D.H. Lawrence and the Phoenix of Regeneration

In our second guest blog exploring the relevance of the Phoenix, David Brock takes a broader look at representations of the Phoenix in Lawrence’s work and asks why he believed it was important to be “erased, cancelled, made nothing”. 

It is almost central to a satisfactory understanding of D.H. Lawrence to be aware that his life and creative output are packed with symbolic meaning. One has only to consider such works as The Rainbow, The Plumed Serpent, The Thimble, The Ladybird, The Fox, The Captain’s Doll, or the powerful novella, St Mawr, where the titular fiery Welsh stallion is an almost phoenix-like messenger from a lost world, representing the instinctive life which man has lost, to realise how vitally important symbols are in Lawrence’s writing.

In fact, in St Mawr, it is significant that there is a character, named Phoenix, who understands the horse, and helps lead the heroine of the story to the possibility of a new life. But, more about that another time.

Plumed Serpent
Artwork from www.dawnoftheunread.com

The Plumed Serpent, is the Mexican God, Quetzalcoatl – which is the title Lawrence chose for the novel, prior to interference from his publisher. As Lawrence scholar Keith Sagar points out, Quetzalcoatl “is a phoenix, for he threw himself into a volcano… there to sleep the great sleep of regeneration until his cycle should come round”.

There are many quite fabulous references to Lawrence’s cherished symbol, that fabled bird, the phoenix, in his amazing, large-scale, post-war symbolic essay, The Crown. Here the phoenix is “like an over-sumptuous eagle” which “passes into flame above the golden palpable fire of the desert”. We glimpse “the young phoenix within the nest, with curved beak growing hard and crystal, like a scimitar, and talons hardening into pure jewels”. Lawrence wills that our souls should come “into being in the midst of life, just as the phoenix in her maturity becomes immortal in flame”.

In Aaron’s Rod – where the “Rod”, which is Aaron’s flute, is a symbol itself, at the point where Aaron’s desire returns, Lawrence writes, “The phoenix had risen in fire again, out of the ashes”.

Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence

Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled,
made nothing?
Are you willing to be made nothing?
dipped into oblivion?

If not, you will never really change.

The phoenix renews her youth
only when she is burnt, burnt alive, burnt down
to hot and flocculent ash.
Then the small stirring of a new small bub in the nest
with strands of down like floating ash
shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle,
immortal bird.

It should go without saying that Lawrence’s headstone in Vence, where he died, depicted a phoenix (now displayed at the Birthplace Museum, Eastwood), or that one appears on his memorial plaque at his ranch, in Taos, in New Mexico. Or there being a play by Tennessee Williams, a playwright who adored Lawrence, which is called I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix. And here on this digital screen, hosting this guest blog, Lawrence is reborn once more, this time for 21st century audiences, soon to transform into a series of artefacts in James Walker and Paul Fillingham’s Memory Theatre.

Lawrence defiantly designed and drew the phoenix which appeared on the privately printed, signed, limited edition of 1,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in Florence, in 1928, when the novel was banned in England. And, in 1929, the year before his death, Lawrence wrote a challenging, yet affirmatory, short poem, called Phoenix, in which he interrogates his reader, asking “Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled, made nothing?. . .If not you will never really change”, explaining that the phoenix can only renew her youth when she is “burnt down to hot and flocculent ash”.

It is only then that “the small stirring of a new bub in the nest with strands of down like floating ash shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle, immortal bird”.

David organises a D.H. Lawrence reading, study and performance group, The Lawrence Players, which meets fortnightly, between 5 and 7 pm in Chapel-en-le-Frith library (16th, 30th May and so on). Any enquiries, please contact David at vegan.lawrentian@gmail.com

dhl-trunk redIn 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 represent the phoenix or encourage our audience to render themselves “sponged out, erased, cancelled, made nothing”?  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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On the Dangerous Ambiguity of the prefix ‘Eco’

DHL Boot
I found this uncredited image at Sott.net and changed the colours/filters and added the Phoenix symbol.

In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, questions the use of the prefix ‘eco’ for a wider discussion around language and fascism, blood and soil.

Many scholars – including some who should know better – continue to fetishise the prefix eco- and think that by simply placing it in front of words including criticism, feminism, and politics, they can sex-up their research and immediately make it seem more vital and contemporary.

