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Kissing in “She Looks Back” and “Seven Seals”: Excessive and Mad Poetic Expression

Elise Brault-Dreux

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1In Study of Thomas Hardy, Lawrence declares, “I feel joy when I kiss, because it is not me, the kiss” (STH 42). I want here to examine how he handles the kiss in “She Looks Back” and “Seven Seals,” and see how its poetic expression falls into immoderation.

2A kiss is a physical gesture bestowed by the lips to (generally) someone else, on any part of their body. In the Christian tradition, up until the High Middle Ages, the kiss was a holy sign of unity, reconciliation and peace. But over the centuries, this ritualized kiss was gradually secularized. Progressively, and especially in the West, it became “a bearer of emotional and sexual meaning” (Harvey, ed. 191), and in the 17th century, its erotic meaning became central. The kiss thus evolved into a “sign of love affection or desire” (Harvey, ed. 193) – and Keith Thomas does not fail to underline the significance of “the advent of more effective dentistry which did something to diminish halitosis and produce gleaming white teeth” (Harvey, ed. 193).

3Yet, kissing does not just lock two people together sexually. It is also a social code – that predates language – bestowed among friends, relatives, etc. It can be of welcome, of parting, of joy, of sorrow, of comfort. It may be of betrayal (the kiss of Judas), of death, or of submission. There has been disagreement, though, as to whether the kiss partakes of nature (and would thus derive from “primitive habits of eating” (Perella 1) or from the baby’s sucking its mother’s breast) or of culture (and evidence is given by the fact that lip kissing is not practiced in all cultures).

4The type of kiss that is central to my analysis is the one commonly considered as the “seal of love.” That which, in the exchange of breath and saliva, seals a form of pact (Harvey ed. 191). But one cannot read Lawrence without considering the synesthetic sensuality inherent to the erotic kiss which is both preliminary to and at the heart of the sexual act. The kiss is also caught in a dynamic of desire, where the relative transience of the kiss brings about and combines both desire and frustration.

5Now, why choose to look at the kiss in the context of a reflection on excess? In Study of Thomas Hardy, Lawrence defines excess (in the context of reproduction) as follows: it is “the thing itself at its maximum of being” (STH 11). And biologically, it is, Lawrence argues, a “brimming over” (STH 31). In that sense, the kiss is a form of excess in so far as it involves a turning to the other, a brimming over towards the other, a going out – an ecstasy in both senses of displacement and of rapture (“a maximum of being”). With the kiss one seeks the other, a reciprocal “being with” (Marcus 183). If not, kissing is perversion, as Lawrence suggests in his poem “New Heaven and Earth”: “And God of horror, I was kissing also myself” (l.35).

6Lawrence himself addresses the issue of kissing and excess, when he insists that the individual must not lose himself in the other, with the other, for the other. Man, even in kissing, must remain whole and distinct. To Whitman – whom Lawrence famously accuses of being excessively prone to a merging with otherness in an excessive form of sympathy – he says: “You don’t have to force your soul into kissing lepers or embracing syphilitics. Your lips are the lips of your soul, your body is the body of your soul; your own single individual soul” (SCAL 185). Seen from that angle then, the kiss almost appears as a boundary. And what he says in Study of Thomas Hardy is actually in keeping with that idea: “I feel joy when I kiss, because it is not me, the kiss, but rather one of the bounds or limits where I end. But the kiss is a closer division of me from the mass, than a sense of cold or heat” (STH 42). So the commonly accepted idea that kissing is a moment of fusion with the other is thus subverted.

7Now, in his two poems (both written at the same poetic period, both voiced by a male I addressing a female lover, both conflating love and tension, one where the “I” is being kissed and the other where it is giving kisses), how does Lawrence give form to an obsessive somewhat immoderate poetic evocation of and around the kiss, while the kiss itself is actually posited as a limit, a restraining frontier which is deliberately sought by the male I and, at the same time – it seems – cause of a maddened frustration?

