D.H. Lawrence is certainly most well known for his novels such as The Rainbow, Sons & Lovers, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Works such as these were important in helping to further define and refine what Modernism is; moreover, Lawrence’s understanding of Freud helped him to burrow down into the deeper places in his main characters’ minds. This approach includes scathing indictments of Victorianism, which for Lawrence, is strongly associated with sexual repression and madness. Characters such as Connie Chatterley may know they are unhappy, or that something is keeping them from a greater awareness of themselves, but his novels are like stages upon which they can act out a response to a society which strips them of their sexuality, and ultimately, of their humanity.
Although Lawrence’s novels remain important for increasing our understanding of the self, it is in his poems where we often can find blueprints of the thinking which went into the novels. This is not to suggest that the poems are less important in Lawrence’s corpus; in fact, I believe that to fully appreciate his novels, a reader must have a working familiarity with the poems. I also do not mean to suggest that the poems are only of value because they can give more light to the novels. Had he not written any novels, his poetry would still place him among the greater poets England has had in the twentieth century.
Some may find this to be a generous judgment of Lawrence’s poetry. It is, after all, easy to point out many instances in the poems which feel prosaic or as if they were written off the cuff or in a state of dyspepsia. However, it is just as easy to find the moments of epiphany, the clarity that arises and helps to define the rest of the work.
Lawrence was not a stagnant poet–his poetry continued to evolve as he did. It is an unfair criticism of his poem to suggest that, of the 900 pages in his Complete Poems, that a reading of one poem will serve as an introduction to the rest. The Georgian-influenced Lawrence feels a long ways off from the Lawrence of the Pansies. What unites the earlier poems with the later poems is voice. Lawrence’s poems are imbued with a very direct voice, often plain-spoken, opinionated, and, at his best, bubbling over with precise and surprising observations. One of the earlier poems, “Green,” begins: “The dawn was apple-green/ The sky was green wine held up in the sun./ The moon was a golden petal between” (CP 216). Such lines suggest a connection with the Romantics; in fact, in this poem the color green seems to be as much of a character as it is a color. Also, Nature is portrayed in a paradisial way. The apple-green would seem to be untouched by the possibility of corruption by worms or rot. Sun, moon, and sky share a common unity and create a joyous mood. In the second stanza, the observing speaker introduces a “She” into this scene. She is as natural as the sun, moon, and the sky, beautiful among the flowers, and a welcome arrival in this Edenic greenscape.
The poems in his marvelous collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923) study the natural world, though they often read more as if Lawrence is speaking personally about his own situation or beliefs at that time. The beginning of “Pomegranite,” for example, could easily be an opening line to one of his Pansies: “You tell me I am wrong./ Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?/ I am not wrong” (CP 278). The directness of the speech has only been heightened from the poems in Look! We Have Come Through. Such directness is increased further in his Pansies, Nettles, More Pansies, and Last Poems. The fruits he examines in poems such as “Figs” and “Grapes” are as much about human sexuality as they are about fruits. The speaker sees “The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossoms./ Symbols” (CP 282). What is observed in Nature can be put to use in our own private spheres. In Birds, Beasts and Flowers, we can bite into the skin of the symbols, enjoy their drip and ooze. By the time of the Pansies, the symbols are less necessary because the language is even more direct and stated.
What could account for the movement to a more direct kind of statement in his poetry? In a few words, the coming of death. Lawrence died in 1930 at the age of 44. His last years were scarred by increasingly poor health, a result of tuberculosis, a condition which he refused to acknowledge. After Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the many problems he faced over censorship, Lawrence was physically unable to devote himself to another long novel. He could more easily manage shorter forms such as poetry and essays.
An old maxim of creative writing teachers is that the writer should show instead of tell. The poems of Lawrence’s last three years rarely follow that advice. Some of the poems are literary boxing matches where the speaker is in a ring with a poisoned society; the speaker’s boxing gloves are his words, and if he is to triumph, he must come out swinging. Like a one-man army, Lawrence takes on censors, prigs, the young, the elderly, and an entire cadre of people and forces that he feels have turned the Western world into a robotic culture comfortable only when it produces bigger and better robots.
