“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.”
So said D.H. Lawrence, reflecting on some of the measures he would take to improve British society in the early 20th century. To be fair, he wrote this in a private letter, and not in a book meant for publication. It doesn’t necessarily reflect his most deeply held convictions. Why, anyone can sound off this way in a bad mood, can’t they? After a bad day at work, say, or a nasty experience on the tube. And his tone is that of someone who doesn’t necessarily expect his opinions to be taken seriously (‘if I had my way’ – he won’t).
Still, it is more than just sounding off. Lawrence did loathe modern society with some conviction. The industrialised Nottinghamshire where Lawrence grew up near lovely rolling Nottinghamshire hills and forest, and expansive Lincolnshire fields suggested a contrast -between nature, great and noble, and an urban area ‘seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’ as Hopkins put it. This environment bred a weak breed of me, Lawrence thought, not that he had much luck finding abetter breed in the modern world. No-one, he thought, had quite got it right since the Etruscans…
Lizards on the other hand had no such problems…
A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow!
the right toss of a chin for you and a swirl of a tail!
If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.
‘If men were as much men as lizards are lizards’, he says. Every lizard matches up to Lawrences expectations of lizard-hood, while most men fall very short. I don’t know much about the Etruscans, but there is something very Greek about this yearning for the ideal as against the (supposed) poor copy. One imagines his idea of a ‘man’ as a something like a classical statue, perfectly toned and naked, unadorned and noble. It is modern civilisation, industry and materialism that has sundered man from his truest, noblest possible self.
But heck, it’s difficult, what with modern civilisation and mass culture to maintain the dignity and grace of an ancient Greek or an Etruscan. One tries, you know – I went swimming this week, for example. But I expect I wouldn’t meet Lawrence’s exacting standards everyday of the week, say slouched in front of Game of Thrones eating crisps with tea.
So what, after all, is so great about lizards? They don’t really listen to the sounding of the spheres, you know – and Lawrence knew as much. They’re quick and lithe, yes, and fascinating to watch, yet also surprisingly easy to trap and catch. Most of we British would first see a lizard on a trip to the Mediterranean, and one reason Lawrence likes them is their very southernness(but see below). To his mind, perhaps they have something almost near to godliness, as in that famous poem he wrote about a snake… where he puts his own hesitant neurosis in sharp relief to the snake’s unconscious grandeur. ‘I have something to expiate:’ he finishes that poem, ‘a pettiness’, but no doubt he thought himself a great deal less petty than the mass of humankind for having troubled to notice. Lawrence is great at evoking the granduer of the natural world, but its grandeur always comes at the expense of we damned humans, the poet included.
We’ll have more of Lawrence next week, I think. Let’s return to the theme of lizards. I mentioned above that Lawrence probably associated lizards with the south, as do most of us – but a few years ago, I saw one in a surprisingly northerly clime, halfway down a bare hill down which falls the Grey Mare’s Tail (which I have mentioned in a previous post). It was a brownish thing, although it darted into the crevices between the stones by the path before I could get a closer look. I was delighted to find then that a Scottish poet wrote of a similar experience- none other than the bard of ‘synthetic scots’ himself, Hugh Macdiarmid, who grew up in nearby Langholm. Not one of his better efforts perhaps, but worth repeating here (*)
The Heather Esk
a wee heather esk
skeethered athort my paith
ane ewe-tremmlin’ day
an afore I got a guid luik
he gaed inunner a hiddly rock
whan I wissed him tae stay
By Hugh Macdiarmid *