23 Jun 2022

Summer Solstice with D. H. Lawrence (1910 - 1928)

Max Pechstein: Summer in Nidden (1919-20)
D. H. Lawrence liked to think about human life in relation to the wheeling of the year, i.e., the coming and going of the seasons and the movement of the sun through solstice and equinox. So it seems fitting that we might examine what he was up to and what he had to say on the longest day of the year as he experienced it during his (relatively short) lifetime ... 
21 June 1910 
In a letter to the somewhat troubled 27-year-old schoolteacher Helen Corke to whom he was attracted at the time, Lawrence voices his impatience and irritation with their (sexless) relationship: "I would yield to you if you could lead me deeper into the tanglewood of life" [1], he says. 
But she can't. Or won't. And so Lawrence feels peeved and unable to express his passion, which, like anger, comes with bright eyes like an angel from God carrying a fiery sword: "I ask you for nothing unnatural or forced. But a little thunder may bring rain, and sweet days, out of a sultry torpor." [2]
Indeed. But Helen just wasn't that kind of girl.   
21 June 1913
In a letter to his literary editor, Edward Garnett, written from the latter's own home in Kent (The Cearne), Lawrence expresses his joy at the reviews and letters of congratulations he has received for his newly published third novel, Sons and Lovers. He is excited too that Ezra Pound has asked him for some short stories.

It's nice to find Lawrence upbeat for once, although, of course, he's never quite happy: "I love the Cearne and the warm people, but the English dimness in the air gives me the blues." [3]
Sometimes, you really do want to tell him to shut up and go net some more raspberries. 
21 June 1920  
Writing from Taormina, Sicily, to Marie Hubrecht - a Dutch painter whose drawing of DHL can be found in the National Portrait Gallery - Lawrence speaks of several mutual acquaintances and, of course, the weather: 
"We have had beautiful days here. Once it rained quite heavily, and made the almond trees and vines bright green. Generally it is sunny, with a cool wind." [4] 

He also mentions the condition of the local fruit: "The grapes are growing big. The first figs are ripe, and abundance of apricots and cherries and yellow peaches." [5] Luckily for a man always watching the pennies, all these items were (comparitively) cheap to buy.
It seems that Miss Hubrecht is planning a trip to Norway. Not somewhere Lawrence ever visited, as far as I remember, but, as readers of Women in Love will know, he subscribes to the idea that there are two modes of aesthetic abstraction and disintegration: the African, which is all about the burning heat of the sun and mindless sensuality; and the Arctic, which is all about the annihilating mystery of snow and ice and destructive intellectualism.  
Usually, Lawrence writes in favour of dark-skinned, brown-eyed peoples (whom, at times, he comes close to fetishising). But, in his letter to Miss Hubrecht, he confesses a desire to go to the far north and meet the natives:
"Blond, blond people, with the fair hair coming keen from the tanned skin, like ice splinters, and the physique sudden and sharp like foam, and eyes blue like water, and like sky, they have a great fascination for me." [6] 
Not that he would wish to know them intimately; "frail streaming contact is what I like best: not to know people closely" [7]. The priest of love is, it seems, a voyeur of life, admiring from a distance. Thus, as he also admits in this letter, he loves to watch the Sicilian peasant girls come-and-go "with great bundles of bright corn on their heads" [8].
21 June 1922
Whilst in Australia, Lawrence wrote several letters on what was the shortest day Down Under. 
In one, to his American publisher Thomas Seltzer, he announces his plan to sail in several weeks time from Sydney to San Francisco, where he is hoping to arrive without any fuss: "I don't want any strangers to know, or any foolish reporters." [9]
And in another, sent to his literary agent Robert Mountsier, he confesses that whilst he doesn't wish to stay in Australia, he's not entirely comfortable with the idea of going to America: "For some reason the U.S.A. is the only country in the world that I shrink from and feel shy of: Lord knows why." [10]
Actually, I think Lawrence was perfectly aware of what caused his sense of anxiety about going to the States - for who understood the spirit of America better than he? In the first version of his opening essay to Studies in Classic American Literature, he wrote:
"There is an unthinkable gulf between us and America, and across the space we see, not our own folk signalling to us, but strangers, incomprehensible beings, simulacra perhaps of ourselves, but other, creatures of an other-world." [11]
21 June 1924
Writing to one of his (many) homosexual friends, Willard Johnson - often known by the nickname 'Spud', but addressed here with affection as Dear Spoodle - Lawrence complains about the "complicated triangly business of inviting and not inviting" [12] friends to his ranch in Taos, New Mexico: "I'm tired of all that old stuff. I really am. This sort of personal wingle-wangle has been worked to death." [13] 

However, having said that, he does also say: "if you come to the ranch and would like to stay a while and we feel it would be nice - why, let it be so. But let's let things evolve naturally of themselves, without plans or schemes [...]" [14]
Which I suppose is the Lawrentian way of saying feel free to visit anytime - mi casa, su casa.
21 June 1927
Back in Italy, Lawrence writes a letter to his old friend Gertie Cooper. He sympathises with the fact that she's unwell - "sad to know you are still in bed" [15] - and mentions how hot it is in Florence: "I've never know the sun so strong, for the time of the year." [16] 
Considering the date - and considering his obsession with the sun and acknowledging the great phases of the cosmic year - it's surprising that this is the one and only mention of the sun that Lawrence makes in his solstice letters.  

He also reports that Maria Huxley was stung on the arm by a large jelly fish and how much he enjoys watching the peasants cutting the wheat: "It's a fine crop this year, tall and handsome, and a lovely purply-brown colour." [17]

But, ultimately, Lawrence wouldn't swap his own life for the life of a peasant working happily in the wheat fields and sleeping all afternoon:

"Sometimes I think it would be good to be healthy and limited like the peasants. But then it seems to me they have so little in their lives, one had better put up with one's own bad health, and have one's own experiences. At least they are more vivid than anything these peasants will know." [18]
21 June 1928 
And so, finally, we come to a couple of summer solstice letters written in 1928 [19] ... Lawrence is in Switzerland. Frieda has gone to Germany for a week. 
To Pino Orioli, the Italian bookseller who privately published Lady Chatterley's Lover on his behalf, Lawrence sings the praises of the Brewsters, who are looking after him in Frieda's absence; concedes that it is better to be warm and comfortable rather than cold and uncomfortable; and asks for the latest news about his scandalous new novel: "I'm so anxious to know what milady is doing [...]" [20]
To Harry Crosby, the poet, publisher and solar lunatic, Lawrence complains about being in "a dull hotel with dull people in a dull country" [21], but again acknowledges that, thanks to a beautiful view, good mountain air, and the fact that he's still in possession of the gold coins given to him by Crosby, he's "pretty well content" [22].   
A phrase that gives lie to the claim that Lawrence was always a raging malcontent. 
In fact, during his final days drinking Ovaltine, writing The Escaped Cock, and preparing his little ship of death, I like to believe that Lawrence discovered a fighter's peace - like a cat asleep on a chair and at one with the world. He earned the right to that I think.     

[1-2] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Helen Corke (21 June 1910), in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 164.  
[3] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Edward Garnett (21 June 1913), in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 27. 
[4-8] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Marie Hubrecht (21 June 1920), in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. III, ed. James T. Boulton and Andrew Robertson, (Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 553-54.  
[9] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Thomas Seltzer (21 June 1922), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. IV, ed. Warren Roberts, James T. Boulton and Elizabeth Mansfield, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 267.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Robert Mountsier (21 June 1922), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, IV 268.

[11] D. H. Lawrence, 'The Spirit of Place', Studies in Classic American Literature, First Version, (1918-19), ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 168.  

[12-14] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Willard Johnson [21 June 1924], The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. V, ed. James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 60. 

[15-18] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Gertrude Cooper (21 June 1927), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M. Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 87. 

[19] Note that Lawrence wrote to Frieda, Catherine Carswell, and Max Mohr on this date also.

[20] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Giuseppe Orioli [21 June 1928], The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, VI 428. 

[21-22] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Harry Crosby (21 June 1928), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, VI 429. 

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful read. The letters really are his finest work. Look forward to the return match for Winter Solstice...