In this, Lawrence the Modernist is not so far away from two American Modernists, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. System builders, the Modernists see a busted world order and seek to replace it with something better. Society must be sanded down to a fine dust so that a more humane world can emerge: T.S. Eliot looking at the Waste Land where nothing can be connected with nothing. In Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” for example, the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper–an exhausted culture dies in a pastiche of a nursery rhyme; history becomes the province of the “stuffed” men, soul-less and empty. Like Eliot, Lawrence is intrigued by the past–only his past goes back farther than Eliot’s which finds in the birth of Christ the one hope for hollow men. Lawrence takes us to the Etruscans, the Aborigines, and to Native North American cultures. In Four Quartets, Eliot envisions the fire and the rose becoming one, suggesting a society unified and reborn through Christ. Lawrence sees no rose in the contemporary landscape–rather, in Nettles, he sees a cabbage, his representation of what England had become.
In Pound’s poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” the literary world is plundered by the likes of a Mr. Nixon, a man who is out to make a buck and has no interest in taste or artists. While Eliot embraced Anglo-Catholicism shortly after “The Hollow Men,” Pound continued to seek passageways back to ancient China and Greece in his Cantos. Lawrence isn’t interested in those solutions. His concern is more with cherishing what he refers to as “the sun” in the individual. In “Democracy,” the speaker says “I love the sun in any man/when I see it between his brows/clear, and fearless, even if tiny” (CP 526). By the time of the Pansies, Lawrence believed that the sun was going out (fast) in the British people. For him, his poems serve as a corrective to this horrifying situation. A machine-eaten society could only be destroyed if enough “sunny” people would stand up to it.
Lawrence remains one of the prophetic voices of twentieth-century poetry and fiction. Much of his work, especially his later poems, can be read as a warning to a culture which drives people to madness. Our most essential natures are stolen from us before we are out of the womb. For Lawrence, our life task is to reclaim the self that has been taken–but to do so, first we have to recognize that self. This, too, he shares with other Modernist writers, including Woolf and Forster, who show people living in a world without accurate mirrors, presented with images made for us, not of us.
In his novella The Fox, the result of repressing our true selves is death. When the tree falls, it does not kill only a character–it kills what stands in the way of our innermost needs and desires. Choices that men and women make are based on maps and rules which are not only outdated but guaranteed to keep them lost for good. The animals provide better examples of how we can live than do some of our greatest teachers; the tortoise becomes a better teacher than Jesus, who Lawrence often questions, especially in Pansies and Nettles. The speaker in “Love Thy Neighbor” refuses to love others as he does himself because these others are essentially sub-human, more resembling products on a supermarket shelf than real human beings. The poem ends with the speaker yelling “Nay! Nay! Nay! Nay!” To love these “cachinating things” is a form of surrender, to risk becoming them (CP 644). Even Whitman, who, along with William Blake, was a strong influence on Lawrence’s thinking and writing style, gets a slam in the brief epigrammatic poem “Retort To Whitman.” Lawrence claims that “false sympathy” eventually leads to the death of us all.
Some readers object to Lawrence’s either-or kind of perspective, the sometimes badgering tone that characterizes many of his later poems. Lawrence sees humanity as locked in a life and death struggle with the clock ticking against us. For him, it is an either-or world. As he says to the “young gents” in “It’s Either You Fight Or You Die,” “tackle the blowsy big blow-fly/ of money; do it or die” (CP 458). And, of course, Lawrence himself was locked in a life or death struggle due to the hideous wearing down caused by the tuberculosis. Such a battle left Lawrence no middle ground; death had already conquered the middle ground.
If men and women cannot find a way out of the dead conventions of the past, especially the Victorian past, they are doomed not just to unhappiness–but to constantly be engaged in acts of self-torture and torturing others. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie and her husband Clifford are more like smoke than they are like human beings. Mellors helps to bring Connie alive, to free her from the Zombified life she has with her husband, a man who knows much about control but nothing about desire. In him, sexual desire becomes twisted into a desire to dominate his wife through indifference, nothing more. When Connie sees Mellors bathing himself, she begins to get a glimmer of her own true self. The self erased by society begins to surface. His bathing acts to purify both of them; moreover, for Connie, it is an epiphanic moment suggesting the possibility that life does not have to be the way it has been for her in her deadening marriage.
