Books: The Metropolitan Critic — D H Lawrence in Transit |
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D H Lawrence in Transit

If one were to take a wax pencil and trace Lawrence’s travels on a globe of the world, the result would be an enigmatic squiggle: a squiggle that started off minutely preoccupied in Europe, was reduced still further to a fat dot formed by the cramped war-time movements within England, broke out, enlarged itself to a bold transoceanic zig-zag which at one wild moment streaked right around the planet, and then subsided again into more diffident, European vagaries — still restless, but listless, tailing off. The pencil should properly come to a halt at Vence, in the Alpes Maritimes, although if we substituted for it another pencil of a different colour we might legitimately add one last, sweeping leg to the journey, as Lawrence’s mobility recovered in death and his ashes rode back mindlessly to New Mexico.

In a few minutes we could map the wanderings of nearly two decades. It wouldn’t tell us much, apart from the obvious fact that he liked to move about. He was in search of something, no question of it. Headquarters, the fissure into the underworld — it had many names. But one is permitted to doubt whether it could ever have been found, the doubt being engendered less by the world’s nature than by an assessment of Lawrence’s insatiable hunger for meaning. There is a tendency, once Lawrence’s odyssey has been identified as a spiritual quest, to suppose that Lawrence had a firm idea of his spiritual object: hence the notion that he was in revolt against twentieth-century society, or post-Renaissance Europe, or post-Columbian America, or whatever you care to name. Lawrence was in revolt all right, but the revolt encompassed almost everything he knew in the present and nearly all the past he ever came to know, and this ability to exhaust reality through intimacy shows up in his travels as much as in anything else he did.

It was not so much that familiarity bred contempt — and anyway, there were some familiarities of which he never quite tired — as that it bred unease. Never to find things important enough is the mark of a dreamer. Lawrence, thoroughly practical and businesslike in matters large and small, was no ordinary dreamer: nevertheless he could get no lasting peace from his surroundings, and as time went by felt bound to look upon them as an impoverished outwardness implying a symbolic centre — and this despite an unrivalled ability to reflect the fullness of physical reality undiminished onto the page. Lawrence is beyond the reach of any other modern writer writing about what can be seen, since whatever could be seen he saw instantaneously and without effort — which is probably why he could regard it as nothing but the periphery of the real. If he had lived longer, his novels might well have lost any touch at all with worldly objects: the sense of actuality which other men serve long apprenticeships to attain was for him a departure point. And again if he had lived longer, he might well have exhausted the earth with travel. Had he not placed such an emphasis on turning inwards to the dark, fiery centre, we could by now have been tempted to imagine him turning outwards, away from the tellurian cultures depleted by the ravenous enquiry of his imagination and towards an uncapturable infinity that actually exists — orchestrations of dark suns, unapproachable galaxies peopled by Etruscans who stayed on top, nebulae like turquoise horses, the ocean of the great desire. Qetzalcoatl’s serape! Sun-dragon! Star-oil! Lawrence was in search of, was enraged over the loss of, a significance this world does not supply and has never supplied. For a worldling, his symbolist requirements were inordinate. As a spaceman he might have found repose. Heaven knows, he was genius enough not to be outshone by the beyond. He could have written down a supernova.

Supposing, though, that this was what his journeyings were all in aid of — home. The supposition is at least part of the truth, although by no means, I think, the largest part. If home was ever anywhere, it was at the Del Monte and Flying Heart ranches in New Mexico — whose mountains seemed to be the place he could stay at longest without feeling compelled to move on. Yet there were still times when he missed Europe, just as, in Europe, there were so many times when he missed America, and just as, on either continent, there were troubled times when he missed England. Headquarters tended to be where Lawrence was not. Places abandoned because they did not possess the secret could be fondly remembered later on — perhaps they had had the secret after all. But it never occurred to Lawrence that there was no secret. Out of all the thousands of pages of his incredibly productive short life, the great pathos which emerges is of this extraterrestrial unbelonging — far more frightening, in the long run, than the social challenges which by now we have absorbed, or else written off as uninformative propositions. Critical unreason often occurs in creative genius, but creative unreason rarely does: for a talent to be as big as Lawrence’s and yet still be sick is a strange thing. It’s easily understandable that people equipped to appreciate his magnitude as a writer should take the intellectually less taxing course, declaring Lawrence to be a paragon of prophetic sanity and the world sick instead.

