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War and Continuity in D. H. Lawrence’s Works

Sarah Bouttier

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Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.
We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. (
LCL 5)

1The incipit of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has a particular distant tone and is immediately attributed to its protagonist: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The free indirect speech, the mitigating use of the adverbs “more or less” and the overall non-committal impression conveyed by this paragraph should alert us to the fact that it does not account for Lawrence’s vision of the effect of the Great War. However, these first lines seem to encompass claims that are often made when depicting Lawrence’s vision of the war. After a brief summary of these claims, this paper will seek to show that even though they are absolutely legitimate, they do not account for the whole of Lawrence’s reaction and depiction of the war and its aftermath: instead of the common idea of rupture and confinement brought about by the war, the paper emphasizes, through a close reading of war scenes and the descriptions of characters before and after the war, the notion of continuity through the war.

2To begin with, the “little habitats,” “the obstacles” and the fallen skies may remind the reader of Lawrence’s feeling of confinement during the war. Constrained to remain in England, wondering if there is an “outside,” he states, in a letter in which the outside takes the name of Florida:

There is no Florida, there’s only this, this England, which nauseates my soul, nauseates my spirit and my body – this England. One might as well be blown over the cliffs here in the strong wind, into the rough white sea, as sit at this banquet of vomit, this life, this England, this Europe. (L ii. 500)

3One may thus be led to believe that war appears in Lawrence’s writing as an ordeal resulting in a predicament of confinement and claustrophobia. Ronald Granofsky describes Count Dionys’s confinement in The Ladybird as “a function both of his war wounds and his capture as an enemy officer in war” (47). Similarly, one cannot deny that Clifford Chatterley’s confinement within his own body results from the war.

4Unlike the “little habitats,” the “little hopes” remind us of Lawrence’s tendency to actually look for an outside where he could find it. In a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, the raging, deathly war is pitched against nature’s wonderful blooming at spring-time:

I feel that the buds as they unfold, are really stronger than all the armies and all the war. I feel as if the young grass growing would upset all the cannon on the face of the earth, and that man with his evil stupidity is after all nothing, the leaves just brush him aside. The principle of life is after all stronger than the principle of death, and I spit on your London and your government and your armies. (L iii. 118)

5This tendency has given rise, for example, to the idea that Lawrence turns to nature in order to escape from this ordeal initiated by men. Italy, where the Lawrences rush as soon as they are able to leave England at the end of the war, is also often cited as the perfect counterpoint to the war, a place where the couple “[comes] to life again” (Frieda Lawrence 118). The search for an outside both during and immediately after the war is therefore often cited as one of the prime movers of Lawrence’s writing during the war years, as for example in Sandra Gilbert’s Acts of Attention:

Now the war and postwar experiences [...] transformed his subject matter, confirming him in a temporary but violent hostility to warring humanity [...] and at the same time focusing his attention on the peace of an inhuman natural order – Italy with its primal sea and raging flowers; Australia with its antediluvian bush; New Mexico with its pride of mountains – that had reassuringly endured. (121)

6More importantly, war appears in our incipit as a complete upheaval of the order of things, a “cataclysm.” This idea echoes Lawrence’s feelings, as expressed in some of his letters, that “the old order has gone [...] and the era of love and peace and democracy with it” (L ii. 209). Lawrence’s vision of the Great War as a clean break in the narrative of human history, and the reassessment of Western societies which it thus triggered in his works and deeds, are often recorded in biographical works. David Schneider, for example, mentions his “emotional devastation” and states that “The war was a vivid proof that the Christian era had come to an end” (90).

7For an author whose self-proclaimed symbol is the phoenix, the clean break brought about by the War necessarily carries images of creative destruction and the hope for a new order of things. Lawrence writes to Cynthia Asquith in 1915, “being risen from the dead, I know we shall all come through, rise again and walk healed and whole and new, in a big inheritance, here on earth” (L ii. 269). This longing for renewal is thus always associated with Lawrence’s acknowledgment of war as a human disaster in the biographical works: after mentioning Lawrence’s “emotional devastation,” Schneider pursues: “It was necessary for Lawrence to undergo, once again, the sort of death and resurrection that he had experienced after his mother's death and his rebirth through love” (90).