“The Deadly Victorians” from Nettles suggests that Lawrence’s generation was castrated by Victorian optimism. Lawrence believed that as the Empire expanded, the spirit of the people shrank. The speaker says of the Victorians, “they were such base and sordid optimists/ successfully castrating the body politic” (CP 627). Victorian England busted up the rhythms that Lawrence sought, putting us in opposition with our most essential selves. His novel The Rainbow is a study in rhythm. Alldritt says,
We are made to feel the rhythms of an individual
nature, the rhythms of sexual relationship, the
rhythms of growth into awareness and the rhythms
of a whole culture” (Alldritt 129).
Those broken rhythms have left humankind in need of purification. Lawrence’s poetry, especially the poems in Pansies, Nettles, More Pansies, and Last Poems, are acts of purification. The lengthier narrative poems in works such as Look! We Have Come Through! become distilled in his final four collections. Even the briefest Pansy retains the germ of a story, a narration. Poole says that Lawrence “often presents poems in a kind of speaking voice. He is, as it were, telling us; or these are his thoughts and we magically overhear him” (Poole 309). This kind of thought-telling allowed Lawrence to develop some fine satires in his later poems.
One of the best satires is a prose poem called “Canvassing for the Election.” The poem is a dialogue between two people; the person posing the questions is most interested in whether or not the person to whom he is speaking is a “superior” person. Such a person is supposedly “really patriotic,” which, for Lawrence, means someone who has essentially sold his or her soul to keep the money/manufacturing machine turning its gears. The poem ends with the acknowledgement that nobody ever denies the questioner a signature when asked if they are truly superior. The questioner tells the person he is addressing that it is a “comfort” that he’s never been denied a signature (CP 546). For Lawrence, this “comfort” is an embarrassment, a sign of rot.
In “As For Me, I’m a Patriot,” the speaker claims to be a patriot–but not the kind that would give any comfort to the monkey masses who often think of themselves as patriots too. He says:
I’d betray the middle classes
and money and industry
and the intellectual asses
and cash christianity. (CP 534)
Anger strongly motivates the speaker in the last four Business Relationships of poems. He refuses to be reduced “to the level of a thing” in “The Scientific Doctor.” The psychologist is more of a fixer of robots than a doctor. Sandra Gilbert says that the robot metaphor is crucial. In Lawrence’s view, people make themselves inhuman, and throughout Pansies and Nettles he shows that they do this in two related ways. First, they do it through yielding what should be their divine selfhood to the annihilating machine of modern society (Gilbert 210).
Most people offer danger, not community. The speaker says, “I like people quite well/at a little distance” in “People.” In the overcrowded world the speaker inhabits, it is almost impossible to find a space in which he can keep sane. In the preface to Pansies, Lawrence says, “To us, certain words, certain ideas are taboo, and if they come upon us and we can’t drive them away, we die or go mad” (CP 420).
The words and ideas about which he speaks relate to a fear of the body, a fear of our most essential natures, ultimately, a fear of the self. Such a fear makes us ill: “I am ill because of wounds to the soul,/ to the deep emotional self” the speaker says in “Healing” (CP 620).
In big cities like London, people are more likely to be turned into neutered cats, to be fixed, to be made “neither, my dear” as in “London Mercury” (CP 581). Their sexuality is no more crucial to them than it is to a neutered housepet who gives comfort to the “aunties” because what is real and vital in the animal has been destroyed. In “City-Life,” Lawrence lifts a line of Whitman’s (“When I see the great cities”) and turns it inside out. Here the great city is characterized by people with iron hooks in their faces. The speaker describes the city people as “corpse-like fishes” reeled into their factory jobs (CP 632). The Whitmanic vision of possibility in the city is turned into a nightmare of vulgarity and slave labor.
In the Introduction to Pansies, Lawrence calls the poems in that collection his “tender administrations” to the walking wounded who make up the society of his day (CP 417). It’s a strange phrase since there’s little “tender” about the poems. They come out swinging. Moreover, he refers to them as “This little bunch of fragments.” The poems feel fragmentary–like paragraph pieces, the most arch and acid lines often highlighted as “poems.” Perhaps by calling them “fragments,” he hoped to avoid the onslaught of criticism they might bring forth if he claimed that they were completed poems. Many do feel fragmentary–but not all. The fragmentary nature of his Pansies isn’t so much a contrast with his novels and longer poems as it is an attempt to boil them down into tinier spaces–and tiny spaces is all the modern world of his time offers. He rails against “mob-insanity” (CP 420). If a mob-insane world has no time or patience for lengthy narratives, then the poet must send out messages which feel more like radio waves or Western Union telegrams–precise and focused.