Lawrence’s first travels were to London, Brighton, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth. Readers of the early letters will be rocked back on their heels to find the same descriptive power turned loose on Brighton as later reached out to seize the dawn over Sicily, the flowers in Tuscany, the Sinai desert, the sperm-like lake in Mexico and the ranches after snow. Then, in 1912, the first run to Metz, in Germany: Waldbröl in the Rhineland, Munich, Mayrhofen in Austria. A walk over the Tyrol. Lake Garda. Back to England in 1913, then back to Bavaria. Lerici. England again. The war confined these short European pencil strokes to a fitfully vibrating dot within England, covering Sussex, Hampstead, Cornwall; an angry return to London after being hounded from the coast and possible contact with the High Seas Fleet; Berkshire, Derbyshire.

In 1919, free to quit England, he broke straight for Italy: Turin, Lerici, Florence, Rome, Picinisco, Capri. In 1920, Taormina, in Sicily. Malta. In 1921, Sardinia, Germany, Austria, Italy, Taormina again. (Taormina is a node, like — later on — Taos, and the Villa Mirenda at Scandicci, outside Florence.)

In 1922, the emboldened pattern struck outwards to Ceylon. Australia for two months. Then America: Taos, the Del Monte ranch, the mountains. In 1923 he was in Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico again and ... England. In 1924 France, Germany, New York, Taos. The Flying Heart ranch, alias the Lobo, alias the Kiowa. Oaxaca, in Mexico.

The year 1925 ended the period of the big pattern. After a wrecking illness in New Mexico he returned to London. Then Baden-Baden. Spotorno. In 1926, Capri, Spotorno and the Villa Mirenda in Scandicci — his last real place to be. Germany, England, Scotland. Italy.

In 1927 he toured the Etruscan tombs. A score of names cropped up in his itinerary: Volterra, Orvieto, Tarquinia — short strokes all over Tuscany and Umbria, the Etruscan places. Then to Austria and Germany, and in 1928 to Switzerland, with the Villa Mirenda abandoned. Gsteig bei Gstaad, Baden-Baden (the Kurhaus Plättig) and the Ile de Port-Cros, Toulon. From low-lying sun-trap to Hoheluftkurort the short strokes moved trembling. Bandol, in the south of France. He was in Paris in 1929, then Palma de Mallorca, Forte dei Marmi, Florence, Bandol again. In 1930 Vence, and death.

Even in Vence he wasn’t too sick to use his amazing eyes. There isn’t a place on the list that he didn’t inhabit at a glance. And yet as we read on and on through the magnificence of his travel writings, a little voice keeps telling us that the man was never there. The man, the spaceman, never travelled except in dreams. Dreaming, while dying, of India and China and everything else that lay beyond the San Francisco gate. Dreaming of altogether elsewhere, of an England that was not England, of a Europe that was never Europe.

It was a great day, Frieda said, when they walked together from the Isartal into the Alps. Lawrence wrote it down, in a way that takes us straight there. But where was he? ‘We stayed at a Gasthaus’, he wrote to Edward Garnett, ‘and used to have breakfast out under the horse-chestnut trees, steep above the river weir, where the timber rafts come down. The river is green glacier water.’ Compare this to one of the famous opening sentences of A Farewell to Arms — ‘In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels’ — and we will find Lawrence’s descriptive prose both more economical and less nostalgic, the effortless reportage of an infallibly observant visitor.

