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

D.H. Lawrence and his Immortal Bird, the Phoenix

Badger with phoenix
David Brock with the Phoenix tapestry. Photo: James Walker

In this guest blog, David Brock explains how the phoenix became an iconic symbol of Lawrence’s intellectual and spiritual struggles, as well as being a familiar sign used by local businesses close to his birthplace of Eastwood. David also discusses how he came to become the owner of a phoenix tapestry created by Lawrence and Frieda during their troubled stay in Cornwall.   

The phoenix was a frequently employed symbol in D. H. Lawrence’s day. Insurance companies, in particular, favoured it. There were Phoenix Cottages in Eastwood, and a Phoenix Coffee Tavern. The famous mythical bird featured in the catalogue produced by Haywoods, the surgical goods factory in Nottingham, where Lawrence worked as a clerk for a few months, in 1901, before leaving due to illness.

Owing to its association with Lawrence, the phoenix is still a familiar sight to Eastwood residents and visitors, clearly visible on canopies, set as metal studs into the pavement and as the name of the local snooker hall. And many companies large and small throughout the country employ it, even those as seemingly mundane as Phoenix Mould Tools Ltd. or Phoenix Damp Proofing!

Pheonix_stuff eastwood

But, Lawrence was first seriously struck by this ancient symbol, and drawn to adopt it as his life-long and dearly-held symbol of regeneration, on being given a book containing Christian iconography. From being connected to the sun-god in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations, the pagan phoenix becomes an image of resurrection used by Christianity, representing the triumph of life over death, as in the Easter story.

It became D.H. Lawrence’s own great religion of life that man must die away from the disastrous living-death of mass industialism in order to be reborn into a more complete existence, and the phoenix represented his hope for this regeneration of humanity splendidly. In Lawrence’s fiction, many of his characters break down and lose their former consciousness before achieving individual renewal. The central character and eponymous hero of Aaron’s Rod, for instance, must undergo the phoenix experience, having “to go to destruction to find his way through from the lowest depths”.

A century ago, in order to distance himself from horrendous critical attacks – his great novel, The Rainbow, had been prosecuted, banned and burned in the streets of London, outside the courthouse, by the Public Hangman, rather deterring publishers from taking on any other of his works – Lawrence moved to that most pagan part of the country, Cornwall. While living near Zennor, and helping on the farm at Higher Tregerthen, Lawrence embroidered a tapestry of a phoenix. It represented his deep desire to found a new community, leading to a new civilisation, from what he regarded as the ashes of the old. He gave this phoenix to his young farmer friend, William Henry Hocking, who was very much impressed by Lawrence and Frieda, never having previously come across such lively free spirits. I am now the proud owner of the tapestry phoenix, as you can see in the picture, which I purchased from an auction a long time ago.

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 Lawrence’s ideas on community and creating a new civilisation?  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