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Self and Sequence: Lawrence’s “The Schoolmaster”

Keith Cushman

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1Lawrence’s early poetry sequence, “The Schoolmaster,” is situated at a crucial juncture of his life. He completed the sequence near the end of his three years as an assistant teacher at the Davidson Road School in Croydon. The serious case of pneumonia he succumbed to at the end of 1911 was instrumental in his departure from school teaching. John Worthen has observed that the pneumonia “succeeded in changing everything,” leading to a “rite of passage away from school” (although Lawrence “did not actually submit his resignation from Davidson Road until 28 February [1912]” (Worthen 324-25). The seven poems of “The Schoolmaster,” a souvenir of his time at the Davidson Road School, were not published as a sequence. Instead they appeared in four consecutive numbers of the Saturday Westminster Gazette between 11 May and 1 June 1912. By the time the first two poems in the sequence had been published, Lawrence had already left for Europe to embark on a new life with Frieda von Richthofen Weekley.

2The poems in their Westminster Gazette versions have appeared together only in Appendix III of the Pinto-Roberts Complete Poems (CP 897-903). The sequence cannot be found in the two volumes of the Cambridge edition of Lawrence’s poems (2013), edited by Christopher Pollnitz. The original “Schoolmaster” will appear as a sequence in a third Cambridge volume of uncollected and manuscript poems, also edited by Pollnitz.

3The seven poems of “The Schoolmaster” are “To one of my boys,” “Morning: Scripture Lesson,” “Afternoon: The Last Lesson,” “Evening,” “The Punisher,” “A Snowy Day in School,” and “The Best of School.” “To one of my boys” and “Morning: Scripture Lesson,” published in the Westminster Gazette of 11 May 1912, were never re-published in Lawrence’s lifetime. The Westminster Gazette texts of “A Snowy Day in School,” “The Best of School,” and “Afternoon: The Last Lesson” appeared as a truncated “Schoolmaster” sequence in Lawrence’s first poetry monograph, Love Poems and Others (1913). A revised version of “The Punisher” appeared in Amores (1916). Remarkably, a revised version of “Evening” became “Rondeau of a Conscientious Objector” and was included in Bay, Lawrence’s book-length World War I sequence (1919). Lawrence revised “Afternoon: The Last Lesson,” “Evening,” “The Punisher,” “A Snowy Day in School,” and “The Best of School” for inclusion in the Collected Poems (1928). As I will explain below, “The Best of School” received the most radical revision.

4The seven poems of “The Schoolmaster” in their Westminster Gazette texts seem like apprentice work. No one can possibly argue that the sequence is anything like a forgotten, more or less lost masterpiece. Sandra Gilbert does not mention any of the “Schoolmaster” poems in Acts of Attention (1972), her classic study of Lawrence’s poetry. Even “The Best of School,” the most familiar of the poems, has received scant critical attention.

5But “The Schoolmaster” merits consideration for a number of reasons. The sequence and its individual poems are an ambitious effort by the young poet who was still feeling his way and trying to make his mark. Writing a seven-poem poetic suite is ambitious in itself. In the bargain several of the poems are formally experimental – as if Lawrence is aiming to show the literary world what he can do. Lawrence sensed that his subject matter offered something to readers of poetry, while surely the editor of the Saturday Westminster Gazette accepted the poems because he believed that the honest, authentic schoolmaster’s voice had not often been heard. Lawrence’s expressed wish to title the sequence “Heart of a School Teacher” (L i. 382) points to this aspect of the sequence.

6Furthermore, the poems constitute an eloquent autobiographical document from inside Lawrence’s experience at the Davidson Road School. “The Schoolmaster” reads as a valediction to the school and to teaching. Arguably, it also points toward Lawrence’s decision never again to be a cog in the machine of organized society. And finally, analyzing a sequence of Lawrence’s poetry that has heretofore escaped examination is surely a worthwhile enterprise.

7In the first section I will briefly rehearse Lawrence’s experience at the Davidson Road School and describe Walter de la Mare’s role in getting “The Schoolmaster” published. The second section presents an analysis of the “Schoolmaster” poems. I will close with a brief discussion of Ursula Brangwen’s experience in The Rainbow as a beginning teacher at St Philip’s School.

