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The best books on D H Lawrence

recommended by Catherine Brown

Although less flamboyantly experimental than his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, D H Lawrence was a modernist, says literary scholar Catherine Brown. Here, she selects five books that make the case for this most contradictory, and often divisive, of writers—a man whose fictions and ‘philosophicalish’ works were by turns brilliant and bewildering, sublime and ridiculous

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Catherine Brown

Catherine Brown is head of the English faculty at New College of the Humanities in London. She has previously taught at the universities of Cambridge, Greenwich and Oxford. She co-edited The Reception of George Eliot in Europe, and written The Art of Comparison: How Novels and Critics Compare. She is also vice-president of the D H Lawrence Society.

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Catherine Brown

Catherine Brown is head of the English faculty at New College of the Humanities in London. She has previously taught at the universities of Cambridge, Greenwich and Oxford. She co-edited The Reception of George Eliot in Europe, and written The Art of Comparison: How Novels and Critics Compare. She is also vice-president of the D H Lawrence Society.

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How should we read D H Lawrence?

It is important to throw out as much of the past as possible. If you are influenced by the 1960s valorisation of Lawrence, or if you are influenced by the 1970s second-wave feminist criticism of Lawrence, or if you have the popular perception of Lawrence as a ‘Priest of Love’ and the writer of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then I would suggest trying to forget that.

Come to Lawrence—or back to him—with an entirely open mind. Bear in mind that he wrote in a wide range of genres. It would be possible to present many different—even mutually contradictory—versions of Lawrence. If there is one aspect of him that you do not like, you might be able to find others that you do.

Another tip is not to expect consistency. Lawrence does contradict himself, and is fully aware of this. He has as much insouciance and bravura about it as had Walt Whitman, who said: ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself’.

Always allow for the possibility that you simply do not like him. He is perhaps more than some of his contemporaries a matter of taste. Lawrence himself said: ‘If I try to write down what I see—why not? If a publisher likes to print the book—all right. And if anybody wants to read it, let him. But why anybody should read one single word if he doesn’t want to, I don’t see. Unless of course he is a critic who needs to scribble a dollar’s worth of words, no matter how’.

“Lawrence’s writings are very intimately bound up with his life”

But despite its variety and occasional self-contradictoriness at the level of ideas, I would suggest that Lawrence’s writing does display a unity. When he wrote a poem, or a work of literary criticism, a novel or short story, or an essay on psychoanalysis, it formed part of the same project: to work out what life is and how we ought to live it.

Lawrence’s writings are very intimately bound up with his life, because he lived through writing. His biography is therefore less separable from his works than is true of other writers such as T S Eliot, who theorised the proper distance between a poet’s personality and his work.

When you learn something of Lawrence’s life, you quickly apprehend that he could be sharply and even destructively critical of his friends. You can’t but ask yourself what he would have made of you, had you got to know him. I like to think that I would have had a somewhat distanced but friendly relationship with him, as had women such as Constance Garnett, Cynthia Asquith, or Catherine Carswell—rather than the closer and sometimes ugly relationships he had with Jessie Chambers and Ottoline Morrell.

Why should we read Lawrence?

Because he is a genius. One of the great dangers in reading Lawrence is to read him as though he were a realist. His prose, particularly in his novels, is sufficiently close to that of 19th-century realist fiction that one can be misled into reading it as though it were that, and judging it by those standards. By those standards one would judge that his characters—I am thinking in particular of the later sections of The Rainbow and Women in Love—are unrealistic, that he has an appalling style, and that he repeats himself.

Yet this would be a mistake. He was attempting something so ambitious in his response to life that he found language, as commonly used, insufficient. Although less flamboyantly experimental than contemporaries such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, he too disrupted realist language and denotation. It is in this sense that he is a modernist.