Still on the same descriptive trail, go south to Italy (‘I love these people’) and look at Lerici. ‘And in the morning’, he wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith, ‘one wakes and sees the pines all dark and mixed up with perfect rose of dawn, and all day long the olives shimmer in the sun, and fishing boats and strange sails like Corsican ships come out of nowhere on a pale blue sea, and then at evening all the sea is milky gold and scarlet with sundown.’ The fake-naive rhythms, suitable for consumption by titled ladies, can’t mask the searing power of that simplicity. ‘The mountains of Carrara are white, of a soft white blue eidelweiss, in a faint pearl haze — all snowy. The sun is very warm, and the sea glitters.’ It still does, even though polluted with a thoroughness which even Lawrence would have hesitated to prophesy. ‘The Mediterranean is quite wonderful — and when the sun sets beyond the islands of Porto Venere, and all the sea is like heaving white milk with a street of fire across it, and amethyst islands away back, it is too beautiful.’ It’s small wonder that Lawrence could talk about art having characteristics rather than rules, and even disparage the idea of art altogether. He had it to burn.

Reality offered Lawrence no resistance. Mysticism did, and it was into mysticism that he poured his conscious energy. Turning to Twilight in Italy, we can find something on every page to match the descriptions in the letters. Here is Lake Garda at dawn.

In the morning I often lie in bed and watch the sunrise. The lake lies dim and milky, the mountains are dark blue at the back, while over them the sky gushes and glistens with light. At a certain place on the mountain ridge the light burns gold, seems to fuse a little groove on the hill’s rim. It fuses and fuses at this point, till of a sudden it comes, the intense, molten, living light. The mountains melt suddenly, the light steps down, there is a glitter, a spangle, a clutch of spangles, a great unbearable suntrack flashing across the milky lake, and the light falls on my face.

But superb as this is, it isn’t what this book or any other Lawrence book is about. Twilight in Italy is about north and south, hill and dale — it is the tentative prototype for a great sequence of increasingly confident polarities, by which Lawrence the traveller was to go on splitting the world in two until there was nothing left of it but powder. The Bavarian highlanders, it appears, ‘are almost the only race with the souls of artists ... their processions and religious festivals are profoundly impressive, solemn, and rapt.’ Again, they are ‘a race that moves on the poles of mystic sensual delight. Every gesture is a gesture from the blood, every expression a symbolic utterance.’ Your Bavarian highlander ‘accepts the fate and the mystic delight of the senses with one will, he is complete and final. His sensuous experience is supreme, a consummation of life and death at once.’ Whether drinking in the Gasthaus, or ‘hating steadily and cruelly’, or ‘walking in the strange, dark, subject-procession’ to bless the fields, ‘it is always the same, the dark, powerful mystic, sensuous experience is the whole of him, he is mindless and bound within the absoluteness of the issue, the unchangeability of the great icy not-being which holds good for ever, and is supreme.’ Yes, it was all happening in Bavaria — or rather, it was all to happen later on in Bavaria. But the thing to grasp here is that word ‘dark’. Not only (as is well known) is it the key adjective in all of Lawrence, but Lawrence’s travels can usefully be summarized as an interminable search for a noun it could firmly be attached to.

No sooner is Lawrence in Italy than we discover that the Italians have dark interiors too. ‘The Italian people are called "Children of the Sun". They might better be called "Children of the Shadow". Their souls are dark and nocturnal.’ A feature of the dark soul is unconsciousness, as in the spinning-woman, whose mind Lawrence can apparently read. ‘She glanced at me again, with her wonderful, unchanging eyes, that were like the visible heavens, unthinking, or like the two flowers that are open in pure clear unconsciousness. To her I was a piece of the environment. That was all. Her world was clear and absolute, without consciousness of self. She was not self-conscious, because she was not aware that there was anything in the universe except her universe.’

But the darkly unconscious haven’t got it all their own way. Much later in the book, during the fascinating passage that deals with the local production of Amleto, Lawrence spies a mountain man in the audience: he is of the same race as the old spinningwoman. ‘He was fair, thin, and clear, abstract, of the mountains .... He has a fierce, abstract look, wild and untamed as a hawk, but like a hawk at its own nest, fierce with love ... it is the fierce spirit of the Ego come out of the primal infinite, but detached, isolated, an aristocrat. He is not an Italian, dark-blooded. He is fair, keen as steel, with the blood of the mountaineer in him. He is like myoid spinning woman.’