“But school is hard work, anywhere.” (L i. 385)

8The Davidson Road School was “a great big new red-brick imposing handsome place, with a fair amount of open space” (L i. 83). Lawrence’s friend and fellow teacher Arthur MacLeod remembered that Lawrence “enjoyed the [. . .] wide view from the playground over the fields and the piles of timber by the railway to the Crystal Palace in the distance on the Norwood hills” (Nehls 90). These details show up in the “Schoolmaster” poems. So does the “piece of wild waste land” he had to cross on his “way to school – land where the grass is wild and trodden into mud” (L i. 121). (In “Evening” Lawrence describes the “threadbare grass, which is pressed / Into mud,” part of the “waste lands” [CP 899] that the teacher must cross on his way to and from school).

9The headmaster, Philip Smith, remembered Lawrence for his “powers of concentration and untiring industry” and for never shirking any of the “drudgery of the details which hamper the routine of a teacher’s life.” He was “interested in Art, English and Biology” (Nehls 85-86). According to MacLeod, Lawrence “got on well with all his colleagues for he was always friendly, and gay and eager in discussion.” Not surprisingly, one of Lawrence’s colleagues told MacLeod that he “had read his inmost heart for him: had told him things about himself he had never admitted to himself” (Nehls 90).

10Smith recognized Lawrence’s “quality and gave him free scope to follow his bent” (Nehls 90). Lawrence did not allow a School Inspector to interrupt when his students were singing Ariel’s song (“Full fathom five”) from The Tempest (Nehls 86). His pupils acted out As You Like It “as if the front of the classroom were a stage” (L i. 245), and he “arranged the boys in two sides and they fought the battle of Agincourt over schoolforms and all” (Lawrence-Lowell 132). But a month into his first term at Davidson Lawrence complained that the “kids are rough and insolent as the devil” (L i. 93). Philip Smith believed that Lawrence “certainly liked boys, as boys, but not as pupils” (Nehls 84). For Lawrence, school was “bitter enough at the best; it is the cruelest and most humiliating sport, this of teaching and trying to tame some fifty or sixty malicious young human animals”: “Now I am off balance; my life will not go; the machinery of my soul is all deranged by these shocks of conflict”(L i. 93).

11Punishment posed a particular problem. The headmaster Philip Smith “shifts every grain of responsibility off his own shoulders – he will not punish anybody; yourself, when you punish, you must send for the regulation cane and enter the minutest details of the punishment in the Pun. book – if you do. Discipline is consequently very slack and teaching is a struggle” (L i. 84). Lawrence jocularly wrote Blanche Jennings that he had “smitten the Philistines with the rod, and they are subdued” (L i. 100). Lawrence soon realized that meting out corporal punishment did as much damage to the punisher as to the lad being beaten. “The Punisher”in the “Schoolmaster” sequence expresses this realization. Lawrence would develop it much further in the “Man’s World” chapter of The Rainbow.

12During the Croydon years Lawrence completed and published The White Peacock, and he wrote and brought to press The Trespasser. He published numerous poems and several stories. Most of this work appeared in the English Review, the most important literary magazine of the day. He also completed three versions of Sons and Lovers. He had reason to be optimistic about his future as a poet and fiction writer. School teaching would be a temporary occupation.

13The poet Walter de la Mare, who worked as reader at Heinemann from January 1912, believed in Lawrence’s potential. On 13 March Lawrence thanked him for showing the “Schoolmaster” poems to the editor of the Westminster Gazette and told him to “do just as you will with the poems” (L. I 375). In April he sent de la Mare the Westminster Gazette proofs, and when de la Mare found fault with a line in “Evening” and two lines in “A Snowy Day in School,” Lawrence sent him “alterations.” Lawrence deferred to the more experienced writer, who was also proving to be a valuable contact: “If you don’t like these suggestions, and if you can think of anything better, do put it in. There’s no need to consult me” (L i. 384-85). Lawrence’s “alterations” appeared in the Westminster Gazette texts. (De la Mare subsequently selected the poems that became Lawrence’s first poetry monograph, Love Poems and Others. He also helped place two of Lawrence’s German sketches with the Westminster Gazette and was probably instrumental in placing both “Strike Pay” and “Her Turn” with the newspaper).

