Reading Lawrence: The White Peacock (1911)

When I was researching my dissertation chapter on D.H. Lawrence, I made it two-thirds of the way through his first novel, The White Peacock (1911). Since I wanted to get the chapter done as soon as possible, however, and since most Lawrence scholarship on his “major” novels rarely comment on his earliest work, I abandoned my efforts to read through the novel as well as all other early Lawrence (novels, poems, stories, etc.). Near the end of the fall semester here at URI, I decided it was time—now over two years out of graduate school—to return to Lawrence and to work my way through his early stuff.

778729I won’t go into great detail here. I just want to share a moving passage near the end of the novel. The narrator, Cyril Beardsall, returns to and finds his childhood and young adult home of Nethermere quite different:

I wandered around Nethermere, which had now forgotten me. The daffodils under the boat-house continued their golden laughter, and nodded to one another in gossip, as I watched them, never for a moment pausing to notice me. The yellow reflection of daffodils among the shadows of grey willow in the water trembled faintly as they told haunted tales in the gloom. I felt like a child left out of the group of my playmates. There was a wind running across Nethermere, and on the eager water blue and glistening grey shadows changed places swiftly. Along the shore the wild birds rose flapping in expostulation as I passed, peewits mewing fiercely round my head, while two white swans lifted their glistening feathers till they looked like grand double water-lilies, laying back their orange beaks among the petals, and fronting me with haughty resentment, charging towards me insolently.

I wanted to be recognised by something. I said to myself that the dryads were looking out for me from the wood’s edge. But as I advanced they shrank, and glancing wistfully, turned back like pale flowers falling in the shadow of the forest. I was a stranger, an intruder. Among the bushes a twitter of lively birds exclaimed upon me. Finches went leaping past in bright flashes, and a robin sat and asked rudely “Hello! Who are you?”

The bracken lay sere under the trees, broken and chavelled by the restless wild winds of the long winter. The trees caught the wind in their tall netted twigs; and the young morning wind moaned at its captivity. As I trod the discarded oak-leaves and the bracken they uttered their last sharp gasps, pressed into oblivion. The wood was roofed with a wide young sobbing sound, and floored with a faint hiss like the intaking of the last breath. Between, was all the glad out-peeping of buds and anemone flowers and the rush of birds. I, wandering alone, felt them all, the anguish of the bracken fallen face-down in defeat, the careless dash of the birds, the sobbing of the young wind arrested in its haste, the trembling, expanding delight of the buds. I alone among them could hear the whole succession of chords.

The brooks talked on just the same, just as gladly, just as boisterously as they had done when I had netted small, glittering fish in the rest-pools. At Strelley Mill a servant girl in a white cap, and white apron-bands, came running out of the house with purple prayer-books, which she gave to the elder of two finicking girls who sat disconsolately with their black-silked mother in the governess cart at the gate, ready to go to church. Near Woodside there was barbed-wire along the path, and at the end of every riding it was tarred on the tree-trunks, “Private”. (Cambridge Edition / Penguin Classics 306-7)

Though the main action of the novel centers on intense, awkward, and failed relations between men and women (it’s Lawrence, after all!), I found myself increasingly drawn to passages like this, moments where the narrator’s eye is drawn away from human beings to the landscape giving background to them all. Though there is some oddly sentimental anthropomorphism here (daffodils as an exclusionary clique; haughty, resentful water-lilies, etc.), there is also a fascinating sketch of an aching sensibility and sensitivity, a mind trained to read the natural signs around it together as a “succession of chords.” I’m still learning what to make of this and how it affects my reading of this and other passages (and this and other Lawrence novels). But until then, I read on . . .

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