The Escaped Cock? Male Homoeroticism in D.H. Lawrence’s Poetry

by on Aug.22, 2011

Note: I composed this essay for the Queering Lawrence panel at the 2011 Modern Language Association Convention in L.A., but the plane ticket from Berlin, Germany proved unaffordable. Eventually, when other, more pressing projects are completed (a novel, a book of poems, a translation, a critical study of naked dancing and photomontage in Weimar Berlin), I will expand it into a critical article. The Escaped Cock was the working title of Lawrence’s last work of fiction, which he finally titled The Man Who Died. In the narrative is a feisty young rooster who breaks free, and “the escaped cock” is Lawrence’s double-entendre.

In D. H. Lawrence’s “Bavarian Gentians,” the putatively male speaker identifies himself with the mythological Persephone. This conflation of gender identity reaches its climax in the poem’s final lines:

Persephone herself is but a voice

or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark

of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,

among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.

Ironically, perhaps, Persephone, who lost her flowers—indeed, was deflowered—when abducted into the underworld, here retires into an underworld that is itself a flower. Not only is the Classical myth revised in the sense of “the passion of the dense gloom,” so that it recounts more a sad lovers’ rendezvous than a rape, but the speaker himself, to follow Helen Sword, becomes Persephone, “pierced,” meeting his male “groom.” The bride’s gender complicates the poem’s theme of deathly phallic dominance, just as the speaker’s autonomy disappears: He loses individual identity, personal integrity, and even his visibility to himself (it is, after all, a poem about death). This complicated gesture at once represents yet another male artist’s appropriation of the feminine, a pretty poeticization of violence against women, and a peculiar queering of the masculine voice.

The substitution of the speaker for Persephone in “Bavarian Gentians” may exemplify what Gregory Woods terms, in his 1987 Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry, “the figure of the male bride: the man made fertile by the phallus of another.” Woods, however, does not consider the extent to which Lawrence renders such masculine figures as conflicted, neither homosexual nor heterosexual, but oddly embracing both sexualities, while transgressing the boundaries of both. Such ambivalence makes the male bride something other than what Woods considers a shying away from the full articulation of homosexual identity, or the poet’s hesitation to depict graphically what the critic calls “fellatio and anal intercourse between men.”  This short essay seeks to complicate his groundbreaking critical work by bringing into consideration Lawrence’s pugnacious stance toward all that has to do with sexuality, a belligerence also directed toward his readers. The queerness of Lawrence’s poetry consists of more than sexual images we can grade according to a scale of homoerotic openness, for the poet entangles us in willful contrariness, a twisting of rhetoric and ideology away from their usual straight purposes that is often, at the same time, an erotic confrontation.

Many of Lawrence’s poems follow the impetus of his essays, Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, to naturalize heterosexual desire. Or at least, we can say that to integrate heterosexuality into the continuum of nature appears initially to be Lawrence’s ideological move. In his address to “my lass,”  the speaker of “Come Spring, Come Sorrow” enlists the entirety of the natural world, animate and inanimate, in a plea for sexual relations:

Do you not hear each morsel thrill

With joy at travelling to plant itself within

The expectant one, and therein to instill

Newness, new shape to win,

From that drowse of life wake up another will?

 

Surely, ah not in words alone I’d spill

The vivid, ah, fiery surplus of life

From off my measure, to touch you deep, and fill

You flush and rife

With this year’s newness!—And is that evil?

In a predictable phallocentric move, penis joins pen and ink spurts semen:  “not in words alone I’d spill.”  In these lines, he makes what is known in advertising as a bandwagon appeal: the lass should agree to be inseminated because it happens throughout nature, including “wild anemones,” “[w]hite ducks,”  “toads,” and “stars.”  In other words, “everyone is doing it,” so should she. Yet one stanza in the middle of the poem complicates the otherwise rather conventional bombast:

Yes, say it!  For, sure from the golden sun

A quickening, masculine gleam floats in to all

Us creatures, people and flowers undone

And opened under his thrall

As he plants his new germ in us. What is there to shun?