“In academia, his star is gently on the rise, and has been for the last ten or twenty years”

In one sense, Lawrence’s star has fallen, because he is not someone about whom the young people of today know much. He has more or less dropped out of school syllabi, except for the odd short story and the odd poem such as ‘Snake’.

But in academia, his star is gently on the rise, and has been for the last ten or twenty years. There is a growing appreciation of aspects of Lawrence that speak to the present, and a willingness to be open to his subtleties and his self-contradictions, which the passionate and over-simplistic responses of the past were not.

You suggested that Lawrence’s biography is closely related to his writing. What led him to write Twilight in Italy?

Twilight in Italy is a book of travel writing that he undertook out of urgent financial necessity. He eloped with Frieda von Richthofen, the wife of his former university professor. And, although she was an aristocrat by birth, she was not personally wealthy.

Lawrence had been a schoolteacher for a few years in Croydon, but did not have much money either. So he needed to write fast. He wrote travel writing about the landscapes that he and his wife-to-be were passing through. He and Frieda had initially met up in Bavaria, and then in 1912 crossed the Alps into Italy, where they settled for some months.

Twilight in Italy is divided into sections. The first section is about Bavaria and the High Alps, whilst the later sections are about Italy. There are a number of stunning essays. In particular, I would single out ‘The Crucifix Across the Mountains’ and ‘The Spinner and the Monks’.

What role do the Alps play in these essays, and in Lawrence’s thought more generally?

Lawrence came to the Alps at a wonderful time—on his first trip abroad. As a working class Nottinghamshire lad, the son of a miner, he had not previously had any opportunities to travel. He had not seen landscapes other than his native ones.

By the time he first time he broke out of England, he was already an adult. He had his aesthetic and spiritual faculties already in adult mode when he saw the Alps.

He experienced a passionate and immediate response which then affected his thinking for the rest of his life. He was capable, along with a subset of the population at large, of mountain ecstasy: of looking at mountains, or standing on top of a mountain, and experiencing extreme spiritual elevation and ecstasy.

Although he felt mountain ecstasy, he also partly distrusted it, and wondered how one could descend from it. If you are not to die on top of a mountain, how on earth are you going to come down?

Is there a religious element to the ecstasy he writes about?

In the loose sense. This is one of the aspects of Lawrence that I find speaks particularly today—his attitude to religion.

In his own time, most people in England were Church of England-going or chapel-going. Lawrence himself was brought up as a chapel-goer.

Now, of course, this is no longer the case. And yet, I suspect that only a small minority of the English are confident intellectual atheists and materialists.

Therefore, I think that many people today are in a similar position to that of Lawrence. They cannot accept the dogma of any established religion, and nor can they accept a material and meaningless universe. This means that we have to do what Lawrence did, and what he told us we must do, which is to work it out for ourselves.

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He has a wonderful essay called ‘On Being Religious’, which is collected in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine. In this essay, he has a metaphor of God as a shifter who was accessible through Jesus Christ for many centuries. You truly did reach God through Christ. But now God has got bored of that and has moved on in the universe. So people who are trying to access him through Christianity no longer find that they can.

That is a very moving description of many people’s relationship to Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries. They sense that God is, but they can’t quite come into relationship with him through any dogmatic or conventional Christianity.

Lawrence said that Christ himself told us what to do when this would happen. When he was taken away through the Ascension, one of the last things he did was to give people the Holy Spirit. He said that the Holy Spirit would guide you.

That, says Lawrence, remains the case. What we have to do is to hear the Holy Spirit barking like a dog in the wilderness and follow. To follow and hunt down the Holy Spirit is God’s own great fun. And so Lawrence presents the religious quest as an exhilarating experience.

“Lawrence presents the religious quest as an exhilarating experience”

In ‘The Crucifix Across the Mountains’, he describes how the crucifixes he saw as he walked changed from those that depicted stoic Bavarian peasant-Christs on the German side, to increasingly Renaissance, ornate, physically-pained, melodramatic and self-pitying Christs on the Italian side. He much preferred the former to the latter.

