Poetry, Regeneration, and D.H. Lawrence
At the very beginning Lawrence belonged to a different order of being from the literary writers of his day. In 1912 he said: I worship Christ, I worship Jehovah, I worship Pan, I worship Aphrodite. But I do not worship hands nailed and running with blood upon a cross, nor licentiousness, nor lust. I want them all, all the gods. They are all God. But I must serve in real love. If I take my whole passionate, spiritual and physical love to the woman who in turn loves me, that is how I serve God. And my hymn and my game of joy is my work. All of which I read in . . .
Do you know what he read all that in? It makes you wince. He thought he found that in Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912! In Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfred Gibson, John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, John Masefield, Walter de la Mare, Gordon Bottomley! What a good man Lawrence must have been. It is easy to understand how painful it was for him to learn what evil really was. It is easy to understand why the learning killed him, slowly and terribly. But he never gave up. He was always hunting for comradeship in the most unlikely places Michael Arlen, Peter Warlock, Murry, Mabel Dodge. He never stopped trusting people and hoping. And he went on writing exactly the gospel he announced in 1912, right to the end.
Lawrence thought he was a Georgian, at first. There are people who will tell you that his early poetry was typical Georgian countryside poetry Musings in the Hedgerows, by the Well Dressed Dormouse. It is true that early poems like The Wild Common, Cherry Robbers, and the others, bear a certain resemblance to the best Georgian verse. They are rhymed verse in the English language on subjects taken from nature. Some of the Georgians had a favorite literary convention. They were anti-literary. Lawrence was the real thing. His hard rhymes, for instance, quick-kick, rushes-pushes, sheepdip-soft lip, gudgeon-run on. I dont imagine that when Lawrence came to soft lip he remembered that bees had always sipped at soft lips and that, as a representative of a new tendency, it was up to him to do something about it. I think his mind just moved in regions not covered by the standard associations of standard British rhyme patterns. At the end of his life he was still talking about the old sheep dip, with its steep soft lip of turf, in the village where he was born. Why, once he even rhymed wind and thinned, in the most unaware manner imaginable. That is something that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done before or since in the British Isles.
The hard metric, contorted and distorted and generally banged around, doesnt sound made up, either. Compulsion neurotics like Hopkins and querulous old gentlemen like Bridges made quite an art of metrical eccentricity. You turned an iamb into a trochee here, and an anapest into a hard spondee there, and pretty soon you got something that sounded difficult and tortured and intense. I think Lawrence was simply very sensitive to quantity and to the cadenced pulses of verse. In the back of his head was a stock of sundry standard English verse patterns. He started humming a poem, hu hu hum, hum hum, hu hu hum hu, adjusted it as best might be to the remembered accentual patterns, and let it go at that. I dont think he was unconscious of the new qualities which emerged, but I dont think he went about it deliberately, either.
This verse is supposed to be like Hardys. It is. But there is always something a little synthetic about Hardys rugged verse. The smooth ones seem more natural, somehow. The full dress, Matthew Arnold sort of sonnet to Leslie Stephen is probably Hardys best poem. It is a very great poem, but Arnold learned the trick of talking like a highly idealized Anglican archbishop and passed it on to Hardy. That is something nobody could imagine Lawrence ever learning; he just wasnt that kind of an animal.
Hardy could say to himself: Today I am going to be a Wiltshire yeoman, sitting on a fallen rock at Stonehenge, writing a poem to my girl on a piece of wrapping paper with the gnawed stub of a pencil, and he could make it very convincing. But Lawrence really was the educated son of a coal miner, sitting under a tree that had once been part of Sherwood Forest, in a village that was rapidly becoming part of a world-wide, disemboweled hell, writing hard, painful poems, to girls who carefully had been taught the art of unlove. It was all real. Love really was a mystery at the navel of the earth, like Stonehenge. The miner really was in contact with a monstrous, seething mystery, the black sun in the earth. There is a vatic quality in Lawrence that is only in Hardy rarely, in a few poems, and in great myths like Two on a Tower.
