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Friday, 17 May 2013

D. H. Lawrence: Delight of Being Alone

File:Navnløst tre i åker.jpg

Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior), Nes, Hedmark, Norway
: photo by John Erling Blad, 6 July 2008

I know no greater delight than the sheer delight of being alone.
It makes me realise the delicious pleasure of the moon
that she has in travelling by herself: throughout time,
or the splendid growing of an ash-tree
alone, on a hillside in the north, humming in the wind.

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930): Delight of Being Alone, from More Pansies, in Last Poems, 1932

File:Kampestein ved Nordlia.JPG

 Giant stone on a field at Nordlia, Østre Toten, Oppland, Norway. Lake Mjøsa in the background. Kampesteinen ved Nordlia på Østre Toten: photo by Øyvind Holmstad, 24 May 2012


TC said...

This poem, unpublished in the poet's lifetime, comes from what Lawrence's friend Richard Aldington, editor of Last Poems, called MS. "B": a thin, French-made bound notebook, with the inside-cover inscription: "D. H. Lawrence, Bandol, Var, France, 23rd Nov. 1928". This notebook, headed 'Pensees', contains some of the later poems for Lawrence's book Pansies, nearly all the poems from the unpublished collection Nettles, and all of the half-dozen DHL poems included in The Imagist Anthology (1930).

Aldington suggested that "MS. 'B' was used as a first jotting-book, mostly for 'occasional pieces' of the type of 'Pansies'... There is no indication of how Lawrence wished these poems to be published... The poems printed here [i.e. in Last Poems] are a kind of diary of the last year of Lawrence's life. He followed his fluid ego to the verge of dissolution, always the adventure. In his 'More Pansies' especially... you will find his daily moods and thoughts, often repeated and repeated. There is the irritability of the consumptive breaking out all the time..."

This was a terrible time for Lawrence -- his mortal frame wasting away, ravaged by periodic racking hemorrhages, his wife Frieda busy at dallying.

If it should seem strange that a person would wish to do what Lawrence in this late poem proposes -- to stop inhabiting the body of a human and instead take up the form of an alien body, that of the night-wandering moon, or of a lonely ash tree on a hillside -- the circumstances of composition ought to be considered. The poem, I think, represents something more than a gratuitous literary conceit. Lawrence was terminally ill, and in his state, inhabiting his own body was no longer desirable. But of course there were not a great many alternatives, at that stage. Thus the refuge of poetic imagination -- the last refuge.

I spent the summer of 1966 living in a tiny stone cottage on a hillside above Vence, in the Maritime Alps. Lawrence had died in Vence, and his restless ghost remained a floating presence. The gossip that attended his unearthly presence still hung thick in the air, wafting across the mountainside with the Arab music that filled the night. The real and the unreal, past and present, mingling in that night music. And as a later poet of extreme vision would suggest --

"In the night, I am real...If you have ghosts, you have everything.

TC said...

This account of Lawrence's final days in Vence, writ by Ted Jones, compresses rumour and fact and speculation into what may be taken as a fair summary of the truth:

"Vence is a small cathedral town and -- a town with a small cathedral. Its eleventh-century church is among the smallest in France. The old town is a vaguely concentric maze of narrow streets protected on one side by monumental gates of Roman origin, and on the other by medieval ramparts. Elegant, urn-shaped fountains play in sheltered squares, of which one served as the Roman's forum and another housed the town guillotine in Revolutionary times. The old town is now the traveller's reward for having negotiated the suppuration of hotels and ugly apartment blocks that surround it.

"Vence stands almost a thousand feet up in the hills, about ten miles inland: two features that, in January 1930, caused the English novelist and travel and short-story writer David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence to move there. In Bandol, he had been examined by Dr Moreland, an English chest specialist on holiday in the area, who had told him that he should move to a higher altitude, away from the coast.

"Lawrence finally, and belatedly, accepted Dr Morland's diagnosis: that he had had tuberculosis for many years. As Katherine Mansfield had done 13 years earlier, he left coastal Bandol for the last time.

