Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust are hoping to increase our understanding of the value of nature and issues facing wildlife by suggesting 30 books to read throughout June (#30WildBooks). One writer not on their list is DH Lawrence. If he were to be included in a future campaign I would recommend Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) which, based on his experiences of the Mediterranean and the American Southwest, explores the poetry of nature and the otherness of the non-human world. But pick up any work by Lawrence and you’ll find a writer completely connected to his immediate environment. His Midlands novels explore the destruction of “the country of my heart” and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, whereas his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911) includes references to over 140 different plants, flowers and trees.
“Under the froth of flowers were the purple vetch-clumps, yellow milk vetches, and the scattered pink of the wood-betony, and the floating stars of marguerites. There was a weight of honeysuckle on the hedges, where pink roses were waking up for their broad-spread flight through the day. Morning silvered the swaths of the far meadow, and swept in smooth, brilliant curves round the stones of the brook; morning ran in my veins; morning chased the silver, darting fish out of the depth, and I, who saw them, snapped my fingers at them, driving them back.” The White Peacock.
Lawrence’s short stories Adolf (rabbit) and Rex (dog) explore his childhood relationship with animals. In Adolf his father brings home a nearly-dead rabbit he’d found on his walk home. Through pure tenderness the rabbit is saved but goes on to cause havoc in the house, leaving droppings on saucers while helping itself to the sugar pot, much to the displeasure of his house-proud mother. Rex explores the naming of a dog donated to the family by an uncle. Like Adolf, the dog disrupts the order of the house and the mother wants him out. But he returns, “wagging his tail as if to say ‘Yes, I’ve come back. But I didn’t need to. I can carry on remarkably well by myself.'” It’s classic Lawrence, forcing us to see things from a different perspective.
One book on the Wildlife Trust’s recommended reading list is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Lawrence helped establish Melville’s reputation after an essay published in Studies in Classical American Literature in 1923. It’s an incredible piece of literary criticism about the “tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort” and the #30WildBooks project gave me the opportunity to revisit it once more.
You can feel Lawrence’s excitement reading this seminal book. It’s like it’s written in real time, becoming more frenetic as he jumps on the ship with Ahab on “the last great hunt”. He’s intrigued as to the symbolism of this “warm-blooded” and “lovable” Leviathan and suggests that the reason the whale was never worshipped by the South Sea Islanders, Polynesians, and Malays, was because “the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite”.
Lawrence is fascinated by the other and how people change when placed in isolation. Here is it the wilderness of the sea that has a profound effect on Captain Ahab’s character.
“For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.”
Lawrence analyses the “incredible crew” on the Pequod, exploring their relationships to each other and the outer world. They make The Argonauts seem like “mild lambs in comparison” as they’re “a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.” Never one to overplay things, he is equally irked by “the sonorous mysticism” that “gets on one’s nerves”. As much as he recognises the novel as being unequalled in terms of “esoteric symbolism” it is also one of “considerable tiresomeness”, accusations that could equally be levelled at Lawrence’s later work, particularly The Plumed Serpent (1926). Kettle black, etc.
Lawrence’s is always able to see things from the non- human perspective: “Moby Dick, the great white whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him. Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides.” Touché .
Lawrence being Lawrence, he uses Melville as a prism through which to explore his own favourite topics, most notably; blood consciousness, the spinal cord, primordial cultures, spirituality and the obligatory bromance. This was picked up by critic John Middleton Murry: “He is not concerned with Melville in and for himself, in his own quiddity. Melville exists only as a paradigm for Lawrence. But the projection of himself that Lawrence makes by means of Melville is amazing (…) It does not matter in the least whether this is a true interpretation of Moby Dick: its importance lies in the self-revelation of Lawrence.”
It’s all about me…
Biographer Andrew Harrison (2016) takes this further, suggesting “the attempt to understand the Americans and, through them, his own work, implied an incipient desire to imagine an audience for (Women in Love).”
One other area of controversy is Lawrence’s assumption that Ishmael does not survive the wreck of the Pequod. Research by JoEllyn Clarey (1986) suggests this was because he was using the original English edition of Moby Dick that omitted the epilogue. Things are never simple with Lawrence, are they?
- 30 Wild Books to Read in June (dawnoftheunread.wordpress.com)
- Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust website (nottinghamshirewildlife.org)
- DH Lawrence – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (xroads.virginia.edu)
- Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael (San Francisco, 1947)
- Michael J. Colacurcio, “The Symbolic and the Symptomatic: D. H. Lawrence in Recent American Criticism,” American Quarterly 27 (1975): 488. 28/Chase, p. 24.
- Ren Wellek, “The Literary Criticism of D. H. Lawrence,” Sewanee Review 91 (1983): 598-613
- JoEllyn Clarey “D. H. Lawrence’s “Moby-Dick”: A Textual Note,” Modern Philology Vol. 84, No. 2 (Nov., 1986), pp. 191-195