D. H. Lawrence’s ‘The Best of School’ – A Study (Part II)
‘The Best of School’ is, verbally, a straightforward and lucid poem; its complexity lies in the complexity of the experience itself. The amount of information that the poem imparts at first reading is some guarantee that the poet is ‘keeping his eye on the subject’. The teacher is sitting with a class of small boys who are engaged on an exercise set them. It is summer, warm and windy outside, but the schoolroom blinds are drawn and the room is cool and shady.
The first image used, that of an underwater world, portrays the muffled qualities of the light and sound to be observed in the room. In the stillness of the class small movements and sounds take on a distorted form as objects underwater leisurely approach us in abnormal shapes. Te internal rhyme of the second line hints at the subaquatic echo. Underwater we find a world existing in its own right, with its own unique and secretive being; all its inhabitants are bound together in neutral otherness. So the children, in the remoteness of their classwork, are all one.
Suggested also in the image, particularly through the words ‘colourless gloom’ and ‘float’, is an element of passivity. With this there is the immediate contrast of the day world – intensely coloured, multifariously active; its dynamic quality evoked by ‘bright ripples run’ ad the forceful word ‘blown’. This contrast between the suspended and the dynamic is central to the development of the poem. When we come to the lines,
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
we are being shown the two contrasting states, and how the one is transmuted into the other. The children’s stare at their teacher is blank, because behind their eyes and in the secrecy of their minds activity is beginning, thoughts are opening out. Their minds, like the submerged atmosphere os the classroom, are the place of germination. Indeed, the very image of water carries the archetypal associations of birth and evolution. The theme of the poem is now manifest: it is the nature of the educational process. Children, in learning, in growing up, are emerging from a primal world of ‘colourless gloom’, neutral, indistinct, subdued, into the human world of activity and bright variety.
The link between the two worlds is the teacher, sitting ‘on the shores of the class, alone’. What actually is he doing? Apparently nothing, yet by his presence he creates the conditions under which the evolution can take place. Literally he provides the work which rouses the dormant mind, he establishes the peaceful isolation in which thought is nurtured, and by his authority and presence guarantees the assurance of achievement. This is why, too, the children look toward hum even when preoccupied in their own internal engagement.
The next stanza shows the process in full current. Dynamic phrases are superimposed over the passivity of the water image: ‘the sunlight waves / In the ripening morning’, and ‘the stream of awakening ripple and pass’. The teacher now becomes aware of this process, and the awareness reveals itself to him as the source of the pleasure he has been feeling. In recognising his role in the process he also feels at one with the ripening process of nature all around, and he is invigorated with the freshness of summer and youth. Lawrence, presenting this, does not let the pleasure blind us to the imperfections of things. The teacher feels as he does ‘for this little hour’ – it is a precious moment, but his part in the whole process of education is slight; the period will soon be up, the insight clouded over by routine or frustration. We must feel sympathy for a man savouring such a moment which rewards his confidence in his vocation. But it is important to emphasise that the focus of the poem is not the feelings of the teacher: it id the process which his feelings have discovered to him (and to us).
Clearly education is not the development of skills or the acquisition of information, but an awakening and purifying of the whole being. The phrase, ‘whose brightening souls it laves’, is far from banal or sentimental. Indeed, if we contrast it with Wordsworth’s ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’, or even Vaughan’s ‘Retreat’, with their neo-Platonic assumptions that the child’s perception dwindles with increased maturity, Lawrence’s phrase is surely truer to all we know, and must believe, about education, as well as being more faithful to the experiences of childhood.
In the next stanza the boys are likened now to small birds that ‘steal and flee’. The change of image renders the growing individuality of the children: where before all individuality was merged in the amorphous gloom, now each mind darts freely on its discovery. This freedom is felt with such delight, each discovery is such a personal achievement, that the children hoard it from outside interference. And the teacher is amused to observe the children’s guilty assertion of their own private being, their minute fright that he might hamper them. His amusement mingles with the delight of awakened being that is celebrated in the stanza.
