DH Lawrence and the Bible III
Bill Long 10/17/08
"Lesser" References/Allusions in Sons and Lovers
In this essay I will look at the way Lawrence used the Bible in the rest of Sons and Lovers, reserving for the next few essays the role the Bible plays in Paul Morel's interaction with Miriam, his first girl-friend. In much of the remaining parts of Sons and Lovers Lawrence uses the Bible in a rather perfunctory "cultural" way. What I mean by "cultural" is a sort of assumed stock of general knowledge that could easily be drawn upon and recognized by readers. Most of this stock of knowledge has disappeared in 2008; but 95 years ago many of the following references would have been crystalline.
I begin with two quotations taken from Terence Wright's helpful book DH Lawrence and the Bible (2000). First, when discussing the role the Bible played for Lawrence in his early life, Wright found the following quotation from Lawrence's final work, Apocalypse (written in 1929-30; I didn't realize before I began my study of Lawrence that he died at age 44 in 1930).
"From earliest years right into manhood, like any other nonconformist child I had the Bible poured every day into my helpless consciousness, till there came almost a saturation point. Long before one could think or even vaguely understand, this Bible language, these 'portions' of the Bible were douched over the mind and consciousness till they became soaked in, they became an influence which affected all the processes of emotion and thoughts. So that today, although I have 'forgotten' my Bible, I need only begin to read a chapter to realise that I 'know' it with an almost nauseating fixity. And I must confess, my first reaction is one of dislike, repulsion, and even resentment. My very instincts resent the Bible," quoted on p. 4.
Then, in summarizing his own argument, Wright says,
"It is abundantly clear, even from this brief sketch, not only that Lawrence was saturated with the Bible but that he continued throughout his life to reproduce its images," p. 11.
One could go further than that. Not only did Lawrence reproduce Biblical images but, in Sons and Lovers, he used Biblical phraseology and cadences in ways that gave a bit of "quaintness" to his writing but also seemed completely natural to him. For example, he used the phrase "and it came to pass" more than once--a clear reference to the KJV's translation of egeneto (in Greek) or vayehi (in Hebrew). Phrases like "she kept things in her heart" or "even for my sake" are Bible-dependent, also. It's fascinating to me that his primary use of the Bible in Sons and Lovers came when he described the interaction of Miriam and Paul. Miriam was a spiritual girl, who referred all things to her religious faith. Thus, Lawrence's biblical usage was not gratuitous; it lent verisimilitude to conversations between Miriam and Paul.
Other Biblical Phrases/References
The remainder of this essay will run quickly through about eight other Biblical references or clusters of references in Sons and Lovers.
1 and 2. Lawrence has one of his characteristically rich nature descriptions shortly after Gertrude quarreled with her husband. She thinks about her older won, William, who was the reason for the quarrel. While noticing the fiery mountain-ash berries and the shocks of corn standing up in the field, she muses whether her older son William would be a "Joseph"--i.e., and have all the other sheaves of corn/grain bow down to him (p. 50). This image, from the Joseph story in Gen. 37ff. is supplemented a few pages later when William refers to his multi-colored shirt his "Joseph's Coat" (p. 72).
3. Several biblical and hymnic references occur when the "barm" (yeast) seller comes to the Morels' neighborhood to hawk his wares. He is in the amusing habit of conflating the lines from Gospel hymns (some Moody & Sankey hymns especially) as well as dropping biblical lines that seem to make little sense when he says them (pp. 66ff).
4. When Paul Morel was laid up with bronchitis, he realized that he just needed to endure the discomfort until he recovered. In Lawrence's words, "What happened, happened, and it was no good kicking against the pricks," a reference to the divine advice to Saul on his conversion--not to "fight it" (Acts 9; p. 91).
5. Then when eldest son William died and Gertrude was severely distraught, she went around the house saying, "My son, my son..." (p. 169), which is reminiscent of David's moving lines at the death of Absalom: "Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instaed of you, O Absalom, my son, my son" (II Sam. 18:33).
6. When Paul leaves Miriam, he begins to develop an intimacy with Clara, already married but separated from her husband. Religion doesn't bulk so largely in her life, and so the biblical references are few. Yet, Clara was known as the "Queen of Sheba" at work (a cutting remark reminiscent of the one who visited Solomon). There is also a reference to Clara's feeling only slightly guilty for treating a person badly, and this allows Paul to make a reference to the Garden of Eden. "I believe Eve enjoyed it, when she went cowering out of Paradise. And I guess Adam was in a rage, and wondered what the deuce all the row was about--a bit of an apple..." Finally, when Paul and Clara are walking around the mining pits that were so much a part of Paul's life since childhood, he says, "When I was a boy, I always thought a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night was a pit, with its steam, and its lights and the burning bank--and I thought the Lord was always at the pit top" (p. 364). This is a rather creative reading of an aspect of the Exodus story (Ex. 13:21-22).
Concluding with Two More
7. Mention could be made of two references where Lawrence slightly misreads the text--of the veil tearing in the temple at the death of Jesus (Luke 23: 45). Lawrence uses this verse to describe the inevitable, but still painful, separation of Gertrude and Paul when Gertrude is dying. "They were both afraid of the veils that were ripping between them" (p. 429; see also p. 451). But the tearing of the veil in Luke, as well as the other evangelists, doesn't symbolize loss or the emotional "tearing" of separation, but rather the "escape" of the "Spirit of God" from the Holy of Holies into the rest of the temple and then the world. Eventually, as in the theology of Acts (also writen by Luke) this will lead to the spread of the Gospel to all the world (Acts 1:8).
8. I finish this essay with one biblical reference that concludes the book. After all is seemingly lost and "on every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him (Paul), so tiny a speck, into extinction.." (p. 464), Lawrence drops in a little phrase that suggests that new life is around the corner. He says,
"Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror..." (p. 464, italics added).
The editors of the Cambridge edition heard the echoes here of John 12: 24, "Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone.." But once it falls into the earth and dies, it then can bring forth its yield. That this is a good interpretation of Lawrence's quotation can be seen by the last words of the text:
"He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her (his mother). He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly," (p. 464).
Paul's life, in fact, isn't "over...."
Let's turn now to a more detailed exposition of the biblical resonances in the relationship of Paul and Miriam.