A S Bahadur / Non-Fictional Prose of D H Lawrence: An Assessment

Lawrence wrote like a man possessed but with no palpable design on his readers. A large number of his essays communicate moments of delight. They serve no other purpose beyond that. He is a charmed observer of birds, animals, flowers, and trees. But Lawrence does not write consciously to arouse love for animals or environment. Of course at time Lawrence can change his tone and temper quite abruptly. His essay ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’ constitutes a fine example.


Non-Fictional Prose of D. H. Lawrence: An Assessment

A S Bahadur


Lawrence is an enigma, no less. There is something baffling about the nature of his gifts and critical opinion swings violently from uncritical praise to downright rejection. For example, T.S. Eliot uses his immense prestige and knowledge to pull down Lawrence from is high pedestal. In his critical work After Strange Gods Eliot suggests that Lawrence lacks sense of humor, possesses perverted intuition and he is obsessed with the idea of sex:

Lawrence has three aspects and it is very difficult to do justice to all. I do not expect to be able to do so. The first is the ridiculous: his lack of a sense of humour, a certain snobbery, a lack not so much of information as of the critical faculties which education should give, and an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking of this side of Lawrence, the brilliant exposure by Mr. Wyndham Lewis in “Paleface” is by far the most conclusive criticism that has been made. Secondly there is the extraordinarily keen sensibility and capacity for profound intuition from which he commonly drew the wrong conclusions. Third, there is a distinct sexual morbidity.1

Clearly, this is a crisis of sorts. Wyandham Lewis’s approach is another. A yet different predicament is of the likes of Middleton Murry— well read and tedious— ready to define and understand and redefine, using inferences derived from inferences to obtain gross assessments. What Aldous Huxlay has to say about his assessment of Lawrence in his introduction to Lawrence’s Collected Essays is noteworthy:

Mr. Middleton Murry has written a great length about Lawrence— but about a Lawrence you would never suspect, from reading that curious essay in destructive hagiography, of being an artist. For Mr. Middleton completely ignores the fact that his subject—his victim, I had almost said— was one whom the fates had stigmatized “writer”. His book is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark— for all its metaphysical subtleties and its Freudian ingenuities, very largely irrelevant. The absurdity of his critical method becomes the more manifest when we reflect that nobody would ever have heard of a Lawrence who was not an artist.

But there are critics better equipped, and one cannot be send to wild goose chase just for the sake of it.  F. R. Leavis has attempted an excellent defence of Lawrence in his admirable book, D. H. Lawrence; Novelist. T. S. Eliot’s derogatory note, and Middleton Murry’s artistic misconception, typical of a whole bunch of contemporary writers betrays the failure of proper appreciation. Besides they also speak of extremely restricted premises upon which Eliot and like have based their conclusions. Perhaps they had not cared to evaluate Lawrence with the entire body of his writings in view. Lawrence’s novels, embroiled as they are in controversy do not provide a complete perspective. To those who have read Lawrence’s exquisite letters overbrimming with humour and charged with jest for life, Eliot’s charge of the “lack of sense of humour” rings false. Again to accuse him of wanting in education and critical knowledge is to assign very narrow meaning to these. Finally Eliot errs again when he compliments Lawrence on his profound intuitive powers, and yet turns the same into a left-handed compliment by saying that from intuition Lawrence drew wrong conclusions. Intuition is part of writer’s mystical apprehension. To describe it as right and wrong is to misunderstand its true nature. A poet’s intuitive awareness of things is extremely personal; it is not something verifiable and measurable. Likewise, Eliot shows the Puritan’s detestation of sex when he describes Lawrence’s preoccupation with the same a morbid.

The reference to Lawrence’s famous detractors like T. S. Eliot and Wyandham Lewis is pertinent because their conclusions emanate from personal prejudices and an extremely narrow frame of reference. No reader who has gone through his extremely revealing letters to Edward Garnett and others can dub his preoccupation with sex as morbid. It is a theme to which Lawrence returns again and again in his essays like ‘Sex versus Loveliness’ , ‘Give her Pattern’ , ‘Love’, ‘Cocksure women and Hensure Men’, “Nobody Loves me”, etc. To base one’s views on a few novels and short stories is to examine something valuable without which these do not yield their full charm. Lawrence’s manifold gifts find expression in his nonfictional writings.

While the assertion that Lawrence’s essays and letters are an aid to the understanding and enjoyment of his fiction, it must also be emphasized that these possess intrinsic worth of their own. Essays like “Flowering Tuscany” or “Whistling of Birds” possess incomparable aesthetic beauty. Set against the bleak pictures of mining district, which evocations of nature’s beauty and music suggest what man has lost through his absorption in an artificial life and also how he can come in contact with the life-sustaining springs of happiness and beauty.

