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.
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’, 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.
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.