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“[M]y reach ends in my finger-tips”: Embodying the Relative and the Absolute, from “Christs in the Tyrol” to The Escaped Cock

Paul Poplawski

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The body: between the relative and the absolute

  • 1 As I have explained in an earlier essay, I use the phrase “writing of the body” rather than “writin (...)
  • 2 The history of composition and publication of this story is complex, hence the span of dates given (...)

1As his art matured, Lawrence increasingly represented the body as his “absolute” measure of life and thought. Particularly from The Rainbow (1915) onwards, it was his writing of the body1 which kept Lawrence always sensuously alive to the interrelatedness –or relativity– of all being. In a sense, then (or perhaps I should say in the senses), Lawrence’s writing moves towards a vision of the body as both an absolute and the quintessence of relativity. In fact, the body in Lawrence’s art becomes the proving ground where concepts of the relative and of the absolute define themselves most acutely against one another while at the same time finding themselves subverted and transformed into sensuously felt experiences which undercut their abstract conceptual incommensurability. In grappling with the polarised issues of relativity and the absolute, that is, Lawrence, over the course of his career, decisively shifts the terms of the polarity from the plane of abstract-analytical science and philosophy to an artistic plane of bodily understanding and synthesis where apprehensions of “aliveness” and “wholeness” can be felt to encompass the relative and the absolute simultaneously. The quoted words in my title are from the 1927-29 novella, The Escaped Cock (VG 132),2 and, while my paper will range relatively widely over Lawrence’s writing, it will come to a focus on this late work, where, I will argue, Lawrence most ingeniously confounds our conventional conceptions of the relative and the absolute through his embodying art.

Lawrence’s “pollyanalytics”

2One of Lawrence’s clearest and most memorable relativistic statements about the art of the novel comes in the 1925 essay, “Morality and the Novel,” where he writes: “If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail” (STH 172). I want to use this as a lynch-pin, as it were, to look backwards to Lawrence’s 1912 essay, “Christs in the Tyrol,” where Christ is still firmly nailed down on his cross, but then also forwards to The Escaped Cock, where Christ “gets up” and very decidedly “walks away” with his nails. And I want to look backwards and forwards in this way, from Lawrence’s mid-career, in order to sketch out a nexus of closely related evolutions in Lawrence’s art and thought. This nexus is made up of four elements: (1) an evolution in the theory and practice of an art of embodiment; (2) a discursive and stylistic evolution away from abstraction and towards the concrete and material; (3) an evolution in the use of motifs of crucifixion and resurrection; and (4) an evolution in Lawrence’s conceptions of the relative and the absolute.

  • 3 All four essays were written in 1925, but only the first two were also published in that year; the (...)

3Let me begin in the middle period, then, in and around 1925, which, for my present purposes, I see as something of a watershed in Lawrence’s career, not least because of the essay I have just quoted from, “Morality and the Novel,” and the four other essays related to it from the same year, “Art and Morality,” “The Novel,” “Why the Novel Matters,” and “The Novel and the Feelings.”3 Together, these essays represent one of Lawrence’s most sustained and incisive critical reflections on the art of the novel and on his own aesthetic –and, indeed, philosophical– beliefs. They also effectively represent a reflective summing-up of Lawrence’s aesthetic and novelistic evolution up to that point, especially if we remember another famous dictum of his, in Fantasia and the Unconscious, that his “pseudo-philosophy” or “pollyanalytics” is “deduced from the novels and poems, not the reverse”: “The novels and the poems are pure passionate experience. These “pollyanalytics” are inferences made afterwards, from the experience” (Psychoanalysis 65).

4By 1925, Lawrence’s art had very clearly reached a prodigious maturity –among many other works, one only has to think of Women in Love (published 1920), Kangaroo (1923), the poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) and the novella, St. Mawr (1925)– but what the series of essays on the novel shows additionally is that, in the wake of his novels and poems, Lawrence had also reached a distinct maturity in his “pollyanalytical” thinking about art and life. And the key point I want to make here, then, is that, by the mid-1920s, Lawrence was fairly confidently settled both in his artistic practice and in his philosophy, and I think he had become particularly clear about two related things: first, that his art, in whatever genre, but especially in fiction, was first and foremost an art of embodiment whose aim was to realise as vividly as possible the full complexity of the life of the body in all its sensuousness and consciousness; and, second, that no philosophy of art or of life (and the two, for Lawrence, are largely the same thing), could be truly compelling if it were not literally felt on the pulse of the body –if it were not a compelling experience for the body– and if it were not also given a form of expression that was itself in some sense bodily (so that it avoided the sort of abstraction that Lawrence had come to associate, in particular, with idealism). Writing of the body had in fact become inextricably an artistic and a philosophical imperative for Lawrence; and, as his essays on the novel make clear, he now became ever more convinced that the novel was the medium par excellence for such a writing. Among other things, this was because Lawrence saw the novel, where “everything is relative to everything else,” as being “so incapable of the absolute” (“The Novel,” STH 179). Moreover, only in the novel, he argues, are “all things given full play” in their complex interrelatedness; and out of such full play emerges “the only thing that is anything, the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man alive, and live woman” (“Why the Novel Matters,” STH 198).