This is the beginning of a very intense dialogue that Lawrence conducted throughout his life between himself and Christ. He saw himself as a latter-day Christ, as a rival and an alternative, and as someone who was in a position to advise Christ and correct him.

His extraordinary late short story ‘The Man Who Died’—otherwise known as ‘The Escaped Cock’—imagines Christ being resurrected in the flesh. He stays on earth and lives the life that he did not live before. He realises that he had overdone it, and had given too much.

This is partly a self-reproach on Lawrence’s part as he neared death. He thought that he had given too much of himself to people. It is also an example of his Nietzsche-inflected criticism of Christ.

In ‘The Return Journey’, Lawrence writes that it is ‘the horrible, desolating harshness of the advance of the industrial world upon the world of nature, that is so painful’. Can Twilight in Italy be read as a proto-environmentalist work?

Yes, as can many of his writings. In Twilight in Italy, we find an early example of his binary thinking. There are binaries throughout his thought. One of them is north/south. In Women in Love, he takes this to an extreme by opposing the Arctic and the African. In Twilight in Italy, it is merely northern and southern Europe. The north he associates with industrialisation, and the south with nature.

One of the things that he laments in Twilight in Italy is the encroachment of the north upon the south. He thought that the Italians were being turned into northerners. He was aware that it was in the north of Italy that industrialisation was most advanced, in part by virtue of its proximity to northern Europe.

He was concerned with this for what one would today call environmental reasons. In a way, environment degradation was more visible in Lawrence’s day by virtue of the physical blackness of soot. By contrast, many greenhouse gases today are simply not apparent to the eye.

But in a wider sense, he was also concerned with the effect that industrialisation has on man. These concerns are linked by the understanding that Lawrence had about man’s position in relation to the non-human living world. This understanding is very radical, and speaks loudly to modern eco-critical concerns today.

The Alps also play an important role in Women in Love. Could you talk us through the ending of that novel?

The first thing to note is how extraordinary it is that the Alps appear in this novel, given that it appears to be set during the First World War. At the end of the novel, the characters travel from rural Nottinghamshire to the Tyrol. Yet Tyrol was Austrian, and Britain was at war with Austria. Even getting there would have involved crossing the war fields of western Europe.

That is an oddity that underlies the novel’s strange relationship to the First World War. The war is present and implicit, but it is not there at the level of plot. The bitterness of the vision of the novel—which he called his ‘apocalypse’—is implicit in its treatment of the Alps which, although not enemy territory, are ultimately destructive.

“Gerald commits an unplanned and only semi-voluntary suicide”

Some characters have alpine ecstasies, but they are the ones who are unsuccessful. The characters who are successful are the ones that realise, after spending some time in the Alps, that they have to get away from the unreality of the snow, the uplift, the perfection. They have to descend into the land of the olive trees and lemons and oranges. They have to escape into Italy.

That is Lawrence’s persistent sense of the mountains: it is great to be there, but also important to work out that you have got an escape route, and that you use it.

It ends disastrously for Gerald.

It does. Lawrence’s description of Gerald’s death is one of his most moving pieces of Lawrence’s writing. Gerald commits an unplanned and only semi-voluntary suicide. He fights with his lover Gudrun and partially strangles her, before giving up on the attempt. Then he simply stumbles away. Darkness falls, and he is a man on top of an Alp without any concern about returning home. At a certain point, he slips and falls. And that is it. It is a beautiful description: he falls into deep snow—it is a very gentle fall—and then he dies.

You mentioned that Lawrence’s modernism is registered in a different way to that of many of his contemporaries. Could you tell us about the style of Women in Love?

Women in Love veers in a way that one has to recognise—otherwise one will write it off as badly written—between what is fairly traditional realist prose, and Lawrence’s own brand of modernism.

For example, the character of Birkin in society is rather self-conscious, diffident and ironic. When he is described making polite conversation at a wedding, we are in the territory of realist fiction.

