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The Geometrics of Education in D. H. Lawrence

Sarah Bouttier

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1The transmission and acquisition of knowledge, whether in the classroom or through revelations, is often represented in spatial terms or associated with movements. Throughout the centuries, lines of competing orientations have shaped the representations of the purposes of education. Vertical lines prevailed when education, by giving access to the Sacred Scripture, was regarded as a process of learning through which students are to be led above their conditions as sinners, and was thus seen as an elevation towards the world of reason, or as a key feature of the unceasing progress of mankind through the acquisition of knowledge. An example of this verticality is Plato’s simile of the divided line in the Republic (509d–510e), as explained by Ieuan Williams:

We are to imagine a vertical line divided into two, the lower half signifying the visible or sensory realm and the upper half representing the intelligible realm, each half itself divided into two further sections. The line, therefore, represents four stages of cognitive ascent, beginning with the lowest and ending at the highest. (Williams,

2Horizontal lines challenged these vertical visions, when education’s purposes were to inscribe a human being within the past, present and future of humanity, or to form, as in classic and then utilitarian doctrines, a workforce and citizens able to contribute to the stability and welfare of a society. One could cite as an example Patrick Bradley’s account of the collusion between Bentham’s utilitarian views on education and industrialism, a collusion which favoured the rise of a “narrow, factual, "useful" education, [complicit] with the factory system,” and satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times. (Bradley 69)

3In the imagery pertaining to education in D. H. Lawrence’s early writings (up to Women in Love), which we have chosen to focus upon because they are often more directly concerned with school education, both the pure horizontal movement and the pure vertical movement appear noxious, and movements combining upward and onward directions are therefore favoured. These movements of extension and addition rather than the estrangement and departure from one’s uneducated mind (which could, though there is debate over this issue, be the etymological meaning of the e, “ex”, in e-ducation) emphasize the importance of contact (with the vital life of the earth, with the teacher, etc.) rather than any setting free of the mind through linear progress or sudden elevation. They also shed light on a corollary balance underlying education scenes: the mutual interplay and checking of the tendencies to progress and stasis.

4It appears relevant to approach the question of education through spatial terms, not only because spatial metaphors of elevation and progress have pervaded discourses on education, but also because in Lawrence’s writing, movements across space are what both the process and the goal of education consist in. In this respect, we may recall the acquisition of knowledge described in “Education of the People” as a connection of points in space:

The volitional centre is the pole that relates us, kinetically, to the earth’s centre. The sympathetic plexus is the source whence the movement-impulse leaps out. Connect the two centres into a perfect circuit, and then, the moment the baby’s fist leaps out for the tassel on its cradle, the volitional ganglion swings the leaping fist truly to its goal. (P 643)

5Here Lawrence is explaining – in spatial terms – the child's experience of coming to understand how to direct a gesture voluntarily, making it one of the first and most important pieces of knowledge one is to acquire. Indeed, Lawrence thinks of education as primarily aimed at teaching bodies how to occupy space:

If we are going to teach children we must teach them first to move. And not by rule or mental dictation. Horror! But by playing and teasing and anger, and amusement. A child must learn to move blithe and free and proud. It must learn the fullness of spontaneous motion. (FU 112)

6Therefore, movement is the process of education, but also its primary goal. In this context, it seems important to map the complementary movements involved in Lawrence’s depictions of education in their relation to each other, that is to say to understand the meaning of horizontal and vertical lines in Lawrence’s writings on education and how the movement of a satisfactory education differs from these two models. Once the map has become a bit clearer, this study shall try to give those movements a wider meaning in Lawrence’s thinking on education.

Verticality and Horizontality

7In what this study identifies as “scenes of education,” pure verticality is in general negatively connoted. Through the recourse to vertical metaphors, Lawrence addresses what we can characterize as two pitfalls of education: firstly, an ideal elevation, which Lawrence would call “self-consciousness” and which implies a loss of grounding, of bodily life, and thus of one’s self, and secondly, an undesirable domination of intellectuals over other beings. Most of the time, these two downsides come together. It is the case in the descriptions of Hermione in Ursula’s classroom in Women in Love. There is a repeated use of vertical imagery. Her face is described as “lifted up” (33), “long” and “pushed up” (31), her body as “tall” (30), while her absence of bodily grounding is often emphasized: “she looked as if she had come out of some new, bizarre picture,” “her long white face pushed up, not attending to anything.” (30). Hermione’s sense of superiority pervades the scene, as she is repeatedly referred to as “mocking,” “half-bullying” (30), etc. What is more, loss of grounding is precisely the condition she advocates for a successful education, as she wants the children to be “untouched and spontaneous” rather than “always burdened with choice, never carried away” (33).

