The Long Read: Messiah and Apostle? Messianic Consciousness as Response to World War, in Lawrence, and Leavis


Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the last of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

‘Zwei Jahrtausende beinahe und nicht ein einziger neuer Gott!’

‘Nearly 2000 years and not a solitary new god.’

Thus Nietzsche in The AntiChrist, §19, duly blaming Christianity in the process ­ ‘this pitiful god of Christian monotono-­theism!’. In The Will to Power, in his invocation of nihilism, he hints that it is to do with the rise of science: ‘Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the center toward X.’ In the more complex analysis in The Genealogy of Morality he argues that science indeed arose from the truth­ seeking drive of Christianity. Complex ­ as usual with Nietzsche.

The Post-­Copernican Dimension

This, post-­Copernican vision of a world succumbed to science, is the background to the post­Sons and Lovers works of Lawrence, particularly the post-­war novels, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And it takes the form, gradually, of reclaiming the Old Gods, most centrally in The Plumed Serpent, in Messianic or Shamanic mode. What he does in The Plumed Serpent is almost unique, except, perhaps, in Science Fiction, which has less inhibitions than classically trained novelists do, yet without the primal creativity of the classically trained novelist. Tentative and delicate in Quetzalcoatl, almost arrogant in The Plumed Serpent, not even Joseph and his Brethren, amazing historical Re­-Creation as it is, has the God-­Creating impetus of The Plumed Serpent. The versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (together with A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover) are just as Messianic in a very different way. The Messianic had come to stay, right up to the work on which he was working at the end, Apocalypse.


Later on I shall suggest that the source of the Messianic impulse in these works of Lawrence lies in historicity, in living, not antiquarian, history, that Leavis, despite his Apostolic stance in relation to Lawrence, also possesses, in his profound grasp of historicity, a version of the Messianic insight. Historicity might be, over­ simplifyingly, defined as: that in a moment of history which defines its irreversible uniqueness, inherently in communicative relation to past and future. But this Leavis could never quite lay hold of, because of his ambivalence about creative novelty, (however massively he celebrates it theoretically), as opposed to his preoccupation with creating a canon of achieved works. It is apparently a paradox that the supreme exponent of the canonical achieved work, Leavis, should have so celebrated ­ yet in this very way distorted! ­ the supreme master of the improvisatory novel, and short rhapsodic novel, Lawrence.

But once one realises the links between historicity and the Messianic impulse, one is then entirely free to recognise the wider Messianic impulse in most of the works of Modernism and Post­-Modernism ­ think of, for instance: The Wasteland, The Rainbow, A la recherche du temps perdu, Being and Time, Interpretation of Dreams, Process and Reality, Philosophical Investigations, Of Grammatology, The Wheel of Fire, Ulysses, Nostromo, The Magic Mountain, The Glass Bead Game, The Golden Bough, The Goddess of Complete Being (Ted Hughes), Commentary on Romans (Barth), History of the Synoptic Tradition (Bultmann).

Garry Shead, Lawrence and Kangaroo, DH Lawrence Series 1993.

The Account of the War in Kangaroo

Most of these are written either after War or under the lurking shadow of inevitable War to Come. That is almost what defines them as modern works, or as the precursors, such as Nietzsche. And the link is made in an absolutely paradigmatic way in Kangaroo, in the chapters, The Nightmare, and the following chapter, Revenge Timotheus Cries, which prepare the way for The Plumed Serpent. In The Nightmare chapter, Lawrence relates, with meticulous fidelity, his experience of the transition from the gentlemanly world of the Asquith Premiership up till 1916, and then the Lloyd George and Horatio Bottomley years and the death of the gentlemanly pre­war world in favour of a kind of, as he evokes, indirect mob rule and mentality, and his and Frieda’s and their friends’ increasing humiliation and loss of privacy and autonomy at its hands, which had come near the point of destroying them, when the war ended. In Revenge Timotheus Cries he recognises both 1. the profound collective impulse of revenge, to be enacted on the grand scale in WW2:

‘One thing he realized, however: that if the fire had suddenly erupted in his own belly, it would erupt one day in the bellies of all men. Because there it had accumulated, like a great horrible lava pool, deep in the unconscious bowels of all men. All who were not dead. And even the dead were many of them raging in the invisible, with gnashing of teeth. But the living dead, these he could not reckon with: they with poisonous teeth like hyaenas.’

and, 2. the desire, Messianic or Shamanic, to delve into the realms older and deeper beneath modern consciousness and its wounds and need to retaliate:

‘Humanity could do as it liked: he did not care. So long as he could get his own soul clear. For he believed in the inward soul, in the profound unconscious of man. Not an ideal God. The ideal God is a proposition of the mental consciousness, all­too­limitedly human. “No,” he said to himself. “There IS God. But forever dark, forever unrealisable: forever and forever. The unutterable name, because it can never have a name. The great living darkness which we represent by the glyph, God.”

There is this ever-­present, living darkness inexhaustible and unknowable. It IS. And it is all the God and the gods.

And every LIVING human soul is a well­head to this darkness of the living unutterable. Into every living soul wells up the darkness, the unutterable. And then there is travail of the visible with the invisible. Man is in travail with his own soul, while ever his soul lives. Into his unconscious surges a new flood of the God­-darkness, the living unutterable. And this unutterable is like a germ, a foetus with which he must travail, bringing it at last into utterance, into action, into BEING.’

And this is then realised, primarily, in The Plumed Serpent. This vision comes to fruition in The Plumed Serpent.

Leavis’s recoil?

Leavis recoils from the actuality of The Plumed Serpent with, it seems to me, something near to contempt. Leavis’s final words on it in Thought Words and Creativity are:

‘But Mexico was not isolated or insulated; Ramon couldn’t realistically count on its remaining for long immune from outside interference.

I will say no more on this head; I will merely add to my adverse criticism this general observation: ‘important’, used by Lawrence in the way in the way he uses it in his evaluative placing of The Plumed Serpent, is a betraying word. It means that even Lawrence can be in a sense a victim of the absence of any sharp boundary between his discursive thought and his fully creative art.’

Leavis dismisses such a passage as the following:

‘Only from the flowers there is commingling. And the flowers of every race are the natural aristocrats of that race. And the spirit of the world can fly from flower to flower, like a humming­bird, and slowly fertilize the great trees in their blossoms. Only the Natural Aristocrats can rise above their nation; and even then they do not rise beyond their race. Only the Natural Aristocrats of the World can be international, or cosmopolitan, or cosmic. It has always been so. The peoples are no more capable of it than the leaves of the mango­tree are capable of attaching themselves to the pine.­­So if I want Mexicans to learn the name of Quetzalcoatl, it is because I want them to speak with the tongues of their own blood. I wish the Teutonic world would once more think in terms of Thor and Wotan, and the tree Igdrasil. And I wish the Druidic world would see, honestly, that in the mistletoe is their mystery, and that they themselves are the Tuatha De Danaan, alive, but submerged. And a new Hermes should come back to the Mediterranean, and a new Ashtaroth to Tunis; and Mithras again to Persia, and Brahma unbroken to India, and the oldest of dragons to China. Then I, Cipriano, I, First Man of Quetzalcoatl, with you, First Man of Huitzilopochtli, and perhaps your wife, First Woman of Itzpapalotl, could we not meet, with sure souls, the other great aristocrats of the world, the First Man of Wotan and the First Woman of Freya, First Lord of Hermes, and the Lady of Astarte, the Best­Born of Brahma, and the Son of the Greatest Dragon? I tell you, Cipriano, then the earth might rejoice, when the First Lords of the West met the First Lords of South and East, in the Valley of the Soul. Ah, the earth has Valleys of the Soul, that are not cities of commerce and industry. And the mystery is one mystery, but men must see it differently.’

This, of course, is none other than the doctrine Lawrence articulates in his magnificent review of Dostoievski’s parable, Ivan Karamazov’s parable. of The Grand Inquisitor , in which he defends the Inquisitor’s position, of affirming, (against what he sees as the too humanly demanding doctrine of freedom of the Gospel Christ), Miracle, Mystery, and Authority. Leavis never deals with this, and he also only occasionally refers to Dostoievski’s admirer, and paralleler, Nietzsche. Did he find this all too outlandish in a rather basic sense? In certain ways, despite himself, he remains within the ambit of the Whig Interpretation of History.

What is the recoil about?

So, does he, then, also recoil from the very possibility Lawrence is exploring? Does his viscerally Englightenment mind actually recoil from the essence itself of what Lawrence is trying to do, the summoning up of the old Gods of Mexico ­ or of anywhere, back behind Christianity? Countering Leavis, in this context, one is tempted to apply Dr Johnson’s dictum about women preaching to what Lawrence is doing in The Plumed Serpent: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Who else even came anywhere near this possibility? For instance, Nietzsche’s prophetic utterance in the face of the Copernican dilemma is an utterance which is undoubtedly in the full lineage of Messianic or Shamanic evocation: for instance, in the articulation of the Eternal Return in the section entitled The Vision and the Riddle.