A resurrectionary vision

  • 4 By 1912, Lawrence had undoubtedly already started to feel his way, through his early writing and th (...)
  • 5 “Lawrence’s Cruci-Fiction: Christs in the Tyrol and Gerald Crich in the Tyrol,” presented at the 13(...)
  • 6 Explorations of death-and-rebirth motifs in Lawrence’s work are legion within Lawrence studies, but (...)

5Turning back now to 1912, let us consider the beginnings of Lawrence’s development towards these more settled positions of the 1920s. For it is around this time of 1912, I suggest, that we see the first consolidated signs of the emergence of an art of embodiment and its associated theorising. I stress “consolidated” here because I do not want to suggest that Lawrence’s career prior to 1912 was insignificant for the development I am tracing.4 It is simply that a consideration of that earlier period is beyond the scope of the present essay and would blur my focus on the ways in which I consider 1912 to be a distinctly seminal moment in the mature evolution of Lawrence’s art of embodiment. This brings me back to the subject of my previously cited essay, “Christs in the Tyrol,” and Lawrence’s encounter with the sculpted wooden crucifixes of the Tyrol during his journey over the Alps on his way to Gargnano in August and September 1912. In that essay, and in a subsequent unpublished paper,5 I have suggested that Lawrence’s encounter with the Alpine crucifixes gave him a foundational clue to his future development as a writer of the body and of the resurrection of the body. The apparent death-worship that Lawrence perceived in the wooden Christs of the Tyrol led him to see the need for a renewed emphasis on the symbolic importance of Christ’s resurrection and, in a letter to Gordon Campbell in December 1914, he wrote of the urgent need for this “greatest truth […] the Resurrection after the Crucifixion” (L ii. 250). Among other things, moreover, the experience gave him, I have argued, a type of crucifixion-model for exploring and evoking the extremes of sensuous bodily experience in his writing, and it gave his art –partly in revolt against the crucifixes, which he saw as “monuments” to “physical pain” and “physical death” (TI 97)– its signature resurrectionary vision, a vision clearly evident in the use of recurrent death-and-rebirth motifs from at least 1912 onwards and culminating most obviously in the late novella, The Escaped Cock. Without going any further over my previous arguments, the main point I want to carry over here is that Lawrence’s literal, symbolic and dialogical uses of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are deeply and intricately embedded within his art and thought, and they are of fundamental importance to his writing of the body.6 The new link in this body-and-Christ chain that I want to suggest here, then, is a link to Lawrence’s conceptions of the relative and the absolute –in that the body of Christ crucified and resurrected serves for Lawrence to encapsulate the abstract philosophical opposition between concepts of relativity and of the absolute, and to point, eventually, to a concrete or felt reconciliation between these concepts in an art of embodiment.

  • 7 All the dates given in this entire paragraph are dates of composition rather than publication. Many (...)
  • 8 For valuable summaries of Lawrence’s philosophical ideas in the works mentioned in this paragraph, (...)
  • 9 See L i. 507, 510; and Steele’s introduction to STH (xxiv-xxv). The “Foreword” was first published (...)

6After 1912, Lawrence regularly returns to the figure of Christ whenever questions of the body and the spirit, the material and the abstract, and the relative and the absolute are in focus for him. This is quite explicit in the philosophy of polarity and duality which Lawrence develops from this time onwards in works like “Study of Thomas Hardy” (1914), “The Crown” (1915), Twilight in Italy (1915-16) and “The Reality of Peace” (1917),7 where God the Father and Christ the Son are constantly placed in polar opposition to one another and related to a range of other polarities such as the Flesh and the Spirit, Law and Love, the Female and the Male, Being and Knowing, Will-to-Inertia and Will-to-Motion, union and separation, the flux of creation and the flux of corruption.8 Lawrence’s elaboration of this philosophy continued, with myriad variations, through the different versions of Studies in Classic American Literature (1917-23), through the essays of “Education of the People” (1918, 1920) and “Democracy” (1919), and on to Fantasia of the Unconscious (1921). But it is pertinent to note that this line of theorising apparently began in Gargnano in January 1913, very shortly after Lawrence’s encounters with the Alpine crucifixes, with his writing of the “Foreword to Sons and Lovers.” Never intended for publication,9 the “Foreword” is a loosely constructed piece of writing, but its imagery and outlines clearly foreshadow the later works just mentioned and it is particularly noteworthy here for its opening paragraph where Lawrence starkly inverts the biblical words of St John –from “The Word was made Flesh” to “The Flesh was made Word.” “For what was Christ?” Lawrence continues, “He was Word […] No flesh remains on earth, from Christ. […] The Father was Flesh” (SL 467).