Many Modernist writers sought ways in which the individual could still be valued in a mob-insane world: Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for example, with her incredible interior life, reads more like a lengthy poem than a novel. Forster’s “Only connect” at the beginning of Howards End suggests that people must maintain some sort of community together or else they are in peril. For Lawrence, the speakers do not desire connection with people who have no “sun” in them. To be connected with such people puts one at risk of having one’s own sunniness go out. In the posthumously published Apocalypse, he says,
The sun has a great blazing consciousness,
and I have a little blazing consciousness.
When I can strip myself of the trash of
personal feelings and ideas, and get down
to my naked sun-self, then the sun and I
can commune by the hour. (Apocalypse 43)
In “Worm Either Way,” the speaker says “If you live along with all the other people/ and are just like them, and conform, and are nice/ you’re just a worm” (CP 431). Why connect with worms? In Forster’s Howards End, even the business-oriented man who marries the oldest Schlegel sister has to learn to connect. Lawrence’s poems would take a less optimistic view that one such as he would be willing or able to change, to connect.
Like Yeats, Lawrence believes that history is cyclical and that people are coming to the end of the Christian cycle. Yeats makes this case in “The Second Coming,” where the beast will ironically supplant Christ in the place of Christ’s birth, Bethlehem. For Lawrence, the beast that Yeats speaks of is more of the mob mentality which sneaks away with our deepest passions and selves. In Apocalpse he says, “Time still moves in cycles, not in a straight line. And we are at the end of the Christian cycle” (Apocalypse 148).
The date of Pansies, 1929, is worthy of some consideration. The economic machine of Western capitalism was grinding itself to ashes with the arrival of the Great Depression; the experiment of the Russian Revolution was little more than a decade old—Lawrence found both systems wanting and felt that people would be smushed out between the two. Whitman’s Democratic vistas had opened into a seethe of fat cat millionaires pulling the puppet strings of working people. To sing of America or England now was to sing of madness.
The optimism suggested by the Crystal Palace in England in the nineteenth century and Calvin Coolidge’s “The business of America is business” in contemporary America had, for Lawrence, put people in a jail they often did not recognize, a place where even their instincts and desires had been harnessed to prop up more money lust. In “Democracy,” the speaker concludes that working men are “living like lice” and that successful men are “hideous and corpse-like” (CP 526). As they struggle harder and harder to succeed, the inner man dies away, leaving terror in its place. He wishes that such “sunless” creatures would “cease to exist” (CP 526). Likewise, the “innocent maid” in “The Jeune Fille” becomes “the blank-it-out girl” (CP 565). Men and women can no longer be gods and goddesses; instead, they become bankers and flappers in their endless search to escape from themselves. Even people bathing by the sea suggest empty escapism as in “Forte Dei Marmi” where the bathers “know nothing;/the vibration of the motor-car has bruised their insensitive bottoms” (CP 625). In fact, the last word in Pansies is “hell.”
A couple of reviews of Pansies were published in 1929. Mark Van Doren, in the New York Herald Tribune Books, says,
Mr. Lawrence is quite right in saying that Pansies should not be taken too seriously,
for if it is not so taken it turns out to be
one of the sincerest books which this strangely
interesting man has published. (Draper 313)
Van Doren’s comments are measured in comparison with an unsigned review which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement; the unsigned reviewer says Lawrence “attacks everything in modern life” and that he writes “from a fixed point of prejudice, a small island in a sea of disgust” (Draper 309). Sincerity alone never guarantees good art, yet it is hard to know where this “fixed point” of prejudice is. Lawrence sees society somewhat like a theater which has caught fire–if nobody screams out “Fire!” there will be many dead bodies. His poems are yelling “Fire!”
The point of view of these fragmentary narratives is necessarily limited as the social constraints under which the speakers exist limits them. Ross Murfin suggests that “Lawrence does a delicate balancing act; he satirizes simultaneously the limited view of his speakers and the system of life that so limits their views and values” (Murfin 227). In “Intimates,” the speaker escapes from a woman who prefers her own mirror to him. She is the object of Lawrence’s satire, but she is also a product of a society which turns people “ego-bound.”