Something breaks out of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape of Cherry Robbers. That poem isnt like a Victorian imitation of medieval illumination at all. It is more like one of those crude Coptic illuminations, with the Christian content just a faint glaze over the black, bloody Babylonian turbulence of the Gnostic mystery. I dont know the date of the Hymn to Priapus, it seems to lie somewhere between his mothers death and his flight with Frieda, but it is one of the Hardy kind of poems, and it is one of Lawrences best. It resembles Hardys Night of the Dance. But there is a difference. Hardy is so anxious to be common that he just avoids being commonplace. Lawrence is common, he doesnt have to try. He is coming home from a party, through the winter fields, thinking of his dead mother, of the girl he has just had in the barn, of his troubled love life, and suddenly Orion leans down out of the black heaven and touches him on the thigh, and the hair of his head stands up.
Hardy was a major poet. Lawrence was a minor prophet. Like Blake and Yeats, his is the greater tradition. If Hardy ever had a girl in the hay, tipsy on cider, on the night of Boxing Day, he kept quiet about it. He may have thought that it had something to do with the stream of his life in the darkness deathward set, but he never let on, except indirectly.
Good as they are, there is an incompleteness about the early poems. They are the best poetry written in England at that time, but they are poems of hunger and frustration. Lawrence was looking for completion. He found it later, of course, in Frieda, but he hadnt found it then. The girl he called Miriam wrote a decent, conscientious contribution to his biography. She makes it only too obvious that what he was looking for was not to be found in her. And so the Miriam poems are tortured, and defeated, and lost, as though Lawrence didnt know where he was, which was literally true.
Between Miriam and Frieda lies a body of even more intense and troubled poems. Those to his mother, the dialect poems, and the poems to Helen are in this group. The mother poems are among his best. They are invaluable as direct perspectives on an extraordinary experience.
From one point of view Lawrence is the last of a special tradition that begins with St. Augustine and passes through Pascal and Baudelaire amongst others, to end finally in himself. There is no convincing evidence for Freuds theory that the Oedipus Complex dates back to some extremely ancient crime in the history of primitive man. Least of all is there any Oedipus Complex in the Oedipus myth or plays. There is ample evidence that Western European civilization is specifically the culture of the Oedipus Complex. Before Augustine there was nothing really like it. There were forerunners and prototypes and intimations, but there wasnt the real thing. The Confessions introduce a new sickness of the human mind, the most horrible pandemic, and the most lethal, ever to afflict man. Augustine did what silly literary boys in our day boast of doing. He invented a new derangement. If you make an intense effort to clear your mind and then read Baudelaire and Catullus together, the contrast, the new thing in Baudelaire, makes you shudder. Baudelaire is struggling in a losing battle with a ghost more powerful than armies, more relentless than death. I think it is this demon which has provided the new thing in Western Man, the insane dynamic which has driven him across the earth to burn and slaughter, loot and rape.
I believe Lawrence laid that ghost, exorcised that demon, once for all, by an act of absolute spiritual transvaluation. Piano, Silence, The Bride, and the other poems of that period, should be read with the tenth chapter of the ninth book of the Confessions. It is the beginning and the end. Augustine was a saint. There are acts of salvation by which man can raise himself to heaven, but, say the Japanese, a devil is substituted in his place. Lawrence drove out the devil, and the man stepped back. Or, as the Hindus say, with an act of absolute devotion from the worshiper, the goddess changes her aspect from maleficent to benign.
It is not only that Lawrence opened the gates of personal salvation for himself in the mother poems. He did it in a special way, in the only way possible, by an intense realization of total reality, and by the assumption of total responsibility for the reality and for the realization. Other people have tried parts of this process, but only the whole thing works. This shows itself in these poems, in their very technique. There, for the first time, he is in full possession of his faculties. He proceeds only on the basis of the completely real, the completely motivated, step by step along the ladder of Blakes minute particulars. Ivor Richardss Practical Criticism contains a symposium of his students on Lawrences Piano. It makes one of the best introductions to Lawrences poetry ever written. And one of the qualities of his verse that is revealed there most clearly is the uncanny, surreal accuracy of perception and evaluation. Objectivism is a hollow word beside this complete precision and purposiveness.
From this time on Lawrence never lost contact with the important thing, the totality in the particular, the responsibility of vision. Harassed by sickness and betrayal, he may have faltered in fulfilling that most difficult of all the injunctions of Christ, to suffer fools gladly. He may have got out of contact with certain kinds of men at certain times. He may have become cross and irritable and sick. But he never lost sight of what really mattered: the blue vein arching over the naked foot, the voices of the fathers singing at the charivari, blending in the winter night, Lady Chatterley putting flowers in Mellorss pubic hair.