The poetry deals with the paradoxes of growth and learning with a fine decorum. ‘Touch after touch I feel on me / As their eyes glance at me’, sustaining the bird image, gives the quick movement of the boys’ eyes, the alertness now spread through the class, the teacher’s satisfaction that their predatory minds still turn to him. He offers ‘the grain of rigour’ – the discipline that impels them, the challenge that rewards. But the lines, particularly ‘touch after touch’, suggests perhaps an even more delicate relation between teacher and class. Anyone who has taught small children will know the tweaks and twitches on his clothes as he wanders through the glass: the children’s little act of magic communion. They desire to touch the source of authority and wisdom must be deeply embedded in human nature. The Bible witnesses to it: ‘And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me: for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me’ (St. Luke VIII, 46). The teacher, in stillness, offers himself to the boys.
He no longer feels apart from the class. As they thrill to their own discoveries they involve him more and more with their emergent individualities. The next stanza explores this, again by a suitable change of image. The words ‘yearningly, / Slowly’ lead us to reflect from a more remote standpoint upon the long process of education: we step back and gaze at its beginning and end. Through the metaphor of creepers seeking for, choosing and adopting a host, Lawrence describes the force that blindly, tentatively yet inexorably impels children to maturity. the phrase ‘cleave unto’ suggests the fierce demand children make, as well as their blinding loyalty. Attachments to people or to what is taught in early years are lasting, lifelong in their effect. Paradoxically, while the teacher’s work functions through the children’s dependence on him, the aim of that work must be their final independence of him: ultimately they must ‘climb / Up to their lives’.
The final stanza pursues this paradox of freedom and interdependence, particularly as it is seen by the teacher. As creepers over a tree, till none can tell which is which, so teacher’s and pupils’ lives are forever inextricably mingled. As the pupils mature into their own ‘otherness’ the richer the reward for the teacher – the more he gains from them. Fulfilment of the self comes from our intricate involvement with others: this is the best of school. D. H. Lawrence’s conception of flourishing life may be best defined by contrasting his image with W. B. Yeats’s ‘flourishing hidden tree’ in ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’. For Yeats the flourishing lies in the private life nurtured by an aristocratic tradition: for Lawrence it is found in mutual interconnectedness.
The rhythm too is most successful in enacting and reinforcing the meaning; it helps establish the mood of relaxed meditation with which the poem begins, moves on to capture the mounting excitement excitement, and culminates in the luxuriant ecstasy of the final stanza. Just a glance at a few lines will illustrate this: take the third stanza.
This morning, sweet it is
To feel the lads’ looks light one me…
The repetition sets the pleasurably reflective state of the narrator, dwelling on his blessings. The alliteration and short monosyllables of the ‘lads’ looks light’ give the quick nervous movement of the children’s eyes and the easy hopping movements of birds. Then the sudden panic and guilty flight of birds is imitated by the sound of ‘swift, bright flutter’. In the next lines the alliteration emphasises the d sound in ‘Discovery’ and the placing of the word at the commencement of the line subtly reinforces the furtive possessiveness:
Each one darting away with his
Discovery, like birds that steal and flee.
Wit the last few world we return to the teacher’s amusement with its wry reflection. The rhythms of ordinary speech are employed here, as throughout, for exact effects.
‘The Best of School’ it seems to me, is a poem profound in educational wisdom, and delicate and precise expression. The phrase ‘it makes for life’ is somewhat suspect of late, having been overused and abused. But in comparison with, say – to take a ‘finished poem – T. S. Eliot’s ‘Animula’, is not Lawrence’s poem affirmative and joyful whether the other is negative and soured? Of course , there can be no competition: no poem can be more than a partial statement of things. We must take the truth we find in each.
Personally I find in Lawrence’s poem, in its modesty and honesty, a wise balance. Lawrence’s poetic means are not inadequate, nor his poetic purposes unworthy. The poem is truly educational in that meaning of education the poem itself reveals and delineates: to read the poem and really experience it is to undergo part of the process of ripening, discovery, fulfilment and wholeness.
P.S: On a completely random point. This part of the essay was written as I listened to L’Arc-en-Ciel’s Dune album. It’s excellent for literary analysis. Next time I discuss my favourite poem, William Blake’s, Visions of the Daughters of Albion.