- H. Lawrence wrote a great deal of poetry. The Wordsworth edition of the Complete Poems runs to well over 600 pages, as does the relevant volume of the Cambridge edition. This bulk is most conveniently divided into three. There are first of all the poems that Lawrence wrote in more or less traditional stanza form, at the beginning of his career and well into the middle of the First World War. Then there are those which illustrate his decision to adopt free verse, principally under the influence of Walt Whitman, and which represent a phase in his poetry-writing career that could be said to culminate triumphantly in the collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers with its `Snake’, `Humming Bird’ or all the poems in the tortoise sequence. Towards the end of his life, Lawrence composed a large number of very short pieces he called Pansies or Nettles. In these he tried to encapsulate passing thoughts or reflections in a poetic form although mixed in among them were also a number of poems dealing with the prospect of his imminent death. Several of these `last poems, as they are called, like `Bavarian Gentians’ or `The Ship of Death’, will be familiar to many readers, but they are perhaps too few in number to make up a special, fourth category of their own.
There is a reasonably general agreement that, although Lawrence certainly wrote some great poems, there is in the whole corpus rather more chaff than wheat. This is particularly the case for the first category, even though it contains a reasonable number of poems which stand out from the mass and have made their way into the anthologies. One of these is called `Piano’ and describes how being sung to by a woman, `in the dusk’, takes the narrator back to a time when he was a small child and sitting under the family piano, touching the feet of his mother who was also singing. This is a Proustian moment in which `the insidious mastery of song’ has made him yearn for `the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside / And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide’. When, therefore, the woman to whom he is listening changes the mood and begins to sing more loudly, it is too late because `the glamour of childish days’ is upon him and he can only `weep like a child for the past’. There is a gentle nostalgia here, not usually associated with Lawrence, but among several other reasons for paying attention to `Piano’, is the minor role it played in a pedagogic revolution that took place in the teaching of English during, and for several decades after, the Second World War.
The simple tactic of I. A. Richards in his Practical Criticism is well known. He took thirteen short poems and asked a mixture of Cambridge undergraduates and doctoral students, together with the odd colleague, to write down their considered responses, the crucial fact being that he did not reveal to them who the authors of the poems were. `Piano’ was number eight on his list and allowed him to illustrate several mistakes people can make when reading poetry. A number of respondents, for example, realizing that the poem involved childhood reminiscence, automatically assumed it must be sentimental, not recognizing how aware Lawrence is of that danger and is trying to guard against it. `Silly, maudlin, sentimental twaddle’ is one verdict and an author `wallowing in a bath of soapy sentiment’ another. Some of them are set off on this track by evident mis-readings, one reader referring to the child under the piano as being near to `the tinkling strings’, the actual word being `tingling’ (in allusion to their vibration), while another writes his or her responses as if only one piano figures in the poem rather than two. A common mistake is the reliance on inappropriate criteria from the reader’s own life experience, not unmixed on occasions with a little social snobbery. Thus, one respondent complains that the attitude to music of the author of `Piano’ is `disgusting’ and accuses him of regarding it as `an emotional stimulus of a very low kind’. It is this same reader who goes on to speculate that the hymns the poet recalls `were probably those of Sanky and Moody’. Yet another, more unaccountably, describes the incident recalled in `Piano as `sordid’, but then praises its author for finding `unpoetical’ words which conform admirably with its `unpoetical’ character.
This intrusion of inappropriate considerations, which sometimes sound suspiciously personal, is also evident in the reader who complains `the writer seems to love feeling sobby about his pure spotless childhood and to enjoy thinking of himself as a world-worn wretch’ or, more clearly, in the one who is prompted by the poem to ask `who would be a wretched, dependent child again when he can be a free person?’ All in all Richards’ guinea pigs hardly distinguish themselves and, because he admires the poem himself, he is left with the problem of why, among his thirteen poems, some of which are pretty dire, `Piano’ came next to the bottom in the popularity stakes. He explains this result by suggesting that many people `are afraid of free expansive emotions’ and shy away from situations which may provoke them. But `the only safe cure for a mawkish attachment to an illusory childhood heaven, for example, is to take the distorted sentiment and work it into close and living relation with some scene concretely and truthfully realized, which may be taken as a standard of reality and awaken the dream-infected object of the sentiment into actuality. This is the treatment by expansion, and [`Piano’] may stand as an example of how it may be done’. I am not sure that this doesn’t over-egg the pudding when all that needs saying is that Lawrence is aware of the dangers of childhood nostalgia and is simply reporting how impossible, on occasions, they can be to resist.
Not too long after the publication of Practical Criticism, there was that revolution in the teaching of English to which I refer. This was when school children and students all over the country began being given poems as conveniently short as `Piano’ that they were not likely to have seen before, and the authorship of which was kept from them. They were required to write critical appreciations of these poems (as also of short passages of prose) and then, at a more advanced level, assign them to a particular period in literary history (`dating’ as it was known). These exercises were conceived as part of a whole programme to develop `discrimination’, a key term in Richards’ vocabulary, and build up a community of accurate and sensitive readers. They held sway for several decades but are now more or less dying out. One obvious reason for their demise is that they can be very difficult, `dating’ in particular requiring a background in reading that is becoming increasingly rare in a dominantly audio-visual culture. And then again, as the respondents to `Piano’ make clear, what the method offers, in addition to the possibility of developing discrimination, is a prize opportunity for making a fool of yourself, and who would want to pay £9000 a year for that privilege? Yet discrimination as Richards understood it is a useful skill when faced with a challenge such as an edition of Lawrence’s Complete Poems. There are of course several selected versions on the market in which gifted editors do a good job in separating the wheat from the chaff; but it is always more satisfying to feel able to do that job for yourself.