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Byline: Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Publication Date: 01-01-2001
Donne, The Rainbow, and The Lady of the Camellias
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Early in The Rainbow, in the chapter entitled "Anna Victrix," is a prose epithalamion for Will and Anna Brangwen:
As they lay close together, complete and beyond the touch of time or change, it was as if they were at the very center of all the slow wheeling of space and the rapid agitation of life, deep, deep inside them all, at the center where there is utter radiance, and eternal being, and the silence absorbed in praise: the steady core of all movements, the unawakened sleep of all wakefulness. They found themselves there, and they lay still, in each other's arms; for their moment they were at the heart of eternity, whilst time roared far off, forever far off, towards the rim....
Then gradually they were passed away from the supreme center, down the circles of praise and joy and gladness, farther and farther out, towards the noise and friction. ...
Gradually they began to wake up, the noises outside became more real. They understood and answered the call outside....
It dawned upon her that she was hungry. She had been getting hungrier for a lifetime. (The Rainbow 134-35)
In John Donne's Poetry, Wilbur Sanders draws a tendentious comparison between this passage and "The Sunne Rising":
The connexions are obvious because they are profound-not imitation, or influence (Lawrence's reading of Donne was cursory and unenthusiastic), but the tapping of the same deep strata of experience. It's not for nothing, either, that one hears pre-echoes of Four Quartets and post-echoes of the Dante Lawrence affected to despise.... it's as characteristic of Lawrence's sensibility as it is uncharacteristic of Donne's, that his lovers should be "passed away from the supreme center, down ... towards the noise and the friction." For Donne, the experience of being "beyond time," the experience of transcendence, doesn't possess quite the allurement it has for Lawrence. Actually, it's from a heightened awareness of "the noise and the friction" that "The Sunne Rising" starts-the awareness being part of the love. The world of "late schoole boyes and sowre prentices" is present to him as something more than "friction." He even registers, by gleefully selecting those two classes of disgruntled early risers, the precise time of day out there "in the world." Beside this crisp alertness there's something faintly soporific, drugged about Will and Anna's happiness. (70-71)
Sanders, true to his Leavisite precepts, here gives a moral reading to what, after all, are different sensibilities. He assumes the superiority of alertness above languor, loading his dice ("crisp" against "drugged") to this rhetorical end. And in any case his claims are specious. Donne does not imply that the world beyond the bedroom lacks "friction" (how could the reluctant, dragging footsteps of schoolboys and apprentices be anything but frictive?), and he uses that friction, precisely as Lawrence would later use it, as a sort of souring appoggiatura to enhance the static harmony of a love fulfilled.
Surely, though, Sanders is right to connect poem and passage. No matter how "unenthusiastic" Lawrence's reading of Donne might have been, there can be no doubting the likelihood of influence-many artists have not let antipathy stand in the way of profitable lessons. Tchaikovsky loathed Wagner, for example, and yet Wagnerian touches can be detected in several of his compositions. What is important is that both Donne and Lawrence explore the overlapping of timeless and quotidian worlds, the spiritual dissolution of soul into soul offset by the unchanging business of human affairs. If anything, Lawrence goes further than the poet by tracking the descent from rapture into the world, whereas the lyric stalls in its beatific present.
Important though Donne might have been to The Rainbow's epithalamion, one can also detect another influence on the passage. As we know, Lawrence did not believe that nineteenth-century realism accommodated the full range of human experience:
Maestro-Don Gesualdo is a great realistic novel of Sicily, as Madame Bovary is a great realistic novel of France. They both suffer from the defects of the realistic method. . . . Individuals like Emma and Charles Bovary are too insignificant to carry the full weight of Gustave Flaubert's profound sense of tragedy; or, if you will, of tragic futility. ("Introduction" 281)
One of Lawrence's great gifts, on the other hand, was his ability to blend realism with visionary materials, to square the demands of verismo-he translated Verga, and learned from him-and the psychosexual freedoms that he rendered in religious terms. And although his achievement is sui generis, he probably took another French realist-Dumas fils-as his starting point.