"He had hoped that his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, might better meet the doctor's requirements, but, apart from his visa problems, the doctor was sure that Lawrence was in no condition for such a long journey.

"So he moved into what he called 'a sort of sanatorium' in Vence. When he got there he weighed just six stone -- 85 pounds -- and was close to death. The building had formerly been the home of a local astronomer, and both its name, Ad Astra ('To the Stars'), and its location -- just across the road from the cemetery -- now took on a grisly significance. Frieda checked into the nearby Hôtel Nouvel.

"It was not really a sanatorium. As Lawrence wrote on a postcard to Aldous Huxley's wife Maria, it was just 'an hotel where a nurse takes your temperature and two doctors look after you once a week'. H.G. Wells, who was living near Grasse at the time, came to see him there, as did the Aga Khan. On 27 February, after only two weeks, he wrote to the Huxleys again. This time with a P.S.: 'This place no good.'

"The next day Frieda took him away from the home to a villa she had rented: the Villa Rochermond (later the Villa Aurelia) near the great 2,400-foot cylindrical rock of St-Jeannet.

"Optimistically, she took a six-month lease starting on 1 March, and moved her bed into his room because he wanted to be able to see her. He was writing a book review when the Huxleys arrived and he grasped Maria Huxley's hands and said, 'Maria, don't let me die.'

"At 9 pm the next day, a doctor came from the 'sanatorium' and gave Lawrence morphine for his pain. He said, 'I am better now', and fell asleep. He died at 10.15 pm.

TC said...

"Lawrence was buried beside a south-facing wall in the Vence cemetery. In addition to Frieda and Barby, her daughter by her previous marriage, the small group of mourners included the Huxleys and their friend Robert Nichols, an English poet living in Villefranche.

"At the time, no one thought that, exactly five years later, another small group would gather in carré 7 of Vence cemetery to witness Lawrence's exhumation.

"In the time between burial and disinterment, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, on their way home from a holiday in Italy, had made a side trip to Vence to visit the grave -- and, it being 1933, found him in. In the meantime, Frieda had been comforted by a number of lovers, at least two of whom had shared her with Lawrence while he was still alive.

"One was John Middleton Murry, with whom she had had a torrid affair immediately following the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield in 1923. By the time Lawrence died, Murry had acquired another consumptive wife, whom he left with their children in his haste to fulfil his urgent mission to Vence, to fill the void left by Lawrence's death.

"It is uncertain who comforted whom: Frieda at 50 was still alluring enough for him to write later, 'You don't know what you did for me in Vence … you recreated me.'

"The next to console her was Angelo Ravagli, the Fascist Italian army officer who had served as her occasional extra-curricular lover during her marriage, and was the reason for her late arrival at Port Cros. By 1935, he and Frieda had moved to Taos. He had built a small mausoleum chapel there -- a friend called it a 'station toilet' -- in Lawrence's memory, and had been charged with exhuming Lawrence's remains in Vence and shipping them to Taos to complete the shrine.

"Deterred by French bureaucracy from exporting a long-dead body, Ravagli had the remains burned and urned in preparation for their 5,000-mile journey. At the docks, in New York, the ashes -- just as the live Lawrence had done -- suffered immigration difficulties, but they were finally accepted as unlikely to have subversive intent or communist sympathies and permitted to board the train to New Mexico.

"The anarchic Lawrence would probably have enjoyed the rest of the story, as researched by biographer Brenda Maddox. Distracted by the enthusiasm of Frieda's welcome, Ravagli left the urn and its incinerated contents on the train, after which the fate of the ashes becomes confused. Either Ravagli went back to the railway station and collected them, or he was unable to find them at the station and bought another urn, which he filled with similar substance.

"The disposal of the ashes has raised even more conspiracy theories. Some, including Maria Huxley, believe that the anti-Ravagli school suspected that he had built the Lawrence mausoleum in Taos with a view to charging admission to tourists, and they planned to thwart him by stealing the ashes and casting them to the desert winds. Frieda, hearing of this plan, tipped them into the mixer that was making the concrete altar stone for the chapel.

