A little-known, brief but intense friendship took place between H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in the years 1915-1917. Many of H.D.’s wartime poems, like Lawrence’s wartime poems, were love poems with a strong agonistic drive, and they harked back to animistic times when magic and ritual still had a place. Both H.D. and Lawrence were acquainted with archaic Greek culture, a culture that predated utopian thinking and the idea of progress, a culture which could embrace contraries and decay with grace and a light heart. Tapping from different sources, they both arrived at a similar posture of defiance against utopian discourses of peace. As opposed to the ethos of progress and the aesthetics of control, they cultivated an apocalyptic belief in disaster as renewal. The present paper compares selected pieces from Lawrence’s Look, We Have Come Through! and from H.D.’s 1915-1917 poems (some of which published, others kept private).
On sait peu que H.D. et D.H. Lawrence connurent une amitié intense dans les années 1915-1917. Plusieurs des poèmes de H.D. dans ces années répondent à ceux de D.H. Lawrence, qui sont empreints d’érotisme agonistique associé à un primitivisme animiste où magie et rituel s’expriment pleinement. H.D. comme Lawrence avaient de solides notions de culture archaïque grecque, perçue comme un avant de la pensée utopique et du progrès, une culture de l’intégration des contraires et du principe de dissolution. Tout en ayant des lectures différentes, H.D. et D.H. Lawrence parvinrent à la même conclusion: la paix ne peut pas être un retour au statu quo ante. Plutôt que l’éthique du progrès ou l’esthétique de la maîtrise, ils cultivèrent une éthique du renouveau par la catastrophe. La présente étude compare des morceaux choisis tirés du recueil de poésie de Lawrence Look, We Have Come Through! et des poèmes de H.D. des années 1915-1917 (dont certains furent publiés et d’autres non).
H.D., D.H. Lawrence, Eros, war, 1915-1917, Presocratic Greek culture, Ionian philosophy, Empedocles
By all accounts[i], there was an intense friendship between H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in the years 1915-1917. In her associative, allusive memoir Bid Me to Live, written decades after the events at the instigation of Freud, H.D. takes great care not to pin down the nature of the feeling which existed between Lawrence and herself. “It was in your letters sometimes, when you weren’t angry with me” (BML 176). Was it companionship? Mutual admiration? Desire? At one point, the “it” is referred to as gloire, a specific light effect in religious painting. But the word’s extension in Bid Me to Live ranges far beyond painting: it refers to a form of genius, or a sickness, or (a page further) what is “both man and woman”, that is, what unites them in one creative impulse, in spite of the essential difference Lawrence insisted there had to be between the sexes: “Perhaps you would say I was trespassing, couldn’t see both sides, as you said of my Orpheus. I could be Eurydice in character, you said, but woman-is-woman and I couldn’t be both” (BML 176). However frustrating at times, the time spent with Lawrence was a decisive moment for H.D., and conversely, Lawrence “thought H.D. much the best of the Imagists since Pound had gone his own way” (Kinkead-Weekes 353), and an excellent critic of his own poetry.
At the outset of the war, D.H. Lawrence was involved in three main literary circles. One was the John Middleton Murry-Katherine Mansfield connection. The second was the Ottoline Morrell circle, with ties to Bloomsbury and Bertrand Russell; and the third revolved around the Imagistes anthologies, of which H.D. was an early associate. At the time, the influence of Bertrand Russell took Lawrence part of the way towards active involvement in reconstruction, progress and peace (Kinkead-Weekes 235-249) – but the apocalyptic mindset in Lawrence was too deeply ingrained to give reform a chance. The H.D.-Lawrence connection is less well documented than the Russell-Lawrence connection; were it not for the fact that H.D. rescued the Lawrences from utter destitution in 1917 (Kinkead-Weekes 409-410), it might have remained anecdotal. But there are telling echoes between Lawrence’s and H.D.’s poems. Many of H.D.’s wartime poems, like Lawrence’s wartime poems, were love poems with a strong agonistic drive, and they harked back to animistic times when magic and ritual still had a place. Both H.D. and Lawrence were acquainted with archaic Greek culture, a culture that predated utopian thinking and the idea of progress, a culture which could embrace contraries and decay with grace and a light heart. Tapping from different sources, they both arrived at a similar posture of defiance against utopian discourses of peace. As opposed to the ethos of progress and the aesthetics of control, they cultivated an apocalyptic belief in disaster as renewal. The present paper compares selected pieces from Lawrence’s Look, We Have Come Through! and from H.D.’s 1915-1917 poems (some of which published, others kept private), with a view to corroborating the spiritual kinship H.D. later commemorated in Bid Me to Live and in Helen in Egypt (1961).
