Saturday, June 01, 2013

A cowscape without cows

In The Guardian last week Blake Morrison wrote an appreciation of Sons and Lovers, marking the hundredth anniversary of its publication.  My failure over the years to derive much pleasure from Sons and Lovers and Lawrence's other novels had until recently put me off reading Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer's account of his failure to write a book about D. H. Lawrence.  This was a mistake though, because apart from being very amusing, Out of Sheer Rage includes two memorable and contrasting descriptions of the English landscape.  One is by Lawrence himself, in a letter to his hostess at Garsington Manor, Ottoline Morrell - a piece of writing described by Dyer as 'a synthesis in prose of Blake, Constable and Turner'.  Its structure reminded me slightly of the accumulative imagery I described here recently in relation to Francis Ponge: 'each paragraph pulses into life from the seed of the preceding one; each version enters more deeply into the experience.'  I won't quote the whole text (which can be read in Herbert Read's anthology The English Vision) but two paragraphs should give you an idea:
    the wet lawn drizzled with brown sodden leaves; the feathery heap of the ilex tree; the garden-seat all wet and reminiscent:
     between the ilex tree and the bare, purplish elms, a gleaming segment of all England, the dark plough-land and wan grass, and the blue, hazy heap of the distance, under the accomplished morning.
Sadly such accomplished mornings are rarely encountered and here is Dyer, bad tempered (as so often in this book) after a dispiriting pilgrimage to Lawrence's birthplace at Eastwood, looking for the ruins of Haggs farm that featured in Sons and Lovers.
I couldn't find this farm but I stopped the car and looked across the fields, taking in that grazing English countryside I have never cared for: mud, tractor marks, hedgerows, scrubby land, brambles.  A scene which generated its own weather, which dragged the sky down to its own level.  A cowscape without cows.  A BSE landscape.  Farm weather: everything damp and giving off a dank sense that it had never dried out, would never dry out except in recollection, except in memory ... The puddles by the roadside offered no reflection: the water was too old for that, was no longer sensitive to light.  There was no wind: it was so still you wondered how the trees dispensed with their leaves.  Did these trees ever have leaves, or did they just grow like that?  Every now and then there was a break of birds from one bare tree to the next.  The sky was moving towards rain.  I felt cramped, hemmed-in, as if I were still indoors: a desolate, wall-less version of the indoors where the sky was a low, damp ceiling that leaked.  It was not just the rain.  The sea was seeping up through the foundations, coming through the earth.

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