In a letter of 1908, Lawrence told Blanche Jennings that he was about to see The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame Aux Camelias), adding that the text (probably the dramatic version, though his phrasing does not preclude the novel), was "largely founded . on Manon Lescaut, a very early novel of passion" (Letters 1: 55). In an editorial note on this passage, James Boulton claims that "DHL's supposition is not strictly accurate. LAbbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut appeared in 1731; Marguerite Gautier was modeled on Marie Duplessis, a Paris courtesan of the 1840's" (Letters 1: 55). This suggests that he is less familiar with Dumas's text than Lawrence was. The novel version of the play is indeed founded on Prevost: a copy of Manon Lescaut gives the narrator his entree into the life of Armand, and Dumas repeatedly invokes the earlier work as a structuralist paradigm for his story. Founding, after all, is different from modeling.
If he had not come across Dumas's novel before seeing the play, Lawrence would almost certainly have read it soon afterwards, either in the original (his French was good enough) or in the English translation that appeared in 1902. 1 believe that a crucial passage lodged in his mind when he came to write The Rainbow five to six years later. At the high point of their affair, Dumas's lovers lead an existence very like that of the Brangwens in "Anna Victrix." Given Lawrence's knowledge of The Lady of the Camellias, and his intelligent grasp of its organization, there can be little doubt that the one novel fed the other:
At other times we did not get up all day; we did not even let the sunlight enter our room.
The curtains were hermetically closed, and for a moment the external world did not exist for us. Nanine alone had the right to open our door, but only to bring in our meals and even these we took without getting up, interrupting them with laughter and gaiety. To that succeeded a brief sleep, for, disappearing into the depths of our love, we were like two divers who only come to the surface to take breath. (211)
Here Dumas stresses the lovers' separation from the community at large, though he avoids the transcendentalism with which Donne before him (and Lawrence after) had infused such experience. But, even as he accommodates the near-religious experience of love to the parameters of nineteenthcentury realism, he hints at least at the subjective sense of transcendence, though stopping far short of Lawrence's mystic passive voice. (The last implies the lovers' subjection to a force greater than themselves-"then gradually they were passed away.") The "hermetic" closure of the curtains, while functioning primarily as a conceit of privacy, also seems to point beyond a simple exclusion of light and sound to ideas of alchemical mysticism. Both novelists, moreover, speak of the experience as something momentary, for although Lawrence's prose poem extends and hypostatizes the experience of Will and Anna, he nonetheless speaks of "their moment." And both, much more than Donne, view the quotidian world as a threat to that passing state of beatitude: "for a moment the external world did not exist for us." If, moreover, we want a precedent for a love plotted both on y and x axes ("down"; "farther out"), we should recall that in The Lady of the Camellias Dumas compares his protagonists with divers who disappear "into the depths of [their] love." Dumas seems also to have inspired Lawrence to mention a detail that Donne, pace Sanders, expressly chose to ignore-the exigency of an appetite more basic still than sex. Nanine brings meals to Marguerite and Armand, and Anna admits to feeling hungry, however subtly Lawrence might scumble the identity of that hunger. ("For a lifetime" either functions as hyperbole for gastric hunger or, taken literally, has a different, psychosexual inflection.)
The fact that, in The Rainbow, the world roars beyond the lovers' immersion in each other might also derive from Dumas's oceanic metaphor. If, like Marguerite and Armand, Will and Anna are divers, then it follows that as they pass toward the outer limit of their experience-the point where it intersects with the world-they will hear "the mighty waters rolling evermore" (Wordsworth 462). But a less transcendental reading of "roar" is also possible, and here one is tempted to invoke the coda of Little Dorrit, where, while avoiding the sexual transcendence of Donne, Dumas, and Lawrence, Dickens nonetheless sets his lovers apart from the irredeemable world of the Merdles and the Barnacles. Lawrence might therefore have written subliminal (or even conscious) memories of the earlier novel into his epithalamion: "They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chaffed, and made their usual uproar" (826). "Fretted" and "chaffed" suggest the friction that (explicitly in Lawrence, implicitly in Donne and Dumas) is a "note" of the world beyond the bedroom walls.
Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Ed. Lionel Trilling. London: Oxford UP, 1957.
Dumas, Alexandre (fils). The Lady of the Camellias. Introd. Edmund Gosse. London: Heinemann, 1902.
Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. James Boulton, et al. 7 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979-93.
---. "Introduction to Maestro-don Gesauldo by Giovanni Verga;' in Phoenix 11: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore. New York: Viking, 1968.
----.The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.
Sanders, Wilbur. John Donne's Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.
Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. Rev. Ernest de Selincourt. London: Oxford UP, 1969,
RODNEY STENNING EDGECOMBE University of Cape Town
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Winter 2001