D H Lawrence on Walt Whitman

One literary giant’s view of another.


D H Lawrence (1885-1930) begins his essay by calling Walt Whitman (1819-92) America’s greatest poet and then goes on to argue precisely the opposite case, perhaps unfairly.

Much of Lawrence’s objection to Whitman and Transcendentalist poetry in general is its reliance on rationalism to lead the way. Lawrence was a champion of the sensual, arguing that we should give in to our feelings, intuition and sensory reactions to whatever life throws at us.

To Lawrence, life was best lived on a whim, and an impulse. To Whitman, everything was thought out, planned, measured and reasoned first. High thinking leads us to states akin to Nirvana – we become higher beings for what we do in such consideration. He did not deny the value of the emotions, but he set rationalism above the realms and influences of the senses. Lawrence later took the opposite perspective.

He is particularly critical of Whitman’s theory of ‘Merging’, where you find points of sympathetic connection with others and become one with them, both losing and finding yourself in them. To Lawrence, the reverse is equally possible – you can retreat, turn round and reverse away – not merging, but separating and that is just as valid a life stance. To Lawrence, realistically, we have points of connection and separation in all relationships. Total merging becomes possession and ownership rather than transcendence. Merging is a trap rather than a freedom to Lawrence. So is transcendence. To Lawrence we don’t become one with an infinite but accept our finite fragile identity and that we are but a minor part of the whole. 

Lawrence compares Whitman to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab, but has him capture and kill the great whale Moby Dick, rather than be doomed for trying. To Lawrence with the whole purpose of his life fulfilled, Whitman as Ahab is left with nothing else to do. He is reduced to just existing.

Unlike other transcendentalists, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Whitman’s greatest influence) Lawrence sees Whitman as writing of an enlightenment attained – Emerson and the others are still on he quest for such transcendental awareness – Whitman wrote as if it had been attained, and he was at the peak of all conceivable achievement. To Lawrence the goal is unattainable and also dogmatic. To Lawrence there is no reason not to change your mind and the course of your life. The enlightened soul still faces life’s physical needs, ie, a need to eat food. There is always something to bring us back down to Earth.

Lawrence is critical of Whitman’s presentation of women as functional entities serving the needs of men. Whitmanites strongly disagree with this view. They dismiss Lawrence’s stance as filled with sweeping generalizations, but his view is really one of opposing ideologies and uncompromising points of view.  

The writers had much in common – both wrote work that many considered obscene and overtly sexual. Whitman initially had to self published and he was often threatened with censorship all his life. Lawrence had several novels banned, especially, and famously, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  It is a shame the men lived a generation apart and never met. Lawrence would have seen more of himself in Whitman than he ever dared admit.

Lawrence’s essay on Walt Whitman is included in Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass – the 1965 New York University Press edition.

Arthur Chappell

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1 Comment
  1. Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    interesting article!

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