christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: November, 2013

Humming-Bird: the imagination and achievement of DH Lawrence

For those who only know DH Lawrence’s poetry from his more formal pieces, like Piano and Bavarian Gentians, the poems from Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) are a revelation.  They have a spontaneity and uncanny modernity, freed entirely from the constraints of the Georgians. They follow quick thought patterns, snapping with fleeting synaptic connections and a first draft sense of freshness, as if they have been jotted down in the moment of conception.  They are also humorous, not afraid to be childlike in their sense of wonder (and ignorance). They are both highly personal and universal – and totally without pretence.


Humming-Bird is one such example, quivering with life on the page. The scene is set in a void – early Earth: ‘some otherworld/primeval-dumb . . ./in that most awful stillness’. When the bird appears, it flashes through the poem; ‘it races down the avenues’ goes ‘whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems’. Lawrence controls the pace of the poem beautifully – contrasting the lumbering ‘heave of Matter’ with the agility and darting pace of this tiny bird, which is ‘a little bit chipped off in brilliance’. These clipped lines, contrast with the long vowels of ‘most awful’ and ‘heave.’ The various line lengths also underline this contrast between the world’s ‘slow vegetable veins’ and this fleet-winged bird. It begins with a standard iambic line, followed by a shorter, irregular line, immediately followed by a longer one. The poem bubbles and hisses like an unstable experiment, mirroring the alternating order and chaos inherent in creation.

But what is the hummingbird? What does it stand for? Is it Lawrence’s imagination – which ‘flashed ahead of creation’ or perhaps Lawrence himself: a fearless creative force, underlining his irreverence for the establishment; his refusal to respect the lumbering status quo. He valued sense and feeling above science and reason, the colour and light of love, culture, travel and modernity ahead of the dull monochrome existence of the 19th century. He ruffled the feathers of the censors, the publishing industry and the tastemakers.

It ends with good humour; the thought that this prehistoric hummingbird was ‘once big’ – ‘a jabbing, terrifying monster’ and that we see his smaller, contemporary counterpart ‘through the long telescope of time/luckily for us.’ It is a relief, he says, to live in some tame times – while reminding us that we were not always masters of creation. He warns us against complacency, against the danger of refusing to evolve – that there will also be something new to displace the old.

But what is his achievement with this poem? That he is able to articulate the essence of the bird, its life-force and evoke the cumulative, hidden power of its evolution. The vast scale of the poem  – the whole world – is contrasted with the pinpoint focus on this single bird. The lightness of touch, the immediacy of the voice and quicksilver language are the perfect embodiment of this wondrous bird. The implied message about a new wave of creative thought and achievement provides an added frisson.


I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of time,
Luckily for us.

At the House of the Ruby Elephant

We only handle objects of the rarest providence
like the blue, silver stone butterfly pendant that once
hung from the neck of Marie, Countess of Austria
She pressed it into the hand of her daughter
in the first hour of the first day of the First World War.
At the House of the Ruby Elephant our quality
is guaranteed; our postage and packing is free.

These silver enamel cuff links embedded
with amazonite stones are likely to have been worn
by Howard Carter on the day he opened up the tomb
of Tutankhamen. We believe they were left
on the dresser the day he was bitten by a mosquito,
which began the legend of the famous curse.
All purchases are made at the customer’s own risk.

Feel free to browse and inspect the rare
Jugendstil gold washed silver stickpin with its
strange futuristic head and pair of red eyes,
said to be modelled on a child’s account
of an unexplained incident in the Black Forest
in the first decade of the twentieth century.
We are proud to support the Martian arts.

Some things we hold back from sale,
like the silver brooch inscribed with runes
found on a buckle in Norway in 700 AD.
Feel free to call in to see us or visit us online;
for the right offer, we are pleased to be awoken;
except at eleven, when we stop for coffee and oranges,
The House of the Ruby Elephant is always open.

Edwardian Art Nouveau Deco Russian German Austrian Fabergé Cartier 935 silver Hardstone Chalcedony Elephant Fur Dress Clip Cabochon Ruby

This poem was inspired by my brother Joe’s marvelous website, The Lovely Jumble, where he sells original Art Nouveau jewelry as well as other beautiful and unusual objects.  He looking for a new name for his shop, so do share your suggestions.


The Discovery of Thin Air

A crate of sky, packed with light,
an equation flung into the air
they sent a dragonfly
sputtering above the ground.
A man in a bowler hat runs alongside,
the other rides a cushion of air
leaving the earth behind.
They are watched only by trees
dotted in the mist and the cloud,
drifting in effortless flight.

This is the birth of the modern
where, having tamed the land,
we learnt to harness the sky:
throw a bridle on the invisible,
and take off in a miracle
of spruce, hope and mathematics.
A low circle, a hard landing
and it’s all over, a Chinese kite
ditched in the grass, leaving
its mark on this field in winter,
while the bright half moon
gleams like the blade of a plough.


The Emperor of Autumn

We saw him skulking on the horizon,
his crown a bird’s nest of amber and lime.
He wore beneath his burnished cloak
a rusting chain mail of fallen leaves.
His staff was the trunk of a Scot’s pine
clipped of its limbs; he littered gold
like a thief with a bag split at the seam.
His eyes were the red leaves of a maple
and his beard, a tangle of blackthorn.
Tied in his hair were firecrackers of light:
the dark and the bright of an autumn sky.

That night, the storm came; torn trees,
gates swinging from their hinges, fruit swept
from branches and birds flying backwards.
We knew it was him, the Emperor of Autumn,
his reign almost at an end, sent into a fury.
His robes crumbled about his shoulders
and in the morning the fields were frosted
white with the hearth rugs of the Winter King.

Penny for the guy

‘It’s forty four years to the day since I’ve had my tonsils out,’ says Charles, an elderly, but smartly dressed Norfolk man with an impressive military-style moustache. ‘I’m just a remnant, now.’


Together with old friends Barry and Giles, he’s stopped at the allotment gates for a cigar on the way to the Corpusty Village Bonfire.

‘Fifty years ago, we’d be standing right on the railway line,’ says Giles, a row of shiny red badges running down his arm, his hat blowing off his head like a bottle top. If you listen carefully you can still hear the locomotive puffing in the distance. I can’t believe it’s gone.’ ‘There’s change for you,’ says Barry, sinking down into the old kitchen chair abandoned on the grass, swiping a bishy barney bee from his cheek. His trilby almost falls to the ground.


 They’re all a little worse for wear, having stopped for a pint or two of Nelson’s Revenge at the Duke’s Head. A robin settles for a moment on Barry’s shoulder, then flutters away.


Charles clears his throat, ‘Well, there’s no sense hanging about. Let’s get this over with.’

‘Do we really have to go through with this tonight?’ asks Barry gently. ‘After all we‘ve been through?’

Charles nods silently, then produces three straws from his pocket. He offers them to the others.

‘Best of luck chaps and all that.’

Giles draws the shortest. He shrugs, then switches his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other.

‘Well, so long,’ he says. ‘You behave yourselves now won’t you?’

They watch him as he ambles off down the lane towards the green, where they are piling up the pallets, preparing for the fire.