D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Best of School’ – A Study (Part I)
D.H. Lawrence’s poetry has not yet received the critical appreciation due to it. Even his most ardent advocates, such as F.R. Leavis, have been for the most part silent on the merits of the poetry. Lawrence’s genius as a novelist (or prophet) has distracted his critics’ attention for this side of his creation. Yet were all his other works completely lost to us, by his poetry alone D.H. Lawrence would still stand as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Or, to say the same thing in a more orthodox manner, Lawrence’s poetry is not merely an adjunct to his prose, but exists in its own right as poetry and expresses what he has to say to us in true poetic form.
To demonstrate that this is so of the body of his poetry would take more space and time than I have at my disposal now. It would mean sifting out of his poetical works the genuine from the dross, showing their range and profundity, ad the qualities that make them poetry and not something less. It would mean affirming the status of Pansies as something more than ‘squibs’ or ‘unmemorable’ pieces. It would mean critical analyses of many of the key poems, backing one’s judgement with close reading and comparison. It is a task certainly in need of being done.
It is then with thoughts of making no more than a tentative contribution to what should be a common pursuit that I set out to give an analysis of one poem – perhaps one too that is a key poem: ‘The Best of School’.
The blinds are drawn because of the sun,
And the boys and the room in colourless gloom
Of underwater float: bright ripples run
Across the walls as the blinds are blown
To let the sunlight in; and I,
As I sit on the shores of the class, alone,
Watch the boys in the summer blouses
As they write, their round heads busily bowed:
And one after another rouses
His face to look at me,
To ponder very quietly,
As seeing, he does not see.
And then he turns again, with a little, glad
Thrill of his work he turns again from me,
Having found what he wanted, having got what was to be had.
And very sweet it is, while the sunlight waves
In the ripening morning, to sit alone with the class
And feel the stream of awakening ripple and pass
From me to the boys, whose brightening souls it laves
For this little hour.
This morning, sweet it is
To feel the lads’ looks light on me,
Then back in a swift, bright flutter to work;
Each one darting away with his
Discovery, like birds that steal and flee.
Touch after touch I feel on me
As their eyes glance at me for the grain
Of rigour they taste delightedly.
As tendrils reach out yearningly,
Slowly rotate till they touch the tree
That they cleave unto, and up which they climb
Up to their lives—so they to me.
I feel them cling and cleave to me
As vines going eagerly up; they twine
My life with other leaves, my time
Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.
One can see immediately in this poem the sort of things that have put critics off Lawrence’s poetry. There is an apparent casualness about it which might make it seem no more than a sketch for a poem (a criticism of Lawrence’s poetry that has been ascribed to T.S. Eliot) – a sketch that the writer had neither the inclination nor the discipline to transmute into something finer. Is the language not at times banal or bathetic: ‘having got what was to be had’, ‘brightening souls’, ‘little hour’ (to choose a few phrases almost at random)? Is there not clumsiness in the use of verse – in, say, the unnecessary internal rhyme in the second line, or the forced rhymes ‘rouses’ or ‘laves’? Is there not emotional looseness, even indulgence, in the choice of metaphors? A close study should resolve such questions.
But first a few words of warning. Modern analytic criticism, with its detailed attention to verbal texture, has evolved a veritable battery of instruments for probing poetry. Basically such an approach to poetry must be sound, for it is only through the language used that the poet can capture and communicate experience. Yet this approach has brought its own temptations. The examination of verbal texture can fall into the pursuit of merely verbal intricacies, while the experience which the poem points to is elbowed out of the seminar rooms.
There is a tendency to examine ‘complex’ poems (Shelley’s Ozymandius, for instance) rather than ‘simple’ ones: a poem which offers no verbal puzzlement but where the reader sees immediately what the poet is speaking about is often considered unworthy of close study. The verbally opaque poem is more of a critical challenge than the transparent one. This attitude mesa that false criteria have been established. For what is important about a poem is not verbal complexity or straightforwardness, but the richness of the experience embraced by the poetry. A wealth of experience may be expressed very simply, indeed often is by the greatest poets. in Lear, for example, the moments of greatest import are the simplest in expression:
Gloster: O, let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells or mortality,
has more in it to comprehend than lines which work through complicated metaphors:
Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.
Yet too often the poetry which receives the most attention is that which offers most opportunity for verbal peeling. As an illustration let me remind readers of the discussion in Essays in Criticism some decades back on Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘Snow’, where much critical energy was squandered on a piece which had no substance in it proportionate to the attention paid. Practical criticism only justifies itself when it gets beyond the words to the experience, aiding the reader in his awareness and exploration of that experience.