  • 10 I reiterate that I am talking here about Lawrence’s “pollyanalytical” thinking and writing, so this (...)
  • 11 Lawrence wrote three related but separate essays about the Alpine crucifixes: “Christs in the Tirol (...)

7As this indicates, in Lawrence’s abstract philosophy during these years, the figure of Christ usually serves to represent the Word and the Spirit, not the body or the flesh, which are, rather, associated with God the Father (although the distinctions sometimes become blurred). This may seem to run counter to what I have said so far about the bodily impact of the Alpine Christs; but it is in fact not till much later on, I suggest, that Lawrence resurrects the full bodily significance of these Christs in his thinking.10 The two early “Christs in the Tyrol” essays do indeed focus fairly unrelentingly on the physical nature of the crucifixion and of Christ’s body in all its sensuousness and tortured suffering. However, there is then a degree of greater abstraction in the third of these essays, written in July 1915 and significantly re-titled (in a more deliberately symbolic style) as “The Crucifix across the Mountains.”11 This symptomatic shift towards abstraction seems to have been directly influenced by the intervening philosophy of “Study of Thomas Hardy” and “The Crown,” for, in this philosophy, the visceral impact of the Alpine Christs seems to become suppressed or sublimated by Lawrence and the bodily nature of Christ is sacrificed, as it were, to the rhetorical imperatives of Lawrence’s abstract polarities. In almost all these “pollyanalytical” works, Christ effectively remains pinned down by his nails in his role as a spiritual saviour of mankind, and I think that Lawrence, in working out his philosophy, had decided –intellectuallythat the monstrous nature of the Alpine crucifixes (as monuments to cruelty, torture and death), directly reflected what he considered to be the perversity of an absolutist spiritual idealism that demanded a near-total abnegation of the physical body and all its relational connections with the natural world.

8There are any number of quotations one might draw on from Lawrence’s philosophy of the period to illustrate this development in his use of the Christ figure, but the 1914 “Study of Thomas Hardy” offers some particularly neat summary statements for my purposes. For example, in Chapter VII, “Of Being and Not-Being,” Lawrence argues that the God of the Old Testament was a God “of the body, the rudimentary God of physical laws and physical functions” (STH 62) –“The senses, sensation, sensuousness” (64)– and that this was “a female conception,” as woman is “the fountain of all flesh” (63). “This was the first great movement of Man,” Lawrence goes on, “the movement into the conscious possession of a body. And this consciousness of the body came through woman” (64). But then comes the repudiation of the body, in the Christ of the New Testament: “the birth of Jesus is the retaliation […] a child is born, not to the flesh, but to the spirit: and you, woman, shall conceive, not to the body but to the Word. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the New Testament” (64). Lawrence then surveys the medieval and Renaissance periods saying that “through the Middle Ages went on in Europe this fight against the body, against the senses […] The worship […] all through the medieval period was to the male […] incorporeal Christ” (65). God was now “Christ on the Cross, the Body Crucified, the flesh destroyed” (66). During the Renaissance, we hear, “The bodily father is almost obliterated” (66) and the art of Correggio exemplifies the first steps towards “abstraction” and “the whole of modern art” (68), what Lawrence also describes as the Platonic “geometric conception of life” (69) where abstract knowledge becomes God and negates the “unknown” (68) of the body and the “female impulse” (69, 70, passim). In the next chapter of the “Study,” Lawrence sums up that “Christ’s great assertion” was of “Not-Being […] of life after death” (77; my italics):

In God the Father we are all one body, one flesh. But in Christ we abjure the flesh, there is no flesh. A man must lose his life to save it. All the natural desires of the body, these a man must be able to deny, before he can live. […] in Christ we are crucified, and rise again, and are One with Him in Spirit. (77; my italics)

9This, in essence, is the Christ of Lawrence’s abstract philosophising throughout the period of 1913 to 1921.

