The following talk was given in Eastwood, England, on Saturday 15th June 2019, at the third annual ‘DH Lawrence Poetry Day’ organised by the DH Lawrence Society.
The other speakers were Bob Hayward (who spoke on the relationship between the battle of the sexes and the religious sense), Susan Reid (who spoke on the elephant poems, in the wake of her recent visit to Kandy), and Malcolm Pittock (who spoke on death in the late poems). A highly-engaged audience, including David Ellis (referenced below) was present, and much discussion of the poems took place.
When I was teaching at Oxford University about ten years ago, the vicar of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Brian Mountford, was writing a book entitled Christian Atheist, which came out in 2010.
He had conceived the idea for it after realising that several people whom he knew were believers without belonging to a church, or belongers without believing – all people whom he put under the broad umbrella of Christian atheism, a phenomenon now much discussed in Western theology, and which has its most focused organisation in the Sea of Faith movement (since 1984). Mountford’s attempts to define the term, and the responses of some of those whom he interviewed for the book to the term ‘God’, resemble the responses of Lawrence’s first two imaginary believing interviewees in his late 1923 or early 1924 Adelphi article ‘On Being Religious’. The first of these interviewees believes in God as goodness and love; the second believes that God makes him more tolerant.
Lawrence rejects both as uninteresting, and then presents two ‘true believers’ through an imaginary conversation between himself, who doesn’t doanything with God but has it done to him – and someone who refuses to be drawn on the subject, but says that he might believe in God, ‘if it looked like fun’. Yet both of these would fall into Mountford’s purview of soft atheism. After interviewing me, he decided that Lawrence’s emphasis on ontology as trumping epistemology, on mode of being as being more important than knowing, and any statement of permanent truth being necessarily in error in relation to a shifting reality, was entirely relevant to the spectrum of para-belief in which he was interested, and so he reproduced in his book the quotation of Paul Morel to Miriam in Sons and Lovers:
‘It’s not religious to be religious […] I reckon a crow is religious when it sails across the sky. But it only does it because it feels itself carried to where it’s going, not because it thinks it is being eternal.’
Mountford wrote the book because, Robert Reid-like, he was aware of changing patterns of belief in his society, and thought that Christianity should be in dialogue with those changes. I was pleased that he thought that Lawrence had something ‘interesting’, to use Lawrence’s term, to say on this. In his 2000 book DH Lawrence and the Bible, TR Wrightspeculates that one of the factors that has contributed to the decline in Lawrence’s standing is not just declining familiarity with the Bible that Wright demonstrates to permeate his works, but simply to a loss of ‘religious intensity’ (Wright, 250) – that baton having passed, apart from to the resurgent fundamentalism, to the new atheists of the twenty-first century, as Mountford argues. I, more optimistically, think that it is precisely Lawrence’s resemblance to many people today – in his nostalgia and admiration for a Christian belief that it is denied to him to feel, his non-dogmatic spirituality, and his openness to multiple of the world’s beliefs without adherence to any of them – that constitutes an important part of his relevance, living as we do in a secularised but multi-religious society.
Some readers go so far as to say that Lawrence is capable of convincing of his own religious perception, as Sandra Gilbert does in her 1990 book The Poems of DH Lawrence. She argues that whereas TS Eliot assumes a structure of Christian orthodoxy which he never explains, ‘Shadows’ quote ‘convinces us because all the groundwork has been done in the earlier poems’ (Gilbert, 316-17)
‘On Being Religious’, Lawrence’s greatest prose exposition of an attitude towards religion, contains, as Mountford’s book does, much discussion of the word ‘God’.
Luke Ferretter’s 2013 book The Glyph and the Gramophone: DH Lawrence’s Religion, takes both of its titular terms from Kangaroo, but the former receives its fuller exposition in that essay, of the following year:
‘It isn’t really quite a word. It’s an ejaculation and a glyph. It never had a definition. It’s just a noise and a shape, like pop! Or Ra or Om’ (RDP, 187).