“Greek in its implication, but archaic Greek” (BML 162)
Certain elements in the cultural influences of H.D. and D.H. Lawrence help to understand how they sublimated the violence in their lives and in wartime Europe in general. Which is not to say they welcomed it; but when it came to them, suffering, hurt, trauma could be read in terms of initiation or ritual. Consider “The Ladybird,” “The Man Who Died,” “The Woman Who Rode Away” and other tales of conversion in Lawrence, who was a good Bible scholar and knew the discourse of pain involved in classic Christian conversion. H.D. too had a fervent religious background (Martz xi); though not religious in the churchgoing sense, they were both inclined to believe in something bigger than themselves. This they both found in ancient Greek culture.
Among the classic sources known to D.H. Lawrence were James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Jane Harrison’s Ancient Art and Ritual (Sagar 81, 84). However, the Presocratics, a cluster of philosophers including Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Empedocles, who lived in the 6th and 5th centuries before Christ, loomed large in Lawrence’s cultural consciousness in the years 1915-17. This is because in 1915, while he was discussing peace and the lasting restoration thereof with Bertrand Russell, the latter lent him a book on Presocratic or Ionian philosophy which profoundly changed his views on the universe[ii]. From then on, for months, Lawrence brimmed with this Greek-inspired philosophy, and it seems that this strongly appealed to H.D., whom he also met in 1915. “Ionian” is a word that can be found in one of her poems, the one entitled “Eros”, to which we will come back. H.D. had been a dedicated Hellenist since her University years, although reading and translating Greek had been more of a side pursuit – perhaps all the more so intensely pursued (Carr 56). She knew well the age-old Greek Anthology (Gregory 535, 537, 541), she was a translator of Euripides, and she was investing her strong knowledge of Sapphic literature in her poetry, which Lawrence knew and admired in his own fussy way (Kinkead-Weekes 417). Between 1915 and 1917, the two poets must have in some part synthesized what they each separately knew and loved in Presocratic Greek culture: the primitive religious aesthetics on one hand and the abstract, empirical, “dry” natural philosophy of the Ionians on the other. Distinguished Hellenists have devoted memorable pages to the treatment of Greek poetry and prose in H.D.[iii], and others have worked (as a peripheral pursuit) on Lawrence and early Greek philosophy.[iv] In the process of informing the nature of the exchange between Lawrence and H.D. in matters Greek, this paper seeks to identify a basic common denominator between these two strains of Greek culture before Plato, and to see how the common denominator was fleshed out in Lawrence’s and H.D.’s wartime poems, or indeed how it was fashioned by the exchanges and mirror-effects between their two poetic practices.
The poems: love and bitterness
The poems cited here are a selection based on likely writing times. We have a clear notion when Lawrence’s poems were written and published; it is more difficult to ascertain the timeline of H.D.’s poems. Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through” is thought to have been written in 1915 (P 967); his “New Heaven and Earth” went though several rewritings over the war years, to be finally published in the 1917 Imagist anthology (P 970); “Craving for Spring” is thought to be a 1917 piece (P 975). H.D.’s “Eros” and “Amaranth” were written in 1916 and kept from public scrutiny until 1924 when they were partially published as expansions of fragments of Sappho (Martz xiv). Finally, “The Tribute” first appeared in November 2016 in The Egoist (Martz 616). “Eros”, “Amaranth” and “The Tribute” are long and complex poems that deserve more space than available here; the reader is referred to Louis Martz’s 1983 collection for closer scrutiny and more leisurely enjoyment.