Past Based Knowledge, Apprehension of the Future: Illustrations of the Messianic

If, in a very brief shorthand, ­ but following the Birkin of Women in Love, responding to the fictional Sir Joshua Matheson, the Bertrand Russell figure, ­ I were to argue that scientific knowledge essentially deals with the past, in patterned and law­-governed repetition of principles based on past data (a concept confirmed by Hume’s puzzles about causality and related matters, the black hole of empiricism), then, unless we radically review our conception of science, a direction in which Quantum Physics may be pushing us, to be sure, science contrasts with historicity, in that historicity deals in the unique and indeterminate in situations, which gives them their historicity, and which is connected with the reality that, for us, the future remains open, not totally, but still always in intrinsically unforeseeable ways, and that this is, as Lawrence always emphasises, at the core of our sense of life.

In the light of this, what happens in The Vision and the Riddle is revealing indeed. Nietzsche assumes as premise ­ as the dwarf with whom Zarathustra is contesting takes for granted! ­ that the cycle of existence is totally determinate, totally constrained by what has already happened, as deterministic as Spinoza. And then he precedes to attribute it to himself, as a volitional decision:

‘Must not whatever CAN run its course of all things, have already run along that lane? Must not whatever CAN happen of all things have already happened, resulted, and gone by?

And if everything have already existed, what thinkest thou, dwarf, of This Moment? Must not this gateway also—have already existed?

And are not all things closely bound together in such wise that This Moment draweth all coming things after it? CONSEQUENTLY—itself also? [my italic]’

‘With one mighty bound he was free’, as an episode of Flash Gordon, doomed in some ghastly situation in the previous episode, once began! In effect, Nietzsche is saying that, by an act of will, we actually turn the past into the future. And, of course, into our own unique subjectivity inthe process. It is the possession of a future which is the criterion.

Similarly, in The Future of Hegel, Catherine Malabou argues that, far from embodying the fixed finality of knowledge of which Heidegger accuses him, at the heart of Hegel is a plasticity which enables him to be open to a future ­ and philosophically therefore to have a future! -­ which is both, in a sense, absolute, yet indeterminate. And that this is what gives him his Messianic fascination for those who, in every epoch since he wrote, have found him hugely compelling and all-­influential. And in Spectres of Marx Derrida extracts from the political defeat of Marxism a Messianic promise, since now our relation with Marx has become open once more, and therefore full of seeds for the future. In the masterly The Goddess of Complete Being, Ted Hughes even finds in Shakespeare himself a creative and self-­transforming, a plastic, open-­ended patterning of transformations, which is Messianic, and directed at the profoundest and most paradigmatic faultlines of the epoch to which Shakespeare is writing in relation.

In them all, it is the reclaiming of a future which is, fatefully, at stake.

Leavis’s Canon as also historicity: Apostle into Messiah

But I end with the surprising, or, in light of historicity, not so surprising, recognition that, in this sense, Leavis himself becomes more than Apostolic in relation to Lawrence; he becomes, in his own right, Messianic. No one has a stronger sense of historicity than Leavis. His reshaping of the canon, in the footsteps of TS Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, as such is dominated by historicity, and it is his legacy. It is not, in Nietzsche’s terms, an antiquarian legacy of historicity; it is a monumental one, in Nietzsche’s jargon; it is directed towards constituting an assured reservoir out of which the future may be forged. Whatever disagreements we may have with Leavis, this concept is of massive importance; that the concept of the possibility of a canon be taken forward to the future. Without a canon, there is no foundation of historical awareness and reflexivity from which even the dark Gods may emerge.

It is not an either/or. The canon is the opening from which a future may emerge, and, whilst Leavis and Lawrence, ­ or any of us, ­ may have different emphases regarding the nature of a canon, the minimum condition of a Leavisite dialogue with Lawrence is that we continue to claim the existence of a canon. The canon is foundational, in a Kantian transcendental sense. With the conception of a canon, we gather to ourselves once more a living conception of historicity as our creative source. This is the recognition implicit in Leavis’s work, especially his later work; even though, once the conception of historicity has dawned upon us, it opens up to Nietzschean or Hegelian or Lawrentian magnitudes, it is the Leavisian concept which remains ever potent, the more creatively its plasticity and historicity is released into life and force.

In The Plumed Serpent Lawrence uniquely dared to imagine a dialogue with historicity and primal history. Without this element in his creative imagination, he is domesticated, even neutered, and, whatever Leavis was, leaping towards life out of historicity, he too was neither domesticated nor neutered.



The Long Read: Lawrence, the Mind of Europe, and the English Canon


Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the second of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

Why has Lawrence not been generally recognised as a great articulator of the Canon concept, and of the Canon? Well, first we need to recognise that while he thinks systematically, he writes contextually only, and so appears fragmentary. Secondly, we need to remind ourselves of the context in which he grew to maturity as a writer, in which he outgrew the perception of his contemporaries too fast. I am mainly going to appeal, synoptically, to very familiar things here.

First, when we see the novels in England which were being published in Lawrence’s time, even great ones, Great Tradition ones, like Nostromo and Henry James’s novels, and then note the qualitative leap which occurs with Sons and Lovers, and, even more, with The Rainbow and Women in Love, there is a leap of genius here, and it is not surprising that, for The Rainbow and Women in Love, adequate categories were not available till the 1950s. Becoming available at last, especially in Leavis’s work, published in Scrutiny and then DH Lawrence Novelist. Comparable relevant qualitative leaps in English are to be found in Ulysses, GM Hopkins, and the work of TS Eliot (but not fully on this scale till The Wasteland – and Yeats’s greatest work was later). But, for things on the same scale, with a comparable degree of modernity, we have to turn to Interpretation of Dreams, Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious (now available as Symbols of Transformation),  American literature, especially Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman, Russian literature, French Symboliste poetry, Thomas Mann and Rilke, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (and the still mainly unknown Kierkegaard). But Lawrence is doing something different even from all of these (perhaps the nearest to him is Melville).

By the time he reaches A Study of Thomas Hardy, which essentially lays down the major template, – his Empedoclean dialectic of man and woman! – for his vision of the Canon, only varied inessentially thereafter, and then the first versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, and in The Rainbow and Women in Love, by the middle of the WW1 decade, Lawrence has already attained an assurance that what he is doing involves a level of live understanding and innovation unique at that time in England, and, in many ways, in Europe. (He is confident enough by now to be able, however reluctantly, to defy his mentor and editor, Edward Garnett, who, quite on cue, just didn’t ‘get’ The Rainbow.)

Now, in relation to his articulation of the Canon, in the Study of Thomas Hardy and later, this is, further, easy to forget for two strangely opposed reasons, – both too much, and too little, as it were:

  1. On the one hand, he is now too familiar to us, paradoxically, precisely in his critical centrality. Thus, for instance, in such cardinal paradigms, which Leavis picks up, of the classical felicities of the Phoenix collection, as the essays on Galsworthy, on Hardy himself, or Wells’s The World of William Clissold. So we take for granted that there is nothing unique here; it is assimilated forthwith into the status quo.
  1. On the other hand, there is a criticism of Eliot’s, which Leavis dismisses a little too cavalierly (since it provides a special opportunity). It is often repeated; thus we have it in what he quotes from Eliot (an essay in an organ called Revelation) in The Wild Untutored Phoenix:

“’ For Babbitt was by nature an educated man, as well as a highly well-informed one: Lawrence, even had he acquired a great deal more knowledge and information than he ever came to possess, would always have remained uneducated. By being ” educated ” I mean having such an apprehension of the contours of the map of what has been written in the past, as to see instinctively where everything belongs, and approximately where anything new is likely to belong ; it means, furthermore, being able to allow for all the books one has not read and the things one does not understand — it means some understanding of one’s own ignorance.’”

