D.H. Lawrence, Disability and Two Fires in the Mind

When I entered college in 1973 I found no one was teaching Lawrence. He was considered a kook. At best he was a polemicist for psychoanalysis and at worst a pornographer but in any case professors assured me he was nothing more. If you wanted an English moralist you were instructed to read Hardy.

I fell in love with D. H. Lawrence as a high school student. His poems reached me first; then the essays. I don’t know if it matters what kind of reader I was back then. We spend so much time pre-fronting our subjectivities nowadays but yes I was legally blind. I read what I could get via long playing records and tapes from the Library of Congress. I listened slowly and in more than ordinary solitude. (It wasn’t possible in those days to hear a record while sitting under a tree.) I received my Lawrence in dark rooms.

When I entered college in 1973 I found no one was teaching Lawrence. He was considered a kook. At best he was a polemicist for psychoanalysis and at worst a pornographer but in any case professors assured me he was nothing more. If you wanted an English moralist you were instructed to read Hardy.

The photo on my freshman I.D. shows a boy-child who was 5′ 6″ tall and weighed 102 pounds. I’d barely survived a bout of adolescent anorexia. I started reading poetry in the hospital. I read this:

“The Uprooted”

People who complain of loneliness must have lost something,
lost some living connection with the cosmos, out of themselves,
lost their life-flow
like a plant whose roots are cut.
And they are crying like plants whose roots are cut.
But the presence of other people will not give them new, rooted connection
it will only make them forget.
The thing to do is in solitude slowly and painfully put forth new roots
into the unknown, and take root by oneself.

Of course I read all the poems of Lawrence I could find in recorded formats. “The Ship of Death” with its Egyptian incense, “The Snake” and the lesser known “Almond Blossom”:

“Trees suffer, like races, down the long ages.
They wander and are exiled, they live in exile through
long ages
Like drawn blades never sheathed, hacked and gone black,
The alien trees in alien lands: and yet
The heart of blossom,
The unquenchable heart of blossom!”

If you’re lonely by circumstance and you’re in “alien lands” then you’ve got to make something of it. You must believe the “unquenchable heart of blossom” is the signature of all things.

Lawrence was disabled. Like so many people born in the latter part of the 19th century he had tuberculosis. He was born on September 11, 1885. He was ten years younger than Thomas Mann who’s canonical novel “The Magic Mountain” offers the best description of the social psychology of TB.

No one has written with greater lyric urgency and intelligence than Lawrence about the side by side flames of soul and death. And yes eventually they become one flame but our work is different for now. We must adore them both:

“Medlars and Sorb-Apples”

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
Stream within stream.”

Jeffrey Meyers writes in his excellent biography of Lawrence:

“Lawrence’s life and character were strongly influenced by the progress of his disease. He had (at various times) all the symptoms of consumption, which intensified toward the end of his life. He suffered from irregular appetite, loss of weight, emaciation, facial pallor, flushed cheeks, unstable pulse rates, fever, night sweats, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pains, frequent colds, severe coughing, spitting of blood, extreme irritability and sexual impotence. The toxemia of Lawrence’s lungs influenced the state of his mind and provoked febrile rages. As John Keats had told Fanny Brawne, emphasizing the gulf between the sick and the well: “A person in health as you are can have no conception of the horrors that nerves and a temper like mine go through.” Witter Bynner wrote of Lawrence’s stoic attitude but uncontrollable anger: “He had never given me any evidence of his illness by complaint in words or faltering in spirit but only by bursts and acts of temper.”

One supposes Bynner wasn’t much of a reader when it came to Lawrence’s poetry since poem after poem stills us, stands us on the by turns dark, then evanescent unseeable line between living and dying; between apprehension and the vatic. Here’s the end of
“Medlars and Sorb-Apples”:

“Sorb-apples, medlars with dead crowns.
I say, wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Orphic, delicate
Dionysos of the Underworld.
A kiss, and a spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying,
frost-cold leaves.”

“Parting, partner, infusing, twain,” “a new gasp of further isolation.”

This is conceivably the greatest description of disability as lived experience at the hot core of soul and body as they engage in tug of war.