In the case of “Eros” and “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through”, what is immediately striking is how religious the poems are. Both Lawrence and H.D. had renounced traditional Church worship but if anything it only made them more religious. However, the divinity of which the two poems are an evocation is a playful one, one that will manifest itself only to the worthy few, and at the cost of painful initiation. H.D.’s “Eros” indeed reads like a fragment from Sappho:
Keep love and he sways apart
in another world,
Keep love and he mocks,
ah, bitter and sweet,
your sweetness is more cruel
than your hurt.
Honey and salt,
fire burst from the rocks
to meet fire
spilt from Hesperus.
Fire darted aloft and met fire,
and in that moment
love entered us.
Lawrence’s “Song of a Man Who has Come Through” is personal and in the vernacular, but the “wind” which blows through all things and people alike, cracking them open to initiate new states of being, may be an avatar of H.D.’s Eros:
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
[…] If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos
of the world […]
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find
The divinity to which these two poems are a tribute is greater than any individual god: it is a cosmic principle, as vast as space in H.D.’s “Eros”, and as vast as time in Lawrence’s “Song of a Man”. It “takes its course through the chaos of the world”, unabashed by what humans perceive as waste or disorder. It is a force that cares nothing for humans but will transfigure one if one “yields” to it, if one allows oneself to be “hurt” by it. Then the “salt rock”, the bitter rock of inert matter, including the inert, uninitiated human body, will be split open. Then sweet and bitter will come together, “honey” and “salt”, human aspirations will be fulfilled, and peace found. “Hesperus” or “the Hesperides” stands for fulfilment and peace as the result of initiation, that which one achieves when one “has come through”, as the Lawrentian phrase goes. Though the two poems are about strife in love, they are also about war and peace; the question of how peace is to be achieved is prevalent on the poet’s horizon of expectations. They were written at a time when professed hopes of wrapping up the war before Christmas of 1914 were a distant memory, and one really wondered how peace was ever to be achieved with troops – Richard Aldington, H.D.’s husband, being one of them – now immobilized in trench warfare. The situation called for a major change, a conversion.
Love as sacrifice
Only a miraculous conversion in the world could bring about peace. The question was: how much violence could this process involve? This also applied, at the microcosmic level, to the life of the individual poet: the opening up to the “wonder” (“Song of a Man”) could bring about a phase of creative peace, but in itself was a daunting crisis to go through. The wartime poems corresponded to a personal crisis in H.D.’s life. Around the time when she had to leave her unfaithful husband Richard Aldington, she was in pain, but seeing beauty in this pain. “I love Richard with a searing, burning intensity,” she wrote to her friend and admirer John Cournos. “I love him and I have come to this torture of my free will. I could have forgotten my pride broken and my beauty as it were, unappreciated. I could have found peace with you. But of my own will, I have come to this Hell. But beauty is never Hell. I believe this flame is my very Daemon driving me to write. I want to write”(Carr, 836). Hurt and humiliated by the betrayal of her husband, she was in a state of perpetual fever that actually corresponded to a peak in her creative powers. “The hurt has freed my song”, H.D. is reputed to have said (Carr, 836). This is an Orphic topos, of course. In the story of Eurydice, Orpheus’ song was freed by the sudden loss of his wife to Hades. In the ancient myth as in these poems, as in Sapphic poetry, inspiration is derived from a sensation of burning loss, a pain inflicted by the desirable other.
Love as sacrifice is a central topos in H.D.’s and in Lawrence’s poetry of the war years. But while Lawrence’s approach is intensely erotic, personal, situational, a song of wonder and delight, H.D.’s lyricism is not only about emotion but also about process and ethos, or the relative functions and purposes of archetypal figures and objects in a world centered on the sacred. Impersonal forms are predominant, as are verbs describing predictable processes rather than subjective modalities. Articles are scarce, thus suggesting that the processes described are universal rather than specific. This is particularly striking in “Amaranth”, where the poet-priestess’s discourse is largely devoted to defining the processes at work in the world in order to act accordingly. It is about practice and knowledge; about ethics and aesthetics as well as episteme.