14Toward the end of his stay at the Davidson Road School Lawrence told his fellow teacher MacLeod that he would rather work on a farm or be a tramp than continue as a teacher (Nehls 90). When his school colleagues presented him with books as a farewell gift, he wrote Philip Smith on 9 April, “I should love to come back to Davidson, if there were no kids – or only half a dozen or so” (L i. 382). A month later he wrote MacLeod from Germany: “I would not be in Davidson – not, not for anything. Escape my dear, escape” (L i. 395). Working as a teacher was equivalent to being a “prisoner” (L i. 386). The prison image would loom large in Lawrence’s account of Ursula Brangwen’s experience as a beginning teacher in The Rainbow. In early March 1913 Lawrence – living happily with Frieda on the Lago di Garda – answered a letter he had received from Arthur MacLeod: “[. . .] your letter made me dream again I had returned to Davidson. You must believe me when I say that is my only nightmare” (L i. 523).

“The Schoolmaster”

15Holly Laird published her ground-breaking, comprehensive Self and Sequence: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence in 1988 (Note that I have stolen her title for my paper). Laird’s goal is to “present a full description both of the poetic sequence as a form of autobiography and of Lawrence’s experimentation with it” (Lairdxi). Laird’s conception of Lawrence’s poetic sequences is broad. “Clusters of shorter poems” (in the early notebooks, in the individual books of poetry, in the Last Poems notebooks) form sequences, and “each of the poetic books” (with the exception of Love Poems and Others) “is (like the novels) a fictionalized sequence” (Laird 8, 7). “The Schoolmaster” exemplifies a more narrowly defined poetic sequence: i. e., a group of poems organized for particular effect, ranging in number from the four-poem “Evangelical Beasts” to the six-poem “Tortoises” to the 18-poem Bay. Only in 2013 did the Cambridge University Press edition of The Poems introduce the 34-poem “All of Us” (1916), another World War I sequence, to the world. Clearly, Look! We Have Come Through! is a very lengthy poetic sequence. In any event, “The Schoolmaster” is autobiographical. And although Lawrence doesn’t experiment with the sequencing, he unmistakably experiments with the form of several of the “Schoolmaster”poems.

16One might suspect that Lawrence would have been disappointed to have his sequence split up into four separate issues of the newspaper, which of course totally eliminated the impact of the poems as a sequence. But no evidence exists that this bothered him; it is highly unlikely that it did. Lawrence had resigned from his teaching position, he had been planning to go to Germany even before meeting Frieda in early March, he had decided to try to live by his pen. Earning money from his writing was more important than having his work published in exactly the way he intended.

17The seven poems of “The Schoolmaster” comprise a series of interior monologues at various points in the teacher’s work days. The missing element is any indication of what the schoolmaster expects of his pupils and what he wants them to learn. The focus of “The Schoolmaster” is the schoolmaster. One can imagine Lawrence drafting the poems in the classroom while his pupils were busy with an assignment. “To one of my boys,” the unnumbered first poem, is the prologue of the sequence. Poems I through III chart a school day: “Morning: Scripture Lesson,” “Afternoon: The Last Lesson,” and “Evening.” The three poems form a mini-sequence within the larger sequence. The poems read as if the morning, afternoon, and evening experiences all happened in the same day, but that is likely part of the “fiction.” In any event morning, afternoon, and evening are all equally soul-destroying for the teacher/poet. The progression through the day is really no progression at all.