8This image of education as a corrupted process conducted by way of a vertical line leading to a higher place – higher than one’s body and higher than one’s peers – is also inscribed in the very buildings which host this wrong kind of education in Lawrence’s early works. The school at Brinsley Street where Ursula first teaches in The Rainbow is built according to a skyward aspiration, with “the arched doorway of the porch,” and “the whole place imitating the church’s architecture for the purpose of domineering, like a gesture of vulgar authority” (343). Within the classroom, the “abstract angularity” (347) of the “small high teacher’s desk” opposite the “two high windows” (346) deprives the setting of any reassuring grounding and connection to the earth. More specifically, Lawrence insists on Ursula’s isolated position, high up at her desk, her feet not being able to reach the ground and her goodwill not being able to reach the students: “lifted up there, off the ground, she was in office” (347). Once again, education as a vertical process leads only to an unsatisfactory domination of the more knowledgeable people, and also to a loss of connection with one’s surroundings (for example, Ursula cannot connect this world with her own: “at the thought of her own village, a spasm of yearning crossed her, it seemed so far off, so lost to her” (346)) and, even more importantly, to a loss of connection with the children themselves, the school authorities and the children being seen as “a set of separate wills, each straining itself to the utmost to exert its own authority” (356).

9If, in matters of education, verticality is connoted negatively in Lawrence’s writings, the association between education and a matrix of purely horizontal lines is equally symptomatic of sterility. Back in Ursula’s classroom in Brinsley Street, the horizontal lines formed by the children’s benches are twice referred to as “squadrons” (346) facing the teacher’s desk. Those lines of infantry are ready to assault her, and will do so: no fruitful contact will be established between the teacher and her pupils. Moreover, Ursula’s own career through education appears as a sterile, horizontal journey:

The last year of her college career was wheeling slowly round. She could see ahead her examination and her departure. She had the ash of disillusion gritting under her teeth. Would the next move turn out the same? Always the shining doorway ahead; and then, upon approach, always the shining doorway was a gate into another ugly yard, dirty and active and dead. Always the crest of the hill gleaming ahead under heaven: and then, from the top of the hill only another sordid valley full of amorphous, squalid activity. (R 404)

10Moreover, the notion of progress, whose linear nature makes it a bridge between the abstract idea of acquiring knowledge, which is the essential end of education, and the vertical and horizontal lines we have been commenting on, obeys the same rules. In the poem “Know Thyself”(CP 543), the pure horizontality of the path followed by humanity in its progress, understood as the acquisition of intellectual knowledge, will only lead to loss:

But sometimes we run ahead too fast
Running after a figment of ourselves
And that’s what we’ve done today.
We think we’re such clever little johnnies
With our sharp little eyes and our high-power machines
Which get us ahead so much faster than our feet could ever carry us.
When alas, it’s only part of our clever little self that gets ahead!
Something is left behind, lost and howling, and we know it.

11The further we go along the horizontal line of civilization, the more estranged we find ourselves from what Lawrence names (later in the poem) “our instinctive and emotional selves.” As is the case for the vertical type of knowledge acquisition, a horizontal mode of learning is not a satisfactory one, insofar as it too leads to an incomplete self, a loss of connection to one’s surroundings, and a misplaced sense of superiority, as “we think we’re such clever little johnnies.”

Waves, rotations and layering: the right kind of education

12How, then, can an adequate type of education, the type endorsed by Lawrence, be pictured? In Sons and Lovers, it may seem that Paul’s “love of horizontals” goes against the idea of a negative horizontality, which we have been presenting here, insofar as Lawrence opposes two ways of advancing in the process of civilization:

[...] the great levels of sky and land in Lincolnshire, meant to him the eternality of the will, just as the bowed Norman arches of the church, repeating themselves, meant the dogged leaping forward of the persistent human soul, on and on, nobody knows where; in contradiction to the perpendicular lines and to the Gothic arch, which, he said, leapt up at heaven and touched the ecstasy and lost itself in the divine. Himself, he said, was Norman, Miriam was Gothic. (SL 215)

13Here however, if verticality again implies the loss of one's self, the horizontality proposed as an alternative is not as pure as the “perpendicular lines”: it is a layering of sky and land, or a “leaping forward” – that is, a movement which goes both forward and upward. Indeed, as one might have expected from an advocate of mating and “true encounters,” it is the purity of the goal of education, whether the process is depicted as vertical or horizontal, that is at stake and that must be altered in order to reach a satisfactory type of education. Not surprisingly, then, successful processes of education are embodied by movements combining upwards and forward directions.