To reconcile this mountain-man with the spinning-woman, we must assume she was never dark-blooded, when a good deal of what we were told about her when we were reading about her suggested that she was. And indeed, looking back, we find that she hasn’t been given a dark soul or dark blood — she is simply ‘the core and centre to the world, the sun, and the single firmament.’ Lawrence hasn’t at this stage entirely identified the dark soul with the earth’s centre, so it’s still possible to combine abstractness with being at the centre of the world, and, presumably, dark-bloodedness with not being at the centre of the world. What’s difficult to reconcile, however, even when stretching the idea of poetic consistency until it snaps, is a Bavarian highlander’s dark-bloodedness with a mountain-man’s clear abstractness: if these conditions are both different from an ordinary Italian’s dark-bloodedness, are they different in different ways?

The awkward truth is that Lawrence left his Bavarian highlanders behind in his opening chapter and forgot about them while writing the bulk of the book, which even without them would still be extremely difficult to puzzle out. The confusion confesses itself in the passage about Paolo and Maria. Paolo is a native of San Gaudenzio, and therefore a hill man — fair, eyes-like-ice, unalterable, inaccessible. Maria is from the plain — dark-skinned, slow-souled: ‘Paolo and she were the opposite sides of the universe, the light and the dark.’ Nothing could be clearer. ‘They were both by nature passionate, vehement. But the lines of their passion were opposite. Hers was the primitive, crude, violent flux of the blood, emotional and undiscriminating, but wanting to mix and mingle. His was the hard, clear, invulnerable passion of the bones, finely tempered and unchangeable.’ As an opponent to, or complement of, the passion of the blood, the passion of the bones was evidently judged by Lawrence to be somewhat unwieldy — it never again made such an unabashed appearance. Pretty soon, the blood’s passion became the only kind of authentic passion you could have.

In Twilight in Italy, though the destructive mechanization of the world had already clearly been perceived, Lawrence still had something to say for abstractness, intellectuality and cognate non-dark attributes. In 1915 he wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell from Ripley, in Derbyshire: ‘It is a cruel thing to go back to that which one has been.... Altogether the life here is so dark and violent; it all happens in the senses, powerful and rather destructive: no mind or mental consciousness, unintellectual. These men are passionate enough, sensuous, dark — God, how all my boyhood comes back — so violent, so dark, the mind always dark and without understanding, the senses violently active. It makes me sad beyond words.’ It’s not the first time that the word ‘dark’ is used like a comma, but it’s one of the few times — all early — when Lawrence freely admitted the possibility that the dark soul could be as murderous on its own as intellect could. The emphasis was still on keeping a balance, on checking the word against the thing it was supposed to stand for. Lawrence’s later history is the story of darkness being awarded a steadily more automatic virtue, the periodic calls for an equilibrium of forces degenerating into unfathomable proposals about establishing the correct relationship between the components of darkness itself.

Lawrence’s ‘dash’ (his word) to Sardinia produced a book — Sea and Sardinia — which clearly shows his untroubled ability to uproot all the attributes he has just so triumphantly detected in a place, move them on to the next place, and then condemn the first place for either not having them in sufficient strength or never having had them. In Cagliari the men ‘stood about in groups, but without the intimate Italian watchfulness that never leaves a passer-by alone.’ Looks as if the Italians’ dark blood wasn’t dark enough, an impression confirmed by the menacing loins of the Sardinian peasant, ‘a young one with a swift eye and hard cheek and hard, dangerous thighs.... How fascinating it is, after the soft Italians, to see these limbs in their close knee-breeches, so definite, so manly, with the old fierceness in them still. One realises, with horror, that the race of men is almost extinct in Europe ... ’ Plainly the war period has helped sour Lawrence on Europe altogether, but even taking that convulsive time-lag into account, it’s still difficult to square up Sea and Sardinia with Twilight in Italy. The real difference, it appears, is that Italy is connu and therefore sterile, whereas Sardinia is unknown and therefore isn’t. ‘There are unknown, unworked lands where the salt has not lost its savour. But one must have perfected oneself in the great past first.’

