Oh Walt, you’re a leaky vessel
The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence: The Poems
by Christopher Pollnitz (editor)
Cambridge University Press
2 volumes, 1425pp
Published March, 2013
A good many writers of fiction have also in the course of a busy writing life produced memorable poems, George Meredith for one, Thackeray for another, and several poets have produced single novels that stand as undisputed masterpieces: one thinks immediately of Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Mörike’s novella Mozart’s Little Journey to Prague. But few writers have an equal reputation in both fields: Goethe in Germany, Pushkin in Russia, Hugo in France; in England Hardy, maybe Kipling.
D.H. Lawrence is surely one of the few. In a frenetic publishing life, and during many moves – from England to Germany in 1912, and on to Italy; to Australia, Mexico and the United States in the 1920s, and finally to Spain and the South of France – he worked simultaneously, and always at the highest intensity, on novels, poems, travel books, criticism, reviews. There is no time after he began in 1909 when his notebooks are not filled with poems, and no time in his publishing life when he is not between novels and volumes of short stories, either preparing collections of poems or seeing them through the press.
All of this needs careful tracking. There are multiple typescripts. Postage, because of his travels, forms part of the story, and so does accident. So does interference or confiscation by the customs authorities in the cause of public decency. The fact that he was seldom at hand when the poems were being edited means that many of the publications are corrupt, and they may also differ for another reason. Because of Lawrence’s subjects, and the language he uses, many of the poems were at the last moment expurgated by the publisher or withdrawn, not always after consultation with Lawrence (again the matter of distance) and not always with his consent. All this is thoroughly dealt with in this new Cambridge Edition in two volumes: one for the poems and Lawrence’s prefaces to the various collections (this is the first complete and corrected edition of the poems); a second for the vast critical apparatus such an undertaking involves, the variant versions, notes on each poem and on the publication of each book and its reception – even a note on pounds, shillings and pence.
The result is a triumph. Readers of Lawrence who are curious, as we should be, about how these poems came into being – their provenance and history, how each one is related to Lawrence’s circumstances at the moment of his writing and where it stands in the complex development of his thought – have every reason to be grateful, both to Christopher Pollnitz, the editor, and to the press. This is an immense achievement. The information it provides is easy to deal with but also, if the reader wishes, to ignore. The first volume – chronology, introduction, poems – is a beautiful thing to have in one’s hands. The second, equally beautiful, is a useful and reliable one to have close by on a shelf.
Each lover of Lawrence’s poems will have his own story of first contact with a new and unique consciousness. Lawrence was the first entirely modern poet I was presented with and, except for what I had picked up from films – the accidental influence, in Hollywood movies of the late thirties and early forties, of German Expressionist theatre and décor and, on the soundtrack, German contemporary music – the first modernist sensibility. I was twelve, going on thirteen, in my first months at Brisbane Grammar. As the bright Latin form, we were skilled at the sort of analysis and parsing that in those days was regular drill in Queensland primary schools, so we did nothing in our English class but read. The Lawrence poem in our class anthology was ‘Snake’, and it was like no other poem I had ever heard – I say ‘heard’ because poetry always began for me in those days as a reading aloud. I did with it immediately what I had been encouraged to do with any poem that in some way stuck me, or which puzzled or eluded me. I got its music into my head (prima la musica), and its logic or lack of logic, by learning it off by heart. Like many poems learned by heart at that time, it is still with me.
What mesmerised me was the poem’s rhythms, and the perfect ease with which the lines, long or short, contained each thought and added it to the ‘story’. And the openness of that story as confession. Lawrence’s readiness, with no hint of self-consciousness or posing, to give himself away. I had never struck anything like that either. I took it as a kind of lesson in how I might deal with my own feelings, even the ones I was ashamed of.
In learning the poem by heart, what it had to tell – the experience it embodied but also the rhythms of its discoveries, each one as it arrived – became mine; I had made it mine, along with the voice that expressed it. This might have robbed the thing, through easy familiarity, of its challenges. Instead, odd lines, in my head as they now were, stood out suddenly and confronted me so that I had to confront them.
‘The voices of my education said to me / He must be killed’ – but Lawrence did not want to kill the creature; could the voices of our education be wrong? I had never been presented with that idea. And clearly, in this case, they were wrong. In attacking the snake Lawrence had sinned – but wasn’t the serpent the very embodiment of sin? This serpent, in opposition to what the Bible asserted, was holy, because it was another creature like us, part of a Creation that was also holy – was that it? So the Bible was mistaken on that score also. Everything in the poem seemed to question and reverse what I had till now been told. There was a new sort of pleasure in this, each line as it turned was full of surprise and discovery.
