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Frictional Encounters: D.H. Lawrence and Native Americans

Rencontres frictionnelles : D.H. Lawrence et l’indien d’Amérique
Elise Brault
p. 41-56


Des poèmes de Lawrence rédigés peu avant et pendant son séjour au Nouveau Mexique (1922-1923) révèlent le caractère frictionnel des échanges entre le poète anglais et l’Indien dont le visage (réel ou symbolique) est masqué ou indéchiffrable. Ces échanges sont le fruit d’un désir d’adoption : le poète, “chien errant” fuyant sa civilisation, cherche en l'indien un nouveau père. Mais si le rite de passage s’avère toujours inaccompli c'est par l'énergie vitale de ces frictions que Lawrence ambitionne de faire renaître la civilisation européenne. Il s’agit donc, pour le poète, d’aller puiser ailleurs la vitalité nécessaire pour renaître, sans pour autant s’émanciper complètement de son anglicité natale.
Ce souhait de résurrection par une émancipation jamais totale de l'anglicité se manifeste aussi sur le plan poétique dans la volonté lawrencienne d'“adopter” (non sans friction) un modèle Américain, celui de Whitman, “le premier aborigène blanc”.

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1D.H. Lawrence contemplated the idea of exile when the Great War broke out. Much disappointed with modern Europe, he expressed a desire to seek more vital regions where flesh and blood were not tamed by modern machinery. Besides, among the reasons that led Lawrence out of England were his marriage to Frieda Von Richtofen, the German wife of one of his Nottingham University teachers, and his long disagreements with publishers and authorities who repeatedly barred the publication of his novels. The quest for the “other”, for other territories, people and cultures was then launched, though, as often with Lawrence, not without a substantial amount of ambiguities. In a letter dated October, 21st, 1915, Lawrence writes:

I think I shall go away, to America if they will let me. In this war, in the whole spirit which we now maintain, I do not believe [. . .]. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. And I am English, and my Englishness is my very vision. But now I must go away, if my soul is sightless for ever.
(Lawrence 1981, 414)

  • 1 Lawrence particularly favours the use of “quick” (and its adjectival and adverbial derivatives). He (...)

2If Lawrence here does not in the least forsake his Englishness, he nonetheless articulates a fierce desire to “see” something else. He actually senses in Native Americans a people in close contact with the quick1 of life—a vitality that, to his mind, died in old Europe. Before reaching the coasts of America, he and Frieda travelled through Germany, Italy, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. In September 1922, they finally settled down in Taos, New Mexico, where they stayed until March 1923.

3Central to the analysis is the following question: what types of exchange take place (and why do they take place?) in a face-to-face situation between the English poet and the other? The study first focusses on the problematic encounters between the poet and the other: the English persona never actually facesand therefore never knowsalterity. The experience of the English poet with the other is then cautiously compared to a rite of passage: the poet hesitantly attempts to be adopted by the other, but the apparent failure of adoption almost paradoxically gives way to what Lawrence sees as a reviving experience. The unknowability of the other and the experience of unaccomplished rites of passage are eventually put in relation on strictly poetic grounds. To what extent does the English poet shed a part of his poetic Englishness and tend to adopt Whitmanian undertones?

Face-to-face Encounters: Anticipation and Friction

4The poems selected in this study are either apostrophes to America or descriptions of physical encounters with an American figure (man or animal). But in two of these poems, written before Lawrence even set foot on the American ground, the poet anticipates the face-to-face encounter: he pre-faces the other's face.

5“The Evening Land” was written between April and July 1921, in Baden-Baden, Germany. In this apostrophe to America, the poet discloses his apprehension of the moment of confrontation with the fascinating fearful country. The encounter is hesitantly prepared, as the poet wonders whether he should go and even suggests that America make the first move:

Shall I come to you, the open tomb of my race?
I would come, if I felt my hour had struck.
I would rather you came to me. (Lawrence 1993, 289)

The poet fears America's enthusiasm for mechanical modernity:

Do you wonder that I am afraid to come
And answer the first machine-cut question from the lips of your iron-men? (291)
I am so terrified, America,
Of the iron click of your human contact. (291)

6Yet, he feels drawn towards more mysterious aspects of the country. And, towards the end of the poem, fear and disgust intermingle and give way to uncertain passionate attraction for a country suprisingly caught between evil and birth:

Dark, elvish,
Modern, unissued, uncanny America
Your nascent demon people
Lurking among the deeps of your industrial thicket
Allure me till I am beside myself
A nympholepht. (293)

7But though the poet seeks a state of utmost enthusiasm, earlier in the poem, he slightly reveals his awareness of the undeniable distance that separates him from his addressee:

And I, who am half in love with you,
What am I in love with?
My own imaginings?
Say it is not so. (292)

  • 2 In his essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels”, Lawrence actually blames Cooper for having (...)