Liberation from the absolute

10Moving forwards to 1925 again, we see Lawrence continuing to draw on the figure of Christ in his polemical essays, including the ones on the novel; but, by now, though the message is similar, the style and tone of Lawrence’s rhetoric has changed quite substantially. As Michael Herbert points out in his introduction to the Cambridge volume, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, from around 1922, Lawrence’s “essay style became typically more staccato and ‘popular’ […] in a frequently lighter humorous mode that is quite different from the predominating rhetoric of his wartime and immediately post-war pieces. This remains true even when he is dealing with religious and philosophical topics in the seriousness of which he passionately believed” (RDP xxxiii). I think what Herbert says is true enough as a brief gloss on Lawrence’s new style of the 1920s, but I do not think it properly recognises that this new style (which is indeed more direct and down-to-earth and strives to avoid abstraction), is also profoundly thematic and signals a strategic intention on Lawrence’s part to embody or materialise his meanings in his style and to make his language (in whatever genre) an indissoluble part of his message. By this time, Lawrence has matured enough as an artist and as a thinker to be able, in his own words, to reconcile or fuse his “metaphysic,” his “theory of being and knowing,” with his “living sense of being” (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” STH 91), and to do so in the very act of writing.

  • 12 As will be evident from my title quotation, this particular expression of the bodily limits of know (...)
  • 13 Such imagery appears again even more explicitly later in that essay (STH 175, lines 30-35). It was (...)

11Lawrence has thus slowly but surely learnt to write the body into being, I suggest, partly by making the body the principal “being” of his writing, if I can express it that way. To turn Lawrence’s own words about Thomas Hardy once more against himself, what has happened by this time is that Lawrence’s writing has freed itself from subservience to Lawrence’s conscious, abstract metaphysic so that “his feeling, his instinct, his sensuous understanding” (STH 93) is now fully in control. In the novel essays I began with, for example, the discourse circles constantly around references to the body, with probably the most famous example coming in the opening paragraphs of “Why the Novel Matters” with their striking focus on Lawrence’s own hand: “Why should I look at my hand, as it so cleverly writes these words, and decide that it is a mere nothing compared to the mind that directs it?” (STH 193). As Lawrence continues later in this essay, “Oh yes, my body, me alive, knows, and knows intensely. […] These damned philosophers, they talk as if they suddenly went off in steam […] It is nonsense. Every man, philosopher included, ends in his own finger-tips” (194).12 Equally striking, perhaps, in the present context, is that in the two longest of these essays –“Morality and the Novel” and “The Novel”– this concern with the body goes hand in hand with a continuing engagement with the figure of Christ and with explicit allusions to the crucifixion. Indeed, the famous metaphor I cited earlier from “Morality and the Novel” –“If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail” (STH 172)– clearly derives organically from the imagery of the crucifixion.13

  • 14 Lawrence’s renewed interest at this time in the crucifixion and, in particular, the resurrection, s (...)

12This convergence of aesthetic theory, ontology, and a writing of the body can be seen to mark a moment of liberation from the absolute for Lawrence –explicitly in relation to the novel, but also implicitly in relation to his conception of Christ, who, by association, can now also be imagined as rebelling against being “pinned down” by absolutes. By 1925, that is, we have moved decisively from the familiar Christian absolute symbolized by the nailed-down Christ of the “Christs in the Tyrol” essays, through the predominantly spiritual image of Christ presented in the subsequent philosophical essays, and on to an emergent conception of a fully embodied and thoroughly “relative” resurrected Christ who, like Lawrence’s exemplary relativistic novel, “gets up and walks away with the nail.”14

An absolute of interrelatedness

  • 15 Lawrence’s preoccupation with ideas of death and rebirth at this time is also particularly explicit (...)
  • 16 On the subject of abjection, see Garry Watson’s “D. H. Lawrence and the Abject Body.” This focuses (...)

