The Man-Machine and Living-Death: A Poetic Critique of D.H. Lawrence

By: Robert Yee


Throughout his literary career, David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence wrote plays, novels, letters, and poems that elaborated upon his personal beliefs about society and opinions concerning his outlook on life. In particular, his collection of poems expounds upon both his theories of modernization and of death. In this research paper, I plan to analyze several poems in the categories mentioned including “The North Country,” “What Then is Evil?,” and “Work,” which deal with unrestrained industrialization and Lawrence’s response. I will also delve into his views on dying, as shown through “The Ship of Death,” “Difficult Death,” and “Bavarian Gentians,” which focus on similar themes of darkness, oblivion, and inevitability. The themes are often interwoven in certain works, such as in “The Mills of God” and “We Die Together.” Lawrence’s poems cover a wide range of topics, from sexuality to nature; however, his work on these topics is perhaps the most enlightening and engaging.

One of the prominent themes throughout these poems is his rejection of modernity and industrialization. Throughout the 19th century, Britain rapidly modernized with its establishment of factories and sweatshops, colorfully noted by Romantic poet William Blake as the “dark satanic mills” (Coleman 59). In “The North Country,” overall trends of modernity are described through the “rising smoke-waves” and the “strong machine that runs mesmeric” (Lawrence 148-149). He states that workers are “people imprisoned” who run “mechanic” and are “will-less” in their work environments (Lawrence 149). Championing them as “imprisoned” cogs in the machine, he strongly denounces the dehumanized methods of production that these factories have brought to England and, in particular, the “social consequences,” such as when men were “taken into an underground world” of mines (Holmes 42). In these mines, workers act like drones, mindless beings who do as told as if they are “drugged dense in the sleep of the wheel” (Lawrence 149). Lawrence is heavily critical of what he views as “a state of suppression” in which individuals are tormented and made inhuman by the processes of industrialization (Lockwood 55).

Lawrence deplores this mechanized process which is effectively one of dehumanization. According to one critic, he believes that such a concept is embodied in the fact that individuals are valued based on what they can produce, which he views as appearing “before strangers to be accepted or rejected” in an uncompassionate manner (Delavenay 16). As the poem progresses, the monotony of everyday worklife is apparent through repetition of “sleep,” as well as the usage of similar sounding-words adjacently including mesmeric/mechanic and violet/violent. Overall, Lawrence witnesses the usurpation of the “country” by the “city” as “the only real force in civil society—something demonic and overwhelming that would expand, without effective resistance, until it reached a destructive consummation” (Delany 83). These machines would grow until they would make its workers “helpless, mechanic, their will to its will deferred” (Lawrence 149). With four stanzas of AABB rhyming, “The North Country” conveys Lawrence’s critique of current trends in the mechanization of society.

Lawrence again describes his aversion to modernity in “What Then is Evil?” (Lawrence 712). He alludes to themes of the “wheel” from “The North Country,” in which he views the wheel both as a symbol of the factory and as the stark embodiment of the never-ending spin or growth of industrial capacity:

Oh, in the world of the flesh of man

iron gives the deadly wound

and the wheel starts the principle of all evil

According to Lawrence, the most “evil” does not come from the machines themselves, but rather by the people who continue to make people work with machines. He claims that evil is embodied in both man and machines combined, as the metaphoric wheel continues to spin “on the hub of the ego” of mankind (Lawrence 712). As one critic comments, Lawrence wanted to describe how the “human machine” was one being, “proceeding toward his own willed ends, and becom[ing] finally the servant of machines” (Janik 304). This is a conjecture based on the word choice in which the speaker appears to connect the two concepts as one: “in the world of flash of man / iron gives the deadly wound.” The speaker also blames “the soul of man, when it pivots upon the ego” of its desire for more factories as the most evil being; because of man, machines exist, and because of machines, the man-machine cyborg is created.

Lastly, modernity is heavily criticized in “Work,” (Lawrence 450-451). The first statement outright claims that: “There is no point in work.” Lawrence continues to describe how the manufacturing lifestyle of many workers is draining, and “if it’s never any fun, / don’t do it.” Simple language conveys the straightforward concept that work that does not have meaning is not worthy of its time. Some have referred to this writing as “distressingly flat” and the poems, “if such they may be called,” as not special (Draper 313). However, Lawrence’s word choice is clearly intentional, invoking the sense of a monotonous work-life balance and the problem of innovation in British society. Apparent through his outright statements of disdain, he is heavily critical of the developments since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. His work, while not Romantic, draws similar themes other Romantic poets as well, such as William Wordsworth and William Blake, who objected to the meaningless tasks of mistreated workers.

