D.H. Lawrence lived in Cornwall from 30 December 1915 to 15 October 1917 in what he hoped would be a new beginning. It didn’t quite work out as planned. His short tenure on the edge of Britain would have a profound effect on his ideas, not least his developing fascination with cosmic vibrations and the mysterious secrets of primitive cultures emanating from the dark black granite coastline.
Prior to the move, Lawrence married a German woman called Frieda Weekley, a distant relation of Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’, on 13 July 1914, 15 days before the outbreak of WWI. The Rainbow, published in September 1915 lasted two months in print before being seized under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Prosecutor Herbert Musket declared it ‘a mass of obscenity of thought, idea, and action’. Critic JC Squire suggested Lawrence’s characters were under ‘the spell of German psychologists’, for daring to question fundamentals of their life (religion, love, relationships), and by implication were anti-British in nature. Judge Sir John Dickinson therefore ruled that the book ‘had no right to exist in the wind of war’, and that Lawrence was in effect mocking the very principles British men were fighting to defend. With no sense of irony, copies of The Rainbow were publicly burned, while ‘our’ boys fought for freedom on the Western Front.
If this wasn’t enough to rile the easily riled Lawrence, his passport was seized, meaning he was unable to fulfil his dream of moving to Florida to begin a new life, a new way of being. Cornwall represented his stepping stone to this other world. Lawrence described Cornwall as “outside England…Far off from the world”. Nick Ceramella writes that “in those nightmarish Great War years, he thought that Cornwall, with its calm atmosphere, was a welcoming shelter far from the war, the madding London crowd and its intellectuals, and the national institutions.” But he was wrong. He would face more parochial forms of prejudice, and the ignominy of being expelled under the Defence of the Realm Act, all of which would provide material for the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangeroo (1923).
While in Cornwall, Lawrence started to develop his own philosophy of man’s place in the world. He described this as blood consciousness, whereby we should yield to our more inherent and intuitive nature, the opposite of mental consciousness – the kind of logic that resulted in his books being banned. These ideas weren’t new. In 1913 he wrote “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as wiser than the intellect”. But now he had time to develop it further.
Jane Costin argues that Lawrence’s views on blood consciousness begin to change during his time in Cornwall. In particular, he senses a life force in the rocks, a latent energy that can connect blood consciousness with the primitive tribes that went before. He describes the landscape as belonging “still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring” (2L 493) and that the water “is so white and powerful and incomprehensible under the black rock, that is not of this life. I feel as if there were a strange, savage, unknown God in the foam – heaven knows what God it be” (2L 501).
Lawrence sounds very much like he is undergoing some form of epiphany, inspired by the landscape that is ‘like the first craggy breaking of dawn in the world, a sense of the primeval darkness just behind, before the Creation’. The phoenix is rising.
Lawrence was under an incredible amount of stress during this period, both financially and creatively, so it’s hardly surprising that the environment took on greater resonance. He was also isolated. His hopes of creating Rananim with John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield were short-lived, forging wounds that never quite healed. It was also difficult for friends to visit due to wartime costs. Two return train tickets from London to Cornwall costs £7 whereas his entire rent of a cottage in 1916 was £5. It is for this reason that Andrew Harrison argues that in analysing Lawrence’s time in Cornwall we must ‘understand how desperately important the idea of Cornwall was to Lawrence.’
When Lawrence and Frieda moved to Zennor, they were effectively isolated between the sea and the Moors. A lack of roads meant their cottage was cut off. This allowed the locals to retain old traditions, languages, and a ‘primitive’ way of life that felt very different to the metropolis. Lawrence, believing he had found new kin, would observe that ‘race is ultimately as much a question of place as heredity’.
The Zennor coastline is home to large lumps of granite that Lawrence felt ‘had its own life force’ and sent out ‘vibrations that could be detected by people who were sensitive to their own blood-consciousness and not dominated by mind-consciousness.’
Lawrence’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe, published in 1918, draws on these feelings developed in Cornwall: ‘Surely all material things have a form of sentience, even the inorganic: surely they all exist in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects, irrespective of contact.’
