Design James Walker. Author unknown. D. H. Lawrence Collection, General Collection. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. 

Knud Merrild and Kai Gótzsche were Danish artists who spent the winter of 1922 with Lawrence, high up in the mountains of New Mexico. Their experiences were recorded in Merrild’s memoir A Poet and Two Painters. In the fourth of eight blogs, we unravel Lawrence’s complex and contradictory character which represented ‘everything in the human spectrum’.

When Lawrence collected his mail, he’d crumple each envelope and throw it in the fire. Each letter was read ‘with a sort of loathing[i],’ often followed by a sarcastic remark. Then one day he announced, ‘I really don’t care if I ever see any of my friends or relatives any more[ii]’. This was unnerving for the Danes, particularly as this throw away comment might one day apply to them, but they discovered such momentary bouts of intensity were aspects of Lawrence’s complex personality. ‘We soon learned not to take anything for granted or rely on him as far as his feelings were concerned. They were like the wind, blowing in all directions, sometimes like a hurricane, upon you without any warning, blown fiercer by his burning emotions[iii].’ 

It’s quite conceivable that Lawrence had extreme empathy in these moments of isolated fidelity with the Danes and was simply content with the circumstances he currently found himself in. Sentiments that he would later outline in Pansies

But to the folk in Taos who would encounter the Danes when they popped down for supplies, the friendship was one-sided. They were Lawrence’s errand boys, rather than companions. But nothing could be further from the truth. Living in such proximity and cut off from the rest of society, they were all reliant on each other. 

It was a tough winter with snowstorms keeping them inside for days. Lawrence picked up a few colds and was bedridden for a while but, defensive as always, insisted it was a preventative measure rather than a necessity. When Merrild was ill Lawrence displayed his caring side by making sagebrush tea. This was another opportunity to impart wisdom, explaining how the wartime influenza in America wiped out the Whites and Mexicans but the Indians survived because of the sagebrush tea. It was vile. But Lawrence insisted he get it down him, and while it was piping hot.      

One day the Danes decided to go for a hike up to Lobo Peak. It was a tough trek that had to be completed efficiently so that they got back before sunset. Lawrence, despite their polite protestations, insisted on tagging along. It wasn’t long before he was holding them up. It was clear that had to turn back, but despite the disappointment, they didn’t say anything. They were then told off by Frieda for taking him when he clearly didn’t have the stamina. It was only years later that they discovered how weak his chest was.

Lawrence did not like to be told what to do by Frieda, or anyone for that matter. John Middleton Murray in Son of Woman suggested Lawrence hated women. Merrild does not believe in such reductionism, arguing Lawrence was complex and contradictory. He witnessed him often praising women, claiming modern women had more courage than men. Yet he also had his odd views on women submitting to the ‘positive power soul in man, for their being[iv].’

Lawrence’s views on most topics were so complex that Merrild describes him as possessing ‘everything in the human spectrum[v]’. He gives the example that while out on walks, ‘I cannot recall one single instance where he heartedly commended the beauty and grandeur of the landscape [vi].’ He found the overall view oppressive. Yet ‘he was nearly always enthusiastic’ about the individual elements. ‘He would praise the pureness of the air, the clearness of the sky, the formation of the clouds, the gorgeous sunsets, or notice the beauty of a single tree.[vii]

He enjoyed identifying footprints of creatures in the snow and following them to discover their home. During such walks they encountered a whole host of animals, including a coyote, bobcat and lion. The lion was dead, later to be recalled in the poem Mountain Lion. The cabin was full of life and would see Merrild befriend a wildcat (nicknamed Meere) and a persistently present Blue Jay would be told: ‘Yes, I have heard you. You are gossip, flying, blustering gossip itself.[viii]’  

Merrild has been continually asked whether Lawrence was homosexual but in this, and Lawrence’s overall views of sex, there is complexity within the ‘spectrum’. In his novels, Lawrence saw homosexuality ‘as a tentative relief for an antagonism between the sexes, a symptom of a disease that had spread over Europe.[ix]’ But he also saw homosexuality as an ‘illness engulfing the world.[x]’ Yet it is easy to see why people would ask this given the loving descriptions of the male form in novels such as The White Peacock and Women in Love and his desire for ‘men to be at peace with’.

Merrild recounts a tale where he, Gótzsche and Lawrence were having a wash outdoors in a very confined space that meant their bodies touched. However, he is eager to point out that no advances were made and that it is the gossip of others that is the problem. ‘Here in that little pool, rubbing limbs with Lawrence, it was a little different…in consciousness. But I should never have thought of it or been conscious of it, if my mind hadn’t been injected with poison from slanderous evil persons accusing Lawrence of being homosexual.[xi]‘ Merrild is also keen to confirm another rumour, that Lawrence wasn’t a hermaphrodite. 

The only thing that stood out about seeing Lawrence naked was his posture. He ‘stretched out his arms and took a deep breath, shedding off the enclosed feeling of tight woollen underwear, and in the dusky light his body stood out in its ivory whiteness like sculpture. With his outstretched arms he reminded me instantly of a medieval woodcarving of Christ on the cross.[xii]’ 

If anything, Lawrence was puritanical about sexual contact. Once the Danes were visited by Meta Lehmann, an unmarried ’broadminded person, carefree and hospitable[xiii]’ who needed to stay over for the night. Lawrence didn’t want her in with him but neither did he want the scandal of her sleeping in the same cabin as the two Danes.

‘If there is one thing I don’t like it is a cheap and promiscuous sex’ Lawrence would write. ‘If there is one thing I insist on it is that sex is a delicate, vulnerable, vital thing that you mustn’t fool with. If there is one thing I deplore it is heartless sex. Sex must be a real flow, a real flow of sympathy, generous and warm, and not a trick thing, or a moment’s excitation.[xiv]

And in terms of attraction he writes, ‘beauty is an experience; nothing else: it is not a fixed pattern or an arrangement of features… even the plainest person can look beautiful, can be beautiful. It only needs the fire of sex to rise, delicately to change an ugly face to a lovely one. That is real sex appeal: the communicating of a sense of beauty.[xv]’   

These romantic and thoughtful views of sex as a form of communication and connection rather than instant gratification are in stark contrast to the image we have today of the ‘dirty’ author…

Merrild, Knud A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence. George Routledge & Sons, London, 1938



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