Whether in the vegetable market near the start of the book or at the peasants’ procession near the end, Lawrence’s colour sense is at its sumptuous best, and in general Sea and Sardinia is a remarkable piece of visualization. ‘When we came up, the faint shape of land appeared ahead, more transparent than thin pearl. Already Sardinia. Magic are high lands seen from the sea, when they are far, far off, and ghostly translucent like icebergs.’ Beautiful writing, but no lasting pledge. Lawrence was in and out of Sardinia in a hurry, and spent a good half of 1921 sitting in Taormina getting sick of Europe, which can’t be said to exclude Sardinia. Just as Sardinia had it over Italy, somewhere else had it over the whole of Europe. ‘I would like to break out of Europe,’ he wrote to Mary Cannan. ‘It has been like a bad meal of various courses ... and one has got indigestion from every course.’ He was thinking of ‘something more velvety’ — Japan, perhaps, or Siam. The south of Europe was better than the north, but there was no denying that even the south had gone off: ‘I can’t get the little taste of canker out of my mouth,’ he told Catherine Carswell, ‘The people —’ A few days later he was telling E. H. Brewster that they were canaille, canaglia, Schweinhunderei, stink-pots. ‘A curse, a murrain, a pox on this crawling, sniffling, spunkless brood of humanity.’

In his mind Lawrence was already embarked for Ceylon, and in another few days Mabel Dodge — by inviting him to Taos — had made it possible for him to project his mental journey right around the globe. Europe was promptly pronounced to be ‘a dead dog which begins to stink intolerably.’ England (in the same letter, written to S. S. Koteliansky) was declared ‘a dead dog that died of a love disease like syphilis.’ Bad news for Koteliansky, who was living in it at the time. (This letter also featured the Lawrentian pearl about ‘one of those irritating people who have generalized detestations.... So unoriginal.’)

‘I feel I can’t come —’ Lawrence wrote to Brewster in January 1922, ‘that the East is not my destiny.’ Later in the same month, destiny doubled back, and Lawrence decided to go via Ceylon after all. ‘I feel it is my destiny’, he wrote to Mabel Dodge, ‘to go east before coming west.’ Destiny pulled another double-cross in Ceylon, where Lawrence found the velvety Orient inane. ‘The East, the bit I’ve seen,’ he told Mary Cannan, ‘seems silly.’ As he frequently did when off-balance, he thought of England, telling Robert Pratt Barlow that ‘the most living clue of life is in us Englishmen in England, and the great mistake we make is in not uniting together in the strength of this real living clue — religious in the most vital sense — uniting together in England and so carrying the vital spark through ... the responsibility for England, the living England, rests on men like you and me and Cunard — probably even the Prince of Wales ... ’ The Prince of Wales was indirectly responsible for Lawrence’s ‘Elephant’ poem, the most tangible result of the Singhalese sojourn apart from a disillusioning close-up of inscrutable platoons of dark people with dark eyes — ‘the vastness of the blood stream, so dark and hot and from so far off.’

As far as the East went, darkness was a dead loss. Not that the contradiction with many things he’d said before, or with nearly everything he said later, ever slowed him down. The task was to push his mystical system around the planet until it clicked; there was no obligation to explain why it kept going wrong.

Australia was a country Lawrence couldn’t characterize ... ‘the spell of its indifference gets me.’ Mystical content, zero. ‘This is the most democratic place I have ever been in,’ he wrote to Else Jaffe, ‘And the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it ... You never knew anything so nothing, nichts, nullus, niente, as the life here.’ The situations in Kangaroo are mainly imported, and it’s doubtful if Lawrence ever gave Australia much thought after the first few days. Nevertheless the settings in Kangaroo have small trouble in being the most acutely observed and evocative writing about Australia that there has no far been — bearing out my point that Lawrence could reproduce reality with no effort whatsoever. Trollope, Kipling, Conrad, Galsworthy and R. L. Stevenson all visited Australia at one time or another, but if any of them was capable of bringing off a piece of scene-setting like the opening chapter of Kangaroo, he didn’t feel compelled to. The moment he got to Thirroul, Lawrence despatched letters announcing his longing for Europe — the dead dog lived again. The central situation in Kangaroo looks to be about Italian fascism — the Australian variety, which emerged much later, was very different. But Kangaroo is a bit more than a European play with an Australian set-designer. It has an interesting early scene in which Lawrence makes Lovat out to be a prig, reluctant to lend Jack Callcott a book of essays in case it bores him. ‘“I might rise up to it, you know”, said Jack laconically, “if I bring all my mental weight to bear on it.”’ There is a hint, here, that someone might have shaken Lawrence by urging him to layoff the intensity. It’s a rare moment of self-criticism, and almost the moment of self-deprecating humour. Lawrence was perhaps a touch less certain about the aridity of the Australian spirit than he let on.