"Twenty years later, a drunken Ravagli revealed that immediately after the cremation of Lawrence's body in 1935, afraid of hassles with the French authorities over the export of the remains, he had tipped the original ashes out in Vence and replaced them with cindered wood..."

A miserable story. Though the survivors made hay, in their memoirs, all that was left of the poet were the fictive or mythic remains, the ghosts. But then... if you have ghosts, do you have everything?


A beautiful poem (becomes more so in light of these 'notes') in triangulation with that ash tree, that giant stone.


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, shadowed bird on branch in right
foreground, no sound of wave in channel

give description of example
which in turn, always

there, even more in certain
cases, that something

clouds reflected in grey white channel,
shadowed green slope of ridge above it

Hazen said...

Exceptional, Tom. D.H.L. comes alive as only you could make him come alive. Today’s lesson seems to be that even dead, there’s no certainty. Never trust a fascist to haul your ashes, my mama used to say. (Well, maybe she didn’t say exactly that. Maybe she was saying go wash your hands, and I just heard it wrong). Thanks for all the delving.

TC said...


Well, your mama had it right, and I'm glad you've said that about the Formidable Frieda's Mussolini-loving deputy ash-bearer, so I don't have to.


Thanks for the welcome a.m. re-set.

Invisible bird in shadow of redwood bough chirps at rush hour traffic

which in turn, [is] always

there, even more in certain
cases, that something

Marie W said...


Without equal; unique
Without anyone or anything else: only
Without others
Without help
Exclusively; only:

(sometimes dictionaries can write poems!)

Wooden Boy said...

...humming in the wind

I love that you can hear the tree making music within the sound of the wind.

"He followed his fluid ego to the verge of dissolution, always the adventure".

The adventure - where something's risked the great writing happens. There are very few writers with Lawrence's courage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the ashes. I love to see any tree in a field.

I'll alert a great fan of Lawrence I know to this post, but I also wanted to alert you to a brief Tom Clark discussion in the comments at Language Hat.

- Artur.

TC said...

Alone is such a curious state, one always feels a bit ambivalent about it.

Lawrence was such a brilliant tortured one-off of a writer and with that, a complicated person who spent much of his life among people not "of his sort", which may help to explain why, dying, he would express this wish to be alone.

But when he died, there were people on hand -- I've quoted his poignant comment to Maria Huxley.

In the last days he was so weak he could no longer stand up, the fierce willfulness of the writer to express seems to have been all that was left of him.

(Lately there has been a great reaction against "expression" in the aethereal regions trodden by the soi-disant Post-Modern -- little wonder! -- which may go a long way toward explaining the glaring absence of Lawrence, most expressive of all writers, from the official PoMo canon.)

So both ways of regarding the aloneness question, for and against, and doubtless alternating from moment to moment much as the shifting of leaves in a breeze, would perhaps have been felt in one so frail, weak and vulnerable as this writer, at that time.

Without equal; unique
Without anyone or anything else: only

And his stubborn adherence, even (especially) at the end, to the arduous path of self-losing he had followed all along since coming to maturity as a writer, is a marvelous and frightening thing to consider.

"He followed his fluid ego to the verge of dissolution, always the adventure".

By the by, my coming back to this poem, an old favourite, was influenced by seeing a picture I found evocative in much the same way as the poem.

Twelve skeletal ash trees in a row following a small stream down a hill in the emerald-green springtime of the north will soon be coming into leaf, and we have been given the pleasure of this moment of anticipation thanks to another of Artur's wondrous photos at A Bad Guide: The Weather.

kent said...

An exceptional issue from this exceptional place. Thanks, poet Clark, for de-hemorrhaging our, well, at least my, world.

Anonymous said...

in english you have two words for that state loneliness and solitude ...we only have one: soledad...I think solitude is a positive kind of loneliness and maybe good to face some events or needs...(?)