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I begin by revisiting Lawrence’s reading of Dana’s Two Years before the Mast reading it not as a critique of Dana but as a Lawrencian fiction in which the sea plays a central symbolic role. As Lawrence reflects on the vital relation of the human and the non-human, the sea seems to represent its destructive possibilities which Dana and Melville variously encounter, and thereby allow Lawrence to explore. In the Dana essay it is especially necessary, but not easy, to hold in focus the competing levels of the literal and scientific, on the one hand, and the metaphorical and visionary on the other. Sometimes the relation is strained as I suggest occurs in the flogging episode but this double vision is the basis for appreciating Lawrence’s representation of the sea.

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  • 1 Studies in Classical American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambr (...)

1Lawrence is now widely recognised as one of the great literary critics although he remains a peculiarly difficult, if not dangerous, example to follow. His idiosyncratic genius does not readily translate into shared disciplinary protocols even as he intuitively observes them. His Studies in Classical American Literature is the most striking example in that, on the one hand, it propounds and demonstrates what has proved surely the most foundational insight of modern criticism: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale,” while on the other hand it draws the American texts into a vortex of his own moral and metaphysical concerns.1

2This is not problematic in itself: his reading of other writers usually has the double value of giving insight into both him and them while the outcome in this case, as we now know, was one of the classic, permanently resonant, studies of America sitting alongside de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But for this very reason it is instructive to examine Lawrence’s reading as a way into his visionary understanding of the sea. For him, an implicit measure of other authors is the degree to which they can be enlisted, willingly or otherwise, into his own critical and creative endeavour. Some great writers like Jane Austen and James Joyce were therefore irrelevant to him, but the American writers occasioned a radical struggle over meanings bearing on his central concerns. We might think of him as in dialogue with them but it is more than this: he rather co-opts them as characters in his own visionary narrative. I phrase it in this way to suggest that we might profitably understand the American essays as a species of fiction. These essays grew out of the same wartime years in which he completed the Brangwen story and developed his characteristically symbolic or visionary mode of perception within a still realist narrative. The American essays, initially entitled “The Symbolic Meaning,” must be read with the same dual lens.

3Two American authors gave rise to extended Lawrencian reflections on the human experience of the sea: Richard Henry Dana and Herman Melville. Of the two, Dana is the more striking case for Lawrence’s larger thesis about the American imagination being stirred by profound experiences that remain unconscious or are actively repressed. Melville’s Moby Dick is itself ostentatiously literary, poetic and symbolic so that the straining after great meanings, albeit different from Lawrence’s meanings, is already there in the text. But Dana is the opposite of this. Having said that “We must give Dana credit for a profound mystic vision,” Lawrence goes on to declare: “It is in the dispassionate statement of plain material facts that Dana achieves his greatness.” (SCAL 107, 108). Yes, indeed. The factual sobriety of Dana’s narrative sets off the signs and wonders he records but by the same token it also highlights how much what Lawrence called the “symbolic meaning” is the product of his own psychological and metaphysical concerns.

4It sharpens the contrast with Moby Dick to note that Dana’s narrative is not a fiction, realist or otherwise: it is offered as a factual record. Of course, the boundaries between these genres are often uncertain, porous, even sometimes deliberately misleading, and Lawrence’s readings in any case usually override them completely. Nonetheless, the literary fictional text is in principle constructed of meanings. That is its raison d’être or proper nature. The historical memoir, by contrast, purports to render facts and in that respect it is especially appropriate to the nature of Lawrence’s reading, for Lawrence, we might say, seeks to analyse not so much the text as the experience recorded in the text. It is as if the author is obscuring, standing in the way of, his own experience which Lawrence offers to bring into clear view. No doubt Lawrence knows well enough that there is no “hors texte” at the level of evidence but he characteristically makes the opposite move to deconstruction: the interest of the text lies in its reflection of internalised experience, and its capacity to illuminate the experience. Hence the ambivalence for Lawrence of Dana’s literary intelligence and self-consciousness which are at once the medium of his responsiveness to the world and an induration of his psychological disposition as an idealist, the disposition which represses that response.

5So Lawrence seeks to adjust the lens, to see through Dana’s eyes a Lawrencian vision that Dana would surely reject, or find incomprehensible. As a result, there are moments of duck/rabbit flicker between Dana’s vision and Lawrence’s as well as moments, such as the sleeping albatross and the tropical storm, in which the one vision effectively suffuses the other. The very different openings of the final and previous drafts of the Dana essay throw this double vision into relief. The earlier version begins more conventionally with biographical origins:

Richard Henry Dana was the son of an American littérateur of the same name, and grandson of Francis Dana, once United States Minister to Russia, and Chief Justice for Massachusetts. (272)

6Lawrence immediately notes, of course, the literary and institutional heritage that will be key to his critical analysis of Dana, but in the final version he begins not with Dana at all: rather with the universal pronouncement of his own theme of idealism: “You can’t idealise brute labour” (SCAL 105). Lawrence’s theme now frames the whole reading as an a priori truth waiting to be exemplified.

