and to become the prophet and polemicist of a religion which could not, by very definition, outlive the generation which gave birth to it. What we call Victorian morality was remarkably short-lived and more honored in the breach than in the observance. Prior to the appearance of the Prince Consort, British life was the wonder of Europe for its sluttishness. Debauchery was institutionalized in the highest and the lowest places. When Lawrence started his attack on Victorian morality, Edward VII had already lived in lechery and died in ignominy. Lawrence, himself a provincial, was unaware he had been eaten by the bear, that he was beating in a door which had long since been removed from its hinges and that his novels only reflected the curious customs of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s circle or the reserved banques of the Café Royale. Throughout his career he tried valiantly to etherialize what was in fact foolishness. His courage was a function of his naïveté. It is this incongruity and the ill-temper which it engendered in Lawrence and which corrupts much of what he writes that exasperates those readers who have come to maturity long after the Sexual Revolution was over.

During his residence in Taos Lawrence carried on an affair with a very beautiful and passionate woman, tubercular like himself, which for complicated, clandestine subterfuges could not be surpassed in all the annals of the small-town ministry. Nevertheless, at parties at Mabel Dodge’s when everybody was full of sugarmoon and dancing around half or all naked and whooping and hooting and making like Geronimo, if anybody told an off-color joke Lawrence would turn beet red and then snow white and leave the room, speechless with rage. It is this incongruity which corrupted him as a man, as a prophet and as a stylist.

He suffered another corruption too, a literal one. If one of the major factors in the tragedy of Sinclair Lewis was pustular acne, tuberculosis was equally a factor in that of Lawrence. He was a sick man. Not only that but neither he nor his wife nor his friends would face the simple medical facts of the disease. They all acted like peasants who believe that if you refuse to admit the existence of disease, it will go away. As Lawrence lay coughing out his lungs, his family and friends persisted in saying to each other, “Well, you know, Bert always was bronchial.” Lawrence’s irritability, his revulsion for society, his sexuality, all reflect morning faintness, 4 P.M. fever and night sweats.

I’m not saying this just to be nasty. These are facts that must be coped with in a literary diagnosis of Lawrence as well as in a medical one. Koch’s Bacillus did not invalidate Lawrence as an artist any more than spirochetes invalidated Baudelaire or Nietzsche. The men were destroyed by the microorganisms. This took time to do and the ravages are manifest in their work. The poets and the philosopher survived. But they cannot be evaluated without taking those ravages into account. It is simply ignorant to talk about the philosophical significance of Nietzsche’s delusions when his brain was being eaten up.

A very great deal survives in Lawrence. He is certainly one of the major poets of the twentieth century, along with Guillaume Apollinaire and William Carlos Williams. He is one of the leaders in the rejection of rhetoric and Symbolism and the return of poetry to colloquial honesty and presentational immediacy. This was one of the remarkable bouleversements in the history of the human sensibility. It put to rest once and for all many of the major esthetic quarrels that have dogged literature since Euripides and Sophocles, the conflict of classicism and romanticism, form and content, architecture and emotion, and fulfilled countless programs of the sort promulgated in the preface to Lyrical Ballads or in the Imagist Manifesto.

However, the critic whose apparatus prevents him from realizing this is going to have trouble dealing with Lawrence and is hardly the sort of person qualified to introduce his Collected Poems. Vivian de Sola Pinto is as whimsical a choice for such a task as Diana Trilling was for the Viking Portable Lawrence.

He engages in amorphous argument with a minor American academic critic of the now-forgotten Reactionary Generation, Professor R.P. Blackmur. These people were left in the ditch of the high road of literary history thirty years ago in America. Alas, alas, for England — over there they have just discovered Professor Yvor Winters in all his rigor. The rigor mortis of The Movement has moved inexorably as the glaciers from Red Brick to Oxbridge and Camford, as those venerable institutions have sunk to the same dead level of mediocrity. Under the leadership of those aging imitators of John Galsworthy, the AYM’s, British writers have forgotten the very existence of the Common Market of the international intellectual community. Mr. de Sola Pinto is worried because D.H. Lawrence writes free verse and he bravely attempts to defend his new-fangledness against the traditionalist strictures of Professor Blackmur. He is under the impression that the colloquial clumsiness of his rhymed verse is not deliberate. His preface as an introduction to Lawrence for people who have never read him is completely misleading. It resembles nothing so much as an argument overheard on the sunny piazza of a Confederate Old Soldiers’ Home. Nothing is to be gained by discussing Lawrence in terms of the militant provincialism and anachronism of The Movement. What we need here is a Channel tunnel.

