Helen recently commented on my posts (from four years ago) about DH Lawrence’s stay in Cornwall during WWI. She gave permission for me to post her poem on the topic. First a short introduction by her about the provenance of the poem:
I was inspired to write this poem after a visit to the little ancient Cornish settlement of Zennor which we reached after a long day’s walking along the mist-swathed Cornish Coast path. I had been keen to spend a night here after learning of D.H. Lawrence’s association with the place. I’d studied and long been interested in the writer and his keen emotional response to place in general and this in particular. When in Zennor, we also learnt more about Lawrence from the current publican of the Tinner’s Arms, where Lawrence had stayed for a while when he first came to the place to consider establishing a small writing community of friends there. That it didn’t work out was probably inevitable in a traditional working community during this sensitive period of the first World War with Lawrence’s strong anti-war sentiments and rather flamboyant German wife. I thought it would be fun to try and convey Lawrence’s initial idealism and eventual disappointment in his imagined thoughts and words.
Here’s the poem (WordPress insists on line spaces between lines – hope this doesn’t detract from the effect too much):
Lawrence in Zennor
Yes, this should suit us well, far from the fret and heave of human life,
a space of peace.
Such a fine, wild landscape – the finest I have seen in all my travellings.
A kind of paradise – I could be happy here.
The mind can breathe – we can settle to our work,
with like minds forge a new way.
Six rough stone-walled fields from my window
is the sea, I feel I hear its breathing out there
through the day, its hush and rush. It takes us out, away.
I feel the words and lines come crowding in, worlds
building from the passions of our lives and loves.
Yes, so I thought, thought I could escape smallness here
with these grand shapes, the jutting profile
of the Head, the stony tumble of the fields.
And surely there was space
for all of us, Katherine, Murray, Frieda, me,
to be – and grow, but no; the littleness, the fear
came creeping in to shrink and darken us.
Banal complaints: the place too large, too small,
the damp, the inconvenience,
the awkward shape and pace of things,
the surly silence of the working neighbourhood.
How they diminish us, betray our better selves.
And what we do to each other – the stupidity of that –
the grief. How we feed the innocent the lies of honour, duty,
serve them the myth of nationhood. What does that mean?
I see the stoic faces quietly accept this myth
of honour, duty, nationhood, turn from the land
to follow that hollow call.
I want to shout at them: Don’t listen to those lies!
But they regard me warily.
Old Celtic stock, the folk are quiet and plain with us,
are rooted in their own truth, in myth memory
that tunnels underneath the bright turf
where they delve within the roar of waves.
Some may be lost in that roar, the blindness it brings.
Well, they may see a light and read it as the enemy
or a signal to such, I’m told.
And Frieda moves to the sea’s pulse; sometimes calm and lazy,
sometimes dancing, sometimes turbulent.
We move to each others’ moods, the flux and turn
of moon drawn tides.
I have loved her boldness, reckless energy,
but here it spills to carelessness –Volklieder
in the lanes does not sit well with this community, not now,
she should see that. So now we’re trapped in gossip,
warped in the mirror of suspicious minds.
A brave community this could have been,
and this place carved from granite and the light,
it could have been a paradise.
In its sounding of the ancient ways it brought new possibility:
it brought a hope and we have wasted it.
I thank Helen for this fine response to DHL and his experience of West Penwith. There follow some links to my original posts here about his initial euphoria on moving to Zennor, and the ensuing disillusionment and exile. Helen captures very well in her poem this movement in DHL’s spirit from elation and hope to despondency:
- The Promised Land
- I feel fundamentally happy and free
- The magic fades
- Now I am glad and free
- ‘The sensuous Celtic type: DHL’s short story ‘Samson & Delilah’
- (Two years ago I posted THIS PIECE on the sale of the idyllic cottage in which he and Frieda had lived, and where he’d hoped to establish the utopian community ‘Rananim’ with Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry; they disappointed him by moving to Mylor, near Falmouth, in what he called the ‘softer’ part of the county, to escape the cottage they considered too basic and uncomfortable.)