D.H. Lawrence’s Selected Essays

Every writer and critic I have encountered has voiced a strong opinion – positive or negative – on D.H. Lawrence and his writings. I’m not aware of any author more widely praised and condemned in equal measure, and from both sides of the political spectrum, and this nearly a century after his death. Imagine, then, what poor Lawrence went through in his own time! He spent the final decade of his life in exile from his native England, returning only a handful of times for brief visits, preferring France, Australia, Mexico and the United States – anywhere but the country of his birth, the country that viewed him and his writings as obscene, and that would not publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover unbowdlerized until three decades after his death. And yet Lawrence is a prodigious talent, a painter, poet, novelist, essayist and literary critic of rare abilities.

His Selected Essays demonstrate not only his remarkable felicity with language but the range of his thought and travels, and his iconoclastic mind. Take one of the earliest essays, “Cocksure Women And Hensure Men,” published in 1930 and utterly unpublishable today, in which he discusses a modern type of woman, a “really up-to-date woman,” who “doesn’t have a doubt nor a qualm.” Unlike the hensure woman of the past, who “went quietly and busily clucking around, laying the eggs and mothering the chickens in a kind of anxious dream,” the modern woman confidently pursues jobs, or votes, or other traditionally male ambitions. And her “cocksureness” has produced a new modern man, “timid, tremulous, rather soft and submission, easy in their very henlike tremulousness.” But Lawrence spies tragedy in this role reversal. Those cocksure women “find, so often, that instead of having laid an egg, they have laid a vote, or an empty ink-bottle, or some other absolutely unhatchable object, which means nothing to them.” This he calls “the tragedy of the modern woman,” a tragedy playing out across Western civilization at the moment:

She is cocksure, but she is a hen all the time. Frightened of her own henny self, she rushes to mad lengths about votes, or welfare, or sports, or business; she is marvellous, out-manning the man. But alas, it is all fundamentally disconnected. It is all an attitude and one day the attitude will become a weird cramp, a pain, and then it will collapse. And when it has collapsed, and she looks at the eggs she has laid, votes, or miles of typewriting, years of business efficiency – suddenly, because she is a hen and not a cock, all she has to done will turn into pure nothingness to her. Suddenly it all falls out of relation to her basic henny self, and she realizes she has lost her life.

What in 1930 was merely prediction today looks like prophecy, as fertility rates and women’s self-reported life satisfaction plummet hand-in-hand. When he isn’t donning the mantle of reactionary prophet, Lawrence can be quite funny, and the colloquial style of these essays has preserved their sense of humour for modern readers. In “Whitman,” he sets up a running commentary to Whitman’s poetry, mocking his pretensions to universalism in ever more sardonic tones. “As soon as Walt knew a thing, he assumed a One Identity with it. If he knew than an Eskimo sat in a kayak, immediately there was Walt being little and yellow and greasy, sitting in a kayak.” Lawrence, the perpetual outsider, cannot abide being enlisted in Whitman’s unifying poetic narrative, and reacts with disgust to the very idea of a brotherhood of man: “I only know that my body doesn’t by any means gravitate to all I meet or know. I find I can shake hands with a few people. But most I wouldn’t touch with a long prop.”

But out of Lawrence’s sardonic humour emerges a genuine love of art, and a theory of criticism that places Lawrence in the lineage of literature’s most beloved poet-critics, from Matthew Arnold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have a great temptation to weaponize Lawrence against the modern academia, which has cynically turned its back on this style of criticism:

Literary criticism can be no more than a reason account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing. Criticism can never be a science; it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudoscientific classifying and analyzing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.

A critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and its force. To do so, he must be a man of force and complexity himself, which few critics are. A man with a paltry, impudent nature will never write anything but paltry, impudent criticism. And a man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix. The more scholastically educated a man is generally, the more he is an emotional boor.

An “emotional boor” – I doubt there’s any worse epithet in Lawrence’s mind. His prose and his criticism aim at the opposite, and these essays achieve that goal effortlessly.