8And only later, when he arrives in New Mexico, will he realise that he had indeed been in love with his “imaginings”.2 In “The Evening Land” then, Lawrence somehow prepares his quest and encounter with America and discloses both his excitement and awareness of a potential disappointment.

9In “Turkey-Cock”, written in Italy even earlier than “The Evening Land”, the eponymous animal acts as a peculiar emblem for the Native American:

Your aboriginality
Deep, unexplained
Like a Red Indian darkly unfinished and aloof… (Lawrence 1993, 369)

10The turkey and the Indian then converge with the reference to the bird's “raw American will” (370), the image of feathers (the bird's “gentle outline of white / At each feather-tip” and the “feather-lustrous Aztecs, Amerindians” [371]) and with the bird's “vermilion” mantilla (369) which invokes the Indian's red skin. The physical resemblance is further highlighted when the poet brings up the image of the Indian hunter's weapon: “You arch yourself as an archer's bow” (370). The depiction of the turkey's behaviour eventually makes it an obvious mimic of the Indian in a ritual:

. . . watch a turkey prancing low on earth
Drumming his vaulted wings, as savages drum
Their rhythms on long-drawn, hollow, sinister drums. . . (371)

11The Indian thence gradually occupies the poetic space and its aboriginality takes precedence over the turkey-cock's animal features. This metaphorical transformation offers Lawrence still another object of typically Lawrentian ambivalent treatment. Like with America in “The Evening Land”, the poet expresses both attraction and repulsion. The oxymoronic juxtapositions in the poem's opening shed light on the poet's dual stance:

Your sort of gorgeousness,
Dark and lustrous
And skinny repulsive
And poppy-glossy
Is the
gorgeousness that evokes my most puzzled admiration.
(369, my emphases)

12The turkey-cock might hence be seen as a chronological intermediary between the English poet and the Indian: the poem is an apostrophe to a poetic figure who pre-figures (or pre-faces) the American Indian about to be actually encountered. For that reason, this a-national farmyard animal is artificially provided with a civilization. And in reverse, this very civilization sends the poet back to his own Englishness.

13Both “The Evening Land” and “Turkey-Cock” read as poetic preparations for the poet's upcoming encounter with America. They are poetically paving the way for the real passage, the actual face-to-face confrontation.

  • 3 The concept of “blood-consciousness” is quite characteristic of Lawrence’s wider ideology. He coin (...)

14“Eagle in New Mexico” was written in Taos. Now in America, the poet directly addresses the country's emblematic bird of prey. The eagle's devotion to the sun and blood fascinates Lawrence. But if the eagle so allures him, the poet is nonetheless repelled by the bird's excessive “blood-consciousness”.3 The equilibrium between mind and blood long sought by Lawrence is upset: the eagle is “a blood-thirsty bird” (Lawrence 1993, 374), unbalanced in favour of blood. This Lawrentian ambiguous fascination for the bird goes  a problematic encounter. In this first face-to-face meeting with America (highly symbolically rendered), the poetic voice insists on the impossibility of coming into contact: the bird is “masked”.

Staring two ways at once, to right and left;
Sickle-masked. (373)

15And in later bringing up the image of “that dark face-weapon” (373), the English poet once more suggests the impassable barrier that separates him from America: though the Englishman catches quick glimpses of the American other, he subtly confesses that he cannot sustain a face-to-face confrontation. The Janus-like eagle who faces both ways (probably towards the past and the future) almost mirrors the poet’s position. He is caught between America and Europe, facing both ways, keeping an eye on England but simultaneously looking forward to an elsewhere—hence making face-to-face contact even more difficult.

  • 4 “Il y a dans l’apparition du visage un commandement, comme si un maître me parlait. Pourtant, en mê (...)