The concept of a vibrating material world would be addressed more thoroughly in Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), but it also gets a thorough working through in Kangaroo (1923), where we are informed ‘the body has its own rhythm, with the sun and with the moon. The great nerve ganglia and the subtle glands have their regular times and motions, in correspondence with the outer universe’.
The thing is, not everybody is able to tune into these vibrations, as Somers points out in Kangaroo: “I haven’t got only just the two eyes in my head that can tell the kettle from the teapot. I’ve got another set of eyes inside me somewhere that can tell real differences, when there are any. And that’s what these people don’t seem to have at all. They’ve only got the outside eyes.”
Lawrence’s characters, like Lawrence, can be condescending, arrogant and preachy, while warning others not to be condescending, arrogant and preachy. Kangaroo also opens itself up to some pretty harsh criticisms, and rightly so. But if we put the observations of people as ‘ants’ and ‘canaille’ to one side for a moment, the novel is also an attempt to outline a new religious idea. The great ideas of modernity weren’t working and had simply led to war and industrialisation. Radical alternatives were needed, and Lawrence was prepared to offer up suggestions. To do this, he draws heavily on his experiences of Cornwall and WWI in Kangaroo.
Richard Lovat Somers is a bearded ‘thought adventurer’ essayist and poet who has left England after being detained there during World War I. He was harassed for his independent ideas and his political opinions and faced prejudice and suspicion because he was married to a German wife. Sound like someone we know….
Somers is frustrated by his contemporaries who he diplomatically describes as ‘carrion-eating, filthy-mouthed canaille, like dead-man-devouring jackals’. Realising he can’t change the rest of humanity – and that they’re probably not worth saving anyway – he discovers the great secret: ‘to stand alone as his own judge of himself’ and to leave ‘the mongrel-mouthed world’ to ‘say and do what it liked’.
Somers is absolutely seething at how he has been treated by humanity and can feel his spine sending ‘out vibrations that should annihilate them–blot them out, the canaille, stamp them into the mud they belonged to’. But we also learn that having a proper strop is actually very cathartic: ‘the death-hot lava pours loose into the deepest reservoirs of the soul. One day to erupt: or else to go hard and rocky, dead’. i.e. We can either use our rage to transform ourselves or we can allow it to solidify and render us passive.
It’s at this point in the book that some readers will have had enough of Somers tantrums and thrown the novel onto the fire. Mistake. This is the exact moment the novel takes on another layer of sophistication and broadens out into a scathing attack of ideology. ‘Say what you like, every idea is perishable: even the idea of God or Love or Humanity or Liberty–even the greatest idea has its day and perishes. Each formulated religion is in the end only a great idea. Once the idea becomes explicit, it is dead’.
Yes, we must have ideas but ‘persisting in an old, defunct ideal’ is what eventually brought down Rome, Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, and ‘now our turn’. Can we apply this logic to the current political climate? Is capitalism, monarchy, national identity, gender, or the EU (I voted remain BTW) defunct ideals that are no longer worth persisting in? Answers on a postcard please…
Somers warns us (sounding a bit like a trailer for the new series of Game of Thrones) ‘If you sow the dragon’s teeth, you mustn’t expect lilies of the valley to spring up in sweet meekness’, therefore he decides to cut himself off from humanity altogether, and focus his attention on ‘the old dark gods, who had waited so long in the outer dark’. Winter is definitely coming…
The God in church is an ideal God. A product of mental consciousness. A human, oh so human invention. As is the money God, and modernity with its fallacious claims of progress. We are all wrapped up in our ‘nice, complete, homely universe’, worrying about ‘running their trains and making their wars and saving the world for democracy’ and consequently do not hear the ‘throb-throb-throb’ of something else calling. This throbbing, this vibration, offers a different way of being, a different connection with the world, and a way of acknowledging a dark unknowable God.
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 get across these cosmic vibrations and connections with the old dark Gods? Is there a place for blood consciousness and if so, how do we convey this? In 2019 we begin 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
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