And then, at other times, when he is interacting with his lover Ursula, his characterisation becomes wholly different.

Lawrence wrote about this and said that he wanted to get away from ‘the old stable ego of the character’. He presents people as sites of conflicting forces, rather than as autonomous self-directed entities. This is central to his understanding of who we are. We are not merely that which is comprehended by our own consciousness or will, or indicated by the word ‘personality’.

“He felt that there was a benefit in knowing that it is important at times to live unconsciously, instinctively, intuitively”

He has an extraordinary—and apparently self-contradictory—term: blood-consciousness. Blood and consciousness would appear to be opposites, but he attributes to blood a kind of consciousness; to represent a character as having this is to break beyond realism.

Lawrence also breaks out into prose in which he continuously repeats words and phrases. He grasps at the same word in slightly different ways to try and make it mean something different, something true to the world and to his own philosophical-cum-spiritual interpretation of it.

Is ‘blood-consciousness’ something that lies beyond language, and if so, is there something paradoxical in the attempt to portray it?

Yes. There is always a sense of compromise with failure in Lawrence. His ambition is limitless and his attempts cannot match his ambitions. This includes describing that which is unconscious in language. There is an obvious paradox here, of which he was aware.

But he also felt that there was a benefit in knowing that it is important at times to live unconsciously, instinctively, intuitively. Unless consciousness has actually wrapped itself around that, then it will not be able to abnegate control. That is what he wanted the mind to do. So, through the medium of words, he hoped to lead us to live differently.

Would you say that there is thereby an ethical dimension to his writing?

Perhaps, although Lawrence rejected ethics as conventionally understood. He was strongly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of living ‘beyond good and evil’.

In his essay ‘Morality and the Novel’, he redefined morality in terms of fidelity to being that which one profoundly is, which will change. It is a question of maintaining the ‘forever trembling and changing balance between me and my circumambient universe’. It is not trying to fix anything, or acting according to a fixed will. It is not killing somebody because they are German and you are English and you have been told to do so because there is war, but because you are angry with the man and you want to kill him.

It is worth pointing out that Lawrence was not a pacifist, but he absolutely abhorred the non-passional, purely willed, mechanical mass-murder of the First World War.

Olive Moore, one of Lawrence’s contemporaries, judged that the only convincing sex scenes in his writing are those between men. Do you think that is true of Women in Love?

No, I think there are other convincing sex scenes. These would have to include the sex between Ursula and Birkin in the High Alps, which is anal sex. This is one of about three descriptions of anal sex in Lawrence’s fiction; there are others in The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

I also think that the lust between Gerald and the Pussum in the Pompadour is wonderfully done. Unlike the other examples of sex and sexual attraction in Women in Love, this is common or garden variety lust. It is just what happens when a strikingly good-looking, glistening young man enters a rather seedy bohemian bar in central London, and sees a slightly loose, extremely attractive young woman. Their eyes meet, and they just know that somehow or other that evening they are going to have to fix it so that they have sex with each other. And they do.

But for the most part, Lawrence does not set out to describe straightforward lust. For him, sex has all kinds of dimensions and burdens. We enter different dimensions when sexual experience takes place. And I stress ‘sexual experience’ rather than sex itself, because penetrative sex is only a fraction of what he describes.

“Part of the lack of clarity comes from his notoriously ambiguous use of the word ‘loins’”

One of the most extraordinary—and to many people, bewildering—sex scenes in Women in Love occurs in the chapter called ‘Excurse’. It is very unclear what is actually happening. Part of the lack of clarity comes from his notoriously ambiguous use of the word ‘loins’.

Rupert and Ursula have gone for a day trip to Southwell. Significantly, they have not visited the Minster, but go straight to an inn. In a private room in this inn, they have an experience which seems to involve her kneeling in front of him and holding the backs of his knees and pressing herself to him. They both have a transcendent and fusing experience. It is not having sex; that happens later in Sherwood Forest, but that is the lesser experience.

