A new biography of DH Lawrence, Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson, is an opportunity to reflect not only on the life and work of this author, but also on the quasi-religious idea of literature that he represents. That notion of literature has died, I suggest, but still haunts us, in ways that we fail to speak about, except superficially. Literary journalists queue up to mock, oh so wittily and knowingly, the notion of writer as prophet, as if that is a sufficient response. Before asking whether Wilson’s book confronts this issue, let me offer a personal reflection on this prickly giant of letters.
I thought I was immune to DH Lawrence. I enjoyed Women in Love as a teenager, and as an undergraduate I was intrigued by his lesser-liked novel Kangaroo, about a far-right movement in Australia, full of Nietzschean yearning for cultural renewal. But I didn’t explore much further: I was influenced by the received opinion that he is a predictable, didactic writer, obsessed with the mystical power of sex – an image associated with his final novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As I become more interested in theology, I became less inclined to explore Lawrence’s work, which seemed only a fairly interesting late flowering of Romanticism. I agreed with TS Eliot that his reverence for the “strange gods” of neo-paganism was a dead-end. His thought seemed an unsightly mix of Nietzsche and new-age nonsense. I think I vaguely associated him with a more recent chippy northern guru: John Lennon.
Then, about a decade ago, I read some of his short stories, and was surprised by how engaging I found them. I was also impressed by his poems, essays and letters. Despite all the nonsense, there was a force and authenticity in his voice that I could not ignore. I read up on his life. Amid all the folly and excess, and ego and anger, I was impressed by his pursuit of a vision. And despite his rejection of Christianity, I felt that aspects of his spiritual search overlapped with my own.
Like almost all post-Christian prophets, he wasn’t cleanly post-Christian. Yes, he decisively rejected the Congregationalist faith of his upbringing. But he felt that people needed religion of some sort, and disdained scientific materialism, and saw himself as a deeply religious author. And his idea of the sort of religion worth having drew on various Christian themes: love, honesty, courage, inner conflict, resurrection, the goodness of creation. But why should we care about a neo-pagan confusedly borrowing Christian themes? Because a rare spiritual intensity can exist in the arena of modern literature; a maverick outsider can bear witness to aspects of religion that mainstream religion neglects. As I have suggested, this is probably no longer the case: today’s writers seem uniformly conformist to secular media requirements; they lack that para-religious energy.
Lawrence was discovered in 1909. The 24-year-old son of a coal-miner, who had just started teaching, was seen as a sort of home-grown primitive. A few years later he became a story himself, when he ran off with Frieda Weekley, the ultra-bohemian German wife of a Nottingham professor, whom he soon married. From then on the couple was perpetually on the move, a sort of icon of liberation, and punkish rejection of social norms. His message? Trust your bodily instincts. Stop living in your head. Rediscover the wonder of your natural being. “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.” Of course most people who say that sort of thing are fairly crude and self-interested types. But for Lawrence the message was rooted in Romanticism, with its semi-Christian reverence for creation, and its semi-Christian sense that such a vision might entail psychological suffering. As he said in 1913: “I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me… One has to be so terribly religious to be an artist.”
The notion of Lawrence as an advocate of free love is largely wrong. He tried to model a new ideal of marriage, rooted in honesty about sex, especially female sexuality. This was rooted in the ideal of Eden; we must rediscover a holy wonder in our carnality, regain our primal goodness. This puts him in the tradition of William Blake, who re-staged Eden in his garden with his wife. On the other hand he was honest about the inevitable clash between male and female perspectives; here he was influenced by Blake’s dictum “Without contraries is no progression”. He tried to model marriage as a healthy conflict. In practice his marriage wasn’t so healthy: partly because his wife asserted her liberated will through infidelities, partly because he wanted to be an angry, unsettled prophet, partly because he began to advocate the idea that women sap men’s natural strength, partly because he had homosexual tendencies. It’s complicated. But he certainly had a high view of marriage. This tradition must be renewed, he said, probably painfully. “Marriage is the great puzzle of our day. It is our sphinx-riddle. Solve it, or be torn to bits, is the decree.”
