christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: modernism

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.

To the Lighthouse – From the Sickbed

I have been rather ill the last couple of days. Following in a great family tradition, I retired to bed with a notoriously difficult literary novel, in this case, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. (My father worked his way through Dickens during his infrequent periods of incapacity.) Since somehow dodging it on my University Eng Lit course, it has been staring at me from the bookshelf, rather like Mrs Ramsey staring at her husband across the dinner table. Well, I’m half way through, which feels a significant achievement in itself.

It is an undoubtedly beautiful book. The setting on Skye is luminous and Woolf paints the novel as much as writes it; it is full of impressionistic colour. It is written in a hypnotic, poetic style, that seamlessly combines speech, description and reflection. But it is also a claustrophobic one. We are locked for long periods of time inside Mrs Ramsey’s head, an attractive middle aged women and mother of eight (!) with great force of personality, sensitivity and artistic temperament. We are privy to her lyrical inner voice; we share her moments of concern, delight and jubilation. She is also rather aloof pitying or envying most of those around her. It is a highly skilful performance.   

But it is infuriating in a thousand different ways. Roughly three things have happened in the last 138 pages; it is written in such a convoluted and wilfully obscure style that it positively impedes progress. Some phrases are purposefully opaque (‘So she tried to start the tune of Mrs Ramsey in her head’ – although usually intriguing). The battle of the sexes I also find father polarising – the women are artistic, holistic thinkers, prone to exaggeration. The men are vain, irritable figures, needy and clumsy. They are logical thinkers who struggle to identify the nub of the problem.

The book certainly suits my slightly dazed, medicated state, drifting in and out of clarity like a camera struggling to focus, but the question is: am I enjoying it? I feel like it’s doing me some  good. I’ve found myself thinking about it incessantly; reducing it; wondering how it could be shot as a film even. It would be shot with little dialogue certainly, and a strong focus on the house and symbols – the brooch on the beach with the waves lapping over it; the pig’s skull on the wall. Like reading when tipsy however, I just hope I remember some of it when I get better.