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"Harmony with Time": Lawrence’s Aesthetic in the Tortoise Poems”

Soha El Samad


An overwhelming sense of movement and flux moves readers of The Tortoise Poems to experience harmony between man, nature, and time. Lawrence’s readiness to proffer enlightening ideas on humanity and existence reveals affinities with Nietzsche’s "Superman." At the same time, he is reminiscent of his contemporary Heidegger, as he moves ahead of his age, voicing similar notions of being and time. More importantly, he was not only aware of Einstein’s theory of relativity, he even expounds its basic ideas through his philosophical writings. The aim of this study of the rhythm and flow of Lawrence’s style in Tortoises is to shed light on how he creatively and harmoniously presents an art form that is not only aesthetic but also deeply engaged with questions of existence and humanity. His poetic style reflects an apprehension of time through which he escapes the anxiety of his own temporality. We notice how both the tortoise and the poet, each within its temporal space, move toward a mysterious beyond. The slow pace of the tortoise, portrayed against the rapid pace of Lawrence’s style, produces an equilibrium that is coupled with a harmonious combination of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences of time.

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“Harmony with Time”: Lawrence’s Aesthetic in the Tortoise Poems

  • 1 Lawrence in a letter to Ernest Collings states that his motto is “Art for my sake” ( The Letters of (...)

“It's not art for art's sake, it's art for my sake”1

  • 2 Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious 10.
  • 3 Nietzsche 17.

1D. H. Lawrence’s creativity rises to its heights in poems that liberate the senses with their liveliness, energy, and vision. For Lawrence, artistic creation does not aim at pleasing the eye and the ear, does not have to conform to the repressive reasonable workings of the mind, and should not be restricted by form (“It's not art for art's sake, it's art for my sake”). It essentially strives to reveal the inherent beauty and harmony of the creative mystery by giving vent to spontaneous emotions and instinctual physical reactions. As Lawrence surrenders to the demon of poetry in a “pure passionate experience,”2 he creates timeless sensual images by way of a rhythm upon which “every simile” could be a “ride to every truth.”3

  • 4 Peterson 89.
  • 5 Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious 121.

2The Tortoise Poems, with their overwhelming sense of movement, are permeated with philosophical implications but Lawrence does not directly philosophize. What is at work is rather the artistic projection of his ideas through rhythmical images figuring particular moments of time, thus revealing a unique kind of art in which beautiful and enlightening images move harmoniously and defy their temporal inscription by becoming eternally fixed in the readers’ or listeners’ minds. In effect, the determined tortoise, so vividly portrayed by Lawrence, resembles the poet himself, burdened as he is with ill-health and frustrated by the repressive morality of his age. Per Serritslev Petersen claims that “It was Lawrence’s agonizing sense of sexual crucifixion in a puritan culture […] that broke not only Lawrence’s existential integrity, but also the silence of his natural tortoise self.”4 The tortoise is therefore the medium through which the poet experiences a kind of purification since this animal represents an independent and spontaneous spirit striving to survive in spite of its stifled sexual frustration. In Fantasia Lawrence writes how he experiences “deep satisfaction” when “getting into the perfect circuit of the earth’s terrestrial magnetism.” 5 Lawrence does experience himself as a "being-in-the-world" - a condition akin to that of Heidegger’s Dasein.

  • 6 Eggert 104.
  • 7 Sagar 121.
  • 8 Nietzsche 120.
  • 9 qtd. in Young 23.
  • 10 qtd. in Young 16.

3In what appears to be a study of the life cycle of tortoises from babyhood to maturity, Lawrence’s Tortoises or Tortoise Poems are presented in a series of images, each image existing within its own time and space while never losing its connection with the others. He succeeds in creating an art form that goes beyond the purely aesthetic experience of art for art’s sake by “mak[ing] us experience the experience.”6 As we are immersed in the realm of tortoises, we are allowed to witness and feel their fluctuating movement and their existential struggle. Keith Sagar describes this style as an “almost occult penetration into the being of other creatures.”7 Tortoises are given superhuman dimensions, as Lawrence projects himself into their space. He abandons himself to their natural world, he captures its aesthetic beauty, while concomitantly experiencing his own being in relation to everything around him, all the time conscious of a greater spiritual power: the creative mystery. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “whoever pricketh up his ears when lying in the grass or on lonely slopes, learneth something of the things that are betwixt heaven and earth.” 8 Heidegger, for his part, “thinks of every human being as born into a very fundamental, ‘transcendental’ horizon of disclosure – as it were, the horizon of all one’s horizons – and it is this he called ‘world.’”9 Lawrence thus manages to achieve a rare disclosure of the transcendental value of existence, of the "infinitude" needed to arrive at a fullness of being and to achieve a balance between mind and body, heralding what Heidegger refers to as “the return of great art.”10.

  • 11 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. 4, 37.
  • 12 Hoshi 38.
  • 13 Ibid., 38.
  • 14 Bell 9.
  • 15 Bell 7.

