EIGHTH MEETING REPORT
LAWRENCE, ILLNESS, AND WHAT HE WOULD HAVE MADE OF THE CORONAVIRUS
Cover of the second edition of The Lawrentian, the magazine of ‘The Lawrence Players’, a group – separate from the Lawrence Society – run by Dave Brock in Chapel-en-le-Frith. The cover design is by Lawrence London Group member Stephen Alexander
Friday 22nd May 2020
By Zoom (during period of Coronavirus lockdown)
Catherine Brown, in Kilburn, London
Eric Clifford, in Aldershot, Hampshire
Lara Feigel, in Evenload, Gloucestershire
Kate Foster, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire
Pat Hopewell, in Ladbrook Grove, London
Izzy Jenkinson, in Leeds, West Yorkshire
Alex Korda, in Ladbrook Grove, London
Dudley Nichols, in Westerham, Kent
Jane Nichols, in Westerham, Kent
Dave Orwin, in Bakewell, Derbyshire
Iris Orwin, in Bakewell, Derbyshire
Vince Sharpe, in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire
Stewart Smith, in Dorchester, Dorset
Hugh Stevens, in Tottenham, London
Lara Taylor, Sherbourne, Dorset
Maria Thanassa, in Havering, Essex
Nahla Torbey, in Wimbledon, London
Colin Yeates, in Muswell Hill, London
‘He lay in his bed in the hot October evening, still sick with malaria. In the flush of fever he saw yet the parched, stark mountains of the south … His head was humming like a mosquito, his legs were paralysed for the moment by the heavy quinine injection the doctor had injected into them, and his soul was as good as dead with the malaria; so he threw all his letters unopened on the floor, hoping never to see them again … in the last years, something in the hard, fierce finite sun of Mexico, in the dry terrible land, and in the black staring eyes of the suspicious natives had made the ordinary day lose its reality to him. It had cracked like some great bubble, and to his uneasiness and terror, he had seemed to see through the fissures the deeper blue of that other Greater Day where moved the other sun shaking its dark blue wings. Perhaps it was the malaria; perhaps it was his own inevitable development; perhaps it was the presence of those handsome, dangerous, wide-eyed men left over from the ages before the flood in Mexico, which caused his old connections and his accustomed world to break for him. He was ill, and he felt as if at the very middle of him, beneath his navel, some membrane were torn, some membrane which had connected him with the world and its day. The natives who attended him, quiet, soft, heavy and rather helpless, seemed, he realized, to be gazing from their wide black eyes always into that greater day whence they had come and where they wished to return. Men of a dying race, to whom the busy sphere of the common day is a cracked and leaking shell.’ (StM 207-9)
‘The Flying-Fish’ (1925)
The lockdown imposed in the UK in response to the Coronarivus began on two months ago, on the 23rd March. We thought that it would be good to discuss Lawrence’s thoughts about illness – literal and metaphoric, physical and spiritual, individual and collective, leading to renewal or to extinction – and to try to answer the question ‘what would Lawrence have made of the Coronavirus, and of the various individual and collective responses to it that have been made?’
He was a writer famously associated both with illness in himself, and with the promotion of health in his writings (Leavis considered him the epitomy of healthiness; others thought otherwise). We considered how these contradictions worked themselves out..
Relevant readings include the following:
- ‘The Flying-Fish’, unfinished short story (1925) ( M 207-225)
- Chapter 9, ‘Low Water Mark’, in Aaron’s Rod (1922) (AR 86-101)
- Chapters 15 and 16, ’Sunday Evening’ and ‘Man to Man’ in Women in Love (1915-21) (WL 191-210)
- Many poems in Pansies and Last Poems concern the relationship between sickness and, e.g. ’Shadows’, ’The Ship of Death’. See also ‘Sickness’, of 1909 (1P 107)
Many letters written at times of Lawrence’s greatest illnesses:
- April 1902, pneumonia, convalescence in Skegness
- Nov 1911- Jan 1912, pneumonia in Croydon, then convalescence in Bournemouth
- February-March 1919, flu, Ripley
- February 1920, flu, Amalfi
- March-April 1922, enervation, Ceylon
- January-February 1925, flu, malaria, typhoid and consumption
- October 1928, flu and consumption (see especially May 24th 1929 to Ottoline Morrell)
- Oct 1929-March 1930, dying of consumption
- Lawrence’s Foreword to English translation of All Things Are Possible by Lev Shestov (1919) (IR 5-7)
- ‘The State of Funk’ (1929) (LEA 219-232)
REFLECTIONS BY OTHERS
- Blog posts on the subject of Lawrence and sickness by D. H. Lawrence Society member Stephen Alexander:
- D. H. Lawrence Society member David Ellis’s responses to these posts:
N.B. Of the quotations from Lawrence’s writings that appear below, many were not quoted during the evening’s discussion but have been added post facto to exemplify some of the points that were made.
We started, appropriately enough, with Lawrence’s childhood. Hugh Stevens noted that pandemics of bronchitis and TB were very common in Lawrence’s time; of his childhood neighbours the Coopers six family members (the mother and five children) died of TB. We find our current experience of pandemic extraordinary, but it was far more familiar a century ago.
Jane Nichols suggested that the polluted environment of the mining districts contributed to this illness, and Hugh Stevens concurred with the thought that Lawrence’s older brother Ernest (William in Sons and Lovers) may have died of erysipelas because, like Coronavirus, that illness was particularly dangerous to those with prior lung conditions, and Ernest may well have had such a condition.
Vince Sharpe observed that it is similarly working class communities today that are suffering most from the Coronavirus. Then, as now, the poorer live in more degraded physical conditions, and are less able to socially distance. Izzy Jenkinson agreed that the virus is highlighting existing social inequalities, and quoted a letter of 12th February 1915 to Bertrand Russell in which Lawrence inveighed against such inequalities: ‘Economic life must be the means to actual life. We must make it so at once. There must be a revolution in the state. It shall begin by the nationalising of all […] industries and means of communication, and of the land – in one fell blow. Then a man shall have his wages whether he is sick or well o old – if anything prevents his working, he shall have his wages just the same. So we shall not live in fear of the world – no man amongst us, and no woman, shall have any fear of the wolf at the door, for all wolves are dead’ (2L 282).
Lawrence had the further disadvantage of being born into a physically-challenging environment physically weak. Moreover, as Vince Sharpe argued, then as now weak boys are bullied in such circumstances. Nahla Torbey made the point that mothers have a particular kind of love for physically-vulnerable children, and that this provided some context for Lawrence’s mother’s feelings for him. These were exacerbated by the death of his ostensibly-healthier older brother. Hugh Stevens suggested that mental ill-health existed on a huge scale, undiagnosed, in bereaved women at the time.
CAUSES OF ILLNESS
Much of the discussion focused on Lawrence’s understanding of illness as psychosomatic. Izzy Jenkinson pointed out the dual valence of the word ‘integrity’, and argued that Mr Crich’s body has such enduring integrity in Women in Lovebecause he is a man of ‘integrity’, who refuses to die.
The late poem ‘Healing’, from the Nettles Notebook, clearly presents physical illness as spiritually caused:
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
(1 Poems 534)
In ‘Sunday Evening’ in Women in Love, Ursula thinks that she is about to die because of what is evidently depression:
‘In a kind of spiritual trance, she yielded, she gave way, and all was dark. She could feel, within the darkness, the terrible assertion of her body, the unutterable anguish of dissolution, the only anguish that is too much, the far-off, awful nausea of dissolution set in within the body.
“Does the body correspond so immediately with the spirit?” she asked herself. And she knew, with the clarity of ultimate knowledge, that the body is only one of the manifestations of the spirit, the transmutation of the integral spirit is the transmutation of the physical body as well. “Unless I set my will, unless I absolve myself from the rhythm of life, fix myself and remain static, cut off from living, absolved within my own will. But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions. To die is to move on with the invisible.”’ (WL 192)
Yet elsewhere Lawrence suggests that it behoves one to have the will to live and to recover. Hugh Stevens pointed out that one hopeful aspect of Lawrence’s thinking is that recovery is actually within one’s own hands, and Lara Feigel noted that many doctors who treated Lawrence in his later years attributed his extended survival to his will.
In the ‘Low Water Mark’ chapter of Aaron’s Rod, Aaron’s illness is initially treated as the Spanish flu, but when he then gets worse the doctor tells him ‘sharply’ ‘Keep your courage up, man … You give way’ … But Aaron only became more gloomily withheld, retracting from life.’ On his next visit the doctor asks Lilly ‘Can’t you rouse his spirit? He seems to be sulking himself out of life. He’ll drop out quite suddenly, you know, if he goes on like this. Can’t you rouse him up?’ (AR 94-5) Lilly then does in fact successfully rouse him towards recovery by rubbing his body with oil.
Stuart Smith pointed out that Aaron’s illness is caused by his consciousness of having violated his integrity by having an affair with Josephine: ‘It’s my own fault, for giving in to her. If I’d kept myself back, my liver wouldn’t have broken inside me, and I should have been sick. And I knew … It did myself in when I went with another woman. I felt myself go – as if the bile broke inside me, and I was sick’ (AR 90-91). Similarly in Women in Love, when Gerald asks Birkin ‘Why are you laid up again?’, ‘“For my sins, I suppose,” Birkin said, smiling a little ironically’ (WL 201-2).
This sense on Lawrence’s part that illness correlated to lack of resistance to both ‘sin’ and the illness may – alongside the understandable wish to avoid acknowledging a disease which was a death sentence – have motivated his lifelong reluctance to admit to having TB. As Pat Hopewell said, he often spoke about having bronchitis instead; Lara Taylor said that he sometimes spoke about having malaria, when his symptoms did not fit with that. Iris Orwin noted that, late in life, Lawrence said that he had had bronchitis at two weeks old, and when he was sixteen had a pneumonia from which he had never fully recovered – but makes no mention of TB.
A sense of illness as connected with degradation may have motivated the intolerance which Hugh Stevens noted that he often evinced towards others who were ill – notably Katherine Mansfield, whom he accused of ‘stewing’ in her consumption. In Women in Love, Ursula is bracing towards the sickly Birkin:
“Don’t you feel well?” she asked, in indefinable repulsion.
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“But don’t you know without thinking about it?”
He looked at her, his eyes dark and swift, and he saw her revulsion. He did not answer her question.
“Don’t you know whether you are unwell or not, without thinking about it?” she persisted.
“Not always,” he said coldly.
“But don’t you think that’s very wicked?”
“Yes. I think it’s criminal to have so little connection with your own body that you don’t even know when you are ill.”
He looked at her darkly.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why don’t you stay in bed when you are seedy? You look perfectly ghastly.”
“Offensively so?” he asked ironically.
“Yes, quite offensive. Quite repelling.”
“Ah!! Well that’s unfortunate.”
“And it’s raining, and it’s a horrible night. Really, you shouldn’t be forgiven for treating your body like it—you ought to suffer, a man who takes as little notice of his body as that.”
“—takes as little notice of his body as that,” he echoed mechanically.
This cut her short, and there was silence.
On the other hand, at other times Lawrence correlates physical illness to sensitivity to the spiritual illness of others, which lowers one’s physical immunity. On May 24th 1928 he wrote to a sickly Ottoline Morrell: ‘You ask me, do I feel things very much? – and I do. And that’s why I too am ill. The hurts, and the bitternesses sink in, however much one may reject them with one’s spirit. They sink in, and there they lie, inside one, wasting one. What is the matter with us is primarily chagrin. Then the microbes pounce’ (6L 409-10).
It follows that Lawrence has a category of physical robustness (particularly, it would seem, in men) which correlates to being insensate. Lara Feigel was reminded of those Lawrence stories where a Lawrence-like-character is in competition for a Jessie-like-character with a man who is strong but dull (as in The White Peacock). Sometimes male strength and health is even correlated to spiritual ill health, as in ‘How beastly the bourgeois is’ (1P 373) –
How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species –
Presentable, eminently presentable –
shall I make you a present of him?
Isn’t he handsome? isn’t he healthy? Isn’t he a fine specimen?
doesn’t he look the fresh clean englishman, outside?
Isn’t it god’s own image? tramping his thirty miles a day
after partridges, or a little rubber ball?
A different example is Gerald in Women in Love, with whose gleaming strength Hugh Steven pointed out that Lawrence is obsessed. The more sickly Birkin, however, is presented as has his own, different, kind of strength, which is nonetheless presented as being able to hold its own against it. In that novel’s wrestling scene:
‘They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded, all his contours were beautifully and fully moulded. He seemed to stand with a proper, rich weight on the face of the earth, whilst Birkin seemed to have the centre of gravitation in his own middle. And Gerald had a rich, frictional kind of strength, rather mechanical, but sudden and invincible, whereas Birkin was abstract as to be almost intangible. He impinged invisibly upon the other man, scarcely seeming to touch him, like a garment, and then suddenly piercing in a tense fine grip that seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Gerald’s being.
They stopped, they discussed methods, they practised grips and throws, they became accustomed to each other, to each other’s rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding. And then again they had a real struggle. They seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness. Birkin had a great subtle energy, that would press upon the other man with an uncanny force, weigh him like a spell put upon him. Then it would pass, and Gerald would heave free, with white, heaving, dazzling movements’ (WL 269-70).
Previously Birkin had explained to Gerald that the Japanese man who had taught him jiu-jitsu ‘was very quick and slippery and full of electric fire. It is a remarkable thing, what a curious sort of fluid force they seem to have in them, those people—not like a human grip—like a polyp—’ (WL 268).
Dudley Nichols reminded us that Lawrence himself had a certain physical strength, which allowed him to perform great feats of housework – not to mention crossing the Alps.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ILLNESS AND WRITING
In addition to a propensity to periodic illness being at times correlated by Lawrence to sensitivity, he was aware that periods of illness could produce benefits. Kate Foster pointed out that when pneumonia forced him to leave his work in Croydon, he in part felt it as a relief. When he broke off his engagement with Louie Burrows, he used amongst other arguments: ‘doctors urged me I ought not to marry’. Periods of illness allowed him to meditate. In Women in Love‘Birkin meditated whilst he was ill. He liked sometimes to be ill enough to take to his bed. For then he got better very quickly, and things came to him clear and sure’ (WL 201).
I commented that several great artists, and other prominent people, had prolonged periods of bed-rest due to ill health, particularly as children. Vince Sharpe gave the example of Alan Sillitoe, who had TB, was pensioned out of the RAF, went to Majorca, and wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning during his enforced sabbatical. Other examples are Bram Stoker, Theodore Roosevelt, J. F. Kennedy, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol.
I further suggested that a particular association had grown up between genius and, specifically, tuberculosis. Other examples than Lawrence are Aubrey Beardsley, who died at 26, Anne Brontë, who died at 29, Branwell Brontë, who died at 31, Emily Brontë, who died at 30, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who died at 55, Anton Chekhov, who died at 44, Frédéric Chopin, who died at 49, James Elroy Flecker, who died at 31, Paul Gauguin, who died at 54,
Ivor Gurney, who died at 47, Franz Kafka, who died at 41, John Keats, who died at 26, Katherine Mansfield, who died at 35, Novalis, who died at 29, George Orwell, who died at 47, Giovanni Pergolese, who died at 26, Alexander Pope, who died at 56, Friedrich Schiller, who died at 45, Tobias Smollett, who died at 55, Laurence Sterne, who died at 55, Henry Thoreau, who died at 45, and Carl Maria Von Weber, who died at 40. Lara Taylor pointed out that Susan Sontag, in her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor’, discusses how certain illnesses acquire particular fame in particular periods, and can even create obligations on those with that disease to live up to the achievements of great dead ones who had the same disease.
Moreover, the very possession of a lung problem enforces physical inactivity, which can itself promote mental activity by way of substitute. I suggested that there seems to be a correlation, especially in environments which value physical adeptness and are suspicious of intellectual accomplishment in males, between physical inadequacy and academic or artistic excellence. In The Lord of the Flies the brightest boy on the island is fat and myopic, and the most intuitive is weak and epileptic. Nahla Torbey said that she had observed this correlation in many times and places, and Stewart Smith found a homology with the idea in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals that the ‘blonde beast’ masters dominate the physically weaker slaves, who therefore develop their intellects, and invent religions, by way of compensation.
The awareness of having a limited time to live can also make people live with a particular intensity or productivity. Hugh Stevens mentioned a friend who, when he discovered that he was HIV positive, travelled the world in a conscious effort to maximise the value of his life. Schubert poured out song cycles because he was aware that he would die of syphilis (he died aged 31).
Lawrence also had the sense that in writing he was shedding his illness: on October 26th 1913 he wrote to Arthur McLeod: ‘I felt you had gone off from me a bit, because of Sons and Lovers. But one sheds one’s sickness in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them’ (2L 90). This claim reads as less metaphoric than it otherwise would, in relation to Lawrence’s belief in the psychosomatic dimension of illnesses. When in Aaron’s Rod Aaron tells Lilly ‘My soul’s gone rotten’, and Lilly replies ‘No … only toxin in the blood’ (AR 94), the only is undermined by the fact that – as Lara Taylor pointed out – for Lawrence one’s deepest being is located in one’s blood.
Illness as productive of writing is found again in Lawrence’s 1919 Foreword to the English translation of the Russian writer Lev Shestov’s All Things Are Possible:
‘European culture is a rootless thing in the Russians. With us, it is our very blood and bones, the very nerve and root of our psyche. We think in a certain fashion, we feel in a certain fashion, because our whole substance is of this fashion.
Our speech and feeling are organically inevitable to us. With the Russians it is different. They have only been inoculated with the virus of European culture and ethic. The virus works in them like a disease. And the inflammation and irritation comes forth as literature. The bubbling and fizzing is almost chemical, not organic. It is an organism seething as it accepts and masters the strange virus. What the Russian is struggling with, crying out against, is not life itself; it is only European culture which has been introduced into his psyche, and which hurts him. The tragedy is not so much a real soul tragedy, as a surgical one. Russian art, Russian literature after all does not stand on the same footing as European or Greek or Egyptian art. It is not spontaneous utterance. It is not the flowering of a race. It is a surgical outcry, horrifying, or marvelous, lacerating at first: but when we get used to it, not really so profound, not really ultimate, a little extraneous.
What is valuable is the evidence against European culture, implied in the novelists, here at last expressed. Since Peter the Great Russia has been accepting Europe, and seething Europe down in a curious process of katabolism .. What she has actually uttered is her own unwilling, fantastic reproduction of European truths. What she has really to utter the coming centuries will hear. For Russia will certainly inherit the future. What we already call the greatness of Russia is only her pre-natal struggling.
It seems as if she had at last absorbed and overcome the virus of old Europe. Soon her new, healthy body will begin to act in its own reality, imitative no more, protesting no more, crying no more, but full and sound and lusty in itself. Real Russia is born. She will laugh at us before long.’
(Introductions and Reviews, 506).
Lawrence here looks forward to a Russia that no longer produces its culture by negative reaction to an imported culture, but which will produce its own culture, healthy and entire. He wrote this whilst Russia was in the middle of Civil War, and it was unknown what would appear on the other side.
Shifting scale from the country to the city, Lara Taylor pointed out that in ‘Parliament Hill in the Evening’, London is depicted as having been invaded:
The hopeless, wintry twilight fades,
The city corrodes out of sight
As the body corrodes when death invades
That citadel of delight.
With the city, as with the country and the body, things can invade from outside, and only the immune system can protect it.
With respect to actual pandemics, however, Lawrence seems to have been very matter-of-fact, accepting, and not particularly interested. Dudley Nichols reported from his reading of the letters from December 1918 to the end of February 1919 (whilst Lawrence had the Spanish influenza) that he was aware of how the pandemic was influencing Nottingham, but not the rest of the world. Hugh Stevens noted that, by contrast, Fitzgerald and Hemingway in their diaries of the period discussed the lockdown measures that were being imposed in various American cities.
The Spanish flu had originated, Jane Nichols told us, in Kansas in May 1918, and peaked in July of that year (its name was derived from the open press in Spain, which did not operate under the war censorship of other countries, and which did not minimise its widespread and deadly nature). There was a second wave in October, and Lawrence caught a third wave. He was bedridden for six weeks from the end of January 1919, unable to write except to his friends, who sent him food and drink to tempt his appetite and cheer him up. Amongst the twenty-six letters he wrote during thie period was one dated 28th February to Catherine Carswell: ‘I have never felt so down in the mud in all my life .. a putrid disease’ (3L 330). Amongst the nine he wrote to Koteliansky (who regularly sent him grapefruit) was one on 14th March: ‘I am feeble now because the doctor says I was run down to start with, and have been very ill – for two days he said he feared I should not pull through … Anyhow I am nearly myself again in my soul if not my body’ (3L 337). He frequently reflected on his plans to travel – to Palestine, Germany, and more immediately the seaside; he explained to Kot on 6th March: ‘I give up the seaside idea: too great a struggle to travel to a new place’, adding ‘I must lay a fresh hold on life’ (3L 331-2). By the 17th April at Mountain Cottage he wrote: ‘I am better: can chop wood and carry water and potter in the garden … I am normal’ (3L 351). We discussed whether or not Lawrence had written the ‘Low Water Mark’ chapter of Aaron’s Rod having already had the flu – having certainly started the novel prior, and finished it later. Unlike Coronavirus, it particularly affected the healthy and young.
Which brought us to …
Given his attitude towards the pandemics of his own time, it seems unlikely that he would have been a strong ‘denier’, in the sense of being someone who believes that Covid-19 is simply a bad strain of flu and a storm in a teacup. Nor is he likely to have bought into the virus’s weaponization in the US to help promote a new Cold War with China. As his attitude towards Germany during the First World War shows (and as it is likely to have showed even had he not had a German wife), he was not one to fall in with his countrymen in demonization of the fashionable foreign villain of the day.
It would seem that similar debates as to whether those affected by the prevalent pandemic should go to hospital, existed then as now. The policeman who helps the sick Aaron to Lilly’s apartment suggests ‘Might be a bit o’ this flu, you know’ (AR 89). Later Lilly says ‘“I believe you’ve got the flu”. “Think I have?” said Aaron frightened. “Don’t be scared,” laughed Lilly. … “I s’ll have to go to the hospital, if I have,” came Aaron’s voice. “No, if it’s only going to be a week or a fortnight’s business, you can stop here” (AR 91).
But although the doctor in Aaron’s Rod is sympathetic and perceptive – it is he who diagnoses Aaron’s illness as ultimately a spiritual malaise – Lawrence had considerable scepticism of both the medical profession and of science in general. ‘The Scientific Doctor’ (from the ‘Nettles’ notebook) runs:
When I went to the scientific doctor
I realise what a lust there was in him to wreak his so-called science on me
and reduce me to the level of a thing.
So I said: Good-morning! and left him.
He would therefore perhaps have held out little faith in the search for a Coronavirus vaccine.
The group was in general agreement with Vince Sharpe’s suggestion that Lawrence would have resisted the lockdown as a bullying impertinence on the part of government; indeed, he would have dared the police to arrest him for violating it. Hugh Stevens added, however, that he would probably not have gone to a crowded beach, but have found an isolated one somewhere in Cornwall – possibly, in time building up a small restricted community of friends there. Possibly called Rananim…
At other times, though, he liked being alone, and part of him would have enjoyed this aspect of lockdown, as suggested by these two poems from Nettles:
I never know what people mean when they complain of loneliness.
To be alone is one of life’s greatest delights, thinking one’s own thoughts, doing one’s own little jobs, seeing the world beyond
and feeling oneself uninterrupted in the rooted connection
with the centre of all things.’
‘Delight of being alone’
I know no greater delight than the sheer delight of being alone.
It makes me realise the delicious pleasure of the moon
that she has in travelling by herself, throughout time,
or the splendid growing of an ash-tree
alone, on a hillside in the north, humming in the wind.
Moreover, as Lara Feigel pointed out, Lawrence would have appreciated the effects of lockdown more broadly, even if not the fact of its imposition: all of us doing less work, living less frantically, children getting less education, nature filling the vacuum left by diminished human activity.
Lawrence is likely to have agreed with many today that the previous frenetic human activity, destruction of the environment, and industrial-scale abuse of animals – in China as elsewhere – produced the virus in the first place.
Hugh Stevens pointed out that the Last Poems notebook starts with ‘The Greeks Are Coming’, in which:
‘an ocean liner, going east, like a small beetle walking the edge
is leaving a long thread of dark smoke
like a bad smell’
Then, as now, Lawrence saw cruise ships as potent vectors of infection – and as great monsters with no concern about the environment that they are destroying.
ILLNESS AND DEATH
Iris Orwin initiated a brief discussion of the relationship in Lawrence’s thought between illness and death, as provoked by her reading of ‘Shadows’ and ‘The Ship of Death’. We agreed that Lawrence had a remarkable capacity to embrace the process of breaking down, and approaching oblivion. Ursula in ‘Sunday Evening’ thinks that ‘Death is a great consummation, a consummating experience’ (WL 191). Similarly Birkin, in ‘Man to Man’, ‘lay sick and unmoved, in pure opposition to everything. He knew how near to breaking was the vessel that held his life. He knew also how strong and durable it was. And he did not care. Better a thousand times take one’s chance with death, than accept a life one did not want. But best of all to persist and persist and persist for ever, till one were satisfied in life’ (WL 199).
But this was not always his feeling. In his early poem ‘Sickness’, of 1909, he resisted death:
Waving slowly before me, pushed into the dark,
Unseen my hands explore the silence, drawing the bark
Of my body slowly behind.
Nothing to meet my fingers but the fleece of night
Invisible blinding my face and my eyes! What if in their flight
My hands should touch the door!
What if I suddenly stumble, and push the door
Open, and a great grey dawn swirls over my feet, before
I can draw back!
What if unwitting I set the door of eternity wide
And am swept away in the horrible dawn, am gone down the tide
Of eternal hereafter!
Catch my hands, my darling, between your breasts.
Take them away from their venture, before fate wrests
The meaning out of them.
He also had a sense of the benefits of having been broken down by illness and then restored. Izzy Jenkinson quoted a letter of 31st January 1915 to Cynthia Asquith:
‘All the while, I swear, my soul lay in the tomb – not dead, but with the flat stone over it, a corpse, become corpse cold … Now I am feeble and half alive. On the downs on Friday I opened my eyes again, and saw it was daytime … I don’t feel so hopeless now I am risen … We shall all rise again from this grave – though the killed soldiers will have to wait for the Last Trump. There is my autobiography – written because you ask me, and because, being risen from the dead, I know we shall all come through, rise again and walk healed and whole and new, in a big inheritance, here on earth’ (2L 268-9).
HOW TO GET THROUGH THIS
The meeting came to a positive close with quotations from Lawrence’s remarkable 1929 essay, ‘The State of Funk’ (also commented on in Stephen Alexander’s blog post):
‘There is, of course, a certain excuse for fear. The time of change is upon us. The need for change has taken hold of us. We are changing, we have got to change, and we can no more help it than leaves can help going yellow and coming loose in autumn, or than bulbs can help shoving their little green spikes out of the ground in spring. We are changing, we are in the throes of change, and the change will be a great one. Intuitively, we feel it. Intuitively, we know it. And we are frightened. Because change hurts. And also, in the periods of serious transition, everything is uncertain, and living things are most vulnerable.
But what of it? Granted all the pains and dangers and uncertainties, there is no excuse for falling into a state of funk …
There is no ready-made solution. Ready-made solutions are almost the greatest danger of all. A change is a slow flux, which must happen bit by bit. And it must happen. You can’t drive it like a steam-engine. But all the time you can be alert and intelligent about it, and watch for the next step, and watch for the direction of the main trend. Patience, alertness, intelligence, and a human goodwill and fearlessness, that is what you want in a time of change. Not funk.
Now England is on the brink of great changes, radical changes. Within the next fifty years the whole framework of our social life will be altered, will be greatly modified. The old world of our grandfathers is disappearing like thawing snow, and is as likely to cause a flood … The whole industrial system will undergo a change. Work will be different and pay will be different. The owning of property will be different. Class will be different, and human relations will be modified and perhaps simplified. If we are intelligent, alert and undaunted, then life will be much better, more generous, more spontaneous, more vital, less basely materialistic. If we fall into a state of funk, impotence and persecution, then things may be very much worse than they are now…
Change in the whole social system is inevitable not merely because conditions change – though partly for that reason – but because people themselves change. We change. You and I, we change and change vitally, as the years go on. New feelings arise in us, old values depreciate, new values arise. Things we thought we wanted most intensely we realise we don’t care about. The things we built our lives on crumble and disappear, and the process is painful. But it is not tragic. A tadpole that has so gaily waved its tail in the water must feel very sick when the tail begins to drop off and little legs begin to sprout. The tail was its dearest, gayest, most active member, all its little life was in its tail. And now the tail must go. It seems rough on the tadpole: but the little green frog in the grass is a new gem, after all’ (LEA 219-221).
Dr. Catherine Brown