Leavis dismisses Irving Babbitt, saying finally: “How can Mr. Eliot thus repeatedly and deliberately give away his case by invoking such standards? It is an amazing thing that so distinguished a mind can so persistently discredit in this way a serious point of view.” This, of course, sadly, if significantly, is ad hominem. Eliot’s point, right or wrong, is a bigger point than Leavis’s ad hominem response makes it. To address a first water mistake, even, with a ‘yes but’, as JL Austin intimates in Ifs and Cans, is an opportunity. Similarly, David Ellis has argued that, when talking of the biological psyche, Lawrence reasons with blatant inconsistency. True: but this is mostly confined to his pseudoscience, and I do not believe it is necessary to defend that, to justify his position in relation to Eliot’s argument, though it contributes of course to Eliot’s denial to him of ‘what is ordinarily called thinking’. I continue, then,


The implicit core of Eliot’s argument is that, in his view, Babbitt has the concept of a Canon, and Lawrence does not. Eliot makes the same point in general terms (not about Lawrence but articulating the concept) in Tradition and the Individual Talent, which speaks of ‘the mind of Europe’, and latterly, specifically again, even thus late, in his introduction to Father Tiverton’s DH Lawrence and Human Existence, of 1951, which includes the phrase, ‘for Lawrence was an ignorant man in the sense that he was unaware of how much he did not know’.

For, without an order of valuation, grounded in organised ‘contours of the map of what has been written in the past’, there is no ‘seeing instinctively where everything belongs’, in the wider sense, and that implies an actual Canon. Clearly, also, Eliot believes, as does Leavis, that such a Canon must by its nature be non-arbitrary, that it is valid absolutely and apprehensible in some sense (because otherwise Eliot could not exclude Lawrence from the grasp of it). One might have a ‘relative’ Canon concept of sorts – ‘the psychoanalytic Canon’, or ‘the Protestant-Calvinist Canon’, ‘the Pali Canon’, – but those would be localised (but nevertheless purportedly non-arbitrarily, to the point of being the subject of heresy-hunting – ‘Jung is not part of the psychoanalytic Canon’, etc) within the frame in question. However, one could still ask, ‘Is the Psychoanalytic Canon part of the Western Canon?’and so on, thus recognising that this is a wider and general concept, or heuristically by its nature, and in the Kantian sense implicit in Leavis’s work, seeks to be as such.

But the Canon also changes with the addition of the new. And it is likewise changed by each new attempt to define it. Later on Eliot wrote: “Sensibility alters from generation to generation, in everybody, whether we will or not, but expression is only altered by a man of genius.” And to change expression is to change consciousness. Eliot indeed says, in Tradition and the Individual Talent:

“He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes [my italic], and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.”

That is, supposedly, it assimilates. Though, – as this instance graphically shows, – it’s more rocky than that.

But, to be blunt, Eliot’s concept of the mind of Europe is nevertheless overly mentalistic. It is also too orthodox, – and too psychologically insecure, perhaps, if Leavis is correct, but that is secondary – to be able to assimilate Lawrence. Eliot’s positive concept and metaphysic of the Canon is classical and Catholic Christian, profoundly shaped by Aquinas and Dante. Lawrence’s is indeed supremely and radically religious or transcendant, but not in a way Eliot can engage with. So Lawrence is too novel for Eliot. In that, is he also too eclectic to imply Canonical organisation and geography? I believe not. The special recognition which Lawrence has re-awoken, after two and a half millenia, and which, from the Study of Thomas Hardy right up to its apotheosis in Apocalypse, is his touchstone, is an at least partly pagan, pre-Socratic, or Spinozistic, vision in which everything is gendered, and eveything is divine (‘All things are full of gods’, Thales). (Perhaps Russell’s greatest favour to Lawrence was pointing him towards Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy.)

Eliot could not easily tolerate that degree of gender-pervaded pantheism. If we read Lawrence vertically, especially as he is simultaneously defiant both of religion and science, – both of orthodox Christian tradition, and of a good deal of modern cosmology and anatomy/physiology, – we can inevitably disagree and argue with him, – and this is where Eliot gets stuck, and pre-empts a judgement based on his assumptions about Christian Classicism.

But if we think about Lawrence horizontally, what do we find? We find, in spades, the Canon! I’ll just list some links to some miscellaneous headings, mostly obvious and well-known; there is a mass of them, with a mass of sweeping, effortlessly fluent, unifications, and this is the merest sketch (I am not qualified to do justice to his references to art and painting, but they are most emphatially there):

So then:

  • Evolution of Consciousness and Dissociation of Sensibility (Movements in European History, Study of Thomas Hardy, Twilight in Italy, Introduction to These Paintings, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc);
  • Thomas Hardy (Study of Thomas Hardy, The Rainbow);
  • Herakleitos and the Pre-Socratics (Study of Thomas Hardy, Apocalypse);
  • The Bible (Apocalypse, Phoenix, The Rainbow, Study of Thomas Hardy, and much else);
  • Christian Tradition (Study of Thomas Hardy, The Rainbow, Apocalypse, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is actually very near to Roman Catholicism);
  • George Eliot (The Rainbow);
  • The Brontes (The Rainbow, Women in Love);
  • Dickens (The Lost Girl);
  • Fielding and Richardson, and the early English Novel (Study of Thomas Hardy, Introduction to These Paintings, etc);
  • The evolution of English Poetry from Chaucer onwards (Study of Thomas Hardy, Introduction to These Paintings, The Rainbow, etc);
  • Richard Wagner and the Scandinavian and Icelandic Edda (The Sisters – The Rainbow and Women in Love, which are modelled on Scandinavian Epic, almost as much as Hamlet is);
  • Shakespeare and the Greek Tragedians (Twilight in Italy, Study of Thomas Hardy, Galsworthy, Introduction to These Paintings, etc);
  • The American tradition: Hawthorne/Melville/Poe/Cooper/Franklin/Whitman, et al (Studies in Classic American Literature);
  • Dostoievsky, Mann, Flaubert, Galsworthy, Verga, etc (Phoenix, in spades);
  • Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (Study of Thomas Hardy, Twilight in Italy, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, Plumed Serpent);
  • Tolstoy, especially Anna Karenina (The Rainbow, Fantasia of the Unconscious);
  • Freud, and Jung, JG Fraser, and Trigant Burrow (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Phoenix – Review of The Social Basis of Consciousness, The Rainbow, and Women in Love).

So, to repeat, if we read Lawrence vertically, as it were, we can disagree and argue with him. But if we think about him horizontally, we find, in extraordinary measure, the Canon. And this, in turn, opens up another view of his ‘metaphysic’. What is striking about Lawrence is how implicitly systematic he is, not a quality we commonly think of in relation to him. We are faced with the realisation that Lawrence is one of the most systematically Canon-based writers in the English tradition. Possibly the most systematic and comprehensive since Johnson and Coleridge. Ultimately, any Canon-based author has to have an implicit philosophy, and Lawrence of course has. So, although he is lacking in classical scholarship, in the sense of massive detail, his grasp of fundamentals is so radical and synoptic, that he alters our sense of history and the historicity of the Canon, not as dramatically as Hegel does, for Hegel was overtly systematic on a giant scale, but in similar mode, in terms of his dialectical gender pantheism. The initial template, the remarkable Study of Thomas Hardy, is his most dialectical and Hegelian analysis.

So, once we have grasped this, we can go back to the question: what lies behind the Canon, for Lawrence? His metaphysic, to which he gave such sustained and repeated attention. But we must make a broad distinction between the detailed content of the metaphysic, – concerning which there is scope for a veritable antheap of specific disagreements, which can overwhelm a more orthodox thinker like Eliot, – and the fundamental formal ground of the metaphysic.

The latter, despite the claims of Lawrence himself, and of Leavis, is of high generality and high abstraction. But it belongs to a tradition, to a perennial philosophy, of unity beneath dualities. It is epitomised in passages such the following from Fantasia of the Unconscious      

“Primarily we know, each man, each living creature knows, profoundly and satisfactorily and without question, that I am I. This root of all knowledge and being is established in the solar plexus; it is dynamic, pre-mental knowledge, such as cannot be transferred into thought. Do not ask me to transfer the pre-mental dynamic knowledge into thought. It cannot be done. The knowledge that I am I can never be thought; only known.”

This, like Freud’s formula, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, reads like a piece of Herakleitos, or Empedocles, or Protagoras, and that, in neither case, is an accident.

Let us briefly remind ourselves of the cross-connections of such a statement. What is he saying?

Arthur Schopenhauer (22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860)

When he says, it can never be thought, only known, he is close to thinkers like Bergson and Coleridge – and to Schopenhauer, and the later Wittgenstein. Schopenhauer writes:

The World as Will and Representation, Book I, §2: “But the subject, the knower never the known, does not lie within these forms [of time, space, and causality]; on the contrary it is always presupposed by these forms themselves, and hence neither plurality, nor its opposite, namely unity, belongs to it. We never know it, but it is precisely that which knows wherever there is knowledge.”

We can open up, more widely, the sweep of this tradition of a certain appeal to individual feeling as intuitive knowing, prior to reason, – what we might call, developing remarks of Leavis in Johnson and Augustanism, the tradition of primordial enactment or enactivity, – with such names as: Luther, Hobbes, Pascal, Vico, Hume, Rousseau, Hamann, Schelling, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Dickens, Kierkegaard, Newman, FH Bradley, Heidegger, Derrida, Auerbach, McLuhan, and the Eliot himself of Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca; perhaps this is enough to place Lawrence’s vision in connection with the tradition.