Let him go forth radiant,
let life rise in his young breast,
life is radiant,
life is made for beautiful love
and strange ecstasy,
strait, searing body and limbs,
tearing limbs and body from life;
life is his if he ask,
life is his if he take it,
then let him take beauty
as his right.
“Life is made for beautiful love/and strange ecstasy,/strait, searing body and limb,/tearing limbs and body from life”: one has to ask, who is it that is thus sacrificed? And what or who is it that carries out the sacrifice, the “searing”, the “tearing of limbs from life”? Who is the agent? The poem does not ascribe agency, but merely states the ineluctability of the sacrificial process. The figure of the young soldier – a thinly disguised Aldington, according to Helen Carr (837) – seems to be the agent of sacrifice, but a reading of the whole poem produces a different impression. The radiant soldier in a “strange ecstasy” may be making a holocaust of womanly beauty as he does of enemies’ bodies, but the adversary will ensure that the “tearing limbs and body from life” is his own fate too. The young man is the agent and the victim of this process, a process facilitated by the knowing prayer of the poet-priestess, who decides to let him go. He and his actions are her sacrifice to Aphrodite, her offering or “amaranth”: his limbs will be torn apart and his body from life too, in the end, in the same searing and tearing process in which he found ecstasy.
Technically, Lawrence’s poems predated those by H.D. on similar themes – it might even be that the communion of kindred spirits was only a one-way influence at times. Lawrence’s wartime writing also received much more immediate exposure than H.D.’s, who kept her poems to herself when they had too obvious a bearing on her disastrous relationship with Aldington. It is clear that H.D. was strongly impressed by Lawrence’s 1917 collection Look, We Have Come Through!, parts of which she had read as a reader of and substitute editor to The Egoist and Poetry, and that she allowed some of its motifs and images to filter into her own much more polished writing. Her concealed poems of the war years can thus be read as responses to Lawrence’s fiery, male-oriented erotic poems. They add complexity to the male-centered archetypal moments of conversion described by Lawrence in “New Heaven and Earth”, for example.
So I put my hand out further, a little further
and I felt that which was not I,
Ha, I was a blaze leaping up!
I was a tiger bursting into sunlight.
I was greedy, I was mad for the unknown.
I, new-risen, resurrected, starved from the tomb
starved from a life of devouring always myself
now here was I, new-awakened, with my hand
and touching the unknown, the real unknown
In “Amaranth”, H.D.’s poet-priestess opposes her seriousness and refinement of understanding to Lawrence’s powerful sense of unconscious emergence, where the poet finds himself performing sacrifice though his primary intention was merely predatory. Eros, the trickster god alluded to in the poems quoted above, has expedients that are known to H.D.’s priestess but catch Lawrence’s lover by surprise. The latter perceives himself to be behaving like a tiger, unaware that the tiger is one of the shapes of shape-shifting Dionysus Zagreus in Orphic lore. Unwittingly, he not only carries out bloody sacrifice but embodies it, since Zagreus went through his metamorphoses at the moment of his death; the Christ-like overtones of “new-risen, resurrected, starved from the tomb” are not fortuitous, given the well-known continuities between the mysteries of Orpheus (and Osiris) and the central mystery of Christianity. Lawrence’s poem too is about mystical process but the speaker is merely a means for it, not the agent of it. There is little room for deliberate human praxis, unlike in “Amaranth”. But in spite of their remarkable differences, the poems suggest that H.D. and Lawrence shared the same agenda as regards wartime love poetry. Their writing posits the cosmic necessity of the sacrificial process, a notion Lawrence probably became familiar with as early as his first readings in anthropology and H.D. from avidly reading Sappho and Euripides. It is a notion, one might contend, that ran across much primitivist Modernist writing, no matter how strongly one objects to it in the 21st century. H.D. chose to present her persona as partaker in this process rather than its mere plaything; but in both treatments of the topos, the sacrifice, the tearing of live limbs in Dionysian ecstasy, is to be commemorated in itself.