16As in Levinas’s philosophical understanding of face-to-face situations, in “Eagle in New Mexico” the other’s face cannot be grasped by the English eye and consciousness—but this, for contrasting reasons: Levinas’s idea of unreachability is closely related to that of transcendence, while Lawrence is being much more materialistic as he places a mask on the other’s face. Levinas posits the argument according to which the face is the very location of a fundamental ethical relation between two individuals. For the philosopher, the other’s face literally offers itself to me in its bareness and urges me to commit murder, but it simultaneously and contrapuntally judges me (hence forces me to question my own conscience and spontaneity) and thus immediately imposes upon me (from his superior—almost transcendental—position) the commandment: “thou shalt not murder”4. This ethical exchange—based on a form of resistance—is significantly absent from the scene here depicted by Lawrence. The exchange is materially blocked by the mask (which is actually metaphorically imposed on the eagle’s face by the English poet’s vision) and, almost as a direct consequence, its ethical dimension is substantially thwarted.

17This difficulty in reaching the other is repeated in “The Red Wolf” which stages the poet's encounter with a Red Indian in the ghost-like atmosphere of the Taos desert. Like in “Eagle in New Mexico”, the Native American's face is not accessible:

And the Indian, in a white sheet
Wrapped to the eyes, the sheet bound close on his brows,
Stands saying:
See, I'm invisible!
Behold how you can't behold me!
The invisible in its shroud!
(Lawrence 1993, 403)

18Facial communication is hindered as the English poet faces the other who smiles “the Indian smile” (404)—which appears as a foreign facial language undecipherable by the Englishman, whose “Englishness is [his] very vision” (Lawrence 1981, 414). The strangeness of the Indian face is also pointed out in one of Lawrence's essays (written in New Mexico) in which he relates his experience at an Indian tribal rite: “They had strange lines in their faces” (Lawrence 1966, 191). He later calls attention to the old reciter’s “bronze mask of a face” and depicts him as “the old mask-like virile figure” (196). The Indian face is a puzzling enigma and the Englishman does not seem to be culturally equipped to solve the riddle nor, at the same time, does he seem to be truly disturbed by this peculiar illiteracy, by his unsuited English reading grid.

  • 5 Two Danish artists.

19This problematic access to human alterity is, as was briefly seen, recurrently coupled with images of animality. Animality is in fact ambiguously introduced as it both widens the ontological distance between the animalised other and the poet (or, as we will see, the other and the animalised poet), and concurrently cancels all notions of nationality, hence sharply reducing this same distance and bringing the poet closer to creatures whose existence he perceives as being more authentic. “Mountain Lion” is revealing on that point. It narrates the chance meeting, in the Lobo canyon, of the poet (and two European companions)5 with two Mexicans who are carrying on their back a dead lioness they have just killed. They suddenly irrupt:

Two men!
Men! The only animal in the world to fear. (Lawrence 1993, 401)

20The exclamation marks, the monosyllabic words (and line) and the successive repetitions of “men” convey that intense feeling of surprise. Panic is mingled with suspicion:They hesitate. / We hesitate” (401). Yet, though Europeans and Mexicans somehow face, and even unsettle one another, their actual meeting does not really occur. Far from being grounded on a Levinassian ethical and in part transcendental exchange, their confrontation is diverted by foolish smiles:

He smiles, foolishly, as if he were caught doing wrong.
And we smile, foolishly, as if we didn't know.
He is quite gentle and dark-faced. (401)