I am running out of time. I can end with epitomising a greater sense of Lawrence’s remarkable rethinking of the Canon, by reference to what Leavis does with it, Lawrence’s, contribution. In a very characteristic way, in an intimation, Leavis comes within a hair’s breadth, a typically tantalising hair’s breadth, of making explicit Lawrence’s articulation of the Canon. This is an ostensibly fragmentary comment, in which, further, Leavis partially backpedals, or appears to backpedal, excessively, on Lawrence, in a way which subtly masks what Leavis is opening the way to recognising about him.

But, when its implications are concretely filled out, it actually stunningly confirms, convergently, from a different angle, what I am saying about Lawrence. The remark I am picking up upon comes in the Clark Lectures: English Literature in our Time and the University, when Leavis, having in the previous chapter compared Eliot’s understanding of Hamlet with Lawrence’s own in the chapter on The Theatre of Twilight in Italy, sketches his concept of how to use representative critiques of the play, including Gilbert Murray’s comparative study, Hamlet and Orestes, from 1914.

Those fortunate enough to have listened in person to his Clark Lectures, when they were delivered, will poignantly remember how Leavis, after nigh two and a half lectures on Eliot, after shaping, in the light of the concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’, an implicit and profound articulation of the Canon, and after developing the canonical conception of Eliot as the paradigmatic English poet of the era, and also after articulating subtly, and in terms of examples from Eliot’s own work (La Figlia Che Piange), his life limitations, next remarked:

“But there is a more positive way of putting it: though still talking about Eliot I was not the less thinking about Lawrence, and I hoped that my audience would be too. There you have my intention: it was that the relevance of Lawrence, though I did not name him, should make itself felt, so helping me in the difficult business of suggesting how Lawrence comes in.”

That sense of precipitated unification, that sudden making explicit of the implicit, was overwhelming, and breathtaking in its felicitousness.

But, in the light of where we have now got to, we can now further see, that, in that instant of fusion, of crystallisation, Leavis has united the Eliotic vision of the Canon, in terms of the formula dissociation of sensibility, with the Laurentian vision of the canon, organised here around the nucleus of Tragedy, Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare, and the dual traditions of Greek, and Scandinavian, Epic.

George Gilbert Aimé Murray, OM (2 January 1866 – 20 May 1957)

So here, taking his point of departure from Gilbert Murray, is what he says about Lawrence:

“Now Murray is delicately and very intelligently suggestive. But the student won’t, from reading his lecture, have learnt how the significance of what he finds there can be shown to be important for the appreciation of Shakespearian tragedy – how it can enter into the understanding of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. [my italic] No one approaching that chapter in the spirit of my suggestion will be in danger of taking it anything but critically – but the finding of essential insight in work about which one has to have critical reserves is a most important order of educational experience. And there is insight, decisive prompting insight, in Lawrence’s commentary on Hamlet. One may question the particular formulation he gives of the significance he finds, but the hint and the clue are compelling, and one realises that in the tragic Shakespeare – and in the greatest art – there is significance of that order conveyed. Shakespeare is not only a greater writer than Racine, but a greater kind of writer.”

And then a moment later he adds: “But I’m bound to add that I don’t see why it should be dismissed offhand as gratuitously Laurentian and obviously absurd.”

Now, this is not 1951, but 1967! Leavis was then lecturing nationally, busy articulating polemical follow ups to the Snow lecture, finalising the massive evolution of stance on Dickens, and the link with Blake (Clark Lectures, pp. 105-108), and working his way towards what he thinks of as his definitive commentary on Four Quartets in The Living Principle. Yet the formulaic qualifications are repeated several times. There is something strangely hidden in Leavis here, to continue to tease us, like Keats’s Grecian Urn. However, it does not prevent us recognising the cardinal point; Leavis has fused and integrated his development of the Laurentian Canon into a single whole, with his understanding of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ based Eliotic poetic Canon (which is somewhat out of alignment with Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic Classicist one). Why do I say this?

Characteristically, it is there in the single sentence: The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. He is implying that Lawrence instinctively understands or presupposes the double ritual origin of Shakespeare via the lines of the Greek epic and the Scandinavian epic, to which he has just adduced Bertha Philpotts’ The Elder Edda, and Gilbert Murray’s Hamlet and Orestes. He is implying, in his, Leavis’s, own mastery of both Canons, the Eliotic and the Laurentian, and he is tacitly endorsing the validity, reach, and wider inclusiveness of the Laurentian Canon. 

© Heward Wilkinson, September 2016.




The Long Read: A little Lawrence is a dangerous thing – Leavis on Lawrence on Shakespeare

Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the first of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

The title of Lawrence’s, ostensibly counter-Nordic, Twilight in Italy (TW) is nevertheless Germanic, derived from Wagner, Twilight of the Gods, or Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or both. The extended reflections on Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the Theatre chapter, like A Study of Thomas Hardy, and The Rainbow, are also one of those parts of Lawrence’s writing indirectly most influenced by Jung, channelled by Otto Gross and Frieda. And, like so many others then, including TS Eliot, Freud and Jung, he was also buried in the depths of JG Frazer’s crypto-Casaubon-ish Key to All Mythologies, Also Known As The Golden Bough. There is, accordingly, a dialectical spaciousness, and a capacity to live with contradiction – as Keats and Whitman recommend – in all this, and in contemporary writings, such as A Study of Thomas Hardy – something which returns in full measure in the final work, Apocalypse, and other late non-fictional writings.

This (TW) is the work which then Leavis picked up and used in English Literature in Our Time and The University (ELU). I believe – if we put on one side the post-Richmond Lecture politicking – this is his critically most quintessentially perfect book after Revaluation. In it he comments compellingly on this chapter of Lawrence’s. Following his extraordinary and masterful account of TS Eliot’s significance as poet and critic, and his defence of Eliot’s highly relevant, and indeed parallel, concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’, he then suggestively juxtaposes – or opposes! – Eliot with Lawrence in terms of their accounts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This juxtaposition/opposition, as so often with Leavis, the master of critical epitome, is potently elegant and coercively compelling. For a long time, I felt that it resolved the critical issues. But now I am asking myself, what if, for powerful and indeed intractable reasons, it actually simply holds them, masterfully, at bay? This is the dilemma I now find in this dialectic. If this is true, what are the reasons for it, and in what way might they, in a manner, be valid? And what does he, in some sense, miss about (or hold at bay) what Lawrence actually sees in Shakespeare?

I begin with a caveat. Leavis makes upon Lawrence the, to me, extraordinary comment (one among several significantly deprecatory, even hesitantly academic, ones in the same vein) on this chapter of Lawrence’s, that (ELU, p. 161):

The emphases are not those of criticism.

But perhaps, paradoxically, that does, however, apply to Leavis himself, in part, in the sense that this is a partly polemical and partly teaching text, where, indeed, he is not trying to give, what he says of Lawrence (ELU, p. 161):

….an essay on the play, concerned to give a balanced account of it.

So, thus cautioned, let us see what we can infer from both what he does say, and what he does not say.

Leavis takes one of Lawrence’s emphases and makes it central: the contrast between the mediaeval, divine right, ‘old’ King Hamlet, and the ‘modern’, ‘introverted’, Montaigne-influenced, ‘young’ Prince Hamlet. (And likewise, – implying, inter alia, a necessarily very deep relationship between life and work, – also the Montaigne-influenced author of Hamlet.) First he remarks:

I’m bound to add that I don’t see why it should be dismissed offhand as gratuitously Laurentian and obviously absurd. (ELU, p. 163)

Coming after all those disclaimers, do we perhaps wonder about this, with Freud, whether there may not be no ‘not’ in the unconscious? Why all this caution here, what does it mean? Perhaps! but continuons!

The murdered elder Hamlet is insistently and potently evoked as essentially the King, the ideal King and Father – worthy embodiment of the traditional idea and potency. No acceptable account of the Shakespearian significance can ignore that datum. Young Hamlet idolizes his father, but is presented, surely, as, in the qualities which make him what he is, essentially inconceivable as a second god-like Hamlet…… Shakespeare, having undertaken to rewrite the old Hamlet, could with profound imaginative force realise Hamlet the King, but he was also, as we say, a ‘modern’ – certainly not in the lag of his age. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet didn’t – couldn’t – ‘in his involuntary soul’ (I use Lawrence’s phrase) want to be King and Father, supreme I, Hamlet the Dane, the Danish Fortinbras. (ELU, pp. 163-4)

Pausing for a moment, we wonder, in passing, whether the device of the Ghost is not, paradoxically, part of that modernity, and whether the egotism, and unconcern about his supposed son, a callousness transferred osmotically to Hamlet, the ostensible Ghost displays, is not an essential part of Hamlet’s problem? And whether, whatever its excesses, psychoanalysis has not taught us, at least, that we are prone to idealise where, in another mode of ourselves, we hate, fear, and resent?