America. Lorenzo in Taos — it was a giant step. It rapidly became clear that the most dangerous item of local fauna was Mabel Dodge, the hostess who favoured will over feeling — a priority always guaranteed to grate on Lawrence, whose will and feeling were united in Destiny. ‘My heart still turns most readily to Italy,’ he told Mary Cannan — a strong sign of unease — and ‘I even begin to get a bit homesick for England ... ’ A certain sign. At this stage Lawrence had decided that the Indians couldn’t be copied. ‘And after all, if we have to go ahead,’ he wrote to Else Jaffe, ‘we must ourselves go ahead. We can go back and pick up some threads — but these Indians are up against a dead wall, even more than we are: but a different wall.’ And to Catherine Carswell: ‘Pero, son sempre Inglese.’ Even after moving to the Del Monte, putting a helpful seventeen miles between himself and the Mabel-ridden Taos, Lawrence was detecting the same innerlich emptiness in his surroundings as had wasted his time in Australia. Mexico, however, worked differently, and he was soon telling the much-maligned Middleton Murry that if England wanted to lead the world again she would have to pick up a lost trail, and that the end of the trail lay in — Mexico.

The Plumed Serpent is a work of uncanny poetic force which manages to keep some sort of shape despite intense distorting pressures from Lawrence’s now-rampant mysticism. Kate, with her European blood and conscious understanding, is outdistanced by dark-faced silent men with their columns of dark blood and dark, fiery clouds of passionate male tenderness. In addition to the oppressive symbolic scheme, there are moments which lead you to suspect that the author might simply be cracked — as when he suggests that Bolshevists are all born near railways. Yet Chapter V, ‘The Lake’, is one of Lawrence’s supreme stretches of writing. The boatman ‘pulled rhythmically through the frail-rippling, sperm-like water, with a sense of peace. And for the first time Kate felt she had met the mystery of the natives, the strange and mysterious gentleness between a scylla and charibdis of violence: the small poised, perfect body of the bird that waves wings of thunder and wings of fire and night in its flight.’ Frail-rippling — what a writer. The transparent purity of the book’s descriptions is inseparable from its symbolic structure, which is an opposition between principles which no ordinary mortal will ever be able to clarify, since Lawrence himself could only grope towards them with incantatory phrasemaking.

The book’s incandescent set-pieces — the burning of the images, the execution of the traitors, and so on — are spaced apart by impenetrable thickets of unmeaning. ‘But within his own heavy, dark range he had a curious power,’ Kate learns of Cipriano. ‘Almost she could see the black fume of power which he emitted, the dark, heavy vibration of his blood ... she could feel the curious tingling heat of his blood, and the heavy power of the will that lay unemerged in his blood.’ What the Bavarian highlanders and plains Italians had lost, the sons of Qetzalcoatl had gained.

Lawrence learned about Indians during the hiatus between writing chapter ten and chapter eleven of The Plumed Serpent. His mystical conclusions are distributed between the later part of that novel (e.g., the snake in the fire at the heart of the world) and Mornings in Mexico, a travel book of unusual difficulty, even for Lawrence. Certainly he no longer pleads for a balance between the disparate consciousnesses of the white man and the dark man. You can’t, it appears, have it both ways. The most you can hope for is to harbour a little ghost who sees in both directions. Yet ghost or no ghost, Lawrence seems to be trying hard to belong to the Indian way, to the ‘abdomen where the great blood-stream surges in the dark, and surges in its own generic experiences.’ What we seek in sleep, Lawrence says, the Indians perhaps seek actively, ‘the dark blood falling back from the mind, from sight and speech and knowing, back to the great central source where is rest and unspeakable renewal.’ Relieved by some of his most brilliant descriptive passages, the rhetoric is short of totally suffocating, but still fearsomely turgid. It takes the letters to remind us that he could write in an unfevered way during this period. ‘Here the grass is only just moving green out of the sere earth,’ he wrote to Zelia Nuttall, ‘and the hairy, pale mauve anemones that the Indians call owl flowers stand strange and alone among the dead pine needles, under the wintry trees. Extraordinary how the place seems seared with winter: almost cauterized. And so winter-cleaned, from under three feet of snow.’ A cold towel for the reader’s forehead. Green glacier water.