In the order of nature here reconstructed, both men and women get filled with semen—“[a] quickening, masculine gleam”—so that the naturalizing figurative language would seem to validate male homosexuality too—though not, unfortunately, lesbianism. If Woods is correct to assert that for Lawrence, everything centers on the male organ and its inseminating force, he neglects to consider how in poems such as this, the sheer excess of the phallus—its “full-sappy” overflow, to use one of Lawrence’s more queasy-making terms, allows it a little to wiggle free. Passages like this sun stanza not only deconstruct the rhetoric of male mastery over the female by including the male within the category of the mastered, but also suggest, if never managing fully to embody, a different masculinity for which phallic control is only one erotic possibility.

In regard to such other erotic possibilities, the overlooked lyric, “Twilight,” deserves special consideration. Neither the phallus, nor any gender designation, appears in the poem. Instead, all eroticism centers on the anus, what Lawrence terms in Women in Love, “the source of the deepest life-force, the darkest, deepest, strangest life-source of the human body, at the back and base of the loins.” With only six short lines, the poem rather resembles haiku, in that uses a description of nature to convey intense human emotion:

Twig light

thick underdusk

and a hidden voice like water clucking

callously continuous.

While darkness submerges the stones

and splashes warm between the buttocks.

The poem evokes analingus with a “hidden voice” whose “clucking” is reinforced with the alliteration of “k,” “w,” and “m” consonants. The poem also suggests an abandonment, or submersion, of the self—similar to that in “Bavarian Gentians,” if less somber. The human subject of the poem, referenced only by “the buttocks,” receives warmth or pleasure passively, even as the poem hints at penetration. Rarely is Lawrence so gentle; and although the word, “callously,” sounds a rougher note, the poem’s overall tone is smooth.

“There is no straight path between you and me, dear reader,” Lawrence warns in Fantasia of the Unconscious, “so don’t blame me if my words fly like dust into your eyes and grit between your teeth, instead of like music to your ears.”  What he expresses here is more than a matter of a difference of opinion, of “[y]ou are not me, dear reader,” because he desires to be disagreeable: “I want to shout all kinds of improper things, to see what effect they will have on the stupid dear face at the end of the coil of wire.” Such a motive is clearly visible in “Come Spring, Come Sorrow,” where Lawrence calculates even the heterosexual imagery to shock.  This poem is not just a provocation for some putative “lass,” but a sexual overture toward us. Arguing in favor of free verse in “Poetry of the Present,”  Lawrence metaphorizes poetic utterance as ejaculation: “we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.”  Free verse, he writes, is “the instant; the quick; the very jetting source of all will-be and has-been. The utterance is like a spasm, naked contact with all influences at once.”  So, are we to share in Lawrence’s spasm, swallow it, or wipe it from our eyes?

In “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?” a poem in which Lawrence directly addresses mortal combat, rebarbative style again carries an erotic charge. Woods, using this poem to introduce his concept of the male bride, particularly focuses on the eighth stanza:

So when I run at length thither across

To the trenches, I see again a face with blue eyes,

A blanched face, fixed and agonized,

Waiting. And I knew he wanted it.

Like a bride he took my bayonet, wanting it

And it sank to rest from me in him,

And I, the lover, am consummate,

And he is the bride, and I have sown him with the seed

And planted and fertilized him.

Woods states that the stanza presents “a vagina carved in male flesh”: “The enemy’s wound is [the] orifice that must overflow with the manly foison of the aggressor, commingled with blood.”  Contrary to Woods, I would argue that this poem does not really concern a phallic imperative.