In contrast to the British laborers of “Work,” the “Hindus” conduct work that is engaging and interesting for them: weaving wool. These people weave for their own benefit, not to serve some greater factory-owner or production quota, but rather to “clothe themselves in white as a tree clothes itself in its own foliage” (Lawrence 451). To Lawrence, that is the ultimate difference between productive tasks and detrimental work. He urges men to unite and “smash the machines,” thereby putting a stop to the rapid expansion of machinery in England. Overall, his poems concerning industrialization and modernity are clear in their Luddite-esque disapproval of the subjugation of workers to a higher force. Through his poems concerning machinery, Lawrence “explores most of the important questions that have perplexed our century… He raises questions about modern society and community, about freedom and constraint,” and more (Squires 3-4). He is able to use articulate and repetitive language to describe the monotonous, menial tasks of factories and the enslavement of his fellow Britons.

Death is a focal point in several of Lawrence’s major poems. As one critic describes, death made a more presentable appearance in his later work as he “tried to break new ground” and begin to combat his “inner struggle to understand and accept death” (Draper 157). In “The Ship of Death,” the speaker describes what it is like to live with the constant knowledge that dying is imminent. The background is set with the description of autumn, a season in which trees die and leaves fall off trees: “Now it is autumn and the falling fruit / and the long journey towards oblivion” (Lawrence 717). Just as leaves fall to the ground slowly and inevitably, so do humans at the end of their lives. Later in the poem, there is another reference to autumn: “our soul cowers naked /… cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life” (Lawrence 718). His seasonal allusions succeed in connecting mankind to nature, showing that we are indeed mortal. People are symbolized through the leaves in the tree, which expectedly die; just as no one attempts to prevent leaves from falling, Lawrence believes that there is little use in trying to avoid dying. This “autumnal imagery enables Lawrence to suggest this ‘natural continuance of the fullness of life’ and to treat of decay [sic] without implying despair” (Draper 159).

Lawrence viewed death as a part of life, which should not be shunned but accepted as regular: “O build your ship of death, for you will need it.” He describes a situation in which death surrounds him, perhaps as the speaker becomes self-aware of his friends and family dying as they age. It is important to note that he still views dying as “long and painful,” but nonetheless believes that tragedy comes to all (Lawrence 718). As the poem progresses, the speaker becomes more aware of the life-death dichotomy, soon “resign[ing] himself to death… [and] welcom[ing] it as a harbinger of future adventures in his soul’s transformation” (Eisenstein 149). It is this transformation that makes this poem unique, for it tells a story. The poem can be read as a miniature epic saga, telling the tale of a tragic hero who is lost at sea and faces his impending demise. Some critics believe that it was possible the poem was meant to be longer if it was not for, ironically, Lawrence’s own death (Eisenstein 307). Regardless, the poem has qualities indicative of a tragic hero faced with an unknown future.

In addition, “We are dying, we are dying” is repeated, which represents the death of more people as time progresses. In the section VII, the longest, the speaker comes to the realization that he is close to dying himself. He has a strange feeling of emptiness at the beginning, but soon this apprehension is met with acknowledgement of his fate: “There is no port, there is nowhere to go /… Nowhere!” (Lawrence 719). The speaker then elaborates on his inability to control the course his ship is set on, as if he is caught in a storm: “upon the sea of death /… we cannot steer, and have no port” (Lawrence 719). However, this bleak future for the speaker is not met with fear or anxiety, but rather acceptance as part of the “voyage of the soul” (Eisenstein 154).

Throughout “The Ship of Death,” there is continual emphasis placed on the nothingness to which the deceased enter because, for Lawrence, it is not only death itself that is inevitable but the constant emptiness and oblivion of the post-mortem world. This epistemological crisis of not knowing when or by what means a death may occur may render some frightened; however, Lawrence urges the reader to ignore what is inevitable. (This is a contrast to his prior call to “smash the machines in “Work,” which was written much earlier in his life. Lawrence’s evolutionary thought process is shown through his changing opinions on death as he ages). Finally, the poem concludes with a bleak reminder to build the ship, “For the voyage of oblivion awaits you” (Lawrence 720). Overall, the passage conveys a deep sense of awareness for the mortality of man. It seems that the grim outlook on life is not truly an end-all scenario, but rather a journey or odyssey of continual soundlessness and darkness; some may argue that dying involves: first death, “then the aloneness of oblivion, and finally the resurrection into touch” (Janik 305). Although the speaker may question his demise (“Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume / A little higher?, Lawrence 720), it is clear that by the end, he has become accepting of the “oblivion.”

