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Lawrence and the Environment; the Poetics of Honesty and Despair

Leo Salter
p. 175-186

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1In his poems Lawrence portrays man’s exploitative use of power to dominate nature as a self-destructive assault on the harmony of living systems; and he argues that these transgressions of natural laws exclude man from the “tree of life.” He also makes it clear that uncontrolled materialism stifles creativity and he is adamant that by misusing power in this way man makes his extinction inevitable.

2A recent book review in Nature (Thomas 2007) summarised the future prospects for man in the following way,

Humans will presumably be gone within a few million years, perhaps sooner. If the past that Novacek describes is a guide to the future, global ecosystem processes will be restored some tens of thousands to a million years after our demise, and new forms of life over the ensuing millions of years will exploit the denuded planet we leave behind. Thirty million years on, things will be back to normal, albeit a very different “normal” from before. It is good to be optimistic. The problem is living here in the meantime.

3In the light of such a prediction for global ecosystems and at a time when the UK Government’s chief scientist (Sir David King) announces that,

We are going to have to move from a mindset of rampant consumerism to a model which is more fitting for the 21st century [. . .] We need to focus a lot more on what it is to be really human, to raise that up as a status symbol. (ENDS, 390, p.4, 2007)

4Lawrence’s central belief that the natural world and consumerism can never co-exist attains an importance which has great contemporary relevance. In a capitalist society the dynamic is materialism and resource use is concomitant to that; this paradigm of values cannot be relied on in extremis to provide a rationale for preserving the natural world.

5This paper looks at Lawrence’s expression of his understanding of the threats that man brings to the natural world and uses his writings made long before the environment became the universal issue it is now. Lawrence is indeed a “poet of Nature” (Ellis 2002) and one whose “[…] poetic vision is founded on an instinctive hostility to environmental mismanagement” (Becket 2006); so what does an exploration of his poetry tell the reader about his prognosis for the world?

6In a previous paper (Salter 1984) I argued for Lawrence’s use of Einstein and Newton (“new” and “old” physics) to create an oppositional imagery between the “free” and the “determined” – between “love” and “money.” For instance, in “Give us Gods” Lawrence, an observer from the “dark unscientific,” sees Zeus swimming “in a mist of atoms,” “grey-bearded and dictatorial,” “the drip of his cold, webbed feet, mud black” brushing his face, seeking women and procreation; determined and solid in the wreathing mists.

Where the electron behaves and misbehaves as it will,
Where the forces tie themselves up into knots of atoms
And come untied;

[…] where the father of all things swims in a mist of atoms
electrons and energies, quantums and relativities
mists, wreathing mists,
like a wild swan, […]
                                                              Give us Gods

7This concrete Newtonian realisation of Zeus amongst the einsteinian “mist of energy” foretells his failure: “Do you think, scientific man, you’ll be the father of your own babies?”

8As might be expected from a writer who refers to electrons, quantums and relativities, Lawrence’s knowledge of Darwin was also extensive. In the same poem (Give us Gods), Lawrence sees the consequences of man’s deterministic behaviour made manifest,“We are so tired of men/ and motor-power.” This is further developed elsewhere,

In the cities
there is no more any weather,
the weather in town is always benzine, or else petrol fumes,
lubricating oil, exhaust gas.

As over some dense marsh, the fumes
thicken, miasma, the fumes of the automobile
densely thicken in the cities”
                                             In the Cities (CP 590)

9And grows from this Dantean imagery of the cities into a cry of general despair for man,

Only man can fall from God.
Only man.

No animal, no beast or creeping thing,
no cobra nor hyena nor scorpion nor hideous white ant
can slip entirely through the fingers of the hands of god
into the abyss of self-knowledge
knowledge of the self-apart-from-god.
                                              Only Man (CP 588)

10Lawrence describes a fundamental discontinuity between nature and man. Taken beyond the religious imagery it becomes a paean of loss and separation signifying the trauma of urban man. The poem tells us that not even the most despised and feared of the meanest of the living world are as dispossessed as man. Truly “This crisis of separation is a purely Cartesian nightmare” (Becket 2006) but also, when read with the other poems, there is an implicit thematic identification of materialism with evil; that this is the cause of man’s disconnectedness – “The root of our present evil is that we buy and sell.” (The Root of Our Evil, CP 397). Lawrence does indeed “[…] rail against the evils of modern industrial society, our obsession with money, the curse of the English class system or the cerebral nature of our lives” (Ellis 2002) but these are also coherent strands of a wider weltanschauung and contain a recognisable analysis of threats this behaviour brings to the global ecosystem.

11Do these poems have relevance today? Are there persistent and fundamental lacunae in modern man’s consciousness of nature which Lawrence predicts will slip us into the abyss? If we recognise truth in Lawrence’s lines in Departure (CP 602),

Wheels are evil
and machines are evil
and the will to make money is evil

do we also accept the resolution?

