Lawrence is much better known as a novelist, but his poetry is also certainly worth reading. Though I do not think he deserves the adulation that the Leavis school of criticism, so dominant for so long in Sri Lanka, bestowed on him in the middle of the last century, the neglect from which he suffers, in the world if not here where old habits die hard, is also unfair.
His fame rested for a long time on the sexual aspect of his work, both the openness which sometimes came close to pornography and so appealed much to the young, and also his passionate belief in sexual relations as providing spiritual satisfaction in a bleak and restrictive world. Bloom, though he believes Lawrence needs to be read more, has a rather upsetting take on the matter, since he categorically claims that salvation for Lawrence lay in heterosexual buggery, which seems to me an extreme position.
I would hesitate to challenge so eminent a critic, but this seems to me like those teachers in Sri Lanka who cannot teach one of Lawrence’s best poems, Snake, without stressing phallic symbolism. I am sure that element is in the poem, but it also conveys a more general message too, about the need to accept the world as it is, instead of fighting against natural phenomena.
The poem is too long to cite in full, but I will select passages that illustrate Lawrence’s descriptive power, the manner in which he evokes the sultry day and the narrator’s sudden sense of wonder as well as fear –
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
Though Lawrence had a problem with the way in which Western civilization was heading, with its compartmentalization and canonization of formalities, he was not entirely at his ease with very different experiences. This comes out in the poems he wrote while in Sri Lanka, where he found the sights and smells overwhelming. His account of the Perahera, though indubitably powerful, suggests diffidence about life in the raw, when that went further than the cocooned Englishman could imagine.
But the best is the Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical
With a pale little wisp of a Prince of Wales, diffident, up in
a small pagoda on the temple side
And white people in evening dress buzzing and crowding the
stand upon the grass below and opposite:
And at last the Pera-hera procession, flambeaux aloft in the
tropical night, of blazing cocoa-nut,
Naked dark men beneath,
And the huge frontal of three great elephants stepping forth
to the tom-tom’s beat, in the torch-light,
Slowly sailing in gorgeous apparel through the flame-light,
in front of a towering, grimacing white image of wood.
The elephant bells striking slow, tong-tong, tong-tong,
To music and queer chanting
Enormous shadow-processions filing on in the flare of fire
In the fume of cocoa-nut oil, in the sweating tropical night,
In the noise of the tom-toms and singers;
Elephants after elephants curl their trunks, vast shadows,
and some cry out
As they approach and salaam, under the dripping fire of the
That pale fragment of a Prince up there, whose motto is
Pale, dispirited Prince, with his chin on his hands, his nerves
Watching and hardly seeing the trunk-curl approach and
clumsy, knee-lifting salaam
Of the hugest, oldest of beasts in the night and the fire-flare
He is royalty, pale and dejected fragment up aloft.
And down below huge homage of shadowy beasts; bare-
foot and trunk-lipped in the night.
Chieftains, three of them abreast, on foot
Strut like peg-tops, wound around with hundreds of yards
of fine linen.
They glimmer with tissue of gold, and golden threads on a
jacket of velvet,
And their faces are dark, and fat, and important.
They are royalty, dark-faced royalty, showing the conscious
whites of their eyes
And stepping in homage, stubborn, to that nervous pale lad
More elephants, tong, tong-tong, loom up,
Huge, more tassels swinging, more dripping fire of new
High, high flambeaux, smoking of the east;
And scarlet hot embers of torches knocked out of the sockets
among bare feet of elephants and men on the path in
And devil dancers luminous with sweat, dancing on to the
shudder of drums.
Tom-toms, weird music of the devil, voices of men from the
Endless, under the Prince.
Towards the tail of the everlasting procession
In the long hot night, mere dancers from insignificant
And smaller, more frightened elephants.
Men-peasants from jungle villages dancing and running with
sweat and laughing,
Naked dark men with ornaments on, on their naked arms
and their naked breasts, the grooved loins
Gleaming like metal with running sweat as they suddenly
turn, feet apart,
And dance, and dance, forever dance, with breath half
sobbing in dark, sweat-shining breasts,
And lustrous great tropical eyes unveiled now, gleaming a
kind of laugh,
A naked, gleaming dark laugh, like a secret out in the dark,
And flare of a tropical energy, tireless, afire in the dark, slim
limbs and breasts,
Perpetual, fire-laughing motion, among the slow shuffle
The hot dark blood of itself a-laughing, wet, half-devilish,
men all motion
Approaching under that small pavilion, and tropical eyes
dilated look up
Inevitably look up
To the Prince
To that tired remnant of royalty up there
Whose motto is _Ich dien_.