4In an age which was gradually losing touch with nature and humanity, an obsessive preoccupation with worldly time became entrenched. It was during that period, from 1905 to 1916, that Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity. Though it is not certain whether Lawrence did or did not read it, or even if he actually heard about the theories of time. The fact that he did ask his friend S.S. Koteliasnsky, in June 1920, for a copy of Einstein’s Relativity, is sufficient proof that he must have heard of the book. His response was that “Einstein isn’t so metaphysically marvelous, but I like him for taking out the pin which fixed down our fluttering little physical universe.11” In fact, Nancy Katherine Hayles and Mark Kinkead-Weekes actually claim that Lawrence must already have been. working on such an idea, at least on a “metaphysical” level.12 Kumiko Hoshi also states that Lawrence mentioned this theory in Pansies and that allusions to it may also be found in Kangaroo.13 What is essential is that his tortoise poems portray an experimentation of relativity that is quite similar to that of Einstein’s theory. We may also note that parallels between Lawrence’s ideas on being, existence and time and those of Heidegger have not gone unnoticed. Michael Bell has shed light upon such similarities, stating that “the essential capacity underlying Lawrence’s oeuvres is best elucidated through the approach to Being which constitutes the central philosophical concern of Martin Heidegger.”14 Bell also connects Nietzsche to both Heidegger and Lawrence, pointing out that “Lawrence’s relation to Nietzsche is […] assimilative and implicit rather than simply critical and conscious.”15

  • 16 Peterson 87.
  • 17 Lawrence, Fantasia 9.
  • 18 Fantasia 147.
  • 19 Ibid., 147.

5Essentially, time is a never-ending constant that moves both humans and animals toward a mysterious beyond, its condition being that whatever science tries to explain, study, or analyze, the inevitability of temporality cannot be denied. Therefore, as "beings-in-the-world," we can come to terms with and acknowledge our temporality by sensing and appreciating the physical and spiritual splendor of existence. This is what Lawrence, as a “human tortoise,”16 achieves in his "ethical" conception of art. His belief is in a divine energy underlying “the pomp and the magnificence of human splendor unfolding through the earth’s changing periods”17 and which can be grasped through a direct communion with nature in “a living dynamic relation to other creatures.”18 Like Nietzsche’s "superman," he stoops down to the level of the smallest creatures, in order to exalt the wonder of creation and achieve a “fullness of being.”19 Each poem therefore exists as an independent image — harmoniously enclosed within a single capsule of pleasure, ecstasy, wonder, movement, flux, affection, beauty and truth — a transcendental experience or moment fixed within horizontal time.

6Baby Tortoise sets off an overwhelming sense of movement and flux. This small and supposedly helpless creature that is making its initial progress into the world is as powerful and alive as any of nature’s creations. Its vitality actually resembles that of the poet. Consider the following lines:

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.

  • 20 Oracle ThinkQuest.

7The adverb "slowly" cuts into sentences beginning with verbs, thus creating a sense of immediacy. Adverbs of manner create a sense of speed, and even if the word itself, "slow," has a connotation of unhurried progression, the "ly" suffix conveys a feeling of forward thrust. In fact, the poem abounds with verbs that create a sense of immediacy: “To open,” “To lift,” “And reach,” “And move.” The tiny baby tortoise is compared to a human baby, albeit one endowed with an iron strength in spite of the heavy burden on its back and an "indomitable will," that of an “invincible” “little Titan.” This small, lonely, newly born creature of the animal order, kin nonetheless to a human baby, makes “slow, ageless progress/ And a baby makes none.” Here, Lawrence seems to be establishing a relationship between motion and time: this tiny creature, very close to the earth or to its gravitational pull, is perceived by the poet to be faster than a baby, relatively to its size and load. As such it. moves quite quickly through its time-space. Its forward movement, relative to the poet’s fixed gaze,. is thus one that has spanned “immemorial ages.” This corroborates Einstein’s theory, which postulates that “the faster an object is moving, the slower time progresses for that object in relation to a stationary observer.” 20

  • 21 Rowan 9.
  • 22 Oracle ThinkQuest
  • 23 Fantasia of the Unconscious 147.
  • 24 Nichols 6.

8One can argue that both tortoise and poet move in different time-spaces, and that it is only by moving at extremely high speed in relation to another being that one can enter another time dimension. According to Special Relativity, Einstein states that, “whenever you move relative to someone else you enter into a distinct temporal universe. You will measure time differently from the other person”21 since “time, like space, is a dimension in itself, and objects can transverse it in a similar way as they do through the third dimension.”22 To transverse time, or indeed another dimension, both speed and gravity must respectively be fast and powerful. Since tortoises are constantly moving, their time moves slowly and their “ageless progress” is seen in relation to the poet’s rapid aging and temporality. Such a portrayal of relativity reflects Lawrence’s belief “that individual living creatures are relative to each other”23 and has affinities with Heidegger’s Dasein for whom “all truth is relative.24

9Added to Lawrence’s use of action verbs, his sentences emphasize the sense of movement. They are mostly fragmented, lacking syntactic form. A predominance of sentences, structured in accordance with standard logical and syntactic form suggests linear time. One can thus remark the effect of the fragmented or interrupted sentences, when the poet is insisting upon the tortoise’s forward movement: “You draw your head forward, slowly, from your/ little wimple.” When the focus is on the specific features or movements of the tortoise, the fragmented sentences predominate, their particular musicality suggesting a certain need or desire, akin to the chaos that ruptures order every once in a while as it strives for fulfillment or harmony.“The ponderous, preponderate, /Inanimate universe;/And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.” These fragments operate in a manner similar to that of the spear to the side Lawrence mentions later on in the poems.

