David Herbert Lawrence (September 11, 1885 – March 2, 1930) was an important and controversial English writer of the twentieth century, and one of the most important writers in English Modernism. Lawrence was a prolific artist, with his output spanning novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays, travel books, paintings, translations, literary criticism and personal letters. Lawrence is primarily remembered today for pushing the limits of what was acceptable in literary fiction; while other Modernists, like Joyce and Woolf, were content to radicalize the forms of literature, Lawrence was committed to expanding the range of literary subject-matter. In particular, he incorporated Freudian psychoanalysis, frank descriptions of sexuality, and mystical religious themes into his works that were quite shocking to the audiences of his time. Many of Lawrence's works were banned or left unpublished during his life and, like Lord Byron, Lawrence only gained the recognition he deserved in the decades following his death.
Although he is now esteemed as one of the most important figures in the early history of Modernism, Lawrence remains controversial, and deservedly so. His prodigious output is notoriously uneven; and Lawrence, laboring in obscurity, never lived long enough to refine some of his wilder fancies into coherent ideas. Other critics deride Lawrence's explicitness, and it is true that some of his lesser works were written more to shock than to truly enlighten the mind with the brilliance of art. Nonetheless, Lawrence was a genius of the highest order, and his most exemplary poems and novels are among the most influential works of twentieth-century literature. Even so, it can be argued that for all his literary genius, much of what followed from his influence ended up to be detrimental to society.
The fourth child of Arthur John Lawrence, an illiterate miner, and Lydia, née Beardsall, a former schoolmistress, David Herbert Richards Lawrence was born and spent his formative years in the coal mining town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom. His working class background and the tensions between his mismatched parents provided the raw material for a number of his early works and Lawrence would return to Eastwood, which he was to call "the country of my heart.", as a setting for much of his fiction.
The young Lawrence attended Beauvale Board School from 1891 until 1898, becoming the first local pupil to win a County Council scholarship to Nottingham High School in nearby Nottingham. He left in 1901, working for three months as a junior clerk at Haywood's surgical appliances factory before a severe bout of pneumonia ended this career. While convalescing he often visited Haggs Farm, the home of the Chambers family, beginning a friendship with Jessie Chambers. In the years 1902 to 1906 Lawrence served as a teacher at the British School, Eastwood. He went on to become a full-time student and received a teaching certificate from University College, Nottingham in 1908. During these early years he was working on his first poems, some short stories, and a draft of a novel, Laetitia, that was eventually to become The White Peacock. At the end of 1907 he won a short story competition in the Nottingham Guardian, the first time that he had gained any wider recognition for his literary talents.
In the autumn of 1908 the newly qualified Lawrence left his childhood home for London. While teaching in Davidson Road School, Croydon he continued his writing. Some of the early poetry, submitted by Jessie Chambers, came to the attention of Ford Madox Ford, also known as Ford Madox Hueffer, editor of the influential The English Review. Hueffer commissioned the story Odour of Chrysanthemums. Upon its publication in the Review, Heinemann, a London publisher, was encouraged to ask Lawrence for more work. Lawrence's career as a professional author now began in earnest, although he taught for one year further. Shortly after the final proofs of his first published novel The White Peacock appeared in 1910, Lawrence's mother died. She had been ill with cancer. The young man was devastated and he was to describe the next few months as "his sick year."
During 1911 Lawrence was introduced to Edward Garnett, a publisher's reader, who acted as a mentor, providing further encouragement and becoming a valued friend. Throughout these months the young author revised Paul Morel, the first sketch of what was to become Sons and Lovers. In addition, a teaching colleague, Helen Corke, gave him access to her intimate diaries about an unhappy love affair, which formed the basis of The Trespasser, his second novel. In November 1911 pneumonia struck once again. After recovering his health Lawrence decided to abandon teaching in order to become a full-time author.
In March 1912 the author met the free spirited woman with whom he was to share the rest of his life. She was six years older than her new lover, married and with three young children. Frieda Weekley née von Richthofen was then the wife of Lawrence's former modern languages professor from Nottingham University, Ernest Weekley. She eloped with Lawrence to her parent's home in Metz, a garrison town in Germany near the disputed border with France. Their stay here included Lawrence's first brush with militarism when he was arrested and accused of being a British spy, before being released following an intervention from Frieda's father. After this encounter Lawrence left for a small hamlet to the south of Munich where he was joined by Frieda for their 'honeymoon', later memorialized in the series of love poems entitled Look! We Have Come Through (1917).
