by Sam Alexander
Because of its position in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre, Amores (1916) has not received as much critical attention as the volume that followed it, Look! We Have Come Through (1917). Grouped with the “Rhyming Poems” in the Penguin edition of Lawrence’s poetry, it predates the more experimental, Whitmanesque free verse through which Lawrence has exerted his enduring influence. While Amores is more formally conventional than the later work, however, it uses a rich and complex symbolic matrix to explore issues that would remain at the center of Lawrence’s work for the rest of his career.
The final poem of the volume, “The Mystic Blue,” provides a thematic connection between Amores and Lawrence’s major work in 1914–1915. The poem enumerates a series of impressive images that spring from a deep, underlying darkness: “Out of the darkness … / Jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping”; “… bright blue crops / Surge from the under-dark to their latter tops”; “… the darkness trapped within a wheel / Runs into speed like a dream, the blue of the steel.” Finally, the poet adds that the “rainbow arching over the skies” should also be grouped with these images, which all “come foam and spray of the sea … as dolphins that leap from the sea / Of midnight…” (86).
The first two of these examples (sparks and crops)—like the phoenix and the poppy in the Study of Thomas Hardy (1914)—fascinate Lawrence because they burst forth in a dramatic moment of self-realization. Although the poppy itself does not appear in Amores, the image of the blossom (always an important one for Lawrence), recurs at various points to connote a pouring forth of individual identity. In “Lotus Hurt by the Cold,” the self-exposing blossom is rejected by the speaker’s lover, who “turns / A look of hate upon the flower that burns / To break and pour her out its precious dew” (53).
Such reflections on frustrated desire, sexual struggle, and the conflict of lovers are frequent in Amores—as is indicated by the final two images of surface beauty in “The Mystic Blue.” The “rainbow arching over the skies” evokes Lawrence’s figure, in the 1915 novel of the same name, for the ultimate “blest” unity and balance that result from “the conflict of love and hate” that he saw as defining the relationship of newly married husbands and wives (Lawrence married his own wife, Frieda, in July of 1914). The image of “the darkness trapped within the wheel” recalls the axel and wheel, Lawrence’s favorite analogy for the necessary “friction” between the two sexes in the Study of Thomas Hardy: “the male seethes and whirls in incredible speed upon the female, where the two are one, as axle and wheel are one, and the motion travels out to infinity.”
This theme of marital love as perpetual struggle is usually associated with Lawrence’s novels and his poetry from Look! We Have Come Through onward, but it is also present throughout Amores. Poems like “A Spiritual Woman” represent love as a violent, sometimes hateful struggle much like the one depicted in Lawrence’s other works: “Now stop carping at me.—But God, how I hate you!” (68). Many of the poems convey the suspicion that, even if it were possible, complete marital unification would not be desirable because such a complete “fusion” would mean an annihilation of personal identity– a central tenet of Rupert Birkin in Women in Love. In “Tease,” which opens the volume, the speaker tells his lover that he can hear her “jingling through / All the chambers of my soul,” but attempts to reassert his independence by taunting his lover, raising the possibility of “Secrets that you may not broach” (1, 2). The speaker of the later “Excursion” is trapped with his lover in a more literal chamber—the compartment of a train—and cries out, “… every fibre of me cries in pain / For God to remove you” (64).
The struggle of the sexes reaches its climax in “Snap-Dragon”—the longest and most frequently cited poem in the volume—in which a snap-dragon flower encountered in a garden during a lovers’ stroll is transformed into both a victim of cruelty and an instrument of intimidation:
… I pressed the wretched, throttled flower between
My fingers, till its head lay back, its fangs
Poised at her. Like a weapon my hand was white and keen,
And I held the choked flower-serpent in its pangs
Of mordant anguish … (79)
As Helen Sword points out, “Snap-Dragon,” is one of a number of early poems which, “despite their seeming sedateness of form, give voice to the demon of erotic violence lurking within so much of Lawrence’s most powerful writing.” Lawrence also raises the specter of violence effectively in “Discord in Childhood,” which remembers a parental argument by describing the “lash” of an ash tree as it shrieks in a storm, “booming and bruising” the house in which the dispute takes place (6)
While “Discord” maintains an anonymous point of view (from the outside of the house), most of the family poems in Amoresare decidedly personal in tone and concern the death of the poet’s mother. This subject leads Lawrence to some of the most effective images in the volume. In “Brooding Grief,” for example, an everyday object—a yellow leaf—triggers an involuntary memory of the maternal deathbed scene for the poet (much as the shaving bowl and ocean remind the “brooding” Stephen Dedalus of the bowl of “green sluggish bile” next his mother’s death-bed in the opening pages of Joyce’s Ulysses). In “Sorrow,” my favorite poem in the volume, a “thin grey strand” of cigarette smoke rising from a “forgotten” cigarette between the speaker’s fingers become in his mind the long grey hairs that his mother left behind on his coat after he carried her to sick-bed—only to be transformed back into smoke in the last stanza, where the speaker remembers throwing them into a fire and watching them “float up the dark chimney” (45).