  • 25 Nietzsche 26.
  • 26 The diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One 1931-1934, 118.
  • 27 Carman 114.

10The poem furthermore abounds with what seem to be contradictory and unrelated comparisons concerning the tiny baby tortoise, which in some instances appears slow and monotonous, and then strong and active in others. This is suggestive of the order and chaos in the natural world. Yet again, the tortoise’s continuous movement is chaotically interrupted by the uncontrollable desire for completion. It was this which had caused Nietzsche to believe that, “one must still have chaos in oneself, to give birth to a dancing star.25 Renewal and rebirth are the refreshing result of chaos, as Anaïs Nin says: “In Chaos there is fertility.”26 Consider the many different comparisons associated with the tortoise who is at times human, superhuman and animal: a baby, a bird, a traveler, a Titan, a gentleman, a little Ulysses, a forerunner. Such randomly used contradictory and unrelated comparisons highlight the significance of this small creature who, relative to all others, is stronger in both its physical and its mental abilities. For Heidegger, byforging ahead ‘living and bodying forth (leben und leiben) [] with an understanding of ourselves as will to power, we [...] attain a kind of harmony with the actual, that is, with chaos.27

11A series of rhetorical questions further enhance the sense of movement, while adding a musical effect. Some of these are mostly concerned with existence and with a sense of wonder at the tortoise, while others are directed toward the understanding of its nature. They are infused with hyperbolic comparisons to humans, testifying to the poet’s desire to understand the creative mystery and existence of this admirable small creature.

12The final stanza introduces the notion of pain that goes with the sense of the movement of the tortoise like the fragments interrupting the flow of the lines. This is achieved by way of the comparison between the. tortoise and Christ carrying the cross:

The Cross, the Cross
Goes deeper in than we know,
Deeper into life;
Right into the marrow
And through the bone.. [my italics]

  • 28 Valentine, Marylyn. “Nietzsche and Lawrence.”
  • 29 Gurudev 84.

13We notice how the words in italics are repeated in consecutive lines. This generates a sensation of repetition and movement that will ultimately come to an end with the hard and painful death that is suggested by the word bone.” The time is a linear, forward-moving time. And yet with regeneration there comes change within nature and then death. Though the actual word pain is not used, the image of the cross going deep into the body, together with the repetition of the words deeper into in the middle of the first stanza creates an authentic sensation of pain. This life therefore refers to Christ, whom Nietzsche considers as the “only one Christian [who] died on the cross.28 The Cross is a synecdoche for Christ crucified. Christ carried the cross, alone, journeying beyond physical pain and into the realm of the spiritual. After crucifixion, according to Lawrence in his last work, The Man who Died, Christ is resurrected to live again his life among men; it is a kind of “transcendence, reached by death and rebirth”29 and the cross is the bridge in-betweenthe “keystone” on the shell as will be further perceived in the next poem.

  • 30 Lawrence, Tortoise Shell.
  • 31 Heidegger, Being and Time 162.

14In Tortoise Shell, Lawrence presents his ideas concerning mathematics and the creative mystery through the figure of a tortoise-shell. The shell is evidence of “Life establishing the first eternal mathematical tablet.30 He starts by way of a description that is both rhythmical and detailed, the combination of these two properties producing a sense of aliveness: “life-clouded, life-rosy tortoise-shell.” Even its shell is an essential part of its being alive, in the world. The scales on the shell “are locked in an arch like a bridge”; a bridge that symbolically connects the physical world to the metaphysical world through strange markings or signs which point to the existence of a mysterious creative force. The poet’s identification with the tortoise’s plight as recognized by the underlying tone of empathy is furthermore a significant sign of a certain bonding with this small creature. According to Heidegger, “'empathy' [“Einfühlung”], is […] supposed […] to provide the first ontological bridge from one's own subject, which is given proximally as alone, to the other subject, which is proximally quite closed off.31Accordingly, two different entities can exist in harmony, despite their occupying different time spaces.

15The word “keystone” and the number “four” are repeated four times in a single four-line stanza. The number four may refer not only to the number of shapes on the shell. It can also evoke their existence in time, their four-dimensional nature. Later, Lawrence will describe the tortoise as having “Four rowing limbs, and one wedge-balancing-head.Like the four shapes on the shell, the head is representative of the keystone whose function is to hold all shapes together. In fact, the whole poem abounds with numbers and with mathematical allusions, in a disordered and almost chaotic manner. There are even expressions suggestive of chaos, such as “the whirligig of dozens.” These reflect the beautiful and wild quality of nature, with “life placing her/ counters on the living back/ Of the baby tortoise. Unraveling the mystery of numbers in this poem would be tantamount to unraveling the secret of the creative process; an impossible task. Like the random profusion of comparisons, the irregular placing of numbers is in fact an interesting vindication of the Nietzchean belief in the illusion presented by scientific truth. Nietzsche believes that,

  • 32 Babich 147.

