David Herbert Lawrence

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David Herbert Lawrence

The English novelist, poet, and essayist David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) took as his major theme the relationship between men and women, which he regarded as disastrously wrong in his time.

Born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, on Sept. 11, 1885, D. H. Lawrence was the son of a little-educated coal miner and a mother of middle-class origins who fought with the father and his limited way of life so that the children might escape it or, as Lawrence once put it, "rise in the world." Their quarrel and estrangement, and the consequent damage to the children, became the subject of perhaps his most famous novel, Sons and Lovers (1913). Critics immediately regarded it as a brilliant illustration of Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex. Lawrence was trained to be a teacher at Nottingham University College and taught at Davidson Road School in Croydon until 1912, when his health failed. The great friend of his youth, Jessie Chambers, who was the real-life counterpart of Miriam in Sons and Lovers, had sent some of his work to the English Review. The editor, Ford Madox Ford, hailed him at once as a find, and Lawrence began his writing career.

Major Themes

Lawrence's constant struggle for a right relationship with women came to a climax in his encounter, liaison, and marriage with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley. They had met in 1912 and were married in 1914; their evolving relationship is reflected in all his work after Sons and Lovers. The fulfillment it meant to him can be seen most directly and poignantly in the volume of poems Look! We Have Come Through! (1917). Like Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow (1915) and Women In Love (1920) are set in England and reflect Lawrence's deep concern with the male-female relationship.

The Lawrences lived in many parts of the world—particularly, as place affected his work, in Italy, Australia, New Mexico, and Mexico. Embittered by the censorship of his work and the suspicion regarding his German-born wife during the war, Lawrence sought a propitious place where his friends and he might form a colony based on individuality and talent rather than possessions. This he never realized for more than brief periods. There were quarrels and desertions, and his precarious health was a factor in the constant moves. At the end of his life he wistfully regarded himself as lacking in the societal self. He died in Vence, France, on March 2, 1930.

Lawrence's work from the war onward traces his search. His work's rhythm he described as the exploring of situations in his fiction (and, one might add, his poetry) and then the abstracting and consolidating of his thought in essays, some of book-length, like Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921), Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), and, at the very end, Apocalypse (1931). For the Australian phase there is the novel Kangaroo (1923); for New Mexico, various short stories, poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), the novelette St. Mawr (1925), and essays, particularly those on the Indian dances; for Mexico, the novel The Plumed Serpent (1926) and the sketches titled Mornings in Mexico (1927); for the Mediterranean area with its pagan traditions, the novels The Lost Girl (1920) and Aaron's Rod (1922) and the novelettes Sun (1928) and The Man Who Died (1931). Toward the last his imagination returned to his English origins for the scene and characters of his most notorious and controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). The novelette The Virgin and the Gipsy (1930) reflects the same concern.

All through his career Lawrence's boldness in treating the sexual side of his characters' relationships had aroused the censorious. For example, The Rainbow was originally withdrawn and destroyed by the publisher after a complaint. But in Lady Chatterley's Lover, his last full-length novel, Lawrence went much further. The book was banned in England, and this was followed by the seizure of the manuscript of his poems Pansies and the closing of an exhibition of his paintings.

Range of His Work

Lawrence used all of the literary forms successfully, except perhaps for drama (there are a few early plays not much read or produced and David, 1926, from his latter years in the United States). He wrote strikingly good short stories all through his career. Early ones are "Odour of Chrysanthemums," "Daughters of the Vicar," "Love among the Haystacks," "The Prussian Officer," "Tickets, Please," and "The Horse-dealer's Daughter." Others, of middle and late period, are "The Border Line," "The Woman Who Rode Away," "Glad Ghosts," "The Rocking Horse Winner," "Two Blue Birds," "The Man Who Loved Islands," and "Things." He was a master of the short novel (novelette) form in The Fox, The Ladybird, The Captain's Doll (all 1923), Sun, The Virgin and the Gipsy, and The Man Who Died, this last being an extension of Christ's life into a resurrection and fulfillment in this world that lends itself to philosophically existential interpretations.

Lawrence's poetry ranges from early rhymed poems in Love Poems and Others (1913) and Amores (1925), through the freer forms of Look! We Have Come Through! and the highly experimental and free forms of Birds, Beasts and Flowers, through the deliberately doggerel satire of much of Pansies (1929) and Nettles (1930), to the less colloquial and at times classical diction and rhythm of Last Poems (1932), gathered from his manuscripts and published posthumously.

In criticism Lawrence achieved a book that is still regarded as one containing important, challenging insights, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), and a number of essays on the novel that have provided themes for later critics, particularly his distinction between an author's conscious intentions and what the novel may actually be saying. Among "travel" books his Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927), and Etruscan Places (1932) are of interest. The short journalistic pieces collected in his Assorted Articles (1930) are witty and challenging. Some of his essays did not appear in book form until the appearance of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (1936), edited by Edward McDonald, who also issued two bibliographies of Lawrence's work during the author's lifetime.

An Assessment

The contemporary Spanish novelist Ramon Sender said of Lawrence that he saw the world as if he were the first man. Lawrence was no Wordsworthian boy losing his first inspiration to the onset of time and the prison house, though there was much to fight. In Apocalypse he observed: "Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos."

Interest in Lawrence has come to surpass that in more favored, by birth and education, contemporaries. His work does not seem to date. After relative neglect following his death, his books came back into print, and he is the subject of numerous memoirs, biographies, and critical studies. This is probably because so many of the problems he dealt with are increasingly urgent and because he explored them with original force, commitment, and style that appeal especially to the young. When World War I broke out, he felt that it was then more important to find the grounds of faith in life itself and the means to a new integration of the individual and society. To this he added the question of the nature of a relationship between man and man that would have the same higher significance as that between man and woman. Religiously and ethically he can be described as a vitalist, finding a source and a guide—in a sense, God—in the "life force" itself as it was manifested in nature, un-tampered with by "mental attitudes." He was concerned with how this force might be restored to a proper balance in human behavior.

Further Reading

There is a vast literature on Lawrence. Two excellent books on his life are Harry T. Moore, The Intelligent Heart (1954), and Edward Nehls, D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography (3 vols., 1957-1959). The Moore book contains much new information and material in the form of letters. The Nehls study is unique; in several volumes it presents Lawrence in various phases of his life as relatives, friends, and acquaintances saw him and wrote about him. Knud Merrild, who knew Lawrence, wrote With D. H. Lawrence in New Mexico (1965), and Helen Corke, D. H. Lawrence: The Croydon Years (1965), is a recollection by another friend, particularly relevant for Lawrence's early years.

A short critical survey of Lawrence's fiction is E. W. Tedlock, Jr., D. H. Lawrence: Artist and Rebel (1963). For the nuances perceived by one who frequently championed Lawrence against both real and imagined enemies, and for a series of close readings, see the study of his novels by F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence (1930) and D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955).

Additional Sources

Worthen, John, D.H. Lawrence: a literary life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Pinion, F. B., A D. H. Lawrence companion: life, thought, and works, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, 1978.

Burgess, Anthony, Flame into being: the life and work of D.H. Lawrence, New York: Arbor House, 1985.

Pinkney, Tony, D.H. Lawrence, New York: Harvester Wheat-sheaf, 1990. □