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Thursday, 4 March 2010

D. H. Lawrence: Baby Tortoise



You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open
Like some iron door;
To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base
And reach your skinny neck
And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,
Alone, small insect,
Tiny bright-eye,
Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite
And move on your slow, solitary hunt.
Your bright, dark little eye,
Your eye of a dark disturbed night,
Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,
So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.
Wither away, small bird?
Rather like a baby working its limbs,
Except that you make slow, ageless progress
And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,
Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?
Or is sleep coming over you again,
The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?
Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life
Looking round
And slowly pitching itself against the inertia
Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,
And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,

Nay, tiny shell-bird.
What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,
What an incalculable inertia.

Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
No bigger than my thumb-nail,
Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,
Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.
The ponderous, preponderate,
Inanimate universe;
And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,
Resting your head half out of your wimple
In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.
Alone, with no sense of being alone,
And hence six times more solitary;
Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages
Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,
Small bird,
Over the edge of all things.

With your tail tucked a little on one side
Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,
Invincible fore-runner.


Baby Tortoise: D.H.Lawrence, from Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923)

Tortoise hatchlings (Geocholone darwini), Charles Darwin Research Station, James Island, San Salvador: photo by Minglex, 2008
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk (bas relief from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, showing Samudra mantha-Vishnu, his turtle avatar Kurma below, asuras and devas to the left and right): photo by Markalexander100, 2005


leigh tuplin said...

Enjoyed this Tom, thanks.

TC said...


I am so happy that at least one person besides myself has taken time to appreciate this utterly magnificent, brilliantly writerly, beautifully observed English poem.

It brought tears to my ancient eyes, posting it. Sheer genius.

Patricia said...

I read this poem aloud at a ceremony my partner and I had to honor a young tortoise we lost due to extreme heat in Arizona. We care for one other desert tortoise who is about 7 yrs old (we think). This poem means so much to me. I found it on a whim, as I was searching for just the right words, but will keep it close to my hear forever. I cannot read it without tearing up. Thanks for sharing.

TC said...


I too am deeply moved by Lawrence's poem and cannot read it without being touched by some sense or spirit of a very ancient human relation with these remarkable creatures.

Lawrence by the way wrote the poem in Florence, of all places, in September 1920. It was one of his series of tortoise poems. Taken together they show a great respect for and empathy with the tortoise.

Nowwecometoseven said...

Tom, I'm writing a book about a turtle, rye digesting these tortoise poems is as good as it gets, although the numerology is did w turtles who have 16 wedges.


Mark Rudman