  • 2 Letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ii, ed. George J. Zytaruk and (...)

7As I have said, Lawrence’s The Symbolic Meaning grew out of the same creative years as his writing of the Brangwen story for which his foundational interest in “what is physic, non-human in humanity” was most remarkably developed.2 As early reviews testify, it took some time for readers to adjust to reading a foreground, apparently “realist”, action while attending simultaneously to a symbolic or visionary representation of the unconscious and non-human powers by which the foreground characters are affected. It is as if in his reading of the American authors he brings the same awareness of a non-human dimension to bear, incorporating their various narratives into a single Lawrencian one. And of course within the typical Lawrencian narrative there are constant shifts whereby characters evince a varying degree of consciousness of, or alignment with, the non-human powers; powers to which Anton Skrebensky and Gerald Crich, for example, stand in a characteristically repressive and bewildered relation. The frequent lack of connection between the visionary levels, the human and the non-human, is an intrinsic part of the overall action and in precisely that respect the American essays provide a parallel model albeit in a more analytic vein.

  • 3 Aldous Huxley, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (London: Heinemann, 1932), xv.

8When I say that Lawrence seeks to engage the original experience that has occasioned the text, this of course begs the question of what the experience is: the factual record or the non-human, elemental action. For him, the relevant experience includes the “physic, non-human” processes and, as in his fiction, the relation between these levels is sometimes strained or ambivalent. This is most strikingly evident in the episode of the flogging. It is one of those moments such as Aldous Huxley recorded when, in an argument over evolution, Lawrence put his hand on his solar plexus and said “It is no good Aldous, I don’t feel it here.”3 This highly intelligent, cultured man is suddenly revealed as mentally inhabiting a parallel universe. One wants to say, with Dana, that the captain’s infliction of the punishment is inhuman but Lawrence has pre-empted this charge by affirming it as indeed inhuman but within a different order of significance. He initially follows Dana’s lead in seeing a sullen collective mood growing up in the crew which the captain dispels by the flogging but for Dana this is a part explanation for the flogging, not a justification of it. For Lawrence, by contrast, the collective condition represents a process beyond “conventional morality” (SCAL 113). The captain for him is not following an impersonal code of maritime discipline so much as acting on a psychological necessity in which he himself is equally caught up. Maybe that is why the captain loses self-control and claims to be acting merely on personal whim. While for Dana that is part of his moral failure, for Lawrence it is rather a signal that what is happening is something beyond a prescribed disciplinary order. The captain is intuitively but not fully or consciously in command of these forces. The flogging, moreover, is preceded by an account of a storm in which the violent elements of fire and water, and their electrical discharges, are survived by the ship’s company following collective habits of acceptance focused in the authority of the captain. The potentially dangerous build up and release of tension in the storm provides the model for the flogging as a non-human discharge and resetting.

9As Lawrence takes over Dana’s story, I find myself asking how Lawrence, who objected violently to authorities who infringed on his own personal liberty or dignity, might have reacted had he been literally faced with the experience of such a flogging in his own life. I am inclined to think he would have objected although I would not put money on it. Crucially, by Lawrence’s time the flogging in question belongs to a different historical era and is in the first instance a textual encounter. Is there a felt ontological remove here that enables the visionary Lawrence to respond to it “inhumanly” in a manner analogous to his treatment of violent or murderous moments in his fiction such as the rape at the end of “The Princess” or Henry Grenfell’s killing of Banford in The Fox? Although Dana’s flogging is not a fiction, in Lawrence’s narrative it responds to the same visionary perception of the elemental which his fiction constantly seeks to realise. Moreover, for Lawrence, the focus is not the flogging itself so much as Dana’s response to it. This means that Lawrence does not have to take authorial responsibility for it as in his own fiction and can raise Dana’s response as the primary focus of attention. For what really engages Lawrence is not the specific right or justice of the flogging but what it reveals about Dana’s fundamental being. Lawrence equally condemns John, the shipmate who attempts to reason with the captain as one can possibly imagine Lawrence himself doing in similar circumstances. Is Lawrence’s reaction here comparable to Birkin’s response to Hermione Roddice when she deplores the conventional ambitions of school education? What she says is actually Lawrencian “doctrine” such as we can infer she has derived from Birkin himself. And her style is not significantly different from Lawrencian rants elsewhere. Birkin’s vitriolic response is not because she is wrong but because she is wrong. That is to say, the same utterances coming from her have a different meaning because of the nature of her being. So with John whose remonstrance comes from the same moral rationality as Dana’s. It is as if the significance of the elemental process that has taken place on the ship has passed Dana by because of who he is while, for Lawrence, it is a moment of especially revealing counterpoint of the factual and the visionary.