The point is that you have to stop being literal when thinking about Lawrence and sex. If you want the literal, if you want the simple, if you want the merely biological and the non-spiritual, then you can find a few instances of that in his writing, but they are a small minority.

So, he is not a good sex writer from any conventional standard of sex writing. But one of his great missions is to argue that conventional sex writing, and indeed conventional sex, is trivial at best and destructive at worst.

I was intrigued by your selection of Mr Noon, which must be one of Lawrence’s least known works.

It is. That is partly to do with timing. It was not published until 1984, and so was too late to be included in what people think of as the Lawrentian canon.

Yet it is one of Lawrence’s funniest books. I think the charge that Lawrence has no sense of humour is simply bewildering. But it can feel absurd to insist that somebody has a sense of humour. In a way, if someone does not find something funny, then this can’t be argued.

However, before dismissing Lawrence as having no sense of humour, one should at least have read Mr Noon. The narrator is blustering and bullying. You feel like you are being frog-marched about, but in a way that is highly comic and enjoyable.

Another thing I like about this book is that it is utterly without form. It comprises two halves, and remains unfinished. The first half is set in Eastwood (where Lawrence grew up), and is a comic study of sexual mores among mining people.

“Gilbert Noon effectively becomes D H Lawrence”

And then you turn a page and there is a new heading and suddenly you find yourself in Bavaria. Our hero has left home behind him—as of course Lawrence did—and from now on Gilbert Noon effectively becomes D H Lawrence. The novel almost morphs into a diary of Lawrence’s early time with Frieda. He gets his protagonists over the Alps, and then stops.

That ending is in itself interesting. Maybe he had reached the present, or at least too close for him to write about. Maybe he is not really sure where this and his own narrative are going, or he senses that this novel will never have a readership (and indeed it did not, within his lifetime). He makes an utter mess of the whole thing.

This is one of the things to which I am attracted in Lawrence. In striking contrast to T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, Lawrence was not intensely and ambitiously concerned with artistry. The pressures of his life created this mess of a work. One hesitates even to call it a novel. It is the production of work under the pressure of life, that I love in Lawrence.

In this novel, Gilbert Noon sees the glitter of the Alps from a distance, and he ‘became unEnglished’.

That is right. More generally, Lawrence was fiercely opposed to English or British parochialism.

The Rainbow opens with a wonderful depiction of a traditional English society rooted in a part of the Midlands countryside that has been there, as it were, forever. The plot of the novel happens because something enters that world to change it and broaden it. A Polish woman bizarrely turns up in a Midlands village. With the entry of the foreign, a novel can start happening.

Lawrence himself spent as much time as possible outside England. He travelled the world in a way that few people, including writers, in his own time did. He was restless to know of other societies.

By the standards of his time, he was anti-racist. It is not that he did not believe in races, but he thought, for example, that the Europeans were on the decline, and that the Mexicans, North Americans and Russians might be on the rise.

His awareness of the narrowness and limitations of his own country might be taken as an antidote to a kind of insular thinking that is prevalent today.

Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine contains some of what Lawrence referred to as his ‘philosophicalish’ works, such as ‘The Crown’. What are these? Are they philosophy?

Lawrence felt that, at about the time of Socrates, philosophy and fiction became split. Philosophy became abstract and dry, and literature became sloppily emotional and lacked the structuring imperative of philosophy.

Bear in mind that logical positivism was gaining dominance in his time. He knew Bertrand Russell, and was familiar with the Cambridge philosophy set and the analytic tradition. You can see why he felt that philosophy and emotion had been split. What he wanted was to bring the two back into contact with each other.

In his own writing, in all of its genres, he aimed to combine passional inspiration with philosophy: what he called ‘the passionate struggle into conscious being’. This is what he meant by ‘philosophicalish’.