18Poem IV – at the center of the sequence – is “The Punisher.” Numbers V and VI form a concluding contrast. “A Snowy Day in School” is a “day-in-the-life” poem that closes with the teacher bitterly comparing his effort to teach his class to being crucified. In contrast the decidedly upbeat “The Best of School” expresses the sweetness of teaching the boys, who “cleave and cling” (CP 902) to him. Holly Laird asserts that “Evening” is the “single piece conforming to a strict verse form” (Laird 43). Apparently by “strict” she means “traditional,” for three other “Schoolmaster” poems are written in a “strict” and regular – although unorthodox – verse form. “To one of my boys,” “The Punisher,” and “A Snowy Day in School” are all formal experiments. The clever, idiosyncratic poetic forms of these poems play a part in Lawrence’s attempt to make the literary world take notice.

19“To one of my boys,” never reprinted in Lawrence’s lifetime, might be called an alternate sonnet. The first six lines rhyme a b. The last eight lines rhyme c d. The thought is continuous. Indeed the last twelve lines are all one sentence. The loose rhythm throughout consists of a four-stress line followed by a two-stress line. The language is both conversational and awkward

How can I teach you when your blue
Eyes look at me so?
Your deep bewilderment filters through
My mind, and I know
That I put to flight from out of you
Rare birds that no
Enticing will recall.[…] (CP 897)

20The poem provides an apt prologue to “The Schoolmaster,” both thematically and aesthetically. It introduces one of the most important themes: the relationship between the teacher and his pupils. The truncated sonnet moves swiftly, and the reader hears the rhymes (only four of them) at the end of the two-stress lines. The strong, distinctive poetic form announces that the schoolmaster is also a poet.

21“To one of my boys” expresses the schoolmaster’s frustration over his pupil’s “deep bewilderment.” When he attempts to explain something to him, the “timid wonders” in the boy’s bewildered blue eyes “fly / Off in surprise.” Laird observes that “Lawrence is almost seduced by the disarming strength of ‘laddishness’” (Laird 42) in the boy. Or perhaps he is “seduced” by the pupil’s laddishness: “How can I teach you when your blue / Eyes look at me so?” In the end the schoolmaster forgets “all [his] / Enterprise” and lets “all the lessons […] slip by: / For you are wise” (CP 897). Does this mean that boyish ignorance is a sort of wisdom and that education will destroy that innate innocent wisdom?

22"Morning: Scripture Lesson,” poem I in the sequence, is a 30-line irregularly rhyming poem. Like “To one of my boys,” it was never republished in Lawrence’s lifetime. Noticeably, the schoolmaster is not at all engaged in teaching scripture to his pupils. As the boys mutter the psalms, the teacher/poet drifts into reverie: “[. . .] furtively from among the texts / Forbidden things and thoughts come fluttering.” Although he wants to “dream no more,” he gazes out the window and he can’t help transforming what he sees into a shifting series of poetic images. This happens in the middle 15 lines of the 30-line poem. The sun is “like yellow wine,” the “mist is a cup of wine,” the “new and old / Woodstacks beside the railway glisten and glow / Like ivory and golden marble.” A “great train steams south / With her silken steam like a banner behind her aflow.” The movement of the construction workers “seems / Like a glittering of shadows with the morning air, / Dark glitter of life amid a sky that teems / With light and luxurious blueness” (CP 897-98).

23The teacher cannot prevent himself from drifting into his daydream. His poetic reverie surely reveals his intense desire to escape from his classroom. Inevitably the “surge and tide of life in the turbulent class” break the spell. “Reluctantly” he returns to “the strife / Of the boys with me” (CP 897-98). The schoolmaster would much rather be a poet than a schoolmaster. “Morning: Scripture Lesson” points toward Lawrence’s departure from Davidson.

24Poem II, “Afternoon: The Last Lesson,” offers more of the same. The poem consists of 21 irregularly rhyming lines plus two half-lines. The interior monologue in “Afternoon” finds the teacher complaining and feeling sorry for himself as he waits for the last bell. He must face “a full three score / Of several insults and scrawl / Of slovenly work that they have offered me.” (Note that the teacher has 60 students). He feels more “sick, and tired” than the weary men working on those woodstacks outside the school. He resolves not to waste himself “to embers for them, / Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot.” He resolves to “keep / Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell it all for them, I should hate them—” (CP 899). As it is, he doesn’t seem to like them very much. The poem ends with the teacher sitting and waiting for the bell. Both “Morning: Scripture Lesson” and “Afternoon: The Last Lesson” read rather like prose (and rather awkward prose at that).