  • 4 Dawid D. de Villiers, “Okeanos contra oikoumenê: the nineteenth-century resurgence of an adversaria (...)

10The double vision, half literal and half mythopoeic, of a destructive inhumanity on shipboard may have a bearing on all the chapters concerning the sea. To this day, the deserts and mountains of the American continents bear powerful witness to the non-human dimension of life and the sea, in Lawrence’s vision, represents a further, more specialised, aspect of this. The great theme of Lawrence’s oeuvre is the impoverishment of human life when it loses its relation to the non-human. Opening to the non-human is an enlargement and transformation of human being but also and inevitably a mortal danger to it. On occasion, this danger may be literal and physical but more commonly it is psychological as can be seen in the extreme experiences of various Lawrencian characters who either flee or seek it. The sea in Lawrence’s reading of Dana and Melville seems to focus in particular on the destructive possibility of the non-human. This may be partly because it more evidently resists the idealising tendency that Lawrence sees in the American experience at large: a constant threat of destruction is a vital element in its fascination. Dawid W. de Villiers has related Lawrence’s vision of the sea to long-standing European mythologising of the ocean. For the ancient Greeks the ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules represented a limit of human experience. The sense of the ocean as a destructive beyond persists up to modern times, de Villiers suggests, and comes into often unwitting conflict with the age of modern navigation.4 Although de Villiers remarks on this as a contradiction, maybe it is rather in the nature of the sea to maintain precisely this ambivalence: a constant feature of sea-farer accounts is its sudden, treacherous changeability. More significantly, these perceptions embody different orders of understanding: the scientific and the mythopoeic. As such, these may come into contradiction, as on the question of evolution, or they may pass each other unawares like ships in the night.

11The danger of the sea, for example, can be variously conceived. For Lawrence’s older contemporary, Joseph Conrad, a moral and fictional realist, the ship was an image of fragile social community, indeed of civilisation itself, in which codes of honour and duty preserve human life from destructive forces both internal and external. This applies whether the ship be steam or sail. For Lawrence, on the other hand, sail and steam are in sharp contrast:

Beautifully the sailing-ship nodalises the forces of sea and wind, converting them to her purpose. There is no violation, as in a steam-ship, only a winged centrality. It is this perfect adjusting of ourselves to the elements, the perfect equipoise between them and us, which gives us a great part of our life-joy. (SCAL 117)

12The sailing-ship for Lawrence is an image of the proper relation of the individual to the elements. If it has any implication for communal or social being this is purely derivative from the quality of individual lives and indeed it is hard to see how Lawrence’s model could be given any direct application to statecraft. Indeed, the sailing metaphor reveals how and why, as in the flogging episode, the social dimension as such is so often strained, blurred or unreal in a writer who is so extraordinarily alert to it as it bears on the lives of individuals. For him, the significant and powerful relation is between the human individual and the inhuman cosmos: the social order is illuminated, often negatively, as and when it intrudes on this. By contrast, it is almost impossible to think modern society as such other than as a form of machine. Statistics and averages, which are intrinsic to sociological understanding, represent the wrong kind of impersonality and, even as they are assembled for humane purposes, are almost inevitably dehumanising.

  • 5 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, (London: Penguin, 1968), 115, 164.

13In the very different context of Lord Jim, Conrad’s narrator Charles Marlow, while seeking to justify a sympathetic view of Jim, remains sceptical of the advice of Stein, the German collector of dead butterflies: “in the destructive element immerse.” Reluctantly, Marlow accepts the stern view expressed earlier by a French officer “But the honour – the honour, monsieur.”5 Lawrence sees both Dana and Melville as immersing themselves, albeit with judicious reservation, in the sea as a destructive element but for him the fascination with its elemental non-humanity arises from more internal and unconscious sources than they know. For him, the sea is not so much destructive as disintegrative: as he says, “its tonic quality is its disintegrative quality” (SCAL 108). At this point it is important to note that the sea is salt; what Matthew Arnold, in his poem “Dover Beach,” called “the salt, estranging sea.” By contrast, in the Brangwen story water, and powerful bodies of water, represent a non-human dimension to which characters relate in different ways. Most notably, Gerald Crich ignores or defies the power of water and ends up assimilated to it as he freezes in the snowy heights of the Tyrol. The water in these novels, whether the flood that kills the first Tom Brangwen or the reservoir lake of Women in Love, is inland and suggests a non-human dimension of the self that must be acknowledged. There is something of life-affirming energy even in the flood as Tom Brangwen drowns. But the salt sea seems to represent something different again although it is necessary to see even this through a Lawrencian relativity; a relativity which he emphasises in the earliest, mythopoeic attempts to understand the world:

