Outside the Gate: Sulphurous Politico-Theological Speculations on Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent

Torpedo the Ark
In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, offers some sulphurous-theological speculations on Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent. Stephen weaves many philosophical ideas into his writing, prodding, poking and interrogating the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge” – but always with a toothy smile. Stephen is one of the commissioned writers for the Memory Theatre

Just as there is a hardening of attitude towards the political question in Nietzsche’s work post-Zarathustra, so too in Lawrence’s fiction and essays during the period 1915-1926 is there a decisive move away from the liberal-humanist and Christian-moral tradition of the West. This move comes to a climax in The Plumed Serpent.

Richard Aldington writes in an introduction to the above that it is a “curious and original novel with no affinities”,[1] but this is not so. For in fact, the novel has many affinities and does not appear to be half so curious if one has knowledge of the cultural, philosophical, and political context in which the book was written and first published (1926). As Frank Kermode indicates in his study of Lawrence, even the novel’s occult preoccupations were surprisingly widespread within modernist circles: “A blend of theosophy, socialism, sexual reformism, evolutionism, religious primitivism, was common enough in the avantgarde thinking of the time”.[2]

It is precisely this blend of anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language which makes The Plumed Serpent a highly controversial and disturbing work; as irritating in style as it is disquieting in content.

Throughout the text, Lawrence betrays an increasing frustration with the limitations of language when it comes to expressing those powers and forces (or ‘dark gods’) that move outside of human consciousness. Just as the book’s central character, Don Ramón, has difficulty articulating his new ‘life-urge’, so too does Lawrence struggle to articulate the novel, believing as he does that most readers do not want to hear a new conception uttered in an alien tongue: “For the machine of the human psyche, once wound up to a certain ideal, doesn’t want to stop” and thus treats every new word as “Evil and anti-civilization”.[3]

But Lawrence courageously pushes thought onto new territory regardless, refusing to dwell safely within doxa and revealing how “thought is impoverished when it fails to think relentlessly”.[4] Lawrence also obliges us to adopt an alien viewpoint, for it is only by becoming-Aztec, for example, that we are able to gain a wholly other (and not merely different) perspective upon our own condition and critically examine those presuppositions and prejudices that characterize modernity.

In other words, The Plumed Serpent allows us to interrogate and to loosen “the aura of necessity and sanctity surrounding categories of the present”.[5] And to do this from a position that is paradoxically both in real time and space (the novel is set in the historical Mexico of the 1920s) and yet also unfolds in the fictional and neo-mythical universe that Lawrence creates. The ‘problem’ – and for some commentators it’s a serious concern – is that Lawrence fails to divide these worlds cleanly and clearly enough so that, as Michael Bell points out, he constantly seems to stray beyond accepted aesthetic limits in order to explore new possibilities of action and new realms of knowledge.

Via use of idiosyncratic narrative techniques and radical literary devices which transgress the usual conventions of the novel, Lawrence manages to make plausible that which is improbable and transform the quest for the impossible into an apparently reasonable demand. We are all left as readers asking of the novel “how speculative or literal a spirit its Utopian project is to be understood?”[6]

Again, for some critics this is deeply problematic. For others, however, “much of Lawrence’s significance lies in his attempts to relate his ontological vision to the everyday and communal realms”.[7] Like Nietzsche, Lawrence endeavours to show how philosophy and art might both have a more profound and congenial relation to life by mixing together elements of prophecy and politics in an attempted substantiation of mystery.

Jürgen Habermas suggests that Nietzsche and his successors become so transfixed by the radiance of the extraordinary that they “contemptuously glide over the practice of everyday life as something derivative or inauthentic”.[8] But this is profoundly mistaken. As we will see, the notion of immanence is of vital importance to Nietzsche and those, like Lawrence, who write after him. For thinking overcomes metaphysics not by transcendence, but by grounding itself in the body and in the phenomenal realm of everyday things.

It is true, however, to say that what such authors understand by the term ‘world’ is much wider than simply the limited and known space in which man acts and his daily existence. This space is simply a little clearing of morality and reason fenced off from the wider, darker, inhuman environment outside the gate. Unfortunately, writes Lawrence, “the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there was no outside, it was all in. The Unknown became a joke”[9] and it is still a joke (or a zone of horror) for humanists such as Habermas.

