1 May 2022

May Day with D. H. Lawrence (1911 - 1917)

Edith A. Cubitt: Children Dancing Round a Maypole (c. 1900) 
Watercolour drawing (commissioned by Ernest Nister)
1 May 1911
After his advances to Agnes Holt in the autumn of 1909 had come to nothing - not even a handjob - Lawrence convinced Jessie Chambers to become his lover. 
In the two years that followed, finally free from the bonds of chastity, Lawrence actively pursued several women - or bed bunnies as he referred to them - in the hope of further sexual experience; "years of enforced virginity had given way to a kind of compulsive arousal" [1].
One of these women was the lovely Louie Burrows, to whom he wrote on May Day 1911:

"I would sell birthrights and deathrights for an embrace of thee, Louisa: toss 'em out of the window, poetic powers, perceptivity, intellect - pouf: for a few kisses and a tight clasp." [2]
1 May 1912 
Lawrence has now met and fallen in love with a woman whom he believes to be the most wonderful in all England. 
Unfortunately, Frieda Weekley is married with children. Still, that doesn't deter either of them from beginning an illicit affair and on May Day 1912 he writes a letter in which he expresses his anxiety and guilt - but also his commitment to the relationship - having arranged to effectively elope with her to Germany:

"I feel so horrid and helpless. [...] And what was decent yesterday will perhaps be frightfully indecent today. [...] 
      What time are you going to Germany, what day, what hour, which railway, which class? Do tell  me as soon as you can [...] I will come any time you tell me - but let me know.
      You must be in an insane whirl in your mind. I feel helpless and rudderless, a stupid scattered fool. [...] I would do anything on earth for you [...] but I don't like my feeling [of] presentiment. I am afraid of something low, like an eel which bites out of the mud, and hangs on with its teeth. I feel as if I can't breathe while we're in England." [3]
1 May 1913
Although he and Frieda are now an established item, Lawence is still thinking back to his (mostly sexless) relationship with Jessie - and doing so with increased bitterness. In a letter to Edward Garnett, he writes:
"It's all very well for Miss Chambers to be spiritual - perhaps she can bring it off - I can't. She bottled me up till I was going to burst. But as long as the cork sat tight (herself the cork) there was spiritual calm. When the cork was blown out, and Mr Lawrence foamed, Miriam said 'This yeastiness I disown: it was not so in my day.'" [4]  
It's always surprising how explicit Lawrence was with his sexual metaphors. Reading this, however, makes one wonder whether Jessie (or her fictional alias of Miriam) had a fear of semen and/or the act of ejaculation? In other words, was her intense disgust-response to male sexual activity rooted in a genuine phobia, or was it merely a consequence of her moral beliefs and idealism? 
Either way, this would explain (in part at least) why she was so bitterly ashamed of having allowed Lawrence to fuck her; it was as if he had "dragged her spiritual plumage in the mud" [5]
1 May 1915
American readers will probably know that William McKinley was the 25th president of the United States, serving from 1897 until his assassination by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York.
English readers will probably ask: So what? 
Well, it turns out that Lawrence was fascinated by this event and much amused by a song (of anonymous origin) that was written about the shooting and Czolgosz's execution in the electric chair. On May 1st 1915, he enclosed the lyrics to the song in a letter to the English author Eleanor Farjeon (presumably at her request) [6]
1 May 1916 
In a letter to his Freudian friend Barbara Low - a founding member of the British Psychoanalytical Society - written from his cottage in Cornwall, Lawrence expresses his complete dismay with the world at war:
"I would write to you oftener, but this life of today so disgusts one, it leaves nothing to say. The war, the approaching conscription, the sense of complete paltriness and chaotic nastiness in life, really robs one of speech." [7]  
Of course, having said that, Lawrence then goes on (at some length) to speak of the local flora, his work on what he still at this time calls the second half of The Rainbow, and the current state of his health: "I was very well, but have been seedy again these few days ..." [8] 
But mostly he complains of the utter nausea he feels for humanity; "people smelling like bugs, endless masses of them, and no relief: it is so difficult to bear. [...] I feel I cannot touch humanity, even in thought, it is abhorrent to me." [9]
Still, it is from such nausea and violent anti-humanism that great art is born and the greater health discovered. For as Lawrence says: One sheds one's sickness in books.
1 May 1917
Today, of course, when we are all supposed to stand with Ukraine and wear a little blue and yellow ribbon or badge in solidarity, to say anything positive about Russia is almost taboo. But in May 1917 Russia was, for many people, the country that held out the greatest promise. 
And so it is that Lawrence writes to his Russian-born friend S. S. Koteliansky:
"I feel that our chiefest hope for the future is Russia. When I think of the young new country there, I love it inordinately. It is the place of hope. We must go, sooner or a little later. [...] Send me a Berlitz grammar book, I will begin to learn the language - religiously." [10]

[1] John Worthen, D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years 1885-1912, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 252.  

[2] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 264. 

[3] Letters, I. 388-89. 
      It should be noted that this letter was actually written on April 30th, 1912, and not May 1st, but I'm using a little artistic and historical license for the sake of the post.
[4-5] Letters, I. 545. 
      This letter has been dated by the editor as 2 May 1913. It is mostly famous for the following boast made by Lawrence: "I know I can write bigger stuff than any man in England." [546]. 

[6] See The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 332.

[7-9] Letters, II. 602. 

[10] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. III, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 121. 
The second part of this post - May Day with D. H. Lawrence (1921 - 1929) - can be read by clicking here.

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