As long as science works with numbers (or concepts in general, that is, as long as science follows an exclusively rationalist ideal), it works with reality-falsifying simplifications [] The scientific vision denies the wild and subtly various chaos that Nietzsche takes to be a more [...] accurate account of nature.32

16Rhythm here moves in phase with the poet’s description of the shell keeping up with the tortoise’s continuous movement. When he lifts the tortoise for a closer appreciation, the reader is given the vision of a “kicking little beetle” and when the poet once more “turn[s] him over on his toes again,” we can only imagine how its “rowing limbs” instantly resume their pace forward. In effect, the poet provides a 3D image of the shell through his words, with the fourth dimension being the forward movement of the animal as it moves in its time-space and along its horizontal life or time line.

  • 33 Hoshi 100.
  • 34 Ibid., 100.
  • 35 Ibid., 106.

17At this point, we may evoke the Cubist movement in art, which attempted to add a fourth dimension to paintings and so overturn the generally accepted understanding that art portrays images as fixed representations by way of two or three dimensional shapes. Pablo Picasso was a major exponent of this movement, providing a beautiful demonstration of Cubist art in his Demoiselles D’ Avignon. Hoshi stresses that Lawrence was aware of Picasso’s work during this crucial period, first mentioning him in Women in Love “where he changed the name of the artist from ‘Pisarro’ to ‘Picasso’ when he was revising the typescript in November 1916.33 Though Lawrence did not reveal an outright admiration for Picasso’s art, he “maintained [an] interest in Picasso’s paintings.34 Hoshi also says that “Lawrence’s representation of the relative universe bears a coincident resemblance to those in the paintings of Picasso and other modernist artists.35 The conveying of the sense of movement is in effect what Lawrence achieves in his diverse and connected tortoise portrayals.

18The rhythm of motion once more gains pace in Tortoise Family Connections, with the very first words again giving the impression of movement, of a more resolute motion. “On he goes” and baby tortoise, the determined “bud of the universe,” moves “Setting off somewhere, We notice the verbs of motion used in the infinitive form, “To row forward…To travel…To crop… To move…To roam” and then, towards the end, the tortoise is “moving, with the use of the gerund instead of the infinitive form at this point highlighting a sense of continuous movement and eternal motion. Descending to the level of the tortoise and trying to place himself in its space and to observe things from its perspective to experience what it feels like to be so small Lawrence interestingly points out that “Tortoises always foresee obstacles,” suggesting that their size can be an advantage.

  • 36 Heidegger, Being and time 33.
  • 37 Ibid., 469.

19Independent and oblivious to its family, the tortoise moves on, alone but never lonely. Such a condition of being is precisely what Lawrence seems to advocate. According to Heidegger, “Dasein always understands itself in terms of its existence in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself.36 Relative to everything else in the garden, including the poet, the tortoise appears brisk, resolute, and sure of its “being-in-the world. Heidegger considers “that such existence, in its resoluteness, never loses time and ‘always has time. For the temporality of resoluteness has, through its relation to its Present, the character of a moment of vision.37 In fact, this is essentially what these poems achieve: they capture creative beauty in a moment of vision while maintaining the sense of movement, just like time itself.

20The last lines establish the tortoise’s sense of independence. Like Lawrence, the tortoise is alone, arrogant, almost unnoticed amidst the general chaos of the world around it, yet still enjoying its “fullness of being”:

Wandering in the slow triumph of his own existence,
Ringing the soundless bell of his presence in chaos,
And biting the frail grass arrogantly,
Decidedly arrogantly.

  • 38 Nichols 14.
  • 39 Nichols 3.
  • 40 Zimmerman 4.
  • 41 Heidegger, Being and Time 346.
  • 42 Nichols 5.

21In spite of the chaos within and without, the tortoise is triumphant in its existence and it persists onwards. It is a freedom that has an “innate connection with truth,”38 since by just being itself the tortoise expresses “a freedom as revelation which not only founds the very possibility of something like a ‘free will,’ but also the disclosure of beings.”39 In fact, Lawrence’s contemplation of the tortoise procures him an access to a mode of. self-awareness, to what Heidegger refers to as a resoluteness leading to transcendence.40 He projects the spotlight onto the young tortoise, unto an “existential phenomenon”41 or situation, to experience the beauty of creation and “of beings as they are in themselves,”42 and enrich himself him with a resolute acceptance of his temporality amidst his chaotic existence.

22Nietzsche also regards such determined aimless rambling as a positive recognition of one’s temporality,

  • 43 Seung 138.

[…] once you recognize the futility of your struggle and accept cosmic necessity, you can strangely gain the sense of relief from the constant pressure of anxieties and worries. Then you are no longer trapped in the human cage of your petty aims and purposes. You have transposed yourself from the individual to the cosmic perspective. 43

  • 44 Fantasia 149.

23The poet at this point is bold enough to actually interfere in the life-space of the tortoises, poking the father tortoise with a stick: “He snaps when I offer him his offspring/Just as he snaps when I poke a bit of stick at him.” Yet it is interesting that he does not get in the way of the female, because he cannot identify so readily with a female's otherness, an otherness so completely different and immune to any kind of emotion, whether towards her offspring or her mate. In contrast, his intrusion into the space of the father corresponds to a loving and sympathetic identification with the plight of an “other” male, much like “the sympathy of the adult soul.”44 Here, as in Lui et Elle and Tortoise Gallantry, it becomes apparent that the male tortoise is spontaneously propelled, through an inner chaos of emotions, to pursue the female by the natural desire for sex and reproduction needed for the continuation of their lineage along horizontal time.