Freaky Angels

In one of his early poems entitled “Contagion” James Tate wrote: So this is the dark street/where only an angel lives/I never saw anything like it. I read that poem when I was twenty and saw the “dark street” as Emerson—saw the angel as Emerson’s strange angel which is also D.H. Lawrence’s strange angel, the wings are too much like ours; the wings are possibly sinister. In any case, we never saw anything like it and yet we always knew they were there—the wings, the humanoid specter, and our expectation they are a completion, one answer to the betrayals of phenomenology. Such a view is not Romantic, though plenty have said so. Its tougher. It took Freud and Jung to show us what the figurines mean: they’re neither enemy or friend, but fact. How you will live, in what manner you will live, depends on what you can challenge yourself to admit about the angels. The ones I’m talking about are freakish angels and not the sanitized “idea” of the angel that Wallace Stevens preferred. Stevens’ angels are like those paper wrapped seats in the washroom—sanitized for your protection—and so they are not angels at all. Here is what the angels felt like to Lawrence:

 

 

The Song of a Man Who has Come Through

 

 

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world

Like a fine, and exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;

If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

 

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,

I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,

Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

 

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It’s somebody wants to do us harm.

 

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

 

 

Notice Lawrence’s angel is both the man or woman who feels wind blowing inside the body and then the angel is, when more fully realized, like a fine chisel, a wedge that rents chaos—a dangerous tool to be sure. Lawrence’s angel is a wire that pierces. Oh its imagination alright. Its your dream. Its your fear about the future. Its your regret about the past. Its your dead father tuning a piano in the underworld. As Robert Bly would say: Its the distance between the head and the feet as we lie down. The freaky angel is us and not us unless we reckon with time. Its our ambition. Our completion. Its the hard work of consciousness which must admit what’s under the boat. (Ahab) or cry because space has pierced us with a sharp tip (Emerson’s cosmological Boston Commons). I like the word “freaky” better than strange. Freaky can’t be domesticated though we build churches or sideshows and put angels on pedestals so the frightened gazers can gaze and then go home saying, “well, I saw it—good thing it is not me.” 

 

But of course the “freaky angel” turns up. It knocks if you’re lucky. Lawrence was lucky. His angels passed right through his carapace of fear, the lobster back of the psyche, and then he was stronger, undoubtedly weirder, perhaps thinner, maybe with the taste of honey and excrement in his mouth, happy to the point of rending his garments, and sharp, very sharp. 

 

  

 

Freaky Angels

In one of his early poems entitled “Contagion” James Tate wrote: So this is the dark street/where only an angel lives/I never saw anything like it. I read that poem when I was twenty and saw the “dark street” as Emerson—saw the angel as Emerson’s strange angel which is also D.H. Lawrence’s strange angel, the wings are too much like ours; the wings are possibly sinister. In any case, we never saw anything like it and yet we always knew they were there—the wings, the humanoid specter, and our expectation they are a completion, one answer to the betrayals of phenomenology. Such a view is not Romantic, though plenty have said so. Its tougher. It took Freud and Jung to show us what the figurines mean: they’re neither enemy or friend, but fact. How you will live, in what manner you will live, depends on what you can challenge yourself to admit about the angels. The ones I’m talking about are freakish angels and not the sanitized “idea” of the angel that Wallace Stevens preferred. Stevens’ angels are like those paper wrapped seats in the washroom—sanitized for your protection—and so they are not angels at all. Here is what the angels felt like to Lawrence:

 

 

The Song of a Man Who has Come Through

 

 

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world

Like a fine, and exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;

If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

 

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,

I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,

Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

 

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It’s somebody wants to do us harm.

 

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

 

 

Notice Lawrence’s angel is both the man or woman who feels wind blowing inside the body and then the angel is, when more fully realized, like a fine chisel, a wedge that rents chaos—a dangerous tool to be sure. Lawrence’s angel is a wire that pierces. Oh its imagination alright. Its your dream. Its your fear about the future. Its your regret about the past. Its your dead father tuning a piano in the underworld. As Robert Bly would say: Its the distance between the head and the feet as we lie down. The freaky angel is us and not us unless we reckon with time. Its our ambition. Our completion. Its the hard work of consciousness which must admit what’s under the boat. (Ahab) or cry because space has pierced us with a sharp tip (Emerson’s cosmological Boston Commons). I like the word “freaky” better than strange. Freaky can’t be domesticated though we build churches or sideshows and put angels on pedestals so the frightened gazers can gaze and then go home saying, “well, I saw it—good thing it is not me.” 

 

But of course the “freaky angel” turns up. It knocks if you’re lucky. Lawrence was lucky. His angels passed right through his carapace of fear, the lobster back of the psyche, and then he was stronger, undoubtedly weirder, perhaps thinner, maybe with the taste of honey and excrement in his mouth, happy to the point of rending his garments, and sharp, very sharp.