14We will therefore use the analysis of a poem which is aptly named “The Best of School” (CP 51) as a thread enabling us to map out a dynamic of movement and of geometrical figures which are often associated with this satisfactory sort of education. Typically, the movements involved show a double allegiance to a horizontal and a vertical axis.

15Waves and ripples, for example, figure an onward movement which is complicated by its alternating upward and downward directions. They are present from the beginning of “The Best of School” (CP 51):

The blinds are drawn because of the sun,
And the boys and the room in colourless gloom
Of underwater float: bright ripples run
Across the walls as the blinds are blown
To let the sunlight in; and I,
As I sit on the shores of the class, alone,
Watch the boys in the summer blouses
As they write, their round heads busily bowed (…).

16The wave, literally a wave of light emitted by the sun, subsequently transfigured into an aquatic wave for the sake of the marine metaphor, will later on be clearly associated with the process of education:

And very sweet it is, while the sunlight waves
In the ripening morning, to sit alone with the class
And feel the stream of awakening ripple and pass
From me to the boys, whose brightening souls it laves
For this little hour.

17Even within the imagery, the horizontal image of the contact between the teacher and the boy, or, in the previous passage, between the sunlight and the wall, is complicated by verticality: the boys and the room seem to float, instead of being attached to the ground, while the “stream of awakening” reminds us of a process of organic growth, rather than of a horizontal movement. This sunbeam and the marine metaphor also suffuse Ursula’s peaceful classroom in Women in Love:

A heavy, copper-coloured beam of light came in at the west window, gilding the outlines of the children’s heads with red gold, and falling on the wall opposite in a rich, ruddy illumination. Ursula, however, was scarcely conscious of it. She was busy, the end of the day was here, the work went on as a peaceful tide that is at flood, hushed to retire.

18The tide which will soon ebb and the horizontal line of the sunbeam, which, if not exactly a wave, is still complicated by “the outlines of the children’s heads,” together figure a kind of education that does not favour any pure line, but strives rather to produce a “rich, ruddy illumination.”

19We can also cite curves as further instances of a dynamic movement. Unlike a straight line, a curve such as a parabola requires a two-dimensional plane: the point tracing the curve moves onward as well as alternatively upward and downward. Or, in what is an even more sophisticated figure, the point traces a loop, which Lawrence names a “tendril” when he describes the kind of contact linking him to his pupils in “The Best of School” (CP 51):

As tendrils reach out yearningly,
Slowly rotate till they touch the tree
That they cleave unto, and up which they climb
Up to their lives—so they to me.

20This process of coming to knowledge through curved lines is also present in a scene which, though less explicitly concerned with education, nevertheless brings the characters knowledge of the world and of each other: the swing scene in Sons and Lovers. By moving along the pendular, semi-circular movement of the swing, Paul reaches back to the primal stages of Lawrencian education. His experience while he is “swinging through the air, every bit of him swinging, like a bird that swoops for joy of movement” (SL 181), is reminiscent of what, according to Lawrence, constitutes the primary goal of infant education: “A child must learn to move blithe and free and proud. It must learn the fullness of spontaneous motion” (F112). As in “Fantasia of the Unconscious,” the spontaneous movement is the means as well as the goal of education, and indeed, by this movement, Paul literally broadens his horizon:

He set off with a spring, and in a moment was flying through the air, almost out of the door of the shed, the upper half of which was open, showing outside the drizzling rain, the filthy yard, the cattle standing disconsolate against the black cartshed, and at the back of all the grey-green wall of the wood. (SL 181)

21Moreover, it is precisely through this motion that Miriam and Paul come to understand what sets them apart. Miriam in particular acknowledges that “she could never lose herself so, nor could her brothers” (SL 182). This movement leading to knowledge is clearly the result of a dual allegiance to a vertical and a horizontal axis: “She could feel him falling and lifting through the air, as if he were lying on some force.” Paul does not only elevate himself: he also falls, and this vertical movement is purely aerial; it is combined with his lying on “some force,” as if coming to knowledge was a process of elevation through layering, instead of through departing from one’s self or one’s surroundings: Paul is both free and profoundly in connection with the underlying forces ruling his cosmos.