Unlike the novels where specific characters can take many pages to confront those traditions which belittle them, Lawrence’s speakers and characters in Pansies and the poems that follow are often nameless, general types. Giving them names would immediately distinguish them in the robot society; they are not worthy of names. In “England in 1929,” we find “frightened old mongrels” and “young wash-outs” represent an order collapsing upon itself (CP 525). What new system can be built from “characters” such as these?
If there is to be a new society, a new way of understanding the self, one way to get there is to cherish those times when we can be alone. In “Loneliness,” the speaker says, “I never know what people mean when they complain of loneliness./ To be alone is one of life’s greatest delights” (CP 610). The flapper, the young wash-outs, the snapping mongrels all feed off each other, pooling their ignorance and despair. The harder they try to escape, the deeper they find themselves enmeshed in a peaceless terror. Being “alone” is a kind of salvation from that, a time to shut out the static and to think.
Lawrence turns to the beasts as offering some tender hope for a botched world. His elephants, who are slow to mate and who possess a dignity even while dancing on a drum at the circus, point to a power, a mystery. Inniss suggests that “The idyll of the elephants takes place in Eden” (Inniss 96). Eden is far removed from a world of cars, overheated films, machines, and rote rituals. Rather than offering humanity hope, the elephants confirm how distant we are from them. The elephant doesn’t need a movie theatre or a record player to teach him or her its basic rhythms. People fear the naturalness of the elephant and put it in a circus, make it dance on a drum, turn it into a big dancing toy. Even still, something of the elephant’s grace comes through, scaring the modern young. In “Two Performing Elephants” “the wispy, modern children, half-afraid/ watch silent. The looming of the hoary, far-gone ages/ is too much for them” (CP 426). Even the mosquito is more alive than we are, unafraid of blood, the source of life. Likewise, the fish are happy in the sea, a direct contrast with the “hooked fishes of the factory world” in “City-Life” (CP 632).
Exasperated continuously with this world of men, the speaker becomes more of a warrior, taking on the most entrenched customs and systems. In “Why” the speaker gets to the point early:
Why have money?
why have a financial system to strangle us all
in its octopus arms?
why have industry?
why have the industrial system? (CP 451-452).
Lawrence asks these questions in his novels, too. His characters often regain or more fully come into their humanity as they escape from money lust and learn how to touch each other; otherwise, they are doomed to be like products on a store shelf, nothing more. They may sense they’ve been had. As Lawrence says in “The Combative Spirit,” “Men are made mean, by fear, and a system of grab” (CP 520). This does not suggest, however, that Lawrence saw a solution in Bolshevism. In “Now It’s Happened,” the “Marxian tenets [that] take hold of the town” are a result of too much belief in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, writers who Lawrence believed robbed Russia of her strength, leaving the nation lost to a “sham christianity” and “spy-government” (CP 536-537).
One character who emerges from Pansies is Willy wet-Leg, he of the “holy-can’t-help-it touch” (CP 537). His humility is a cover for cowardice, preventing him from standing up to “the system of grab.” As a result, he inspires no sexual passion in women who can see that he’s a sham. Willy is the emblem of the modern man, all the fight gone out of him, more of a caricature than a character. Lawrence blames Willy that people more and more are becoming “cold and devlish hard/ like machines” (CP 537). Willy’s humility is an excuse to avoid the fight to regain the self. His humility is made by machines, and his responses are the responses of machines.
In “Energetic Women,” the Willy wet-legs leaves women with a futile rage which makes them dervishlike. The speaker can’t blame them since “the men all started being Willy wet-legs” (CP 537). They substitute movie stars for real men, craving Rudolph Valentino, a mirage, to the deadening presence of wet-leg. In “Film Passion” these women are turned more and more away from their own rhythms, lost to the screen and its shadowy substitute images. Ultimately, such substitutes cannot satisfy, and the women are described as volcanoes ready to explode.
The faked-up love on screen contrasts with the response Lawrence got to thirteen of his paintings which were part of an exhibit of his paintings at the Warren Gallery in London in 1929. Some of these paintings attempted to show bodies as they really look and not like plastic dolls, anatomically false. Amazingly, what the police found particularly offensive was that Lawrence painted people with pubic hair. Many viewers and the policemen were outraged; in fact, the pictures were impounded, just as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Pansies were also banned. Lawrence returns to his anger over the impounding again in More Pansies with the quatrain “Gross, Coarse, Hideous” (Police description of my pictures).” Lawrence suggests that those three adjectives fit the policemen more than they do the paintings. The policemen are described as “lily-like” and they suffer from “virgin outrage” when they see the nudity in Lawrence’s paintings (CP 680). They are empowered to protect society, but here they are the ones society needs protection from.