But ecological thinking – which, ironically, often prides itself on being radical – has a long and essentially conservative history that can be traced back to figures on the völkisch far-right keen to promote a pessimistic vision of the world that is not only anti-urban, anti-capitalist and anti-science, but fundamentally illiberal and anti-humanist in character. Indeed, whilst this post-Romantic German tradition pre-dates National Socialism, it was nevertheless within the Third Reich that such thinking was first put into practice and formed a key component of Nazi aesthetics and ideology.    

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that a concern for the environment automatically makes one a fascist. But I am pointing out that nature-based ideologies are very often used to legitimate Social Darwinist beliefs and that many reactionaries have called for a neo-feudalism based upon rural values and natural divisions. We can see this in the work of two figures closely associated with ecologism in England during the inter-war period – John Hargrave and Rolf Gardiner.

The former was convinced that modern life had produced a ‘mentally and physically deficient race’ that couldn’t even be relied upon to breed sufficiently. A self-declared pantheist and Anglo-Saxon nationalist, Hargrave hoped to create a new national myth or substitute folk-memory for the English. To this end, he founded a movement in the 1920s – the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – which was meant to establish a counter-culture founded upon ‘the distinctive German brand of serious nature-worship’.

In practice, this meant that members spent most of their time hiking, camping, or making their own clothes, but they lent all their activities an earnest spiritual significance that rather absurdly combined Native American ritual with Norse mythology. Although they never numbered more than a few hundred members, the KKK could claim several public figures as supporters, including Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, and H. G. Wells. D. H. Lawrence was at least partly sympathetic. In a letter to Rolf Gardiner, he wrote:

‘I read the Kibbo Kift book with a good deal of interest. Of course it won’t work: not quite flesh and blood. […] The man alternates between idealism pure and simple, and a sort of mummery, and then a compromise with practicality. What he wants is all right – I agree with him on the whole, and respect him as a straightforward fighter. But he knows there’s no hope […] And therefore, underneath, he’s full of hate.’[1]

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Hargrave had become increasingly isolated and irrelevant on the political scene. And by the end of the War he’d found his true calling as a faith healer and eco-mystic.

As for Rolf Gardiner, Lawrence profoundly influenced the thinking of a man who would become one of the founders of the Soil Association in 1945. But what really interests is how easily Gardiner also came under the sway of National Socialism. Always an active Germanophile and Nordicist, Gardiner became a fervent exponent of Blut und Boden in England in the 1930s and dreamt of an Anglo-German political union.

His major written work, published in 1932 and dedicated to Lawrence, is a semi-religious work entitled World Without End. In it, Gardiner calls for a spiritual rebirth and a new attitude towards ‘nature, the soil, to sex and to politics’.

Whilst, to his credit, he rejected any ‘nonsensical racial theory’ – not least because of his own half-Jewish background – he nevertheless enthusiastically greeted the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 and was soon on warm personal terms with the Nazi Minister for Agriculture Walther Darré. Both men agreed on the importance of living according to ecological law, which, of necessity, means the subjection of the individual to the ‘larger organic authority’ of the Natural Order.[2]

In sum: we all need to exercise caution before we take an ecocritical turn – because you never know where it might lead …

dhl-trunk GREENIn 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 his views on nature and alternative living while exercising caution about using the prefix ‘eco’? What would the Kibbo Kift have looked like if it’d been devised by Lawrence? 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.

REFERENCES

[1] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI,  ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Letter 4268, dated 16 January 1928, pp. 267-68.

[2] Gardiner was also an associate of Lord Lymington and the rather sinister English Array. A journal edited by Lymington, The New Pioneer, to which Gardiner was a frequent contributor, affirmed a form of eco-nationalism in which an analogy was drawn between farm and nation, effectively transforming citizens into livestock. For further details on this and many of the other points discussed here, see Anna Bramwell’s Ecology in the Twentieth Century: A History (Yale University Press, 1989) and her earlier work Blood and Soil: Walther Darré and Hitler’s Green Party (Kensal Press, 1985). Readers of Lawrence interested in his relationship to German culture and his green critique of industrialism and technology, should also see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993).