After the First World War, which sharpened his apocalyptic antipathy to modern civilisation, he and his wife lived in Italy for a few years. He scorned liberal democracy and vaguely pined for a new social order, more in tune with our deepest desires: to revere some grand ideal, or leader, to reconnect with pre-civilised impulses. He flirted with the idea of starting a utopian community, he deepened his interest in mystical male bonding, implying that there was more spiritual depth here than in heterosexual normality. In this he was strongly influenced by the homosexual American poet Walt Whitman. He developed his own theory of the unconscious, with some theosophy mixed in. Though he still rejected Christianity, he was deeply impressed by a visit to the Monte Cassino monastery, and saw the Middle Ages as a deeply alluring ideal – but one to be resisted.
In 1922 he and Frieda travelled, via Australia, to New Mexico, where his patroness was a campaigner for the rights of the native people. His writing became focused on the question of whether we can meaningfully reject modernity in favour of a simpler “primitive” cultural ideal. He continued to yearn for some sort of new religion, through which communal culture might be reborn. He died of TB in 1930, aged 45.
My brief account perhaps makes him sound like a sinister charlatan. But in fact his writing is full of humanity, sensitivity, humour, acute criticism of all lazy assumptions. His stories have a special atmosphere that comes from his desire to dramatise his spiritual thinking, or seeking. On nearly every page one senses his hunger to grapple with difficult questions, come what may. He is willing to seem embarrassing, foolish, over-the-top, in order to thrash out these thorny issues, bring them to life. He makes other writers seem timidly conventional, as if they are carefully watching their backs, avoiding sounding silly, as if they have not quite taken leave of journalistic cliche. He is a sort of holy fool, whose prophetic posturing offers strange illumination. More than the other writers of his day, he believed that a writer’s life and work formed a unity; he strove to be not just a creative artist but an exemplary icon of creativity. He risked a more boldly religious idea of the writer than perhaps any other 20th-century figure. To dismiss him as a false prophet feels inept: yes, his thinking was deeply flawed, but his passionate pursuit of truth feels worthy of admiration.
Ultimately, perhaps, he was unlucky that his marriage did not bring him greater stability, which might have allowed him to move on from his irascible extremity, and his apocalyptic tendencies, and his male-bonding hobby-horse. Perhaps he could have become a major Christian writer, a less eccentric Blake, a restorer of the Romantic vision to its Christian roots.
Frances Wilson’s new book is a vivid portrait of the man and his circle. It contains plenty of sensible, balanced analysis of his paradoxical spirit, but ultimately it feels rather little, rather conventional, rather tame. It does its job, of providing yet another round of clever critical chatter about Lawrence. But for what? A really significant book on Lawrence would wrestle with the question of whether his prophetic impersonation was justified. And that would mean wrestling with the wider question of whether Romanticism was a serious alternative to Christianity. Our literary culture is cowardly in its evasion of such underlying questions. Of course we are wiser than those earnest Romantics, it implies, with our sensible mix of super-subtle scholarship and journalistic gossip. Of course we are not such innocent fools as to seek the Meaning of Life in art, or in anything: we just discuss things, analyse things, pore over the corpses of old ideals. It’s the sort of thing Lawrence raged against.
While I’m at it, let me mention another recent book about Lawrence, much lauded by literary types. In Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer tries to rescue Lawrence from his dull scholarly critics, by wittily reflecting on his own responses to the writer. On one level, Dyer’s approach does highlight Lawrence’s “wildness”. But Dyer’s (tongue-in-cheek) claim to be in tune with Lawrence’s spirit is rather irksome. For Dyer embodies the cool irony of our literary age, which is utterly antipathetic to the basic spark of Lawrence’s vision: a glorious earnestness. Without this anchorage in sincerity, a sincerity that risks seeming foolish, weak, even mad, literature is little more than a stylish branch of journalism.
Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: The Christian basis of secular values (SPCK Publishing)
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.