Lawrence was, of course, no stranger to censorship problems. A solicitor, Herbert Muskett, had argued in 1915 that The Rainbow should be burned; fourteen years later, he was making the same case against Lawrence’s paintings (Ellis 493). Ironically, many people did come to visit the exhibition, 3500 in the first week (Ellis 490). The hubbub only made the exhibition more popular. He was given the paintings back on the condition that he never exhibit them again.
T.W. Earp wrote a commentary on Lawrence’s paintings in the New Stateman which got Lawrence’s goat. Instead of reviling the poems for their supposed obsenity, Earp says, “The offensiveness lay in the bad painting” (Draper 308). Lawrence retorts with an attack on Earp where Earp is called “a chicken” and he can “neither paint nor write” (CP 680). Lawrence’s poem “Censors” provides this portrait of those who would attempt to nail our eyes shut: “Censors are dead men/set up to judge between life and death” (CP 528). The censors fear that if any idea gets loose with which they disagree, their own power and sense of the world will be destroyed. Therefore, at the end of the poem, the censors are breathing “with relief” when anything “alive” is destroyed.
What emerges from Pansies, Nettles, and More Pansies is a world where narrative itself is breaking down. The poet can offer splashes of fire, a few angry words to ease the frostbite of modern life. Since many of the poems employ this fragmentariness, Sagar makes a good observation by linking this approach with what Lawrence most admired in the Etruscan temples: “He wanted his poems to have the same quality which so attracted him to Etruscan art” (Sagar 327). Silkin claims that “in Lawrence’s poetry there is a sensuous and essentialising mode, and there is also a narrative flow” (Silkin 12). The sensuous attention to detail heightens image as it evokes a story. Even brief poems like “Fish” suggest untold stories: why are the fish content with their lives?
This sensuous quality extends throughout, and actually defines, the universe itself. As small and petty as the robot-man becomes in Pansies, the universe is large, changing, vital, and shot through with the energy of the gods. It is not the home of the Christian heaven, which Lawrence views as a rather bourgeois establishment, boring in its gold streets and changelessness. In Apocalypse, he says humorously of this heaven, “How terribly bourgeois to have unfading flowers!” (Apocalypse 188).
Lawrence prefigures writers associated with the Beat Generation in America thirty years later, writers like Allen Ginsberg whose works are sexually explicit and declare war on the status quo. For Lawrence, the poems in these collections are not really about making society better, as if the poem is one more labor-saving device. His poems suggest mankind is in a spiritual combat, and if we lose, we shall all perish—and good riddance to us.
However, the poems in Last Poems sometimes suggest that “the evil abstractions from life” are not the whole story (CP 716). Two of Lawrence’s best poems, “Bavarian Gentians” and “The Ship of Death” were written as he was getting weaker and weaker. In “Bavarian Gentians,” the speaker asks for a torch, a flower to help lead him down “the darker and darker stairs” (CP 697). Yet this darkness offers a kind of freedom—an escape from the Willy wetlegs and petrol-stained streets. Much of Nature grows in darkness, preparing the buds from the nourishment the plants gets underground. Also, the sun only shines more brightly because of darkness–we notice it in new ways, as if we have never seen it before.
The last poem in More Pansies is “Prayer,” a poem in which the speaker sees “the sun is hostile, now/ his face is like the red lion” (CP 684). Since we are at war with ourselves and each other, since men and women are at war with each other, the sun becomes a scorching fire, our enemy, not the force that nurtures and gives life. In his essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley,” Lawrence says that “Life is only bearable when the mind and the body are in harmony, and there is a natural balance between them, and each has a natural respect for the other” (SLC 87). Clearly, the modern world has shattered that balance–we are the enemies of the natural. As we destroy that balance, we become destroyed, too.
Lawrence, in his own words, believes that poetry “makes a new effort of attention, and “discovers” a new world within the known world” (Salgado 148). The discovery may scare us to death if we see that we are staring directly into the face of the sun’s red lion.