24Rhythm, motion, and flux are once more experienced through the musicality of repetition, anaphora, through the series of rhetorical questions and chiasmi. We can note the beat in the rapid pace of these lines, “Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless/ Little tortoise,” coupled with the abundance of rhythmical devices and words that are always in tune with the gradual and persistent motion of the tortoises. There is an abundance of alliterations, for example: “And all rambling aimless, like little perambulating/pebbles scattered in the garden.” Plosives here create the effect of a scattering of pieces. They produce a vivid and rhythmical image of the aimless tortoise family in motion. A chiasmus further adds to the rhythm and to the image of a tortoise going through inner turmoil: “he is irascible this morning, an irascible/tortoise.” We note the sounding and then the soundless bell in the following lines: “the first bell sounding/from the warm blood, in the dark-creation/morning” and “Ringing the soundless bell of his presence in/chaos.” The contrasting expressions, “sounding /and soundless,” are juxtaposed so as to produce a vivid effect through loud sound and sudden silence.

  • 45 Fantasia 102.

25Moving from his attempt to connect and identify with the tortoise family, Lawrence again shifts his focus unto the courtship mannerisms of tortoises, highlighting the conflict of forces between the male and the female. We notice at this point the lack of equilibrium between them. The romantic French title Lui et Elle is an anthropomorphic expression suggestive of love and romance, with the added ironic personification of the female tortoise as “mistress.” Moreover, the equilibrium suggested by the two people mentioned in the title contrasts sharply with what is actually revealed in the poem. The “mistress” or “Elle” are words that have no relation with the actual intended signifier, here qualified as being “large and matronly/And rather dirty, /A little sardonic-looking, / as if domesticity had driven her to it.” She is large, unsympathetic and aware only of her needs. Unlike the tortoise, Lawrence, the poet and onlooker, feels differently about the female and is “almost frightened” by her. At this point, he encroaches into her space, offering her food but is bitten in the process. He cries out loud, but his human cry falls into a void and is unheard; she is completely unaware of his pain. It is interesting to note that his shout does not break into her space. Materialistic and down-to-earth, she represents the modern “sexually self-centered”45 woman, whose concern is more with the preservation of her own desires and with her image in society than with meeting the needs of a desirous spouse.

26Lawrence’s sadness and pity for the poor little animal therefore arises out of a realization that though “more delicate than she,” the tortoise is doomed to keep chasing the female, “In the race of love—/Two tortoises,/ She huge, he small.” It is also important to note that the scar on the tortoise’s shell suggests the female’s cruelty, while also strengthening the connection between the poet and the tortoise. Along with Lawrence’s identification with the male tortoise, one could also deduce that the scar noticed by the poet on the tortoise’s shell is the projected scar of the poet, who had been bitten by “Elle” when she nipped at his finger while offering her food earlier, “Snake-like she draws at my finger, while I drag/ it in horror away.” In spite of this, Lawrence maintains the sense of movement by stressing the male tortoise’s obstinate will to keep moving onwards “with a grim, reptile determination” belonging to “serpents” long obstinacy/ Of horizontal persistence.” The tortoise accepts his chaotic desire, does not repress his physical urge and is oblivious to pain. This is poignantly expressed in the following lines:

the spear is through the side of his isolation.
His adolescence saw him crucified into sex,
Doomed, in the long crucifixion of desire, to seek his consummation beyond himself.
Divided into passionate duality,
He, so finished and immune, now broken into desirous fragmentariness,
Doomed to make an intolerable fool of himself
In his effort toward completion again.

  • 46 Keese 136.

27Though a certain measure of resistance is part of the courting act, the female tortoise in this poem exaggerates her withdrawal to a condition characterized by her complete denial of her mate and of her own natural calling. According to Andrew Keese, the issues Lawrence brings up in these poems « revolve around the concept of imposed human morality, which he blames for crippling human societies.46 His pity is not the case of a projected self-pity. What is involved is more the response of one saddened to see humanity, like the female, losing touch with nature and failing to understand the tortoise’s natural urges.

  • 47 Fantasia 150.
  • 48 Lungstrum 140.

28Lawrence furthermore believes that it is the “the female [who] sends out her dark summons, the intense dark vibration of sex”47 to lure the male. Though in Tortoise Gallantry. he does formulate the enigma of the male tortoise’s desire, “Does she know?” the answer would most probably be affirmative, since the male tortoise is in fact moving in reaction to her signals. Lawrence’s question also reflects Nietzsche’s belief that woman is “conscious of man’s feelings” towards her, while acting as though she is ignorant in order to exert what he also refers to as “the will to power.48 The female tortoise is “large and matronly” and “almost too large,” compared to the male’s “much smaller” stature. Her “will to power” is therefore stronger, and the more she moves away from him, the greater the attraction he will undergo, to submit to her stronger magnetic pull. In fact, by moving deliberately away, the female is also denying her own basic needs. In Natural terms, both of them need completion. All their movements should therefore be spontaneously directed towards this moment of fulfillment. When she does finally succumb, the union that results from the force that has pulled the male tortoise forward becomes spiritually uplifting, due to the pain or suffering that has preceded the moment.

