The sensuous Celtic type: DH Lawrence, ‘Samson & Delilah’

It’s been a busy time at work, and emotionally fraught (a serious family illness), but I don’t want Tredynas Days to languish. Here then is a short piece based on notes compiled for a course I’m teaching on ‘Sense of Place’: it follows on from several recent posts on DH Lawrence’s letters written in Cornwall,mostly from a rented cottage at Higher Tregerthen, near the village of Zennor, west of St Ives.

Lawrence’s story ‘Samson and Delilah’ tells of a Cornish miner who, like many others in the late Victorian period when tin and copper prices fell, emigrated to America, abandoning his wife and new-born baby. Some 15 Years later he returns to the

Tinners Arms

The Tinners Arms as it looked back in August this year

fictionalised Tinners Arms (called in the story ‘The Tinners Rest’) at Zennor, where his wife is landlady. At first she doesn’t recognise him, but when he insists on staying, and that she is his wife, she calls on some soldiers, stationed there – the story is set early in WWI – to restrain him. He escapes and resumes his attempts to win her over, telling her he has amassed £1000 – a fortune at that time (remember he paid an annual rent of £5 on the Higher Tregerthen cottage!)

Probably written in 1916, it was published in March 1917 as ‘The Prodigal Husband’ in the English Review; a revised, retitled version appeared in a collection of his stories, England, My England (1922 in the US, 1924 in the UK) – Online text here; it was made into a short TV play in 1959 and a short film in in 1985. A longer version was an episode in the ITV ‘Play of the Week’ series in 1966.

img_4302Here at the start of the story the protagonist, Willie Nankervis, arrives in the desolate, economically deprived mining village – a hint at why he left there years earlier – on the Penzance to St Just bus:

Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night… The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old.

After ordering drinks at the bar Willie encounters a girl working there; we later discover this is his daughter. Note the characteristic ambiguity in the depiction of the Cornish people (in a letter he’d venomously dismissed them as vermin, insects, in response to what he perceived as their passive acceptance of militarism and ‘King and Country’).

She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type…

 

She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.

‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.

She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.

‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.

Not very complimentary about Willie’s womenfolk, is it. But much of the story is narrated from his skewed point of view – but even his ‘alert, inquisitive…curiosity’ is ‘mindless’, to match the girl’s ‘unreasoning’ gaze. None of these Cornish characters emerges with much dignity. Later the focalisation changes to Willie’s wife. Does she really fail to recognise him, like some kind of inverted form of Penelope, faithless to the returning anti-hero who’d abandoned her and her baby?

The story’s title encourages this interpretation, for it draws attention to the central theme of betrayal by the wife of her husband, who is captured by the military; this act deprives him temporarily of his manhood and independence.It’s about one of DHL’s familiar concerns: the struggle, as he put it in a letter from Cornwall, between the old Adam and the old Eve.

It’s a slight story, but interesting as one of his rare pieces of fiction set in the locale where he spent nearly two years 1916-17. Ch. 12 of his novel Kangaroo (1923) is called ‘Nightmare’, and provides a fictional account of those Cornish years, which culminated in his being arrested with Frieda on suspicion of spying for the Germans and banished from the county. His love affair with the Celtic wildness of Cornwall was over for ever. His ‘savage pilgrimage’ across the world began.

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 2: I feel fundamentally happy and free

So, Lawrence has established himself in his ‘Promised Land’ of Cornwall. He’s aware it’s not Florida, where he’d hoped to establish his Utopian ‘colony’ of artist-philosophers, Rananim, with disciple-friends like John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield (‘truly blood kin’, he calls them in a letter to them of 11 March 1916), but it might be just as good. His longing for a peaceful life is almost palpable. [The name Rananim is taken from his Ukrainian-Russian friend the literary patron and translator Samuel Koteliansky’s Hebrew songs.]

He’s found the cheap rented cottage he was looking for: in Higher Tregerthen, a cluster of houses near Zennor, on the coast between St Ives and Penzance. Temporarily he and Frieda stay in the village inn, The Tinner’s Arms – its name reflects the mining heritage that was the subject of my recent posts on the Man Engine in Cornwall.