There is a good deal in that schoolboy response that I would stand by still, and re-reading the poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), I experienced again, in their simple-seeming but complex statements, line after line, the same discomfort and release of that twelve-year-old. But what strikes me now is how carefully prepared I had been to meet this challenge by all those long afternoons with our State School Readers; through the three weeks we had spent on the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the Queensland School Reader in Grade Seven, and our explorations, in Grade Six, in the story of Pluto and Persephone (along with Lord Leighton’s vivid illustration), of the pagan underworld Lawrence was evoking and inviting me, if I was daring enough, to recognise as my world also and share:
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he had seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so I had missed my chance with one of the lords of Life.
Lawrence’s move – between September 1920, when he writes the first full poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, and the completion of the manuscript in February 1923 – out of a strictly human and personal world into the world of the creatures, is an extraordinary liberation. These winged, beaked, taloned creatures, these slow-moving earth-creatures with carapace shells, and fish, bats, snakes, mosquitos – nature’s fantastic work of invention and play; these infinite variations on a life force that responds, with elegance and surprise and every condition of large and small, of quick and slow, in designs of so much surprise and utility and grace, call up in Lawrence a similar spirit of playful and inventive making. In his own spirit of fantasy, and with the liveliest humour and wit, he becomes a psalmist and celebrant of the animist creed – lyric, parodic, lightly critical; a master of reflective observation; an imitator of nature’s own utilitarian caprice.
No more brooding on whether or not he is loved. No more stewing over the smallness of human needs and views, or the way ‘mind’ perverts and desecrates the purities of sensation. The creatures are above or beyond all that. Their world is all instinct and immediacy, but clean, and since they know nothing of the moralities, guiltless. The joy Lawrence takes in their otherness is childlike, as Blake’s was; of a kind where innocence is a state beyond experience, but where one needs to come through experience to reach it. He never puts a foot wrong. Rhythm and cadence both follow and preclude sense, and contain and fix it. Entering into becomes a form of reflection, but also of self-reflection, each encounter producing its own tone and truth:
When did you start your tricks,
… Are you one too many for me
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?
Your life a sluice of sensation along your sides
… joie de vivre, and fear, and food,
All without love.
To have the element under you like a lover
I didn’t know his God.
I didn’t know his God.
Which is perhaps the last admission that life has to wring out of us.
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight.
In China the bat is symbol of happiness.
Not for me!
Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
No bigger than my thumb-nail,
All animate creation on your shoulder,
Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.
Alas, the spear is through the side of his isolation.
His adolescence saw him crucified into sex,
Damned, in the long crucifixion of desire, to seek
His consummation beyond himself …
Doomed to make an intolerable fool of himself
In his effort toward completion again.
And so behold him following the tail
Of that mud-hovel of his slowly rambling spouse.
‘Elle et Lui’
Still, gallant, irascible, crooked-legged reptile,
We ought to look the other way.
Lawrence’s work on Birds, Beasts and Flowers, from the first free-verse notes of July 1920, through the Tortoise poems of September and ‘Snake’ in 1921, to the ‘new, “complete” MS’ of February 1923, coincided with his various attempts to produce the essay on Walt Whitman that was to form the final chapter of his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). It was because Whitman was so important to him that the essay gave him so much trouble, and it is in Lawrence’s attempts to get at the ‘quick’ of Whitman’s practice – what he sees as the origin and process, physical and psycho-sexual, of it – that we see what Lawrence was aiming at in his own: the process, but also, in moral and aesthetic terms (which increasingly for Lawrence became one), its justification.
The first version from 1918 has not survived, and so far as we know, no one ever saw it. It was too controversial, perhaps, in its openness about the sensual life. The 1919 version immediately adopts a contradictory stance:
Whitman is the last and greatest of the Americans. He is the fulfilment of the great old truth. But any truth, the moment it is fulfilled, accomplished, becomes ipso facto a lie, a deadly limitation of truth … In Whitman lies the greatest of all modern truths. And yet some really thoughtful men, in Europe at least, insist even today that he is the greatest of modern humbugs, the arch humbug. A great truth – or a great lie – which? A great prophet, or a great swindle.