  • 49 Sagar 73.
  • 50 Fantasia. 165.

29Keith Sagar affirms, “it is clear that we are no longer speaking of tortoises”49 in this poem. In its search for completion, the tortoise is in pain — a pain symbolized by the spear through his side, which can be considered as being due to the female who, like the woman in the Bible, was created out of Adam’s rib. It is a pain caused from within his own body. In this sense, the female tortoise’s “will to power,” together with his physical want or urge, are the pain or the spear that torture the male in its desire for union. Crucifixion therefore refers to the inner turmoil or chaos in nature; the suffering that creation experiences in its movement toward completion and in the continuation of the species within constant time. Following this chaotic experience is a union of pleasure and pain, of the physical with the metaphysical, leading to a temporary resurrection and to an awareness of the spiritual and the “oneness of being,” which Lawrence refers to as “the Holy Ghost.”50

  • 51 Fantasia 150.

30Tortoise Gallantry might appear to be a repetition of the earlier courting experience in Lui et Elle. However this is not the case. It is a repetition with a certain difference or change. There is a barely discernable and yet significant shift in the perspective, from “the little old man” to that of the “little gentleman” who has now blossomed and is about to experience the persistent courtship characteristic of a tortoise and who will continue the “sorry plight” of its predecessor, the father tortoise. Here the tortoise, in his pursuit of the female, “does not look at her, nor sniff at her,/ No, not even sniff at her, his nose is blank.” This echoes Lawrence’s claim in Fantasia that “Love is blind. Without sight or scent or hearing the powerful magnetic current vibrates from the hypogastric plexus in the female, vibrating on to the air like some intense wireless message.”51 The poem’s emphasis on the negative, coupled with the use of the word “blank,” indicates the lack of any real emotion other than the desire to achieve the fullness of being preceding pro-creation.

31More importantly, the image of the female in Tortoise Gallantry is not as ungainly and as invidious as the female in the preceding poem, since we can discern her “vulnerable folds of skin,” in contrast to the evocation of the “ugly ankle” of the mother tortoise in Lui et Elle. Even more so, in Tortoise Gallantry, the female does not seem as completely nonchalant to male advances as the female in the previous poem is. In fact, “she sprawls along/ In her ungainly pace;” the word “sprawls” has a sexual connotation as does her “ungainly” or unhurried pace.

  • 52 Greg Garrard in “Nietzsche contra Lawrence: How to be True to the Earth” shows that in spite of sim (...)

32These differences are suggestive of the change that occurs within cyclical existence along horizontal time, the implication of which is that beings do not have to be mere copies and repetitions of generations. It seems that the female of the next generation does not need to exercise her “will to power” outwards onto the male and that she is fated to achieve a greater truth to her spontaneous self, to the natural act. Her “will to power” (her cosmic inner force) is now more faithful to her physical need.52 Her “ungainly pace” is in equilibrium between her inner and outer material needs and it thus becomes what it should be: the natural act of seduction preceding the mating act, rather than the forced disregard of the inevitable. In fact, the slight change in the female’s attitude indicates that the progression of time does not have to be tediously repetitive. Even the title of this poem, Tortoise Gallantry is less sarcastic, suggesting bravery and respect for a female who can balance her inner and outer needs.

33At this point, the urgency for completion becomes more pronounced, and in spite of the repeated expressions of isolation, persistency, eternity, ageless existence, the most poignant feeling is expressed as an “Ache, and want of being,/ Want,/ Self-exposure, hard humiliation, need to add/himself on to her.” Sexual undertones are evident in the above lines, through the. natural instinct for “coition.” The more frequent the fragments, the more frustrated the tortoise is. Fragmented lines express unfulfilled longing, while vivid imagery and internal rhyme add to the poignancy of the aesthetic experience. Notice how vividly this experience is portrayed:

suddenly distracted into this mazy
This awkward, harrowing pursuit,
This grim necessity from within.

  • 53 Nichols 13.
  • 54 Ibid., 13.

34Rhythm and motion, mixed with a sense of urgent need, distract“ the tortoise. He is unwillingly pulled towards his desired object, as if by a stronger mysterious force. Lawrence succeeds in vividly portraying the natural desire that controls all creatures as a “grim necessity from within.” The word “horizontal” is used twice in Tortoise Shell and Lui et Elle to refer to the “horizontal temporality”53 or linear progression of time. The tortoise’s determination is reminiscent of what Heidegger refers to as the “primordial freedom of Dasein. But this very freedom is a‘delivering over to one’s fateful destiny.54 Consequently, the tortoises just live each particular experience as part of a whole, with each fragment containing its moments of pleasure or satisfaction its “fullness of being“ — after which they once more continue their forward movement. However, the need to persist never ceases and the male tortoise would once more experience a “still more awful need to persist, to follow,/follow, continue,/ Driven, after aeons of pristine, fore-god-like/ singleness and oneness.” One cannot help noticing the sense of flux created by the abundance of words suggestive of sexual urgency.