His flow of almost daily letters continues. Here’s a further selection; I’ve picked out his revealing descriptions to the local scene, which tell as much about his own state of mind, his hopes and feelings, as they do in evoking the sense of place…

Fields near Zennor:

Fields near Zennor

 [5 March 1916, from Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, to Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower: and then it will be heather; and then, hundreds of foxgloves. It is the best place I have been in, I think.
…The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

[He goes on to plead with this letter’s recipients to rent the adjoining house to his, ‘the long house with the tower’, establishing two more friends with them, Heseltine and someone else, it will be like ‘a little monastery’. He even tells them who will occupy which rooms. ‘It would be so splendid if it could but come off: such a lovely place: our Rananim.’ There they could ‘strike some sort of root’ because ‘we must buckle to work.’ There must be no more ‘follies and removals and uneasinesses.’ I find his words here redolent of ‘uneasiness’. He concludes:]
…This country is pale grey granite, and gorse: there is something uralt and clean about it.
[His cottage, he proudly confides, ‘is only £5 a year.’ The larger house next door has a rent of £16 p.a. – chickenfeed, even then. Subsequent letters reveal why they were so cheap.]

[11 March? 1916, Tinner’s Arms, to JMM and KM] I told you all about the house: the great grey granite boulders, you will love them, the rough primeval hill behind us, the sea beyond the few hills, that have great boulders half submerged in the grass, and stone grey walls. There are many lambs under your house. They are quite tame. They stand and cock their heads at one, then skip into the air like little explosions…I’m sure we shall live on at Tregerthen a long while, years, a tiny settlement to ourselves. And the war will end before next summer…
[Yeah, right. More wishful thinking all round here. Even the lambs he later revises his opinion about, as we shall see.]

[Letters at this time relate how he’s been making furniture, cupboards, shelves, etc. He loved throwing himself into physical, manual labour; later he helped his farmer neighbours with harvesting and other farm work. This is all about the ‘freedom’ he seeks, not scenery per se. The first letter L. writes from the two-room cottage at Higher Tregerthen is dated 7 April, to Ottoline Morrell, when he says the JMMs have moved in, too, and they were busy decorating and putting things in order. ‘The Murrys like it also’, he claims – prematurely as it turned out.]

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

[16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell] Here, doing one’s own things, in this queer outlandish Celtic country, I feel fundamentally happy and free, beyond.

[Letters now refer to the ominous wartime threats to this Cornish idyll; JMM is arrested by the police for evading conscription; he’s released when he shows rejection certificate. But General Conscription seems increasingly likely; L ruefully suggests he’d be used as a clerk, and often vents his spleen on jingoists and ‘patriotism’]

[18 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to O. Morrell] But one is impotent, and there is nothing left but to curse. Only, how one hates one’s King and Country: what a sickening false monster it is! How one feels nauseated with the bloody life, one stodge of lies, and falsehood. I don’t care a straw what the Germans do. Everything that is done nationally, in any sense, is now vile and stinking, whether it is England or Germany. One wants only to be left alone, only that…I hate the whole concern of the nation. Bloody false fools, I don’t care what they do, so long as I can avoid them, the mass of my countrymen: or any other countrymen.
I feel the war must end this year. But in one form or another war will never end now…It is very beautiful, all the gorse coming out on the hillsides. But one feels behind it all the dirty great paw of authority grasping nearer and nearer of jeopardy…the unspoken question all the time is how long do we hold out.

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 1 – The Promised Land

“When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul”. Letter of 25 Feb. 1916 to Ottoline Morrell, from The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (Heinemann, London: 1962, repr. 1970), vol. 1, p. 437

My last two posts dealt with the mining heritage of Cornwall, where I live, embodied and celebrated in the form of the Man Engine, and the songs associated with the industrial toil of the working people of this county, especially in the nineteenth century, when tin and copper mining were at their peak of production. Thereafter the mining industry collapsed, and no working mines survive. A Cornish diaspora ensued, so that there are now pockets of Cornish Celts in S. and Central America, the USA, Australia – and many more far-flung places.

One of the writers with the closest affiliation to Cornwall, even though he stayed here only a short time, is D.H. Lawrence.