The Helen poems are strange. (See A Winters Tale, Return, Kisses in the Train, Under the Oak, Passing Visit to Helen, Release, and Seven Seals.) They all have a weird, dark atmosphere shot through with spurts of flame, a setting which remained a basic symbolic situation with Lawrence. It is the atmosphere of the pre-War I novel, young troubled love in gas-lit London draughty, dark, and flaring, and full of mysterious movement. Probably the girls name was not Helen. Lawrence thought of her as dim, larger than life, a demi-goddess, moving through the smoke of a burning city. For certain Gnostics Helen was the name of the incarnate female principle, the power of the will, the sheath of the sword, the sacred whore who taught men love. Helen seems to have been the midwife of Lawrences manhood. At the end, something like her returns in the Persephone of Bavarian Gentians. Rebirth. No one leaves adolescence cleanly without a foretaste of death.
Ezra Pound said that the dialect poems were the best thing Lawrence ever wrote. This is just frivolous eccentricity. But they are fine poems, and in them another figure of the myth is carefully drawn. They are poems about Lawrences father, the coal miner who emerges nightly from the earth with the foliage of the carboniferous jungles on his white body. Lawrences little dark men, his Gypsies, and Indians, and Hungarians, and Mexicans, and all the rest, are not dark by race, but dark with coal dust. The shadow of forests immeasurably older than man has stained their skins. Augustine was never at peace until he found his father again in the pure mental absolute of Plotinus. Lawrence found his father again in the real man, whose feet went down into the earth. In certain poems where he speaks as a fictional woman, the erotic intensity is embarrassing to those of us who still live in the twilight of the Oedipus Complex. What had been evil in the father image becomes a virtue, the source of the will; deeply behind the mother image lies the germ of action, the motile flagellate traveling up the dark hot tube, seeking immortality.
The boy watching the miners rise and descend in the yawning maw of the earth in Nottinghamshire grows into the man of forty watching the Indians pass in and out of a lodge where an old man is interminably chanting there is a sense of strangeness, but no estrangement. There is no effort to violate the mystery of paternity because it is known in the blood. Lawrence knew by a sort of sensual perception that every cell of his body bore the marks of the striped Josephs coat of the paternal sperm.
All this world of the early poems, and of the novels, The White Peacock, The Trespasser, the first draft of Sons and Lovers, is an unborn world, a cave, a womb, obscure and confused. The figures have a mythic vagueness about them. The sensual reality seems to be always struggling beneath an inhibiting surface of flesh, struggling to escape into another realm of meaning. So many of the images are drawn from birth, escape, confinement, struggle. Critics have found much of their Freudianism in the work of this period. Had they been better read they would have found Jung above all else, and certainly Rank. Lawrence had yet to read Freud or Jung and may never have heard of Rank.
Some shockingly ill-informed things have been written about Lawrences relation to psychoanalysis. In the first place, he was not a Freudian. He seems to have read little Freud, not to have understood him any too well, and to have disliked him heartily. In the winter of 1918-19 he read Jung, apparently for the first time, in English. Presumably this was The Psychology of the Unconscious. Jung was very much in the air in those days, as he is again. There was probably a great deal of amateur talk about his ideas among Lawrences friends. But Lawrence does not seem to have had much more to go on, and The Psychology of the Unconscious is only the beginning of the system later elaborated by Jung. Nor did he ever become intimate with any of Jungs students. Later Mabel Dodge tried to bring the two together by correspondence. The story goes that Jung ignored her letters because they were written in pencil. So much for that.
Lawrence wrote quite a bit on psychoanalysis. There are the two books, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, a somewhat sketchy popularization of some of Jungs basic concepts, and Fantasia of the Unconscious, of which more in a moment. And then there are the reviews of Trigant Burrows book, and miscellaneous remarks scattered through correspondence and reviews. This is all of the greatest importance to the understanding of Lawrence.