Leavis then reverts to his argument with TS Eliot about the reductionist concept of significance involved in the ‘objective correlative’ formulation, which is part of his diminishing of Eliot by comparison with Lawrence (ELU, p. 64):

….who today will suggest that such a significance can’t be…. in the play….?

Could this, valid as far as it goes, but not necessarily decisive enough to underpin an entire critical indictment, (especially as Eliot, as we shall see, flips the other way up by the end of his essay), be a red herring, an inadvertant displacement and distractor from something Eliot and Lawrence have in common?

To be sure, Leavis goes on (ELU, p. 164):

Of course, there is more in Hamlet, which is certainly very complex, and in such a way, that the difficulty in arriving at an account of it which satisfies one’s total sense of it, justifies one’s thinking of it as peculiarly a ‘problem’. 

– the sort of remark which indeed makes one think wistfully of Leavis’s never-to-be-written book about Shakespeare. But it makes one, as well, be cautious about what his account may, or may not, implicitly exclude. But this disclaimer does not tell us, so we must infer from other indicators.

So, earlier Leavis has, – very rightly and impressively, in my view, – appealed to Gilbert Murray’s Hamlet and Orestes British Academy address of 1914 and to Dame Bertha Philpotts’ The Elder Edda (1920), as invoking a second ritual/dramatic origin of tragedy in the North, to parallel the Greek (with JG Frazer in the background, in the process arguably implicating Shakespeare in a living knowledge of Greek drama):

Miss Philpotts’ book…. establishes that there was a second ritual origin of tragedy in the North, and that a continuity of dramatic traditions runs down through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, who therefore is at the point of intersection – or junction – of the two lines. (ELU pp. 162/3) [my italic] 

He then says (ELU p. 163):

Now Murray is delicately and very intelligently suggestive. But the student won’t, from reading his lecture, have learnt how the significance of what he finds there can be shown to be important for the appreciation of Shakespearian tragedy – how it can enter into the understanding of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. No one approaching that chapter in the spirit of my suggestion will be in danger of taking it anything but critically – but the finding essential insight in work about which one has to have critical reserves is a most important order of educational experience. And there is insight, decisive prompting insight, in Lawrence’s commentary on Hamlet.             

It seems to me there is a strong suggestio falsi here, the implication that Murray is the mere academic, who does not engage with the life issues, the existential issues, the living issues. But this, prima facie, enables Leavis to by-pass something which is to be found in all four of Murray, Philpotts, Lawrence, and TS Eliot – and also in the Wagner Der Ring der Nibelungen (huge influence on Nietzsche and Jung and Lawrence) which (as Levi-Strauss recognised) profoundly redacts the Norse materials, and also again, more recently, but congruently with all these, Ted Hughes, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

This something is what Murray brings out by drawing attention to the huge difficulties both Orestes and Hamlet are portrayed as having with women, a partial and certainly ambivalent, but also itself murderous (c.f., Sonnet 129) misogyny, which is, however, also present in King Lear and Macbeth, and Othello. On all this Lawrence writes (TW) in Twilight, making it clear as he does that this in Shakespeare is not a mere external taking over of elements from the traditionary materials:

Hamlet’s father, the King, is, like Agamemnon, a warrior-king. But, unlike Agamemnon, he is blameless with regard to Gertrude. Yet Gertrude, like Clytemnestra, is the potential murderer of her husband, as Lady Macbeth is murderess, as the daughters of Lear. The women murder the supreme male, the ideal Self, the King and Father.

This is the tragic position Shakespeare must dwell upon. The woman rejects, repudiates the ideal Self which the male represents to her. The supreme representative, King and Father, is murdered by the Wife and the Daughters.

What is the reason? Hamlet goes mad in a revulsion of rage and nausea. Yet the women-murderers only represent some ultimate judgement in his own soul. At the bottom of his own soul Hamlet has decided that the Self in its supremacy, Father and King, must die. [my italic] It is a suicidal decision for his involuntary soul to have arrived at. Yet it is inevitable. The great religious, philosophic tide, which has been swelling all through the Middle Ages, had brought him there.

The question, to be or not to be, which Hamlet puts himself, does not mean, to live or not to live. It is not the simple human being who puts himself the question, it is the supreme I, King and Father. To be or not to be King, Father, in the Self supreme? And the decision is, not to be.

And again:

The King, the Father, the representative of the Consummate Self, the maximum of all life, the symbol of the consummate being, the becoming Supreme, Godlike, Infinite, he must perish and pass away. This Infinite was not infinite, this consummation was not consummated, all this was fallible, false. It was rotten, corrupt. It must go. But Shakespeare was also the thing itself. [my italic] Hence his horror, his frenzy, his self-loathing.

‘The thing itself’ – significantly taken from the kenotic, self-emptying, moment (KL, III, iv) when Edgar as poor Tom, as ‘unaccomodated man’,  is confronted by the now mad King Lear – is here, for Lawrence, not pure unaccomodated man, but the apparent reverse, mediaeval aristocracy. (But, in that kenosis, it is aristocracy, noblesse oblige, which is emptied – c.f., ‘poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are’ etc, just a moment before, – and ‘poor Tom’ is of course really Edgar.) Shakespeare is therefore by Lawrence conceived as either an aristocrat – one of the ‘wolfish earls’ themselves, – or some ‘born descendant and knower’, as Whitman puts it, concerning the History Plays, in November Boughs:

Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism – personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediæval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) – only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works – works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

Shakespeare, too, is also ‘the thing itself’. So, psychologically, was Lawrence – a ‘born descendant and knower’, – although Lawrence’s life does fit his works, in spades, as William of Stratford’s manifestly fails to.

This recoil is associated by Lawrence with the interiorisation of woman-ness as Other, as not-Self, as Thou, as alter. Indeed, we recognise certain notes in this as ones presented more personally in Women in Love, Kangaroo, and elsewhere:

This is the tragic position Shakespeare must dwell upon. The woman rejects, repudiates the ideal Self which the male represents to her. [my italic] The supreme representative, King and Father, is murdered by the Wife and the Daughters.

These are elements which are writ large by Middleton Murry in Son of Woman, and which are clearly registered by TS Eliot in his responses to Lawrence, along with the more favourable and fascinated ones, such as CE Baron (Lawrence’s Influence on Eliot, Cambridge Quarterly, Spring 1971) noted in recognising how deeply Four Quartets is pervaded by Lawrentian echoes and resonances. We may add, they are in part expressed also in After Strange Gods itself, where Fantasia of the Unconscious is recognised as a masterly critique, to be read and re-read, of the modern world. (Once more, Eliot is here again endorsing a stance Murry has taken.)

It seems to me that Lawrence is quite clearly implicating himself, in the Coleridgean mode Eliot purports to repudiate, in this dialectic, when he says:

For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction, and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence. But thank heaven, the bog into which Hamlet struggled is almost surpassed.

To be sure this is a moment of his relative optimism, as in later chapters of Women in Love, but surely ‘as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction’ must imply that Lawrence’s own soul has been there? Without going all the way with Middleton Murry’s partly lop-sidedly bereaved and rageful analysis, we can surely go so far as to say, this complex of issues was a lifelong struggle, never fully resolved, for Lawrence?!

One might say, Leavis has a certain tendency to idealise Lawrence, and only to see the archetypal and Frazerian dimension of Lawrence – but one which, as such, is neutralised in a peculiar way I shall come to. Thus, he hesitates to follow Lawrence into his animism!! In A Study of Thomas Hardy Lawrence writes (amongst similar notes, invoking the cosmic archetypal power of Egdon Heath):

Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, set themselves up against, or find themselves set up against the unfathomed moral forces of nature, and out of this unfathomed force comes their death. Whereas Anna Karenina, Tess, Sue and Jude find themselves up against the established system of human government and morality, they cannot detach themselves and are brought down.