8Both the idea of war as a cataclysm enacting a clean break and the idea that it can also bear hope of renewal have been applied to Lawrence’s fiction. In D. H. Lawrence’s Nightmare, which deals specifically with the war, it is Paul Delany’s purpose to show “how frequently and easily the events of day-to-day life, as they affected Lawrence's moods, doctrines, or personal relationships, could move him to revise those artistic projects that ran parallel to his mundane experience and often could scarcely be separated from it” (ix-x). He reads “the radical break between The Rainbow and Women in Love” as caused by the war, and once again, the idea of a clean break is associated with that of renewal: the break is “only the most striking of many such shifts of perspective: their persistence reflects Lawrence’s longing for a personal transformation that would be an adequate response to the destruction of Europe's traditional values in the holocaust of the Western Front” (x).

9War did undoubtedly create a type of confinement around Lawrence that certainly affected his works, and contributed to his vision of human history as a cyclical movement of clean breaks and renewals: however, when, instead of explaining Lawrence’s writings by his thoughts or biography, one scrutinizes the effects of the war as these are actually staged by Lawrence in his poems and fiction, it appears that the notion of continuity takes over those of confinement, clean break, and renewal. In Lawrence’s imagery in his war poems, in the nature poems he wrote just afterwards, and in his handling of a few characters in his prose work, this continuity takes various dimensions. It is spatial, through images of expansion, textual, as the war is never really absent even when the subject matter is explicitly remote from it, and temporal, through images of the war acting as a catalyst rather than a cataclysm, actualizing a potential latent in people and things before the war, instead of only providing a context of tabula rasa that is favorable to all sorts of renewals.

10A brief look at Lawrence’s short story “The Blind Man” should enable us to see that war does not necessarily mean a shrinking of bodily and mental boundaries. The story depicts the consequences of Maurice’s war-caused blindness. Even though his wife and her suitor believe that with Maurice’s loss of sight “there is something lacking all the time” (EE 59), there is also a new form of being, which Maurice’s wife describes as “something strong and immediate,” in Maurice’s presence. This new form of being, created by the war, is thus depicted:

She could hear and feel her husband entering and invisibly passing among the horses near to her, in darkness as they were, actively intermingled. The rather low sound of his voice as he spoke to the horses came velvety to her nerves. How near he was, and how invisible! The darkness seemed to be in a strange swirl of violent life, just upon her. She turned giddy. (EE 52)

11Maurice has reached a form of happy externality: his being expands and merges with that of the horses with which he is “actively intermingled,” to the point that his presence pervades the whole room (“how near he was!”). He has become one with this “strange swirl of violent life,” the brutality of which acts as a reminder that this new being is the result of a violent annihilation of human lives and bodies. The limits of his body seem to have expanded in order to receive and absorb life as completely as possible, as it is also said that “life seemed to move in him like a tide lapping, and advancing, enveloping all things darkly” (EE 54): even though his body is limited in that it has lost one sense, sight, it no longer constitutes a physical limit to any form of life. This expansion of his bodily limits reaches out not only towards animals and to a vital flow but also towards objects: later in the story, Maurice acknowledges that “it was a pleasure to stretch forth the hand and meet the unseen object, clasp it, and possess it in pure contact” (EE 54). His body seems to be in possession of whatever it touches, as if the object touched became an extension of it.

12When the war is directly evoked, as is the case in a number of poems, this form of bodily expansion is also in evidence. In “War-Baby” (CP 172), Lawrence likens “our faith,” which we could interpret as the soldier’s or people’s faith in victory, in renewal, as a creature born out of the war (“war-baby”). If the “war-baby” is indeed the war’s creature, it is interesting to see that war triggers an endless process of expanding boundaries:

The child like mustard-seed
Rolls out of the husk of death
Into the woman’s fertile, fathomless lap.