25In “Evening,” poem III in the sequence, the teacher is walking to his lodgings at the end of the school day and dreading the fact that tomorrow he must return to school. Lawrence’s subsequent surprising transformation of “Evening” into “Rondeau of a Conscientious Objector” points to the form Lawrence is working with. In “Evening” he creates his own intricate, ingenious variant of the rondeau. The 20-line poem consists of five quatrains with roughly five- stress lines and only two rhymes. The cunning rhyme scheme is as follows: a b a b / b a b a / a b a b / b a b a / a b a b. Remarkably, each line in the first quatrain reappears later in the poem and always as the concluding line of a stanza. Line 1 reappears as line 8; line 2 reappears (with two slight word changes) as line 12; line 3 reappears as line 16; and line 4 reappears (with two slight word changes) as line 20 (CP 899). The poem’s intricate, extremely tight closed form skillfully expresses the teacher’s feeling of entrapment.

26The “waste lands” that the teacher/poet traverses are both actual and psychological. As quoted above, the “threadbare grass [. . .] is pressed / Into mud.” Birds no longer nest in the “broken thorn-tree.” The builders are shrinking the natural “space,” and meanwhile the teacher’s “wild soul” also “shrinks.” The “clink” of the builders’ hammers has even “oppressed / The poor shut dandelions,” and “their lost gold rots—compressed.” The teacher’s mood is bitter as night falls and he contemplates being forced to return to school the next morning: “To-morrow will pour them all back, the dull hours I detest” (CP 899). “Evening” is another poem that points toward Lawrence’s departure from the Davidson Road School. Apart from some customary problematic diction and significantly because of its Lawrence-style rondeau form, “Evening” seems to me to be a successful poem.

27Poem IV, the seven-stanza “The Punisher,” is the third “Schoolmaster” poem written in a “strict” verse form. The first six stanzas are tercets: two roughly five-stress lines plus a roughly two-stress line that rhymes with the first line of the stanza (“still” / “boys” / “spill”). The concluding stanza with its dramatic last line expands to four lines: two five-stress lines, then the two-stress line, then the final five-stress line that this time rhymes with the second line (“ash” / “lash”).

28The teacher/poet has become a punisher. Apparently he caned more than one boy for an offense but subsequently discovered that the seeming culprits were innocent. He had “fetched the tears up out of the little wells.” “The harsh cold wrath of my words drove on,” as he “watched the tears on the fruited cheeks of the boys / Glitter and spill” (CP 899-900). But now

The tears are dry, the cheeks’ young fruits are fresh
For laughter, and glad the exonerated eyes, for I
Am caught in the mesh. (CP 900)

29That mesh consists of guilt, regret, and self-loathing. The “fire” of the teacher’s anger had risen “up and the bush blazed forth God’s grace” – but then “God left the place.” The teacher is left with a heart that is “heavy” and “clogged with wasted ash,” and with a hand that “is heavy and helpless, since wielding the lash” (CP 899-900). The poem never reveals the offense that led to the punishment, for that information is beside the point. As Lawrence’s Davidson Road School letters indicate, the administration of punishment was one of the schoolmaster’s most onerous and odious duties.

30“A Snowy Day at School,” poem V in the sequence, is the fourth and final formally “strict” poem of “The Schoolmaster,” but the unusual, idiosyncratic form Lawrence has created is easy to miss. The poem consists of 28 lines, which sounds suspiciously like two sonnets. If “To one of my boys” can be called an alternate sonnet, then let us call “A Snowy Day in School” a pair of exploded sonnets. It is as if Lawrence has split apart two octaves and two sestets. The first sixteen lines consist of four quatrains, each of which oddly rhymes a b a c (“class” “silence” / “pass” / “ceaselessly”) . The last twelve lines consist of four tercets that rhyme (more predictably) a b a (“There” / “look” / “bear”). The four quatrains end with an exclamation preceded by a dash: “—How can I answer the challenge of so many eyes!” The four tercets do the same: “Earnestly—and oh for me this class is a bitter rood.” (CP 900-01). The poem seems to speed up and become more anxious when it transitions from quatrains to tercets as it moves toward its emotional climax. That seems to me to be sufficient justification for the formal experiment.