The volume’s “mother poems” also foreground the Oedipal preoccupation so prominent in Lawrence’s work since Sons and Lovers (1913). The first two lines of “The Inheritance,” a poem addressed to the dead mother who forms the subject of “Sorrow” and “Brooding Grief,” lead the reader to expect a poem about spurned love: “Since you did depart / Out of my reach, my darling…” (48). “Troth with the Dead” may be enacting a similar ambiguity by highlighting in its title a word that can mean both “fidelity” and “one’s promise in engaging oneself to be married.”
Lawrence assimilates the mother theme into the light/darkness antithesis that is the volume’s major image pattern. Throughout the volume, darkness is described as the solitary setting (“cool, lonely night,” as it is called in an early poem) which the creative consciousness must enter alone in order to glean its material—the “under-dark,” as he calls it in “The Mystic Blue,” which makes possible the surface flowerings of crops, sparks, and rainbow:
And in the original dark the roots cannot keep, cannot know
Any communion whatever, but they bind themselves onto the dark,
And drawing the darkness together, crush from it a twilight, a slow
Burning that breaks at last into leaves and a flower’s bright sparks. (“Discipline,” 21)
Here, it seems to be the poet’s “discipline” to draw from the darkness of personal pain, like a root from the dark soil, the passionate (and, as in the mother poems, painful) stirrings that it will transform into images (“flower’s bright sparks”). In “Restlessness,” Lawrence links this under-dark to the maternal influence, referring to “the bewildering darkness, which is always fecund, which might / Mate my hungry soul with a germ of its womb”; and in “Dissolute,” he refers to “A darkness within me, a presence which sleeps contained / In my flame of living, her soul enfolded in mine” (33).
Before the volume closes, however, Lawrence begins to explore the possibility of sharing his solitary, personal darkness, with a non-maternal lover—as in “Liaison”: “This rare, rich night! For in here / Under the yew-tree tent … / … not even the stars can spy us” (55). And, of course, in “The Mystic Blue,” the deep under-dark gives rise to the rainbow of marital balance—the result of hate and conflict, in Lawrence’s view, but also the result of a struggle out of oedipal attachment. For Lawrence, this Freudian struggle parallels to his move beyond purely biographical material—he called Amores at one point “a sort of story of my life from 20 to 26” – and toward “something far more ambitious,” as V. de S. Pinto remarks in his introduction to the Complete Poems: the descriptions of sexual conflict and reconciliation for which his poetry is known.
Full text of Amores
- ↑ V.S. de Pinto, “D.H. Lawrence: Poet Without a Mask.” In D. H. Lawrence, Complete Poems (New York: Penguin 1993), p. 8.
- ↑ Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), p. 54.
- ↑ Sword, “Lawrence’s Poetry.” In The Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), p. 122.
- ↑ Like “Sorrow” (see below, and note 5), this poem was “drafted” in prose in Sons and Lovers (See especially pp. 84-85). (FN added 8/1/2008)
- ↑ This was apparently a favorite of Lawrence, as well, since he had already tried it out in prose in Sons and Lovers: “He sat in the kitchen, smoking. Then he tried to brush some grey ash off his coat. He looked again. It was one of his mother’s grey hairs. It was so long! He held it up, and it drifted into the chimney. He let go. The long grey hair floated and was gone in the blackness of the chimney.” (Penguin, 1994, ed. Helen and Carl Baron, p. 419). (FN added, 8/1/2008).
- ↑ Pinto, 8. For the “story of my life” remark, see Mark Kinkeade-Weekes, D.H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 301.