But it is clear from such a work as Twilight – and A Study of Thomas Hardy itself – that Lawrence does not think this is in antithesis to the personal, rather that we should not merely see the personal. In parts of Fantasia of the Unconscious, and Apocalypse, Lawrence endorses a degree of animistic belief into which Leavis cannot follow him. Consequently Leavis is drawn into a degree of transmuting Lawrence into a kind of Lawrentian Humanism, to set against the Christian nihilism, as Leavis sees it, of TS Eliot (Leavis turns Bunyan, and Cecil Sharpe’s Appalachian Puritans, into Humanists also). This is more George Eliot than TS Eliot; something of Lawrence is lost or neutralised here (Nietzsche has relevant comment on George Eliot in Twilight of the Idols). And therefore Leavis’s stance has elements of a belief position, rejecting the degree of affinity between TS Eliot and Lawrence, in the Flaubertian dimension, and in the archetypal dimension, and in their conjunction. TheAeschylus/Orestes note explored in Eliot’s The Family Reunion, which picks up just where the last part of Eliot’s essay on Hamlet left off, is relevant here, and I will just refer to that ending in passing (where Eliot duly and typically clearly reverts to his own variant of the Coleridgean position, overtly repudiated at the start of the essay) before stating what I think is Leavis’s essential dilemma:

We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii., Apologie de Raimond Sebond. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself.      

It seems to me that this is nearer than Leavis allows to Lawrence here (the final sentence, which I emphasise, being the clearest affinity to Eliot’s struggle):

For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction, and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence. But thank heaven, the bog into which Hamlet struggled is almost surpassed. [my italic]

So now I come to Leavis’s unsolved dilemma, which I believes makes sense of both the awareness of incompleteness in this criticism, with his attempts to resolve it by polarisations, – and the extraordinary recognition of the modern dilemma which underlies it, if we pass beyond the polarisations.

As with DH Lawrence: Novelist, even here, Leavis’s Lawrence remains more Eliot – George Eliot – than Lawrence. A little Lawrence is a dangerous thing. What do I mean?

Bertrand Russell once published a book entitled: Why I am not a Christian! Is the ultimately dismissive analysis of Four Quartets in The Living Principle Leavis’s version of this?!

But, thinking next of Lawrence, one might add, in relation to Leavis’s reserve about The Plumed Serpent: Why I am not a Pagan!

Thinking of Kangaroo, and the essay on Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor, also of Yeats and Heidegger, one might add: Why I am not a proto-Fascist!

Thinking of Russell himself, one can add again, emphatically: Why I am not an Enlightenment Rationalist or Empiricist!

But, then, also, one may add, against TS Eliot: Why I am not a Feudal Mediaevalist! Leavis’s contempt for ersatz mediaevalism, and all erstaz archaism, is obvious.

But the problem is: Leavis is Enlightenment Man, but he is one with a Feudal-Pagan analysis, apart from his, always superb, recognition of those supreme moments of conjunction, transcending single epochs, which make possible the greatest poetry or poetic writing, for instance, that of Donne, that of TS Eliot, the author of Portrait of a Lady, and that of Mark Twain, the author of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson. 

But, because of Leavis’s implicit doctrine of ‘enactment’, ‘realisation’, or ‘creating realities’, or however we choose to label it, Leavis is enabled to both keep many of his positions in a tacit, implied, phenomenological epoche, mode, and, secondly, not to draw the logical conclusions of certain of the things he says, and of the positions he does take up. One might call this methodology Socratic, or an expression of Negative Capability, if it were not for the fact that Leavis so often assumes his own positions are actually unassailable, and can be taken as implied, since the process further does not actually put them in question.

But there is also a genuine Socratic element, and it comes out in the ‘letting the poetry speak for itself’ of his greatest criticism – such as: Judgement and Analysis (in The Living Principle); the chapter on Little Dorrit in Dickens the Novelist; and this critique of Eliot in ELU, though not the one in The Living Principle, which certainly does have ‘an axe to grind’.  

How to look through three lenses at once, through Leavis, through Lawrence, and through Lawrence to Shakespeare?! Yet is there a connection between this enigmatic, one-part-Socratic, aspect of Leavis, which one does not always associate with him, yet is, once noticed, clearly there, – and the present attempt (which indeed mirrors his own) to see through the three lenses at once? Leavis, overtly, is associated in the popular mind with a strident opinionatedness and categorical definiteness of attitude. But what we have here, in this enigmatic half-realisedness of his expressed vision, is something intrinsically elusive, and this we would associate with Eliot, and Eliotic post-modernism, stoicism, which Leavis relates to Flaubert, rather than associating it with Lawrence. But, then, if we look at Lawrence, at least in part, through Middleton Murry’s lens – yes, for sure lop-sided indeed as being part of his mourning Lawrence’s death, his coming to terms with his relation to Lawrence, and also primarily personal, mostly disregarding, crucially, the cosmic-archetypal dimension – then the Flaubertian dimension, the dimension of the intractably creative life-flaw, applies to Lawrence also.

On the one hand, despite Leavis’s critical genius, and his brilliant ability to catch on the wing some of the most marvellous features of Lawrence’s writing, and the huge service he did for Lawrence, is there an aspect of Lawrence, the primally cosmic conjoined with the human flaw, the gothically gruesome, and uncanny, element, the ‘tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires’ (TS Eliot, Ben Jonson in The Sacred Wood), which, unacknowledged, is essentially alien or foreign to Leavis, something he simply cannot stomach? Is this an element of enshrining Lawrence in Leavis? Yet, on the other hand, does he, in his implicit profound critical positioning of the modern dilemma, indeed take us to a point where Moses-Leavis himself cannot follow, but yet we can see Canaan, the promised land?

Is he, in fact, more at home with  Eliot, and with Eliot’s ‘overwhelming question’? Dare I ask, if some of his animus against Eliot is a recoil from something in himself? But does he at the same time evoke the protean dilemmas Lawrence, – who plays with them all one by one! – raises in us, by enacting the questions? In coming to grips with Lawrence, and Lawrence’s Shakespeare, though Leavis’s lens, are we even driven into moving to a more post-modern, and pluralistic, Leavisian-ism?

Having just been to the Globe King Lear, when the sole previous King Lear I had been to was the great Paul Schofield/Peter Brook King Lear of, I think, 1962, at the Aldwych, I say with deep  conviction, that it is hard, in a thoroughgoingly democratic and populist epoch, to recognise the actuality of Shakespeare, or of DH Lawrence, who are, or whose vision is, in a broad sense, aristocratic.

These things have become virtually undiscussible. Perhaps this post-modern Leavis we may have glimpsed, can take us towards becoming able to discuss them again.

Heward Wilkinson’s website


The Long Essay: Leavis and Lady Chatterley’s Lover


The following long essay is a transcript of a talk given by Bob Hayward at the D.H Lawrence Society on 9 March 2016. It was also presented at the 2016 Lawrence/Leavis Conference.

There are many, many ways of seeing the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Certainly one is: that it was Lawrence’s posthumous revenge on a Ruling Class that slandered and persecuted him for most of his writing life. He called the book ‘a bit of a revolution in itself, a bit of a bomb’ but he could never have imagined the radical impact of its delayed action thirty years after his death. It probably marked the beginning of a real revolutionary change in Britain. “I feel as if a window has been opened and fresh air has blown right through England “ was his step-daughter’s reaction.

By no means optimistic, Leavis acknowledged that a change in society had been registered by the trial but, as he chose to see it, in the defence of a bad novel. The Establishment, in the other hand, knew that it had ridiculously exposed itself by going after the book of a widely accepted great writer in order to continue its crusade against the pornography under the new Obscene Publications Act. Leavis saw the change in terms of emancipated sexual mores rather than the political implications. He would have us believe that the Prosecution was ‘defeated by its realization that it was confronted by a new and confident orthodoxy of enlightenment — that the world had changed since the virginal pure policemen came and hid their faces for very shame’. He was forgetting that Conversions on the road to Damascus have no standing in English courts. The Prosecution failed because it was confronted by the new Obscene Publication Act which was designed to protect literature from philistine censorship. The Prosecution failed because its senior counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, apart from being wedded to a class-ridden mind-set anticipated in the pages of the offending novel, had insufficient literary sophistication even to read Lawrence, let alone assess the novel as a whole, as was now required to do under the new act. The Prosecution could not find one witness to argue for suppression, whereas the Defence had the luxury of vetting plenty for its cause. The so-called Orthodoxy of Enlightenment was more a figment of Leavis’s ironic scorn than a reality and the idea that Mervyn Griffith-Jones had the faculties to recognize any kind of enlightenment rather than just the exasperating line of highly coached witnesses for the Defence, still less to allow it to affect his adversarial duties is just whimsical thinking. Even in his closing speech to the jury he was still all-guns-blazing, reading out four-letter-word passages and lyrical sexual descriptions (which he could see only as pornography), including seven of the eight paragraphs of the ‘night of sensual passion’ which extols an act of intimate complicity punishable at the time of the trial by up to life-imprisonment for both lovers, thus making it the perfect crime. Perhaps some members of the jury had got away with it because not all of them were visibly shocked by the last-ditch innuendoes being lobbed by Griffith-Jones, who either would not, or more probably, could not, be explicit about the passage. Had he done so, would the Judge have directed the jury to find for the Prosecution? Now there is a conundrum to set against the ascendency of the Orthodoxy of Enlightenment!