Fantasia of the Unconscious is an extraordinary book. It is foully written, unquestionably Lawrences worst writing, but it is certainly a landmark in the history of psychoanalysis. It is an attempt to combine the empirical neurology of Kundalini Yoga with his own interpretation of Jungs psychology and with a theory of sexuality which may be either his own or derived from popular, occultist expositions of certain Gnostic sects and rumors of the practices of Shakti-Yoga. When it appeared, it must have seemed like pure fantasy of the Lost Atlantis variety. Jungs Secret of the Golden Flower, and his studies of spiritual alchemy lay in the future. The psychology of the autonomic system was unheard of. It is all there, in Lawrences inspired guesses. The white race is going mad, but it is the autonomic nervous system which is out of kilter; what goes on in the head is secondary and the autonomic nervous system is, as a whole, the organ of communion.
To return to the poems. There is a hallucinatory quality in the images of the poems which precede Frieda which it is interesting to compare with the induced hallucination of H.D. The conflict in H.D. is hidden in herself. It is still there to this day, although her latest prose work has been the journal of a Freudian analysis. Her images are purified of conflict; then the intensity which has been distilled from the sublimation of conflict is applied from the outside. (Your poetry is not pure, eternal, sublimated, she told Lawrence.) What results is a puzzling hallucination of fact, a contentless mood which seems to reflect something tremendously important but whose mystery always retreats before analysis.
Lawrences early poems are poems of conflict. The images are always polarized. Antagonisms struggle through the texture. But the struggle is real. The antagonisms are struggling toward the light. The conflict yields to insight, if not to analysis. It is like the propaedeutic symbolism of the dream, as contrasted to the trackless labyrinths of falsification which form the patterns of most waking lives. The hallucination is real, the vision of the interior, personal oracle. Its utterance has meaning, more meaning than ordinary waking reality because the subjective is seen in the objective, emerging from it, the dream from the reality not dislocated or applied from outside the context.
The poems of Look! We Have Come Through fall into three groups. First there are the structurally more conventional pieces like Moonrise, which sounds a little like Masefields sonnets though it is incomparably finer, and the Hymn to Priapus, and the others they are all probably earlier and have already been discussed. Second, there are the poems of the Rhine Journey, December Night, New Years Eve, Coming Awake, History; erotic epigrams, intense as Meleager, more wise than Paul the Silentiary. Lawrence was still a young man, and had many great poems to write but put these beside the few poets who have survived from that day, Sturge Moore, Monro, De La Mare . . . they look like pygmies. Only Yeats stands up against Lawrence. And last, there are the Whitmanic free verse manifestoes, explaining marriage to a people who had forgotten what it was.
With Frieda the sleeper wakes, the man walks free, the child of the alchemists is born. Reality is totally valued, and passes beyond the possibility of hallucination. The clarity of purposively realized objectivity is the most supernatural of all visions. Bad poetry always suffers from the same defects: synthetic hallucination and artifice. Invention is not poetry. Invention is defense, the projection of pseudopods out of the ego to ward off the other. Poetry is vision, the pure act of sensual communion and contemplation.
That is why the poems of Lawrence and Frieda on their Rhine Journey are such great poetry. That is why they are also the greatest imagist poems ever written. Reality streams through the body of Frieda, through everything she touches, every place she steps, valued absolutely, totally, beyond time and place, in the minute particular. The swinging of her breasts as she stoops in the bath, the roses, the deer, the harvesters, the hissing of the glacier water in the steep river everything stands out lit by a light not of this earth and at the same time completely of this earth, the light of the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, whose source is the wedded body of the bride.
The accuracy of Lawrences observation haunts the mind permanently. I have never stood beside a glacier river, at just that relative elevation, and just that pitch, with just that depth of swift water moving over a cobbled bed, without hearing again the specific hiss of Lawrences Isar. These poems may not be sublimated (whatever YMCA evasion that may refer to), but they are certainly pure and eternal.
Again, it is fruitful to compare the Rhine Journey poems with the only other poems of our time which resemble them much, Ford Madox Fords Buckshee. Ford was writing about something very akin to what Lawrence was, about an aspect of marriage. But he was writing about its impossibility, about how life had bled away its possibility from both him and his girl, and how they had taken, in middle age and in the long Mediterranean drouth, the next best thing intense erotic friendship. And about how, every once in a while, marriage comes and looks in at the window. The contrast with Lawrence and Frieda, sinking into the twilight in the fuming marsh by the Isar, where the snake disposes, is pathetic past words.