22And indeed a layering of lines or shapes is another type of figure through which to figure what, in Lawrence’s terms, amounts to a successful process of education. When objects or lines are piled upon each other, a form of elevation and knowledge is acquired, without however there being any severance of the vital connection to the earth, as is the case in the purely vertical processes of education. In “The Best of School” (CP 51), the images of the pupils “cleaving unto” and “climbing up” their teacher as tendrils on a tree are in line with this process: “I feel them cling and cleave to me / As vines going eagerly up.” Education has an upward goal, and the students reach a form of elevation, as they climb “up to their lives,” but education relies also on the points of contact between the body of the students and the body of the teachers, on a layering of bodies which preserves a link between the vital earth and the upward aim of education.

23Such a layering is also in evidence in another poem featuring a positive view of education. In “From a College Window” (CP 35) the poet opposes an idealized (and, as in Women in Love and “The Best of School,” remarkably peaceful) college scene to the outside world, which he claims he “never want[s] to join”:

The glimmer of the limes, sun-heavy, sleeping,
Goes trembling past me up the College wall.
Below, the lawn, in soft blue shade is keeping,
The daisy-froth quiescent, softly in thrall.

Beyond the leaves that overhang the street,
Along the flagged, clean pavement summer-white,
Passes the world with shadows at their feet
Going left and right.

Remote, although I hear the beggar’s cough,
See the woman’s twinkling fingers tend him a coin,
I sit absolved, assured I am better off
Beyond a world I never want to join.

24Education is associated with the college yard, with its peaceful lime-trees dozing in the sun, while the poet is presumably in a classroom. The world outside the college is characterized by pure verticality (people with “shadows at their feet”) and pure horizontality (“going left and right”). Pure verticality is the governing trope of a rigorous social hierarchy, as a woman is giving a coin to a beggar, while pure horizontality carries its symbolism of sterility. In contrast to this, the college yard, remote from the rest of town, obeys different rules, as objects and people are entwined in layers: the lime tree hangs over the poet and climbs up the college wall, while below them is the lawn which “keeps in thrall,” as if it were yet another layer, with its “quiescent” daisies. This would seem to imply that a satisfactory architecture for education works by the addition of layers upon layers, while always preserving the contact with the vital earth.

Figures favouring contact

25In the wider perspective, it thus appears that Lawrence emphasizes an idea on education that is not altogether new. (His treaty on the “Education of the People” is indeed not commonly celebrated for its novelty, as we can verify in a recent anthology of philosophy of education, where he is labelled as a “conservative traditionalist” (Carr 207, 259)). The idea that a human being cannot be educated by cultivating the faculties of pure and detached reasoning, and that a pupil’s body must be involved in the experiences leading to knowledge, that is, in the process of education, is however essential to Lawrence’s conception of what it means to learn and to know.

26This idea reminds us of Locke’s views on how ideas are formed, through sensations first, then reflections upon those sensations. This view finds notable echoes in Lawrence’s assertion in “Fantasia” that “all mental knowledge is built up of sensation and of memory.” (F 110). More precisely, in the scenes which present a satisfactory kind of education, Locke’s first phase, sensation, appears to be sufficient to form the ideas necessary to educate children. Indeed, as is often the case, Lawrence’s originality lies in his grounding his views very firmly within the actual experience of the physical world: by avoiding the straight lines of pure horizontality and pure verticality, the geometrical figures and movements in space describe a process which does not leave one point, the uneducated mind, to reach another point, the site of the educated mind. On the contrary, the lines, attracted by forces, outlining bodies, overlapping each other, are shaped by the close and complex relationship between the pupil and the surrounding world, a world which includes the teacher, which is the condition of a “good” education. The importance and richness of this contact is evident in “The Best of School” (CP 51), where the pupils’ fruitful relationship to their teacher, even when it could be considered bodiless, as it is only indicated through a glance, is expressed in terms of touch and taste:

Touch after touch I feel on me
As their eyes glance at me for the grain
Of rigour they taste delightedly.