“She Looks Back”

8“She Looks Back” was written in 1912, in Germany, and is obviously autobiographic. It pictures Frieda’s miserable dilemma as she is caught between her children in England and her lover in Germany. The first stanza places the scene in a liquid flowery setting:

The pale bubbles
The lovely pale-gold bubbles of the globe-flowers
In a great swarm clotted and single
To where the sunset hung its wan gold cloths (ll.1-4)

9Alliterative liquids, assonances, slightly modified repetitions and images of profusion suggest a spot at once teeming with life and softened by the personified sunset. This harmony is broken by the poet’s reference to his lover’s behaviour:

And you stood alone, watching them go,
And that mother-love like a demon drew you from me
Towards England. (ll.5-8)

10The ambiguous reference to “them,” both flowers and children, triggers the I-voice’s change from liquid to dental alliteration, posits a distance between the I and “that” mother-love (significantly hyphenated, as referring to the inexorable mother-child tie), and even upsets the syntax with the awkward coordination “And,” expressive of exasperation at the beginning of two lines (“And that mother-love […]”).

11The couple’s walk then, in the next stanza, is constrained by the “road,” the “birch-tree avenue,” and the “river.” The anaphoric succession of “Along,” “Along,” “Across,” keeps the couple within strict bounds. She is moreover paralyzed by her staring back towards England. And the lively excess of the surrounding flora and fauna, indifferent to the couple’s ossifying dilemma, is thus a foil for their frozen tension. There shone:

[…] a glow-worm sudden
Green lantern of pure light, a little intense fusing triumph (ll.14-5)

12This image, at once hyperbolical (with the successive three epithets) and oxymoronic (the “triumph” is “little”), conveys the I’s inner growing annoyance. Then a kiss occurs:

Then you put your hand in mine again, kissed me, and we struggled to be together.
And the little electric flashes went with us, in the grass,
Tiny lighthouses, little souls and lanterns, courage burst into an explosion of green light
Everywhere down in the grass, where darkness was ravelled in darkness. (ll.17-20)

13This unilateral “kiss” is immediately cancelled by a reference to the couple’s failure to sympathize and is then lost in the intensified exuberance of the glow-worms. Its effect is actually delayed to the next stanza, as though the I needed a few lines to measure the effect of the kiss, and what remains of it in his mouth – and this measure will eventually lead him beyond expressive measures:

Still, the kiss was a touch of bitterness on my mouth
Like salt, burning in.
And my hand withered in your hand. (ll.21-3)

  • 1 In keeping with Lawrence’s “It is not me the kiss.”

14The kiss is independent (it is “the” and not “your” kiss1), single enough to be referred to by “the,” and is equated with bitterness. This line is a turning-point in the poem as it marks the beginning of a metaphorical and poetic infection (see how his hand immediately “withers,” as if it were poisoned).

15Her paralysis (“back, back again” (l.24)) is tensely counterbalanced by the poetic heightened rhythm and by the male’s focalization on the immediate now (by contrast with her turning back), a now which is bubbling, with life: “the frogs in the pool beyond thrilled with exuberance” (l.29) and then reference is made to “the extravagance of the frogs” (l.32). The excessive flourishing liveliness in nature is indifferent to the couple’s annoyance and almost taunts their dilemma.

16The couple is making efforts to “sympathise” but they merely betray their failure to do so (“I suffered, wanting to sympathise” (l.34)). The kiss leads to no further sensual yearning, not even to another kiss. Her only “yearning” is towards England, to her children (l.40).

17After efforts at self-conviction that there is joy, the I reintroduces the bitter kiss with the image of “salt.” The liquid, bubbling of the opening scene yields to the sterile flow of the woman’s tears, hyperbolically referred to with “that glitter of salt, dry, sterile, sharp, corrosive salt!” (l.48). The exclamation and the chain of epithets convey his mad anger. The then contagious bitterness of the kiss contaminates the poetic imagery and drives the I to a sort of poetic fury – an exaggerated discharge of emotions:

I have seen it, felt it in my mouth, my throat, my chest, my belly,
Burning of powerful salt, burning, eating through my defenceless nakedness.
I have been thrust into white, sharp crystals,
Writhing, twisting, superpenetrated (ll.51-4).