Look, it has taken root!
See how it flourisheth!
See how it rises with magical, rosy sap!

13If the war is the creator or the fostering environment of this child, then it is either, “the husk of death,” (the association of war and death will not surprise anyone) or the woman’s lap, recalling the battlegrounds which, once nourished with ashes and the blood of soldiers, is more fertile than ever. In both cases war takes the shape of a limitless, expanding body: the “husk of death” and the woman’s lap seem to open up to each other in order to let the grain move without restraint from one to the other, in a new freedom of movement that recalls the “Blind Man’s” mode of being in the world. The process of expansion is thorough: no boundary remains, the “fathomless” quality of the woman’s lap excluding any possible closure of her body. Similarly, the baby / seed, once born / planted, expands both ways, towards the earth by taking root, and towards the sky by flourishing.

14As the war appears to be the place where boundaries expand, it seems logical that where and when there is no war, a longing for this expansion makes itself felt. In the poem “At the Front” (CP 159), a soldier explicitly wishes the war could reach “home,” a place too peaceful and distant:

It stands so still in the hush composed of trees and inviolate peace,
The home of my fathers, the place that is mine, my fate and my old increase,
And now that the skies are falling, the world is spouting in fountains of dirt,
I would give my soul for the homestead to fall with me, go with me, both in one hurt.

15Like the husk of death and the woman’s lap, the war would allow the soldier’s body and the homestead to expand their boundaries, annihilating the distance between them and merging into one oxymoronic body, at once unified and shattered by bombshells.

16The opposition between war as expansion and the absence of war as distance, boundary, and even confinement, finds an echo in a poem aptly named “Winter Lull” (CP 165), where soldiers complain of the absence of any concrete manifestation of war:

Because of the silent snow, we are all hushed
Into awe.
No sound of guns nor overhead no rushed
Vibration to draw
Our attention out of the void wherein we are crushed.


We do not look at each other, we hide
Our daunted eyes.
White earth, and ruins, ourselves, and nothing beside…
It all belies
Our existence; we wait, and are still denied.

17The temporary silence occasioned by the winter lull locks the soldiers within their bodies. They resent there being nothing besides themselves, and do not use their senses any longer: they “hide their eyes” instead of watching, and long for the expanded, receptive kinds of beings they become when the war rages, with their hearing able to project them far away where the guns roar and their sense of touch able to feel vibrations coming from “overhead.” Instead, their sense of bodily limitation is acute: they feel almost annihilated, and the poem ends on the claim that they are “disastrously silence-bound.”

18The war therefore brings about an expansion of bodily boundaries accounting for a form of spatial continuity between beings. When considering not only Lawrence’s texts on the war but all his writings in the war years, it appears that this expansion is a quality that is in evidence in the texts themselves: even when Lawrence claims he is escaping the war or staging a scene that is outside the battlefield, the war is present, enriching the imagery. For example, the fact that Lawrence turned to nature poems in the post-war years because of a temporary misanthropy brought about by the war is often brought up and is highly plausible – see, for example, our quotation from Sandra Gilbert’s Acts of Attention. However, as Ross Murphin notes, “Many of Lawrence’s attempts to get to know flowers, fruits, and the feminine were written in an explosion-torn villa in San Gervasio,” (100) and many of the creatures in Birds Beasts and Flowers could be said to bear the wounds of this time: Lawrence marvels at the “Pomegranate,” “dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack” (CP 279), declares that “trees suffer, like races, down the long ages,” portrays the vine and the tortoise as “scarred” and the “Almond Trees” as “iron sticking grimly out of earth” (CP 300).