First of all, Lawrence relies on the felicitous connotations of marriage to counterpoint the misery of wartime death. Only when taken alone can this stanza be interpreted to present a triumphant gesture. The speaker agonizes, “What I beget, I must beget of blood?”  And in the poem’s penultimate stanza, he asks,

But shall I touch hands with death in killing that other,

The enemy, my brother?

Shall I offer to him my brotherly body to kill,

Be bridegroom or best man, as the case turns out?

It becomes rather unclear exactly who the killer is, and who, the slain. Earlier in the poem, the speaker describes the other soldier as “that shadow’s shadow of me”: when the boundary between the opponents turns out to be a reflection, the separation of male self and male other can only be a trick of mirrors. In this stanza, even the nature of killing changes, for rather than the phallicism of a bayonet thrust, we have “hands” that might “touch” and also something intimate the speaker might “offer.”

The overcharged ambivalence between homoerotic tenderness and violent aggressivity in “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?” aims to disarm us. Although the poem adds an interesting spin to the Christian concept of the brotherhood of man, at the same time, it unfortunately addresses women in misogynistic terms. Absent from the scene of combat, women nonetheless enjoy it like vampires. “And why do the women follow us satisfied” the speaker asks, “[f]eed on our wounds like bread, receive our blood / Like glittering seed upon them for fulfillment?”  Speaking in a Christ-like register allows the speaker to condescend to his feminine audience: “But what are you, woman, peering through the rents / In the purple veil?”  With “the purple veil” alluding to flesh wounds, woman is at once parasite and voyeuse. If elsewhere in the poem, the speaker dreams of an ideal union between man and woman, passages like this one mitigate against such a possibility. The only attainable union in this poem is with another man; and it would appear that such a marriage is tantamount to death.

Lest we imagine, though, that for Lawrence, male homosexuality ultimately consists of a doomed narcissism tending inevitably to death, a theme familiar from such modernist works as Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, I would like to conclude in an upbeat way with Lawrence’s “The Best of School.”  The poem’s setting is a classroom; and considering Lawrence’s experience teaching at Davidson Road School, we can reasonably assume that the speaker, a teacher himself, is something of a double for the poet, perhaps Lawrence’s shadow’s shadow. Dealing with an all-male environment, the poem foregoes the opportunity to cast aspersions on women. Pedagogy, as Leo Bersani has argued, can come very close to pederasty. In “The Best of School,” the speaker celebrates pedagogy’s homoeroticism without consummating any recognizable sexual act. If today’s sensationalist journalism prompts us to seek out the predator in the classroom, Lawrence’s speaker assumes a decidedly passive relation to his pupils, whose stance in the third stanza is also passive:

And very sweet it is, while the sunlight waves

In the ripening morning, to sit alone with the class

And feel the stream of awakening ripple and pass

From me to the boys, whose brightening souls it laves

For this little hour.

The stanza’s water imagery, congruent with that of the poem, “Twilight,” insinuates no mastery; and it would be rather heavy-handed to cast “the stream of awakening” in terms of phallic domination.

In the concluding stanzas, the boys assume a more active role, just as the imagery shifts from sunlight and waves to tongue and touch:

Touch after touch I feel on me

As their eyes glance at me for the grain

Of rigour they taste delightedly.

 

As tendrils reach out yearningly,

Slowly rotate till they touch the tree

That they cleave unto, so they to me.

 

I feel them cling and cleave to me

As vines going eagerly up; they twine

My life with other leaves, my time

Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.

Yes, of course, “tendrils” that “reach out yearningly” and “vines going eagerly up” are phallic symbols. His loud objections to psychoanalysis notwithstanding, Lawrence depends upon the reader’s familiarity with simple Freudian symbolism; and he is unafraid to make homoeroticism obvious when it suits his purposes. Delicate masculine intimacy, hardly here a hidden theme, adds a definite frisson to the scene of growth and change. In “The Best of School, ” it serves to affirm life.