As if the homage of the kindled blood of the east
Went up in wavelets to him, from the breasts and eyes of
And he couldn’t take it.
What would they do, those jungle men running with sweat,
with the strange dark laugh in their eyes, glancing up,
And the sparse-haired elephants slowly following,
If they knew that his motto was _Ich dien_?
And that he meant it.
They begin to understand
The rickshaw boys begin to understand
And then the devil comes into their faces,
But a different sort, a cold, rebellious, jeering devil.
In elephants and the east are two devils, in all men maybe.
The mystery of the dark mountain of blood, reeking in
homage, in lust, in rage,
And passive with everlasting patience,
Then the little, cunning pig-devil of the elephant’s lurking
eyes, the unbeliever.
Bloom does not engage in anguish about what might be termed Lawrence’s racism here, the relentless equation with devils, confirming that the song and dance he engages in about Eliot’s anti-Semitism is the exclusive prerogative of the Jews. Safely ensconced now in the heart of Western civilization, they cannot accept that they too were like us in the old days, objects of what seemed natural contempt.
What is impressive about Lawrence though is that, despite the contempt as well as the fear, as Forster so perceptively characterized the rationale for exclusivity, he is as contemptuous too of the Prince of Wales, mocking his motto that claims he serves, when he is so obviously overwhelmed by the environment and the experience. And clearly, much more than the Prince, Lawrence manages despite his diffidence to engage fervently with much of what he saw – even though the excessive stress on naked men confirms that his senses were homoerotic, whether or not Bloom was accurate in his assessment of Lawrence’s ideal of sexuality.
But his senses I think came second to his intellectual, and emotional, commitment to himself. This is clear when we compare Virgin Youth, his poem about what seems to be masturbation (or not, as the case might be), with that of Whitman, whom Bloom asserts to be a seminal influence on Lawrence. But whereas Whitman’s focus was the young man as epitome of physical intensity, Lawrence was more concerned with tortured if triumphant analysis of what was going on.
Now and again
The life that looks through my eyes
And quivers in words through my mouth,
And behaves like the rest of men,
Slips away, so I gasp in surprise.
My unknown breasts begin
To wake, and down the thin
Ripples below the breast an urgent
Rhythm starts, and my silent and slumberous belly
In one moment rouses insurgent.
My soft slumbering belly
Quivering awake with one impulse and one will,
Then willy nilly
A lower gets up and greets me;
Homunculus stirs from his roots, and strives until,
Risen up, he beats me.
He stands, and I tremble before him.
— Who then art thou? –
He is wordless, but sultry and vast,
And I can’t deplore him.
— Who art thou? What hast
Thou to do with me, thou lustrous one, iconoclast? –
How beautiful he is! without sound,
Without eyes, without hands;
Yet, flame of the living ground
He stands, the column of fire by night.
And he knows from the depths; he quite
Quite alone, he alone
Understands and knows.
Lustrously sure, unknown
Out of nowhere he rose.
I tremble in his shadow, as he burns
For the dark goal.
He stands like a lighthouse, night churns
Round his base, his dark light rolls
Into darkness, and darkly returns.
Is he calling, the lone one? Is his deep
Silence full of summons?
Is he moving invisibly? Does his steep
Curve sweep towards a woman’s?
Traveller, column of fire,
It is vain.
The glow of thy full desire
Dark, ruddy pillar, forgive me! I
Am helplessly bound
To the rock of virginity. Thy
Strange voice has no sound.
We cry in the wilderness. Forgive me, I
Would so gladly lie
In the womanly valley, and ply
Thy twofold dance.
Thou dark one, thou pride, curved beauty! I
Would worship thee, letting my buttocks prance.
But the hosts of men with one voice deny
Me the chance.
They have taken the gates from the hinges
And built up the way. I salute thee
But to deflower thee. Thy tower impinges
On nothingness. Pardon me!