Similar sentiments are expressed in another poem of his, “Difficult Death.” He discusses how death is always untimely and will always seems to come too soon. He continues with the metaphor of building “your ship of death,” so as to prepare for the inevitable (Lawrence 721). These poems are typically found in Lawrence’s Last Poems anthology, a posthumous collection of work. Mechanically, they often have no meter or rhyme scheme, which thus help to convey the sense of a chaotic and haphazard end to life. These poems were written near the end of his life, likely as he became more aware of his own death to come. Although the poem may echo the same topic as “The Ship of Death” and reiterates the idea of an “oblivion,” it evokes as well the possibility of something in the afterlife. In a way, this poem is a respite from the gloomy forecast of his other poems of death because it ends with a more positive tone: “Maybe life is still our portion / After the bitter passage of oblivion” (Lawrence 721). Faced with the “voyage of oblivion” mentioned in “The Ship of Death,” the speaker ponders the concept of the “inevitable rebirth” (Lawrence 720; Eisenstein 157). He does not describe what exists in the post-oblivion realm, but the speaker seeks to continue on his voyage on the ship nonetheless.

Lastly, the poem “Bavarian Gentians” is one of Lawrence’s poems about death, and also contains allusions to Greek mythology. Named for the eponymous flowers, he describes the dark color and deep blue color of the plant: “torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze” (Lawrence 697). However, perhaps more significantly, the poem shifts its focus to the Greek goddess Persephone. According to mythology, she was gathering blue and purple flowers when she reached for a particularly beautiful one. When she plucked it, the earth opened up and Pluto took her to the Underworld (Strong). In the same way that Persephone had no control over her desire or descent into hell, mankind has no control over his death. The picking of the flower ultimately symbolizes unexpected deaths in a colorful manner: “down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness” (Lawrence 697). Vibrant imagery is used to describe the flower and the color of the planet Pluto. Also, Lawrence is particularly fond of autumn, the season that is explained through the myth of Persephone; the particular time of year represents the inevitable death, which comes in a regular and expected manner. He seeks to contrast this concept of seasonal inevitability with the death of the speakers in his poems.

Ultimately, “Bavarian Gentians” is a somber poem that describes how the speaker is drawn to such beautiful flowers, even if it may cause his downfall, the way it did for Persephone. As the poem continues, the blue flower turns into complete “torches of darkness,” which represent both Persephone’s disappearance from heaven/earth, and the dark “oblivion” of death as mentioned in “The Ship of Death” (Lawrence 697; Draper 159). However, again the speaker makes it clear that there is no distress or uneasiness of the afterlife; Lawrence makes the poem appear as if everything was supposed to happen, and that there was no unexpected twist or turn of events. Much like the way humans should interpret death, he sought to leave not a feeling of discomfort, but rather of an acknowledgement of unavoidable death. One notable aspect of the piece is that it does not conclude with much of a distinct ending, but rather simply an acknowledgement of Persephone’s stay in the Underworld: “among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom” (Lawrence 697). Without much of a “journey’s end,” Lawrence intends to have the reader feel that there is “nowhere to go… [the poem] is therefore not to be channelled through orderly prose syntax,” but rather unrhymed schemes of unequal stanza lengths (Draper 198). Lawrence utilizes macabre word choice, unrhymed and unmetered stanzas, and Greek mythological allusions in order to convey his thoughts on death.

Interestingly, Lawrence combined the themes of undesirable innovation and untimely death in his poem, “The Mills of God,” in which he predicts the fall of man as the machines rise to power: “The mills of God will grind them small, anyhow, there is no escape” (Lawrence 614). In an almost unphased tone, the speaker states that there is little anyone can do to prevent the further industrialization of the city. He alludes to another poem of his, “Man and Machine,” in which he mentions how “Man invented the machine / so now the machine has invented man” (Lawrence 641). The dismal state of the dystopian future, however, is not a reason for alarm, for he believes that the worst is inevitable. Some literary critics see Lawrence’s use of death, a means through which workers can escape the suffering and “find redemption,” as one that stresses the inescapability of the rise of the machines (Lockwood 173). This sombre perception of the life worth living echoes prior sentiments of the machines that will lead to the end of humanity, as Lawrence predicts.