Leavis’s judgements of the novel, as expressed in his Rolph-review, would have seriously embarrassed the defence because he denied the artistic integrity of the book as a whole work, implied an inadvertent pornographic element and suggested that the four-letter-words and sexual descriptions got past Lawrence only because he was not himself. It is doubtful whether the Defence, for all its testifying talent, would have easily rebutted these criticisms from Lawrence’s greatest advocate, argued, as they seem to be, with all his convinced authority and knowledge. These criticisms were calculated, after the trial, to discredit the expert witnesses. They did immeasurable damage to the book’s reputation, and, as far as I know, remain unchallenged, not least because the style of the review spins the reader around in confusing circles of thought.

Let us consider Leavis’s claims. First, Lawrence was in ‘an abnormal state’ when he wrote this novel. Second, there is ‘a disrupted integration in the artist’, ‘something gone radically wrong’. Third, there is ‘a passionate drive of willed purpose’ rather than directed creativity. So we have: abnormal state, disrupted integrity, willed purpose. In other words, we have some pathological condition plus some cloyingly defined split integrity but does the split integrity explain the willed purpose or is it to be inferred from it? Is the abnormal state to be inferred from the willed purpose? Why does the greatest literary critic not simply rely on literary criticism? Why the need to postulate disorders beyond his expertise or certainty – for he never met Lawrence?

Does Leavis give any proof for these extra-literary critical diagnoses? He offers in effect: ‘At this moment in his life…..he was ill – in fact, for all his incredible vitality, slowly dying – and inflamed with rage an disgust at the thought of the virginal pure policemen’. This would appear to be suggesting a cause for the ‘abnormal state’ or split integrity to both if they can be distinguished. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, however, was written three times over fourteen months (Frieda said two years but she was never entirely reliable) and was finished in January 1928. Lawrence would have to have been certifiably abnormal if ha had raged for fourteen months at ‘virginal pure policemen’, especially without any grounds, because those authorized prudes never seized his paintings until July 1929, eighteen months after he had finished the novel. What was Leavis thinking?

Lawrence’s protracted dying seems to have affected other people’s judgements more than his own (and still does: see Melvyn Bragg’s introduction to the Cambridge edition of ‘The Plumed Serpent’ for sheer sentimentality in place of facts). Slowly dying is not inconsistent with being an artist, as Leavis himself affirmed in his last book in 1976 in which he wrote: ‘But Lawrence couldn’t but go on manifesting the Laurentian genius till the day of his death in 1930’. This would make his aberrational fourteen months on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ even more mysterious and raises the possibility that the inconsistency is Leavis’s rather than Lawrence’s. Of course Lawrence had tuberculosis, probably from childhood, but his immune system tended to keep on top of it. It showed itself in his illness in 1911 when he was told to give up teaching. It was diagnosed again in 1916 when he was classified as unfit for military service. Early in 1925 he nearly died in Mexico from typhoid and malaria (he thought he would die) and then, in the American military hospital in Mexico City, he was bluntly told in front of Frieda that indeed he had tuberculosis. This was a shock to her – and to him but only because he never wanted it to be brought out into the open. A doctor later took Frieda aside and advised her to get him back to New Mexico because he had tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and no more than one or two years to live. Frieda is the only source for this story, much repeated in biographies. The trouble with it is that there is no such thing as tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and Lawrence lived for more than five years. He managed his tuberculosis as well as anybody could: he knew there was no cure, so he put it to the back of his mind and got on with living and writing, even after haemorrhages more often reminded him that he was carrying the disease that was shortening his life.

Leavis considered Lawrence to be a creative writer of the greatest kind. During the last five years of his life, his technique as a writer was at its most accomplished. Just before ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he had written ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy’ and between the second and final version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he wrote ‘The Escaped Cock’ in which, drawing on his own sense of resurrection after his near death experience in Mexico, he imagines Christ slipping half dead out of the tomb and slowly coming back to life to find ‘the phenomenal world’, as Lawrence calls it, much more marvellous than ideas of heaven to salvation. This mundane resurrection of the son of man is just about the most perfect vehicle for turning the Laurentian credo into his felicitous art. Writing this story after visiting the Etruscan tombs, whose wall-paintings, he realized, could envisage no after-life better than this one, persuaded him to modify his style for the final version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by eliminating all religious vocabulary: no sacreds or holys or godlikes or divines. The discipline of keeping, more or less, to only this-world language and perception gives the writing its revelations of the profane enchantment of experience. Others might describe it differently or better. One critic wrote: ‘But so beautifully poised and sure is the art that there is a danger of mistaking the nature of its success. The success, I have implied, is conditioned by a narrowing down: criticism must take the form of the question: How comprehensive or generally valid is this solution?’ This was Leavis before he came into his wisdom on Lawrence but he would not, I think, have had too much insight into the paganised inspiration of the style.

I want to say something of the novel itself before turning to Leavis’s literary criticisms of it. In her introduction to ‘The First Lady Chatterley’, which survived its prosecution in America in 1944, Frieda reveals that Lawrence told her that he wanted to write ‘a romantic novel – a picaresque novel’ which she was unable to relate to the gamekeeper-character. Few people bother to notice that it was a revolutionary novel, revolutionary in the political sense. It was a revolutionary time. Between 1917 and 1927 fifteen monarchies fell across Europe, to say nothing of principalities. The class-struggle was to the fore in most societies. Lawrence’s contribution was explicitly non-violent by trying to unify with his art the lives of a high-born woman and a low-born man. The working-class gamekeeper can speak only in the dialect. The class-divisions between him and the lady are confronted with such unsqueamish honesty that at times Lawrence moves towards parody to assuage the obscenities of the historical and social injustice. Communism is prevalent in the book and by the end Parking, no longer gamekeeping, thinks that the problem of Connie’s social superiority being carried over into their marriage might be solves if she supported him in his work as secretary of the local Communist League. This idea excited him but presumably not Lawrence.

The book is finally revolutionary in a multitude of ways. I am emphasising the political because it has been ignored. Obviously if a lady turns her back on an aristocratic life for a relationship with a working man, and the writer endorses the choice, some criticism of the aristocratic lifestyle might be implied, in this case more than implied, and subsequently inferred by receptive or unformed minds. The artistic problem for this revolutionary intent is to make the relationship plausible. Lawrence tried a second version. The gamekeeper again speaks only in the dialect, with which the lady becomes infatuated, though he can string together a more standard English sentence if he makes the effort; this is so rare that she notices when he does it. In the interests of the plausibility, Lawrence elaborates more on their intimacies. This is the original reason for extensively describing the elusive moments of love-making but, as a writer, he must have relished the challenge. There are affirmations of divinity to be found in the man’s body by the lady, going so far as to tell her sister that she sees his penis as a little god. ‘It was as if she had touched god and been restored to life’ is one of the author’s more mystagogic submissions. Does he think that giving the relationship a religious provenance is enough to compensate for the social imbalance between the lovers?

Well, he put the work aside for months and when he wrote the final version, he had, as he said and as I have indicated, ‘dropped the god-symbol from his writing’. He later thought that doing so was probably a mistake (obviously, for male philosophers, desacralizing the penis or phallus was not just a solecism but an epistemological mistake). Although the new gamekeeper has the same working-class origins, Lawrence, no doubt compromising his original romantic ideas as we all do, gives him a cultural dimension and social versatility that his two previous incumbents did not have, thus mitigating the problems of inferiority. The natural world and the lovers’ intimacies are now described under the poetic of his new luminary-pagan style. In court, Helen Gardner maintained that Lawrence succeeded in putting into words experiences that are very difficult to verbalize, rather as mystics try to do. This is more constructive than Leavis could ever be about the sexual descriptions.