Back in Europe to stay, Lawrence unpacked his mystical machine and set about applying it to the Etruscans. At the same time, and without any disabling sense of contradicting himself, he started rehabilitating Europe, even the long-forsaken north. ‘I am very much inclined to agree’, he wrote to Rolf Gardiner in July 1926, ‘that one must look for real guts and self-responsibility to the Northern peoples. After a winter in Italy — and a while in France — I am a bit bored by the Latins, there is a sort of inner helplessness and lack of courage in them...’ Writing from Lincolnshire to E. H. Brewster, he claimed to have rediscovered ‘a queer, odd sort of potentiality in the people, especially the common people...’ The common English people, back in the running at long last! Whether or not the Prince of Wales qualified wasn’t stated.

As a traveller through ordinary space, Lawrence got back on slanging terms with his repudiated Europe. Baden-Baden, for example, was a Totentanz out of Holbein, ‘old, old people tottering their cautious dance of triumph: wir sind noch hier...’ As a traveller through time and thought, he moved on a grander scale. Etruscan Places is a gentle book, endearingly characteristic in its handy division between Etruscan and Roman and disarmingly uncharacteristic in its emphasis on delicacy and humour: it’s the book of a strong man dying. ‘We have lost the art of living;’ he writes, ‘and in the most important science of all, the science of daily life, the science of behaviour, we are complete ignoramuses.’ The Etruscans weren’t like that. Their art had the ‘natural beauty of proportion of the phallic consciousness, contrasted with the more studied or ecstatic proportion of the mental and spiritual Consciousness we are accustomed to.’ The contrast, as always, is asserted with a degree of confidence which is bound to draw forth a preliminary nod of assent. It remains a fact, however, that this kind of argument has practically nothing to do with post-Renaissance art or pre-Renaissance art or any kind of art, since art is more likely to depend on these two sorts of proportion being in tension than on one getting rid of the other. Lawrence’s binomial schemes were useless for thinking about art, as those of his disciples who tried to employ them went on to prove. Without them, though, we wouldn’t have had his art.

In January 1928, Lawrence told Dorothy Brett that he still intended coming back to the ranch. ‘It’s very lovely,’ he wrote to Lady Glenavy, ‘and I’d be well there.’ But his seven-league boots were worn through, and he was never to get out of Europe alive. We have only to read ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’ or the last part of St. Mawr to realize that his ashes ended up on the right spot. The mountains were a cherished place. They weren’t home, though. Home was at the Source, and the Source — he said it himself — is past comprehension.

(D. H. Lawrence, edited by Stephen Spender, 1972)


Stephen Spender kindly asked me to write this piece for one of those collections of articles by many hands which are supposed to celebrate the many-sided genius of a great writer. Inevitably they end up remaindered, but the opportunity to write at some length can be beneficial for critics grown too accustomed to composing in a thousand-word breath. I thought Lawrence was a greatly gifted writer. I just didn’t think he was a great writer. To put it another way, I thought he could write but didn’t like what he wrote. In this piece I managed to express both halves of the antinomy with sufficient illustrative material to get beyond mere contentiousness and into the realm of reasoned argument. Since one of the principles I eventually developed as a critic was that a limiting judgement of an artist should be offered only after full submission to whatever quality made him remarkable in the first place, I count this piece as an early success. I ought to have ended it, however, with the logical conclusion that because Lawrence commanded a power of poetic evocation far beyond his capacity for prose argument, his most characteristic work should be sought amongst his poetry, where indeed it can be found: his animal poems are among the unignorable ignition points of twentieth-century literature, and no syllabus of modern poetry that leaves them out can be trusted as a guide to what it puts in.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1994)