Tuesday, March 03, 2009

she dreamed of her men and her scars


UPON her plodding palfrey
With a heavy child at her breast
And Joseph holding the bridle
They mount to the last hill-crest.

Dissatisfied and weary
She sees the blade of the sea
Dividing earth and heaven
In a glitter of ecstasy.

Sudden a dark-faced stranger
With his back to the sun, holds out
His arms; so she lights from her palfrey
And turns her round about.

She has given the child to Joseph,
Gone down to the flashing shore;
And Joseph, shading his eyes with his hand,
Stands watching evermore.


THE sea in the stones is singing,
A woman binds her hair
With yellow, frail sea-poppies,
That shine as her fingers stir.

While a naked man comes swiftly
Like a spurt of white foam rent
From the crest of a falling breaker,
Over the poppies sent.

He puts his surf-wet fingers
Over her startled eyes,
And asks if she sees the land, the land,
The land of her glad surmise.


AGAIN in her blue, blue mantle
Riding at Joseph's side,
She says, "I went to Cythera,
And woe betide!"

Her heart is a swinging cradle
That holds the perfect child,
But the shade on her forehead ill becomes
A mother mild.

So on with the slow, mean journey
In the pride of humility;
Till they halt at a cliff on the edge of the land
Over a sullen sea.

While Joseph pitches the sleep-tent
She goes far down to the shore
To where a man in a heaving boat
Waits with a lifted oar.


THEY dwelt in a huge, hoarse sea-cave
And looked far down the dark
Where an archway torn and glittering
Shone like a huge sea-spark.

He said: "Do you see the spirits
Crowding the bright doorway?"
He said: "Do you hear them whispering?"
He said: "Do you catch what they say?"


THEN Joseph, grey with waiting,
His dark eyes full of pain,
Heard: "I have been to Patmos;
Give me the child again."

Now on with the hopeless journey
Looking bleak ahead she rode,
And the man and the child of no more account
Than the earth the palfrey trode.

Till a beggar spoke to Joseph,
But looked into her eyes;
So she turned, and said to her husband:
"I give, whoever denies."


SHE gave on the open heather
Beneath bare judgment stars,
And she dreamed of her children and Joseph,
And the isles, and her men, and her scars.

And she woke to distil the berries
The beggar had gathered at night,
Whence he drew the curious liquors
He held in delight.

He gave her no crown of flowers,
No child and no palfrey slow,
Only led her through harsh, hard places
Where strange winds blow.

She follows his restless wanderings
Till night when, by the fire's red stain,
Her face is bent in the bitter steam
That comes from the flowers of pain.

Then merciless and ruthless
He takes the flame-wild drops
To the town, and tries to sell them
With the market-crops.

So she follows the cruel journey
That ends not anywhere,
And dreams, as she stirs the mixing-pot,
She is brewing hope from despair.

This is the second poem in T.E. Lawrence's notebook of favorite poems which he called Minorities. Lawrence copied from printed sources, not from memory. He put each poem on its own page, but didn't give titles, authors, or dates. He didn't always show a poem's internal divisions nor always copy out the whole poem.

This poem, D.H. Lawrence's Ballad of a Wilful Woman, appears in full with the author's section breaks.

D.H. Lawrence included it in a book of verse he called Look! We Have Come Through!, published in 1918. He hoped readers would treat the book not as a collection of individual poems, but rather as an organic whole.* It's reasonable to conclude that T.E. Lawrence was unsympathetic to this intention and did not empathize with the book's focus on "the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries."

It's tempting to think T.E.L. was drawn to the book because his father, a Welsh baronet, had fallen in love with the family's governess in Lawrentian style. However, refused a divorce by his wife, the two, most un-Lawrentianly, moved away in order to lead a normal family life in Oxford. They assumed a new surname and, concealing their previous life in Wales, were accepted for what they seemed to be. One of five illegitimate sons, T.E.L. did not find out about the deception until he was 10. Whatever he might have felt about his origins, he was much more conventional in his attitudes than D.H.L. and was not then or later drawn to accept D.H.L.'s celebration sex in general and illicit love in particular.

T.E.L. felt that D.H.L. was a bit too self-absorbed and a bit to undisciplined to be a great writer. It's also reasonable to conclude he didn't sympathize with the phallic worship which seems to be a main thrust of the work.** As the editor of Minorities says, "I believe that T. E. Lawrence saw in the poem a subtler and more personal relevance, and that the 'obvious' interpretation should be ignored."

Here is a page from the notebook showing how Lawrence would write out a poem.

{click to view full image; source: Minorities}

Some sources:

Minorities, by T E Lawrence; ed. by Jeremy Wilson (London, Cape, 1971).

Look! We Have Come Through! By David Herbert Lawrence (1918)

Look! We Have Come Through! by D. H. Lawrence (1917)

Sexuality section of the wikipedia entry on Lawrence.

* Here are the forward and argument of Look! We Have Come Through!, two paragraphs that precede the first poem:

These poems should not be considered separately, as so many single pieces. They are intended as an essential story, or history, or confession, unfolding one from the other in organic development, the whole revealing the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries and comes into himself. The period covered is, roughly, the sixth lustre of a man's life.


After much struggling and loss in love and in the world of man, the protagonist throws in his lot with a woman who is already married. Together they go into another country, she perforce leaving her children behind. The conflict of love and hate goes on between the man and the woman, and between these two and the world around them, till it reaches some sort of conclusion, they transcend into some condition of blessedness.
** As for example in the poem that precedes Ballad of a Wilful Woman in the book:


Now I am going home
Fulfilled and alone,
I see the great Orion standing
Looking down.

He's the star of my first beloved


The witness of all that bitter-sweet


Now he sees this as well,
This last commission.
Nor do I get any look
Of admonition.

He can add the reckoning up

I suppose, between now and then,

Having walked himself in the thorny, difficult

Ways of men.

He has done as I have done
No doubt:

Remembered and forgotten
Turn and about.

My love lies underground

With her face upturned to mine,

And her mouth unclosed in the last long kiss

That ended her life and mine.

She fares in the stark immortal
Fields of death ;
I in these goodly, frozen
Fields beneath.

Something in me remembers

And will not forget.

The stream of my life in the darkness

Deathward set!

And something in me has forgotten,
Has ceased to care.
Desire comes up, and contentment
Is debonair.

I, who am worn and careful,
How much do I care ?
How is it I grin then, and chuckle
Over despair ?

Grief, grief, I suppose and sufficient
Grief makes us free
To be faithless and faithful together
As we have to be.

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