The Poems, D. H. Lawrence, edited by Christopher Pollnitz
by Jim Powell
from The Threepenny Review, Spring 2014
The spring he was twenty-two, D. H. Lawrence read Leaves of Grass. He had been writing verse for three years. That summer of 1908 he chose twenty-four poems to transcribe into his first college notebook, and two decades later included thirteen, variously revised, in his Collected Poems. His eye for nature and candid insight into romantic psychology are there from the start, as are his profuse musical invention and supple alignment of the shape of verse and sentence, but it was Whitman's song of the Body Electric that sparked Lawrence's vision and catalyzed his work. It liberated him from contending commandments that he regard his body as a trap of sin in a maze of temptation or as an interchangeable part for an economic machine. "Whitman, this American, this Columbus of the soul" (as Lawrence called him in a 1922 essay) confirmed his own instincts, encouraged his tenderness, made his candor ardent, and freed him to become his time's key poet of love.
Whitman also made him an avatar of insurgent cultural transformation. The pagan animist superstition that the world is part of us and we are all related turns out to be perfectly true as science—as biology, as ecology, as physics and cosmology, psychology and cultural anthropology. The liberation of the body electric from what Lawrence termed "the mental allegiance, the old moral conception, that the soul of man is something 'superior' and 'above' the flesh," involves a corresponding recovery of a creaturely world, a reawakened understanding of cosmos as organism, as alive. In this reintegrated world, man's natural place and role imply participation, balance, affection, respect, and stewardship, rather than division, control, coercion, conflict, or repression. Or, as he put it in "The Secret Waters":
What was lost is found
what was wounded is sound,
the key of life on the bodies of men
unlocks the fountains of peace again.
Whitman's seed found fertile ground. The following year, Ford Madox Ford took Lawrence to lunch at the home of Rhymers Club member Ernest Rhys, where he encountered Yeats and Pound (the latter exactly fifty days younger than Lawrence). He learned of the London poetry circle's interest in an esoteric neo-platonism which accommodated the pantheist vision of Leaves of Grass in a way that monotheisms, including pecuniolatry and materialism, could not. "The spark is from dead wisdom," as Lawrence was to write in his Fantasia of the Unconscious, "but the fire is life."
At the climax of nineteenth-century materialist science, in Henry Adams's plain words, "Chaos was the law of nature, Order was the dream of man." Whitman's vision, and Lawrence's, manifest an emergent counter-trend: an outbreak, a breakthrough. The disorder originates not in nature but in "our shattered Argosy, our leaking ark"—"earning your living while your life is lost." For Lawrence, neo-platonism opened a route from Leaves of Grass to the pagan, pre-Athenian eastern Mediterranean, and onward east around the world and back to Whitman ("the first white aboriginal," as he called him in Studies in Classic American Literature), reached at the sources of his wild seed, on the wilderness frontier, "the rounded sides of the squatting Rockies, / Tigress-brindled with aspen."
... we storm the angel-guarded
Gates of the long-discarded
Garden, which God has hoarded
Against our pain.
The Lord of Hosts, and the Devil
Are left on Eternity's level
Field, and as victors we travel
To Eden home.
Back beyond good and evil
Return we. Eve dishevel
Your hair for the bliss-drenched revel
On our primal loam.
In Lawrence's earthy Eden, the democratic franchise of Whitman's fellowship embraces birds, beasts, and flowers. "Man is only perfectly human / when he looks beyond humanity." The universe is an organism, its parts are complementary and mutually informing. "A nightingale singing at the top of his voice / is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species; / he is giving himself away in every sense of the word / and obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence." The animist universe speaks in the vocative "O Thou"—the primal power of poetry to evoke spirits by address:
Queer, how you stalk and prowl the air
In circles and evasions, enveloping me,
Ghoul on wings
Settle, and stand on long thin shanks
Eyeing me sideways, and cunningly conscious that I am aware,
I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air
Having read my thoughts against you. ...
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?
Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) was Lawrence's contribution to the feast whose courses include The Waste Land and Ulysses (1922), Harmonium and Spring and All (1923), Observations (1924), Anglo-Mongrels & The Rose and A Draft of XVI Cantos (1925). It is a book of dithyrambic fantasia, brazen fictive imagination operating at the speed of poetry: "A naked tree of blossom, like a bridegroom bathing in dew, divested of cover / Frail-naked, utterly uncovered / To the green night-baying of the dog-star, Etna's snow-edged wind ... " ("Almond Blossom"). "There she is, perched on her manger, looking over the boards into the day / Like a belle at her window. / And immediately she sees me she blinks, stares, doesn't know me, turns her head and ignores me vulgarly, with a wooden blank look on her face..." ("She-Goat").
In the epigraph to "Reptiles," Lawrence cites Herakleitos: "in the tension of opposites all things have their being." In "Bibbles," Lawrence ponders the scope and reach of democratic agape and karmic law: "Reject nothing, sings Whitman. / So you, you go out at last and eat the unmentionable, / In your appetite for affection— / And then you run in to vomit it in my house! / I get my love back." The four "Evangelistic Beasts" confront the Christian logocentric cosmos with a mix of sceptical compassion and militant pantheism: " ... remember, Savior, / That my heart which like a lark at heaven's gate singing, hovers morning-bright to Thee, / Throws still the dark blood back and forth / In the avenues where the bat hangs sleeping, upside down / And to me undeniable, Jesus."