Fords LOubliTemps de Secheresse and Lawrences River Roses and Quite Forsaken are things of a kind and the best of their kind, but like the north and south poles, there is all the difference in the world between them. There is more communion in Friedas temporary absence than in the closest possible kiss under the catalpa tree, where the strange birds, driven north by the drouth, cry with their human voices. Singular birds, with their portentous, singular flight and human voices, says Ford. This is the Persephone of Bavarian Gentians and the Orphic birds which flutter around the dying who are withdrawing themselves, corpuscle by corpuscle, from communion. Lawrence would come there one day, with the dark blue flowers on the medicine table and Frieda sleeping in a chair beside him, but he was on the other side of the universe then the early summer of 1912, in the Isartal, the snow leaving the mountains.
After the Rhine Journey come the poems of struggle for a living adjustment. The ceremonial glory of the sacrament passes from the forefront of consciousness, and the period of adjustment to the background of life begins. Every detail of life must be transformed by marriage. This means creative conflict on the most important level.
Sacramental communion is bound by time. Mass does not last forever. Eventually the communicant must leave the altar and digest the wafer, the Body and Blood must enter his own flesh as it moves through the world and struggles with the devil. The problem lies in the sympathetic nervous system, says Lawrence. And it is not easy for two members of a deranged race, in the twentieth century, to learn again how to make those webs mesh as they should.
Some of these poems are, in a sense, Friedas records of her own interior conquest. It is amazing how much they accomplished, these two. Today, revisiting this battlefield between love and hate that is so carefully mapped in certain of the poems, it is like Gettysburg, a sleepy, pastoral landscape dotted with monuments and graves. Only maimed women and frightened men are Suffragettes anymore. Hedda Gabler is dead, or lurking in the suburbs. We should be grateful to Frieda. It was she who gave the dragon its death blow, and the Animus no longer prowls the polls and bedrooms, seeking whom it may devour.
The Whitmanic poems seem to owe a good deal to Children of Adam and Calamus. They look like Whitman on the page. But if read aloud with any sort of ear, they dont sound much like him. Whitman flourished in the oratorical context of nineteenth-century America. He isnt rhetorical in the invidious sense; that is, there is nothing covert or coercive about him. He says what he means, but he says it in the language of that lost art of elocution so popular in his day. There is little of this in Lawrence. At this period his long-lined free verse is derived almost entirely from the poetry of the Bible, the Psalms, the song of Deborah, the song of Hezekiah, of Moses, the Benedicte, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimitus. All the devices of Hebrew poetry are there, and in addition the peculiar, very civilized, self-conscious, sympathetic poetry of St. Luke those poems which have made his the womens Gospel, and which all good Englishmen must learn in childhood as part of the Morning and Evening Prayer of the Church.
In the volume Look! We Have Come Through Lawrence was just beginning to learn to write free verse. I dont think some of the poems are completely successful. They are diffuse and long-winded. He tries to say too much, and all at the same pitch of intensity; there are no crises, no points of reference. On the whole the most successful is New Heaven and Earth. It may not be a perfect object of art but it is a profound exhortation.
Beyond Holy Matrimony lies the newly valued world of birds, beasts, and flowers a sacramentalized, objective world. Look, we have come through to a transformed world, with a glory around it everywhere like ground lightning. The poems of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers have the same supernatural luster that shines through the figures of men and animals and things, busy being part of a new redeemed world, as they are found carved around the mandala of the Blessed Virgin above some cathedral door or on some rose window.
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers is the mature Lawrence, in complete control of his medium, or completely controlled by his demon. He never has any trouble. He can say exactly what he wants to say. Except for the death poems, he would never write better. (And too, after this, he would never be well again.) He seems to have lived in a state of total realization the will and its power, positive and negative, at maximum charge, and all the universe streaming between them glowing and transformed. The work of art grows in that electric field, is a function of it. It is the act of devotion in the worshiper that forces the god to occupy the statue. It is the act of devotion in the sculptor that forces the god to occupy the stone which the artist then pares to his invisible limbs, tailors like cloth. It is never theology in the first; it is never aesthetics or any teachable craft in the second. The craft is the vision and the vision is the craft.