Similarly, in “We Die Together,” Lawrence again reveals the expansion of factories as “the industrial millions,” which plague the countryside. The speaker of the poem questions whether he is dead, or if he has turned into a machine. In combining elements of both themes, Lawrence later reveals that the speaker is “wrapped in the lead of a coffin-lining, the living death of my fellow men” (Lawrence 629-630). It is apparent that, because of the speaker’s role in society and with other machines, he feels not complete death, but a “living death,” where the person is still alive but simply a cog in the industrial machine—easily replaceable and essentially without human-like qualities—and in which he bears the full weight of the “plight of industrial civilization” (Lockwood 183). Another critic describes the bleakness of the situation, in which mankind has become so engrossed in societal dependencies on machinery. It is as if “iron is sunk deep into [the] modern man” (Jones 193). This tone combines the sentiments expressed in much of Lawrence’s earlier writings; Lawrence expounds upon the hopelessness of attempting to fight back against the machines, and the ultimate inevitability of a “living death.”

Through his literary work and poetry, D.H. Lawrence expressed his criticism of the British modernization reflected in the use of factories and his epistemological interpretation of death. These concepts are expressed through his work in numerous poems, both rhymed and unrhymed, that embody his personal beliefs. Through a literary analysis of such works, it is possible to interpret Lawrence’s anecdotal comments on modernity and dying, and the combination of the two simultaneously, in order to better understand his outlook on the future.

Additional Reading

Similar themes of industrialization are discussed in “Murderous Weapons,” which the weapons of mass destruction (at the time) are “guns and strong explosives / … poison gases and air-bombs,” of which he was heavily critical, “Let Us Be Men,” where he denounces men who act as “monkeys minding machines /… Monkeys with a bland grin on our faces” and “Wages,” in which the desire to earn more is a continual “circle” of “vicious competition,” and he sarcastically denotes the concepts of capitalistic society that urges a “universal freedom” (Lawrence 450-451, 450, 521). Secondly, death is a focal point of numerous other pieces, including “Future Religion,” which expounds upon death and loneliness, and “Shadows,” which alludes to his prior poems on the concept of “oblivion” (Lawrence 611; Lawrence 726-727).

Works Cited

Coleman, D.C. Myth, History and the Industrial Revolution. London: The Hambledon Press, 1992. Web.

Delany, Paul. “Lawrence and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit.” The Challenge of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Michael Squires and Keith Cushman. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Web.

Delavenay, Émile. D.H. Lawrence: The Man and His Work. Transl. Katharine M. Delavenay. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Print.

Draper, Ronald P. D.H. Lawrence. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964. Print.

Eisenstein, Samuel A. Boarding the Ship of Death: D.H. Lawrence’s Quester Heroes. Paris: Mouton, 1974. Print.

Janik, Del Ivan. “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Future Religion’; The Unity of Last Poems.The Critical Response to D.H. Lawrence. Ed. Jan Pilditch. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. 297-310. Print.

Jones, Bethan. The Last Poems of D.H. Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Web.

Lockwood, M.J. A Study of the Poems of D.H. Lawrence: Thinking in Poetry. London: Macmillan Press, 1987. Print.

Squires, Michael. “Introduction.” The Challenge of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Michael Squires and Keith Cushman. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. Web.

Strong, Laura. “The Myth of Persephone: Greek Goddess of the Underworld.” Mythic Arts. Web.

Van Doren, Mark. “Mark Van Doren in New York Herald Tribune Books: 15 December 1929.” D.H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage. Ed. R.P. Draper. London: Routledge, 1997. Web.

Major Poems Analyzed

Lawrence, D.H. “Work.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 450-451. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “The North Country.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 148-149. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “What Then is Evil?.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 712-713. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “The Ship of Death.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 716-720. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “Difficult Death.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 720-721. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “Bavarian Gentians.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 697. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “The Mills of God.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 614. Print.

Lawrence, D.H. “We Die Together.” The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence. Eds. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. London: Heinemann, 1964. 629-630. Print.

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