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L'Allusion et l'Accès

Peter Vernon
Claudine Raynaud

Allusion and Access: the Unknown Beyond in D.H. Lawrence’s Last Poems

Elise Brault

Texte intégral

1D.H. Lawrence’s Last Poems – posthumously published in 1932 – were written in 1929, four months before Lawrence’s death. Seriously ill with tuberculosis, the poet worked on these poems at a time when his health was rapidly declining, and when the imminence of death was more than evident. Yet, he anticipated death as an optimistic journey through dark oblivion, towards an obscure process of renewal, and throughout which the vital flow of life was precaciously maintained.

2My principle concern will be to present Lawrence’s focus on death as an allusion to this beyond, understood as an arousal to renewed vitality and potency. For that purpose, my demonstration will revolve around three points: my first question deals with the underlying paradox in Lawrence’s allusion to the unknown. Unlike the typical notion of allusion where the writer knows what he alludes to, Lawrence focuses on the unknown. Through this antagonism, the allusion maintains and sustains the vital flow.

3I will then highlight how Lawrence displaces the unsayable in the form of his poetry; the displacement thus reaching not only beyond the frame of poetry, but also beyond the frame of consciousness. This will lead us to consider Last Poems as a poetry which gives access to more than the text, but which itself remains inaccessible.

4While “allusion” typically relies on common knowledge shared by poet and reader, in the present case, “allusion” is focussed on the unknown, on the “not-knowing” of what lies beyond “this” life, what takes place once the “journey” towards death has begun.

  • 1 D. H. Lawrence; Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923, London, Penguin 1971, p. 6.

5Last Poems is fraught with the “unsayable”. Instead of pondering and speculating on what lies beyond this life, the poetic voice rather works at maintaining the mysterious feature of imminent experience. Therefore, in terms of understanding, of mentally conceiving, we are dealing with ungraspable poetry; and it is the unsayable which is the focus of Lawrence’s peculiar allusions and poetic developments. The poem “Shadows” – whose title already suggests obscurity and veils – illustrates the idea of a pervading mystery. Throughout the poem, the poet evokes his multiple regenerative passages through oblivion as states in which “the soft, strange gloom / pervades my movements and my thoughts and words” (11. 6-7), and he finally finds himself in “the hands of the unknown God” (1. 32). The poet’s determined refusal to dissect the unknown beyond is further instanced in “The Rainbow” in which he states that “Even the rainbow has a body / [...] / yet, you can’t lay your hand on it, / nay, nor even your mind” (the idea of dissection derives from Lawrence’s presentation of Poe’s work as a set of “chemical analyses” – in SCAL).1 In “Silence”, the passage through death is evoked “in the great hush of going from this into that” (1. 28): the unsayable aspect of the event is well underlined by the imposing silence (“the great hush”), and by the indeterminacy of “this” and “that”.

6While allusion is typically defined as a refusal to plainly divulge what is known, Lawrence’s peculiar handling of allusion is concerned, rather, with a refusal to unveil what is unknown.

7While the idea of not plainly stating, which is at work in ordinary allusion, inherently generates a sense of frustration – or at least, of deficiency – the poet here, on the contrary, finds satisfaction in his allusion to the unknown. He is fulfilled by the mentally inaccessible. He begins his poem “Know-All” with: “Man knows nothing / till he knows how not to know”. The deficiency of cerebral knowledge and explanation is a prerequisite for satisfaction. In “Whales Weep Not!”, a poem depicting the sexual intercourse of massive whales, Lawrence highlights that “... all this happens in the sea, in the salt / where God is also love, but without words” (11. 30-1; my emphasis). And in “Silence” the satisfaction with the “not saying” is a physical fulfilment: “... till all is fulfilled of God’s last and greatest laugh / till all is soundless and senseless, a tremendous body of silence [....] enveloping even me who hear no more” (II. 14-7; my emphases). The poet is making love to the unsayable; and the satisfaction thus achieved leads us to surmise that Lawrence uses allusion for the sake of allusion. He is caught in a process that constantly leads beyond, but refuses to tell – or guess – what lies beyond.

8Knowing that the poet was on the verge of death, the pervasive allusions to the eternal unknown could be envisaged as a path towards some more life, towards what Lawrence calls “the continuance of life” (EPP, p 12). The poet’s refusal to unveil might be a means of maintaining vitality and of conveying the current fulfilment further into the experience of death. This point emphasises an idea of the unsayable as the food of Last Poems: the endlessness of vitality is nourished, and renewed, by allusion.