Evil is upon us and has got hold of us.
Men must depart from it, or all is lost.
We must make an isle impregnable
against evil.

12Is it necessary to embrace the destruction of man to preserve the natural world? Or is it only those who have become evil in their detachment from the natural world who should be destroyed?

And every man who has become a detached

             and self-activated ego

is evil, evil, part of the evil world-soul

which wishes to blaspheme the world into greyness,

into evil neutrality, into mechanism.

The Robot is the unit of evil.

And the symbol of the Robot is the wheel revolving”

                                 The Evil World-Soul (CP 599)

13Because even the gods disown them,

In the sight of God and the unknown gods
most men don’t matter at all, any more than ants
             matter to men:
only the few, the very few, matter in the sight of God,
             and the living substantial gods.
                                     The Sight of God ( CP530)

14Or is there hope? Certainly, not much is offered in Humanity Needs Pruning (CP 567)!

Humanity needs pruning,
It is like a vast great tree with a lot of sterile, dead,
            rotting wood
and an amount of fungoid and parasitic growth.
The tree of humanity needs pruning, badly,
it needs thoroughly pruning, not as in the late war,
blasting with unintelligent and evil destruction,
but pruning, severely, intelligently and ruthlessly

The tree of human existence badly needs pruning
or the whole tree may fall rotten.

15Lawrence’s offers a simple choice,

If you are a man and believe in the destiny of mankind
then say to yourself: we will cease to care
about property and money and mechanical devices,
and open our consciousness to the deep, mysterious
life that we are now cut off from.
                                   If You are a Man (CP 557)

16In the early part of the 20th century expressions of the conflict between consumerism and nature like those above were unusual, but in the 21st Century they have become the crux of global concerns about impending eco-crises. Like Lawrence, Joel Kovel (2002) also sees capitalism not just as an economic structure but as key to the separation of nature and man, “Far from being a merely economic arrangement, capital is the culmination of an ancient lesion between humanity and nature, expressed in the notion of the ‘domination of nature’” (EN 8). Which is much the same as Lawrence writes in If You are a Man. In his vision of a harmonious natural world, Lawrence does acknowledge the need for necessities, “We must have the modesty of simple living./And the individual must have his house, food and fire all free/like a bird” (Kill Money, CP 401). But not commoditised “development,”

New houses, new furniture, new streets, new clothes,
            new sheets
everything new and machine-made sucks life out of us
and makes us cold, makes us lifeless
the more we have.
                         New Houses, New Clothes (CP 365)

17And Lawrence makes no assumptions about the impact education and the “money-worm professors” (Fight! O My Young Men, CP p373) might have on the self-centred universal “[. . .] ghastly dream of riches, of masses of money to spend,” (Dreams Old and Nascent, CP 136),

In Nottingham, that dismal town
where I went to school and college
they’ve built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge.
[. . .]
From this I learn, though I knew it before,
that culture has her roots
in the deep dung of cash [. . .]

18As he writes elsewhere “a board school education” kills a man’s “native instincts and intuition”: “They stole your body from you, and left you an animated carcass” (What Have They Done to You? CP 523).

19Lawrence sees a theology in nature,

You may smell the breath of the gods in common roses,
and feel the splendour of the gods go through you,
even as you see the greenfly on the stems,
in the summer morning:
or you may not.
If you don’t then don’t pretend you do –
but if you don’t you are suffering from amnesia of the sense:
you are like to die of malnutrition of the senses:
and your sensual atrophy
will at last send you insane.
                                        Cabbage –Roses (CP 546)

20But for Lawrence, this expression of the gods is contingent on the existence of a spiritual aesthetic, i.e., it is entry to the transcendent experience of nature that leads to knowledge of the god-like rather than the reverse. Lawrence’s ecopoetics do therefore have a “mythic sensibility” (Becket 2006); deity and myth strengthen the expression of the mystery of nature.

The gods are nameless and imageless
yet looking in a great full lime tree of summer
I suddenly saw deep into the eyes of gods:
it is enough.
What are the Gods?
(CP 542)

These spiritual elements of Lawrence’s dialectic
              are real and immanent,
There is no god,
apart from poppies and the flying fish,
men singing songs, and women brushing their
             hair in the sun.
                                    The Body of God (CP 578)

21and for Lawrence, the manifestations of “man-in-nature” need the gods to be expressed,

While people live the life,
they are open to the restless skies, and streams
             flow in and out
darkly from the fecund cosmos, from the angry
            red sun, from the moon,
up from the bounding earth, strange pregnant
            streams, in and out of the flesh,
And man is an iridescent fountain, rising up to
For a moment godly, like Baal or Krishna, or
           Adonis or Balder, or Lucifer.
               Two Ways of Living and Dying (CP 565)

22Ultimately however, Lawrence’s sees man’s ego as the central overwhelming problem and he offers few explicit solutions that go beyond the general idea that humanity needs “pruning.” He considers that each individual makes a choice to remain connected,

The human will is free, ultimately, to choose one
             of two things:

Either to stay connected with the tree of life [. . .]

