The best poems of D. H. Lawrence selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Although he’s best-known for novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and for short stories such as ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’, D. H. Lawrence was also a prolific poet whose work ranged from formally conventional poems to sprawling free verse influenced by Walt Whitman. What follows is our pick of ten of the greatest poems from Lawrence’s vast oeuvre of poetry.
1. ‘Full Life’.
We’ll begin with a very short D. H. Lawrence poem, which runs in its entirety as follows: ‘A man can’t fully live unless he dies and ceases to care, ceases to care.’
Another very short poem, this: in just four lines, Lawrence underscores how self-pity is a uniquely human flaw, not observable elsewhere in the natural world.
The dawn was apple-green,
The sky was green wine held up in the sun,
The moon was a golden petal between …
Lawrence was most closely associated with the Georgian poets, whose name marked them out as patriotically British (named after the then king, George V) and as formally conventional (their name was also a nod back to the previous ‘Georgian’ era when Romanticism has arrived on the scene in the 1790s).
But a number of great D. H. Lawrence poems also featured in the early anthologies of Imagist poetry during the years of the First World War; ‘Green’ is an especially fine example of Lawrence’s poems from these anthologies. Although not really an ‘Imagist’ poem in any obvious sense, ‘Green’ shows Lawrence’s ability to use colour and imagery to make us see the world in a new way. The line ‘The sky was green wine held up in the sun’ is especially fine.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again …
This is almost certainly D. H. Lawrence’s best-known poem, written in free verse that echoes Walt Whitman more than the vers libre of Ezra Pound or T. E. Hulme. Lawrence describes seeing a snake coming to drink at his water-trough (the poem was written while Lawrence was living in Italy).
He considers killing the snake, because it’s venomous, but in the end makes a lacklustre attempt to attack it with a log, while the snake is slithering away. He then rebukes himself for the lamentable quality of ‘pettiness’.
5. ‘New Heaven and Earth’.
I was so weary of the world
I was so sick of it
everything was tainted with myself,
skies, trees, flowers, birds, water,
people, houses, streets, vehicles, machines,
nations, armies, war, peace-talking,
work, recreation, governing, anarchy,
it was all tainted with myself, I knew it all to start with
because it was all myself …
This 1917 poem is noteworthy because it is a longer modernist poem that responds to the First World War, and so prefigures a much more famous modernist poem, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The poem’s speaker tells of his disillusionment with this world and its modern warfare and inventions and of his sense of release at having found a ‘new world’. But the poem has as much in common with Wilfred Owen’s poems highlighting the horrors of war as it has with Eliot’s later modernist poem.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems …
Another animal poem, in which Lawrence considers the (imagined) history of the hummingbird, envisioning it as a much larger bird back in the dawn of time, much as dinosaurs, now ‘little lizards’, were ‘once big’. This poem nicely demonstrates Lawrence’s influence on another great nature poet, Ted Hughes.
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 …
An exercise in nostalgia in long couplets, ‘Piano’ sees the poem’s speaker recalling his childhood when he listened to his mother playing the piano, while sitting under it and holding his mother’s feet as she played. This memory opens up a ‘vista’ into the past which includes longing for the Sunday evenings of the speaker’s childhood.
8. ‘Autumn Rain’.
The plane leaves
fall black and wet
on the lawn;
the cloud sheaves
in heaven’s fields set
droop and are drawn
in falling seeds of rain …
This delicate poem, whose short lines and short stanzas suggest the droplets of falling rain, was first published in 1917, and the casualties of the First World War may be hinted at by Lawrence’s ‘dead / men that are slain’. The harvest time and Christian redemption are united under the rain falling from heaven.
9. ‘Virgin Youth’.
Now and again
All my body springs alive,
And the life that is polarised in my eyes,
That quivers between my eyes and mouth,
Flies like a wild thing across my body …
Lawrence liked to confront taboos in his writing, particularly sexual taboos. In this early poem, he touches upon the topic of masturbation, using suggestive language (the phrase ‘willy nilly’ is a loaded one here) to conjure up the experience of what the Victorians called ‘self-pollution’.
10. ‘The Drained Cup’.
I’ snow is witherin’ off’n th’ gress
Lad, should I tell thee summat?
I’ snow is witherin’ off’n th’ gress
An’ mist is suckin’ at th’ spots o’ snow,
An’ ower a’ the thaw an’ mess
There’s a moon, full blow
Lad, but I’m tellin’ thee summat!
It’s less well-known than it perhaps should be that Lawrence also wrote poems in his local Nottinghamshire dialect, much as Robert Burns gave a voice to his Scots dialect in many of his poems. ‘The Drained Cup’ is a fine example of Lawrence’s dialect poetry.
Discover more about modernist poetry with our pick of Ezra Pound’s greatest poems, our analysis of May Sinclair’s imagist novel, and our selection of Wallace Stevens’s best poems. You can also get hold of all of Lawrence’s poetry in a marvellous fat volume, The Complete Poems (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): D. H. Lawrence aged 21, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.