18The now immoderately victimized I resorts to lists, to repetitions, convokes images suggestive of physical suffering, and ends the stanza with a term whose very root bears “excess” (“superpenetrated”- Pollnitz suggests in his notes, that it may mean “penetrated with an excess of salt,” Pollnitz 948). He is submerged with the bitter tears of the one whom he now repeatedly calls “Lot’s wife” (l.55). In this poetry of anger (with its repetitions, exclamations, harsh alliterations), the “you” becomes the target of all his madness:

Lot’s wife – not Wife, but Mother.
I have learnt to curse your motherhood,
You pillar of salt accursed.
I have cursed motherhood because of you,
Accursed, base motherhood! (ll.61-5)

19“Mother(hood)” and “(ac)curse” are equated by their respective four occurrences. The kiss he has earlier been given was therefore not that of a wife, but a maternal kiss wrongly given to her lover who was thus unable to receive it. Because the maternal kiss, Freud argues, is a reactivation of the infant’s pleasure in suckling the mother’s breast (as part of the oral phase), the Lawrencian I can only taste in it bitterness – her bitterness of not kissing her children.

20The poem proceeds with the I’s pretence of rationality the purpose of which is in truth self-reassurance:

I try to remember it is also well between us
That you are with me in the end
That you never look quite back; nine-tenths, ah more
You look round over your shoulder;
But never quite back (ll.73-7).

21“Looking back” is no longer absolute and has now become countable and relative. His anger seems to calm down. And yet, in the last stanza he reasserts his anger and immoderately widens her situation in making a generalized hyperbolical statement about all mothers:

Nevertheless, the curse against you is still in my heart
Like a deep, deep burn.
The curse against all mothers,
All mothers who fortify themselves in motherhood, devastating the vision. (ll.78-80)

22In this poem, the kiss, given by a lover who is too exclusively perceived as a mother, induces a poetic bitter contamination the effect of which is that the male I can only express his anger, jealousy and, especially, incapacity to sympathise with this woman’s (and all women’s) dilemma. The kiss, thus, crystallizes the distance and blocks instead of bringing together. It marks a frustrating boundary between the lovers, and the male frustration is expressed in a formal poetic madness.

“Seven Seals”

23In “Seven Seals,” a regularly rhymed poem written in 1918, the kiss appears as a mad instrument of submission. An obvious echo to the Apocalypse, this poem plays intertextually with the seven seals of the Book of Revelations, which “were originally the seven centers of bodily consciousness” (Urang 63). While the seals seem to be more than seven in Lawrence’s poem, the word “seal” appears seven times. The whole poem actually relies on the now dead metaphor of the kiss as a seal of love, and as such, pictures an I who, in kissing the woman’s orifices, seeks to jealously keep his female lover with and for himself. The I opens his poem in justifying his unusual initiative with an appearance of logical argument: “Since this is the last night I keep you home” (l.1) – and “the last night” gives the scene an apocalyptic sense of an ending.

24After three lines whose syntax is suggestive of metaphysical poetry, and which suggest past conflicts between the lovers (ll.3-5), the I refers to his lover’s “sullen-hearted[ness]” (l.6) and “lack of will to love [him]” (l.7). He then announces his intention, significantly introduced by the constraining “but”:

[…] But even so [disregarding the lover’s desire]
I will set a seal upon you from my lip,
Will set a guard of honour at each door
Seal up each channel out of which might slip
Your love from me. (ll. 7-11)

25With “I will set a seal upon you from my lip,” the first expression of his ambition to seal her up is evoked by a constrained, measured, dactylic poetic rhythm and, significantly, the unilateral kiss is introduced for the first time in the poem, metaphorically, as a seal. The mouth is synecdochically referred to as “the lip” (its singleness making it more symbolic than physical). And the kiss is introduced as distinct from the kisser. These elements sharply contrast with the contact most commonly associated with the act of kissing. Here the kiss is metaphorical, synecdochically and symbolically figured as something distinct from the kisser. It thus appears as a tool to guard, to constrain the woman and contain her potential love. The repetition of “each” (l.9 and l.10) within two lines is a first allusion to what sounds like an obsessive logical method (in keeping with the introductory “since”).

