V.S. Pritchett, introducing his edition of the Oxford Book of Short Stories, admits that he admires D.H. Lawrence most as a master of that form–short narrative–rather than as a novelist or poet ( a claim he makes elsewhere, in his 1980 review of a Lawrence biography for the NYRB). For fine criticism of the stories, we can turn to R.P. Blackmur–an ironic place to look, since Blackmur was writing on the poems. But applied to short prose narrative, rather than verse, Blackmur’s insights and articulations remain just and suggestive of the sources of Lawrence’s power: “Since he used language straightforwardly to the point of sloppiness, without ever willfully violating the communicative residue of his words, so much of his intention is available to the reader as is possible in work that has not been submitted to the competing persuasiveness of genuine form…The fundamental declarations of insight, what Lawrence was after, in the Tortoise poems, could not help appearing in language commonplace for everything except its intensity…” Here, in words different from his own, are some of the grounds upon which Leavis championed Lawrence as an alternative to Flaubert and James, as they had been adopted by Eliot and Pound.
The failures of the stories–where they do not achieve the intensity, but seem only bumbling efforts at articulating perverse beliefs in an inadequately circumscribed lexicon and syntax–can be forgiven easily enough, since they do not demand much of the reader’s time; being so straightforward, they are accepted at least for their communicative function, scaffolding or make-shift apparatuses until the brilliance can be reached. And it is reached in the best of the short stories, where the epiphanies seem to belong less to the characters than to the author: Lawrence has been carried by imagining these lives, their suffering, to an insight that he will express directly, or with only the loosest adornment of free indirect discourse; the author’s privates dangling free from between the folds of the tattered robe. Perhaps the short stories are effective as the novels are not because, for so limited a space as they occupy, and limited a time, a reader is less inclined to resent Lawrence’s using characters as a way of arriving at an intensely personal statement. He learned it, I suspect, from George Eliot–but at her best, Eliot’s characters arrive at beliefs and insights that might clash with the narrator’s–and, more, from Hardy; but Lawrence, unlike Hardy, does not make his characters dance to prove a point about the universe. Lawrence does care–as Eliot does–about the inner life of characters, about (and here he extends upon Eliot’s work) the raw feel of what it is like to be isolated, alienated, alone, envious, disappointed, crushed–or occasionally (and here he differs from Eliot) blissfully in awe of life–but he develops and enters into the inner lives of characters, their experiences of feeling, the qualia of affect, for the sake of what is usually an affirmation of the author’s experience and beliefs. We often feel that, yes, it is possible that a character may have come to feel this way–but the motivation and process leading to the feeling, to the startling moment of vision, are often absent from the stories; because they are stories and exclude a great deal of a character’s life, past, and circumstances, it is possible to accept that a character might have reached the same point as Lawrence–but at the same time, the terms of expression are so consistent from story to story, and the vision itself so consistent or at least continuous, that I usually feel inclined to attribute the visionary gush to Lawrence himself.
And I oddly don’t resent it because the character was never before me long enough to take on a life of his or her own, or to manifest as a failure of characterization, with an obvious lack of consistency, or an obvious hollowness. In a novel–I don’t know Lawrence’s novels well enough to say that this happens always in them–these failures would be more apparent; the character cannot be hastily, provisionally assembled ad-hoc-itself a make-shift for the sake of Lawrence’s private, personal communicative exigency. In the short stories, we need ride the characters only for a short time; the duct tape may come loose, the innards rattle, but we don’t need them to hold up for long, our destination is at hand, and we are not inclined to worry or resent the engineer or abandon them entirely.
So the characters–shoddy though they might be in Lawrence’s hands (they aren’t always of course)–get us somewhere in the stories, and get us to a place that Lawrence wants desperately to go: an idiosyncratic visionary outburst that is at one with the sorts of things he offers in the poetry. In the stories, since they are stories, the statements may, as I said, be robed, with brazen abandonment of codes of dress, in the thoughts and perspectives of the characters–a burst of a man’s envy, or a woman’s loneliness–and at times there will be more of a robe, more character and less Lawrence, and at times less of a robe, more dangling ballsy Lawrence and less character. But it’s often at these moments that we find that “language commonplace for everything except its intensity” of which Blackmur writes. For instance, in “Odour of Chrysanthemums”: “Was this what it all meant–utter, intact, separateness, obscured by heat of living? In dread she turned her face away. The fact was too deadly. There had been nothing between them, and yet they had come together, exchanging their nakedness repeatedly.” Astonishing and disarming–and unmistakably Lawrence. The word that really shocks is “intact”–where their separateness has itself proved a citadel, under siege by intimacy, but preserved; Lawrence probably would have associated the woman whose perspective this is inhabiting with a saint, her emotional virginity unspoiled despite years of marriage.
Another example and one that, more than the first, transcends character, offers us something of Lawrence himself–though it too is occasioned by an imagined life, Maurice in “Love Among the Haystacks” remains in the fields alone, dusk descending after a day of strenuous harvest, waiting for Paula, the polish governess from the adjacent vicarage:
“The purple bell-flowers in the hedge went black, the ragged robin turned its pink to a faded white, the meadow-sweet gathered light as if it were phosphorescent, and it made the air ache with scent.”
Teaching this story in class the other day, the passage first stood out to me–and to several of the students–for that word “ache”: an ache of pleasure and an ache of pain, the sense of smell made corporeal, the body participating as a whole, an anticipation (to me) of the wonderful line in Frost’s “To Earthward”: “I had the swirl and ache | From spray of honeysuckle.” What caught my eye next was the deliberate “it” of “and it made,” where it would have been so easy to write, “phosphorescent and made the air ache.” But I didn’t know and still don’t know how to describe the effect of that word, except to say that it is felt like the press of a touch, the plants of the field affirming their presence.
But what finally caught my eye was “gathered light”–there is the immediate context: the harvest of the men, the hay they gather for making a living in the pastoral landscape (the story is a pastoral, in the Virgilian sense–not the broader Empsonian), is elevated to the harvest of light by the flora of the earth; the men and the flowers are compared implicitly (here I ape Empson), the men ennobled by the comparison, but the flora also, since man is a noble creature in the pastoral tradition. And then the word “gathered”–and I thought of Pound’s great line, from Canto XVII, a line that served as an epigraph to a collection by Geoffrey Hill, and a line that has caught the wonder of many readers: “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it.” Pound’s line inspires Blackmur to rhapsody–“does it not commit itself in the memory by coming at an absolute image, good anywhere the writes of language run, by the most ordinary possible means, the fused sequences of two trains of alliteration, the one guttural and the other dental? Does it not also,and more important, clinch the alliteration and the image by displaying itself, as Pound used to argue all verse ought to display itself, in the sequence, not of the metronome, but of the musical phrase?” Even setting alliteration aside, Pound’s line is–I admit–richer than Lawrence’s phrase; not least because “against it” opens up possibilities (against the gloom? against the gold?; as a defense? as a warm blanket? as a resistance?) which conspire with one another to similar ends. But Lawrence writes from the gloom of evening; and Lawrence’s line shares with Pound’s that crux, “gather”–which, because of the harvest, because of the pastoral, because of the gathering that is a family, around which Lawrence’s story turns, takes on semantic density that Pound’s word, opening out into the chaos of the Cantos, letting all of the Eleusian mysteries and images and echoes pass through it, cannot–as great as the semantic potential might be.