For a stylistic introduction to Lawrence’s poetry, I can think of nothing better than to reprint verbatim the students’ analyses of his early poem, “Piano,” from Ivor Richards’s Practical Criticism. Lawrence was not only a consummate artist but an exquisite sensibility. He was able to weigh and measure that sensibility with amazing exactitude until fever distracted his poise; and it is only this lack of balance that injures his later poems.

Several of his poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers and his death poem, “Blue Gentians,” are the perfect expression of what in England was called the Imagist esthetic. They are quite the equal of anything by Apollinaire, Reverdy or William Carlos Williams. The only English poem of the period that compares with them is Ford Madox Ford’s “L’Oubli, Temps de Sécheresse.” Lawrence may have been sick, but poetry like this will always be a life-giving metaphor for literature, a mithridate for the young poet. For the layman it will always be a permanently memorable experience, more real than real. That, after all, is all Lawrence wanted.

There is another aspect of Lawrence that needs to be faced which is usually dodged by everyone except the more tendentious Marxist critics. Like Yeats, Stefan George, T.S. Eliot, Valéry, Unamuno, Ezra Pound, von Hoffmansthal, Lawrence was a dedicated spokesman for what Joseph Freeman thirty years ago called the fascist unconscious. Note the “f” is in lower case. Lawrence did not live to see the horrors of Nazism, but the Nibelungen Geist that haunted Frieda’s relatives aroused in him only amused contempt, as did the more trivial popinjay antics of Mussolini’s minions. Nevertheless Lawrence was anti-humane, anti-humanist and anti-humanitarian, like most of the leading poets of the international community of the first half of the twentieth century. Mistral — Marinetti — Maiakofsky — Genêt — a progress from the ridiculous to the infamous. Unfortunately, Lawrence is caught in the middle of this tradition along with the greatest of his contemporaries. It is true that the exponents of humanism were frauds. In Europe they were proved so by the First War. In America, where by a historical accident the hereditary guardians of humanism were given the chance to act personally in committee their very selves, they were proven malevolent frauds by the Sacco-Vanzetti case. But this does not mean that humanism is a fraud. Nor does it excuse an anti-humane way of life. Lawrence once remarked that the beastliness of man to man increased in proportion to growth in membership in the S.P.C.A. and the perfection of painless dentistry. This is probably true, but it does not excuse Ernest Hemingway’s attendance at bull fights.

This question is usually dismissed as one of the out-of-date concerns of the Thirties. It is not and some day it is going to be necessary to revaluate book by book and almost sentence by sentence the moral meaning of the leading poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Since Lawrence occupies so exposed a position in this context, he would make an excellent subject for the first chapter. The polemics of the Thirties were very far from settling the matter since both sides of the controversy were in fact militant anti-humanists, whatever they called themselves. In America one sect of them did in fact call themselves Humanists — as of course did Zhdanov in the last bloody hours of Stalin.

Nor is there much to say about The Paintings of D.H. Lawrence. I have the original book. It has become completely unobtainable and fabulously expensive. It is good to have a copy of the new edition, with more and better reproductions, that is, if you are a Lawrentian. Like most famous people, Lawrence was indulged and self-indulged. Like Henry Miller, he was persuaded that he was a painter. Painting is hard work and the business of professionals. Lawrence was not as skilled an amateur as Winston Churchill or Dwight Eisenhower — much less Estlin Cummings. He painted for relaxation, not least the relaxation of sexual tensions. His paintings are rather silly, just like the verses he wrote for such purposes. Some of them, with red naked males with Abyssinian faces and mountainous women with Brunhildian bottoms, are diagnostic Krankenkunst, slightly crazy fantasies of himself and Frieda. The whole book is one of those embarrassing historically important documents so vital to the history of literature but so expendable by good taste.

Finally to return to the Collected Poems, as a final editio princeps it leaves nothing to be desired. Juvenilia and variora and dismembra rejecta, all are here, edited, collated and printed with loving care. It is hard to see how, barring the discovery of a trunkful of unknown manuscripts, this edition will ever be superseded.


This review of The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence and The Painting of D.H. Lawrence originally appeared in The Nation (23 November 1964) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1964. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Another Rexroth essay on D.H. Lawrence
Other Rexroth essays