31In its extremely humble way “A Snowy Day in School” brings to mind Melville’s “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick) and the celebrated last paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead.” The outer reality of the falling snow mirrors the inner reality of the teacher/poet’s desperation. Just as “All the slow school hours [. . .] / Have pressed the immeasurable spaces of hoarse silence, / Muffling [the schoolmaster’s] mind,” the “snow muffles the sounds that pass / Down the soiled street.” The snow that “plunges down awfully” throughout the poem and that is also “crumpled on the roof” causes the teacher/poet to feel cut off from the classroom and indeed cut off from life. He is lost in thought when suddenly – in a moment that might seem unintentionally comic – “A voice / Wakes from the hum, faltering about a noun—/ A question! My God, I must break from this hoarse silence” (CP 900-01). In the excellent final tercets the teacher finds himself overwhelmed by the snow and by the silence, leading him to verbalize his agony inwardly:

The rough snowball in the playground stands huge and still
With fair flakes settling down on it.—Beyond, the town
Is lost in the shadowed silence the skies distil.
And all things are possessed by silence, and they can brood
Wrapped up in the sky’s dim space of hoarse silence
Earnestly—and oh for me this class is a bitter rood. (CP 901)

32Although a poem titled “A Snowy Day at School” sounds as if it ought to be cozy and idyllic, it is actually one of the most despairing poems of the sequence. “A Snowy Day at School” is one more “Schoolmaster” poem that points toward Lawrence’s departure from the Davidson Road School.

33“The Best of School,” the final “Schoolmaster” poem, ends the sequence on a positive note. The poem runs on for 65 lines, over twice as long as any other poem in the sequence. Lawrence seems to be pulling out all the stops in order to give the sequence a strong feeling of closure. Instead he produced what seems to me to be the poorest poem of “The Schoolmaster.”

34The poem begins with 46 lines of mostly four-stress, irregularly rhyming verse paragraphs. The teacher/poet sits “on the beach of the class alone,” as he watches “the boys in their summer blouses, / As they write, their round heads busily bowed.” The blinds are drawn against the sunlight, but the “blinds are blown / To let the sunlight in.” The poem develops – at tedious length – a metaphor in which the boys are like “tendrils” that reach out “yearningly” and “slowly rotate till they touch the tree / That they cleave unto”: i. e., the schoolmaster. They clothe the teacher’s “ungrowing life,” and a “clutch of attachment, like parenthood, mounts up to [his] heart” (CP 901-02). The teacher is so jubilant that lines 47 through 57 swell into eleven clumsy, pseudo-ecstatic, rhyming eight-stress lines. For example

And I lift my head upon the troubled tangled world, and though the pain
Of living my life were doubled, I still have this to comfort and sustain,
I have such swarming sense of lives at the base of me, such sense of lives
Clustering upon me.[…] (CP 903)

35At last the poem subsides into eight final lines – rhyming but irregularly metrical – by way of awkward, unconvincing conclusion:

And when my heart is chill with loneliness,
Then comforts it the creeping tenderness
Of all the strays of life that climb my life. (CP 903)

36I disagree with Holly Laird’s argument that in “The Best of School” the teacher/poet “emerges a triumphant schoolmaster who can leave the classroom behind” (CP 42). To continue to “feel the warmth that creeps / Up dimly” from his pupils’ “striving” (CP 903) he would need to remain a schoolmaster. I find nothing in the poem that suggests that the teacher/poet is ready to depart, even though we know that Lawrence was moving in that direction.