26The word “kiss” is delayed till the next stanza – “I kiss your mouth” (l.12) – in a sort of performative statement. From that line on, poet and kisser seem to delineate together their enterprise (respectively the making of the poem and the sealing). The I, in this stanza, wishes to stop, with his constraining kisses the stream of loving kisses that may overflow from her mouth. The male kisses then become quite absorbing, almost torturing:

[….] parch it up, destroy, remove
Its softly-stirring crimson welling up
Of kisses! Oh, help me, God! (ll.14-6)

  • 2 “Deviation in Reference to the Sexual Object” in Sigmund Freud, Sigmund, Three Contributions to the (...)

27The awkward, because unexpected, exclamatory appeal to God is readable as a first sign of madness – one may read it as a crack on the surface of what so far has been a controlled methodical demonstration. The I then wants to drink up her kisses, her love. The voracity inherent in his therefore absorbing kisses recalls the Freudian theory2 according to which the kiss is not erotic, does not partake of the sensual sexual act, for “the parts of the body concerned do not belong to the sexual apparatus but to the entrance to the digestive tract” (Freud 44). For Freud, kissing partakes of the oral phase and translates a starving for the other’s love: the other is to be ingested, incorporated, with no particular regard for his / her needs or wishes (Marcus 195). Once the tension has thus been established between kissing and constraining, it is amplified in the next stanza, where we hear the I in the process of elaborating his sealing-kissing venture:

I close your ears with kisses
And seal your nostrils; and round your neck you’ll wear –
Nay let me work – a delicate chain of kisses. (ll.20-2)

28the striking epithet (“delicate”), which here defines what is usually enslaving, and the pretended deliberation with the metapoetic pause “nay, let me work,” both give a perverse tone to the voice. At that point in the poem, the kiss has completely turned into a constraining agency.

29It is then once again metaphorically introduced, with abstraction and solemnity, through the recourse to the performative present tense:

Full mid-between the champaign of your breast
I place a great and burning seal of love
Like a dark rose, a mystery of rest
On the slow bubbling of your rhythmic heart (ll.25-9)

30If the “burning seal of love” materializes the kiss as an object of ritual, it is immediately dematerialized with the oxymoronic simile of the “dark rose,” both life and death, and the abstruse image of the “mystery of rest.” This kiss will constrain her whole being, even the pace of her heart (“slow bubbling”), taking care never to kill her (she then is like the dark rose, suggestive of both life and death): the “rest” must still be submissively “bubbling.”

31His kissing ritual is then synthesised in what sounds both awkwardly offhand (“nay”) and threatening (“I persist” (l.30)). He will keep her “integral” to him (l.31) and once more makes sure that absolutely each orifice is blocked with his kisses:

Each door, each mystic port
Of egress from you I will seal and steep
In perfect chrism. (ll.31-3)

32With “port of egress” Lawrence is likely to be referring (as in his first essay on Whitman) to the anus. He ritualizes this anal kiss by immediately referring to the holy anointing oil. Then there rises a tension between what appears as the man’s slow, deliberate, even methodical, ritual process on the one hand and, on the other hand, the suffocation gradually gaining grounds in the reader’s perception of such an excessive and somewhat mad process. If the I, both poet and kisser, still breathes regularly – as his quite well-balanced poetic rhythm makes clear – the reader, in empathy with the now almost mummified woman, may feel somewhat breathless. The smothering nature of the kiss is verified with the next two lines, whose apocalyptic resonance suggests an end:

Now it is done. The mort
Will sound in heaven before it is undone (ll.34-5)

33While “Now it is done” once again sounds basely performative, the intertextuality with the Book of Revelation, with the solemn use of “Now” and the trumpets sounding the “mort,” is coupled with a reference to the Last Judgement (1 Corinthians XV 52), by which the I-voice takes on a significantly prophetic tone. The I thus promises (both to the woman and to the reader) an imminent revelation, which would be more material than mystic. Yet kisses cannot actually be undone and the prophetic announcement is then debased and withdrawn in the last stanza, as he reverts to a much more mundane voice, picturing solidly material versions of the kiss.

