Demon and Craftsman: On D.H. Lawrence
Since 1979, Cambridge University Press has been making the reading of Lawrence possible, publishing scholarly editions of his twelve novels (along with early versions of four of them), eight volumes of short stories, four travel books, one volume of plays, three volumes of essays, four volumes of nonfiction prose, eight volumes of letters and now two volumes of poetry. When a third volume of poetry (containing Lawrence’s uncollected and unpublished poems) appears, the Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence will be complete. With the exception of Virginia Woolf, no other English-language modernist writer has received this kind of full-scale attention: not Yeats, not Joyce, not Eliot, not Pound.
Already this edition of Lawrence’s poems has achieved some notoriety: “D.H. Lawrence’s War Poems to Be Published, Dirty Words and All,” said The New York Times earlier this year, announcing that the edition would publish “All of Us” (a 1916 sequence of war poems) in its entirety for the first time. In fact, the poems contain no obscenities; they were rejected by several publishers because of their ironic stance toward World War I and, more potently, because publishing anything by Lawrence was complicated in the immediate aftermath of The Rainbow’s suppression. Eventually, Lawrence did publish twelve of the sequence’s thirty-one poems in Poetry magazine in 1919, and all but two of the poems subsequently appeared (as “Bits”) in The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts in 1964. The poems, which are actually Lawrence’s loose translations of German translations of Egyptian folk songs, are not very interesting. The rationale for including them in Volume 1 of the Cambridge edition (that Lawrence would have published all of the poems if he could), rather than waiting to include them among Lawrence’s uncollected or unpublished poems in the forthcoming Volume 3, feels strained, an effort to make this new edition seem fresh.
Yet this edition of the poems is fresh. While Volume 1 contains all of the poems Lawrence or his executors published, Volume 2 consists of 527 pages of textual and explanatory notes, along with a 138-page account of the composition, publication and reception of each of Lawrence’s volumes of poetry. This material is no fun to read, and to anyone with any residual investment in Lawrence the demonic bard, it is going to seem like a coffin. But just as Lawrence the demon and Lawrence the craftsman are the same person, the poems could not exist without the scholarship establishing their texts. Given both Lawrence’s peripatetic life and the constant threat of suppression to which his writing was subjected, the textual history of any one of his books is monstrously complicated, an intricate narrative involving multiple manuscripts, proofs, agents, editors and publishers, the different manuscripts subjected to revisions at every stage of production—some of them by Lawrence, some of them by editors, some of the changes sanctioned by Lawrence and some not. If you have read the poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers in any available edition, the end of “She-Goat” tells you that “when the billy goat mounts her / She is brittle as brimstone.” What Lawrence originally wrote is this:
And when the billy goat mounts her
It is like a red needle entering a small place in a rock.
This is one of the more dramatic bowdlerizations of Lawrence’s poetry, to be sure, but such revisions are everywhere to be found in earlier, inevitably less accurate editions. It can be very difficult to tell, in retrospect, what any poet wanted the text of a particular poem precisely to be; but inasmuch as it’s possible, this edition gives us the poems as Lawrence wrote them. The apparatus in Volume 2 allows us, if we’re interested, to investigate how those poems have been manhandled by a culture that found Lawrence’s writing unfit (in the immortal words of Mr. Griffith-Jones) for the wives and servants.
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Lawrence was a prolific poet, just as he was a prolific novelist, and while all the poems are worth reading, some are inevitably more engaging than others. When Lawrence falters, he falters because his distinctive concatenation of tones is reduced to a single-minded voice; some of the poems of Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) may seem aggressively earnest, some of the poems of Pansies (1929) relentlessly clever. The influence of this more single-minded Lawrence is evident in the work of Ted Hughes, commonly thought of as his most prominent inheritor, but in fact the multiminded Lawrence has been far more quietly and productively influential on poets such as Louise Glück—poets who, like Lawrence at his best, embody in their syntax the fluctuant work of thought.
But while Lawrence’s poems may benefit from selection, his most rewarding books (Birds, Beasts and Flowers and Last Poems, published posthumously in 1932) are best experienced whole: reading them, we inhabit the drama of Lawrence reconsidering his thinking from poem to poem—not revising one poem with the next but simultaneously challenging and extending the poem’s most charged language. In a little poem called “Salt,” from Last Poems, Lawrence defines salt as “water that the sun has scorched / into substance,” an element that mediates between fire and water. “It is the white stone of limits, the term, the landmark,” he then proposes in “The Boundary Stone,” moving on in “Spilling the Salt” to caution that “cursed be he that removeth his neighbor’s landmark.” Such a person is a “sunderer,” and in the next poem, “Walk Warily,” the sunderers become mythic presences:
The angels are standing back, the angels of the Kiss—
They wait, they give way now
to the Sunderers, to the swift ones
the ones with the sharp black wings
and the shudder of electric anger
and the drumming of pinions of thunder
and hands like salt
and the sudden dripping down of the knife-edge cleavage of the lightning
Is this poem thinking about salt, about the commonplace superstition associated with the spilling of salt, or about demonic angels that, with hands like salt, oppose the force of human eros? It’s not quite satisfying to say that the poem is about all of these things at once, because as Lawrence’s thinking has developed from poem to poem, the significance of salt has become equivocal; it functions simultaneously as a force of destruction and as something that must be saved from destruction. Neither does Lawrence make the Sunderers less enticingly erotic than the vanquished Angels of the Kiss. “Life is not / for the dead vanity of knowing better,” says Lawrence a few pages later, in “Kissing and Horrid Strife”; life is for “those that put honey on our lips, and those that put salt.”
Lawrence refuses to know better, and even more potently, he transforms that refusal into a seduction: he lures the reader of his poems into a liminal state in which alternatives become difficult to distinguish from one another, in which the richness of experience is embodied in language perpetually different from itself, thrown into question, one tone suspended in dialogue with another. Like human experience, but unlike most poems, Lawrence’s poems feel satisfyingly whole because they are broken. But neither do they display their brokenness as a self-congratulatory badge of honor—as if brokenness were automatically a more authentic condition, or as if the poet were a victim of forces beyond his control. As maker, Lawrence is always in control. After a century, his poems still ask us to interrogate risk as we have learned to recognize it.