37Lawrence’s decision to conclude “The Schoolmaster” with this cheerful poem seems to me aimed at placating readers who might have wearied of reading about the teacher’s persistent belly-aching. The varieties of distress he expresses in “Morning: Scripture Lesson,” “Afternoon: The Last Lesson,” “Evening,” “The Punisher,” and “A Snowy Day at School” seem all too authentic. In contrast the elaborate happiness of “The Best of School” seems forced and unpersuasive. (Admittedly, even the most miserable teacher must enjoy some good moments.) The fact that the poem rambles on for 65 lines might also suggest that Lawrence was trying too hard. At some point he realized that the poem went on too long. In the revised text for the Collected Poems he eliminated the last 29 lines. Goodbye, “clutch of attachment,” farewell, “all the strays of life that climb my life.”

38Early in Self and Sequence: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence Holly Laird lists the major criticisms that have habitually been directed at Lawrence’s poetry. These criticisms include

[…] that its biographical elements are not sufficiently dramatized; that it is more Interested in message than in making; that it is fragmented, not self-sufficient; that Its formal elements of rhyme and meter are (when present) perfunctory; that it uses banal or conventional language or dead poetic diction; that it is nearly indistinguishable from prose. (Laird 13)

39Some readers of modern poetry would believe that all these charges apply to “The Schoolmaster.” I would be the first to acknowledge the aptness of several of the criticisms, most notably problematic rhyme, meter, and diction and also the tendency of his poetry to read like prose. “The Schoolmaster” is by no means a major poetic achievement. But Lawrence’s “honesty, intensity, and original sensibility” and his “powers of imagination and insight” (Laird 13) – along with his integrity and interesting formal experimentation – are unmistakably present. I hope I have made a case for taking “The Schoolmaster” seriously without overvaluing it.

Ursula at St. Philip’s Church School

40In his classic study, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1956), F. R. Leavis makes an assertion about Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow that will surprise no serious reader of D. H. Lawrence: “In Ursula’s experience as a teacher in St. Philip’s School [. . .] we have, unmistakably (though without incongruity), some direct transcription” (Leavis 163). As a sort of coda to my discussion of “The Schoolmaster” I would like to conclude with a brief analysis of Ursula’s experience.

41The account of Ursula’s difficult time teaching at St. Philip’s is of course found in Chapter XIII, “The Man’s World.” Lawrence draws on and fictionalizes his own experience, but he makes Ursula’s experience harsher than his own, and, more importantly, he places that experience in a larger thematic context. Although she is seeking freedom when she takes the position at the school, she soon finds that a “prison” has closed “round her” (R 346). Her pupils are “not individual children, they were a collective inhuman thing.” She feels that she “cannot breathe: she must suffocate, it was so inhuman” (R 350). Like Lawrence, she “hated school” (R 380). But in The Rainbow school has a larger emblematic significance. It represents the cold, brutal system of power and authority that denies people individuality and freedom. It embodies the social structure that individuals must at all costs escape – as Lawrence had escaped with Frieda.

42Lawrence heightens and exaggerates his description of Ursula’s experience at St. Philip’s in order to underscore exactly what is at stake. She begins her teaching career with naïve dreams of glory: “[ . . .] she would give, give, give all her great stores of wealth to her children, she would make them so happy, and they would prefer her to any teacher on the face of the earth” (R 341). These dreams will be quickly dashed. Lawrence’s description of St. Philip’s on Ursula’s first day makes it clear that the school embodies the “hard, malevolent system” (R 350). From the outside St. Philip’s is “grimy, and horrible, dry plants were shadowily looking through the windows.” Inside the “whole place seemed to have a threatening expression, imitating the church’s architecture for the purpose of domineering, like a gesture of vulgar authority.” Early in the morning “the place was silent, deserted, like an empty prison.” A fellow teacher calls out to her, “as from a prison cell” (R 343). Two words in particular reverberate through the “Man’s World” chapter: “prison” and “mechanical.”

43“Authority” and “power” are also important words in the chapter. These highly unpleasant qualities are embodied in the rather Dickensian headmaster, Mr. Harby, “with his black brows and clear forehead, the heavy jaw, the big, overhanging moustache: such a man, with strength and male power” (R 360). Beneath a façade of civility Harby is “bullying and threatening”: “Like some invincible source of the mechanism he kept all power to himself. And the class owned his power. And in school, it was power and power alone that mattered” (R 350-51).