It is because of this – because the outside and the extraordinary remain ludicrous notions to the guardians of the interior who dominate ‘serious’ discourse today – that we still find it difficult to take what Lawrence says seriously. We find his fictional and theoretical analysis of modernity stimulating, stylish, disturbing and so on, but without ever really considering the possibility that he was right: right to invoke the forces of the outside in order to shatter conventional models of political thinking; right to seek out ways in which to enter what Foucault memorably termed the space d’une extériorité sauvage and which Nietzsche had already identified as that “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”[10] full of “tigers and palm trees and rattle-snakes”[11] and all the other marvels that the hot sun hatches.

This is the realm where King Kong still bristles in the darkness and human sacrifice remains the most sacred ritual. In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence challenges us to do our thinking here; thinking which may have tragic results for man, but which might also help to restore to the world an aura of primordial wonder. And that’s why it remains an important – if little loved – novel within Lawrence’s body of work.

This is a revised extract from Outside the Gate (Blind Cupid Press, 2010). You can read more of Stephen’s thoughts at torpedotheark.blogspot.co.uk


In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  How do we capture the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”? Or the anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language of novels such as The Plumed Serpent? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.


  • [1] Richard Aldington, Introduction to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 7.
  • [2] Frank Kermode, Lawrence, (Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 60-1.
  • [3] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 297.
  • [4] William E. Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity, (Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. ix.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 6.
  • [6] Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 196.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 205.
  • [8] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, (Polity Press, 1994), p. 339.
  • [9] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, p. 285.
  • [10] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1990), I. 23, p. 53.
  • [11] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1969), ‘Of Manly Prudence’, p. 165.

The Last Portrait of D.H. Lawrence by Hewitt Henry Rayner

Source: Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers catalogue.

 This rare portrait of Lawrence by Australian artist Hewitt Henry Rayner, etched in 1929, is thought to be the last portrait made of Lawrence before he died on 2 March 1930. If you’ve got £3,000 to £5,000 going spare, it’s up for auction at Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers, Cambridge on Thursday 11 October. 

In 1923, 21 year-old Hewitt Henry Raynor left Melbourne, Australia and headed to England to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. One year earlier, Lawrence had set off in the other direction, taking a detour to Australia on his way to New Mexico. Raynor settled in London, attending the London Royal Academy of Art where he was taught by Walter Sickert. He would remain in the capital for the rest of his life, returning to Melbourne for a brief visit in 1931. Lawrence never settled anywhere for too long, and very rarely returned back to his country of birth. The two would meet in 1929 when Raynor produced what is thought to be the last portrait taken of Lawrence.

Rayner was an etcher who perfected the drypoint technique, creating over 500 drypoint plates during his life. This is believed to be the largest body of drypoint work of any mid-20th century artist, most of which were produced after 1926. Unable to afford copper plates, Raynor used any type of metal he could get his hands on, such as oil containers and sweet tins. He didn’t have proper engraving tools either, instead opting for second-hand dentists’ drill bits, which he found more suited to the task. Sustainable approaches are all the vogue now, but Rayner’s techniques were born out of economic necessity – he only achieved notoriety after his death. This was due to numerous factors which we’ll look at in a moment, but it’s worth briefly giving a potted history of etching.

Printmaking of all varieties had a low standing in the 19th century due to it being perceived as a reproductive craft and therefore not worthy of exhibition at the Royal Academy. But a change in style in the mid-1800s saw it gain in popularity, eventually resulting in the formation of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1880. As Art Schools began to develop up and down the country, the techniques were taught, and the discipline was taken more seriously.

Etching reached its peak in the 1920s when prices became so inflated they were unaffordable to traditional collectors. Instead they had to settle for anthology books celebrating reproductions, such as the annual Fine Prints of the Year. These prices were partly inflated by the publishers, who limited print runs to create a scarcity value. To put this into context, in 1929, the year that Raynor made his sketch of Lawrence, one print by DY Cameron went for a staggering £640 at Southeby’s. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that’s the equivalent of around £38,500 today. Although back then it would have got you quite a few houses.

It was during the 1920s that ‘come up and see my etchings’ became code for wealth, although in contemporary culture it became a romantic euphemism whereby women were lured up to bedrooms under false pretences. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) the narrator reassures his suspicious wife that the lady she had seen wander off ‘just wanted to show me some French etchings’.

Carola Barnaba, DensityDesign Research Lab at wikimedia.

Lawrence took up painting towards the latter end of the 1920s, though this wasn’t for money or popularity. Painting simply offered an alternative mode of expression that was more pleasurable in process than writing.