Leavis asks: ‘Why does Lawrence make the lover working class?’ Even to ask this question means that he is overlooking the revolutionary purpose, which seems to the elephant in the room for most critics. His answer to the question, which I am not sure anyone ever asked, is that Lawrence does not make the gamekeeper working class. He is ‘irretrievably and securely a gentleman’, according to Leavis. He is educated, owns some books, held a commission in the army and could pass himself off as a gentleman. Leavis ignores the little matter of his having neither the means nor the desire to be a gentleman and forgets that one truly irretrievable gentleman calls him ‘scum’ and ‘a bumptious lout’. There is little point in troubling over Leavis’s specious definition of a gentleman. It seems at best contrarian. No other serious reader has ever characterized Mellors, once a blacksmith, as a gentleman but it enables Leavis to ask his next question: ‘Why does Lawrence make him drop into the dialect – drop so much and on those occasions?’ In fact, Mellors speaks mostly in the dialect and to would be more accurate to say that he drops into the King’s English when he feels it appropriate. He speaks the dialect because he is not ashamed of his origins any more than he is ashamed of his manhood, though he recognizes that society would have him be ashamed of both. The dialect is part of his identity and this gamekeeper has the option of making it complicit with this manhood, whereas for the other two it was integral. In opting for the dialect, there is a spirit of anti-genteel defiance, catching the mood of the times, and there is also an erotic polarization in using it with a lady who accepts it and so endears herself. Mellors uses it, as Lawrence knew it could be used, for expressing all emotions because it comes from the tongues of people who have experienced all emotions. It can also be used to armour his susceptible humanity, when necessary.

Leavis answers the question, which only he has ever asked: ‘Why does Lawrence make the keeper drop into the dialect – and on those occasions?’ with what he says is a simple and, he imagines, generally acceptable answer, namely, ‘as a way of putting over the four-letter words – of trying to make the idea of their being redeemed for non-obscene and undefiant or “normal” use, look less desperate.’ This then is his explanation for the use of the dialect. It is more shallow than the one I give and I think it is obviously and significantly wrong. Leavis is so sure he knows why Lawrence deploys the four-letter words that he talks emphatically of his ‘hygienic purpose’ with them. If Lawrence imagined that a few pages of a novel could cleanse the four-letter words of centuries of taboo (one of the words goes back to the Romans and possibly to the Ancient Greeks), he would have suffered from delusions of authorial grandeur off the scale. So we have the bizarre idea of a man in an ‘abnormal state’ being criticized for a hygienic purpose that no English writer could ever have been insane enough to have.

Leavis claims that ‘Lawrence would have had a resistance to overcome in himself uttering the four-letter words with the ease and freedom with which the gamekeeper and Tommy Dukes use them’. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Leavis is not adducing artistic principle here. If writers were forbidden from putting into the mouths of their characters language which they could not easily and freely utter themselves, Shakespeare’s plays would never have been written. Lawrence uses the words in art-speech (which I think is the third realm) and even Leavis endorses his maxim: ‘Art-speech is the only speech’.
Four-letter words do not need redemption. They have a complete felicity without it. If versatility is any guide to frequency of use, they are among the most frequently used words in the language. They would appear to be our friends; they are certainly on the tips of most tongues. There are some general rules for them: the more public a situation, the less appropriate they are likely to be. The more private the situation, the opposite can be the case. Tommy Dukes uses four-letter words sparingly in little house-parties of friends and guests. ‘And naughty words scream like sirens, when uttered in the wrong environs.’ We know this happens. Do they scream like sirens in Sir Clifford’s drawing room? Perhaps, but we might ask whether Lawrence or Leavis would be more accustomed to such gathering of motley types as are presented there. Mellors’s use of the words with Connie could not be more private, that is, in their most intimate moments when there are no barriers. Leavis refers to the gamekeeper’s ‘treatment’ of Connie ‘on those occasions’ and he thinks that, because of some dormant class-resentment and ‘failure of wholeness’ and so on in the creative Lawrence, he does not realize how the gamekeeper (and therefore the author himself) is demeaning the lady. This is my inference form cutting through the Gordian Knot of tortuousness in the fourth from last paragraph. (When any prosecution pressed the idea of depraving and corrupting in obscenity cases in the 1960s and 70s, the jury always threw it out.) It must be said that Connie herself has no sense of being like a high-caste victim of an untouchable and by the end of the novel the reader sees her more fulfilled femininity has turned her into a woman who knows what she wants from life and who can be deflected by neither her disapproving sister, her apoplectic husband nor her demurring father, who is secretly proud of her (‘I hope you had a real man at last’.) because she is now the radiant daughter of his loins that he would want her to be.

Frieda said that Lawrence was scared when he wrote ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He saw that his art was becoming more daring as it progressed through the three versions. He knew intuitively that the sexual description and four-letter words were justified and would be original in serious literature. The finished work is so rich in themes that I doubt whether he have could been explicit about them all. They are for readers to appreciate. The text, however, is explicit about one vindication of the four-letter words, and that is as the language of acceptance, more specifically acceptance of the body. This is of course one of the ways in which the words can be used. The body was for him an important concept for which he argued against the centuries of undervaluing it by the great religions, concerned, as they are, with things otherworldly and eternal. Lawrence’s faith was in the accessible wonders of bodily experience and he invoked their moral power to transcend society’s prejudices and of course the taboos of language. This faith is not too far removes from Leavis’s ineffable ‘well-head through which life and creativity bubble up from the unknown’.

Leavis believed that ‘the insistent renderings of sexual experience’ a phrase that would have improved the pleading of the senior prosecuting counsel, also represent a hygienic purpose. He even concedes that they ‘engage the creative art of the creative writer’ but he finds ‘a great deal in them strongly distasteful’. This begs the questions as to how he detects their hygienic purpose. How does he get this idea when the passages have the effect of deepening the intensity between the lovers in order to justify Connie’s leaving aristocracy for a better life? If readers cannot be inward with the descriptions of the acts of love-making, they cannot assess the novel. They are rather like Shakespeare’s nurse who cannot appreciate Juliet’s love for Romeo.

There is another extra-literary critical concept that Leavis fastens on Lawrence. He says (and the Prosecution would have welcomed this): ‘In the way of those frequent and insistent offers to evoke sexual experience in pondered, dwelling immediacy, there was a deep-seated pudeur going back to a finely civilized upbringing in a Victorian, working-class home’, a home that, by the way, contained a hard-drinking father and a jealous, quasi-incestuous mother but there is no need to cavil at Leavis’s evaluation of Lawrence’s home, though we might include the wider working-class community and its institutions, as well as Lawrence’s reading, in the formation of his sensibilities. I wonder when a working-class boy comes into full possession of his pudeur? I doubt if it would be a word bandied about in his home, or any home. Leavis seems to have plucked it from the margins of English usage. It is not to be found in many English dictionaries. It is in the 1981 Supplement of my old fifteen volume Oxford Dictionary in which Leavis’s ‘deep-seated pudeur’ is among the examples, all of which, except his, give it a negative nuance. He is the only one to make a virtue of it, not least by opposing it to his equally idiolectic use of ‘emancipation’ which throughout history has rarely had a pejorative meaning, except perhaps for closed minds offended by it. So with ‘pudeur’, Leavis is ascribing a positive sense to a negatively used word. You can use words however you like but, if you alter their connotation too far, there is a danger of seeming tendentious, or, if you are the greatest critic, confounding common sense.

The dictionary definition of pudeur is: ‘a sense of shame or embarrassment, particularly with regard to matters of a sexual nature’. Apart from the word ‘Victorian’, Leavis offers nothing that in fact points to Lawrence’s pudeur. Lawrence wrote more about sex than any other creative writer. His inspired preoccupation with the subject is inconsistent with a sense of shame or embarrassment about it. In ‘The Rainbow’ Will and Anna renew their marital desire by exploring intimacies in defiance of shame, which becomes part of the thrill. Ursula in ‘Women in Love’ loses her physical shames by sharing in the full range of Birkin’s amatory practices. And ‘The Night of Sensual Passion’ reads like a rhapsody on the anti-pudeur ethic. Pudeur could be regarded as a mildly neurotic frailty and it is pretty near disingenuous semantics to represent it, as Leavis does, as the essential source of Lawrence’s ‘exquisitively sensitive human delicacy’ when it is more likely to be associated with prudish or even sanctimonious tendencies. Pudeur can become a virtue only if it is apprehended and turned into something else, say, heroic acceptance of the body even when your own is emaciated or about to fail you as absolutely as possible.

When Leavis finds the gamekeepers ‘uninhibited talk’ with Connie ‘on those occasions’ ‘insufferable’, when he finds ‘something hateful conveyed in the intention of the dialect itself’, when he finds so much of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ ‘repellent’, is that because of his ‘still unvanquished pudeur’, in the sense in which everybody except him uses and understands the word, though not many people do use it? I have no way of knowing but I doubt it.

‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ is a complex, ambitious and thoroughly rewarding work of art. It was written, as it were, out of Lawrence’s moral concern for civilization. It is a unique novel. I cannot agree with any of the literary critical judgements that Leavis makes about it in his Rolph-review, not one, not a single one. His extra-literary critical judgements, so far as I can tell, are factitious. I suspect that he has created an orthodoxy of enlightenment about ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and it will be a long time before the novel is rehabilitated. Leavis returned it to its insalubrious reputation with a vengeance.