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head ...
Lawrence's gods are not literary allusions or ornament or socio-economic status markers. They are traditional names for perennial manifestations of spirit, "eternal states of mind," in Pound's phrase. They are, as Lawrence himself puts it in his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, "the Holy Ghost, who is inside us, and who is many gods. Many gods come and go, some say one thing and some say another, and we have to obey the God of the innermost hour." It is Lawrence's concern with the bodily and sensual, with the multitudinous earth rather than the immaterial Logos, that invokes Osiris and Persephone—Osiris the life that is torn and scattered and gathered again, Persephone the final soul, the death born with each life. Engaged from the familiar distance of animal behavior, the mysteries of sex and gender also take on their proper cosmological dimension. "Tortoise Shout" responds to the animal's orgasmic vocalization: "Why was the veil torn? The silken shriek of the soul's torn membrane? ...// The wheel on which our silence first is broken, / Sex, which breaks up our integrity, our single inviolability, our deep silence / Tearing a cry from us. / ... the Osiris-cry of abandonment, / That which is whole, torn asunder, / That which is in part, finding its whole again throughout the universe."
I refuse to name the gods, because they have no name.
I refuse to describe the gods, because they have no form nor shape
nor substance ...
But all the time I see the gods:
the man who is mowing the tall white corn,
suddenly, as it curves, as it yields, the white wheat
and sinks down with a swift rustle, and a strange, falling flatness,
ah! the gods, the swaying body of god!
ah the fallen stillness of god, autumnus, and it is only July
the pale-gold flesh of Priapus dropping asleep.
("Name the Gods")
Lawrence's free verse owes almost nothing to Whitman's incantatory cadences and much to the novelist's dramatic command of syntax as sequence of disclosure. Leaves of Grass incited his vision; formally, Whitman's influence shows in his readiness from the first (Love Poems and Others, 1913) to discover and explore new openings and forms to forward the tradition of rhyme and measure. Lawrence's mastery of stanzaic invention is incomparable: "Mystery," "Hymn To Priapus," "Kisses In The Train" and "Narcissus" are four proofs among many. This formal exploration, climaxing with Look! We Have Come Through! (1917), still constitutes a major salient on the frontier of verse-craft in English—a benchmark, an outlook.
After preparing Collected Poems (1928), Lawrence shifted strategy again, from lyric to dithyramb and now to satire and epigram (Pansies, 1929). "Squibby poems," he called them in a letter—topical ejaculations and gibes, public, tendentious, valiant. He was embattled: his novels banned, mutilated in print, or labeled unpublishable, his poetry censored, expurgated, and bowdlerized, a London show of paintings raided. Faber requested something for a pamphlet series and he sent twenty-six poems like Pansies, only pricklier. Nettles (1930) appeared eleven days after his death. He left two notebooks of poems, the first in the mode of Pansies and Nettles, which he selected from it; the other includes the lyric meditations "Bavarian Gentians" and "The Ship of Death." They were published in Florence as Last Poems (1932).
The new critical edition of the text of his poetry edited by Christopher Pollnitz completes the process Lawrence began when he transcribed twenty-four lyrics into his notebook in 1908. It collects all the work he lived to decide to keep and adds the contents of Last Poems and "All of Us," a typescript of thirty-four epigrammatic vignettes lost at the publishers' in 1916 and rediscovered long after his death. Pollnitz re-edits the two last notebooks, correcting the Florentine edition, and rectifies numerous defects in the received texts of earlier poems. The sixth stanza, for instance, of "Paradise Re-entered" (the final three are cited above), now begins as Lawrence wrote it, "Beautiful, candid lovers, / Burnt out of our earthy covers"—emending "earthly covers," a typo carried on from Collected Poems (1928). And Pollnitz restores expurgated texts: a famous example is Lawrence's discourse on "the proper way to eat a fig, in society, ... and the vulgar way." Lawrence is never prurient or lewd, vulgar rarely, and always to the purpose. Expurgated and de-expurgated, he is unabashed—pagan.
"The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and 'discovers' a new world within the known world," said Lawrence in "Chaos in Poetry." Pollnitz's attention restores details of color and removes smudges. It does not leave the picture transformed amazingly, as Grace Schulman's Poems of Marianne Moore does. It ably perfects Collected Poems, the 1964 edition by Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. Its presentation is pleasing, the editing is convincing, the textual apparatus lucid, smart, and easy to use. The text of this critical edition (which absurdly lacks a table of contents with the titles of poems) will eventually supplant Pinto & Roberts with a properly authoritative readers' edition of Lawrence's poetry.
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About the Author
Jim Powell is the author of two collections of poetry, Substrate (Pantheon, 2009) and It Was Fever That Made The World (University of Chicago Press, 1989), and translator of The Poetry of Sappho (Oxford University Press, 2007). Winner of the CCLM Younger Poets Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, he is this year's recipient of the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award in Poetry. He lives in the Bay Area of California.
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