On one of Lawrence’s shortest poems – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Self-Pity’ is one of the shortest poems D. H. Lawrence ever wrote, but it’s worth sharing here (with a few brief words of analysis) because, unlike Sons and Lovers or a poem like ‘Snake’, it is not as well-known among his oeuvre. The poem fills barely a third of a page in his The Complete Poems (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics).
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
‘Self-Pity’ is what D. H. Lawrence himself described as a ‘pansy’: like the flower, this poem is a pensée, a little thought, not meant to be anything grander or more sustained. (Lawrence may have had in mind Ophelia’s words from Hamlet: ‘And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts’.)
Like the imagist poems written by his fellow modernists (and it’s worth noting that, although he wasn’t a bona fide imagist, Lawrence appeared in the earliest imagist anthology edited by Ezra Pound in 1914), ‘Self-Pity’ is brief, fleeting, momentary, focused on a single observation, expressed in clear language and free verse. The poem is also not unlike a Japanese haiku or one of Adelaide Crapsey’s brief cinquains.
Indeed, like some of Lawrence’s most celebrated poems, such as ‘Snake’ (which we have analysed here), the poem is written in free verse, but it circles around the central three words ‘sorry for itself’, returning twice, once in the second line and then again at the poem’s conclusion, neatly suggesting the way self-pity is self-consuming and, ultimately, self-destructive.
The poem is not unlike that written by a very different modernist poet, T. S. Eliot, whose ‘Introspection’ depicts the idea of navel-gazing and self-examination as a self-involved and solipsistic act of self-destruction, like the worm Ouroboros, the snake that famously devoured its own tail.
But we might also draw a link between this little Lawrence poem and a poem written a century earlier by Mary Lamb, the sister of the essayist Charles Lamb. Mary Lamb is best-remembered for her Tales from Shakespeare which she wrote with her brother, but she was also a fine poet. Her poem ‘Envy’ expresses a sentiment about envy which is similar to Lawrence’s about self-pity:
This rose-tree is not made to bear
The violet blue, nor lily fair,
Nor the sweet mignionet:
And if this tree were discontent,
Or wished to change its natural bent,
It all in vain would fret.
Just as Mary Lamb never saw a rose-tree feeling envious of the violet-tree or lily-tree, so Lawrence ‘never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself’.
Discover more of Lawrence’s poetry with his poem about discord in childhood, his wonderful poem ‘Green’, and his ‘New Heaven and Earth‘. 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.