“If Lawrence hadn’t written those novels he would have been far more readily acclaimed as one of the greatest poets in the language.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, Paris Review
It is illuminating to read Lawrence’s entire poetic work as a kind of journal, in which not only the finished poems themselves but variants and early drafts and uncollected poems constitute a strange unity—an autobiographical novel, perhaps—that begins with “The quick sparks . . .” and ends with “immortal bird.” This massive work is more powerful, more emotionally combative, than even the greatest of his novels. Between first and last line there is literally everything: beauty, waste, “flocculent ash,” the ego in a state of rapture and in a state of nausea, a diverse streaming of chaos and cunning. We know Yeats fashioned his “soul” in the many-volumed Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, quite consciously, systematically; Lawrence has unconsciously and unsystematically created a similar work. In part it is shameless; but there are moments of beauty in it that are as powerful as Yeats’s more frequent moments. There are moments of clumsiness, ugliness, and sheer stubborn spit; quite unredeemed by any poetic grace, so much so, in fact, that the number of excellent poems is therefore all the more amazing. Ultimately, Lawrence forces us to stop judging each individual poem. The experience of reading all the poems—and their earlier forms—becomes a kind of mystical appropriation of Lawrence’s life, or life itself, in which the essential sacredness of “high” and “low,” “beauty” and “ugliness,” “poetry” and “non-poetry” is celebrated in a magical transcendence of all rationalist dichotomies.
Women in Love is an inadequate title. The novel concerns itself with far more than simply women in love; far more than simply women in love. Two violent love affairs are the plot’s focus, but the drama of the novel has clearly to do with every sort of emotion, and with every sort of spiritual inanition. Gerald and Birkin and Ursula and Gudrun are immense figures, monstrous creations out of legend, out of mythology; they are unable to alter their fates, like tragic heroes and heroines of old. The mark of Cain has been on Gerald since early childhood, when he accidentally killed his brother; and Gudrun is named for a heroine out of Germanic legend who slew her first husband. The pace of the novel is often frenetic. Time is running out, history is coming to an end, the Apocalypse is at hand. Dies Irae and The Latter Days (as well as The Sisters and The Wedding Ring) were titles Lawrence considered for the novel, and though both are too explicit, too shrill, they are more suggestive of the chiliastic mood of the work (which even surprised Lawrence when he read it through after completion in November of 1916: it struck him as “end-of-the-world” and as “purely destructive, not like The Rainbow, destructive-consummating”). . . .
It is always something of a surprise to discover how puritanical Lawrence is, beyond the revolutionary rhetoric of certain of his pronouncements; how unexamined are his assumptions that Woman exists for Man and for his ceaseless appraisal. Through Mellors Lawrence appears to be taking revenge on women of his acquaintance who have disappointed him. How various the women Mellors has “loved,” and how astonishing the ways in which they have failed him:
—There are women who want a man but who don’t want sex, only endure it: the Victorian ideal
—There are women who pretend to enjoy sex, and to be passionate: but it’s all theatrical
—There are women who are “unnatural” in various ways, requiring lovemaking of unconventional, unspecified sorts
—There are women like Mellors’s former wife who are “active”—too active—and seem to have usurped the natural role of the male
—There are frigid women: ” . . . the sort that’s just dead inside: but dead: and they know it”