“Lawrence felt that, at about the time of Socrates, philosophy and fiction became split”

It would not be classified by the Cambridge philosophers of his day—or indeed of ours—as philosophy. And yet this was the only philosophy that he thought worth writing or reading.

Early on in his career, for example in the important mid-First World War essay ‘The Crown’, he started working out his philosophy of life. It is orientated around various binaries such as the male and the female, the light and dark, the northern and the southern, the Arctic and the African, and the European and the American.

The crown metaphor comes from the royal coat of arms: the lion and the unicorn holding up the crown. It is when the lion and the unicorn fight that they hold the crown aloft. If the lion and the unicorn were to make peace, then the crown would lie in the dust. So, the crown of life is held up by the eternal conflict of opposites.

This was translated into his agonistic relationships with his friends and wife. Although this did not work with many of his friends, who simply abandoned him, it did work with Frieda, who gave as good as she got.

We see this represented in Mr Noon. The couple Gilbert and Johanna are Lawrence and Frieda fighting like—to use Lawrence’s metaphor—cats in a bag. That is presented as being a healthy and life-supporting mode of being for them.

You suggested that the connecting thread running through Lawrence’s writing is the quest of finding out what life is, and how it ought to be lived. Are the ‘philosophicalish’ works the philosophical distillation of his ideas on the subject?

Absolutely, yes. And you can see these ideas operative in the fiction, which is why it is advisable to read the fiction in the light of the nonfiction. Always bear in mind that the so-called nonfiction has many literary qualities. There is a less sharp distinction between them than there is, for example, between T S Eliot’s poetry and his literary criticism, or Virginia Woolf’s prose and her literary criticism.

Notably, Lawrence’s Walt Whitman essay, which contains a great deal of his philosophy, is also partly set out like poetry—like a Whitman poem. The genres of philosophy, literary criticism and poetry are melded in this response to another poet.

My impression is that the essays, with their occasionally hectoring tone and dogmatism, can put people off Lawrence.

This is one of those instances where tastes and people simply differ. I think it is one of the important variables between people, the extent to which they will tolerate being preached at. I have a very high tolerance which helps me, I think, in being a Lawrentian.

But if you are more resistant, then consider that Lawrence was experimental. He always had a decisive tone in his prose; whenever something came into his head to posit, he said it out loud.

But that did not mean that he thought that that was the final word on a subject. Bear in mind that he also valorised change and contradictoriness. This was merely his best stab at that particular moment.

Recognizing this provisionality might make him more palatable.

Yes, as might recognizing the fact that he was aware that he sounded ridiculous as a preacher. Many of his friends pointed this out to him. In his fiction he repeatedly parodies himself, for example in Mr Noon and Women in Love.

Are you thinking in particular of Rupert Birkin in Women in Love?

Birkin is the closest thing we have to a Lawrence character in Women in Love. In one scene set in a Bohemian café based on the Café Royal on Regent Street, a character reads out loud a letter he has received from Birkin, in Birkin’s absence. He recites the letter to everyone’s amusement, making fun of its style. Eventually, Gudrun asks to see the letter, and simply walks out of the restaurant with it.

The style of the letter is very much Lawrence’s own style—so he knew that people could laugh at him, and was willing to have a joke at his own expense.

This scene was in fact based on a real episode when Katherine Mansfield overheard somebody reading out Lawrence’s poetry in the Café Royal, and sniggering over it. She confiscated the book.

We find a very different side to Lawrence in his poetry.

Lawrence’s poetry evolved considerably, stylistically, over his lifetime. In the Collected Poems that he published in 1928, he divided his poems into rhyming and unrhyming poems.

Even his unrhyming poems are approachable. They are not as spikily modernist as those of T S Eliot, for example. Nevertheless, one should be on one’s guard and not patronise them, because they can be trickier than one might initially think.

Two periods of his poetry stand out to me. One is that of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which is from 1923, and the other is that his late poems, collected in Pansies (1929), Nettles (1930), and Late Poems (1933).