“I disappeared into that canvas. It is for me the most exciting moment – when you have the blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge. It is just like diving in a pond – there you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you’re worth. The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture somes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action. Once the instinct and the intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens…”

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned in 1928 and so painting offered an escape from the frustrations of the literary world. Or so he thought. His first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in June 1929 was swiftly closed on grounds of indecency with thirteen of his paintings placed in a prison cell (all of the seized paintings depicted public hair). Outraged by the latest bout of censorship he began work on the aptly named poetry series ‘Nettles’ which included the line: ‘Virginal, pure policeman came/ and hid their faces for very shame’.

Lawrence had been too ill to leave Italy to attend the exhibition in June 1929. Instead he sent Frieda on his behalf. This means that the portrait by Raynor must have been sketched during his last visit to the UK although I am not sure when. When the two did meet, I wonder how Lawrence would have viewed Rayner’s success, given the financial difficulties he had experienced throughout his own career while Rayner was at his peak. But the subsequent Wall Street Crash put an end to the etchings market and Rayner spent the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s trying to sell his prints door to door. After being injured during the London Blitz, Raynor became more reclusive. He passed away in 1957, a few years before the Chatterley ban was lifted.

Both had a few things in common, though some of these connections are only apparent in retrospect. There was Australia, self-imposed exile, and art. Both were turned down for military service for WWI and WWII respectively. Both produced a phenomenal output of work yet struggled with poverty, with neither getting the recognition they deserved during their short lives. We know from the memoirs of Dorothy Brett and Knud Merrild that Lawrence was highly critical of their work and always had an opinion on how their art could be improved. So what would he have made of Raynor’s etching? Needless to say he would have found fault.


  • Etching from the MMA Timeline of Art History (metmuseum.org)
  • MOMA information on printing techniques and examples of prints (moma.org)
  • Etching revival Twitter account (com)
  • The Print Australia Reference Library Catalogue (com)
  • Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers (co.uk)
  • Hewitt Henry Raynor website (co.uk)
  • The Artist’s Studio: What Is Etching? com.au

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer.  How do we capture the censorship of his art? Do we need a slideshow of the various portraits that were made of him during his life? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

D.H. Lawrence Festival 2018

DH Lawrence Festival of Culture 2018 cover-page-001 (1)
Festival flyer.

On September 11th the world changed forever. DH Lawrence was born. This year’s festival includes a broad mix of events from literary walks to short story discussion groups. For the first time ever the birthday lecture is not taking place on Lawrence’s birthday. Instead it will take place on Saturday 8th September. This is simply because it is easier for people to attend at the weekend. It’s given by film director Christopher Miles and is our festival highlight.  

Eastwood Walk “The Lost Girl Trail”
Tuesday 4th September from 2.00pm
A guided walk led by Sheila Bamford from the D.H Lawrence Society.
VENUE: Meet at The Sun Inn, Eastwood, Notts. ADMISSION: Free

Poetry Reading and Group Discussion
Wednesday 5th September, 7.00pm
In his first published volume of verse (“Love Poems and Others” Pub 1913) Lawrence
included four poems written in Eastwood dialect “Violets” ; “Whether or Not”; “A Colliers
Wife” and “The Drained Cup” . The reading group—led by Dr. Andrew Harrison of the D.H. Lawrence Research Centre at the University of Nottingham, will include readings of these poems and give participants the opportunity to explore such issues as Lawrence’s
transcription of local speech. Copies of the poems will be made available on the night.
This event is put on by the D.H. Lawrence Society but is an open event.
VENUE: Horse and Groom Pub, Moorgreen, NG16 2FE. ADMISSION: £2

Talks and Workshop, ‘Singing Eastwood’
Thursday 6th September, 2.00pm – 6.00pm
Celebrating a rich musical history through Eastwood’s former chapels and the
entrepreneuring work of Arthur Linwood, who for many years composed and published
volumes of anthems, running a successful business for half a century in Eastwood’s High
Street. Memory of these establishments, now defunct, will be brought back to life in this
surviving flourishing chapel, together with a recent discovery of Linwood scores.
VENUE: Eastwood Baptist Church, Percy Street, Eastwood, NG16 3EP. ADMISSION: Free.