DHL passport photo

DHL passport photo, undated, from the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library, Yale: public domain

After staying in a house at Porthcothan near St Merryn, lent to him by the novelist J.D. Beresford, DHL sought a cheap place of his own to rent. He was looking forward to being joined by his close friends (at the time; they later fell out) the literary Middleton Murry couple: John, and his wife, the New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield, to form a Rananim or ideal artistic-philosophical haven in Zennor, west Cornwall. If it could not be in his longed-for ‘Florida’ – or anywhere in the USA of Melville and other admired American writers like JF Cooper, where Lawrence felt there was a less constrained national spirit, then Zennor might serve, he believed.

His spirits were probably raised as much by his excited discovery of Melville’s Moby-Dick as they were by the Murrys; he was fast falling out with John, who’d been highly critical of Lawrence’s recent, controversial novel The Rainbow (1915), which had quickly been banned and taken out of circulation.

I’d like to offer a few extracts from the letters Lawrence wrote at this time, to try to give an insight into his developing state of mind at this critical time in his life, when he was finding England, embroiled in the catastrophic slaughter of WWI, so uncongenial that he began to hate it and its jingoistic, small-minded spirit. At first he loved Cornwall for its alien, dark, pagan, unEnglish quality, but gradually Kernow, too, lost its allure, and he began to hanker for distant lands again. He was a prodigious and gifted letter-writer, as I hope these brief extracts will show.

[Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J.B. Pinker]: Already, here in Cornwall, it is better: the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up from the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London – thank God…The Cornish sea is lovely, so wild.

Porthcothan coast

At low tide, this long narrow bay has great expanses of sand, rock pools and sea caves exposed. To get an idea, see photo SW8572 : Porthcothan Bay at low tide
© Copyright Val Pollard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

At low tide, this long narrow bay has great expanses of sand, rock pools and sea caves exposed. To get an idea, see photo SW8572 : Porthcothan Bay at low tide

  © Copyright Val Pollard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

[Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J.D. Beresford]: We have been here a week…We love being here. There have been great winds, and the sea has been smoking white above the cliffs – such a wind that it made one laugh with astonishment…I do like Cornwall. It is still something like King Arthur and Tristan. It has never taken the Anglo-Saxon civilisation, the Anglo-Saxon sort of Christianity. One can feel free here, for that reason – feel the world as it was in that flicker of pre-Christian Celtic civilisation, when humanity was really young – like the Mabinogion – not like Beowulf and the ridiculous Malory, with his grails and his chivalries.
But the war has come.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

[7 Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to Katherine Mansfield]:…I love being here in Cornwall – so peaceful, so far off from the world…a fine thin air which nobody and nothing pollutes. [But he’d been very ill with the respiratory disease later diagnosed as TB, as well as suffering a deep spiritual depression that he struggled to vanquish in his admiration of the Celtic otherness of Cornwall, ‘bare and dark and elemental’, as he described it in another letter, to Catherine Carswell].

[17 Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J. Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield]: I still like Cornwall…The landscape is bare, yellow-green and brown, dropping always down to black rocks [this sounds to me like Chaucer, The Franklin’s Tale, with its ‘rokkes blake’ of Brittany, which topographically resemble those of W. Cornwall] and a torn sea. All is desolate and forsaken, not linked up. But I like it.

DHL Letters vol1[24 Feb. 1916, Porthcothan, to JM Murry and K. Mansfield] We went out looking for a house, and I think we have found one that is good. It is about 7 miles from St Ives, towards Land’s End, very lonely, in the rocks on the sea, Zennor the nearest village: high pale hills, all moor-like and beautiful, behind, very wild: 7 miles across country to Penzance. [They stayed briefly at the village pub there, The Tinner’s Arms – it’s still there, next to the church dedicated – a rare instance of this – to St Senara, with its pew-end carved famously in the form of the Mermaid of Zennor. He goes on:]

Primroses and violets are out, and the gorse is lovely. At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself, already. But this cold wind is deadly. [His health was precarious, and this climate would not be good for him, as he soon found. But he clearly longed for this move to work.]

I’ll leave him there, on his way to the village inn. In his next letter, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote the passage I placed at the head of this post.

Next time we’ll see how he fared in his new Zennor home.