44A “deadly hostility grow[s] up between [Ursula] and the children.” She becomes “hard and impersonal” (R 367). Harby works “himself into an obsession of fury against her.” His “system,[ . . .] the outcome of his bodily movement, was attacked and threatened at the point where Ursula was included” (R 364). He wants her to be “nothing but Standard Five Teacher.” Her identity as “Ursula Brangwen must be excluded” (R 365). Being a woman is a further disadvantage. She must fight against becoming “prisoner in the dry, tyrannical man-world” (R 381).

45Ursula’s class gets “in worse condition” (R 358), and in a crucial episode Harby takes over: “[. . .] the silent, attentive class [. . .] seemed to have crystallised into order and rigid, neutral form. This he had it in his power to do, to crystallise the children into hard, mute fragments, fixed under his will” (R 360). When he leaves, he takes Hill – “evidently poor, and rather cunning” (R 358) – with him. The boy does not deserve punishment, but “at the far end of the room, she heard the whistle and thud of the cane.” St. Philip’s is a “torture-place” (R 361). Forced to adapt to the system, Ursula finds herself caning one of her difficult pupils:

[…] when she was driven wild, she seized her cane, and with fixed, desperate eyes gleaming almost cold with anger, she slashed the boy who was insolent to her, over head and ears and hands. And at length they were afraid of her, she had them in order. (R 376)
She has “paid a great price out of her own soul” (R 376) to establish order. Meanwhile she has also come to realize that teaching is “all so much milling the wind”: “The school, the sums, the grammar, the quarterly examinations, the register—it was all a barren nothing.” (R 380)

46In a letter to Edward Garnett written on 22 April 1914, Lawrence explained that The Rainbow is about “woman becoming individual, responsible, taking her own initiative” (L ii. 165). Ursula is trying to do just that when she begins her career as a schoolteacher. Instead she “league[s] herself to this evil system where she must brutalise herself to live” (R 377). What has she contributed? She has “put in her tiny brick to the fabric man was building” (R 394).

47The author of The Rainbow had long since outgrown the younger man who wrote “The Schoolmaster.” Although “The Schoolmaster” and the “Man’s World” chapter of The Rainbow make use of the same material, it is almost comic to compare the two. Lawrence, still at the beginning of his career, wrote “The Schoolmaster” as part of his effort to establish himself more fully in the literary market. The autobiographical impulse also played a part in the creation of the sequence. Translating his experience at the Davidson Road School into the forms of art helped him come to terms with it – and also helped him make the decision to move on. The Rainbow fictionalizes the same experience, but the “Man’s World” chapter is not really autobiographical (and not significantly a “transcription”). The material has become part of a larger, profoundly ambitious project. Paradoxically, the educator survives in that project – but now the schoolmaster’s classroom has become the entire nation. As he wrote Arthur MacLeod, his Davidson Road School colleague, on 23 April 1913, “I write because I want folk – English folk – to alter, and have more sense” (L i. 544).

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Gilbert, Sandra M. Acts of Attention: The Poems of D. H. Lawrence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Laird, Holly A. Self and Sequence: The Poetry of D. H. Lawrence. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.

Lawrence, D. H. The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts. New York: Viking, 1971.

Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Volume I: 1901-13. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Volume II: 1913-15. Ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Lawrence, D. H. The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1989.

Lawrence, D. H. and Amy Lowell. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell 1914-1925. Ed. E. Claire Healey and Keith Cushman. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1985.

Leavis, F. R. D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. New York, 1956.

Nehls, Edward. D. H. Lawrence: A Composite Biography. Volume I: 1885-1919. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1915. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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Keith Cushman, « Self and Sequence: Lawrence’s “The Schoolmaster” », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 47 | 2016, mis en ligne le 05 décembre 2016, consulté le 10 décembre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.254

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Keith Cushman

University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA

Keith Cushman, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has written or edited seven books about Lawrence. He is Past President of the D. H. Lawrence Society of North America and a recipient of the Harry T. Moore Award for Lifetime Achievement in and Encouragement of D. H. Lawrence Studies.

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