In his most interesting poems, even those that concern darker subject-material, Lawrence welcomes life, encouraging us to grow and to change. “Bavarian Gentians,” though concerning Lawrence’s own demise, would lead us to an experience that, by definition, we cannot experience: death. The poem does so not with utter gloom, but with “the passion of dense gloom,” an erotic “splendour.”  Easy to visualize at first, the title flowers receive careful description: they are “ribbed and torch-like,” “flattening into points.”  But because they also serve as figurative devices—each is a “torch-flower,” the speaker says—to guide him, as well as us, to the apprehension of unperceivable death—he complicates the visual metaphors with paradoxes difficult or impossible to see.  In the fourth line, the flowers darken “the daytime,” so that “darkening” reveals itself an active force, rather than the mere deprivation of light. The flowers become a “blaze of darkness,” “black lamps,” and “darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark.”  Finally, the poem leads to the phallic upsurge of “torches of darkness.”

Pointing out that such figures of language are Miltonic, Neil Forsyth sees Lawrence’s play on the canonical poet as unfortunate, not nearly so striking as the original. Paradise Lost describes the underworld as “darkness visible,” a paradox that beyond the realm of perception, serves to arrest us, presenting but withholding unimaginable trauma. Lawrence’s “darkness invisible” might seem not a paradox at all, or even a redundancy, for is not darkness by definition invisible?  Yet Lawrence’s entire phrase takes Milton’s figure one step further: “a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark” asks us to make an extraordinarily fine distinction, to apprehend the contrast of the unseeable with something even more obscure. In “Bavarian Gentians,” such paradox serves not to scare the reader into religious submission, but rather to elicit, through unfigurable intensity, an elsewhere that is not hell at all. That elsewhere is here and now: the thrill of being alive. Part of the thrill has to do with escaping the boundaries of gender and sexuality, as well as those of life and death. The real concern is not Persephone but the first poet. Death thus defamiliarized, drawing us down so close to its impossibility, raises us, as if Orpheus, upwards.

So the cock escapes. The cock rises. But then the question: has someone been left behind?

 

Works Cited

 

The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. Volumes One & Two. Ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. New York: Viking, 1964.

Forsyth, Neil. “D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Bavarian Gentians’: A Miltonic Turn Toward Death.”  Études de Lettres 4 (October-December 1992): 83-100.

Lawrence, D.H. Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. 1921. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Sword, Helen. “Lawrence’s Poetry.”  The Cambridge Companion to D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Anne Fernihough. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001: 119-35.

Woods, Gregory. “D.H. Lawrence.”  Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987: 125-39.

 

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    For me the bridegroom metaphor evokes a lot of pastoral, Christian images from Renaissance poetry like Marvell etc. I wish I could be more specific but it’s been a while since I read those poets. It seems in the pastoral space, as in a lot of Christian poetry from this period, men can become bridegrooms. I think for example of Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet 14 where he wants God to ravish him, penetrate him etc.

    Your essay also connects interestingly to Joyelle’s posts about the necropastoral and the necropastoral of Wilfred Owens since your essay finds the queerness of Lawrence in those spots in particular: nature/pastoral and WWI trenches: http://montevidayo.com/?p=941. Joyelle’s argument that Owens poetry is full of spasms and holes seems to parallel your observations about Lawrence, though I don’t think Joyelle ever calls the holes feminine – ie the holes are not standing in for female genitals.

    Johannes

  2. Merrill Cole

    The “male vagina” is not my formulation, but Woods’. It has a transgender implication with which Lawrence would not be in accord.

    Lawrence has some rather troubling, perhaps even proto-fascist, ideas about hygiene; and I’m not sure the “necropastoral” applies easily to his poems. Perhaps the poems undercut the discursive statements on hygiene, just as they do with pronouncements about gender relations and sexuality.

  3. Michael Jason

    Pretty good post!! I’ve to say D.H. Lawrence poetry is humanity prominent. His works are unforgettable. It’s a great pleasure to give comments about him. Thanks for this lovely post.