13And so we come to Lawrence’s most famous resurrectionary work, The Escaped Cock.15 Dealing with a god who falls to earth and becomes a man not just once but twice, Lawrence’s novella gives us plenty of scope for conjuring with paradoxes and ironies, and with relatives and absolutes. Somewhat like Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Lawrence here plays God in more ways than one, providing a new incarnation of a Christ-like figure and bringing a dead man back to life. As Frankenstein says, “To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death” (Frankenstein 99) –and Lawrence could be said to echo this sentiment in his creative journey from the dead Christs of the Tyrol to the man-alive of the novel essays and on to the Christ of The Escaped Cock who rises from the dead to run away with his nails. There may be a touch of the Pygmalion story here too, if we think in terms of the Alpine sculptures of Christ being brought to life in the figure of the man who died. But parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein suggest themselves most immediately, not only in the descriptions, especially early on, of the rather eerie and unearthly figure of the man who had died, and in the fright and alarm with which he is greeted by others, but also in some of the philosophical issues raised by the man’s apparent resurrection from the dead and his virginal first encounter with the world as a newly-created being. There is a twist in this literary mythos, in that Lawrence’s “new” creature has actually been here before and has carried over with him the scars and memories from his first coming. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which this man, too, like Mary Shelley’s creature, represents a type of tabula rasa, though with the idea of a “clean slate” subtly transposed from the mind to the body, as we witness how the sensational (or sensation-full) physical world now re-inscribes itself afresh on the man’s healed and renewed body. Previously, his tortured body had been anything but a clean slate, of course: inscribed very literally with pain and suffering, it was truly an abject body, in need, itself, of salvation.16 This time round, however, the “clean slate” emphasis falls on what that body had never previously experienced and the man’s newly-risen body is here to be re-programmed, as it were, to seek and to cherish the salves of sensuous delight, and to learn that the body itself is God incarnate and not something to be abjectly sacrificed on the altar of abstract absolutes. In place of Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh (or in Lawrence’s earlier inversion, the flesh of God made word), here we have simply a newly-embodied, natural man –a man without a mission. The original Christ had a spiritual mission to lead people away from the worldly and the bodily and towards the absolute Word of God in heaven. This man, as he gradually re-awakens to the world, becomes a thoroughly relative man, acutely aware of his being “a man-in-himself” (“The Crown,” RDP 306), defined by the limits of his physical bodily senses and by how those senses intricately relate him to his “circumambient universe” (“Morality and the Novel,” STH 171) –to the natural world of the elements and of other people, birds, beasts and flowers. Reflecting on his previous life, the reborn man says, “I wanted to be greater than the limits of my hands and feet,” but in fact, as he now comes to realise, “my reach ends in my finger-tips, and my stride is no longer than the ends of my toes” (VG 132). If he now retains any notion of the absolute, it is only in the sense of the absolute relativity or relatedness of the body in its myriad sensuous connections to its natural environment. This man’s mission is no longer to do with spiritual salvation and bodily self-sacrifice, or with Christian absolutes, but with being physically reborn to the relativity of the natural world and to the desire for relationship. Returning for a moment to the abstract terminology of Lawrence’s philosophy in “The Crown,” this man’s mission is to seek “consummate being,” even “absolute being,” through the achievement, however momentary or transitory, of “perfect relatedness;” it is to get himself “into a new relationship with a new heaven and a new earth” (RDP 305, 262, 306). But, as I have suggested, by the mid-twenties Lawrence had come to realise that this sort of terminology is always in danger of idealising and misrepresenting, if not wholly falsifying, the complex bodily experiences it is intended to capture or express.

14In The Escaped Cock (as in the novel essays), Lawrence embodies his meanings in a much more concrete and down-to-earth way: indeed, he has his reborn man think, “tillage, not salvation,” “Let the earth remain earthy” (VG 131). Rather than ascending to heaven, Lawrence has his Christ descending very decidedly to earth, and the whole novella is a veritable paean to “the determined surge of life” (130), “the helpless zest of life” (135) emanating from nature. Ultimately, too, it is a paean to “the greater life of the body” (136) as we witness the man becoming “healed” and “whole within his skin” and immune, now, to the abstractions of the absolute and the midge-like biting of “The Word” (137).

15The man’s awakening surge of desire for relatedness and relationship is dramatised most intensely and sensuously in his sexual relationship with the priestess of Isis in Part II of the story, but it is also powerfully rendered in the man’s relationship with the eponymous escaped cock in Part I. And we can see in this the full importance of Lawrence’s title for the novella, for it emphasises from the very beginning what Lawrence saw as the creative mystery of all desirous being, as manifested by each and every living creature or organism, not just humans. The “resplendent” black and orange cockerel in question here (123, 126) is memorably described by Lawrence in all its lusty creatureliness and fiery vitality. Presented as an organic part of his own “circumambient universe” of the farmyard and countryside, he is a “saucy flamboyant bird” whose powerful crowing has “a ringing defiance, never to be daunted” (123). Indeed, he proves strong enough to break the restraining cord around his leg and to escape from his owners, and he later wins a fierce fight with another cockerel in order to secure himself a larger harem of hens. This cock is, quite simply, a dynamo of burning life and vitality, and (in a subtle allusion to Frankenstein) it is he who initially re-awakens the “surge” of life in the man who had died, for Lawrence describes how the half-conscious man is roused to life again “by the shrill, wild crowing of a cock just near him, a sound which made him shiver as if electricity had touched him” (126; my italics).