But let me finish what I have begun
And shirt you now invulnerable in the mail
Of iron kisses, kisses linked like steel.
Put greaves upon your thighs and knees, and frail
Webbing of steel on your feet. So you shall feel
Ensheathed invulnerable with me, with seven
Great seals upon your outgoings, and woven
Chain of my mystic will wrapped perfectly
Upon you, wrapped in indomitable me. (ll.36-44, my emphases)

34The threatening and performative tone is thus heightened till the very end of the poem. And instead of “undoing,” or revealing, here the I again kisses so as to web around the female body an elaborate armour whose clinking steel resounds in alliterative [k]. With a pretence of godlike protection, expressed with prophetic overtones – repetitions, modality and new apocalyptic imagery – he in fact overkisses the woman into submissive dependence and paralysis, thus thwarting all possible positive Lawrencian forms of excess, that is, all “brimming over.” Moreover, within the limits of the poem, the seals remain unbroken. The revelation (whose content should logically be love) is, quite significantly, off the page.

35In this performative poem, framed in the Apocalyptic intertext, Lawrence therefore brings to the reader’s eye the voracious – or at best constraining – tension behind the sealing of lips. Far from creating fusion, the kiss in fact creates friction. Though “come” (repeated twice at the beginning of the poem) may be heard as the promise of an upcoming orgasm (“the self itself at its maximum of being”), the polymorphous kisses (“like beads” (l.22), “like a dark rose” (l.27), “like steel” (l.37)) are no preliminaries of sexual intercourse. The flow between the lovers is sealed. His mad excess has cancelled all plausibility of her lively excess. In kissing to excess, he has desexualized the act of kissing, taken it back both religiously to its pre-17th century ritualized function and, at the same time, biologically, to what Freud sees as the origin of the kiss – that is the act of absorption through the digestive tract. One could therefore almost see, in this poem, a process of de-symbolisation of the act of kissing.

Poetry with excess: a safeguard against madness

36In neither poem is there anything of the synesthetic sensuality of the ordinary kiss. And in both poems kisses are unreciprocated, and in that sense un-excessive, thus failing to prompt sympathy or even empathy. In these poems, kisses are limits and as such they mummify.

37And yet in reading these poems, the reader does perceive some kind of immoderation and excess.

38In each poem, if the kiss is not by nature excessive, its poetic expression actually does “brim over.” In “She Looks Back,” its bitterness infectiously contaminates the poetic discourse. And “Seven Seals” puts forth, if not a contamination, at least an omnipresence of the kiss that bespeaks obsession and an obsessive logical method. I would argue that the madness, which mainly derives from feelings of jealousy or anger, may also be an effect of the poet’s awareness of the impossibility of securing the lover through the performative force of a kiss, of the inherent failure of the kiss to draw irremovable bonds. In other words, the “I,” with his frictional kisses, may be imparting to the reader his awareness of the unattainable nature of his goal – which in both cases, is to have the woman all for himself.

39The only way to try to keep her “integral” is through the distortion of reality in and with poetry. In “She Looks Back,” Lawrence resorts to quite common devices, exclamations, hyperboles, interjections, variations of tone and form, culminating in a final generalisation to “all mothers.” All these devices convey immoderation, and through them the “I” shows how the kiss bestowed by Frieda concentrates the excessive bitterness that lies between them. In “Seven Seals,” the poet more interestingly utilizes poetry to try to distort reality, to make an excessive, and even perverse, situation happen. He tries to make happen within the frame of his poem what cannot be carried out in reality – that is, to have, through the force of a kiss, the woman all for himself. In this apparently performative poem, the poet seeks, with his discourse, to go beyond the limits imposed by what is possible, by deliberately falling into the immoderation of his sealing enterprise. But here excess is not formal. Like the woman’s body, the poetic form is kept well under the poet’s control and, again like her, it may threaten to give way, to explode, but never does, for the poet masters his demonstration in a quite methodical way, in regular rhyming patterns and the balanced stanzas, just as he methodically seals the female body, to keep it wholly to him. Excess is not even thematic, for the poem depicts a strongly constraining process that actually precludes excess. Excess lies therefore in the subjective outlook on his enterprise, in its poetic expression, particularly in the way he handles the central metaphor of the poem.