9In constantly leading further, allusion in Lawrence is caught within the intuitive flow of poetry: the unsayable is following the onward vital flux of the poet’s inner being [the idea of inner flow is well articulated in his essay “Poetry of the Present 1919), where” the pulsating carnal self’(183) – or the “living plasm” (182) – is presented as the source of poetry]. If the passage from life to death is a passage “from this into that”, “this” and “that” are constantly evolving. Nothing is static, neither immediacy nor the beyond. The beyond is in point of fact a wandering which follows no predetermined path. The poem “Wandering Cosmos” actually evokes life as a “footstep onwards, onwards, we know not whither, / and we do not care” (11. 3-4). Thus, the “continuance of life”, which we call death and which Lawrence calls “dark oblivion”, is neither static, nor ecstatic. For indeed, the notion of continuance is incompatible with the idea of rupture which Lawrence detects in ecstasy: in a letter to Gordon Campbell, dated December 1914, he wrote in warning:

“beware of there states of exaltation and ecstasy. They send you, anyone, swaying so far beyond the centre of gravity in one direction [...] in the end you exceed the limits of your own soul’s elasticity [...].
Besides, there is no real truth in ecstasy [...]. Ecstasy achieves itself by virtue of exclusion; and in making passionate exclusion, one has already put one’s hand in the hand of the lie” (
CL, I, p. 300).

10Though at first sight appropriate to Lawrence’s idea of reaching beyond, the ecstatic experience is eventually too exclusive in its passage “from this into that”: the transfer is predetermined by a single trajectory which extracts the individual not only from the surrounding vital world, but also from his intimate potent self (man falls into what Lawrence in one of the Last Poems, calls “Abysmal Immortality”). So, while ecstasy for Lawrence cuts man off from vitality, allusion to the unknown maintains the flowing vitality of man. In alluding to the unknown beyond, the poet remains connected both to his intimate soul, and to the outside world. The equilibrium between experiencing within and reaching beyond, constantly concerned with a maintaining of vital ties, is evoked by Lawrence as a “blossoming” (SE, p69). This organic image, characterised by multidirectional and multidimensional developments – in contrast with the exclusive feature of ecstasy – leads to unknown further human vitality. Evoking death in terms of “blossoming” (as in “Shadows”, where the poet talks about “new blossoms of me” [1.30], Lawrence radically sets himself against the traditional idea of transcendence defined by its elevation and extraction from the roots of life. While in Christian culture the access that follows death is predetermined, and to some extent dictated, in Lawrence’s poetry the way to “dark oblivion” is only suggested by allusions that are actually closely dependent on the poet’s flowing and changing intuition.

11Apprehending allusion in terms of intuition attributes another fundamental peculiarity to Lawrence’s use of allusion. The poet does not mentally know the essence of what he is alluding to. He is not endowed with the prophetic capacity to “behold the future in the present” – in Shelley’s understanding of “prophesy” (Shelley, 6). The poet’s voice is rather characterised by its immediate intuitive integrity: he refuses to account for what he does not intuitively know. This is illustrated by the hyphen in “The Man of Tyre”: Aphrodite “give [s] a message to the man” (1.18): the message being unknown to the poet, the latter does not try to dissect the unsayable with speculative explanations. This apparent sincerity in the poet’s voice reinforces the idiosyncratic quality of his allusions. For while allusion is commonly understood as a consciously worked-up device in order not to say directly, Lawrence’s allusions are focussed on something which for him as well is unsayable (because unknown). The duplicity of voice (as found in irony) is replaced here by the wholeness of naiveté and immediate sincerity. The idea of disguise present in the common sense of allusion, is absent from the artlessness of Last Poems. The veils previously evoked are not masks. Lawrence does not literally encode his verse; neither does he choose allusion in order to dodge – or escape – the plain statement of what “dark oblivion” is. Allusion is more a path to “somewhere” than a means of skirting the matter.

12My evocation of Lawrence’s allusions in terms of sincerity, finds another justification in the poet’s attitude towards the reader: the poet does not purposely choose to allude to something he himself knows and which he expects the reader to discover after having teased his knowledge and understanding. In matters of death, poet and reader are equal when facing the unknown.

13The poet does not adopt a superior stance, in which he would control his reader’s reception of and reaction to poetry: on the contrary, through the sincere and intuitive qualities of the poet’s voice, poet and reader come to share the mystery of the impending event. The peculiarity of Lawrence’s allusion then lies on its being understood in terms of arousing experience rather than in terms of cerebral understanding. If his allusions do not give clues for an intellectual access to the verse – and vice versa – they attempt to reach beyond the frame of poetry.

14I will now try to explore the devices employed by Lawrence in order to arouse the reader for more experience, and we will see how allusions turn into a way of experiencing the more. I will start with a brief examination of the declension of images, and then pay more attention to the alluring form of poetry.

15In terms of imagery, Lawrence works through proliferation. He starts from one image and from thence develops an arborescence. For instance, the image of the “ship” is the creative centre of a metaphorical network that inexhaustibly runs throughout the volume: the “ship” declines into “journey”, then “sea”, “water”, itself generating images of “flood”, “frost”, etc. In “The Poetry of the Present”, Lawrence writes that, in poetry, “there must be the rapid momentaneous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation […]. This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present” ("Poetry of the Present," CP; p 183). There is no final understanding of poetry; poetry is inaccessible. This is well conveyed by the imagery: the “journey” towards “dark oblivion” does not aim at any specific destination. “The Ship of Death” sails “... upon the sea of death, where we sail / darkly, for we cannot steer and have no port” (II. 63-4). So the journey evolves towards an unknown which throughout the volume is indistinctly evoked through a restricted set of recurrent terms: “dark”, “darkness”, “strange”, “oblivion”, and “new”. Though these terms belong to a process of allusion, still, they are not means to say something instead of something else; they are means to give impetus to the reader’s imagination. The reader does not inherit predetermined elements (direct or alluded), but is placed in an open imagery. The poet uses the indeterminacy of “dark”, “oblivion”, etc. so as to lay “foundations” for the reader who is now left free to follow his own path towards the beyond.

16Although inaccessible (for still based on, and nourished by, the unknown), poetry gives access to more than poetry, namely to individual experience.

17Lawrence compensates his willed and satisfying lack of knowledge with a peculiarly eloquent, idiosyncratic form of poetry. The unsayable is displaced onto form. The notion of displacement is linked to allusion by the idea of indirectness. Both displacement and allusion convey a message indirectly.

18A first encounter with Last Poems strikes the reader with its total denial of any “logical chain”: it is some free verse in the first sense of the term. While other Modernist poets teased the iambic pentameter and conceived free verse as an alternate adoption of, and withdrawal from, established patterns, Lawrence rather chose to ignore poetical conventions: “the law must come new each time from within” ("Poetry of the Present", CP, p 185). He thus reaches beyond the usual patterns of poetry: in refusing to submit his artistic creation to conventional discipline, he utilises the form of his poetry in order to allude to what lies beyond conventions; his very marginalisation thus being a type of allusion.

19The poetry is dictated by the poet’s intuition: this point justifies my previous arguments of a flowing poetry (intuition is wavering and evolving), and of an inaccessible poetry (intuition lies in the poet’s intimate being). Hence, in order to allude to the inaccessible, Lawrence invests the form with a flux that reaches beyond conventions. He works with pulsations and relaxations, opting for repetitions and flow. For example in “Silence”:

“... even me who hear no more,
who am embedded in a shell of Silence,
of silence, lovely silence
of endless and living silence
of holy silence
the silence...” (11. 17-22)

20The passage – free from any fixed pattern – compounds a flowing development, with a beating repetition of “silence”, bringing the verse towards the indescribable, the “endless and living” beyond. In “The Ship of Death”, the stanza which relates the soul’s passage through oblivion is punctuated by the repetition of “gone” which once again is rather poor in terms of extra-linguistic reference (or signified):

“And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, ertirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy on the lower,
between them the little ship is gone
she is gone” (11. 75-80).

21The insistence leads further, alludes to the beyond; but meanwhile it paradoxically maintains by its recurrence: as I suggested earlier, the allusion maintains the vitality of poetry at the critical moment of death. The ever going generation is well conveyed in the form of poetry through the intensity of flowing cadences and sweeping rhythms – as in “Bavarian Gentians”. “The Ship of Death” appropriately illustrates the displacement of the unsayable on form (11.65-74): the poet ignores where his soul is going, and this lack of knowledge is projected on form. The onward progress, of both form and content, takes place without pattern, without vision, and final goal. The confusion, even contradiction, in the evocation of “the little ship” (11. 70-4), is reflected by the formal chiasmus, as if the form as well were based on contradictions: “there”, “yet”, “gone”, “gone”, “yet”, “there”. In the expression of negation and confusion, this passage highlights the poet’s attempt to evoke the vital existence of the unknown without unveiling it. His allusion to the unknown almost consists in protecting the unknown.

22The form of Lawrence’s poetry is also defined by its “organicity”. The structure of the poems reflects the organic tendency of incessantly reaching outward. “Shadows” is illustrative here for its being built on widening concentric circles. Each stanza evokes the poet’s death and renewal: the first stanza is based on the scale of a day, the second enlarges to weeks, the third to seasons, and finally the fourth widens to the phases of the poet’s life. The centrifugal movement is reflected in the gradual lengthening of the successive stanza. The compound of this widening structure with the discursivity and outpouring flow of form, is a mimetic representation of the “organic” motif of content: the poetic voice finds energy in its quest for the forever inaccessible. This point leads me to tackle the motif of “always more” conveyed through exclamation and hyperboles. Through the multiple exclamations which punctuate Last Poems, Lawrence appeals to more without depicting this more: the tone is invested with allusion. As Dominique Rabaté rightly notes: “l’exclamation signe [...] l’’adhésion volontariste du locuteur avec un ordre qui le dépasse” (p, 39). This finds illustration in “Silence” (11.23-4): “Ah! The holy silence – it is meet! / It is very fitting! There is nought beside!”. The significance of these lines relies more on the repeated exclamations than on the words themselves: the unsayable is obviously not said but conveyed – or alluded to – via the form. This exploitation of tone and form in order to open to the beyond is equally visible through the occurrences of “how” (like “how terrible”, “how ghastly” in “The End, The Beginning”), and through interjections – as in “The Ship of Death”: “oh, build your ship of death”, or “Ah! Can’t you smell it?” (1.13). According to Jakobson, interjections are the manifestation in language of the utmost emotional degree (Jakobson, p, 214). Lawrence also insistently plays with hyperboles, comparative and superlative forms. For example in “Whales Weep Not!”, the whales have “the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent” (1.2); and in “Silence”, “the peals of the thundrous laugh” are “huge, huger, huger and huger pealing” (II. 12-13). Comparative and superlative forms highlight once again that for Lawrence the beyond is not definable. For indeed, the more is not named but is only determined through a process of extending further from what we know already. Therefore, while allusion typically converges towards the common knowledge between poet and reader, here, the alluding device rather departs from common knowledge and reaches out towards a common unknown.

23In this third and last part, I will first deal with notions of charm and captivation, and then with the idea of access through poetry.

24The reader of Last Poems is at some points mesmerised by the enthralling – and at times hypnotic – tone of poetry. The melopoeia of “Bavarian Gentians” exemplifies this point:

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points flattened under the sweep of white day (11. 3-6)

25The continuous flow, punctuated by the heart-beating cadence of striking consonants, leads the reader beyond the immediate meaning of words. The allusive device is no longer a matter of choosing words for others, but rather one of combining them on the syntagmatic axis. The reader is captivated, and eventually charmed, by this apparently endless and magically appealing combination. In Roots of Lyrics, Welsh states that “the primary interest of charm [...] is as the subterranean root feeding the growth of more complex forms of lyric” (55, my emphasis). In thus situating charm in the under strata of poetry, Welsh’s statement concurs with my previous argument of a creation which relies on the occult. What the poet attempts to do is not to have the reader mentally understand the beyond, but rather to make him feel that a beyond exists. In appealing to more than the reader’s cultural knowledge, the poet’s voice arouses and casts a spell on the reader’s unconscious pathos. In “Beware the Unhappy Dead”, the enthralment evolves into the evocation of a penetration into the reader:

within your walls, within your very heart.
Oh, they can lay you waste, the angry dead.
Perhaps even now you are suffering from the havoc they make
unknown within your breast and your deadened loins.
(11. 27-30)

26The reader’s affect is challenged by these fearful images. In dealing with the intimacy of the reader – which constitutes another veil in the poetical scheme –, the poet’s device somehow seeks the reader’s individual reaction. In “The Breath of Life” the poet motivates the reader: “... if you want to breathe deep sumptuous life / breathe all alone, in silence, in the dark / and see nothing” (11. 3-5). The reader is stimulated for a further experience of the unknown, and is dragged into a penetrating and occult atmosphere. At that point, the interest lies in the divergence between the reader’s reaction to this type of alluring allusion, and to the quotidian use of allusion. Indeed, allusion typically invites the reader to recuperate a precise element: in digging in his own memory, learned culture, and knowledge, the reader somehow moves backwards. Lawrence’s allusion generates a reversed process: the reader is aroused, and reaches forward towards a form of access.

27We have seen how, on the verge of death, Lawrence’s poetry arouses, charms and lastly gives access to the reader. Yet, poetry, poet, and reader all remain there veiled. The antagonistic juxtaposition of a pervading onward progress with a maintaining of veils, evokes the idea of an erotic play with the unsayable. While reaching outside the frame of poetry, towards access (namely oblivion), allusion maintains the multiple mysterious veils of vitality. In the poem “The Song of Death”, the soul’s last journey to oblivion is thus depicted; “... he enters fold after fold of deepening darkness / for the cosmos even in death is like a dark whorled shell” (11.6-8). The motif of eroticism is even clearer if we consider the evolution from a poetry that arouses, charms, and then gives access. Once unconsciously charmed by the veiled and mysterious poetry, the reader yields to its unknown. The poem “Forget” thus opens on: “To be able to forget is to be able to yield / to God who dwells in deep oblivion” (11.1-2): “yielding” to “God” and “oblivion” is yielding to the unsayable, the unknown. The terms “yield” and “access” share the idea of admittance in sexual intercourse; they both evoke the triggering for a perfunctory fit of passion. In Last Poems, this transient fit is the passage “from this into that”; from life into death. The idea of acceding to the beyond in a sort of trance, is suggested in “Bavarian Gentians” where the poet carries “the torch of existence” (SE, 70) in his progress not only towards death, but also towards the “halls of Dis” (1.8) where Pluto enfolds and makes love to Persephone.

28The eroticism underlying the arousal by the unknown, the yielding to the unknown, and the access into the unknown, generates a paroxysm of life at the moment of death. As life ebbs away, the vital intensity, maintained by pervasive allusions to the unknown, reaches its apex. The access to oblivion through eroticism, endows the experience of death with fruitful dimensions.


29Throughout this presentation, several aims of allusion have been discerned: beyond this life; beyond established formal patterns of poetry; and beyond the frame of poetry towards the reader, and living experience. Yet, nowhere did we find final and complete access. Allusion constantly focuses on some thing beyond expression. Access is not to be understood in terms of “reaching” but rather as an arousing experience. In other words, access is an impetus, and not an end. So, though insistently dealing with death, through allusions and thanks to the absence of any final access, Lawrence’s Last Poems awake, but do not annihilate. With no desire for any definite aim in view, poetry is inaccessible. Yet, in alluding to the unknown beyond, it arouses to a renewed potency and gives access to further vitality.



jakobson Roman, «Deux Aspects du langage et deux types d’aphasie» (Chap. II), «Linguistique et Poétique» (Chap. XI). Essais de linguistique générale, 1. Les Fondations du langag,. Trad. Nicolas Ruwet, Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1991 (1st publ. 1963).

lawrence d.h., Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore, 2 vols, London, Heinemann, 1962, (CL).

—, Studies in Classic American Literature 1923, London, Penguin, 1971, (SCAL).

—, Complete Poems, 1964, ed., Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts, Hamondsworth, Mddx., Penguin, 1993, (CP).

—, Etruscan Places, 1932, in D. H. Lawrence in Italy, Hamondsworth, Mddx., Penguin, 1997, (EP).

—, “Poetry of the Present”, 1919, in CP, 181-86.

—, Selected Essays, Harmondsworth, Mddx., Penguin, 1950, (SE).

rabate Dominique, Poétiques de la Voix, Paris, José Corti, Les Essais, 1999.

shelley, Defense of Poetry, ed. with intro, and notes by Albert S, Cook, Boston, Ginn & Company, 1891.

welsh Andrew, Roots of Lyric,. Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1978.


1 D. H. Lawrence; Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923, London, Penguin 1971, p. 6.


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