35Modesty would require that an onlooker should leave the tortoises to their sexual act, but Lawrence subtly addresses the reader with the avowal that, “having come with you so far,/We will go on to the end.” Thus we are tempted to witness the actual act of completion, the climax of tortoises and of the poems that have been moving in unison with the slow and then gradually rising tempo of the tortoise’s movements according to the rhythm of its desire. Once more, in the internal rhyme of Tortoise Shout, repetitions and anaphora, gradually raise the pace of the poem in order to meet the rhythmical movements of the “tortoise in extremis.” The sound the poet hears seems to come from “Far off,” an expression repeated four times for emphasis. The number four once again intrudes as an indication of the fourth dimension of time, announcing the sound or cry coming from another time-zone. Again he asks, “Why were we crucified into sex?” and the answer to that question is given by the very experience itself, which uplifts the tortoise and all creation into another dimension of time and space into a temporary spiritual transcendence. As such, the tiny yet audible cry of the tortoise moves from being a particular experience to a general one encompassing all beings.

  • 55 Gott 36.
  • 56 Lawrence, Tortoise Shout.

36This tiny creature, which Lawrence “thought was dumb,” breaks the sound barrier of the human world when previously his own cry of pain went unheard. Breaking the space of the observer’s dimension indicates that the tortoise’s speed has gained pace, relative to the stagnant observer. We notice how fragmented lines become more pronounced, as if gathering speed. In fact, the ascending rhythm coincides with the fast pace of the tortoise and it culminates in a cry that is “half music, half horror.” The cry heard by the poet, breaks his time space, since the tortoise, with its load and stronger gravitational pull, is moving at a higher speed. In this way, Lawrence gives evidence that the tortoise is faster than man and that it furthermore. asserts its “ageless” existence. Einstein’s Relativity also states that “moving objects age slowly.55 Hence through the observation of the “reptilian persistence” of the sexual act, the poet interrupts the scene as the discoverer of truth, of the creative mystery, from “the primeval rudiments of life, and the secret.”56

37Furthermore, in a series of fragmented memories expressed in rhythmical anaphoric sentences whose motion is tuned to the repeated “Heart-throb, slow heart-throb, persistent for the/ next spasm,” Lawrence reveals the different cries of pain and pleasure he has heard from different animals and people, including his mother. With each memory causing a heart-throb, rhythm moves accordingly. Breathlessly and rhythmically, one after the other, memories thus gain momentum, until finally all are forgotten and laid aside, for one single moment of extreme emotion, the climax of all memory, in a final cry:

This last,
Strange, faint coition yell
Of the male tortoise at extremity,
Tiny from under the very edge of the farthest
far-off horizon of life.

38It is this cry which breaks into the poet’s space. Note that the poet’s cry earlier, when bitten by “Elle,” fails to break the tortoise’s space, due to his static position as observer and to the fact that, relative to the tortoise, he is farther removed from earth or gravitational pull. Therefore, relatively to the poet, the tortoise’s speed and strong gravitational pull causes it to cross from its time-space and to intrude on another dimension.

  • 57 Montgomery 134.
  • 58 Sagar 11.
  • 59 Fantasia 120.

39Once more, towards the end, the Cross and sex are mentioned in a stanza giving a final image of the experience of crucifixion as a kind of transcendence. The union of pain and pleasure draws forth an involuntary cry of completion through ascendance, of having achieved physical and spiritual fulfillment: “Singing, and calling, and singing again, being/answered, having found.” Here the musical notes are more relaxed and cheerful in tune with the satisfied union of two opposites as they “become whole again.” The persistent or repetitive desire of the two opposites to re-unite is part of the natural order of existence, “and results in a world of strife and flux.”57 The cross is portrayed as the passage to transcendence, to a metaphysical space through crucifixion. This linking of the religious and the poetic is for Lawrence an “instinctive act of synthesis,58 that tries to connect the spiritual with the real. Every time the tortoise cries and then subsides, it gives off the Holy Ghost, its “own true soul,59 in order to receive it again. This comprises a separation from the spiritual and then a union an uplifting and then a subsiding experience of pleasure as the soul leaves, temporarily going beyond the body and then returning. Thus Tortoise Shout, with its explicit depiction of the tortoise’s sexual act, can be considered as a climax to the leisurely and then gradually rising tempo of the previous poems. Lawrence portrays “a pure passionate experience,“ through rhythms which rise in tempo and then subside in harmony with the tortoise’s experience of ultimate union.

40What gives these poems their aesthetic appeal is the effective portrayal of what is a real moment in the life-form of tortoises. Through their movement and flux, the poems go beyond the purely aesthetic experience, opening up philosophical and scientific implications. Each poem or image is held together in cosmic, horizontal time by the sense of movement running throughout, and the resulting image of tortoises is a four dimensional one. In the end, what remains in our minds are the timeless experiences of creative beauty: the eternal now of each moment harmoniously enclosed within units of memory. Heidegger effectively explains this process as one that :

  • 60 Heidegger 425.

consists of a sequence of Experiences 'in time.' But if one makes a more penetrating study of this way of characterizing the 'connectedness' in question, and especially of the ontological assumptions behind it, the remarkable upshot is that, in this sequence of Experiences, what is 'really' 'actual' is, in each case, just that Experience which is present-at-hand 'in the current ‘now.’ 60

41We can only admire Lawrence’s ingenuity in creating his own kind of art: one that balances aesthetic beauty and existential truth, cosmic and personal time, by way of the poems’ harmonious figurings of the tortoises.

