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John Beer, D. H. Lawrence: Nature, Narrative, Art, Identity

Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 (256 pages), ISBN-13: 978-1137441645.
Noëlle Cuny
Référence(s) :

John Beer, D. H. Lawrence: Nature, Narrative, Art, Identity. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 (256 pages), ISBN-13: 978-1137441645.

Texte intégral

1Rather than squarely delineating a conceptual frame of reference, the four-headed title of Pr. Beer’s latest book represents the encyclopaedic scope of Lawrence’s interests—he was not a man to leave any corner of human knowledge unscrutinized. The ‘nature’ dimension refers to Lawrence’s preoccupation with ‘the nature of life itself and the centrality of the organic’, in its manifestations of ‘quiet vegetative growth’ as well as in the ‘infinity of animation’ perceptible in its midst, while the ‘narrative’ and ‘art’ aspects cover the formal organic quality of the novels (or lack thereof). The fourth dimension of this already remarkably broad argument is an endeavour to continue F. R. Leavis’s analysis of ‘the double nature of human consciousness’, in Lawrence’s post-war tales (‘England, My England’ and ‘The Fox’), in The Plumed Serpent and in the poems (chapters 11-12). For the most part, though, the book is a biographical study and a discussion of the autobiographical elements in the fiction.

2There appears to be a slight misunderstanding as to which versions of the texts are to be considered as authoritative. Pr. Beer quotes from ‘the earliest versions—with cross-references, where necessary, to the Cambridge text’: but to read in the Phoenix, the Secker or the Penguin editions, even when CUP page numbers are provided, means to disregard the vast body of research made available by the Cambridge editors, who reclaimed the intentional final manuscripts from the effects of bowdlerization and the printing mishaps. It may be that this underuse of up-to-date resources—by which I mean not only the textual apparatus in the Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence but any serious non-biographical Lawrence criticism postdating Anne Fernihough’s Aesthetics and Ideology (1993)—has merits, perhaps that of keeping things simple or foregrounding the texts themselves. Pr. Beer’s learnedness and long-honed reading instincts can turn this frustrating minimalism to advantage, because the result reads pleasantly enough as a quick introduction to Lawrence.

3The first two chapters are a sketch of Lawrence’s early life, career, and intellectual influences. The second chapter lays down the terms of Lawrence’s fascination with organic life. While this is not a new topic it is a crucial one, as indicates its recurring in the chapters on The Rainbow and on The Plumed Serpent. The omnipresence of organic imagery in Lawrence poses important questions one would wish to take further. Does his aesthetic organicism make Lawrence even more of a Romantic, or a post-Romantic, than hitherto established by Colin Clarke? Would the semantic plurality of the word ‘organic’ help to map out the ramifications of Lawrence’s own species of organicism—‘organic’ meaning ‘made of living organs’ as well as ‘having carbon as one of its basic atomic components’? Critics now know how important the opposition between carbon-based or ‘organic’ matter and metallic objects was to Lawrence at the time of writing The Rainbow and Women in Love. The basic vitalist opposition between organic and inorganic used here to comment on key passages remains highly relevant, of course.

4Like many critics, to establish Lawrence’s ambivalence when faced with the ‘mystery’ of nature, Pr. Beer takes his cue from the celebrated laboratory scene in The Rainbow, though without reference to the scene in H. G. Well’s Ann Veronica which Lawrence was evidently rewriting. Unlike many critics, Pr. Beer is careful to document the influence of Mark Rutherford (William Hale White) on Lawrence’s early novel writing; in so doing, he brings to critical attention the immense popularity of W. H. White. Now treated as a minor representative of Victorian moral literature, Hale White was in fact still read, discussed and acclaimed in some literary circles of the Modernist decades, so he should not be overlooked in our attempts to complete the picture of early twentieth-century print culture in Britain.

5In chapters 3 to 5, discussion of ‘Paul Morel’/Sons and Lovers is interwoven with comment on The White Peacock, on The Trespasser, and on Frieda Lawrence herself. After perceptive though necessarily sketchy chapters on The Rainbow and Women in Love one finds a useful survey of ‘The Reality of Peace’ and Studies in Classic American Literature; chapters 9 to 12, on The Lost Girl and Aaron’s Rod, on the novellas, and on The Plumed Serpent, make for pleasant if unchallenging reading. Chapter 10, on the nature of Somers’s resistance to the competing political discourses that are making such heavy claims on his independence, is uninspired and loosely put together. It is ironic that a chapter essentially deploring the fragmentary and amorphous quality of Kangaroo should include such poorly proofread pages as p. 139, where the same two paragraphs of comment are printed twice one below the other.