16In all the cock’s being and doings –his strutting and crowing, his mating with the hens, his defiance of his owners– in all this the man apprehends the “flood” of desire (129), “the tide of the swaying ocean of life” (130), “the necessity to live,” “the triumph of life” (129), “the short, sharp wave of life of which the bird was the crest” (130). Clearly, the cock is a classic Lawrencian symbol for the sacred vitality of natural life; but, more than this, the creature in itself also embodies that life very viscerally, and it literally puts the man who had died back in touch with the phenomenal world. At the end of this first part of the novella, the man takes the bird in his arm and carries it with him as the two fellow creatures set off together, “adventuring out for the first time into the wider phenomenal world, which is the stirring of the body of cocks also” (138).

  • 17 The full title of Mary Shelley’s novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

17The Escaped Cock answers back to the monstrosity of the mutilated abject body that Lawrence saw in the Christs of the Tyrol in 1912. If Lawrence was in some ways haunted (or even traumatised) by the tortured figures he saw on these crosses, as his career-long fascination with the figure of Christ might sometimes suggest, Lawrence in this novella might be said to have finally exorcised that haunting. Working through his earlier abstract philosophy, via the embodying aesthetic adumbrated in his novel essays of 1925, he has here finally re-membered the vital, natural body of Christ. Subverting both Christian and Romantic idealism, our modernist Prometheus17 creates not a saviour or a monster, but –horror of horrors– simply an ordinary “man alive,” a “whole man alive” (“Why the Novel Matters,” STH 197). This man who had died is now a whole “man-in-himself,” reborn from false absolutes to the only absolute that had come to matter for Lawrence, the absolute interrelatedness of the body within the phenomenal world.

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Bell, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Black, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Philosophical Works. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Gutierrez, Donald. Lapsing Out: Embodiments of Death and Rebirth in the Last Writings of D. H. Lawrence. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.

Lawrence, D. H. D. H. Lawrence in New Mexico. Ed. Keith Sagar. Paris and London: Alyscamps Press, 1995.

. D. H. Lawrence’s Paintings. Introduction by Keith Sagar. London: Chaucer Press, 2003.

. The Escaped Cock (The Man Who Died), in The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories, op. cit., 123-164.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Vol. I. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Vol. II. Ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Vol. V. Ed. James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

. Sons and Lovers. Ed. Helen Baron and Carl Baron. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

. Twilight in Italy and Other Essays. Ed. Paul Eggert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

. The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories. Ed. Michael Herbert, Bethan Jones and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Montgomery, Robert E. The Visionary D. H. Lawrence: Beyond Philosophy and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Poplawski, Paul. “Christs in the Tyrol – and in the Body of Lawrence’s Writing,” in Lake Garda: Gateway to D. H. Lawrence’s Voyage to the Sun. Ed. Nick Ceramella. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013, 280-94.

Poplawski, Paul, ed. Writing the Body in D. H. Lawrence: Essays on Language, Representation and Sexuality. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Ed. Maurice Hindle. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Watson, Garry. “D. H. Lawrence and the Abject Body: A Post-Modern History,” in Paul Poplawski, Writing the Body, op. cit., 1-18.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Wright, T. R. D. H. Lawrence and the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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1 As I have explained in an earlier essay, I use the phrase “writing of the body” rather than “writing about the body” in order to stress that “with Lawrence, the process of writing in relation to the body is never a mechanistic one and is rarely straightforwardly referential. Lawrence strives always to bring the body into being through the very process and substance of his writing, from the very body of his writing, as it were. He wants to explore what the being of the body, or the being in a body, might mean – and writing the body into being while writing being into the body became, eventually, a driving inspiration of Lawrence’s art” (Poplawski, “Christs in the Tyrol,” 183 n.11). For a range of related perspectives on Lawrence and the body, see the essays in my edited collection, Writing the Body in D. H. Lawrence (2001); and, for one of the most closely sustained studies of Lawrence’s language and thought in relation to questions of being, see Michael Bell (1991). Bell’s sophisticated discussion of Lawrence’s anti-Cartesian struggles with language to capture the full range and wholeness of human “being” provides an important critical background to my concern with exploring how the body can be seen as a privileged locus for such struggles.