21Like the eagle's “dark face-weapon”, the “dark-faced” Mexican is out of reach. Though apparently symmetrical, the first two lines diverge around the value of “as if”. While with the first occurrence the poet proposes a hypothetical reading of the Mexican's feelings (that smile may be revealing awkwardness), with the second, “as if” discloses the Europeans' conscious play-acting. They pretend to be mimicking the man they are facing (like him, smiling “foolishly”). The mirroring structure (both physical and grammatical) is therefore deceptive. This impossible convergence of Mexicans with Europeans is earlier hinted at in another distorted parallelism: “They have a gun. / We have no gun” (401), “no” heightening their unbridgeable difference. And their separation towards the end of the poem returns to this principle of twisted parallelism, as each group goes its own way: “They go out into the open; / We go on into the gloom of the Lobo” (402). Though distorted, these structural parallelisms suggest that “they” (Mexicans) and “we” (Europeans)— though they shock one another—as they follow parallel paths, will never be able to converge. This eternal distance is magnified when Lawrence sees in the Mexicans' way of killing animals a serious offence to life: “I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion” (402). The face-to-face contact with the Mexicans thus being hampered by darkness and foolishness (facially and morally expressed), the poet turns his attention to the lioness's head, and only with the latter can he genuinely come face-to-face, beyond ideas of language and of national identity. He repeats his fascination for its readable, clear face: “Her round, bright face, bright as frost”, “stripes in the brilliant frost of her face, sharp, fine, dark rays” (401) and “her bright striped frost-face” (402). And it is this peculiar acute perception that leads the poet away from the “dark-faced” Mexicans and brings him closer to the “bright face[d]” animal. The hesitation earlier marked by the comma in “then we all advance, to meet” (401) in fact foreshadows the failure of the announced meeting.

  • 6 In September 1922, he wrote: “I am still strange here, not orienté” (Lawrence 1987, 298), “I feel a (...)
  • 7 Graham Hough, in The Dark Sun, argues that the term “doctrine” is more appropriate to define Lawren (...)

22Taken together, these hindered face-to-face moments and diverging life-axes outline the extreme difficulty for the English poet to know the other: he can only catch glimpses. All this is nevertheless not experienced as a failure by Lawrence. Though right at that period he clearly imparts that he feels like a stranger in New Mexico6, throughout his literary work and essays, he persistently insists on the unknowability of the other (whether foreign, female or animal). The other cannot be possessed by one's mind: that is one of the fundamental characteristics of Lawrence’s doctrine7 which is articulated around a concern to preserve each individual integrity. And only through such preservation will human relationships be vital and sane. Michael Bell accurately notices a “noumenal uncertainty” (Bell 6) at the heart of Lawrentian encounters with the other, and he underlines that for Lawrence “epistemological possession” of the other was “the mortal sin of modernity” (Bell 7). So, if in “Eagle in New Mexico”, “The Red Wolf” and “Mountain Lion”, the English poet subtly voices the impossibility of a naked face-to-face contact, it is not lived as a disappointment but rather as an unmodern means to encounter otherness. Before meeting Indians, he was already voicing his awareness of an impossible “epistemological possession”. In “Turkey-Cock”, the farmyard animal is “unexplained”, and though he meets it in its “naked[ness]” (Lawrence 1993, 369), it has “a veiled head” (370) and its mantilla is “a veil of loose skin” (369).

  • 8 “The Evening Land” was written in Europe as a preparation for the actual passage to America, and th (...)

23In spite of his awareness of the undecipherability of the other's face, Lawrence, caught in a somewhat aporetic process of discovery, carries on with his quest. The image of a poetic “passage” discussed above8 partakes of a progression towards the other, which brings up the idea of the rite of passage. To what extent is Lawrence equivocally attempting to go through such a rite? How is he toying with an ambiguous idea of adoption?

Unaccomplished Rites of Passage

24Throughout his equivocal quest, Lawrence's stance is extremely unsettled. L.D. Clark lays stress on his “dual voice of craving and defensiveness” (Clark 268), both yearning to meet the other and fiercely refusing to ignore the impassable frontier. In “The Evening Land” (written in Germany) he calls for America's motherly love in first expressing a sort of jealousy:

You have cajoled the souls of millions of us,
Why don't you cajole my soul? (Lawrence 1993, 290)

25Cajole” summons the idea of motherly care, especially later with “My soul is half-cajoled, half-cajoled” (291)—the repetition evoking either well-being or intense desire to be more than just “half-cajoled”. But “half” may also be a defensive means for the poet not to be adopted too rapidly or in excess. As though Lawrence were trying to avoid commitment, he gives voice to this precaution again when he declares: “I, who am half in love with you” (292). The English poetic “I” here foresees a form of adoption, partly driven by desire and jealousy, but explicitly wary and even half-hearted. But besides motherly love, as he imparts in “The Red Wolf”, it is a new father that Lawrence seems to be questing after. In this poem, the Englishman, here more clearly imparting his wish to forsake his civilization, calls himself a “homeless dog”:

And I am a pale-face like a homeless dog
That has followed the sun from the dawn through the east,
Trotting east and east and east till the sun himself went home,
And left me homeless here in the dark at your door. (404)

