Monday, March 14, 2011

Birds, Beasts, and Flowers by D.H. Lawrence

Edition: Birds, beasts and flowers; poems

D.H. Lawrence wrote most of the poems that ended up collected in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers while alone in Florence in 1920. The overall collection contains various scenes during his travels from 1919-1923 (including to America, and Australia) after WWI. Birds, Beasts, and Flowers was published in 1923, though some of the poems had appeared previously in Poetry, The DialThe New Republic, and The Bookman. Both Lawrence and his critics have agreed that the collection contains some of his best poetry. The title is for the collection is taken from a Victorian hymn.

Marjorie Perloff notes that one of the most distinctive aspects of this collection is Lawrence's performative rhetoric which makes a "pathetic argument" in order to win the reader's empathy. Perloff quotes W.H. Auden on Lawrence's poems: "Whenever he...describes the anonymous life of stones, waters, forests, animals, flowers, chance traveling companions or passers-by, his bad temper and his dogmatism immediately vanish and he becomes the most enchanting companion imaginable, tender, intelligent, funny, and above all, happy." In my own reading of the poems in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, I certainly noted a conversational honesty and grittiness that perhaps relates to the some of the above observations from Perloff and Auden above. The reader feels that the poetic voice is "down-to-earth," close-to and wrestling with objects of nature in a way that is significantly more terrestrial than the Romantic poets' engagement with nature, wherein nature leads the poet up towards diviner considerations beyond himself. In a case of form mirroring such concerns, Lawrence's rhythms in these poems carry an energy and assertiveness that is sometimes reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sprung rhythm.

Male/Female Struggle: In the first section of the collection, the poet's objects are fruits: "Pomegranate" confrontationally foregrounds the "fissure" in the fruit, challenging the prudish reader that would rather ignore it: "Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure? / Do you prefer to look on the plain side?" In "Peach," he is similarly obsessive over the "ripple down the sphere," explicitly gendering this ripple feminine by opposing the rippled peach to the peach that a man would have made, "round and finished like a / billiard ball." The poet's wrestling with the "Fig" similarly presents the fruit as a bearer of female mystery. In the current age, the mystery is revealing itself (contemporary feminism?) and the poet feels great anxiety over this, cautioning that "the bursten fig" is a ripe fig, and that "Ripe figs won't keep." Here, the poet seems resist attitudes which destroy female mystery, believing the preservation of mystery to be worthwhile. All of these poems embody a direct, confrontational rhetoric (both towards the object and the reader) which nakedly questions why these fruits are the way they are, and whether they might carry in them inaccessible truths about the nature of the sexes.

Return to the Primordial: The rejection of high aspirations to the heavens is repeatedly rejected in Lawrence's collection; it is better to roll around in the primordial mud and darkness, so to speak. "The Revolutionary" is one of the first poems (following the fruit poems) to voice this presence. The poet says that he is the "blind Samson," who cannot see the "heavens above" that the "pale face authority / Caryatids" aspire too. This revolutionary's way is to instead seek the "palpable, invisible nearnesses in the / dark." The "pale face authorities" are rigid, cold, and sterile, whereas the "nearnesses in the dark" are tangible, enveloping, and fertile. The section called "The Evangelistic Beasts" redirects the gospels away from man's aspirations towards Jesus and God to focus on his terrestrial, bestial manhood. In "St. Matthew," Matthew says boldly to Jesus: "But even Thou, Son of Man, canst not quaff out the / dregs of terrestrial manhood!" This gospel of Matthew ends acceptingly with the essential difference between man and the Son of Man: "Son of Man has / climbed to the Whitsun zenith, / But I, Matthew, being a man, / Am a traveller back and forth. / So be it." "St. Mark" is imagined as a lion, who was at first a bloodthirsty (pagan) character, and then called by God to guard the flock. What he becomes isn't particularly desirable or holy: now, the lion is a "faithful sheep-dog of the Shepherd, / thinking of his voluptuous pleasures of chas- / ing the sheep to the fold / And increasing the flock, and perhaps giving a real nip / here and there, a real pinch, but always well / meant." The voice of the poet comically mocks what the lion has become, a slavish and meek tool whose sole pleasure is in the inglorious task of accumulation for someone else. "St. Luke" is imagined as a powerful bull whose great energy and fire is constrained by the purposes availed to him ("so small a vent"). At the end of the poem, the poet links the bull to class struggle, warning that "[t]he bull of the proletariat has got his head down," about to charge with his horns--the violence may be subdued but remains latent and ready to burst. "St. John," finally, is an eagle, cerebral and with a "[p]roud intellect," and "high-soaring Mind," but today, he "[i]s looking rather shabby and island-bound these days." For "island-bound" England, diminished in strength, Lawrence desires a Phoenix from the burnt ashes of the eagle, but sadly (and bitterly) the poet admits to the phoenix that "[y]ou are only known to us now as the badge of an / insurance Company." These re-written gospels insist upon a turn away from the fetters of civilization--whether religion, or capitalism--towards an energy more elemental, violent, and natural.