2 The history of composition and publication of this story is complex, hence the span of dates given here. Part I was first written in April 1927 and this part was published on its own in Forum in February 1928; Part II of the story was first written in June-July 1928 and was published together with the first part in September/October 1929 by the Black Sun Press, Paris, using Lawrence’s original title of The Escaped Cock. However, for the first major UK and US editions in 1931, the title was changed to The Man Who Died and it was with this title that the work first came to be widely known. For full details of this history, including stages of revision, see the editors’ introduction to VG, xxiv–xxvii, xxxv–xlii.

3 All four essays were written in 1925, but only the first two were also published in that year; the second two were first published only in 1936. The slightly earlier essay, “The Future of the Novel,” written and published in 1923, is also clearly related to this series. All these essays, with details of first composition and publication, can be found in STH.

4 By 1912, Lawrence had undoubtedly already started to feel his way, through his early writing and thinking, towards the sort of art of embodiment I am discussing here. As John Worthen has suggested, the influence of Nietzsche, from at least 1910, was of particular significance in helping Lawrence not only to reject institutionalised Christianity but also to crystallise his commitment to writing of the body. Nietzsche, Worthen writes, would have “confirmed Lawrence’s growing sense of the opposition between spirit, mental will and mental knowledge on the one hand, and body, instinct, blood and self on the other. In particular, he provided a language for the almost inexpressible area of ‘blood-knowledge’ which, as a writer, Lawrence already inarticulately knew to be crucial to him. Even in the poor translations available to him in 1910, Lawrence must have found Nietzsche’s description of the body’s ‘rationality’ extremely useful” (211). Worthen’s immediately following quotations (also 211) from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra include two particularly pertinent statements for my purposes: “There is more rationality in thy body than in thy best wisdom” (from Nietzsche’s section, “Despisers of the Body”); “Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit” (from the section, “Reading and Writing”). Worthen cites the Thomas Common translation of 1906 (Edinburgh, 28-9, 33).

5 “Lawrence’s Cruci-Fiction: Christs in the Tyrol and Gerald Crich in the Tyrol,” presented at the 13th International D. H. Lawrence Conference, Gargnano, June 2014.

6 Explorations of death-and-rebirth motifs in Lawrence’s work are legion within Lawrence studies, but I am not aware of any which specifically elaborate the connections I focus on between the Alpine crucifixes of 1912 and Lawrence’s developing aesthetics of the body. One particularly pertinent study of Lawrence’s later art of embodiment might be mentioned here, however, and that is Donald Guttierrez’s book Lapsing Out. Lawrence’s engagement with the figure of Christ in his art and thought was a career-long one, going back at least to his reading of Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus and related works in 1907 (see L i. 36-7) and, again, there have been innumerable critical discussions of relevance to this topic, including, for example, T. R. Wright’s D. H. Lawrence and the Bible.

7 All the dates given in this entire paragraph are dates of composition rather than publication. Many of the essays included in the final version of Twilight in Italy (published June 1916) had first been written much earlier, but the date of 1915-16 refers to Lawrence’s extensive final revisions and to his attempts to unify the volume by his evolving philosophy of polarity. Note that “The Crown” was further revised in 1925 for its first full publication in that year in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine (the first three parts of the essay were published serially in 1915 in the Signature).

8 For valuable summaries of Lawrence’s philosophical ideas in the works mentioned in this paragraph, see Bruce Steele’s section on “Lawrence’s Philosophy” in his introduction to STH (xxiv-xxxi); the first part of Michael Herbert’s introduction to RDP (xix-xli); and the section of Paul Eggert’s introduction to TI dealing with Lawrence’s “evolving philosophy” in 1915-16 (xlix-lviii). Steele suggests that Lawrence may have first derived his ideas and images of polarity from Ralph Waldo Emerson (see his note 7:18, STH 255); but see also the much fuller critical discussions of this subject in Robert E. Montgomery’s The Visionary D. H. Lawrence (13-27 and passim) and Michael Black’s D. H. Lawrence: The Early Philosophical Works.

9 See L i. 507, 510; and Steele’s introduction to STH (xxiv-xxv). The “Foreword” was first published posthumously in 1932 but a more reliable text is now printed as an appendix to the Cambridge edition of Sons and Lovers.

10 I reiterate that I am talking here about Lawrence’s “pollyanalytical” thinking and writing, so this is not to say that his art was not already intuitively engaging with the body, rather than the “word” or spirit, of Christ. Artistically (and perhaps to some extent unconsciously), I believe that Lawrence had already absorbed from the wayside Alpine Christs a new and multi-dimensional understanding of the human body. See my essay “Christs in the Tyrol” (188-9) for an illustration of this through a discussion of Lawrence’s story, “Vin Ordinaire,” written in May-June 1913 (published in the English Review, June 1914).