In his essays and letters Lawrence reveals the depth of his disenchantment with an artificial civilization which is based on denial and repression. He detests mechanization and artificiality in all forms and manifestations. Lawrence values spontaneity in life as well as art. According to E.M. Forster:

His dislike of civilization was not a pose, as it is with many writer. He hated in fundamentally because it has made human beings conscious, and society mechanical. Like Blake and other mystics he condemns the intellect with its barren chains of reasoning and its dead weights of information; he even hates self –sacrifice and love…He is certainly seeking the forgotten wisdom, as he has called it; he would like instinct to realize and connect man by ways now disused. He thinks humanity has taken a wrong turning. Book after book he hammers away at this and strikes many coloured sparks of poetry from it, until the whole fabric of his mind catches fire, and we get pages and we get pages and chapters of splendour… It is his concession to the civilization he would destroy and the flow in the primitive myths he would recreate. 2

Indeed we get pages and chapters of splendor not only in Lawrence’s fiction but also in his large and rich body of non-fiction. Lawrence’s essays in Studies in the Classic American Literature are simply inimitable and matchless. No other literary critic has given such insight into American literature as D. H. Lawrence and yet Lawrence eschews the serious formal tune of the literary critic. His essay, ‘The Spirit of the Place’, though chatty and informal in style, contains some of the profoundest and most oft-quoted pronouncements on the mind, art and culture of America. A seminal work of far-reaching importance the Studies show Lawrence’s deep understating of America. His critical essays on Benjamin Franklin, Emerson, Hawthorne and Melville have broken fresh ground in literary criticism. At the same time, in an age of empiricism and calculation Lawrence discards all ‘rules’. In spite of T. S. Eliot’s denunciation of the personal principal and “whiggery” Lawrence depends entirely on personal impression and intuition. And far from drawing wrong inferences, Lawrence puts his intuition to very good use.

Lawrence wrote like a man possessed but with no palpable design on his readers. A large number of his essays communicate moments of delight. They serve no other purpose beyond that. He is a charmed observer of birds, animals, flowers, and trees. But Lawrence does not write consciously to arouse love for animals or environment. Of course at time Lawrence can change his tone and temper quite abruptly. His essay ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’ constitutes a fine example. At first Lawrence paints a vibrant world in which man animals and the trees and open spaces live in complete harmony. Then something happens – the agony of dogs pierced by the deadly quills of porcupines rouses a momentary sense of hatred in the writer who had never aimed a gun in his life at my living target. Lawrence records the drama of the heart-breaking experience in the following lines:

So I ran quickly for a cedar pole. The porcupine was lying still with subsiding halo. He stirred faintly. So I turned him and hit him hard over the nose; or where, in the dark, his nose should have been. And it was done. He was dead.
And in the moonlight I looked down on the first creature I had ever shot.
“Does it seem mean? I asked aloud, doubtful.
Again Madame hesitated. Then “No” she said resentfully
And I felt she was right. Things like the porcupine, one must be able to shoot them, if they get in one’s way. 3

Thus Lawrence captures in his own inimitable style of the ceaseless battle for survival that characterizes life in nature. No other writer can capture the subtle doubts, hesitations and nagging sense of guilt assailing a sensitive soul when he accepts the inevitability of killing. Lawrence muses on the experience:

For me, this is a volte-face. I have always preferred to walk round my porcupine, rather than kill it.

Now   I know it’s no good walking round. One must kill. 4

This is how Lawrence records his awareness of “nature red in tooth and claw.” The inner conflict in Lawrence between the pacifist who recoils from the very thought of killing, who runs away from war, and who feels extremely happy to escape conscription– and the cynical realist who realizes the need to kill– is recurrent in Lawrence’s novels. He expresses this important conflict in his essay with the resonance and suggestive power of poetry. Let us consider, for instance, the following reflections on the impact of one form of life on another:

Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or than in a palm tree.

Life is more vivid in a snake than in a butterfly.

Life is more vivid in a cat than in an ostrich.

Life is more vivid in the Mexican who drives the wagon, then the two horses in the wagon.

Life is more vivid in me, than the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.

We are speaking in terms of existence: that is, in terms of species, race, or type. 5

Lawrence has breathed new life in the dying art of essay writing. His essays, unlike those of Bertrand Russell are much more than a string of arguments, or boxes full of hard-packed logic. Lawrence gives a living experience. In an important sense, if the essays of Aldous Huxley, E. M. Forster and Bertrand Russell represent varieties of excellence, those of Lawrence constitute a category of which no generalization provides an adequate description. In Huxley and Russell, both excellent essayists, the rational self asserts itself in incontrovertible arguments couched in transparent prose. Both Huxley and Russell derive their force from the rational faculty and from their great erudition. Lawrence abhors the mere rational approach to life. According to him quotations and excerpts serve no useful purpose. All depends on our response or on the impact on our soul. The emphasis in Lawrence is on the “passional self” rather than the rational self. In his essays we come across numerous delightful example of a sensitive soul overwhelmed by some impression or impulse. What we find in his essay is indeed a primitive man’s response to life. After reading Lawrence’s beautifully evocative essays when we turn to Huxley and Russell who present facts with clarity and confidence one feels that there is much more to life than an assortment of  facts. A Lawrence essay is like blood speaking to blood. To describe it as a tissue of arguments is to ignore its poetry. In the “Whistling of Birds” Lawrence gives us a post –impressionistic painting instead of a mere photograph. Here life transcends the limits and seems to represent many dimensions and stages at the same time:

We are lifted to cast away into the new beginning. Under our hearts the fountain surges, to toss us forth. Who can thwart the impulse that comes upon us, and it behoves us to pass delicately and exquisitely upon the subtle new wind from heaven, conveyed like birds in unreasoning migrations from death to life.6

Lawrence seems to echo Keats: “The poetry of the earth is never dead.” In some of the finest essays of Lawrence facts or arguments become secondary. The very experience comes to life. Unlike a typical essay it is not “about” something but the thing itself.

‘Flowery Tuscany’ is an exquisite prose-poem that the blazing sun of the Mediterranean inspires Lawrence to write. The sun brings a rich variety of flower to life. According to Lawrence where the sun is so bright, the flowers are so colourful and vibrant there can be no tragedy, no sorrow:

The Mediterranean has narcissus and anemone, myrtle and asphodel and grape hyacinth. These are the flowers that speak and are understood in the sun round the Middle Sea. 7

After this Lawrence switches over to the related themes of joy and sorrow and life and death, underscoring his perennial theme that the same drama has been going on everywhere in the universe. Everything that we see in the universe emanates from the same principle and the same process:

Hence, strictly there is no tragedy. The universe contains no tragedy, and man is only tragical because he is afraid of death. For my part, if the sun always shines, and always will shine, in spite of millions of clouds of words, then death, somehow, does not have many terrors. In the sunshine, even death is sunny. And there is no end to the sunshine. 8

D. H. Lawrence can make his words as powerful as the musical notes in a song or colours in a painting. Lawrence’s essays cover a wide spectrum of themes which clearly shows the authour’s infinite range of interest. He writes about man and nature, about people and places, birds and animals, history and sociology climate and psychology. He has also written a large number of essays which may be variously described as memoirs portraits, biographical sketches and literary criticism. Everything that Lawrence has done bears that stamp of his individual genius. His essays reflect his uncanny perception of life. In some other writer this ‘perception’ may degenerate into something idiosyncratic and repetitive, but in Lawrence never. He looks at life with naked eyes, eyes unclouded by prejudices. Lawrence’s personal style and extremely individualistic stance speak of an attitude or of a bias that is the very opposite of Aldous Huxley’s or T. S. Eliot’s. Lawrence’s approached is existential. He abhors the very thought of objective or scientific truth. He considers himself a living part of the living universe. This attitude finds eloquent expression in Lawrence’s non-fictional prose, particularly, his essays and letters. While it has been asserted over and over again that Lawrence’s essays and letters function as valuable spotlights which illuminate the significance of his fiction, these are also extremely important in themselves. In the words of Aldous Huxley, “It is impossible to write about Lawrence except as an artist. He was an artist first of all, and the fact of his being an artist explains a life which seems, if you forget it, inexplicably strange.” 9

This also explains his inexplicably strange and extremely varied body of non-fictional writings. The conflict between the artist who has no axe to grind and the man with a mission often accounts for the element of complexity in his essays and letters. Bonamy Dobree underlines this tension or conflict in Lawrence’s writings in the following words:

A brilliant writer of descriptive prose, with a rhythm as potent as that of De Quincy when he cares to use it, and a command of the right word and metaphor which is given to very few, he despises fine writing even where it would best serve his purpose. It is as though born as an artist, and desiring to be a priest, he is afraid that his art will get the better of him; and where there is fear, there cannot be complete control of the material essential of great art. His genius, therefore, is of the fiery sort, now leaping into plumes of flame, now sinking into a sultry glow: it is not of the order which reveals itself in clear lightning flashes illuminating the surroundings. Consequently there is often much smoke, and sometimes confusion. 10

The essays and letters of Lawrence reveal the underlying conflict in Lawrence’s mind. These also provide surest way to dispel the smoke and confusion that seem to cloud Lawrence’s creative writing.


Prof A S Bahadur is the Head of the Dept Of English,  Rajiv Gandhi Postgraduate College, Ambikapur , Surguja, Chhattisgarh, India


N O T E S: 

  1.     Quoted in F. R. Leavis’s, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), p.22

2.         E. M. Forster in D. H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage ed. R.P. Draper (London : Routledge, and Kegan Paul, 1970), P. 345.


3.         D. H. Lawrence, Selected Essays, P. 60

4.         Ibid., P. 61

5.         Ibid., P. 65

6.         Ibid., P. 113

7.         Ibid., P. 139

8.         Ibid., P. 154

9.         Aldous Huxley in Critics on D. H. Lawrence  (ed. W. T. Andrews), p. 41.

10.       Bonamy Dobree, The Lamp and the Lute  (London : Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1964), P. 82.

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