Good cadenced verse is the most difficult of all to write. Any falsity, any pose, any corruption, any ineptitude, any vulgarity, shows up immediately. In this it is like abstract painting. A painting by Mondrian may look impersonal enough to be reduced to code and sent by telegraph. Maybe. But it offers no refuge, no garment, no mask, no ambush, for the person. The painter must stand there, naked, as Adam under the eye of God. Only very great or very trivial personalities dare expose themselves so.
Think of a few typical writers of cadenced verse: Whitman, Sandburg, Wallace Gould, F.M. Ford, F.S. Flint, Aldington, Lola Ridge, and James Oppenheim. (H.D.s verse is primarily a counterpointing of accentual and quantitative rhythms in patterns of Greek derivation. Pounds verse is Latin in reference, and usually quantitative.) How the faults stand out! Every little weakness is revealed with glaring cruelty. Whitmans tiresome posturing, Sandburgs mawkishness, Aldington's erotic sentimentality, the overreaching ambition of Lola Ridge and Oppenheim what a lot of sore thumbs standing out! Yet in many ways these are good poets, and Whitman is a very great one.
Gould, Flint, and Ford were never dishonest, never overreached themselves, did their best to say what they meant and no more, never bargained with art. The sentimentalist, said Daedalus, is he who would enjoy, without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done. They are not prophets, but they are good poets because they rendered a strict accounting with their own souls.
Sentimentality is spiritual realization on the installment plan. Socially viable patterns, like conventional verse, are a sort of underwriting or amortization of the weaknesses of the individual. This is the kernel of sense in the hollow snobbery of Valéry. The sonnet and quatrain are like the national debt, devices for postponing the day of reckoning indefinitely. All artistic conventions are a method of spiritual deficit-financing. If they were abandoned, the entire credit structure of Poets, Ltd., would be thrown into hopeless confusion. It is just as well that the professors have led the young, in my lifetime, away from free verse to something that can be taught. No one could be taught to be Lawrence, but in a world where the led lead the leaders, those who might pretend to do so are sure to be confidence men.
Lawrences free verse in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers is among the small best ever written. It can be analyzed, but the paradigms produced by the analysis are worthless. It cannot be explained away, demonstrated in a mathematical sense. Neither, certainly, can any other great poetry; but at least a convincing illusion can be created, and the young can be provided with something to practice. A poem like Bat or the Lion of St. Mark moves with a stately, gripping sonority through the most complex symphonic evolutions. The music is a pattern of vibration caught from the resonant tone of Lawrence himself. The concerto is not on the page, little spots with flags and tails on a stave, but the living thing, evolving from the flesh of the virtuoso. It is like Gregorian chant or Hindu music, one thing when sung at Solesmes, or in the ruins of Konarak, another when rendered by the Progressive Choral Group or at a concert of the Vedanta Society of Los Angeles.
Again, the faults of Birds, Beasts, and Flowers are the excess of virtue. Like anyone who knows he has something intensely important to say, Lawrence found it hard to keep from being long-winded. I think a good deal of his over-expansiveness and repetition is due to his methods of composition.
Some poets meditate in stillness and inactivity, as far away as possible from the creative act. We know that Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot, by their own testimony, spent long periods of time quiescent, inert as artists, turning over and over the substance of vision within themselves. Sometimes, as in Baudelaire, this process is extremely painful, a true desert of the soul. Months went by in which the paper and pen were red hot, it was impossible for him to read, his whole personality seemed engulfed in a burning neurasthenia. And then there would come a period of peace, and slowly growing exaltation, and finally the creative act, almost somnambulistic in its completion. Actual composition by this sort of personality tends to be rare, and usually as perfect as talent permits.
Lawrence meditated pen in hand. His contemplation was always active, flowing out in a continuous stream of creativity which he seemed to have been able to open practically every day. He seldom reversed himself, seldom went back to rework the same manuscript. Instead, he would lay aside a work that dissatisfied him and rewrite it all from the beginning. In his poetry he would move about a theme, enveloping it in constantly growing spheres of significance. It is the old antithesis: centrifugal versus centripetal, Parmenides versus Heraclitus. He kept several manuscript books of his verse, and whenever he wanted to publish a collection he would go through them and pick out a poem here and there, the ones he considered had best handled their themes. Behind each poem was usually a group of others devoted to the same material. His selection was always personal, and sometimes it was not very artistic. Nettles, for instance, is a selection of what are, by any standard, the poorer poems of the collections of epigrams printed in Last Poems.
