By the time The Rainbow was pulped, its 30-year-old author had published four novels, a play, a book of short stories and a volume of poems. Undaunted by the novel’s suppression, David Herbert Lawrence would in the next decade alone publish another play; two more books of stories; two travel books about Italy; two translations of the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga; a groundbreaking work of criticism about a national literature of which not only most Englishmen but many Americans were unaware (Studies in Classic American Literature); two works of speculative psychology (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious); five novels, including his greatest, a sequel to The Rainbow called Women in Love; and five books of poems, including one of the most brilliant books written by an English-language poet in the twentieth century, Birds, Beasts and Flowers.
“For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,” says Lawrence in “Pomegranate,” the opening poem in the volume. The poem itself is broken, careening with seductive abandon from confrontation—“You tell me I am wrong. / Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?”—to reverie—“Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure”—and back again:
Do you mean to tell me there should be no fissure? No glittering, compact drops of dawn? Do you mean it is wrong, the gold-filmed skin, integument, shown ruptured?This concatenation of wildly divergent tones dramatizes a mind in motion. Lawrence seems simultaneously naïve and jaded in the face of elemental questions, and he is himself our greatest poet of the interrogative mode: his questions often begin by seeming inconsequential, even coy (“Would you like to throw a stone at me?”), but they unearth unexpected profundities of observation and thought. This process of discovery, not the profundities as such, is what makes the poems so gripping, and it takes place both within the poems and between them. First published in 1923, Birds, Beasts and Flowers stands with other groundbreaking books published in the 1920s—T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, Marianne Moore’s Observations, William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, W.B. Yeats’s The Tower—and it ought to be read, as those books are, as part of a crucial episode in twentieth-century poetry, an episode whose implications we are still grappling with to this day.
It’s easy to admire someone who does one thing very well. Such a person is a professional, a specialist, and if he is an artist, he has cleaved to his achievement with the passionate intensity that perfection demands. Recently, only a few writers have matched Lawrence’s versatility, but one would be hard-pressed to make a case for the poetry of John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates. In the generations immediately preceding Lawrence’s, a refusal to specialize was far more common (think of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy), but by the time Lawrence was writing, the association of literary achievement with professionalization had already eclipsed the charisma of the Victorian man or woman of letters. The artist must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work,” said Yeats, and by “work” Yeats did not mean the kind of apparently scattershot career that Lawrence maintained. For someone of Yeats’s inclination, even a successful poet with a happy marriage might seem insufficiently serious: that’s one achievement too many.
Though marriage was not among them, Lawrence did several things well. Had he written only Studies in Classic American Literature, he would be remembered as one of the first literary critics ever to conceive of the then-unknown Herman Melville as a major writer. He stands among the greatest poets of his time not, as his most prescient contemporary understood, in spite of his achievement in prose but because of it: “Mr. Lawrence, almost alone among the younger poets, has realized that contemporary poetry must be as good as contemporary prose if it is to justify its publication,” said Ezra Pound in his 1913 review of Love Poems and Others, Lawrence’s first book of poems.