D.H. Lawrence and Modernism


Dr Andrew Harrison, University of Nottingham

17 July 2012


This talk sought to contextualise the early writings of D.H. Lawrence in the literary culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It began by showing how Lawrence drew upon and transformed the writings of his great Victorian predecessors (especially Thomas Hardy and George Eliot), before moving on to consider his engagement with modernist aesthetics and experimentalism (concentrating on the poems he published in the Imagist anthologies from 1915).

The talk opened by invoking the first sequence of poems which Lawrence published in the November 1909 number of the English Review. The second part of ‘Baby-Movements’ was read to give some impression of the wistful and sentimental tone of these texts. Although in 1909 the English Review was a new literary journal with an emerging reputation in English letters, its editor (Ford Madox Hueffer) was a man with a firm commitment to nineteenth-century writings as well as an interest in literary modernism. He published short stories, poems and articles by a blend of established and ‘new’ voices including: John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, F.S. Flint, E.M. Forster, Henry James, W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Thomas, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton. This list should remind us that our current literary taxonomies tend to try to distinguish between various writings when the lines between them are often blurred. When Lawrence was first introduced to London literary circles he entered an environment where realist writers and modernist experimenters naturally co-existed.

Lawrence aged 21

Lawrence’s early short story, A Modern Lover, reveals his creative engagement with nineteenth-century writings. The story concerns a young man (Cyril Mersham) who returns from London to the Midlands of his youth to see (and attempt to re-claim) his former sweetheart (Muriel), only to find that she has taken another lover (Tom Vickers) in his absence. This plotline shares something in common with Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), whose central male character (Clym Yeobright) also returns from a major capital to the rural setting where he feels most at home. A comparison of the opening paragraphs of ‘A Modern Lover’ and The Return of the Native shows how both describe a wintry and depressive setting which anticipates the tensions and tragedies to follow. However, while Hardy adopts a characteristically detached, almost Olympian perspective, Lawrence focalises the description through his main character (Cyril), placing the emphasis very firmly on his broken impressions of his surroundings. While the purpose of the Hardy passage is to strike the resonant keynote for the reader, Lawrence dwells on the discord within his central character. This focus on feelings is deepened later in the text, when Lawrence struggles to alter or inflect a traditional language and imagery in order to capture a fleeting emotional state. Lawrence attempts to avoid romantic cliché by employing a familiar imagery in surprising ways, forcing us to see the world anew and to empathise energetically (rather than passively) with the characters’ feelings.

The mature Lawrence

This attempt to re-animate the language of feeling also lies behind the thirteen poems that he published in the annual Some Imagist Poets volumes between 1915 and 1917. Here, Lawrence’s desire to avoid abstraction by exploring emotions through objects may be said to answer the aesthetic call of Pound and Flint to provide a “Direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective”. Although Lawrence never fully subscribed to the Imagist aesthetic, his poetry acts as a testing-ground for its cohesion, since its objectivity may be seen to articulate a deeply personal subject matter. This point was illustrated by a close consideration of ‘Illicit’, which was published in the 1915 number of Some Imagist Poets. The poem is a love sonnet, but it is peculiarly detailed in its description of objects and landscape, and objective and enigmatic in its employment of symbolism. Such impersonality might lead us to think of it as an openly Imagist poem. However, Lawrence subsequently revised and re-published the poem under the title ‘On the Balcony’ in his explicitly autobiographical sequence Look! We Have Come Through! (1917). Here, the context of his illicit relationship with his future wife in Icking, a village to the south of Munich, in 1912 is directly invoked. The personal nature of the poem is made clear in this version, which might lead us to re-consider the nature of Lawrence’s commitment to modernist impersonality. In this, as in much else, Lawrence is a fascinatingly contradictory writer, at once experimental and traditional, objective and madly personal, withdrawn and extraordinarily expressive. This contradictoriness is one reason why his writings continue to prove so challenging and appealing to both students of his work, and to the general reader.

Andrew Harrison

Cover of John Worthen’s biography D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider