Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Eloquent Limbs": D.H. Lawrence and the Aesthetics of Disability

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"Eloquent Limbs": D.H. Lawrence and the Aesthetics of Disability

Article excerpt

The article considers the relationship between disability and modernist poetics, with a specific focus on the concept of physical difference in D.H. Lawrence's poetry. It traces the evolution of Lawrence's belief in the unmatched artistic potential of non-normative forms, poetic and otherwise; it expands upon the familiar story of Lawrence's own disability narrative; and, most significantly, it questions entrenched assumptions about the types of bodies that predominate in his writing. Utilizing a methodology that combines Disability Studies with a historicist approach to modernism, the article examines both Lawrence's poetry and his voluminous writings about poetry, and it proffers a range of close readings that confirm his interest in disabled bodies. When considered in aggregate, such readings suggest that Lawrence creates a proto-disability movement in verse, a movement wherein defects enable identification and social dissent; they also indicate that disability is fundamental to Lawrence's vision of literary form.

It was the winter of 1911, the denouement of a trying year for twenty-six-year-old D.H. Lawrence. He had published his first significant work, with Heinemann putting his novel The White Peacock on sale in January, but its mixed reviews relegated him to the periphery of the English literary scene. As Lawrence confessed to one of his acquaintances, "the publishing of the book has brought me nothing but bitterness. A good many folk have been hostile" (Letters, 12). He was increasingly dissatisfied with his position at the Davidson Road Boys' School; though teaching kept him financially solvent, it also thwarted his ambition to write full time. By November, the demands of the classroom, twinned with the unbearably dry heat of the pipes at Davidson Road, had forced him into convalescence. It turned out to be the first of many he would experience in his lifetime, as the next twenty-five years would test the strength of his bronchial tubes, his lungs, and ultimately his will. But in 1911, the pneumonia-stricken Lawrence had not yet come to terms with his chronic condition, had not yet reconciled himself to inhabiting a rasping body, and his writing from the period reveals a man fighting a civil war with his tissues and bones. Propped up amid his fever-damp sheets and bottles of elixir, Lawrence composed a series of letters in which he directs his legendary vitriol at his sick self:

I could walk like a grenadier guard, but for my left leg, which slumbers on, when all the rest of me is awake. [...] I loathe to be an invalid. It is nearly unendurable to have to wait for one's strength to come back-like Penelope. I hate my legs, miserable defaulters-I detest them. [...] If ever I'm ill again I shall die of mortification. (Letters, 16-17)

The practical indignities of disease are compounded by his belief that the pneumonia has compromised his formal discipline. He dismisses much of his work from his so-called sick year, deriding The Trespasser as being "too florid, too chargé" (Letters, 21), and he reserves special censure for "those pieces where the stitch is slack and loose" (Letters, 22). These letters are noteworthy for the vehemence with which the young writer yokes his literary aesthetic to his physical well-being. To a man whose literature was already becoming renowned for its celebration of the human form, his slack and slumbering limbs must have seemed like the cruelest of ironies.1 How was he to comprehend his body, now so unlike the ones that moved and loved and breathed and danced across the leaves of his work? Could he find a way for his art to incorporate, and perhaps even admire, the experience of physical difference?

Lawrence's attitude toward the disabled is customarily summarized in terms of the Chatterley Syndrome. A phrase coined by disability scholar Louis Battye in a 1966 essay, the Chatterley Syndrome refers to Lawrence's ungenerous depiction of the war veteran Clifford Chatterley, who is "shipped home smashed" (Chatterley, 9) from the front and subsequently becomes one of the most infamous cuckolds in English literature. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.