From Germany they walked southwards across the Alps to Italy, a journey that was recorded in the first of his brilliant travel books, a collection of linked essays entitled Twilight in Italy and the unfinished novel, Mr Noon. During his stay in Italy, Lawrence completed the final version of Sons and Lovers, a vivid portrait of the realities of working-class provincial life published in 1913. The couple returned to England in 1913 for a short visit. Lawrence now encountered and befriended John Middleton Murry, the critic, and the short story writer from New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield. Lawrence and Frieda soon went back to Italy, staying in a cottage in Fiascherino on the Gulf of Spezia. Here he started writing the first draft of a work of fiction that was to be transformed into two of his finest novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love. Eventually Frieda obtained her divorce. The couple returned to England at the outbreak of World War I and were married on the 13 July, 1914.
Frieda's German parentage and Lawrence's open contempt for the military meant that they were viewed with suspicion in wartime England and lived in near destitution. The Rainbow (1915) was suppressed after an investigation into its alleged obscenity in 1915. Later, they were even accused of spying and signalling to German submarines off of the coast of Cornwall where they lived at Zennor. During this period he finished a sequel to The Rainbow that many regard as his masterpiece. This radical new work, Women in Love, is a key text of European modernism. In it Lawrence explores the destructive features of contemporary civilization through the evolving relationships of four major characters as they reflect upon the value of the arts, politics, economics, sexual experience, friendship and marriage. This book is a bleak, bitter vision of humanity and proved impossible to publish in wartime conditions. It is now widely recognised as an English novel of great dramatic force and intellectual subtlety.
In late 1917, after constant harassment by the military authorities, Lawrence was forced to leave Cornwall at three days' notice under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). This persecution was later described in an autobiographical chapter of his Australian novel, Kangaroo, published in 1923.
After the traumatic experience of the war years, Lawrence began what he termed his 'savage pilgrimage',a time of voluntary exile. He escaped from England at the earliest practical opportunity, returning only twice for brief visits. He spent the remainder of his life travelling with Frieda, settling down for only short periods. This wanderlust took him to Italy, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), Australia, the United States, Mexico and after returning once more in Italy, southern France.
Lawrence abandoned England in November 1919 and headed south; first to the Abruzzi district in central Italy and then onwards to Capri and the Fontana Vecchia in Taormina, Sicily. From Sicily he made brief excursions to Sardinia, Monte Cassino, Malta, Northern Italy, Austria and Southern Germany. Many of these places appeared in his writings. New novels included The Lost Girl, Aaron's Rod and the fragment entitled Mr Noon (the first part of which was published in the Phoenix anthology of his works, and the entirety in 1984). He experimented with shorter novels or novellas, such as The Captain's Doll, The Fox and The Ladybird. In addition, some of his short stories were issued in the collection England, My England and Other Stories. During these years he produced a number of poems about the natural world in Birds, Beasts and Flowers; these poems are now recognized as one of Lawrence's highest achievements, as well as one of the earliest works of Modernism to take full advantage of the power of free verse. Lawrence's nature poetry, free of the controversies and complexities of his fiction, is perhaps his most enduring contribution to English letters.
In late February 1922 the Lawrences left Europe behind with the intention of migrating to the United States. They sailed in an easterly direction, first to Ceylon and then on to Australia. A short residence in Western Australia was followed by a brief stop in New South Wales, during which Lawrence completed Kangaroo, a novel about local fringe politics that also revealed a lot about his wartime experiences in Cornwall.
Resuming their journey, Frieda and Lawrence finally arrived in the United States in September 1922. Here they considered establishing a utopian community on what was then known as the 160-acre Kiowa Ranch near Taos, New Mexico. By all accounts Lawrence loved this ranch high up in the mountains, the only home that he ever owned. He stayed in New Mexico for two years, taking extended visits into Mexico.
