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Poem of the week: Grey Evening by DH Lawrence | DH Lawrence


Grey Evening

When you went, how was it you carried with you
My missal book of fine, flamboyant Hours?
My book of turrets and of red-thorn bowers,
And skies of gold, and ladies in bright tissue?

Now underneath a blue-grey twilight, heaped
Beyond the withering snow of the shorn fields
Stands rubble of stunted houses; all is reaped
And trodden that the happy summer yields.

Now lamps like yellow echoes glimmer among
The shadowy stubble of the under-dusk;
As farther off the scythe of night is swung
Ripe little stars come rolling from their husk.

And all the earth is gone into a dust
Of greyness mingled with a fume of gold,
Timeless as branching lichens, pale as must,
Since all the sky has withered and gone cold.

And so I sit and scan the book of grey,
Feeling the shadows like a blind man reading,
All fearful lest I find the last words bleeding:
Nay, take this weary Book of Hours away.

A “Book of Hours’” depicting “turrets”, “red-thorn bowers” and “ladies in bright tissue” – can such images really belong to a poem by DH Lawrence? Grey Evening first appeared in the 1916 collection, Amores. Some of the pieces in his first collection, Love Poems and Others (1912), are less concerned with static images, more freely constructed. In many ways Grey Evening a traditional love lyric. At times, its lapidary quality reflects the medieval Book of Hours which provides its central metaphor.

The “missal book” signifies the sense of super-reality created by erotic love. The lover’s presence is felt as mystical experience, a source of ceremony and meaning. It illuminates the hours of a day and the seasons of a year. Absence produces winter, or cannot hold it at bay. The reversal is a dismal mystery, and the first stanza is framed as an abandoned worshipper’s question: “How was it” that the lover carried off the miraculous book? In fact, the question is more strongly phrased than that. The Book was “carried with” the lover: the lover effectively was the book. Interestingly, the rhyme scheme set up here – ABBA (if we concede a rhyme to “with you” and “tissue”) is dropped in favour of ABAB for the subsequent stanzas. I wonder if there’s a Petrarchan association for Lawrence with the first stanza’s scheme, and if the shift has a further symbolic purpose in declaring the withdrawal of the lover.

There are both pastoral and urban elements in the second stanza’s scene-painting of “shorn fields” and the “rubble of stunted houses”. The houses may have fallen into disrepair, or, still standing, are viewed as signs of diminished lives. The description of the snow as “withering” recalls how, in one of the earlier “Schoolmaster” poems, A Snowy Day in School, the young teacher’s mind and his pupils’ vitality were muffled and stifled by the thick and still-falling snow outside the window.

Yellow light further dimmed the classroom in that poem. In Grey Evening, the jaundiced light is from ‘“lamps like yellow echoes”. The image of lamplight was almost a convention among early 20th-century poets, as if it quickened a sense of the sleazy but romantic possibilities of an urban environment. Lawrence does something fresh with it: his lamps are the last gleams of sunset among the “shadowy stubble of the under-dusk”, the sky reflecting the decimation of the “shorn field”. Further energy is wrung out of the metaphor: the night is swung across the sky like a scythe, and “ripe little stars come rolling from their husk”. Here is irrepressible hope of a richer harvest one day, perhaps – and certainly irrepressible poetry.

While “a fume of gold” remains, the earth crumbles into dusty greyness in the next stanza, “timeless as branching lichens” (a fine simile), “pale as must”. We should probably forget that “must”, as grape-must, is an essential ingredient in traditional winemaking. Here, it suggests a once brightly illuminated book faded by mildew. Again, the vitality and weirdness of comparison invigorates Lawrence’s imagination. He perceives, now, the future of a blind man, reading “the book of grey” with his fingers, fearing he may find “the last words bleeding”. The wetness and smell of blood intrude like life-in-death and make tangible the devastation of the lover’s possibly permanent absence.

After that shock to the psyche, the poem can only speak out directly and personally. “Nay, take this weary Book of Hours away” might sound quaintly poetic on account of the “Nay”’, but the word may have other connotations for Lawrence, who had earlier experimented with poems in the Nottinghamshire dialect. It may simply emphasise how plainly and passionately the new, lover-less Book of Hours is rejected.

The poem’s rhyme schemes inevitably produce some degree of closure, but the effect is never stifling. Readers and editors are of course right to value the free-range, brilliantly explorative surge of the later poems such as Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923). The finely observed but more “painterly” Grey Evening will rarely find its way into the popular anthologies. All the same, it expresses the force of Lawrence’s personality: it has original organic life. It may partly imitate “a missal book” but it’s alive with “fine, flamboyant Hours” and the raw melancholy of their loss.



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