There are those who think these epigrams, the ones in Pansies, and those in Last Poems, arent art. This opinion is the product of a singular provincialism. It is true that, due to the reasons just mentioned, they arent all successful, but they belong to a tradition, are members of a species, which has produced some of the greatest poetry. Epigram or maxim, Martial or La Rochefoucauld, the foundations of this tradition are far more stable than those of the neo-metaphysical poetry produced, with seven ambiguities carefully inserted in every line, by unhappy dons between the wars.
Any bright young man can be taught to be artful. It is impossible to teach taste, but you can teach most anybody caution. It is always the lesser artists who are artful, they must learn their trade by rote. They must be careful never to make a false step, never to speak out of a carefully synthesized character. The greater poetry is nobly disheveled. At least it never shows the scars of taking care. Would he had blotted a thousand lines, said Ben Jonson of Shakespeare. Which thousand? Lawrence was always mislaying those manuscript books of poetry and writing around the world for them, just as Cézanne left his paintings in the fields. Not for any stupid reason that they were not Perfect Works of Art but simply because he forgot.
Eliot (who does not write that way), writing of Pounds epigrams, points out that the major poet, unlike the minor, is always writing about everything imaginable, and so is in good form for the great poem when it comes. Practice makes perfect, and those who wait for the perfect poem before putting pen to paper may wait mute forever. I suppose it is the absolutism which swept over popular taste in the wake of Cubism that has encouraged the ignorant to expect a canzone of Dantes in each issue of their favorite little magazine, a School of Athens in every WPA mural. This is just greediness, like children who want it to be Christmas every day. And it produces an empty, pretentious, greedy art. Meanwhile, Pounds Les Millwin, and Lawrences Willy Wet-Legs, quietly pre-empt immortality, a state of being only rarely grandiose.
As far as I know the poems in the novel The Plumed Serpent have never been printed separately. This book is one of the most important (he thought it the most important) Lawrence ever wrote. It has brought forth all sorts of pointless debate. People are always saying: Well, I have lived in Mexico for years and it simply isnt like that. Lawrence was not an idiot. He knew it wasnt. And in the first chapter he gave a very accurate and pitiful picture of the real Mexico sterile, subcolonial, brutal, with the old gods gone, and the church gone, and the revolution a swindle, and nothing left but a squalid imitation of Ashtabula, Ohio. And he knew the other side too, the pasty frigid nymphomaniacs, the deranged women of Europe and America, who consider themselves disciples of Lawrence and prowl the earth seeking Dark Gods to take to bed. He wrote a story which should have destroyed them forever None of That. It should be read with The Plumed Serpent.
Every year there is less, but in Lawrences day there was still something, of the primeval Mexico at the great feast in Oaxaca, in the life of the peasants in the remote villages, in the Indian communities in the back country. Lawrence did not make any very definite contact with the ancient Mexico but he could see and sense it, and he was fresh from a much less-touched primitive world that of the Navaho and Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. His materials were not as abundant as they might have been but they were enough to build a book of ritual, of the possible that would never be, of potentialities that would never emerge. It is a book of ceremonial prophecy, but prophecy uttered in the foreknowledge that it would never be fulfilled.
The reawakening of mystery, the revival of the old Aztec religion, the political Indianism even if it all came true, one knows it would be a fraud, a politicians device, as Indianism is in Latin America today. Lawrence knew that, of course, and so the book is dogged with tragedy. One constantly expects the characters to go out in a blazing Götterdämmerung in some dispute with the police, like a gangster movie. They dont, but maybe it would have been better if they had, for eventually they tire; they seem to become secretly aware that all this gorgeous parading around in primitive millinery, this Mystery, and Fire, and Blood, and Darkness, has been thought up. There is something Western European, British Museum, about it. The protagonist, Kate, submits to her lovers insistent Mystery, but rather out of ennui and loathing of Europe than out of any conviction, and one feels that the book could have no sequel, or only a sequel of disintegration, like Women in Love.
Still, in the middle of the book, before the fervor dies out, Lawrence wrote as nearly as he could what he believed should be. If the religion of Cipriano and Ramon is taken as an other-worldly system of values, it is profound and true, and, due to the freshness of its symbols, tremendously exciting. Also, it differs very little from any other religion that has maintained its contacts with its sources. Ramon and Cipriano short-circuit themselves where Christianity was short-circuited by Constantine, in the desire to have both worlds, to found a political, religion a Church. That, if any, is the message of the book.