Concert, ‘Beauvale Priory and the Carthusians’
Friday 7th September, 7.30pm
Beauvale Priory, a scheduled monument just outside Eastwood, was home to a
contemplative Carthusian Order, historically important as the home of the two Priors
Robert Lawrence and John Houghton, who were among the first English martyrs to be
executed at the Reformation. The beautiful Catholic Church at Hill Top, with its important chapel dedicated to these two Saints, is a perfect place to house this concert, possessing a fine organ and good acoustics. The programme, performed by the organist and composer Alan Wilson, together with friends, traces through music and words the formation, prosperity, destruction and resurrection of this important shrine. Reference is also made to D.H.Lawrence’s short story ‘A fragment of stained glass’.
VENUE: Our Lady of Good Counsel, Roman Catholic Church, Hill Top, Eastwood. NG16 2AQ ADMISSION: Free

F.R. Leavis Society and D.H. Lawrence Society Conference
Saturday 8th September, 10.00am – 5.00pm
A one day conference with invited speakers from the F.R. Leavis Society and the D. H.
Lawrence Society givings papers, and the opportunity for Q and A and open discussion.
This conference is primarily for members of the Leavis Society or the Lawrence Society but non-members are welcome.
VENUE: Eastwood Hall Conference Centre, NG16 3SS. ADMISSION: £33 including coffee/tea and lunch. Please contact Bob Hayward or Malcolm Gray to book a place. Bob Hayward n279hayward@btinternet.com
Malcolm Gray mjgray220@gmail.com

The D.H. Lawrence Society Birthday Lecture
Saturday 8th September at 7.00p.m.
The annual D.H. Lawrence Society Birthday Lecture is to be given this year by Christopher Miles. The Birthday lecture is open meeting. Christopher Miles directed the 1982 film “Priest of Love” with Ava Gardner, Janet Suzman and Ian McKellan as D.H. Lawrence. He also directed the film adaptation of Lawrence’s short story “The Virgin and the Gypsy” starring Joanna Shimkus, Franco Nero and Honor Blackman. In his Birthday lecture Christopher Miles will be talking on “Those Paintings”—the paintings of D.H. Lawrence.

The birthday lecture is my personal highlight of the festival. When I asked Christopher to elaborate on what we could expect from his talk he said: “I explain why Lawrence took up painting so late in life in 1926, and why 13 of his paintings exhibited at the Warren Gallery in London were taken by the police and put into a prison cell. Would they shock today, and are they still banned – some may shock today and the ban has never been lifted. Even liberal Waterstones in Nottingham wouldn’t show a couple of them in 2003. I’ll show that he began his first affair by copying a certain romantic picture when he was 24, and sending it to a girlfriend. So he had been painting for sometime before 1926. Lawrence had more painter friends than writers, so I examine how they influenced him, and what influence each of them had on his writing, and his own artistic efforts. As well as a new discovery of how the Theosophy movement influenced his writing as well as his painting. His final, large paintings were done while he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a link is made to show his psychological thinking at the time, as he tries to say in paint what he said in print. I also show at the end how one country, and ancient race of people, influenced his painting the most, just three years before he died in Vence.”
VENUE: Eastwood Conference Hall, Mansfield Road, Eastwood, NG16 3SS. Admission: £2

Visit and Literary Walk (Fanny and Annie)
Sunday 9th September at 2.00pm
In 1919 D.H. Lawrence began work on a short story “Fanny and Annie”. He used the
old Morley Chapel as part of his location. The opportunity now exists to visit the old
chapel and walk around the area—with some possible readings from the story. There will be some light refreshments. This visit has kindly been offered by the owner of the house to Lawrence Society members.
VENUE: The Old Chapel, Morley Almhouse Lane, Morley, Derbyshire, DE7 6DL.

The Early Life of D.H. Lawrence
Wednesday 12th September, 2.00pm – 3.00pm
The D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum and writers group Chapter & Verse are
hosting an event to celebrate the Eastwood writer’s early life. A representative
of the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum will give a talk on Lawrence’s early life and home. Afterwards there will be the chance to handle some artefacts from the museum and to see some of the writing produced by members of Chapter & Verse. Refreshments will be available to purchase from the Durban House Café.
VENUE: The café at Durban House Day Spa, Mansfield Road, Eastwood, NG16 3DZ

D.H. Lawrence and the Communities of the Erewash Valley
Saturday 15th September, 2.00pm to 5.00pm
An informal event of talks, readings-prose and poetry, work and leisure.
VENUE: The Breach House Garden Road Eastwood Notts ADMISSION: Free

The Pit, the Pub, and the Plough
Saturday 15th September, 2.00pm – 5.00pm
David Amos, Harry Riley and many others explore Lawrence through three key features of Eastwood life.
VENUE: Breach House, Eastwood. ADMISSION: Free

There are other events scheduled during the festival which are not listed above. You can read about these by downloading the festival brochure here. It is also worth noting that where an event is listed as ‘free’ it is polite to leave a donation. Money is donated to heritage organisations related to specific events and includes: Breach House, Eastwood Memory Cafe, upkeep of local chapels. 


In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer of novels, poetry, plays, essays, letters, and philosophy.  Perhaps the festival will give you some ideas? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.