While in the New World, Lawrence rewrote and published his Studies in Classic American Literature, a set of critical essays begun in 1917, and later described by Edmund Wilson as "one of the few first-rate books that have ever been written on the subject." These provocative and original interpretations, with their insights into symbolism, Transcendentalism and the Puritan sensibility, were a significant factor in the revival of the reputation of Herman Melville during the early 1920s. In addition, Lawrence completed a number of new fictional works, including The Boy in the Bush, The Plumed Serpent, St Mawr, The Woman who Rode Away, The Princess. He also found time to produce some more travel writing, such as the collection of linked excursions that became Mornings in Mexico.
A brief voyage to England at the end of 1923 was a failure and he soon returned to Taos, convinced that his life as an author now lay in America. However, in March 1925 he suffered a near fatal attack of malaria and tuberculosis while on a third visit to Mexico. Although he eventually recovered, the diagnosis of his condition obliged him to return once again to Europe. He was dangerously ill and poor health limited the ability to travel for the remainder of his life.
Lawrence and Frieda set up home in a villa in Northern Italy, living near Florence while he wrote The Virgin and the Gipsy and the various versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). This book, his last major novel, was initially published in private editions in Florence and Paris, reinforcing his notoriety.
The return to Italy allowed Lawrence to renew some of his old friendships and during these years he was particularly close to Aldous Huxley, a loyal companion who was to edit the first collection of Lawrence's letters after his death. With another friend, the artist Earl Brewster, Lawrence found time to visit a number of local archaeological sites in April 1927. The resulting essays describing these visits to old tombs were written up and collected together as Sketches of Etruscan Places, a beautiful book that contrasts the history of ancient Rome with the brutality of Mussolini's fascist Italy. Lawrence continued to produce fiction, including short stories and The Escaped Cock/The Man Who Died, an unorthodox reworking of the Christian belief of the resurrection that affirms Lawrence's bizarre and complex religious faith.
He continued to write despite his physical frailty. In his last months he authored numerous poems, reviews, essays, and a robust defense of his last novel against those who sought to suppress it. His last significant work was a spirited reflection on the New Testament Book of Revelation, St. John's Apocalypse. After being discharged from a sanatorium he died at the Villa Robermond, Vence, France in 1930 at the age of 44. Frieda returned to live on the ranch in Taos, and later her third husband brought Lawrence's ashes to rest there in a small chapel set amid the mountains of New Mexico.
The obituaries following Lawrence's death were, with the notable exception of E. M. Forster, largely unsympathetic, ill-informed or blatantly hostile. His longtime friend, Catherine Carswell, summed up his life in a letter to the periodical Time and Tide published on the 16th March 1930. In response to his mean-spirited critics she claimed:
Realism was the main feature of Lawrence's writings: he passionately believed that it was his duty, as a novelist, to present all the facts of life, and leave no aspect of reality hidden or obscured. As a result, at times he pushed the limits of taste; but he also expanded the boundaries of art. Like Balzac, Lawrence took it upon himself to create all-encompassing art; art that embraced, and investigated all the nuances of human experience.
Among his many works, most famous are his novels Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). All of these major novels take place in and around Eastwood, Lawrence's grim birthplace, an industrial mining town. One of Lawrence's most important contributions to literature may be simply in his choice of setting; he was one of the first major English authors since Dickens to write literature of the working-classes.
Kangaroo, Aaron's Rod and The Plumed Serpent are usually considered together as Lawrence's "leadership novels" that contain a number of Lawrence's ideas on society, philosophy, and religion. As novels, these works are rather difficult and uneven, with Lawrence often sacrificing an interesting narrative for the sake of expressing his own obfuscated ideas. Nevertheless, these lesser-known works offer a captivating glimpse into Lawrence's development as a thinker, and offer the reader a much deeper sense of Lawrence's philosophical and ideological leanings.
Lady Chatterley's Lover is easily Lawrence's most famous novel. Though it was privately published in 1928, it remained unavailable to the general public until its publication by London based Penguin Books in 1960 caused a scandal due to its explicit sex scenes. An obscenity trial followed in Britain, and the novel become a rallying point for the budding youth culture of the 1960s. Penguin Books won the case, the novel was published, and, due to the scandal, became quite popular with rebellious youth.
