D. H. Lawrence, Pansies (1929)

For the first time in at least a year: a post not on Stevie Smith!

A fascinating conversation about aphorism with Professor Holly Laird at the University of Tulsa led me to D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies (1929).


Lawrence described these short poems in his Introduction as a reimagining – and improvement – of Pascal’s Pensées.

It suits the modern temper better to have its state of mind made up of apparently irrelevant thoughts that scurry in different directions yet belong to the same nest…we prefer it to those slightly didactic opinions and slices of wisdom which are laid horizontally across the pages of Pascal’s Pensées or La Bruyère’s Caractères, separated only by pattes des mouches, like faint sprigs of parsley. Let every pensée trot on its own little paws, not be laid like a cutlet trimmed with a patte de mouche. (Introduction, January 1929)

So Lawrence imagines his poems as mobile and lively. They shapeshift between flowers and tiny scurrying animals which take their own chaotic paths. Pascal’s fragments, in contrast, are passive and heavy: ‘laid horizontally’, waiting to be consumed. These animals have been butchered: turned into cutlets and garnished with a didactic dividing line.

Yes, honestly, pensées. I promise.

But Pascal’s Pensées are not dead or affectless. Rather, Lawrence suggests that they act too strongly on the reader’s emotions.

There is a didactic element about prose thoughts which makes them repellent, slightly bullying…If it were put into poetry it wouldn’t nag at us so practically. We don’t want to be nagged at. (Foreword, March 1929)

Poetry deflates the assertiveness of a strong thought, then. While short units of prose might be tight and bullet-like, Lawrence’s wandering lines may wander from their mark. They veer clear of being powerful; they dissolve tactfully.

Does Pansies actually bear this aesthetic out? Many of the poems show the traces of Lawrence’s involvement with the Imagists: he published some of his work in Some Imagist Poets (1915). And ‘Twilight’ in Pansies sounds like Richard Aldington and is structured like H.D:

thick underdusk
and a hidden voice like water clucking
callously continuous.
While darkness submerges the stones
and splashes warm between the buttocks.

I actually think lots of Pansies would have fitted better into Some Imagist Poets than the longer, discursive poems which Lawrence actually included. His “pansies” are often – in line with the introduction’s manifesto – ‘hard and clear’, ‘concentrat[ed]’, focused on ‘particulars’. Quite intense, in fact. Heavy, assertive. And, yes, often didactic…

Kill money, put money out of existence.
It is a perverted instinct, a hidden thought
which rots the brain, the blood , the bones, the stones , the soul.

Make up your mind about it:
that society must establish itself upon a different principle
from the one we’ve got now.

We must have the courage of mutual trust.
We must have the modesty of simple living.
And the individual must have his house, food and fire all free
like a bird.

Oh dear. Sometimes I really struggle with Lawrence. Whatever he writes in the introduction, so much of Pansies is ‘nagging’ in this way. ‘Make your mind up about it’ is so peevish – and I think the effect of the whole volume is ‘repellent’ and ‘bullying’. There’s no one he doesn’t have a go at (except animals and moons).

But then, but then…aren’t you charmed into laughter when you come across something like this?

When I wish I was rich, then I know I am ill.
Because, to tell the truth, I have enough as I am.
So when I catch myself thinking: Ah, if I was rich-!
I say to myself: Hello! I’m not well. My vitality is low.-

Stevie Smith could have written it (sorry!). It’s colloquial, confiding, tonally uninterpretable. I think it’s hilarious.

And of course it’s meant to be funny to deflate Pensées into Pansies. The spiteful, gossipy little title poem is one of the earliest uses of ‘pansy’ to mean ‘homosexual’. How far is Lawrence camping it up? Are the excesses and exaggerations of Pansies an anarchic performance: the little animals trotting in all directions deliberately to confuse?

I’m not sure. But I think that if Lawrence is playing the same game as Smith, then she does it better.



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