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.
‘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.’
‘Self-Pity’. 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.
‘Green’. 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.
‘Snake’. 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’.
‘New Heaven and Earth’. 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.
‘Humming-Bird’. 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.
‘Piano’. 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.
‘Autumn 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.
‘Virgin Youth’. 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’.
‘The Drained Cup’. 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.