“A lot of this poetry is bad-tempered, but some is extremely moving, brave and wise”

What I like in the late poems is his awareness of his mortality: he was dying quite rapidly whilst writing them. A lot of this poetry is bad-tempered, but some is extremely moving, brave and wise.

From a more conventional literary standard, I think the most successful of his volumes of poetry is Birds, Beasts and Flowers. He divides this collection into sections called things like ‘Fruits’, ‘Trees’, ‘Flowers’, ‘The Evangelistic Beasts’, ‘Creatures’, ‘Reptiles’, ‘Birds’, and ‘Animals’.

It is to this poetry that those interested in the eco-critical aspect of Lawrence often refer. Here you find what might be described as his ‘flat ontology’: his placing of human and nonhuman life on the same plane.

A particularly important poem in this regard is ‘Fish’, where he repeats the line ‘I didn’t know his God’. It is a poem about the limits of human comprehension of something nonhuman. The speaker acknowledges these limits, while also being willing to make an effort of empathy. There are wonderful lines when the speaker captures the fish and holds it in his hand: ‘And I, a many-fingered horror of daylight to him, / Have made him die’.

In the ‘Reptile’ section, he has a stunning sequence of poems about tortoises. It is very apparent that he has watched tortoises up close for some time and, within the limits of human comprehension, has come quite some way in understanding them. But he also projects a whole human mythology onto them. He likens the male tortoise at the point of orgasm both to Osiris and to the crucified Christ.

Are there any other poems that you might select for particular attention?

For the relationship between humans and animals—and also as an example of Lawrence’s humour—I would suggest ‘Man and Bat’. This poem is about Lawrence trying to capture a bat that has got into his hotel room in daylight. The bat eventually escapes him and is, in a way, superior to him. There is a similar theme in ‘Snake’, the most famous and most anthologised of his poems.

I would also recommend two great late poems about death, ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Ship of Death’. In particular, I find ‘The Ship of Death’, which was influenced by his knowledge of Egyptian theology, very moving.

Lawrence wrote openly about death as well as about sex. He liked the idea of a journey. When the Egyptians buried someone, they sent them on a journey. This is why they had to provide them with food and clothes, for their passage to the underworld.

He advises us in ‘The Ship of Death’ to build our ship of death. He turns the dead Egyptians into metaphor. He says that we will need a spiritual bark with which to cross the oblivion which follows death. But he says that there is a far side to the shore. Gradually, out of darkness, this other side appears.

We have not talked about Lawrence’s ‘leadership novels’, which he wrote in the 1920s. Are these still of interest now? Or might we pass over them?

If you get into Lawrence, then you do need to read them. Responses to them vary. I reject the strongest accusations that have been made against Lawrence on the counts of fascism or proto-fascism. Most notoriously, Bertrand Russell claimed in 1953 that his ideas ‘led straight to Auschwitz’.

In Lawrence’s defence, context has to be taken into account. The Overton window (as it is known) of what it is politically permissible to think, was vastly wider in Lawrence’s time than it had been in the Victorian period, and than it is now.

More importantly, we should note that in politics (as in other respects) Lawrence was experimental. He conducted thought experiments in his novels. He sent his characters into quasi-fascist movements—one in Australia and another in Mexico. But eventually, he has them take the measure of these organisations, and reject them.

It is certain that Lawrence would have abhorred Nazism; he died in 1930, before the Nazi party came to power in Germany. But he was extremely critical of Italian Fascism, under which he lived in the 1920s.

This was self-avowedly a Roman-revivalist movement. After the leadership novels, he wrote Sketches of Etruscan Places, which paints Etruscan civilisation as superior to the Roman civilisation that wiped it out. He portrayed the Etruscans as non-bullying, gentler, and happier. This was a loud political statement to be making in Fascist Italy.

Interview by David Shackleton

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