Shadows (D.H. Lawrence)

May 19, 2008

And if tonight my soul may find her peace
in sleep, and sink in good oblivion,
and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower
then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.

And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon
my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom
pervades my movements and my thoughts and words
then I shall know that I am walking still
with God, we are close together now the moon’s in shadow.

And if, as autumn deepens and darkens
I feel the pain of falling leaves, and stems that break in storms
and trouble and dissolution and distress
and then the softness of deep shadows folding,
folding around my soul and spirit, around my lips
so sweet, like a swoon, or more like the drowse of a low, sad song
singing darker than the nightingale, on, on to the solstice
and the silence of short days, the silence of the year, the shadow,
then I shall know that my life is moving still
with the dark earth, and drenched
with the deep oblivion of earth’s lapse and renewal.

And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:

and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me

then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.

* * *

This poem, which Bob Murphy sent over the other day, reminds me of a conversation I had not long ago in Lancaster with my old friend Dan Miller. We were sitting in Jethro’s Pub smoking cigarettes and drinking an ale of some sort, and Dan was describing the confluence of life and Christian faith, how God’s design–both anthropologically and spiritually–coincide with an almost impossible simplicity. Our primal human functions–eating/drinking, bathing, breathing, and sleeping/waking–are daily embodiments of all Christian doctrine. The Eucharist feeds us; our bathing, like baptism, is a form of cleansing; our breaths are the life He breathed into Adam and the disciples at Pentecost; our sleep a daily death to self, our waking a resurrection of the body.

When at his best, Ezra Pound once said of Lawrence that there was no English poet under 40 who could “get within a shot of him.” Here, the poet lets us hear the sound of life’s season’s (“as weeks go round”) which we are forced, by our very limitations, to submit to. Our lives are always “moving still / with the dark earth.”

Lawrence’s poem, it seems to me, is ripe with what the Romans called gravitas, which they equated to soberness and grief. It is a recognition of our brotherhood with the earth. In our grief, we grow downward. We enter the depths. We cross into Hades. Robert Bly tells us that “the time will come naturally when [a man] will find himself falling; he will find himself on the road of ashes, and discover at night that he is holding the ashy hand of the Lord of Death or the Lord of Divorce. He will find himself noticing the tears inside brooms or old boards; noticing how much grief that whales carry in their skulls. He realizes how much he has already lost in the reasonable way he chose to live, and how much he could easily lose in the next week. For some men, it is a time of crying in airports.”

As Lawrence tracks life’s phases, its sicknesses and misery, its “trouble and dissolution and distress,” a shadowy world to be sure, there are yet “snatches of renewal” and “wintry flowers upon the withered stem.” There is grace. I like to think that simplicity Dan spoke of was something like this, something like grace. Despite the downward pull of our grief toward earth–the earth from which we were made, and to which we return, the place of which Neruda said “I know the earth and I am sad”–it returns to us new blossoms. Meals, wine, breath, a hot shower, a good sleep, a waking up with the sun.


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