Demon and Craftsman: On D.H. Lawrence

Demon and Craftsman: On D.H. Lawrence

The process of discovery, not their profundities as such, is what makes Lawrence’s poems so gripping.


On November 13, 1915, following a hearing at London’s Bow Street magistrates’ court, D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was suppressed under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The magistrate, Sir John Dickinson, ordered that the 1,011 copies of the novel seized from the publisher be destroyed. Speaking for the prosecution, Herbert Muskett expressed “the most profound regret that it should have been necessary…to bring this disgusting, detestable and pernicious work under the notice of the Court.” The publisher was ordered to pay court costs of £10, 10s.

By the time The Rainbow was pulped, its 30-year-old author had published four novels, a play, a book of short stories and a volume of poems. Undaunted by the novel’s suppression, David Herbert Lawrence would in the next decade alone publish another play; two more books of stories; two travel books about Italy; two translations of the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga; a groundbreaking work of criticism about a national literature of which not only most Englishmen but many Americans were unaware (Studies in Classic American Literature); two works of speculative psychology (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious); five novels, including his greatest, a sequel to The Rainbow called Women in Love; and five books of poems, including one of the most brilliant books written by an English-language poet in the twentieth century, Birds, Beasts and Flowers.

“For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,” says Lawrence in “Pomegranate,” the opening poem in the volume. The poem itself is broken, careening with seductive abandon from confrontation—“You tell me I am wrong. / Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?”—to reverie—“Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure”—and back again:

Do you mean to tell me there should be no fissure?
No glittering, compact drops of dawn?
Do you mean it is wrong, the gold-filmed skin, integument, shown ruptured?

This concatenation of wildly divergent tones dramatizes a mind in motion. Lawrence seems simultaneously naïve and jaded in the face of elemental questions, and he is himself our greatest poet of the interrogative mode: his questions often begin by seeming inconsequential, even coy (“Would you like to throw a stone at me?”), but they unearth unexpected profundities of observation and thought. This process of discovery, not the profundities as such, is what makes the poems so gripping, and it takes place both within the poems and between them. First published in 1923, Birds, Beasts and Flowers stands with other groundbreaking books published in the 1920s—T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, Marianne Moore’s Observations, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, W.B. Yeats’s The Tower—and it ought to be read, as those books are, as part of a crucial episode in twentieth-century poetry, an episode whose implications we are still grappling with to this day.

It’s easy to admire someone who does one thing very well. Such a person is a professional, a specialist, and if he is an artist, he has cleaved to his achievement with the passionate intensity that perfection demands. Recently, only a few writers have matched Lawrence’s versatility, but one would be hard-pressed to make a case for the poetry of John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates. In the generations immediately preceding Lawrence’s, a refusal to specialize was far more common (think of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy), but by the time Lawrence was writing, the association of literary achievement with professionalization had already eclipsed the charisma of the Victorian man or woman of letters. The artist must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work,” said Yeats, and by “work” Yeats did not mean the kind of apparently scattershot career that Lawrence maintained. For someone of Yeats’s inclination, even a successful poet with a happy marriage might seem insufficiently serious: that’s one achievement too many.

Though marriage was not among them, Lawrence did several things well. Had he written only Studies in Classic American Literature, he would be remembered as one of the first literary critics ever to conceive of the then-unknown Herman Melville as a major writer. He stands among the greatest poets of his time not, as his most prescient contemporary understood, in spite of his achievement in prose but because of it: “Mr. Lawrence, almost alone among the younger poets, has realized that contemporary poetry must be as good as contemporary prose if it is to justify its publication,” said Ezra Pound in his 1913 review of Love Poems and Others, Lawrence’s first book of poems.

“Almost alone among the younger poets,” insisted Pound, who was exactly Lawrence’s age. With this remark he meant to distance Lawrence from a formally inept poetry that bent syntax into unidiomatic shapes merely to meet the demands of meter and rhyme. Though Lawrence would turn to free verse in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, he never abandoned metrical verse entirely; idiomatic syntax, compulsive rhythms and incisive diction might be found in any poem, formal or free, call it what you like:

Rabbits, handfuls of brown earth, lie
Low-rounded on the mournful turf they have bitten down to the quick.
Are they asleep?—are they living?—Now see, when I
Lift my arms, the hill bursts and heaves under their spurting kick!

Lawrence drafted these lines from “The Wild Common” before the age of 23, already incorporating his staccato questions into sentences that fulfill the requirements of the rhymed quatrain effortlessly. At 22, Pound was writing stilted lines like these: “As bright white drops upon a leaden sea / Grant so my songs to this grey folk may be.”

