Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, January 26, 2008

An Image Almost Too Good For Its Own Poem


I ran across a poem by D.H. Lawrence I hadn't read before: "People." When I saw the title, I thought of the song that Streisand made famous, but Lawrence's poem goes in a different direction, to put it mildly.

People

by D.H. Lawrence

THE great gold apples of light
Hang from the street's long bough
Dripping their light
On the faces that drift below,
On the faces that drift and blow
Down the night-time, out of sight
In the wind's sad sough.

The ripeness of these apples of night
Distilling over me
Makes sickening the white
Ghost-flux of faces that hie
Them endlessly, endlessly by
Without meaning or reason why
They ever should be.

(Some of the lines are supposed to be indented, but alas, the blog-machinery is single-minded when it comes to the left margin.)

I think of this lyric as Lawrence's counterpart to Eliot's The Waste Land, and especially to one of Eliot's recurring images: the crowd flowing over London Bridge. Although the intensity of Lawrence's and Eliot's dissatisfaction with modern civilization was about the same, their reasons differed. Lawrence believed people had become worn down, domesticated, and enervated by modern existence. He wanted people to be more earthy and spontaneous, and although he hated how lethal labor could be (he grew up in coal-mining country), he never thought himself above the working class into which he was born. Eliot, on the other hand, believed modern society had cut itself off from nourishing roots of faith, tradition, and order. Working-class folk seemed to repulse him, and middle-class folk were a target of his satire. Eventually, he'd proclaim himself a royalist, an Anglican, and a literary conservative.

The image of the streetlight-as-apple is so surprisingly good, however, that it almost displaces the rest of the poem. I almost don't want to hear about those people on the street who don't know why they're alive and whose faces are made ghastly and ghostly by the gaslight. It's a sly image, too, because it likely induces many readers to think of the Edenic apple.

When I think of this poem later, I'll think of that apple-image, and--taking nothing away from Eliot's masterpiece--I'll smile at how efficiently Lawrence's lyric evokes its own kind of waste land. And I may even remember the title (which has nothing to do with that captivating image), and thus hear Barbra's voice.


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