DH Lawrence: Piano, and Sons and Lovers

Yesterday was the birthday of DH Lawrence (September 11, 1885 – March 2, 1930).  So I read again one of his poems which I have liked ever since I came across it in my last days in high school. The poem is called Piano.


By DH Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Vivid and wistful, it’s self-revealing. Lawrence was very close to his mother, Lydia. He was devastated when she died of cancer in December 1910, just before his first novel, The White Peacock, was published in January 1911.

Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s third novel, published in 1913, after The White Peacock and The Trespasser (1912), was “the first modern portrayal of a phenomenon that later, thanks to Freud, became easily recognizable as the Oedipus complex”, says this website, where you can read the whole novel.

Paul Morel, the protagonist in Sons and Lovers, is deeply attached to his mother, Mrs Morel, who can’t bear his spiritual childhood sweetheart, Miriam. Miriam resembles Lawrence’s first girlfriend, Jessie Chambers, who encouraged him to write and publish.

Sons and Lovers describes Paul’s relationship with three women — his mother, Miriam and the suffragette Clara Dawes. Paul breaks off with Miriam and has a passionate affair with Clara, but she doesn’t want to divorce her husband, Baxter, and so they can’t be married.

Paul cares for his mother when she falls ill and is heart-broken when she dies.

Living alone, he meets Miriam in the church one day. She accompanies him home for supper at his request. As they talk after supper, she offers to marry him and take care of him. But he says, “I’m not sure that marriage would be much good.”

The novel ends with him utterly alone after dropping Miriam home.

“He shook hands and left her at the door of her cousin’s house. When he turned away he felt the last hold for him had gone. The town, as he sat upon the car, stretched away over the bay of railway, a level fume of lights. Beyond the town the country, little smouldering spots for more towns–the sea–the night–on and on! And he had no place in it!…The people hurrying along the streets offered no obstruction to the void in which he found himself.”

He thinks of his mother.

“Who could say his mother had lived and did not live? She had been in one place, and was in another; that was all. And his soul could not leave her, wherever she was. Now she was gone abroad into the night, and he was with her still. They were together.

“‘Mother!’ he whispered–‘mother!’”

“She was the only thing that held him up, himself, amid all this. And she was gone, intermingled herself. He wanted her to touch him, have him alongside with her.

“But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.”

The ending is picturesque, ambivalent and uncertain. Paul Morel is tied to his mother but wants to break free. Can he? That’s not revealed in the novel, which ends with him not wanting “to follow her” to “the darkness”.

Lawrence is one of the most vivid writers in English literature. But he is not a writer you read to cheer yourself up.

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