26The Indian takes over this image: “you're a lost white dog of a pale face” (404). Thus lost, his civilization fallen “to dust” (404), the Englishman calls the Indian “old father”, “Father” and “dark old father” (405) as though he were gradually becoming the Native American's offspring. And indeed, like a father who names his child, the Indian names the Englishman: “And wolf, he calls me, and red”, a name which the Englishman eventually acknowledges: “All right, the red-dawn-wolf I am” (405)—and heritage is highlighted in the appropriation of the Indian “red” by the Englishman. But, despite such naming and transmission, the adoption remains uncompleted, since the Indian actually refuses to adopt the man who, to his eyes, remains white:

You and I, you pale-face,
Pale-face you and I
Don't get on. (404)

27The English poet fails in his attempt to claim a new father. Just as the other cannot be epistemologically possessed, he cannot be possessed by the other, though he had foreseen such adoption. In “Turkey-Cock” already, he questions the aboriginal farmyard bird: “And do you await us, wattled father, Westward?” (371). But when he actually comes face-to-face with the Native American, his expectations vanish.

28In “Indians and an Englishman” Lawrence declares: “I [. . .] am neither denied nor accepted. My way is my own” (198). This desire to belong mixed with a fierce resistance recalls Lawrence's frictional relations to otherness, a type of relation fundamental to his entire oeuvre. I and other must interact (though not without difficulties) but must not merge. And it is at the core of these frictional and partly hindered interactions that Lawrence searches a new impetus for his own dying civilization.

29What drew Lawrence to America was, in part, his expectation to find there a new source of vitality: his turning away from England was a withdrawal more from suffocating and dehumanized modernity than from a nation as such. In “Turkey-Cock”, the farmyard bird, image of the Indian, is asked: “are you the bird of the next dawn?” (371). While “Europe is moribund” the new dawn may rise among the “feather-lustrous Aztecs” (371). The poem significantly ends with the convergence of the turkey-cock with the phoenix: “must you go through the fire once more, till you're smelted pure” (372). Once “smelted pure”, the bird would resurrect ancient Indian spirits and thence be the harbinger of a new civilization—the association, introduced above, of the eagle with the figure of Janus, reappears. Eagle, turkey, Indians are bridges which connect primitive views of life with—Lawrence hopes—imminent ones.

  • 9 Lawrence firmly asserts that a final return to primitivism is just impossible. He writes that what (...)
  • 10 A resistance with is somewhat in keeping (though different in nature) with Levinas’s idea of ethica (...)

30It is among men driven by their “blood consciousness” that Lawrence expects to find a new source of vitality. In touching the Native Americans' blood—and never fusing with it—he hopes to awake his moribund Europe. It is in this type of exchange that Lawrence thinks the new dawn lies. There is no fusion, only fruitful friction, that is attraction and resistance, just like when in “Eagle in New Mexico” the poetic voice warns the American emblem: “I don't yield to you, big, jowl-faced eagle” (Lawrence 1993, 374). Lawrence “picks up some threads”9 to weave his own vitality and fiercely resists10. Seen from that angle, therefore, what at first appeared as a failure of adoption was no failure at all. In “The Red Wolf” the poet is after a friction, a source. If not a father, he finds a sort of ancestor-progenitor, an atavistic new seed for his too constraining, mechanistic and belligerent modern England.

31These considerations on the English poet's epistemological stance regarding the other and on the frictional renewing contact with the latter, may eventually be cautiously analyzed at a poetic level. To what extent is Lawrence, in his experience of America, somehow renewing his poetic voice, thus providing a literary echo to his hopes of renewing his civilization?