How Lawrentian ideals have come to influence future generations of poets

look book jackets
This is our second blog exploring the influence of Look! We Have Come Through! This time David Brock explores how Lawrentian ideals, particularly those of renewed inner life, have come to influence future generations of poets and artists. He pays particular attention to Steve Taylor’s collection The Calm Centre, which picked lines from Lawrence’s ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’ to preface his own book of verse on the theme of individual enlightenment.

In an enlivening introduction to a 1990s Wordsworth edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Poetry, Albert Glover writes of the amazing breakthrough Lawrence made as man and poet on finding fulfilment in love and marriage. ‘Everything Lawrence wrote after Look! We Have Come Through! [the cycle of love poems he produced during this important phase] comes from a soul forged in the ecstasy of spiritual awakening’, Glover asserts, before quoting the memorable, mysterious opening of Lawrence’s ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’. . .’Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!/ A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time. . .’ This being ‘the prophetic stance of the risen man’, Glover suggests.

A present day writer, thinker and poet, Steve Taylor (who gave spell-binding, unscripted talks to the Lawrence Society in its glory days, about Lawrence as Pagan, and as Mystic, and now appears annually in Mind, Body and Spirit magazine’s list of ‘the world’s 100 most spiritually influential living people’), has picked lines from this key poem to preface his own book of verse on the theme of individual enlightenment. Entitled The Calm Center, it features an introduction by spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle.

Of the Lawrence poem in question, composed around the time of Lawrence’s marriage to Frieda, on 13th July 1914, the late great Keith Sagar writes that it is ‘about life and art, about Lawrence the married man and Lawrence the poet’, and that it ‘consists almost entirely of images – wind, chisel, fountain, angels.’

What is the ‘wind’ which Lawrence speaks of? Keith suggests it signifies the release of a new imaginative, poetic energy suddenly at large, and which may provide him with inspiration so powerful it may break through the rock encasing our soul, to open up a new ‘Pagan paradise’ – the Hesperides – where the golden apples offer a life free from the old (Eden apple) fear of sin.

The poem ends with ‘the three strange angels’ knocking on the door, at night. Lawrence is ready and willing to face this disturbing challenge – ‘Admit them, admit them’. Together with his wife, he feels able to save the seeds of creativity – these wind-blown, winged gifts – from a world descending into war and destruction. And, as Keith also puts it, the ‘exorcism’ of Sons and Lovers has brought the re-birth of Lawrence’s ‘demon’ – a force now ‘free to become no longer the writhing repressed half of a split psyche.’

Steve Taylor’s therapeutic poems (which are reflective discourses, rather in the manner of Lawrence’s Pansies) reveal how we too might heal our mental ailments, achieve this ‘new’ Lawrentian ‘wholeness and courage’, and find a ‘self’ free of negativity ‘which can recognise and respond to the sacred’, within what Frieda called ‘the great vast show of life’.

One must be prepared to change. As with Lawrence there are difficult questions and challenges. ‘The Off-Loading’ is reminiscent of one of Lawrence’s most famous final poems, ‘Phoenix’, in asking ‘Are you willing to give yourself up?’ It is only when you can let go that ‘you’ll be empty, peaceful and light/ and ready to float free’ – rather like Lawrence’s ‘immortal bird’ rising from the flames.

There are poems about engagement with trees, something Lawrence understood uncannily well. It is of unfathomable value – balm to the suffering soul – to wake up to nature and reconnect in this profound way.

‘The Project’ is concerned with permitting your inner self to unfold and have expression.

‘The End of Desire’, about the erroneous pursuit of false goals in life, feels pure Lawrence, while Steve’s concluding poem ‘The Essence’ has that grand Lawrentian theme that we can each be a living manifestation of cosmic energy.

Lawrence’s remarkable verse contains next to nothing that is ‘chaff’. In common with his other work, it offers a great and nourishing influence on succeeding generations of writers, whose own uplifting poetry can achieve similar spiritual breakthroughs, leading to the awakening of new ‘integrity’, ‘vital sanity’ and holistic being. Steve Taylor’s latest volume offers this Lawrentian vision of renewed inner life and fulfilling emotional health.

dhl-trunkIn 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 and track his influences? What are you personally ‘willing to give up’ and how does this compare with Lawrence’s own principles? How do we represent renewed inner 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.