When we study the pagan gods, we find they have now one meaning and now another. Now they belong to the creative essence, and now to the material dynamic world. First they have one aspect, then another. The greatest god has both aspects. First he is the source of life. Then he is the mystic dynamic lord of the elemental physical forces. So Zeus is Father, and Thunderer. […] As the creator of man himself, the Father, is greatest in the creative world, the Thunderer is greatest in the material world. He is the god of force and of earthly blessing, the god of the bolt and the sweet rain. (SCAL 118)

14The sea, says Lawrence, has a comparably shifting significance for different cultural communities: “Nations that worship the material-dynamic world, as all nations do in their decadence, seem to come inevitably to worship the Thunderer.” (SCAL 118) In Dana’s description of the tropical thunderstorm, from which Lawrence quotes at length, the sailors seem awed but not terrified as they understand scientifically that they are unlikely to be harmed. Lawrence goes on to remark of his author: “He could not tell about the being of men: only about the forces” (SCAL 119). By “forces” here Lawrence means the purely physical powers to which Dana’s perception is limited but Dana’s account of these is nonetheless a suggestive parallel to Lawrence’s own vision of non-human process within the human and he goes on immediately to note in Dana’s narrative

another curious instance of the process of de-creation, as it takes place within the very corpuscles of the blood. It is salt this time which arrests the life-activity causing a static arrest in Matter, after a certain sundering of water from the fire of the warm-blooded body. (SCAL 119)

15This remark is occasioned by Dana’s scientifically informed account of an outbreak of scurvy which is only overcome by a fortunate supply of fresh, earthy vegetables from a passing ship. But Lawrence uses the episode to glimpse beyond this scientific explanation the strange process of life itself:

This is the strange result of the disintegrating effect of the sea, and of salt in food. We are all sea-born, science tells us. […] How much stranger is the interplay of life among the elements, than any interplay among the elements themselves. (SCAL 120)

16Maybe it is because Dana’s urge to know is free of the egotism that drives epistemic ambition in other Lawrencian characters that his knowledge is authentic in its own terms and he was able to record it so objectively for others. By the same token he could also leave the experience behind to pursue his legal and public careers without being driven by Lawrence’s unceasing endeavour to catch the mystery of life – a mystery which seems to require a vision beyond positivistic science or narrative realism.

  • 6 Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920.

17That other great modern explorer of the human psyche, Sigmund Freud, also discovered a deathly ambivalence at the heart of life. Over the same years of the Great War he developed his conception of Eros and Thanatos as complementary components of the psyche.6 Freud’s use of mythic figures here as elsewhere signalled his ambition to explain ancient myths, and to demystify them. But maybe this unintentionally advertises, hides in plain sight, the essentially mythic nature of his own psychic mapping within its would-be scientific vesture. Even apart from any self-consciously romantic allure of death, Freud thought, every human psyche unconsciously seeks the peace of dissolution. The question for both authors is how to live with their mythopoeic visions. In Women in Love especially Lawrence detected a deathly orientation in some apparent forms of life assertion while Lawrence himself, for whom death through most of his life was an all-too evident threat, turned resolutely towards life even up to his last days and hours. He was, however, in no simple state of denial as several of his late poems make clear and his openness to mythopoeic thinking seems to have been crucial to his negotiation of contradiction. Even as he dismissed his “bronchials,” and the interventions of medical science, he was making psychological preparation for his own death as in all the various versions of “Ship of Death.”

  • 7 Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 632.

Now launch the small ship […]
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where we still sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.7

18All versions of the poem include active preparation and launching of the ship along with acceptance of its drift into oblivion. The distinction between active and passive is elided as human gives way to, is immersed in, the non-human while the non-human, it seems, is to be known only by immersion in myth. Lawrence’s mythopoeic receptivity to the non-human remained with him till the end and it seems to have provided him with something of the psychological strength traditionally sought in religious belief while the sea, in its mythopoeic transformations, continues to image the multi-faceted relation of human and non-human.

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1 Studies in Classical American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 14. Hereafter SCAL.

2 Letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ii, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 182.

3 Aldous Huxley, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (London: Heinemann, 1932), xv.

4 Dawid D. de Villiers, “Okeanos contra oikoumenê: the nineteenth-century resurgence of an adversarial paradigm,” in Atlantic Studies, 2015, vol. 12, No. 4, 501-521.

5 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, (London: Penguin, 1968), 115, 164.

6 Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920.

7 Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 632.

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Michael Bell, « Lawrence, Dana and the Destructive Element »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 55 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his book Open Secrets; Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007).

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