27The importance of contact also sheds light on Birkin’s horrified reactions at Hermione’s views, which we have already referred to here, to the effect that the children must be “left untouched” (WL 33), and it is made explicit in various passages in “Fantasia," among which:

And this is the way to educate children: the instinctive way of mothers. There should be no effort made to teach children to think, to have ideas. Only to lift them and urge them into dynamic activity. The voice of dynamic sound, not the words of understanding. Damn understanding. Gestures, and touch, and expression of the face, not theory. Never have ideas about children—and never have ideas for them. (F 112)

Progress and stasis

28There is a temporal counterpart to the figures which are shaped in space through the necessity of contact: it involves the mutual checking of progress and stasis, also evident in the education scenes in Lawrence’s early writings. Just as, in space, the process of education is not a straight line going from an uneducated being to an educated being but is constantly checked by allegiances the thrust of which is both upwards and downwards, and also onwards, in the modality of time, there can be neither progress nor stasis. What prevails is rather the constant tension between both, which thus epitomizes the process of Lawrencian education. Indeed, progress implies going somewhere but also leaving somewhere, whereas the process of education, according to Lawrence, must at all times keep in touch with the vital connection between the self and the earth.

29However stasis cannot satisfy the tendency manifested by Lawrence’s characters to open up to the outer world and be transformed by it. The most explicit example of this tension lies in the oxymoronic phrase at the very beginning of the classroom chapter in Women in Love: “the last lesson was in progress, peaceful and still.” (WL 35) Likewise, in “From a College Window” (CP 35), even though a lesson is probably in progress and the poet is attending it, what he describes are the daisies on the lawn, “sun-heavy, sleeping,” the drowsy sunny day and his abiding desire to remain in the college. Also, when describing the progress of the human soul, “the dogged leaping forward of the persistent human soul,” in the passage which expounds his love of horizontals in Sons and Lovers (215), Lawrence compares it to a landscape, “the great levels of sky and land in Lincolnshire,” that is to say to a relatively static entity, something that is spread out and deployed in space rather than in time. This necessary mutual checking of progress and stasis is what could explain the otherwise curious assertion, in “Fantasia,” that before anything else, a child must learn to stand still: “A child must learn to contain itself. It must learn to sit still if need be. Part of the first phase of education is the learning to stay still and be physically self-contained.” (112)

A quest for measure?

30Finally, these different figures, along with the view which they express on education, could be phrased in terms of measure and excess. Education, as pictured in these scenes, strives to avoid excess because, paradoxically, for Lawrence excess does not come from the excess of contact, or from there being too many directions, but on the contrary from the domination of one tendency over the other ones. We have seen that Lawrence favours curves and indirect paths over straight lines when it comes to education. What this enable enables us to show is that that these figures here serve to qualify a state that would otherwise be a state of excess (of self-consciousness, of absorption of the individual within a chain of training and skills, of freedom if one is left untouched, etc.). Curves, tendrils, layers, are not just apologies for a proliferation of the forms of life and of the contact between them, as a way through which to teach this life. They are not more than a straight line or than an education consisting of the imparting of mental knowledge. They are the results of a will to refrain from these models. They teach us that a satisfactory form of education is not a purely positive process for Lawrence, that it is one which stems from the resistance to and the checking of various tendencies within beings. This could, in turn, explain Birkin’s paradoxical assertion that if students are too self-conscious it is not “because they have too much mind, but too little” (WL 41).

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Carr, David. Making Sense of Education: an introduction to the philosophy and theory of education and teaching. London: Routledge, 2003.

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–––––. Phoenix : The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. London: Heinemann, 1936.

–––––. The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. London: Penguin, 2007.

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Plato, Republic (trans. Robin Waterfield, ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Williams, leuan. “Plato and Education.” The SAGE Handbook of Philosophy of Education. Ed. Richard Bailey, Robin Barrow, David Carr, and Christine McCarthy. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2010. 69-85. SAGE knowledge. Web. 20 Aug. 2014. <>

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Sarah Bouttier, « The Geometrics of Education in D. H. Lawrence »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 47 | 2016, mis en ligne le 23 novembre 2016, consulté le 28 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Sarah Bouttier

Stockholm University, Sweden

Sarah Bouttier received her PhD (Writing the Non-Human in D. H. Lawrence’s Poetry) from La Sorbonne Nouvelle in December 2011, and is currently teaching English Literature and Linguistics at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Her research interests include 20th and 21st century poetry and representations of the non-human in literature.

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