Some critics suggest that the poems Lawrence wrote in Pansies, Nettles, and More Pansies are often among his weakest. Vanson calls those poems “the small, late, embittered bagatelles of his last years” (Vanson 259). I believe he is guilty of the very attitude Lawrence attacks in the foreward to Pansies—that they are not poems which are meant for the literary dissection table and that readers should not “nail the pansy down. You won’t keep it any better if you do” (CP 424). The scent is swift and often unforgettable. A “bagatelle” is essentially a trifle. These poems are not trifles; mostly, they are focused the way a candle’s flame is focused–a direct light, necessary though perhaps easily overlooked. Perhaps one reason that these poems are critically ignored or sometimes attacked is because they make many readers and critics nervous—their directness is directed at the reader, and some readers may want to run for cover.
The Pansies are short, sharp shots, squeezing into smaller drops ideas in the novels. At their best, they are liquid mercury. Wallace Stevens has a long poem called “Parts of a World.” Here we have parts of Lawrence’s world, parts which make up a firey whole. Lawrence is building his ship of death; such shipbuilding is hard work; the poems in Pansies are among the tools he uses to help him build it. The speaker in “The Ship of Death” is searching for a “quietus,” a death that allows the old self to die and the new self to be born. The ship must be built; oblivion must be faced so that this new self can emerge: “the heart renewed with peace/even of oblivion” (CP 720). Such a peace stands in sharp contrast to the “peacelessness” of the multimillionaire in “Choice” who poisons the speaker just by being in close proximity to him.
Howe suggests that “Lawrence’s main concern is identity, and the fragmented self (Howe 1). This is a concern the major Modernist writers share. The post-World War One world left a legacy of a fragmented Europe stuffed with fragmented people. Lawrence’s poems are attempts to escape of this fragmentation—ways which we must find or we will perish. Since the models of the Victorian past had broken, people were left in a vacuum that modern life could not get us out of. The wisdom that should come with age (“It ought to be lovely to be old” begins “Beautiful Old Age.”) is anything but lovely as the old “ache when they see the young” (CP 502).
Through his vivid satire and usage of direct statement, these poems demand the rebuilding of the self, reclaiming it from madness. “Sanity, wholeness is everything” he argues (CP 420). Old Testament prophet Jeremiah prophesied the fall of Babylon saying “Babylon is suddenly fallen and destroyed: howl for her; take balm for her pain, if so be she may be healed” (Jeremiah 51:8). Lawrence’s Pansies, Nettles, and More Pansies are both a howl and a balm–for wholeness to re-emerge, members of the society first have to locate what is broken, to scream out their anger over what has been lost or taken from them. Then they must find balm, especially in their deepest thoughts. Lawrence says in his poem “Thoughts,” “Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending” (CP 673). Such a line has the epigrammatic oomph of Thoreau, another reviler of stale conventions. The fragmented identity Lawrence reviles and fights against happens when people can no longer fully (wholly) attend their “thoughts.”
For Lawrence, thoughts ought to be alive, the way flowers are, vital and in the moment. In the Foreword to Pansies, he says, “I offer a bunch of pansies, not a wreathe of immortelles. I don’t want everlasting flowers_. A flower passes, and that perhaps is the best of it” (CP 424). The immortelles are manufactured for cemeteries or for houses which feel more like cemeteries than homes. The flower, like thought itself, is vital because it is temporary–it cannot be captured and turned into a trophy. Even our books cannot contain them since these thought-blooms slip away from the pages. The everlasting flower may be attractive to the eye, but it is dead; it has the feel and smell of lifeless objects.
Thought, then is felt, experienced, but not sentimentally and difficult to come by in a robotic world. The poems that Lawrence wrote in his last couple of years are acts of retrieval–trying to light the small fires that can give birth to suns in humankind. They attempt to unearth those precious things which contemporary life has all but blotted out. William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum is “No ideas but in things.” Perhaps for Lawrence, Williams’s line could read “No ideas but in the precious things people need but are afraid of or embarrassed by.”
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About Kenneth Pobo
Kenneth Pobo’s recent poetry collections include a book of prose poems, The Antlantis Hit Parade (Clare Songbirds Publishing House); Dindi Expecting Snow (Duck Lake Books), and Bend Of Quiet (Blue Light Press). His work has appeared in: Floating Bridge, Indiana Review, Mudfish, Nimrod, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter at @KenPobo.