Or else to sever the connection to become self-centred,
              self-willed, […]

                                                     Free Will (CP 510)

23And that an ineluctable self-centred choice will always be made by some,

[. . .] if he [a man] produces something beautiful,
            with the frail beauty of life,
let him hide it away, so it can go on blossoming.
If he show it, the eyes and the breath of the crowd
will defile it, and spoil its beauty.

Even the very flowers in the shops and parks
are deflowered by being looked at by so many
             unclean eyes.
Shows (CP 527)

24And he offers little hope for those who make the “self-centred” choice, “ [. . .] not one man in a thousand has even a soul to lose” (Souls to Save, CP 531) and it is only by death that the “self-centred” “automat” can rejoin the “tree of life,”

Death alone, through the long process of disintegration,
can melt the detached life back
through the dark Hades at the root of the tree
into the circulating sap, once more, of the tree of life.
                                                     Fatality (CP 510)

25Lawrence also sees an increasing global population as exacerbating the consequences of materialism and resource use, and ensuring the destruction of nature. His choice of the rabbit to signal the conflict between biological imperatives and resources is not accidental.

There are too many people on earth,
insipid, unsalted, rabbity, endlessly hopping.
They nibble the face of the earth to a desert.”
                      There are Too Many People (CP 500)

26Lawrence offers the truly honest prediction that if humanity does not change then we will indeed end up with a world without humans,

Must we hold on, hold on
and go ahead with what is human nature
and make a new job of the human world?

Or can we let it go?
O, can we let it go,
and leave it to some nature that is more than human
to use the sperm of what’s worth while in us
and thus eliminate us?
Is the time come for humans
now to begin to disappear.
leaving it to the vast revolutions of creative chaos
to bring forth creatures that are an improvement
            on humans
as the horse was an improvement on the
                  To Let Go or to Hold On - ? (CP 346)

27In this poem, Lawrence is not only expressing his awareness that humanity may run its course but he is also looking forward to some new (and more highly evolved) replacement that is an “improvement”:”And, yet, as we die, why should not our vast mechanised day die with us/so that when we are reborn, we can be born into a fresh world? (The Death of Our Era CP 425). Becket comments that, “In the poems he exhorts the reader to see, not ‘nature’, but the human environment which both is, and creates a relationship with, nature” (Becket 2004).For Lawrence, Man’s power to dominate Nature must be redirected. Not only because the material products of domination suck out our life but also because the “machine-made” blocks our creativity and makes us “lifeless.” Man’s behaviour is breaking laws of natural harmony. We “blaspheme the world to greyness” and are cut off from the “deep mysterious life.” Using both intuitive insight and knowledge of evolution Lawrence prefers “creative chaos” knowing that this will bring “a fresh world”: “Is the time come for humans now to begin to disappear?”

28But I think Lawrence goes much further than this. His awareness of evolution and its relentlessness produces an honest (and harsh) poetic vision of the certain future. Not anti-rational but recognising the inability of humans to raise their consciousness enough to move away from rapacity. He sees the distinctive human ability of symbolic thought as largely misdirected (because the insights it provides are either unrecognised or ignored), sees humans as no less behaviourally driven than the non-human (but capable of choice), and ultimately overarches this with a prediction that evolutionary processes will eventually lead to our demise unless we change our ways.

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CP: see Ellis, David (2002)

Becket, Fiona (2004). “Ecological Concerns: A Poetics of responsibility in D.H. Lawrence,” Études Lawrenciennes n° 29, 23-37.

Becket, Fiona (2006). “Borderlands: the Intersection of the Religious and the ‘Natural’ in Lawrence,” Études Lawrenciennes n° 33, 43-60.

Ellis, David (2002). The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence with an Introduction and Notes by David Ellis, Hertfordshire SG12 9HJ, Wordsworth Poetry Library, Wordsworth Editions Limited, first published 1994.

ENDS (2007). 390, 4.

Kovel, Joel (2002). “The Enemy of Nature – the end of capitalism or the end of the world?” London, Zed Books Ltd.

Salter, Leo (1984). “D.H. Lawrence & Science,” Theoria, LX11, 57-61.

Thomas, Chris (2007) “A sixth mass extinction?” Nature, 450, 349.

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Leo Salter, « Lawrence and the Environment; the Poetics of Honesty and Despair », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 175-186.

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Leo Salter, « Lawrence and the Environment; the Poetics of Honesty and Despair », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.155

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Leo Salter

Dr Leo Salter is the Corporate Research Director at Cornwall College. He has over 70 publications in fields as diverse as radiation chemistry, air pollution and English literature.

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