‘a man who burned like an acetylene torch / from one end to the other of his life.’

October 8, 2021 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books)

When I heard that a new biography of D.H. Lawrence had just come out, I knew that I had to read it. Whence this certainty? The reasons were two-fold:

First, I wrote my master’s thesis on D.H. Lawrence; specifically, on The Rainbow. I wrote an eighty-page analysis of the novel, and when I handed my first draft to my thesis advisor, he drily informed me  that it would not do in the form that I had placed it. I would have to start over and do it right. That was the sum of his advice to me. Not, as you can well imagine, a pleasant experience. (I can say no more about that thesis at present because I cannot find it.)

Second, when Ron and I were traveling in New Mexico some years ago, I pleaded with him to take me to D.H. Lawrence’s ranch in Taos, still, I was informed, preserved as it was when he was battling Frieda there in the 1920s. (He battled her everywhere.) We were driving a rental that was no great shakes even on paved surfaces when we found ourselves on a dirt track heading in what was supposedly the direction of the edifice we sought. Soon the dirt turned to mud, the result of a recent runoff of snow melt in the mountains. The mud was soon hub cap high. This was before the era of cell phones. I’m not sure what we would’ve done if we’d become stuck. We nearly did. We were able to reverse course and head back to our hotel. Staff there seemed vaguely bemused by our harrowing tale of escape. This, they said with a shrug, is New Mexico.

At any rate, all this has nothing to do with Burning Man, which I enjoyed tremendously. I remembered that Lawrence, bitterly resentful of his working class origins, carried his smoldering anger with him everywhere he went. After a brief stint as a school teacher, he ran off with Frieda von Richthoven, wife of Ernest Weekley, a professor of modern languages – his own former teacher – and mother of their three children. The purpose of this new union seemed to be take every opportunity to tear each other to pieces. In fairness, Lawrence honed this skill on numerous other friends and acquaintances in the course of his restless, turbulent life.

(It seemed to me  that a more accurate subtitle for this book would have been “The Trials of Anyone Forced To Interact with D.H. Lawrence.”)

Having been early and unceremoniously kicked out of England – the penalty for having a German wife during wartime – Lawrence proceeded to roam the earth, ostensibly searching for peace, but in reality fomenting conflict just about everywhere he went. And writing – always writing….

In Lawrence’s fiction, which is filled with the packing of bags and the slamming of doors, waves of wrath tend to overwhelm those of love. Leaving  home became his great subject, in some ways his only subject. After Lawrence left his father’s house, he made it  a policy never to have a home of his own; he perched instead on the highest possible branch of the highest possible tree.

In Movements in European History, a volume undertaken  as a school textbook, he wrote:

…earthquakes should be predictable. Yet no one can predict them. The most remarkable of these earthquakes was the Renaissance, which ‘offered to man visions, beautiful adventures, marvellous thoughts, as if his soul were ‘set free into all the air and space and splendour of free, pure thought and deep understanding. In the Middle Ages, ‘man was alive but blind and voracious. In the fourteenth an fifteenth centuries, however, he awoke. The human spirit was then like a butterfly which bursts from the chrysalis into the air. A whole new world lies about it.’

Frances Wilson says of the short story “The Prussian Officer” that it is “…one of the finest short stories in the language.” So I read it. Like so much of Lawrence’s writing, fiction and nonfiction alike, it contains descriptive passages that are purely poetic:

When at last he turned, looking down the long bare grove whose flat bend was already filling dark, he saw the mountains in a wonder-light, not far away, and radiant. Behind the soft grey ridge of the nearest range the further mountains stood golden and pale grey, the snow all radiant like pure, soft gold. So still, gleaming in the  sky, fashioned pure out of the ore of the sky, they shone in their silence.

And yet, this is a  harrowing tale, so much so that I had to keep putting it down. In the course of the narrative, the tension that develops between the orderly and his Captain, whom he must serve as a slave serves his master, becomes well nigh unbearable.

Such is the power of Lawrence’s writing.

Lawrence’s reputation took a nose dive in the sixties, when it was attacked by feminists who found his attitude toward women despicable. I can see the argument, but that is only part of the extremely complicated puzzle that constitutes both Lawrence’s art and his nature. He may at this time be making a comeback. We shall see. This biography would be instrumental in that development

Meanwhile, it  seems to many critics, and to me also, that the novels are the least admirable of his literary output. I should turn rather to the short stories, the essays, and the poetry. There’s an excellent collection put out by New York Review Books called The Bad Side of Books: Selected Essays, edited and with an introduction by Geoff Dyer, a noted scholar of Lawrence’s works.

The title of this post is from a poem by Tony Hoagland simply entitled “Lawrence.”

David Herbert Lawrence: September 11, 1885-March 2, 1930







1 Comment

  1. Michelle Ann said,

    I had to read Sons and Lovers at school, and found it hard going (I was probably too young for it). However, its good to know this difficult man has at least two supporters!

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