D. H. Lawrence. Selected Poems. Ed. James Fenton. New York: Penguin, 2008. Pp. xxvi + 200. $16 (paper)
In 2008 Penguin Books published Lawrence's Selected Poems, edited by James Fenton, as part of its Penguin Classics series. This volume replaced Keith Sagar's selection of Lawrence's poetry, first published in 1972, which went out of print after a run of 35 years (in two different versions). Sagar's 1972 Selected Poems includes 150 poems, which he characterized as "all [of] Lawrence's successful, achieved poems." But in his brief "Note to the Revised Edition" of 1985 Sagar confessed that he had "underestimated Lawrence as a poet." His revised, expanded volume contains 175 poems, including alternate versions of "Bavarian Gentians" and "The Ship of Death." Sagar also guarantees that "any reader who enjoys this selection will find many other poems equally to his taste in the Complete Poems" Most readers and teachers of modern poetry--including Lawrence scholars--continue to underestimate Lawrence's poetry.
James Fenton is an English poet, journalist, and literary critic. His poetry, highly regarded in England, is not widely known in the United States. Between 1994 and 1999 Fenton held the prestigious chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden, and Robert Graves were among his predecessors in this position. In 2001 the Oxford University Press published Fenton's The Strength of Poetry, twelve of the lectures he delivered during his tenure as Professor of Poetry, many of which were also published in the New York Review of Books. Wilfred Owen, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and W. H. Auden are among the subjects of these engaging lectures. "Men, Women, and Bests," Fenton's lecture on Lawrence, seemingly qualified him to edit the Penguin Classics selection of Lawrence's poetry.
Disappointingly, the Fenton Selected Poems contains only 99 poems. His Selected Poems has only 200 pages, compared with the 270 pages Sagar had at his disposal in both the 1972 and 1985 versions of his Selected Poems. No doubt Penguin dictated the page limitation, but Fenton is right to be both embarrassed and apologetic. His "fear" that he "may be accused of meanness in [his] selection" resonates with this reader. Less is not more! An Appendix, "Lawrence on Poetry," fills 22 of Fenton's 200 pages. This Appendix consists of three essays: "Poetry of the Present," "Walt Whitman" from Studies in Classic American Literature, and the "Foreword" to Collected Poems (1928). Fenton discusses the Whitman essay at length in "Men, Women, and Beasts," but a Penguin editor should have removed this essay from Fenton's Lawrence selection. Those precious eleven pages should have been filled with poems.
Knowledgeable readers of Lawrence's poetry will regret the absence of many "successful, achieved," regularly anthologized poems. Fenton begins "Men, Women, and Beasts" with a discussion of "The Bride" (one of Lawrence's most remarkable poems) and "The Virgin Mother," but he includes neither poem in Selected Poems. The absence of "Shadows," one of the greatest of the so-called Last Poems, is especially distressing. "Snap-Dragon," "Lightning," "Dreams Old and Nascent," "First Morning," "A Young Wife," "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through," "The Mosquito," "Fish," "Elephant" (a very underrated poem), "The Red Wolf" "Bibbles," "Mountain Lion" "Spirits Summoned West," "Thought," and "Red Geranium and Godly Mignonette" are among the other poems admirers of Lawrence's poetry will miss. Fenton includes nothing at all from Nettles. He does include "Humming-Bird" and "How Beastly the Bourgeois Is," neither of which appears in Sagar.
Anyone charged with assembling a selection of Lawrence's poetry must confront the quandary of how to handle the early poems, many of which Lawrence revised or even rewrote for his Collected Poems (1928). As Lawrence famously explained, the refined young man who wrote these poems was "afraid of his demon. …