“The Tribute”, or what it means to be at war
H.D. and D.H. Lawrence were very much aware of the possibility that the “wind”, call it Eros, call it love, or any other name for the primeval cosmic drive towards which their poems gestured, was extinct for good. Such anxiety is to be felt most acutely in “The Tribute”, a poem that appeared in The Egoist in the fall of 1916. “The Tribute” is a long and complex poem, worth pondering in its entirety. It describes the dreadful god-forsaken state of cities, in their squalor and decay, and the age-old processes which may be completing the decaying process, thus ultimately ushering the cities back into the realm of beauty and the sacred. It alludes to “the youth” which the cities have sent out to “strike at each other”; the reader of The Egoist could not but be reminded of the conscripted young soldiers, with a heightened suspicion that this was a sign of civilization coming to a chaotic end. But the modern-day, god-forsaken squalor can be “cheated”, temporarily defeated by sacrifice:
Ah, squalor was cheated at last
for a bright head flung back,
caught the ash-tree fringe
of the foot-hill,
the violet slope of the hill,
one bright head flung back
stilled the haggling,
one throat bared
and the shouting was still.
the boys have gone out of the city,
the songs withered black on their lips.
Could beauty be beaten out, –
O youth the cities have sent
to strike at each other’s strength,
it is you who have kept her alight.
(Martz 60, 68)
Are the “boys” a symptom of impending chaos, or are they the sacrifice itself? Are they the lamentable by-product of modern-day dinginess or are they the eponymous “tribute”? It is almost as if the wasteful horror of the war called for this archaeomodern[v] piece of anachronism; it is as if the war needed to be set in the context of ancient sacrifice ritual in order to make any sense. The poem describes the extraordinary measures the god-forsaken cities have to take in order to lure the gods back into them, gods who will not settle for less than human blood. If beauty is to be regained, then, the poems suggests, that would make sense of the offering of the city’s “youth”.
Lawrence’s 1917 poem “Craving for Spring” may be a response to “The Tribute”. It is true that the disaster of the war was on everyone’s mind, but Lawrence’s poem echoes distinctly with H.D.’s in its lyrical evocation of the war as a monstrous offering to unseen forces.
Show me the violets that are out.
Oh, if it be true, and the living darkness of the blood of man is purpling with violets,
if the violets are coming out from under the rack of men, winter-rotten and fallen
we shall have spring.
Pray do not die on this Pisgah blossoming with violets.
Pray to live through.
The late summer and autumn of 1917 was when the British fought their most horrifying battles to reclaim Flanders and went through months of trench life interspersed with artillery assaults which left no one unscathed. The Battle of Passchendaele alone claimed 275 000 British and ANZAC casualties (July-November 1917).[vi] So when Lawrence alludes to the casualties as « rack of men, winter-rotten and fallen… » it is no exaggeration: no one knows for sure how many died, and the rush of warfare, the weather conditions and the sheer number of corpses made it difficult to bury the dead properly. The allusions to violets, to be found also in H.D.’s “The Tribute”, is but one indication that the massacre could be read ritualistically, as sort of monstrous fertility rite, violets being used in ancient Greek blood rites to commemorate Attis, a vegetation god from Asia Minor.