This appears in the second paragraph.
But the essay doesn’t then drop the term. It continues to roll it round its palm, to make it function in many different ways, in part through discussion of the term in imagined dialogue, in part through assertion of what God is doing in his shiftings about the universe (in a mode which with knowing amusement combines confidence as to God’s movement with complete nescience as to His location), and in part through straight existential assertion such as ‘God always is, and we all know it.’
The essays ends:
‘Myself, I believe in God. But I’m off on a different road.
Adios! And, if you like, au revoir!’ (RDP, 189, 193)
The playful multilingualism testifies to the fun which Lawrence asserts that it is to follow the cosmic fox hunt after God, with the Holy Ghost as one’s hounds. The leave-taking indicates that Lawrence has taken us as far as he can; beyond that, he must be a soul voyager alone, as must we all. Yet Lawrence did not, as it were, leave us beyond that point alone.
Every time that he uses the word God or related terms thereafter, especially in his poetry from 1928 onwards, he as it were barks out his own location in the universe, for us to join him if we should find it ‘God’s good fun’ to do so (RDP, 193).
When he revised his poetry for his Collected Poems in 1928, he removed several of the references to ‘God’, and replaced them by words such as ‘Life’ or ‘Time’ (Ellis, 384).
And Bethan Jones observes in her 2010 book The Last Poems of DH Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style that ‘Moving between the [last two] notebooks ‘a uniform pattern of correction emerges, in which the poems are obviously ‘secularized’, divested of all the references to ‘god’ and ‘godhead’ The explicitly religious terminology and suggestion is replaced by references to cosmic ‘wonder’’ (Jones, accessed as ebook).
In the first of these notebooks, named by Christopher Pollnitz The ‘Nettles’ Notebook, God appears four times even in the poems’ titles:
‘The Mill of God’
‘God and the Holy Ghost’
‘The Sight of God’
‘God is Born’
But the Last Poems notebook does have
‘The Body of God’
‘The Hands of God’
and many which discuss the term without it appearing in the title.
To the end of his poetic career, the term is still being rolled around in Lawrence’s mind: God can at turns be seen, is born, is bodiless, has a body and has hands.
I would like us to start by looking at one of these, from the earlier, Nettles notebook, ‘God is Born’.
‘God is Born’
The history of the cosmos
is the history of the struggle of becoming.
When the dim flux of unformed life
struggled, convulsed back and forth upon itself, and broke at last into light and dark
came into existence as light,
came into existence as cold shadow
then every atom of the cosmos trembled with delight:
Behold, God is born!
He is bright light!
He is pitch dark and cold!
And in the great struggle of intangible chaos
when, at a certain point, a drop of water began to drip downwards
and a breath of vapour began to wreathe up
Lo again the shudder of bliss through all the atoms!
Oh, God is born!
Behold, He is born wet!
Look, He hath movement upward! He spirals!
And so, in the great aeons of accomplishment and débâcle
from time to time the wild crying of every electron:
Lo! God is born!
When sapphires cooled out of molten chaos:
See, God is born! He is blue, he is deep blue, he is forever blue!
When gold lay shining threading the cooled-off rock:
God is born! God is born! Bright yellow and ductile He is born.
When the little eggy amoeba emerged out of foam and nowhere
then all the electrons held their breath:
Ach! Ach! Now indeed God is born! He twinkles within.
When, from a world of mosses and of ferns
at last the narcissus lifted a tuft of five-point stars
and dangled them in the atmosphere,
then every molecule of creation jumped and clapped its hands:
God is born! God is born perfumed and dangling and with a little cup!
Throughout the aeons, as the lizard swirls his tail finer than water,
as the peacock turns to the sun, and could not be more splendid,
as the leopard smites and small calf with a spangled paw, perfect,
the universe trembles: God is born! God is here!
And when the last man stood on two legs and wondered,
then there was a hush of suspense at the core of every electron:
Behold, now very God is born!
God Himself is born!
And so we see, God is not
until he is born.
Also we see
there is no end to the birth of God
(1 Poems, 589-90)
This is one of what Aldington called the More Pansies and Lawrence called the dead nettles – nettles without sting – and which by the time they were published by Orioli in 1932, the year before Secker with Aldington, were those of a dead man.
But as far as being a dead nettle is concerned, as Bethan Jones so well points, there are continuities between the satiric squibs of the Nettles Notebook and the more ostensibly religious poems. Indeed, she thinks that the satires are catalysts, quote ‘provoking a conceptual recoil from debased utterance to the opposite extreme: suspended utterance, or even non-utterance (‘silence’)’ (Jones).
She observes how two poems before ‘God is Born’ is the satire on professional critics ‘Mr Squire’, whilst just before it is ‘Let There be Light!’, which she argues mediates between the former’s satiric mode, and the latter’s religious mode, by means of satirising the ‘Mr God’ that is the inadequate conception of those who lack the religious instinct revealed in ‘God is Born’.
But the continuity actually extends into ‘God is Born’, which like ‘Let There be Light!’ is teasing in its revisionism of Genesis, and like it exhibits the ‘God’s own good fun’ which ‘On Being Religious’ asserts to belong to the quest for God in the universe.
I am not the first to point out that Genesis lacks logic and consistency in its ordering of the creative events: heaven and earth are created in Chapter 1 Verse 1; and then Heaven and earth are separated again in Verses 7 and 8; plants are made before the sun; Chapter 2 contradicts the ordering of chapter 1, so that the animals are made after man rather than before him, but before Eve. And I would suggest that this indicates that this Book of the Bible itself has jouissance; it counterposes contradictory narratives in a way that enforces active reading and search for meaning.
We are well aware that Lawrence found the Book of Revelations to deconstruct itself, revealing an overwritten earlier pagan religion which John of Patmos seeks to but cannot quite obscure. But I think that it is less acknowledged how aware Lawrence was of the multivalence of the other parts of the Bible and of these parts in their mutual relations, for all that his upbringing stressed the opposite. The Bible is too often presented in Lawrence criticism as monologic, and as being revised and rendered heteroglossic by his art.
But I would suggest that in this poem we see Lawrence not just revising Genesis, but playing with its play, an extended work of art, doing the revision that is necessary since God has ‘calmly stepped down the ladder of the angels’ (in the language of ‘On Being Religious’), and is now somewhere new in the universe. Genesis 2.12 playfully selects gold, bdellium and the onyx stone for special mention as the sole geological creations of Eden; ‘God is Born’ selects ‘deep blue’ sapphires and ‘bright yellow’ gold. Genesis 2.6 has a mist go up from the earth to come down and water Eden; ‘God is Born’ reverses this and has a ‘drip downwards’ followed by a wreathing upwards.
The author of Genesis knew that he was writing analogically, and only a tiny minority of Christians and Jews have interpreted it otherwise.
Lawrence equally is writing a parable; he does not mean it literally that electrons speak the word ‘God’, or that they can hold their breath, or that molecules clap their hands, and voice things such as God is ‘for ever blue!’ as one eternal moment contradicts the next, when he is bright yellow.
Both stories are beautiful. But whereas Genesis itself is ultimately a disaster story, ‘God is born!’ has no fall. The lizard with his swirling tail ‘finer than water’ gives a hint of the serpent, but is not him, any more than the snake of snake is him, though he involuntarily occasions a kind of fall.
The major factor of adjustment to God’s new position in the universe as demonstrated in this poem is of course Darwin.
The response to science is underlined by the modern vocabulary: atom (OED in the modern sense 1500), electron (1891), molecule (1701) and amoeba (1870).
As in Darwinism there is no creator. Things are born, and over a very long span, not the week of Genesis.
‘And so, in the great aeons of accomplishment and debacle
from time to time the wild crying of every electron:
Lo! God is born’
Genesis puts sea life as the first fauna, but Lawrence shades in the detail:
Life starts not just in the sea but at a biologically simple level: ‘the little eggy amoeba emerged out of foam and nowhere’ – the nowhere points, perhaps, to the randomness of genetic mutation.
Splendour that favours sexual selection is here in the peacock which ‘could not be more splendid’. Here too is predation, as it is not in Eden: ‘the leopard smites the small calf’
As in Genesis, prominence is given to man, arriving last and most importantly: in the poem at that point ‘veryGod is born!’ ‘God Himselfis born!’
But man is not the last; God does not now rest. ‘there is no end to the birth of God’, which of course recalls Birkin’s musings over Gerard’s corpse near the end of Women in Love: ‘If humanity ran into a CUL DE SAC and expended itself, the timeless creative mystery would bring forth some other being, finer, more wonderful, […] to carry on the embodiment of creation. The game was never up.’ (WL, 479)
There, of course, God is the creator.
Here God is the created, and it is in his paradoxical oscillation between these two modes that much of Lawrence’s theology and ontology can be found.
In this poem the dynamic is particularly complex.
‘God is Born’ is not only theologically heterodox in implying that God was not always, but it is grammatically ambiguous.
‘is Born’ yokes the present tense with the past participle ‘born’, yielding a tension between ‘God has been born’ and ‘God is being born’, and a conflict between the past and present in which creation can happen but the actual motivator of creation is dispensed with.
As in Genesis, no distinction is made between non-living and living matter; the poem subsumes it all as life, as Genesis does as creation, and these particles are part of all. In Genesis God is the one-person audience, He saw that it was good; here the audience is every particle of which matter is made. Since the poem is focalised on their perspective, Lawrence inserts himself and us into the perspective of all matter.
Not only Genesis is revised, but Matthew and Luke.
The particles’ celebration of the birth is like that at the birth of Christ, where the wise men and the shepherds, ‘rejoiced with exceeding joy’ (Matthew 2.10); in Luke the angels ‘Glory to God in the highest’ (Luke 2.13). What should be celebrated, it is implied, is the birth of allexistence, though the prominence given to man is consistent with the discriminations which appear in much of his political thought from ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’ onwards.
In the phrase ‘God is Born’, one expects other words than ‘born’ to complete the phrase. Statements beginning ‘God is’ have been completed variously down the centuries, most famously by John the Evangelist as ‘God is love’ (1John 4:8)
Others have referred to omniscience or omnipotence. Matthew Arnold referred to ‘an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness’ (Literature and Dogma)
The BBC website defining Christian atheism says that ‘‘God’ is the way human beings put ‘spiritual’ ideals into a poetic form that they are able to use and work with. ‘God’ is simply a word that stands for our highest ideas.’’
But in Lawrence’s poem the ‘God is’ phrase is completed by neither a noun nor an adjective but a verb, powerfully demonstrating Lawrence’s faith in mode of being over knowledge, and, in TS Eliot’s words, ‘a world in which religion would be something deeper than belief, in which life would be a kind of religious behaviourism.
And yet, language is necessary. The particles have language and even use it analogically: the narcissus is dangling with a little ‘cup’ – a human appurtenance, reinforcing the human nature of language, and a metaphor, acknowledging the dislocated nature of language. The paradoxes of this poem interact with those of Genesis in making a playful new attempt at locating ‘God’, so often named in the poem, in the cosmos – not just in the things described, but in the mode of approach to finding him.
The way that the term ‘God’ operates in this poem is very different to that of other poems in the last year and a half of Lawrence’s life. To take only those poems with ‘God’ in the title, in ‘The Mill of God’, ‘The Sight of God’ and ‘The Hands of God’ God takes a somewhat more traditional role as overseer and judge. The vision of ‘God is Born’ is carried over into ‘Bodiless God’ and ‘The Body of God’ of the last notebook, but ‘The Hands of God’ follows the last of these.
Of course, Lawrence only actively selectedfrom the earlier notebook for his small volume of Nettles. The rest of his poems he did not select, order, or present to us. Holly Laird’s 1988 book Self and Sequence: The Poetry of DH Lawrenceargues that Lawrence’s sense of sequencing of his poems as he wrote them became stronger over his writing career, so that by the time of Last Poem she is unlikely to have needed to revise them much had he ever been able to do so. But Bethan Jones disputes that; she points out that he always substantially revised his poems for his volumes, as Andrew Harrison so described to us in relation to Look! We have come through! at this event last year. And Jones points out that he was also revising his other late works, including Apocalypse.
Assuming that to be the case, and if we take the publication of the last two notebooks in the order in which they appear in those notebooks, as non-authorial, then those individual poems bear some resemblance to the books of the Bible. There are some sequences, some patterns, and some greater likeness of genre, provenance, date, authorial identity, between some books than others. But none of their authors envisaged the Bible as it was eventually determined upon by the Christian churches. For this reason we should not attempt to read too much even into the sequencing, which is merely that of date of authorship (I agree with Pollnitz, Jones and others in disagreeing with Aldington that the two notebooks were kept in tandem with each other).
Yet between these poems, one eternal moment, one perception of God, contradicts the next eternal one, to use the language of Lawrence’s preface to Pansies. It is because Lawrence says so many different things about, around, with or out of God, and indeed Christ, across his writings, that many different mutually competing descriptions of his religious attitudes can be constructed – as is true of the Bible itself, with its centuries of mutually-incompatible literalist, metaphoric, Catholic, Orthodox, communist, slave-owning, etc. readings.
Ferretter concentrates his analysis of DH Lawrence’s Religion what is specifically DH Lawrence’s religion – as is reflected by the fact that his chronologically-organised book picks up in 1915, by which time Lawrence had lost his taught Christian belief. Whereas Wright highlights Lawence’s lifelong engagement with Christianity since his focus is on DH Lawrence and the Bible.
I have noticed at Lawrence events, such as this one, where discussion is encouraged, DH Lawrence’s religion sometimes a subject of dispute, as people understandably read Lawrence’s views on religion as being somewhat aligned with their own, not so much in order to claim him as a champion of their own world view, but because their minds are adept at particular modes of apprehension, and different modes can generate very different readings of these complex texts. The fact that as we read Lawrence’s poems we take different courses in following Lawrence’s Holy Spirit in the wilderness is something that I think that Lawrence would have welcomed.
Things become even more complicated when we get to, for example, the segue between ‘God’ and ‘gods’ in the poems of the last two notebooks. Again, Ferretter concentrates his analysis on the latter. But he illuminates the segue by reminding us of two works that Lawrence had read by the time he wrote these poems.
One was Nuttall’s Fundamental Principles of Old and New World Religion which he read during his Mexican period. Nuttall had come to the conclusion that ‘the Mexicans painted one and the same god under a different aspect ‘with different colours’ according to the various names they gave him in each instance’
The other is Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion, which when Lawrence first read it in 1916 were only four (the first edition of the book was called Four Stages of Greek Religion). Murray’s first stage is one of namelessness, before the names of the Olympian gods were attached to personify aspects of the cosmos, making them man-centred.
As he points out, Lawrence’s late poetry and other writings often ‘inhabit this primitive, pre-Homeric ‘first stage’ of divine anonymity’, but then make the move to the second, enacting the struggle into conscious being but then moving away from its certainties and back into the dark unity.
Soon before writing his last two notebooks, Lawrence wrote the fragment story ‘The Man Who Was Through With the World’, probably in May 1927at the Villa Mirenda, after his return from visiting the Etruscan sites, and whilst he was working on Sketches of Etruscan Places.
His hut ‘he wanted to dedicate it to somebody: to God, preferably.’
He felt, however, a bit vague about God. In his youth he had been sent to Sunday School, but he had long been through with all that. He had, as a matter of fact, even forgotten the Lord’s Prayer, like the old man in the Tolstoi parable.’
‘Because, before he was through with everything, he had read quite a lot about Brahma and Krishna and Shiva, and Buddha and Confucius and Mithras, not to mention Zeus and Aphrodite and that bunch, nor the Wotan family. So when he began to think: The Lord is my Shepherd, somehow Shiva would start dancing a Charleston in the back of his mind, … So that it was very difficult to concentrate on God with a large ‘g’ and the hermit had a natural reluctance to go into refinements of the great I Am, or of thatness’ (VG, 237).
The story is left unfinished. It ends with ‘mended his clothes’, as that is all one can do (VG, 240).
But the clue to a solution is in the mention of the Tolstoy parable.
‘The Three Hermits’ is based on an old Volga legend. A Bishop travelling by sea stops at an island to teach three God-fearing hermits the basics of Christian theology, and the Lord’s prayer.
When he arrives, the hermits tell the Bishop: ‘We do not know how to serve God. We only know how to serve and feed ourselves, o servant of God!’
‘And the bishop began explaining to the hermits how God had revealed Himself to mankind; he explained to them about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost’ (Tolstoy, 210).
The hermits have problems remembering the prayer that he teaches them, and also problems enunciating: one has a beard overgrowing his mouth, and one is toothless. But at the end of a long day, finally the three can remember and pronounce the prayer, and the Bishop returns to the boat, satisfied with the good that he is done.
As he boat moves on, the Bishop sits at the stern. And then suddenly he sees a brilliant light across the water. It seems to be moving closer. And then it resolves itself into the three hermits, who are running after the boat, across the water, without moving their legs. When they reach the boat, they say to the Bishop:
‘As long as we kept repeating the prayer we remembered it, but when we stopped for an hour, a word slipped out and we forgot the rest and everything’s crumbled away. We cannot remember any of it. Please teach us again!’ (Tolstoy, 213)
The Bishop is humbled, says that he has nothing to teach them, and bows low before them. They return to their island.
In Lawrence’s story, the hermit has not found out how to be like Tolstoy’s hermits, though he wants to be. But the problem is perhaps also that Lawrence, more than Tolstoy, is having difficulty describing the condition of nescience – apophatic religion – convincingly in prose. This means that he has to reach for poetry, in which he can constantly shift in his treatment of the word God. This is as close as he can get to, as it were, forgetting the Lord’s prayer, and having faith.
I have been concentrating on the late poetry, because it is this that has a particular engagement with the word ‘God’.
But my reference text has been the essay of late 1923 or early 1924, and I would now like us to leap back to 1911, to see what Lawrence’s engagement with the word was then.
Martyr à la Mode
Ah God, life, law, so many names you keep,
You great, you patient Effort, and you Sleep
That does inform this various dream of living,
You sleep stretched out for ever, ever giving
Us out as dreams, you august Sleep
Coursed round by rhythmic movement of all time,
The constellations, your great heart, the sun
Fierily pulsing, unable to refrain;
Since you, vast, outstretched, wordless Sleep
Permit of no beyond, ah you, whose dreams
We are, and body of sleep, let it never be said
I quailed at my appointed function, turned poltroon
For when at night, from out the full surcharge
Of a day’s experience, sleep does slowly draw
The harvest, the spent action to itself;
Leaves me unburdened to begin again;
At night, I say, when I am gone in sleep,
Does my slow heart rebel, do my dead hands
Complain of what the day has had them do?
Never let it be said I was poltroon
At this my task of living, this my dream,
This me which rises from the dark of sleep
In white flesh robed to drape another dream,
As lightning comes all white and trembling
From out the cloud of sleep, looks round about
One moment, sees, and swift its dream is over,
In one rich drip it sinks to another sleep,
And sleep thereby is one more dream enrichened.
If so the Vast, the God, the Sleep that still grows richer
Have said that I, this mote in the body of sleep
Must in my transiency pass all through pain,
Must be a dream of grief, must like a crude
Dull meteorite flash only into light
When tearing through the anguish of this life,
Still in full flight extinct, shall I then turn
Poltroon, and beg the silent, outspread God
To alter my one speck of doom, when round me burns
The whole great conflagration of all life,
Lapped like a body close upon a sleep,
Hiding and covering in the eternal Sleep
Within the immense and toilsome life-time, heaved
With ache of dreams that body forth the Sleep?
Shall I, less than the least red grain of flesh
Within my body, cry out to the dreaming soul
That slowly labours in a vast travail,
To halt the heart, divert the streaming flow
That carries moons along, and spare the stress
That crushes me to an unseen atom of fire?
When pain and all
And grief are but the same last wonder, Sleep
Rising to dream in me a small keen dream
Of sudden anguish, sudden over and spent –
(1 Poems, 156-58)
‘Martyr a la Mode’ was written around January, and it is the fourth of the seven poems which are the opening group of the 1917 collection Look! We have come through!’, which are concerned with life in England before the meeting and elopement with Frieda.
It is almost unique, not just in that first set of poems, but in the whole collection, in its theological concerns.
It was written in the month after the death of his mother in December 1910, when he was back at work in Croydon.
One major difference to ‘God is born’ is the position of its persona, and its address. In the later poem, the poetic ‘I’ has an omniscient position, watching on from an impossible perspective at the molecules with their own impossible perspective. Only at the end is there a switch to our own perspective: ‘And so we see’, acknowledging the position of the reader alongside him, and suddenly both exiting the role of God and becoming a learner from that intuition, and elevating that reader into that godlike position, like a teacher does: ‘and so we see that this poem argues’ etc.
‘Martyr a la Mode’, by contrast, is emphatically personal. The persona is engaged for and with himself.
The address is also different. Whereas ‘God is Born’ is narrative with a heterodiegetic narrator that contains dialogue, ‘Martyr a la Mode’ addresses God, but with an audience, us, to whom he often turns, and which he occasionally allies himself with in ‘we’. The fact of address makes it closer to prayer, as does the fact that he is praying for the courage to fulfil his divinely appointed function, and not to turn ‘poltroon’.
The opening is Shelleyan, ‘Ah God, life, law’, recalling the great theological poem ‘Mont Blanc’, which ends with rhyme, as this one opens with rhyme.
The ‘law’ recalls Shelley’s:
‘The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law’ (‘Mont Blanc’)
But unlike that poem, this one does not avoid the word God. Rather, it observes how diversely it has been characterised: ‘so many names you keep’. Rather than making an excursus into some of those other names, those of the gods, as some of the late poems do, the poem settles then on one: ‘Sleep’, of which humans are the dream, echoing now The Tempest. Bethan Jones observes that many writers including Lawrence echo that play in their late works, but here we find it in an early one: ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on’.
Despite being asleep, God still retains his grandeur. ‘You august Sleep’ is circled by the constellations, with his heart as the sun. He permits of no beyond; he dreams and encompasses all. And in his somnolent universality he is the very opposite of the tiny, highly awake, chirpy God of the ‘eggy amoeba’.
As in the later poem, there is apparent contradiction, since in the same line we have ‘You great, you patient Effort, and you Sleep’.
In ‘God is Born’ there is a ‘struggle of becoming’ that is not undertaken by God, but which produces God.
Here, the effort is conflated with God’s sleep.
This has the effect of making the creation an unconscious and unwilled, languageless (‘wordless’) and unintellected act, as opposed to that satirised by some of the later poems.
When the speaker sleeps, he does not dream; the sleep is the rest from the waking life of being dreamed by God, and the poem is the address of the dreamed to the dreamer, whilst the dreamer is asleep. The implication is that falling asleep involves becoming absorbed into the great sleeper, God: ‘its dream is over,/ In one rich drip it sinks to another sleep/ And sleep thereby is one more dream enrichened.’
This anticipates Lawrence’s letter to his sister Ada when she was undergoing her own crisis of faith in April 1911, a few months after Lawrence wrote this poem: ‘When we die…we fall back into the big, shimmering sea of unorganized life which we call God’ (1L, 256)
If so, it would fit with the late poems such as ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Ship of Death’, in which one falls into God as into oblivion. As in this case, one rises again, a new man. The seasonal imagery of those late poems is present in the second stanza, with its reference to ‘The harvest, the spent action’ which ‘Leaves me unburdened to begin again’.
The poem is self-denigrating in three overlapping but mutually contradictory ways.
First there is the distancing irony that is inserted with the later title ‘a la mode’ (it was first untitled, then simply ‘Martyr’), implying that the self-pity that the poem contains is not to be taken entirely seriously. Martyrs used to be burned at the stake. Now their travails are only metaphysical.
The second way is the sense that his appointed part in life is pain, to be crushed to ‘an unseen atom of fire’.
‘I, this mote in the body of sleep
Must in my transiency pass all through pain,
Must be a dream of grief, must like a crude
Dull meteorite flash only into light
When tearing through the anguish of this life’
The third is that his significance as a sufferer is negligible in relation to that of creation.
And that he describes himself, ‘I’, as ‘less than the least red grain of flesh/ Within my body’
Here we have a foreshadowing of his physicalist ontology, which is yet forced to cooperate with the unphysical nature of the great dreamer Sleep.
This is a rare Lawrence. One with a sense of predestination, and to suffer, which predestined suffering from TB his biographers always comment on but generally as a suffering which was denied or belittled.
The sense of determination by something other than himself is still more rare. Here he is at bay, but stoical.
He cannot even end the poem, which is truncated, as the ‘sudden’ of the last line is grammatically truncated:
‘a small keen dream/ Of sudden anguish, sudden over and spent –‘
By the time that he really is dying, but can dream the God of ‘God is Born’, he has found freedom from this dream.
Even by the time that this poem was first published, the distancing title has added a bit of
French jouissance, as in the ‘au revoir’ at the end of ‘On Being Religious’.
And, of course, the poem was found under the umbrella title of Look! We have Come Through! where, unlike in the late poems, we have a special warrant in turning to the collection as a whole.
To conclude: Lawrence’s engagement with the term ‘God’ started early and lasted through his life, in his poems and out of them. Within as well as between poems his conception involved paradox, but, overall, the vision of life lived in cooperation with death becomes more optimistic. Over a lifetime of hunting God in the wilderness, he learned better how to be alive.
Lawrence, DH, ‘On Being Religious’, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), pp. 185-94 [RDP]
Lawrence, DH,The Letters of D. H. Lawrence Volume I: September 1901–May 1913, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) [1L]
Lawrence, DH,The Poems, 2 Vols., ed. Christopher Pollnitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Lawrence, DH, ‘The Man Who Was Through with the World’, The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories, eds. Michael Herbert, Bethan Jones and Lindeth Vasey (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), pp. 237-40 [VG]
Lawrence, DH,Women in Love, eds. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987) [WL]
Tolstoy, Leo, ‘The Three Hermits’, Master and Man and Other Stories, trans. Ronald Wilks and Paul Foote (London: Penguin, 2005), 206-213
Ellis, David, Dying Game 1922-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Ferretter, Luke, The Glyph and the Gramophone: D.H. Lawrence’s Religion (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)
Gilbert, Sandra, The Poems of DH Lawrence, 2ndedn (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990)
Hagen, Patricia L., Metaphor’s Way of Knowing: The Poetry of DH Lawrence and the Church of Mechanism (Peter Lang, New York, 1995)
Jones, Bethan, The Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)
Laird, Holly, Self and Sequence: The Poetry of DH Lawrence (Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1988)
Lockwood, MJ, A Study of the Poems of DH Lawrence: Thinking in Poetry (London: Macmillan Press, 1987)
Mountford, Brian, Christian Atheist (Winchester: O-Books, 2010)
Wright, TR, DH Lawrence and the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)