  • 61 Nichols 9.
  • 62 Carman 114.

42It can be surmised that the poet’s enthusiasm has led us into the wonder of creation, of nature, and into the meaning of existence through the experience of one of the tiniest of the world’s creatures. His wondrous gaze upon the tortoise world is an enlightening experience, which Heidegger would consider to be a “projection […] [that] opens a horizon of meaning within which being can reveal beings as meaningful.”61 Thus one can come to terms with temporality through the accession to a harmony with the inner self, achieving what Heidegger describes as “an understanding of ourselves as will to power”62 and not as a “will to power” directed towards the control or manipulation of the other.

  • 63 Nietzsche 54.
  • 64 qtd. in Valentine.

43Lawrence effectively developed an art form for “[his] sake.” His poems go beyond the habitual procedures and conventions of the poetic tradition, not only through their philosophical and scientific implications, but also through the four dimensional presentation of their poetic images, through which both the tortoise and the poet, each within its specific temporal space, move toward a mysterious beyond and thus towards a mode of experience of transcendence and unity. In effect, like Nietzsche’s “Superman,” Lawrence teaches “men the sense of their existence.”63 The implication would seem to be that if existence could be measured by the spaces or units of experiences, it could be surmised that the quality of Lawrence’s varied artistic creations has survived his temporality, that they now exist in harmony with horizontal time. Like Nietzsche, for whom time “has not come, some are born posthumously”64 Lawrence has outlived himself.

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Bell, Michael. D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Carman,Taylor. “Heidegger on Correspondence and Correctness.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal. Volume 28, Number 2, 2007. 103- 116.

Eggert, Paul. "CS Peirce, DH Lawrence, and Representation: Artistic Form and Polarities." DH Lawrence Review 28.1-2 (1999): 97-113.

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––––– Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1962.

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Lawrence, D.H. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Warren Roberts, James T. Boulton and Elizabeth Mansfield. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

–––––, D.H. Fantasia of the Unconscious. London: The Big Nest, 2013.

–––––, D.H.. Letter to Bertrand Russell, 15 July 1915, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: Vol II: June 1913-0ctober 1916, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981), 365, 366.

–––––, D.H. Tortoises. New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1921.

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1 Lawrence in a letter to Ernest Collings states that his motto is “Art for my sake” ( The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume I ) 491.

2 Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious 10.

3 Nietzsche 17.

4 Peterson 89.

5 Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious 121.

6 Eggert 104.

7 Sagar 121.

8 Nietzsche 120.

9 qtd. in Young 23.

10 qtd. in Young 16.

11 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. 4, 37.

12 Hoshi 38.

13 Ibid., 38.

14 Bell 9.

15 Bell 7.

16 Peterson 87.

17 Lawrence, Fantasia 9.

18 Fantasia 147.

19 Ibid., 147.

20 Oracle ThinkQuest.

21 Rowan 9.

22 Oracle ThinkQuest

23 Fantasia of the Unconscious 147.

24 Nichols 6.

25 Nietzsche 26.

26 The diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume One 1931-1934, 118.

27 Carman 114.

28 Valentine, Marylyn. “Nietzsche and Lawrence.”

29 Gurudev 84.

30 Lawrence, Tortoise Shell.

31 Heidegger, Being and Time 162.

32 Babich 147.

33 Hoshi 100.

34 Ibid., 100.

35 Ibid., 106.

36 Heidegger, Being and time 33.

37 Ibid., 469.

38 Nichols 14.

39 Nichols 3.

40 Zimmerman 4.

41 Heidegger, Being and Time 346.

42 Nichols 5.

43 Seung 138.

44 Fantasia 149.

45 Fantasia 102.

46 Keese 136.

47 Fantasia 150.

48 Lungstrum 140.

49 Sagar 73.

50 Fantasia. 165.

51 Fantasia 150.

52 Greg Garrard in “Nietzsche contra Lawrence: How to be True to the Earth” shows that in spite of similarities in the philosophies of Lawrence and Nietzsche, Lawrence slightly deviates from Nietzsche in his concept of Will to Power as the desire to control and dominate since, according to Lawrence, “it would pose a threat to his project” p.20. COLLOQUY text theory critique 12 (2006). © Monash University. 12 Jan 2014.

53 Nichols 13.

54 Ibid., 13.

55 Gott 36.

56 Lawrence, Tortoise Shout.

57 Montgomery 134.

58 Sagar 11.

59 Fantasia 120.

60 Heidegger 425.

61 Nichols 9.

62 Carman 114.

63 Nietzsche 54.

64 qtd. in Valentine.

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Soha El Samad, « "Harmony with Time": Lawrence’s Aesthetic in the Tortoise Poems” », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 24 septembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.301

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Soha El Samad

The Lebanese University, Lebanon

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