H.D.’s and Lawrence’s wartime writing can be described as a duet, H.D. bringing Orphic lyricism and Lawrence Ionian cosmology to the duet. The Ionian Empedocles postulated forces called Love (philia) and Strife (neikos) to explain the ever-renewed combination of the natural elements and the fashioning thereby of all the things in the physical world.[vii] In Empedocles’ natural philosophy, Strife is the process of elemental separation, when the world is bare and objects and beings mere potentialities; Love is the phase of combination, where objects and beings come into existence in ever more complex forms. The undifferentiated – impure – commingling of elements, the “black” and “rotten” “squalor” of late-stage civilization, celebrated by Birkin with Baudelairian schadenfreude in Women in Love, is an extreme stage of Love, a final coming together of the elements on their way back around to dissolution and on to a new cosmic cycle. The beauties and the ignominies of love, or of human history, from this perspective, are mere by-products of matter folding and unfolding in time. The central process itself is the prime mover of nature, and must be acknowledged, more than the temporary shapes it produces. This cyclical approach to existence may have been a compensation of sorts, for the thwarted desires and the conflicts and the self-inflicted horrors which make peace, on the individual scale and on that of humanity as a whole, seem forever out of reach. In the face of it all, the poet acknowledges the beauty in the ever-renewed forms of matter, itself indestructible even as it is fashioned by contrary forces, call them creation and destruction, eros or sacrifice, or love and strife.
[i] Such accounts include H.D.’s own in Bid Me to Live, primarily, but also Mark Kinkead-Weekes’s Triumph to Exile p. 353 and 416-22, Louis Martz’s introduction to H.D.: The Collected Poems 1922-1944 p. xix-xxiv, and Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries p. 791-794 and 869-871.
[ii] In an article entitled “‘A Prison for the Infinite: D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell on the War”, Luke Ferretter briefly charts the history of Lawrentian scholars’ interest in the influence of Burnet’s book (section 17). Ferretter’s article is valuable not least for the emphasis it brings on the equal importance of Empedocles and Heraclitus in Lawrence’s valuation of the early Greek philosophers.
[iii] One of the best examples is H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines, by Eileen Gregory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
[iv] See for example Luke Ferretter, and earlier: Daniel J. Schneider, The consciousness of D.H. Lawrence: an intellectual biography, Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1986.
[v] a term coined by Jacques Rancière in « The Archaeomodern turn » (Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. Michael P. Steinberg, Ithaca, Cornell University, 1996, p. 24-40).
[vi] “The armies under British command suffered some 275,000 casualties at Passchendaele […] The Germans suffered another 220,000 killed or wounded. At the end, the point of it all was unclear. In 1918 all the ground gained there by the Allies was evacuated in the face of a looming German assault. Passchendaele would be remembered as a symbol of the worst horrors of the First World War, the sheer futility of much of the fighting, and the reckless disregard by some of the war’s senior leaders for the lives of the men under their command.” Roy, R.H., and Richard Foot, « The Battle of Passchendaele », Encyclopædia Britannica online, www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Passchendaele (last consulted 05.18.2017).
[vii] Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, London and Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1892, 248-249.
Lawrence, D.H., The Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013. (P)
Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912–1922, Volume 2 of the
Ferretter, Luke, “‘A Prison for the Infinite: D.H. Lawrence and Bertrand Russell on the War”, D.H. Lawrence, his Contemporaries and the First World War, Études Lawrenciennes 46, 2015, http://presses.parisnanterre.fr/?p=3212 (last consulted 02.02.2018).
H.D., Bid Me to Live (1960), London: Virago Press, 1984. (BML)
H.D., Collected Poems 1912-1944, ed. Louis Martz, New York: New Directions, 1983.
Sagar, Keith (ed), A D.H. Lawrence Handbook, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982.
Carr, Helen, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists, London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.
Gregory, Eileen, “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H. D.’s ‘Sea Garden’”, Contemporary Literature 27: 4, 1986, 525-552.
Noëlle Cuny teaches translation and Anglo-American literature and culture as an associate professor at UHA Mulhouse, France. After extensive work on D. H. Lawrence and on disciplinary hybridity in modernist writing, she became interested in the material conditions of the literary canonization process, namely, the magazines: first Lawrence’s own (very) little magazine, then the later and more ambitious Athenaeum and the early Adelphi. Noëlle Cuny’s latest publication as an editor is Modernist Objects, with Xavier Kalck and the French Society for Modernist Studies (2020).