11 Lawrence wrote three related but separate essays about the Alpine crucifixes: “Christs in the Tirol” (written 4-5 September 1912), “Christs in the Tyrol” (written sometime between 5 September 1912 and its publication on 22 March 1913), and “The Crucifix over the Mountains” (a wholesale re-writing carried out mainly at the end of July 1915). All three essays can be found in TI, along with full details of their compositional and publication history.

12 As will be evident from my title quotation, this particular expression of the bodily limits of knowledge recurs later in The Escaped Cock and this continuity from the essay to the novella reinforces my earlier point that Lawrence’s art and philosophy converge stylistically and intellectually on the body.

13 Such imagery appears again even more explicitly later in that essay (STH 175, lines 30-35). It was also present in different but equally explicit form at the end of the essay’s first version, where Lawrence says “It is monstrous to crucify or to be crucified” and warns against trying “to crucify a relationship” (STH 245). References to Christ and the crucifixion are even more prominent in “The Novel” (see next note).

14 Lawrence’s renewed interest at this time in the crucifixion and, in particular, the resurrection, seems to have been sparked partly by his reading, in the early days of 1925, of Tolstoy’s novel, Resurrection (1899; trans. 1900). Later in January 1925, he wrote his own essay with this very same title (see RDP 231-35) and then, in June 1925, he used Tolstoy’s novel as one of his principal critical examples in developing the argument of the key essay just cited, “The Novel,” in which Tolstoy and other authors are arraigned in telling terms for their “pious” and “didactic” striving for the absolute: “when it comes to their philosophy,” Lawrence writes, “they are all crucified Jesuses” (STH 180). Lawrence’s apparently resurgent interest in the figure of Christ from around 1925 may also have been, in part, a reaction to hearing of J. M. Murry’s plans for a Life of Jesus (eventually published in 1926). Lawrence commented caustically about Murry in a letter of October 1925 that “he’s got Jesus badly, and nastily” (L v. 313) and, writing directly to Murry himself a little later, he said: “Must you really write about Jesus? Jesus becomes more unsympatisch to me, the longer I live: crosses and nails and tears and all that stuff! I think he showed us into a nice cul de sac” (ibid. 322). It seems, too, as if the crucifixion had been a common motif in the paintings of another of Lawrence’s friends, Dorothy Brett, while she was living with the Lawrences at Taos in New Mexico, 1924-25, as, in December 1925, Lawrence writes to her from Italy to express his surprise at hearing that she was “adding one more to the list of Crucifixions” (ibid. 348). Ironically enough, this particular painting, of a crucifixion with a laughing Pan, has Lawrence’s face for both Pan and Christ (see reproduction on the back cover of D. H. Lawrence in New Mexico).

15 Lawrence’s preoccupation with ideas of death and rebirth at this time is also particularly explicit in his meditations on the Etruscan tombs of Sketches of Etruscan Places, first written between April and June 1927 and thus overlapping with the initial composition of The Escaped Cock. One might also note here his painting of May 1927, entitled Resurrection, which he seems to have produced as a sort of companion-piece to the novella (for a reproduction of this painting see, for example, D. H. Lawrence’s Paintings, 49).

16 On the subject of abjection, see Garry Watson’s “D. H. Lawrence and the Abject Body.” This focuses largely on Lawrence’s late essay, “Introduction to These Paintings” (1929), but it touches on several themes of relevance to the present essay.

17 The full title of Mary Shelley’s novel is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

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Paul Poplawski, « “[M]y reach ends in my finger-tips”: Embodying the Relative and the Absolute, from “Christs in the Tyrol” to The Escaped Cock »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2020, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Paul Poplawski

Paul Poplawski, formerly of the University of Leicester (UK), is now an independent scholar living and working in Austria. He has published widely on Lawrence and his books include Promptings of Desire: Creativity and the Religious Impulse in the Works of DHL (1993), DHL: A Reference Companion (1996), Writing the Body in DHL (2001) and (with Warren Roberts) the third edition of A Bibliography of DHL (2001). He was a co-director of the 13th International DHL Conference in Gargnano (2014) and he has recently guest co-edited two issues of the D. H. Lawrence Review (“DHL and the Arts”; “DHL: Texts and Contexts”). He has also published on Jane Austen and on Modernism, and has recently completed work on a revised 2nd edition of the student textbook, English Literature in Context, forthcoming in 2017 (1st edition, 2007).

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