40For Lawrence here does not really reactivate the hackneyed metaphor of the kiss as the “seal of love.” In fact, what, I would suggest, appears as an excessive metaphorizing process of the kiss – so immoderate at times that the reader loses touch with the kiss and sees only the foregrounded seal – is rather a demetaphorization of the “seal of love,” whose materiality is eclipsed by the materiality of the seal, thus bringing to the surface of the poem the harshness of the act of physically sealing the woman. The seal – and the kiss – is no longer evocative of a solemn pact any more, but of that which shuts the woman’s orifices. And this is where madness is perceived by the reader: in the tense co-existence of an immoderate sealing process, carried out through the constraining kisses, a process conveyed through a poised, measured, poetic form, relying all along on the shared knowledge of the biblical intertext, which is both used as a frame and is also misused, as the poetic I exceeds its bounds. In other words, in the awkward and mismatched confrontation of the measured, performative poetic expression, with the physically, voraciously, constraining aspects of the process, the reader is afforded a sense of excess, of perversion, of madness, and of immoderation.

41In both poems then, poetry makes the expression of excess possible. Poetry provides a means for the poet through which he can immoderately distort the world. So poetry enables him to touch beyond the moderations imposed by the real. And yet, at the same time, poetry is a protective artifice, a safeguard without which this very constraining and bizarre discourse would otherwise sound completely insane, perverse or hysterical.

42To conclude, if both poems convey a peculiar sense of immoderation, interestingly enough, in neither poem does this immoderation lead to an experience of the sublime. Likewise, in neither poem does the kiss lead to sexual intercourse, nor is there, in “Seven Seals,” any eventual revelation after the sealing. Ironically enough then, excess, like the woman and like the kiss, is, in these poems, paradoxically contained in the here and now. It is, to utilize Lawrence’s own words, “the thing itself at its maximum of being,” where the word “maximum” actually betrays the presence of an implicit limit – as though Lawrence here defined excess within bounds, with a maximum point beyond which one cannot transcend.

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Bibliographie

Freud, Sigmund. Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory; Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company, 1910; Bartleby.com, 2010. www.bartleby.com/278/. 

Harvey, Karen. Ed. The Kiss in History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.

Lawrence, D.H. The Poems, Vol. I and II., ed. Christopher Pollnitz, Cambridge: CUP, 2013.

…… Studies in Classic American Literature. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

…… Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, Ed. By Bruce Steele. Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

Marcus, Paul. In Search of the Spiritual. USA: Karnac Books, 2012.

Perella, Nicolas James. The Kiss – Sacred and Profane. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Urang, Sarah. Kindled in the Flame – The Apocalypse Scene in D.H. Lawrence. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983.

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Notes

1 In keeping with Lawrence’s “It is not me the kiss.”

2 “Deviation in Reference to the Sexual Object” in Sigmund Freud, Sigmund, Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory; Trans. by A. A. Brill (New York: The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company, 1910; Bartleby.com, 2010. www.bartleby.com/278/). 

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « Kissing in “She Looks Back” and “Seven Seals”: Excessive and Mad Poetic Expression  », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 50 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2019, consulté le 15 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/988 ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.988

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Elise Brault-Dreux

 

Elise BRAULT-DREUX Elise is a lecturer at Valenciennes University where she teaches English literature and language. Her research is mainly focussed on early 20th-century poetry and prose. She has published a book on the "I" in Lawrence's poetry, and several articles on Lawrence's work, Katherine Mansfield's and T.S. Eliot's poetry.

 

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