19When Lawrence imagines spaces or objects as external to the war, counterpoints to it, they appear indeed to bear its trace anyway, as also in “The Attack” (CP 164), where Lawrence features soldiers experiencing a form of epiphany just preceding an attack, as they come out of the woods. Besides recalling some of the images which this study links with the representations of war and battles (the expansion of the soldier’s body towards “the whole bland being / Which was This and me,” the actualization of a potential through the blossoming of trees) this poem portrays an atmosphere of gleaming soft night that is supposed to function as a counterpoint to the war: “before [or “after,” depending on the edition] the terrible rage, the death, / This wonder stood glistening!” However, following the principle of an expansion triggered by war, the very scene supposed to be opposed to the war actually portrays the gleaming night as itself a battle:

Yet warm the chase
Of faint night-breaths did go
Across my face!

White-bodied and warm the night was,
Sweet-scented to hold in my throat.
White and alight the night was.
A pale stroke smote

The pulse through the whole bland being
Which was This and me!

20The night breath is portrayed as a “chase,” going “across [his] face,” and is “held in the throat”; the pulse is a stroke smiting, there is nothing particularly pacified “in front” or “after” “the terrible rage, the death.” This vision appears to be a by-product of the war rather than a place of escape. Once again, the idea that in Lawrence “there is nothing outside the war” does not entail confinement: on the contrary, the poem depicts the expansion of the soldier’s being, united with his vision.

21This expansion in and of the war can also be detected in temporal terms in Lawrence’s narratives of the war. A form of temporal continuity through the war can be identified and may provide grounds for a challenge to the often accepted narrative of the Lawrencian vision of the war as a clean break allowing for a tabula rasa and ultimately a form of renewal. In “The Blind Man,” for example, the opening of human bodies is not only an effect of the war, it also appears as a chain reaction: the war seems to have expanded the limits of Maurice’s body, but Maurice in turn, when he touches Bertie, opens him up: Poor Bertie “could not bear it that he had been touched by the blind man, his insane reserve broken in. He was like a mollusk whose shell is broken” (EE 63). The effect of the war is therefore minimized: it does not appear as a specific, rupturing change. It is rather part of a chain of reactions leading to an expansion of boundaries. This temporal continuity, challenging the vision of war as an unprecedented rupture, is also to be found in “Bombardment” (CP 166):

The town has opened to the sun.
Like a flat red lily with a million petals
She unfolds, she comes undone.

A sharp sky brushes upon
The myriad glittering chimney-tips
As she gently exhales to the sun.

Hurrying creatures run
Down the labyrinth of the sinister flower.
What is it they shun?

A dark bird falls from the sun.
It curves in a rush to the heart of the vast
Flower: the day has begun.

22Of course, this vision of the war opening up like a flower once it is bombed could be understood as a metaphor for renewal after a rupture from the old order; but it appears that there is an ambiguity in “Bombardment”: does the town open up once bombed or was it already unfolding, almost expecting to receive the dark bird’s, or bomb’s, blow? Is the new day which “has begun” wholly new, or just the continuity of the process initiated by the town-flower blooming? In this poem, as in the chain reactions of the “Blind Man,” the image questions the idea of war as a single event, a break that allows for instant renewal: on the contrary, war appears as part of the process of opening up, which may already have started beforehand, in the case of “Bombardment,” and which will continue afterwards in the case of “The Blind Man.”

23This temporal continuity could lead us to think of the Lawrencian war as a “catalyst” rather than a “cataclysm”: war does not always constitute a clean, unexpected break, followed by downfall or renewal. In many cases, it might just be seen as actualizing a potential in those beings that had one, while manifesting the void inherent in those beings that had none.

24In this case the images of blooming in “Bombardment” and in “War Baby” could be interpreted in terms of continuity: for a flower to bloom there needs to be a seed, a form of latent life waiting for certain conditions to manifest itself. On the contrary, where there is no seed of life, there cannot be any actualization. This dynamic also seems to be at the heart of some of Lawrence’s post-war narratives. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, for example, the war cannot really be said to have put an end to Clifford’s sensual life: it seems that he never had any, “the sex part not [meaning] much to him” (12). When describing Clifford before the war, Lawrence even invokes the image of “paralysis” and “defencelessness”: “He was, in some paralysing way, conscious of his own defencelessness, though he had all the defence of privilege. Which is curious, but a phenomenon of our day” (10).

25Even though Lawrence is referring to social awkwardness, one cannot help drawing the parallel with Clifford’s post-war state: the war, therefore, could be said to have literalized a state that already existed at the symbolic level beforehand. As for Constance, if the post-war paralysis of her husband inevitably throws her into Mellors’ arms and makes her discover sexual fulfilment, it seems that this potentiality had been lying latent in her body right from her pre-war adolescence: even though not in a satisfactory way, it is clearly stated that while Clifford was a virgin before he married, “love had gone through” Connie, making her, like every woman through whom “love has gone,” “more blooming, more subtly rounded”: the recurring image of Connie’s womb and whole body blooming after her encounters with Mellors was then already prefigured before the war.

26Similarly, in The Ladybird, Daphne’s husband Basil comes back wounded from the war. Before his arrival, she expects that “he [will] be something new, something she [does] not know.” Basil himself stresses his faith in the renewal brought about by the war, claiming that war has made him “another man” (FCDL 198) for the better. However, Basil’s change has only taken the old antagonism of the couple further, a dynamic epitomized by the recurring trope of Daphne’s blood. Before the war, Daphne’s blood, full of “wild energy” is said to be inherited from her father’s lineage of “riotous, daredevil border soldier[s]” (FCDL 161). Her husband was not himself a “daredevil,” but “truly adorable,” and his almost platonic love for her “made her nerve-worn” (FCDL 182). According to the old Lawrencian dichotomy, then, Daphne’s relationship to her husband privileged nerve consciousness over blood consciousnesss, mind over creaturely existence. After the war, the relationship, instead of taking a new turn, simply worsens: the “new icy note” to be found in Basil’s voice goes “through her veins like death” (FCDL 189), Daphne’s blood is completely defeated in favour of nerve-consciousness, an outcome that was already latent before the war, but was precipitated by it.

27On the other hand, Count Dionys, even though wounded in the war and “so ill” that “it seems strange that he’s still alive” (FCDL 163) seems to have retained his animal vitality. Before the war, “he was so full of life, in his own little animal way”; after the war, this animal vitality is still present: “She was looking into his eyes. She could see the darkness swaying in the depths. She perceived the invisible, cat-like fire stirring deep inside them, felt it coming towards her” (181). Of course, this vitality no longer shows: it only exists in a subdued, hidden state, but one that will act as a catalyst in Daphne’s feelings, reconciling her with the wild energy running through her blood so that she is at last at peace with herself.

28Therefore, it seems that out of the war only comes the realization of certain potentials that were present before the events, and when there was no potential, no vitality for example, this absence of vitality is only intensified and its consequences made manifest. Clifford was never vital, nor was Basil. Other characters however see their being and their vitality expanded.

29 Lawrence’s war narratives and poems are anchored into a form of continuity, a spatial one, the war expanding the boundaries of selves and bodies rather than imprisoning them; a textual one, as the war informs and enriches scenes that are explicitly set up outside the battlefield; and a temporal one, through the images of blooming at the impulse of the event. This continuity enables the war to act as a catalyst rather than as a clean break or a cataclysm, actualizing the vital potential of beings, or when there was none, manifesting their absence of potential. A reading of Lawrence’s writings thus provides support for the contention that if none of his works of the period is immune to the effects and repercussions of the war, the experience of war is never depicted solely in terms of rupture, confinement or even creative destruction.

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Schneider, David. The Consciousness of D. H. Lawrence, An Intellectual Biography. Lawrence, Kansas : University Press of Kansas, 1986.

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Sarah Bouttier, « War and Continuity in D. H. Lawrence’s Works », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.231

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Sarah Bouttier

Stockholm University, Sweden

Sarah Bouttier received her PhD (Writing the Non-Human in D. H. Lawrence’s Poetry) from La Sorbonne Nouvelle in December 2011, and is currently teaching English Literature and Linguistics at the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Her research interests include 20th and 21st century poetry and representations of the non-human in literature.

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