D.H. Lawrence seems to me so great a novelist that only the “seems to me” feels wrong there — as if I were offering my opinion that the Rio Grande is a river. Lawrence’s best novels are passionately hewn from the stuff of actual life, more so than any of their Modernist counterparts except Ulysses. At the same time, they remain monuments of grand ambition: the Brangwen sisters in The Rainbow and Women in Love, as well as Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, have the marmoreal heft of allegorical figures. But they’re not allegories. While the Big Themes of Class and Sex and Nature flow all around them, Lawrence’s characters endure as particular people.
In his essays, he sculpts a singular figure from his own voice. Righteous indignation courses forever beneath that voice and often on its surface. Here was the son of a collier who, at twenty-nine, had written one of the greatest novels of the century and been called to court to hear one peer of the realm order his novel burned as another titled fool, Lawrence’s own publisher, Sir Algernon Methuen, nearly wept for having allowed such smut to issue from the hallowed offices of Methuen & Co. Is it any wonder that Lawrence’s method of argument when he went on to write essays — Studies in Classic American Literature remains the most essential book here — exhibits all the subtlety of a rhinoceros trampling a typewriter?
But Lawrence himself recognizes and exploits the potential for comedy in his own rage. Take the moment in the essay on Benjamin Franklin when he makes a whole paragraph from the sentence “I do not like him.” Or take the poem “Bibbles” in which he morphs an intractable dog he owned in New Mexico into Walt Whitman.
But the poems. The poems. Too often in his Collected, my admiration for Lawrence hits a wall. The thudding phrasal lines, the bardic gustiness, the refrains so heavy that opening the book you almost expect a ten page variation on “Peas Porridge Hot.” George Orwell was right about the shortcomings of Lawrence’s rhetoric, the stance that occasioned so many of Lawrence’s poems: “What he is demanding is a movement away from our mechanized civilisation, which is not going to happen.” But the problem doesn’t come when Lawrence makes impractical or bombastic conclusions. It comes when his attempts at prophecy fall to the register of the radio speech. Here’s the opening of “City-Life,” a characteristic poem from Lawrence’s mature period:
When I am in a great city, I know that I despair.
I know there is no hope for us, death waits, it is useless to care.
For oh the poor people, that are flesh of my flesh,
I, that am flesh of their flesh,
when I see the iron hooked into their faces
their poor, their fearful faces
I scream in my soul.
The nightmarish “iron hooked into their faces” certainly unsettles the rhetoric, but that moment resolves into a tidy metaphor at the end when the people are revealed as “hooked fishes of the factory world.” The poet’s cry of despair and even his statements about modern society may have truth, but they lack roundness, dimension. There’s nowhere for a reader’s mind to go if she believes, for example, that it may not be “useless to care.” In as few words, Baudelaire or Kafka would make from similar scenes much fuller images — images which happen to be more horrifying than Lawrence’s because they’re stranger, deeper. These writers were inspired by anger at the ages in which they lived, sure, but they also loved modernity: when they looked, for example, at urban crowds, they found themselves at the same moment repulsed and fascinated. Lawrence, at least in his poems, just doesn’t have their depth of imagination.
Halfway through writing this, I return to those famous pieces from Lawrence’s later period, “Snake” and “The Ship of Death,” and they impress me all over again. There are others, too: “Humming-Bird” and “Almond Blossom” must equal any of the anthology chestnuts. And yet, reading even this stronger and subtler work, I need to suspend my disbelief a little too willfully. Lawrence’s poems about the non-human world too often suggest escapism, a retreat into his own sensitivity: there’s the praise of “delicate mother Kangaroo” and the earnest apostrophe to a baby tortoise, comparing him to Odysseus. Or else the poems fail for the simple reason that, while they contain stunning passages, they go on three times too long.
I want to be wrong about these poems, want to open Lawrence’s Collected again and find that, until that very moment, the poems had been reading me, underlining all my shortcomings. This wish comes from genuine admiration, reverence even. I’m convinced that in his prose Lawrence persists not only as a great writer but a beautiful writer, with no need for editorialized sentiment. He knows he’s bigger than the officious poltroons because he’s smaller than them: through his creaturely hunting and gathering of details, he glimpses sublime, inhuman splendor and terror.
Such a sensibility, at once fatalistic and tender, finds a source in Lawrence and runs throughout British poetry, from Ted Hughes to Alice Oswald (maybe the best British poet living). You can glimpse it too in the prose of Geoff Dyer, who has written a wonderful, frenetic book about Lawrence. You can find it even in Larkin — consider such poems as “Solar” and “How Distant.” There’s too little of this sensibility in American poetry, this fusion of disabused steeliness and utter wonder. Maybe there’s too little everywhere.