Lawrence has no doubts about the quality and significance of Whitman’s verse. ‘The primal soul,’ he tells us,
utters itself in strange pulsations, gushes and strokes of sound. At his best Whitman gives these throbs naked and vibrating as they emerge from the quick. They follow, pulse after pulse, line after line, each one new and unforeseeable. They are lambent. They are life itself. But in the whole, the whole soul speaks at once, sensual impulse instant with spiritual impulse, and the mind serving, giving pure attention.
This is also, we may assume, how Lawrence hopes that his own verse, at its best, may work. It is a matter of the relationship between the lower or sensual body and the mind, with the mind serving, and in it here that he sees Whitman, in that he chooses finally the way of ‘sensual negation’, failing to take ‘the next step’. The language in which he describes Whitman’s failure to complete the process is drawn from Fantasia of the Unconscious, a book already completed but not to be published until October 1922.
Whitman, singing of the mystery of touch, tells us of the process. He tells of the mystery of the touch of the hands and fingers, those living tendrils of the upper spiritual centres, upon the lower body. But the touch of the hands is only the beginning of a great involved process. Not only the fingers reap the deep forces, but the mouth and tongue in kissing and so on … All this Whitman minutely and continually describes. It is the transferring to the upper centres, the thorasic and cervical ganglia, of the control of the deep lumbar and sacral ganglia, it is the transferring to the upper sympathetic centres, breast, hands, mouth, face, of the dark vital secrets of the lower self. The lower sacral centres are explored and known by the upper self.
It is this transferring of everything into the upper self and the ‘mental consciousness’ that makes Whitman, for Lawrence, ‘a shattering half-truth, a devastating half-lie’.
Whitman also falls short in another respect. ‘Every soul,’ Lawrence insists, ‘before it can be free, and whole in itself, spontaneously blossom[ing] from itself, must know this accession into Allness, into infinitude. Thus far Whitman is a great prophet. And he shows us the process of oneing; he is a true prophet.’ The falseness creeps in when we accept this ‘oneing’ as a goal, and not as a process, a means to a different end, which in Lawrence’s terms, as he has been working towards it in Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) – in ‘New Heaven and Earth’ and ‘Manifest’ and ‘Wedlock’ – is ‘the human soul’s integral singleness’:
And yet all the while you are you, you are not me.
And I am I, I am never you.
How awfully distinct and far off from each other’s being we are.
Yet I am glad.
I am glad there is always you beyond my scope.
What Lawrence rejects in Whitman is the insistence on ‘merging’, on ‘fusion’. Lawrence himself aims at something different. He calls it a ‘delicately adjusted polarity’.
There is a final polarisation, a final current of vital being impossible(e) between man and woman. Whitman found this empirically. Empirically he found that the last current of vital polarisation goes between man and man. Whitman is the first in modern life, truly, from sheer empirical necessity, to reassert this truth … It is his most wistful theme – the love of comrades – manly love … The vast mysterious power of sexual love and of marriage is not for Whitman … He believes in fusion. Not fusion, but delicately adjusted polarity is life. Fusion is death.
Still, there is, beyond all this, Whitman’s verse. There, at its best, ‘the whole soul follows its own free, spontaneous, inexplicable course, the contractions and pulsations dictated from nowhere save from the quick itself … There is nothing measured or mechanical. This is the greatest poetry.’
But even this statement of the case is not satisfactory and in 1921-22 Lawrence sets out to resolve his own contradictory views in yet another version. ‘Whitman,’ he begins, ‘is the last and greatest of the Americans. One of the greatest poets in the world, in him an element of falsity troubles us still. Something is wrong; we cannot be quite at ease with his greatness. Let us get over our quarrel with him first.’ He then goes on to make a distinction between
all the transcendentalists, including Whitman, and men like Balzac and Dickens, Tolstoy and Hardy, who still act direct from passional motives and non inversely, from mental provocations. But the aesthetes and symbolists, from Baudelaire and Maeterlick, and Oscar Wilde onwards, and nearly all the later Russian and French and English novelists, set up their reactions in the mind and reflect them by a secondary process down on the body. It is the madness of the world today. Europe and America are all alike, all the nations self-consciously provoking their passional reactions from the mind, and nothing spontaneous.
The last part of this version then moves into the murky area of mystical fascism. Whitman, Lawrence tells us,
shows us the last step of the old great way. But he does not show us the first step of the new. His great Democracy is to be established upon the love of comrades. Well and good. But in what direction shall this love flow? More en masse? As a matter of fact the love of comrades is always a love between a leader and a follower filled with ‘the joy of liege adherence’.
