On Lawrence’s short poem about childhood
The novelist, short-story writer, and poet D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) had a curious relationship with trees. He reportedly liked the climb mulberry trees in the nude to stimulate his imagination. And trees loom large in his work. In ‘Discord in Childhood’, an early poem which he began writing in 1909 when Lawrence was still only in his mid-twenties, Lawrence uses the ash-tree to suggest the discordant relationship between the tree’s supposed healing properties (it was supposed to play a valuable role in children’s health) and the suffering endured by a child listening to its parents arguing.
Discord in Childhood
Outside the house an ash-tree hung its terrible whips,
And at night when the wind arose, the lash of the tree
Shrieked and slashed the wind, as a ship’s
Weird rigging in a storm shrieks hideously.
Within the house two voices arose in anger, a slender lash
Whistling delirious rage, and the dreadful sound
Of a thick lash booming and bruising, until it drowned
The other voice in a silence of blood, ’neath the noise of the ash.
Childhood was not all bad for D. H. Lawrence, at least in his own view. In 1909, when he began work on the poem that became ‘Discord in Childhood’, Lawrence viewed his childhood as having been a combination of harmonies and discords, as the title of this poem implies. ‘Discord in Childhood’ actually belongs to a longer piece which Lawrence never completed; the eight lines quoted above are all that he preserved.
The language and imagery of ‘Discord in Childhood’ convey the violent words being exchanged indoors, but – as so often in Lawrence – he does this through focusing on the violence of the natural world outside the family home. This is not mere pathetic fallacy: a child trying to distract himself from the noisy quarrelling of his parents in the house may well look to the world outside, only to find that the internalised quarrel is reflected in the trees and wind present beyond the home. There is violence in the ‘whips’ of the ash-tree, and the word ‘lash’ is flashed at us four times in eight lines, and its sounds are echoed in ‘ash-tree’, ‘slashed’, and ‘ash’.
The poem also stages its own miniature act of formal discord, with the first stanza being rhymed abab and the second abba, wrong-footing us and upsetting our expectations. Short it may be, but we cannot say that ‘Discord in Childhood’ would be improved by being made longer. It says what it needs to in these eight lines: any more, we sense, would be subtraction rather than addition.