America: The collection expresses a highly vexed relationship to America, at once ascribing to America an attractive primordial violence and also a hateful civilized machinery, which includes Whitmanian doctrines of equality.  "The Evening Land"is about the poet feeling drawn to yet critical of America. The poet hates and is afraid of the heights of civilization that America has reached, "the winged skeleton of your bleached ideal," and even more afraid of "that clean smooth / Automaton of your uprisen self, / Machine America." Against Whitman the poet rallies: "Does no one realise that love should be particular, / individual, / Not boundless. / This boundless love is like the bad smell / Of something gone wrong in the middle." Yet in this rottenness is a kind of primordial "uncanniness...lurking among the deeps of [the] industrial thicket" which the poet cannot help but to love and identify with. In a later section on birds, the "Turkey-Cock" is associated with "[a] raw American will, that has never been tempered / by life," (an association Lawrence frequently attaches also to the disappeared "primordial Indian"). Like H.D. in Sea Garden, Lawrence ascribes a kind of violent, raw individualism to America. The final poem in the entire collection is "American Eagle" in which the poet basically imagines the American eagle in some kind of identity crisis. He's an eagle, so he can't "sit everlastingly / With an olive-sprig in his mouth. / It's not his nature," yet he was nested by the dove. Again, this particular "identity crisis" points to the dual attributes of peaceful, idealized civilization and the violent, messy, primordial soul.

"Hibiscus and Salvia Flowers" critiques doctrines of equality more generally, directing indignance against socialists for taking on these fiery, individualistic flowers as their symbols. The poet spews, "Come now, speaking of rights, what right have you / to this flower?" The Bolshevists embody principles of mindless, drone-like equality that is so hateful to the poet that he wants the world's "chock-full crowdedness / And glutted squirming populousness on fire / Like a field of filthy weeds / Burnt back to ash, / And then to see the new, real souls sprout up." And in an angry outburst in the name of individuality and difference, the poet says: "What rot, to see the cabbage and hibiscus tree / As equals!" I

Secret, other lives: The majority of these poems concern themselves with the secret "otherness" of birds, beasts, or flowers and more specifically the human encounter with this otherness. In the "Trees" section, "Cypresses" have an "undeliverable secret," "Bare Fig Trees" "ha[ve] been laughing through so many ages / At man and his uncomfortableness." In "Bare Almond Trees" the poet fancies that they have "a strange electric sensitiveness in [their] steel / tips" but even this is a characterization in humanly recognizable terms. Connected to "Bare Almond Trees," the "Flowers" section begins with "Almond Blossom," in which unexpectedly, "[e]ven iron can put forth, / Even iron" the kind of blossoms that come out of the "Strange storming up from the dense under-earth." This "strange storming" links the secret, unknown life again to a primordial force deep inside of the earth. Though this force is strange to us, the poet does suggest that some men might be closer to it--the laboring, working-class images which follow suggest that they are the closest: "Sweating his drops of blood through the long-nighted / Gethsemane / Into blossom, into pride, into honey-triumph, into / most exquisite blossom."

In the "Creatures" section, the poet is able to imagine more of a struggle (although frequently, it is only the human that feels the struggle) in the encounter between human and creature. "Mosquito"and "Fish" begin with the poet's wonder at their secret, inaccessible lives and consciousnesses and ends with a violent encounter: in the former, he squashes the mosquito, and in the latter, he fishes out a fish. In both violent encounters, the poet admits that he knows no more about the creature as a result despite the power that he has enacted on the body of the creatures. In "Fish," the poet is especially caught up by the creature's extreme individualism: "Himself all silvery himself / In the element / No more. / Nothing more...They exchange no word, no spasm, not even anger. / Not one touch...Each one alone with the waters, upon one wave with / the rest." The most the poet can do is to cause these creatures's death, but they ultimately remain unknown to him. "Man and Bat" highlights not only the personified insanity of the bat going round and round the room, but also the man's unreasonable expectation for the bat to go out and his rather insane determination to never let the bat rest. In the end, the bat falls and the man picks him up in a flannel jacket, and releases him. The poem ends imagining a mocking consciousness on the part of the bat: "There he sits, the long loud one! / But I am greater than he... / I escaped him."

There are, however, different degrees to which creatures seem alien to humans. The "Blue Jay," for example, mocks both the poet and his dog. When the poet sees the dog looking at him for an explanation, they are equal in being the blue jay's object of mockery: "It's the blue jay laughing at us. / It's the blue jay jeering at us, Bibs." The section on "Animals" contains living things that seem much closer to man, though the poems make clear that they still each contain inaccessible consciousnesses. The two poems, "He Goat" and "She Goat" become occasions for the poet's further probing into his own notions of sexuality. He identifies with the he-goat's libidinous energy and also potential for violence and sympathizes with his plight in which no outlets are unavailable for the "poor, domesticated beast." On the other hand, he regards the she-goat less sympathetically. She's more "other" and he hates her for it: "She turns her head away with an obtuse, female sort / of deafness..." "She Goat" ends with lines on how the minute after she has kids, in a month it seems like she has never had them. The poet is fearful of her freedom from a maternal instinct. An address to "Bibbles" his (female) dog is similarly vexed: Bibbles, like America, loves everybody indiscriminately, and the poet has a big problem with this. He accuses: "You love 'em all. / Believe in the One Identity, don't you / You little Walt-Whitmanesque bitch?" The poet continues to rant against his dog to the point where the poet reveals his own hatred to be rather strange and even comical.

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