What Lawrence ends up saluting, in a move away from ‘en masse democracy’ to ‘the grand culmination of soul-chosen leaders’, is ‘the final leader … the sacred tyrannus. This is the true democracy.’ ‘Onward,’ he urges, ‘always following the leader, who when he looks back has a flame of love in his face, but a still brighter flame of purpose. This is the true democracy.’
Whitman in this is largely forgotten. The best Lawrence can do is to repeat his earlier endorsement:
Whitman. The last of the very great poets. And the ultimate. How lovely a poet he is. His verse at its best spontaneous like a bird. For a bird doesn’t rhyme or scan – the miracle of spontaneity. The whole soul speaks at once, in a naked spontaneity so unutterably lovely, so far beyond rhyme and scansion.
Then, in November 1922, a new version in an entirely different style: demotic, staccato, ‘Modernist’; all capitals, expletives and ironic or dismissive side-swipes; a parody of Whitman’s own ‘stridency’ and splenetic exuberance:
Post mortem effects?
But what of Walt Whitman?
The ‘good grey poet’
Was he a ghost, with all his physicality?
The good grey poet
Post mortem effects. Ghosts.
A certain ghoulishness. A certain horrible potage of human parts. A certain stridency and portentousness. A luridness about his beatitudes…
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE
CHUFF! CHUFF! CHUFF!
Reminds me of a steam engine. A locomotive …
Oh Walter, Walter, what have you done with it? What have you done with yourself? With your individual self? For it sounds as if it had all leaked out of you when you made water, leaked into the universe when you peed. Oh Walt, you’re a leaky vessel…
And so on, via a piece of scurrilous gossip about Whitman in old age dancing naked in his yard and showing himself off in an excited state to schoolgirls, to
Only we know this much. Death is not the goal. And Love, and merging are now only part of the death process. Comradeship – part of the death process. The new Democracy – the brink of death. One identity – death itself.
We have died, and we are still disintegrating.
But IT is finished.
– before the whole essay degenerates into incoherent rambling about Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Barely a word in this version about Whitman the poet. Only Whitman, the leaky vessel, as thinker and man.
The 1923 version, the one that at last makes it all the way to publication as the final chapter of Studies in Classic American Literature, takes up the 1922 version and uses it – expurgated of its scurrilous slander and a few turns of phrase that would at the time have been seen as ‘indecent’ – as far as ‘But IT is finished. Consumatum est.’ It then drops its aggressive, expletive tone and embarks on something more sober and considered, more warmly personal:
Whitman, the great poet, has meant much to me. Whitman the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere improvisers.
He recognises Whitman as ‘the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something “superior” and “above” the flesh’.
‘There,’ he said to the soul, ‘stay there! Stay there. Stay in the flesh. Stay in the limbs and legs and in the belly. Stay in the breast and womb and phallus. Stay there, o soul, where you belong.’
There is praise too for Whitman’s enunciation of ‘a morality of actual living, not of salvation’:
The soul is not to put up defences round herself. She is not to withdraw inwardly, in mystical ecstasies, she is not to cry to some God beyond, for salvation. She is to go down the open road, as the road opens into the unknown, keeping company with those whose soul draws them near to her, accomplishing nothing save the journey …
The Open Road. The great home of the soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above’, not even ‘within’. The soul is neither ‘above’ nor ‘within’. It is a wayfarer down the open road … The soul is herself when she is going on foot down the open road.
He even forgives Whitman at this point his great error, of mistaking ‘sympathy’ for Jesus’ Love or St Paul’s Charity. But he has come now to a more doctrinaire vision of what art itself is, what poetry is, that will determine from this point his own life as a poet:
The function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral … But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. Changes the blood rather than the mind, changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.
This looks ahead to the various prefaces Lawrence would write, between Christmas 1928 and April 1929, to Pansies (1929) – Pensées – the second of which tells us:
Each little piece is a thought: not an idea, or an opinion, or a didactic statement, but a true thought, which comes as much from the heart and genitals as from the head … Live and let live, and each pansy will tip you its separate wink.
Between 1923 and November 17, 1928, when Pansies was begun, Lawrence was continually on the move, in Mexico, England, France, Italy; at work preparing (‘what a sweat’), and in the case of the earlier poems rewriting, his Collected Poems (1928). ‘I do bits of things,’ he writes on November 14, 1927, ‘– darn my underclothes, try to type up poems.’
The Pansies, written at Bandol on the French Riviera between November 17, 1928, and March 10, 1929, and the ‘stinging pansies’ or Nettles (1930), which he began in February 1929 and took up again between April 17 and June 18 in Mallorca, start out as insights into the quick of things – sensory moments, the lives of elephants in a circus – but end up in disgruntlement and general contempt for ‘the dirty drab world’: its hypocrisy, cowardice, snobbery, money-grubbing; its blindness and vanity – ‘the whole damn swindle’. Then, on October 10, 1929, just five months before his death, he writes the first poem in the Last Poems (1932) notebook, ‘The Greeks are coming’, and we might recall what he had written of Whitman: ‘Whitman would not have been the great poet he is if he had not taken the last step and looked over into Death.’
There are hints, towards the end of the Nettles notebook of Lawrence’s last great poems; in ‘Butterfly’(I) and (II), in ‘The State of Grace’, ‘Glory of Darkness’ (I), which is in fact an early version of ‘Bavarian Gentians’, and ‘Ship of Death’:
Blue and dark
the Bavarian Gentians, tall ones
make a magnificent dark-blue gloom
in the sunny room …
How deep I have gone
in your marvellous dark-blue godhead
How deep, how deep, how happy
How happy to sink my soul
in the blue dark gloom
of gentian here in the sunny room!
‘Glory of Darkness’ (I)
But it is Glory of Darkness (III) that takes the last step and finds its way back to the Greeks, to the old dark underworld of ‘Snake’:
Blue and dark
Oh Bavarian gentians, tall ones …
They have added blueness to blueness, until
it is dark beauty, it is dark
and the door is open
to the depths
It is so blue, it is so dark
in the dark doorway
and the door is open
Oh I know –
Persephone has just gone back
down the thickening thickening gloom
of dark blue gentians
to her bridegroom
in the dark …
‘Glory of Darkness’ (III)
And with the simplicity, the spontaneity of this, what he called, in Whitman’s case, its ‘throbs and pulses’, Lawrence finds his way to the last poems on which his own greatness rests.
God is older than the sun and moon
and the eye cannot behold him
nor voice describe him.
But a naked man, a stranger, leaned on the gate
with his cloak over his arm waiting to be asked in.
So I called him: Come in, if you will –
He came in slowly, and sat down by the hearth.
I said to him: And what is your name? –
He looked at me without answer, but such a loveliness
entered me, I smiled to myself, saying: he is God!
So he said: Hermes!
God is older than the sun and moon
and the eye cannot behold him
nor the voice describe him:
and still, this is the god Hermes, sitting by my hearth.
Lawrence is a difficult poet to come to terms with; it is easy to quarrel with him as he quarrelled with Whitman. He is various, contradictory, irascible, over-insistent; he too easily takes offence and insists again. It is easy, as well, to be put off by his preachiness. He begins in the tone of a non-conformist bible-banger, develops his own religion and bangs away at that. He is most easy with his soul when he embraces the dark gods and goes quietly underground, and best of all when he stops protesting and lets the world in, in the form of a snake, a baby tortoise, the smoking dark blue of gentians, or in the form of the psychopomp Hermes, and breathes easy again. Lets the breath and the energy of its natural rhythms create the poem.
As he puts it in the Note to Collected Poems of May 12, 1928, excusing his rewriting of the early poems, ‘A young man is afraid of his demon, and puts his hand over his demon’s mouth and speaks for him. And the things the young man says are rarely poetry. So I have tried to let the demon say his say.’
Lawrence makes it difficult for the reader, as well as for himself, by speaking up too soon; by insisting, performing, working out his questions, his quarrels, in public. We too, in seeking out the best in him, have to choose between the ‘demon’ and the man. We should be grateful to these two volumes from the Cambridge Press, and to its editor, for making this easier than it might otherwise be in the muddle of so much material; the by-product of so much passionate energy and engagement, and of a life that was seldom orderly or still.
At his best, Lawrence is one of the finest poets in the world. There is no poet, at his best, who gets closer to what he calls the ‘quick’ of things, or brings us closer with him; and when he is at ease with his own spirit, his own extraordinary energy, his rare demon, there is no poet we find it so easy to love. It is all here in these two hefty volumes: the muddle, but also the magic of the man’s greatness; the pathos, the wonderful coincidence of language and feeling; a sensibility almost too actively aware of the tension between singularity and oneness that is at the heart of being.
Peter Howarth, ‘Holy Apple Pie’, The London Review of Books, (22 May 2014).