What is often overlooked among the claims of Lawrence's obscenity is the fact that he was extremely religious. He found the cloistered Christianity of Europe to be confining, wishing to find spiritual rejuvenation through the innocence and simplicity of mystical and tribal religions. In reality, this search for a primeval religious experience was a large part of Lawrence's motivation for undertaking his "savage pilgrimage." His thought was also deeply influenced by contemporary philosophers and psychologists such as Nietzsche, Henri Bergson and others, as well as by the works of Sigmund Freud. Lawrence wished to free himself from the sexual mores of the past so that he could examine the role of sexuality in spiritual and religious experience, and it was quite likely that he might have been surprised about his role in the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s.
Although best known for his novels, Lawrence wrote almost eight hundred poems, most of them relatively short. His poetry, over time, has risen in esteem among critics and scholars, and many now argue that Lawrence's poetry is much more consistent in quality than his sometimes manic fictions. His poetry, like that of many other Modernist poets, is highly experimental, and Lawrence was one of the first major English poets to use free verse to great effect.
Lawrence wrote his first poems in 1904 at the age of nineteen, and two of his poems, Dreams Old and Dreams Nascent, were among his earliest published works in The English Review. His early works clearly place him in the school of Georgian poets; a group named after King George V of the United Kingdom, but also connect him to the Romantic poets, most particularly Wordsworth, whose work they were trying to emulate. What typified the entire movement, and Lawrence's poems of the time, were well-worn poetic tropes and deliberately archaic language. Although strained and of lesser quality, these early works show Lawrence's unique voice in its earliest stages. Consider, for example, the following, rather racy, early excerpt;
Just as the First World War dramatically changed the work of many of the poets who saw service in the trenches, Lawrence's own work saw a dramatic change during his miserable war years in Cornwall. He had the works of Walt Whitman to thank for showing him the possibilities of free verse. He set forth his manifesto for much of his later verse in the introduction to New Poems:
"We can get rid of the stereotyped movements and the old hackneyed associations of sound or sense. We can break down those artificial conduits and canals through which we do so love to force our utterance. We can break the stiff neck of habit...But we cannot positively prescribe any motion, any rhythm."
Many of his later works lacked all rhyme and meter so that they were little different from short ideas or memos, which could well have been written in prose were it not for their lyric beauty and energy. Lawrence rewrote many of his novels several times to perfect them and similarly he returned to some of his early poems when they were collected in 1928. This was in part to fictionalize them, but also to remove some of the artifice of his first works. As he put it himself: "A young man is afraid of his demon and puts his hand over the demon's mouth sometimes and speaks for him." His best known poems are probably those dealing with nature such as those in Birds Beasts and Flowers and Tortoises. Snake, one of his most frequently anthologized poems, displays some of his most frequent concerns; modern man's distance from nature and subtle hints at religious themes:
Look! We have come through! is another major volume of poetry from the period at the end of the War, revealing another important element common to much of Lawrence's writings—his inclination to lay himself bare, and use his own biographical material for his art. Although Lawrence could be regarded as a writer of love poems, he usually deals in the less romantic aspects of love such as sexual frustration and thwarted desire. Ezra Pound in his Literary Essays complained of Lawrence's interest in his own "disagreeable sensations" but praised him for his "low-life narrative." This is a reference to Lawrence's dialect poems akin to the Scots poems of Robert Burns, in which he reproduced the language and concerns of the people of Nottinghamshire from his youth.
Pound was the chief proponent of modernist poetry and although Lawrence's works after his Georgian period are clearly in the Modernist tradition, they were often very different to many other modernist writers. Modernist works were often austere, with every word meticulously chosen. Lawrence felt all poems had to be personal sentiments and that spontaneity was vital for any work. He called one collection of poems Pansies partly for the simple ephemeral nature of the verse but also a pun on the French verb panser, meaning to dress or bandage a wound. His wounds still needed soothing for the reception he regularly received in England, as the poems The Noble Englishman and Don't Look at Me were removed from the official edition of Pansies on the grounds of obscenity. Although he lived the life of a world traveler, Lawrence's poetry became controversial primarily because of his frequent criticisms of England's moral climate, as illustrated in the following late quotation:
Scholarly studies of Lawrence's existing manuscripts reveal him to have been a careful craftsman. He often revised his works in a radical way by rewriting them, often over a period of years. Given this, it is interesting to compare these earlier drafts with the final, published versions
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