A Faltering Poetic Englishness

32Lawrence's idea that the other must not be possessed by one's mind as well as his insistence on the coarse materiality of the depicted objects—in “Turkey-Cock” most particularly—suggest that the poet, in America or indirectly dealing with it, is emancipating from some aspects of the British poetic model. This he indirectly imparts in his essay, “. . . Love Was Once a Little Boy” in which he parodies Wordsworth and blames him for anthropomorphizing nature (Lawrence 1968, 449) and hence appropriating otherness in excess. Yet, despite his confession of an ideological and therefore poetical gap between the first generation of English Romantics and himself, Lawrence was undoubtedly fascinated and influenced by later Romantics, most particularly Shelley. Between 1913 and 1916, Shelley's poetry is praised on several occasions in Lawrence's letters: “I think Shelley a million thousand times more beautiful than Milton” (Lawrence 1981, 200), or “I put him [Swinburne] with Shelley as our greatest poet” (Lawrence 1985, 654). And indeed, the vital power that surfaces in Lawrence's writing makes him an early twentieth-century heir to Shelley. But his enthusiasm for the Romantic poet was fiercely counterbalanced by his rejection of some aspects of the latter’s poetry: “It is no accident that Shelley got drowned—he was always trying to drown himself—it was his last mood” (Lawrence 1981, 115) or “And don't talk about putting me in the safe with Keats and Shelley. It scares me out of my life” (223). Shelley was too morbid. From 1916 onwards, Lawrence seems to be losing interest in his English Romantic model: no further mention of Shelley is made in his letters and no manifest trace of the Romantic poet’s influence is visible in Lawrence’s work. Ross Murfin proposes a convincing textual analysis of “Turkey-Cock” which he reads as a subversive rewriting of Shelley's “To a Skylark”. For Murfin, the turkey is “anti-Shellyian” and “un-skylark” (Murfin 61). And in point of fact, Lawrence totally reverses the immateriality of Shelley's bird. While the latter springs “higher still and higher / From the earth” (Shelley 1965b, 302), Lawrence’s farmyard bird is defined by its palpable materiality and heavy earthiness: “Your wattles drip down like a shawl to your breast / and the point of your mantilla drops across your nose unpleasantly” (Lawrence 1993, 369). Its appearance is quite obscene and terms like “naked” (369) bring the reader's eye closer to this blunt animal physicality. Moreover, while the Romantic poet's skylark summons images of delicate virginity (“like a high-born maiden”, “by warm winds deflowered”, Shelley 1965b, 303), the entire body of Lawrence' turkey-cock is depicted as if in erection:

You arch yourself as an archer's bow
Which quivers indrawn as you clench your spine
Until your veiled head almost touches backward
To the root-rising of your erected tail
And one intense and backward-curving frisson
Seizes you as you clench yourself together. (Lawrence 1993, 370)

33Moreover, while Shelley seeks to possess the mind of the idealized skylark (“Teach us, Sprite of Bird, / What sweet thoughts are thine” (Shelley 1965b, 304), “Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know” (305)), Lawrence faces an “unexplained” creature (Lawrence 1993, 369). And, when Shelley identifies the skylark with the poet (“like a poet hidden in the light of thought”, (Shelley 1965b, 303)), Lawrence renounces to identify with his object. This very brief parallel approach calls attention to a fundamental divergence between Lawrence's poetry and that of Shelley in this poem. While the latter (not unlike some Romantics of the first generation) was apt to lay emphasis on reason and imagination, enabling man to put himself “in the place of another” (Shelley 1965a, 118) and sustained the idea that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted” (115), Lawrence does not idealize his object. If some scenes are undeniably imagined and highly symbolical, they are simultaneously singular, specific and not ideal. Far from the German idealism which inspired the Romantic English poets, Lawrence puts forth no desire to possess the other who remains “unexplained” and smiles “foolishly”. His wish to withdraw from his native country apparently goes along with a subtle departure from the European poetic tradition, and the English poet seems to be seeking, in poetry too, a new father.

34In his 1919 essay, “Poetry of the Present”, Lawrence celebrates Whitman's free verse and exceptional way of liberating poetry from formal constraints: “This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present [. . .]. Whitman is the best poetry of this kind” (Lawrence 1993, 183). In so praising Whitman's free verse, Lawrence implicitly denounces the fixity of most English trends of poetry and he significantly pits Whitman's flowing verse against no other poet than Keats and Shelley, defining the latter's Romantic verse as too “complete and consummate”: “perfected bygone moments, perfected moments in the glimmering futurity, these are the treasured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats” (182). Lawrence then, not unlike his “I”-persona in “The Red Wolf”, seems to be attempting to seek new (poetic) grounds. In his essay on Whitman , published in 1923, he writes:

Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. [. . .]. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. (Lawrence 2003, 155)

35And he goes on, admiring the American poet's ability to be in contact with flesh and blood: Whitman [. . .] was the first to smash the old moral conception, that the soul of man is something ‘superior’ and ‘above’ the flesh” (155–156). Perhaps it is because Lawrence recognizes what he sees as the Native American’s devotion to “blood” in Whitman, that he then introduces the latter as “the first white aboriginal” (157)—another a Janus figure, inscribed both in the past (“aboriginal”) and, to a certain extent, the future (Whitman is the “first”).

