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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Poems’

- - Friday, August 16, 2013

THE POEMS
By D.H. Lawrence
Edited by Christopher Pollnitz
Cambridge University Press, $250, 1,425 pages

When people think of D.H. Lawrence, they generally think of his substantial body of fiction, those long, intense novels such as "Sons and Lovers," "The Rainbow," "Women in Love" and lots of novellas and stories. Certainly, it was these that led the influential Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis to make Lawrence a linchpin of his book, "The Great Tradition," along with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. But there was another genre where Lawrence shone at least as brightly and where, once again, he was squarely within a central tradition in English literature: poetry. Now, for the first time, there is a full, critical edition of Lawrence's verse, expertly annotated and scrupulously edited, giving us all his poetical works — including some previously unknown — just as he wrote them.

The poems that stand out among these hitherto unpublished poems are the sequence dealing with his reaction to World War I. Although the tuberculosis that killed Lawrence at 44 kept him out of the military, those terrible years were difficult ones for him personally, particularly as he had just married the love of his life, Prussian-born Frieda von Richthofen, a relative of the celebrated Red Baron German air ace. While they show the poet's characteristic use of dialect and sensitivity to all manner of folk — to say nothing of the virtuosity seemingly embedded in his poetic DNA — they do not really rate among the pinnacles of his verse achievements, however much their anti-war sentiments resonate facilely today.

Lawrence's poetry stands four-square in the tradition inaugurated by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their majestic poetry, and it follows, perhaps more than any of their successors, the precepts laid down by Wordsworth at the very beginning of the 19th century in his seminal "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads." This most influential of literary credos actually shaped English poetry from then on, liberating it from the artifice and elaboration that had characterized it in the 17th and 18th centuries. For if any poet has followed the injunction to use everyday English and done so to glorious resonance and effect, it is Lawrence.

Whether he is capturing the speech of his native Nottinghamshire mining village (as he also does in so many of his novels) or carrying mainstream English to heights of expressive emotions and feelings about nature, Lawrence's poetic voice is one that, once heard, lingers in mind and memory. Like his poetic contemporary Thomas Hardy, Lawrence is steeped in the hymns of his childhood chapel attendance. And these cadences echo throughout his poetry.

Like Hardy, Lawrence was dogged by negative reaction to his frank depiction of sexuality. Indeed, it was the furious reaction to "Jude the Obscure" in 1896 that led Hardy to forswear fiction and concentrate on poetry for the nearly three decades remaining of his long life. However, Lawrence, plagued with chronic ill-health and a sense of imminent mortality, was in some ways made of sterner stuff than even the flinty Hardy, and he raged in verse as well as prose against censorship and equally against a prurient attitude toward sexuality. After all, this is the author of that coruscating essay "Pornography and Obscenity," where he rails against the kind of sniggering he associated with men ogling filthy postcards and what he characterized pungently as "doing dirt on sex." It is precisely this attitude that was anathema to him personally and that his own frank writings on sexuality targeted. For, like his great contemporary James Joyce, Lawrence's writings about sex are not just sacerdotal, but essentially existential and deliberately anti-pornographic.

Who can forget Lawrence's marvelous series of poems about fruit — "Grapes," "Peaches," "Medlars and Sorb-Apples" and, best of all, the superb "Figs"? Or "Snake," detailing his encounter with a serpent drinking at his water trough in Sicily and morphing into a self-critical analysis. Or "The Ship of Death," where the dying poet confronts his imminent mortality with unflinching courage and a personal and literary credo the equal of Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar." Reading Lawrence's poetry will take you right into his heart and soul, and you will never think the same way about his novels or indeed about the man who wrote so passionately about nature and the whole human experience.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.