6Chapter 13 quotes an interesting letter by Witter Bynner describing Lawrence relinquishing the now fully explored ‘leadership’ mode (and, intriguingly, hinting at Bynner’s own part in the process). It then compares successive versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, partly fulfilling, along the way, the general introduction’s promise of looking into scientific interests of Lawrence’s. As is now well known, Lawrence made abundant use of his botanical knowledge in his early novels, in The Rainbow and in The First Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and he was a reader of popular physics. Pr. Beer thus rightly points to the allusion in the final Lady Chatterley to Whitehead’s theory of the universe physically wasting and spiritually ascending. Students should certainly be made aware of the hovering presence of Whitehead over much of Lawrence’s later writing; yet one cannot but regret the absence from this chapter entitled ‘Tenderness and the Modes of Energy’ of any mention of Bruce Clarke’s excellent Energy Forms (2001) and its pages on Lawrence and thermodynamics.

7Chapters 14 and 15 present the poems as the culmination of Lawrence’s achievements, and the form best suited to writing about and emulating the workings of nature, with Whitman as its main source of inspiration. The final chapter is an attempt to sketch the ‘identity’ of Lawrence the writer and the historical person, through a survey of the early reception. Its best lines are a caveat as to what it is that makes this a problematic pursuit. Lovingly thinking about Lawrence’s best-known poem (‘Snake’, most probably), Pr. Beer is reminded at once of the poet’s ‘divided consciousness’ and of the elusiveness that will defeat any attempt to pin down D. H. Lawrence: ‘It was as if he was sometimes […] caught in the vertiginous twofold experience of being at one and the same time arrested, trance-like, in the contemplation of a basking reptile, princess-like in its static beauty, and indulging in the worrying, inquiring, conscious need to capture the creature in its fullness before it could vanish, with a flick of its tail, into the unknown. In the full interplay of this systole and diastole between expansive warmth and narrow, focused concentration, his whole being subsisted: one ignores any part of the full process at one’s peril’ (225).

8Among the good pages of the book are those on the turbulent atmosphere of 1910 both in home and in foreign affairs. Pr. Beer’s explication method is strong on context; the commentary is backed up with references to broader cultural phenomena, for example how Wagner came to be so valued in Britain (including by the author of The Trespasser, originally titled The Saga of Siegmund) then fell into disregard (corresponding to heightened interest in rediscovering home-grown culture or—in the case of Lawrence—in all things native and potentially regenerative). Similarly, it is vital that students bear in mind, as they ponder the intermediary versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that the novel in the interwar period served to try out and assess not only the aesthetics of modernity but also, on a more pragmatic level, the rising extremisms. It was a medium through which the seductions and limitations of socialism or aristocratic authoritarianism could be brought to awareness.

9Having thus been reminded of the function of the novel as a sanctuary for the free play of exploratory thinking, one wonders whether the book’s Appendix on ‘Lawrence’ Sexuality and his Supposed “Fascism”’ (as if the two belonged to the same plane of discussion) has any necessity. Lawrence is praised for his prescient rejection of populist totalitarianism, but it may be closer to the point to say that he was averse to any kind of political, let alone military action. Surely, the time for rescuing Lawrence from his delvings into authoritarianism has passed.

10Would that Pr. Beer, a great Coleridge specialist, gave us the Coleridgean Lawrence one day. There are gestures towards that line of analysis on two or three occasions, as in that paragraph where Lawrence’s choice of half-verse, half-prose poetic form is ascribed to the influence of Coleridge’s and Cowper’s conversation poems (209). Pr. Beer’s D. H. Lawrence is student-friendly and not without what one might describe as vintage charm; it plays the ‘spot-the-real-life-model’ game with gusto, and never hesitates to suggest a grand design behind the apparent chaos of an errant writer’s career. But for a state-of-the-art introduction to Lawrence one should turn to Anne Fernihough’s Cambridge Companion (2001), and then, for a closer study of Lawrence’s botanical interests, one could go to Mahood’s Poet as Botanist (2008). Finally, I would suggest that readers interested in Lawrence the writer of the non-human (rather than nature) turn to Jeff Wallace’s D. H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman (2005), which has laid the groundwork for much future research.

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Noëlle Cuny, « John Beer, D. H. Lawrence: Nature, Narrative, Art, Identity », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 16 octobre 2015, consulté le 24 octobre 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/2768

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Noëlle Cuny

Université de Haute-Alsace

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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