36And yet, the adoption (this time of Whitman's poetry by Lawrence) was, like with Lawrence and the Native Americans, quite frictional and chaotic. If the “old father” of “The Red Wolf” shows resistance, Lawrence too wavers between admiration and reluctance when it comes for him to adopt the American bard as a model, as is visible in “The Evening Land”. The apostrophe to America in this poem is in fact also an indirect address to Whitman. Throughout, Lawrence blames America for its excessive and misdirected love (what he saw as the abuses of democracy):

The catastrophe of your exaggerate love,
You who
[. . .]
lose yourself further, decomposing (Lawrence 1993, 290)
All this philanthropy and benevolence on other people's behalf
Just a bad smell. (291)

37Though the mention of Walt Whitman is delayed till the end of the poem, “‘These States!’, as Whitman said / Whatever he meant” (292), the American poet is, from the beginning, the indirect target of Lawrence's reproaches. The condemnations are in fact identical to those articulated in his essay on Whitman. In both poem and essay Lawrence expresses the dangers of Whitman's excessive sympathy (and those of American democracy) which would surely lead to a form of fusion and, as a consequence, to the loss of each individual's integrity. According to Lawrence, in his poetry, Whitman merges his own being with otherness. Lawrence writes: “As soon as Walt knew a thing, he assumed a One identity with it” (Lawrence 2003, 151), and in “The Evening Land”, he blames America precisely for this aspect:

You who in loving break down
[. . .]
Your bounds of isolation,
But who never rise, resurrected, from this grave of mingling,
In a new proud singleness, America. (Lawrence 1993, 290)

38The Lawrentian frictional relation with the other hence completely diverges from what he perceives as a Whitmanian fusion with alterity. So, though Lawrence takes Whitman as a liberating poetic model, he nonetheless does not yield to Whitman's existential approach to otherness (and thus implicitly criticizes another aspect of American modernity, that is, the excesses of democracy). Once again, Lawrence “picks up some [poetic] threads” and resists.

39The poet becomes emancipated from the traditional world of poetic constraint. He seeks a new father: the “first white aboriginal”. But Lawrence will not fully accomplish the adoption of the American bard as a model. Yet, the encounter is poetically fruitful as Lawrence, in “The Evening Land” and other poems, defines his voice against, and along with, that of Whitman. He renews his poetry in contact with his American poetic “father” just as he hopes to renew his dying civilization in establishing a cautious and frictional contact with Native Americans.

  • 11 With the exception of H.D.

40Lawrence’s various frictional encounters with America were motivated by a quest for a new but primitive form of life. But if, for obvious reasons, such temporal, cultural return, coupled with a geographical westward movement, gives way to a more or less explicit emancipation from some of the poet’s ties to his native country, his fundamental Englishness is at no point (and despite what looks like efforts) completely forsaken. What D.H. Lawrence genuinely seeks is not another nationality but a more vital view of life, which, he thinks, only aboriginals or primitive people can quickly offer, in transient moments, in diverted and never plain face-to-face situations. Modern America, just like modern England, can only provide an industrial war-plagued modernity whose various aspects eventually dissolve individual integrity. Lawrence will not espouse such modernity. Likewise at the poetic level: in his essays and letters Lawrence hardly ever refers to his contemporary American poets11. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot only appear as elitist poets with learned publishing activities, and whose work was much more remote from him than Whitman’s free verse was.

41Lawrence then is himself a type of Janus figure, never facing an undisguised otherness (though it is in the quick glances or animal encounters that he furtively catches the other’s flux of life), and never entirely turning his back on his European roots (he tries to read the other through an English grid and cannot make himself be adopted). Like the exile he was in real life, his posture as it appears in his poetry, is almost that of an interface. On one side he quickly perceives, in moments of friction, aspects of the primitive view of life that, he hopes, will be reflected (and be diffracted) on his other, English, side. He is an interface between two views of life: one he cannot entirely possess—since it is other—and one he will not entirely relinquish but intimately wishes to revitalize.