Praising Lawrence’s syntax, Pound did register what seemed to him the “disagreeable qualities” of Lawrence’s sensibility. But while the craftsman in Pound eclipsed the moralist, Lawrence has more often than not been censured by sensibilities that privilege moralism over craft. Eliot once proclaimed that Lawrence’s novels were written by “a very sick man indeed,” a remark he would later disown when he supported the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Were readers as sophisticated as Pound and Eliot merely complicit at such moments with the Bow Street magistrates’ court, which found The Rainbow disgusting?

Pound and Eliot were not prudes; they defended James Joyce vigorously when Ulysses was suppressed multiple times on charges of obscenity. But while Joyce wrote about a thousand and one different kinds of sex in Ulysses, he did not write about a tenderly sensuous experience like this one, which takes place between Cyril and George in Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock, published in 1911:

I left myself quite limply in his hands, and, to get a better grip of me, he put his arm round me and pressed me against him, and the sweetness of the touch of our naked bodies one against the other was superb. It satisfied in some measure the vague, indecipherable yearning of my soul; and it was the same with him. When he had rubbed me all warm, he let me go, and we looked at each other with eyes of still laughter, and our love was perfect for a moment, more perfect than any love I have known since, either for man or woman.

“For a moment.” The notoriety of Lawrence’s multigenre sexuality has often occluded an enthusiastic accounting of his literary craftsmanship, and our general sense of Lawrence’s achievement still tends to be defined by the censorship of The Rainbow and (more notoriously) of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was suppressed after it was published in Italy in 1928 and did not become freely available in Great Britain until 1960, when its publisher was declared “not guilty” of violating the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Speaking on behalf of an England that no longer existed, the prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked wanly if this were the sort of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read.” Ken Russell’s flamboyant adaptation of the novel for the BBC in 1993 threw gasoline on this smoldering fire.

* * *

Lawrence himself struck a few matches, too. He tended to write about poetry as if he disdained poetic craftsmanship, sounding more like an inspired bard, freed from all merely literary inhibition, than like the meticulous calibrator of syllables who actually forged the tonally heterogeneous poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers. “Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment,” he proclaimed in his “Preface to New Poems” (1919), “the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the Now.” His true poems were written by his “demon” rather than his conscious self, said Lawrence in his “Note to Collected Poems” (1928), prompting the critic R.P. Blackmur to argue in an influential condemnation of the poetry that Lawrence had gotten it exactly wrong, that his chaotic “poetry of the present” was anything but true poetry.

Blackmur’s critique has over the years been much reviled by champions of the apparently bardic Lawrence (including Joyce Carol Oates). But while any poem—from the most orderly to the most chaotic—may be driven into existence by unfathomably mysterious forces, both Lawrence’s admirers and his detractors fail to acknowledge that every poem exists as a scrupulously made thing: qua words on the page, a poem may offer the strategic illusion of chaos as convincingly as it offers the strategic illusion of order. The poet “is haunted by a demon, a demon against which he feels powerless,” said the usually more buttoned-up Eliot, sounding much like Lawrence: “the words, the poem he makes, are a kind of form of exorcism of this demon…and when the words are finally arranged in the right way—or in what he comes to accept as the best arrangement he can find—he may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, or absolution, and of something very near annihilation.” This seems to me true: the discovery of the “best arrangement” of the words feels not inimical but essential to the negotiation with the “demon,” and, finally, if the language of the poem were not scrupulously disposed on the page, no reader could possibly feel a thing.

“Snake,” probably Lawrence’s best-known poem, dramatizes a confrontation between the refined human mind and the chthonic forces of the earth, the latter embodied by a snake that appears one morning at the water trough—“my water-trough,” says the poem’s presumptuous speaker. When Lawrence describes the snake, which is all instinct, no mind, the poem’s syntax is primarily paratactic, one clause laid beside another without any sense of hierarchy (I came, I saw, I conquered): he “flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment, / And stooped and drank a little more.” And when Lawrence describes the human being, the syntax is primarily hypotactic, subordinate clauses linked to an independent clause in order to embody the hierarchical work of thinking (Because I saw, I conquered): “The voice of my education said to me / He must be killed, / For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.” But when the thought-bound human finally attempts to kill the snake, he paradoxically becomes a snake—the syntax used to describe his action is utterly paratactic or (as the poem has taught us to feel it) reptilian:

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

One has only to read Lawrence’s poems, setting aside the quaint associations of inspiration with freedom and revision with restraint, to discover that the craftsman and the demon are the same person.

* * *

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.

* * *

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
cleaving, cleaving.

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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy