D.H.Lawrence as King Lear

The Lawrence description of a Zeppelin that I posted yesterday has got me thinking about Lawrence and his attitude to the war. The sudden change in the psychological and ethical atmosphere of Britain must have been a challenge for all writers, but for none more than Lawrence.

Nobody in the pre-war years had analysed relations between the sexes more acutely, or had been more critical of the unmanly Southern male. Now the manhood of the nation was rallied to the flag, and Lawrence was a non-starter, for two reasons. First his health. Second, the fact that he had recently married the cousin of the Red Baron. Lawrence just could not join in with the anti-German orthodoxy. But as his description of the Zeppelin battle shows, he was fascinated by the power of the war’s weaponry:

It is a new order, a new world. These are heavenly ministers now, and this gunfire is the world’s acclamation of worship.

He might add “Oh, it is all bad and wrong and foolish,” but you can tell his senses were quickened by the firepower on show, not by the moral afterthought.

A while back I divided violent civilian reactions to the war into Lady Macbeths and King Lears. Lady Ms say “You go and do the killing – I’d do it myself but I’m only a girl.” King Lears say “Hooray for the storm of war. Let it come down and demolish my particular enemies.”

Where most Lears had a relatively specific target in mind (Different thinkers declared variously thatthe war would get rid of Victorian values, or modern values, or the rule of the aristocracy, or the rule of the trades unions…) Lawrence seems to have wanted to get rid of absolutely everything. Here are the thoughts and curses he projects into the mind of the dying protagonist of his short story England My England:

Better the terrible work should go forward, the dissolving into the black sea of death, in the extremity of dissolution, than that there should be any reaching back towards life. To forget! To forget! Utterly, utterly to forget, in the great forgetting of death. To break the core and the unit of life, and to lapse out on the great darkness. Only that. To break the clue, and mingle and commingle with the one darkness, without afterwards or forwards. Let the black sea of death itself solve the problem of futurity. Let the will of man break and give up.

This is horrible stuff (and there’s plenty like it in Lawrence’s own voice, not just that of a character). England, he’s saying, is a hopeless case, and the “problem” of its futurity can only be solved by “the black sea of death”. Lawrence has let his own fears and alienation overflow into a melodramatic curse on the whole nation.

The way the war challenged Lawrence’s sense of his own masculinity is shown in the “Nightmare” section of Kangaroo. And what is most disturbing in that book is his progress from personal humiliation to a sort of fascism, in his adoration of the Australian strong leader. As though he can only regain his masculinity by exaggeratedly pseudo-male attitudes and behaviour.

I think one could make a strong case for the war ruining Lawrence as a writer. After it, and in self-imposed exile, he became increasingly strident, and his writing, except in inspired patches, lost much of the alertness that had made it so special.


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