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Bell, Michael, “Lawrence, the Academy, and the Other”, D.H. Lawrence Studies, The D.H. Lawrence Society of Korea (August 2007): 1–21.

Clark, L.D., The Minoan Distance—The Symbolism of Travel in D.H. Lawrence, Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1980.

Lawrence, D.H., Complete Poems (1964), Coll., ed., with an Intro. by Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Lawrence, D.H., “Indians and an Englishman” (1922), Selected Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966, 189–198.

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume III, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Lawrence, D.H., The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume IV, ed. Warren Roberts, James Boulton Elizabeth Mansfield, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Lawrence, D.H., “. . . Love Was Once a Little Boy”, Phoenix II. Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1959), coll., ed. with an Intro. and notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore. New York: Viking, 1968, 444–459.

Lawrence, D.H., Studies in Classic American Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Levinas, Emmanuel, Éthique et Infini, Paris : Fayard, 1982.

Murfin, Ross, The Poetry of D.H. Lawrence—Texts and Contexts, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defence of Poetry”, The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Volume VII, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, New York: Gordian, 1965a, 109–140.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “To a Skylark”, The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Volume II, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck. New York: Gordian, 1965b, 302–305.

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Note de fin

1 Lawrence particularly favours the use of “quick” (and its adjectival and adverbial derivatives). He generally uses “quick” to signify intense vigour, energy, vitality, and in so doing he goes back to its original meaning proposed in the O.E.D. as: “characterized by the presence of life”.

2 In his essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels”, Lawrence actually blames Cooper for having written myths about America and the Indians, novels that have strayed too far from actual reality: “As I say, it is perhaps easier to love America passionately, when you look at it through the wrong end of the telescope, across the Atlantic water, as Cooper did so often, than when you are right there [. . .]. But probably, one day America will be as beautiful in actuality as it is in Cooper” (Lawrence 2003, 55–56).

3 The concept of “blood-consciousness” is quite characteristic of Lawrence’s wider ideology. He coined the phrase in 1915, in a now very famous letter addressed to Bertrand Russell: “I have been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy. Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty–that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness [. . .]. One lives, knows, and has one’s being in the blood” (Lawrence 1981, 470).

4 “Il y a dans l’apparition du visage un commandement, comme si un maître me parlait. Pourtant, en même temps, le visage d’autrui est dénué ; c’est la pauvre pour lequel je peux tout et à qui je dois tout” (Levinas 83).

5 Two Danish artists.

6 In September 1922, he wrote: “I am still strange here, not orienté” (Lawrence 1987, 298), “I feel a great stranger, but have got used to that feeling” (301).

7 Graham Hough, in The Dark Sun, argues that the term “doctrine” is more appropriate to define Lawrence’s ideology than “philosophy”: Lawrence’s thought evolves more poetically than systematically (The Dark Sun. A Study of D.H. Lawrence, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. LTD, [1956] 1968).

8 “The Evening Land” was written in Europe as a preparation for the actual passage to America, and the turkey-cock is a chronological intermediary which paves the way to the Indian.

9 Lawrence firmly asserts that a final return to primitivism is just impossible. He writes that what modern man can do is “ go back and pick up some threads” (Lawrence 1987, 315).

10 A resistance with is somewhat in keeping (though different in nature) with Levinas’s idea of ethical resistance in face-to-face situations.

11 With the exception of H.D.

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Pour citer cet article

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Elise Brault, « Frictional Encounters: D.H. Lawrence and Native Americans »Études britanniques contemporaines, 37 | 2009, 41-56.

Référence électronique

Elise Brault, « Frictional Encounters: D.H. Lawrence and Native Americans »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 37 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 30 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Elise Brault

Université de Valenciennes.
Elise Brault est maître de conférence à l’université de Valenciennes. Elle a soutenu sa thèse en 2007 sur « Les Instabilités du je poétique à l’époque moderniste : D.H. Lawrence et T.S. Eliot ». Elle est l’auteur de plusieurs articles sur la poésie de D.H. Lawrence et celle de T.S. Eliot dans Études Lawrenciennes et la revue du G.R.A.A.T. Sa recherche explore des problématiques liées à la question du « je », des personae, des masques et des représentations du visage chez les modernistes.

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