The mystery survives in the poems, just as the sacraments survived Constantine. They are not the greatest poems Lawrence ever wrote, but they are among the most explicit. This is Lawrences religion. Wherever he found it he is now in complete possession of a kind of orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of the heterodox the symbolic world of the Gnostics, the Occultists, Tantrism, Jung. In a sense they are failures, these poems, in the way that the Indian songs published by the United States Bureau of Ethnology are not failures. But, again, that is the message of the book. Finally you discover that you cannot make up paganism. What you make up is a cult. There is nothing primitive about Gnosticism, anymore than there is anything primitive about Theosophy. It is the creation of over-civilized Hellenistic intellectuals. Tantrism too grew up in India, in Buddhism and Hinduism, when civilization was exhausting itself. Jung comes, with Lawrence, at the end of the career of Western European Man. Lawrence, after all, was a contemporary of Niels Bohr and Picasso. And so his poems are mystical poems and the Aztecs were not mystics, they were just Aztecs. This doesnt invalidate the poems. They have very little to do with ancient or modern Mexico, but they do express, very well, the personal religion of D.H. Lawrence. They may be full of occult lore, but behind the machinery is an intense, direct, personal, mystical apprehension of reality.
In the last hours Lawrence seems to have lived in a state of suspended animation, removed from the earth, floating, transfigured by the onset of death. Poems like Andraitix, Pomegranate Flowers, have an abstracted, disinterested intensity, as though they were written by a being from another planet. Others are short mystical apothegms. There is no millinery anymore, no occultism; they differ only in their modern idiom from any and all of the great mystics. And finally there are the two death poems, Bavarian Gentians and The Ship of Death. Each was written over several times. There exists a variant which can be taken as a final, or pre-final, version of Bavarian Gentians, but both are clusters of poems rather than finished products.
The Ship of Death material alone would make a small book of meditations, a contemporary Holy Dying. It is curious to think that once such a book would have been a favorite gift for the hopelessly ill. Today people die in hospitals, badgered by nurses, stupefied with barbiturates. This is not an age in which a good death is a desired end of life.
All men have to die, and one would think a sane man would want to take that fact into account, at least a little. But our whole civilization is a conspiracy to pretend that it isnt going to happen and this, in an age when death has become more horrible, more senseless, less at the will of the individual than ever before. Modern man is terribly afraid of sex, of pain, of evil, of death. Today childbirth, the ultimate orgiastic experience, has been reduced to a meaningless dream; dentists insist on injecting Novocain before they clean your teeth; the agonies of life have retreated to the source of life. Men and women torture each other to death in the bedroom, just as the dying dinosaurs gnawed each other as they copulated in the chilling marshes. Anything but the facts of life. Today you can take a doctors degree in medicine or engineering and never learn how to have intercourse with a woman or repair a car. Human self-alienation, Marx called it. He said that was all that was really wrong with capitalism. Let us live and lie reclined in a jet-propelled, streamlined, air-cooled, lucite incubator. When we show signs of waking, another cocktail instead of the Wine of God. When we try to break out, flagellation instead of Holy Matrimony, psychoanalysis instead of Penance. When the machinery runs down, morphine for Extreme Unction.
In a world where death had become a nasty, pervasive secret like defecation or masturbation, Lawrence reinstated it in all its grandeur the oldest and most powerful of the gods. The Ship of Death poems have an exaltation, a nobility, a steadiness, an insouciance, which is not only not of this time but is rare in any time. It doesnt matter who: Jeremy Taylor, the Orphic Hymns, the ancient Egyptians nobody said it better. And there is one aspect of the Ship of Death which is unique. Lawrence did not try to mislead himself with false promises, imaginary guarantees. Death is the absolute, unbreakable mystery. Communion and oblivion, sex and death, the mystery can be revealed but it can be revealed only as totally inexplicable. Lawrence never succumbed to the temptation to try to do more. He succeeded in what he did do.
This essay originally appeared as the Introduction to D.H. Lawrences Selected Poems (New Directions, 1947; Viking, 1959). It was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959) and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Direction, 1987). Copyright 1947 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.