The Spike or Victoria College Review October 1930
D. H. Lawrence
David herbert lawrence was born just forty-five years ago, in the poor cottage of a coal miner in a Nottingham village. At the age of twelve he won a County Council Scholarship, at sixteen he became a clerk and then a pupil-teacher; at nineteen he won a Scholarship tenable at the Nottingham Teachers' Training College, but the lack of £20 to pay the entrance fee prevented him from using it. Two years later, however, he succeeded in matriculating at the institution, but the creative impulse, roused by an early love affair, was stirring within him, and he spent the time which should have been devoted to study in writing poems and beginning his first novel. It is an ironical commentary on academic institutions that, when he left the Training College to teach in London, his report contained the statement that he was "weak in English." After a couple of years more Lawrence gave up teaching to devote himself to literature.
The writings of Lawrence embody the pilgrimage of a sensitive soul in the modern world. They are valiant with an integrity of a human being facing the tragedy of this epoch—a tragedy which Lawrence had known in his own childhood and young manhood as he depicts it in the largely autobiographical "Sons and Lovers." His theatre has always been his own innermost self, his own conflicts and vague desires; particle by particle he has analysed the soul and attained a penetrating, yet merciless, self-knowledge. In over thirty volumes of novels, plays, travel books, excursions into the study of the Unconscious, poems and criticisms, there is the same central theme—the record of a man in ecstatic pursuit of dignity and loveliness, struggling against a mechanical age and the shackles of centuries of what we sentimentally call civilisation.
Because Lawrence used sex as the symbol of the struggle for the integration of personality, as Isaiah used the Will of God, he has been said to be obsessed by sex. Yet he said, "Sex as an end in itself is a disaster, a vice." And again, "The essential function of art is moral, not aesthetic, nor decorative, nor pastime and recreation. But moral, a passionate and implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood rather than the mind—changes the blood first; the mind follows later in the wake" A man who could write like this has been called obscene by the very admirers of the Aldous Huxleys and the Michael Arlens and the other bright young people of the age.
No writer of his generation could enter into the life of the countryside as Lawrence could, nor depict her beauties with such lyrical delight. His very words, the mould into which his thought fell, communicate direct feeling of life. Prose or poetry, narrative or critical writing was for him an organic action, not the expression of any single or separate faculty.
It has been said of Wagner that his work contains the picture of the relationship of a pair of people serially continued. The same may be said of Lawrence. It is not easy to distinguish Will Brangwen and Anton Skrebensky in "The Rainbow," divergent as their fates are, or Birkin and Crich in "Women in Love," or Ramon and Cypriano in "The Plumed Serpent." While the man-woman relationship invariably figures in the page 16 centre of any picture of things Lawrence drew, the number of subjects, scenes, and stored memories collated with it is large.
After '"Sons and Lovers" and 'The Rainbow," Lawrence gradually departed from the view that it is the business of the novelist to tell a story and to create characters. He preferred to give the essentials of a person and let the reader meet the author half-way by finishing off the character according to his own experience. By that means it was possible to express nuances of feeling and emotion that could not be actually described. Lawrence sought to do in a larger field what the Symbolist School advocated in poetry. In consequence, the attitude of the reading public to him is similar to their attitude to Blake—either an over-enthusiastic approval or a condescending condemnation. Until his death the latter attitude was by far the more usual. From childhood he was forced to contend with that pulmonary disease which eventually brought about his premature death. This may explain in part the peculiar volatile vitality of his style, that intensity of vision so remarkable in consumptive writers like Katherine Mansfield and Marie Bashkertseff. The knowledge, too, that he must die before his work was completed explains a certain petulant bitterness sometimes found in his later work. In addition, a series of harassing conflicts with authority aggravated this attitude. "The Rainbow," published in 1915, was condemned to be burned by the Censor. As Lawrence rather wittily remarked, the trouble was that his "Rainbow" came before instead of after the Deluge. His wife, furthermore, was a German, and both suffered humiliating persecutions during the spy mania. History repeats itself. A little more than a hundred years previously, Wordsworth and Coleridge were being kept under observation at a little coastal town for just the same thing. They had been heard talking about one of their colleagues, one called Spy "Nosey," and that settled their guilt in the eyes of the Government agents. Actually the subject of the puzzling conversation was, Coleridge tells us, Spinoza.
During the last two years of his life Lawrence had begun to express himself on canvas. Last year, when he gave an exhibition of some of his pictures, the police seized a number of them and, without knowing the difference, a number of Blakes, which were at the same exhibition. The controversy which followed helped to embitter the last days of his life. He died on March 2 of this year at Venice.
Lawrence has been called a prophet and compared with Carlyle. To me the comparison is totally inapt. He is nearer to Blake, to Van Gogh, or Melville, whose "Moby Dick" he admired so much. And these would have been at one with him in his profession of faith, "Know that you are responsible to the gods inside you and to the men in whom the gods are manifest. Recognise your superiors and your inferiors, according to the gods. This is the root of all order," and "Don't waste your pride or squander your emotions," or this:
"and we are sure
That beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away."