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  • D. H. Lawrence's Mother as Sleeping Beauty:The "Still Queen" of His Poems and Fictions

        A queen, they'll say,Has slept unnoticed on a forgotten hill.Sleeps on unknown, unnoticed there, until        Dawns my insurgent day.

—"On That Day," New Poems (1918)

To the demon, the past is not past.

—MS: Discarded Foreward to Collected Poems (1928)(Printed in Appendix I of Complete Poems II 850).


D. H. Lawrence's deep and painful love for his mother is one of the best known facts of literary biography. He was himself utterly candid about its nature and effects, writing to Rachel Annand Taylor as Mrs. Lawrence lay dying in 1910, "We have loved each other, almost with a husband and wife love, as well as filial and maternal. We knew each other by instinct. . . . It has been rather terrible, and has made me, in some respects, abnormal" (Collected Letters I 69). Readers of Sons and Lovers and the powerful elegies and mother poems for Lydia Beardsall Lawrence may surmise how fervently her son hoped by writing them both to "shed [End Page 195] his [oedipal] sickness"1 and to pay her a lasting tribute. The young Lawrence acknowledged his mother as muse, fostering his writing and painting. He knew that, perhaps because of her anguished attachment to him, she had opened his ears to life's secrets. Comparing her to the Holy Ghost in his poem "The Inheritance," he declared that her own ghost had "sent [him] a cloven fire / Out of death." It consecrated him to art.

        [You] left me a giftOf tongues, so the shadows tellMe things, and the silences tossMe their drift.

After the publication of moving portraits of her in Sons and Lovers (1913), Love Poems (1913), Amores (1916), and New Poems (1918), Lawrence let it be thought that the spell cast upon him by his mother's image had been broken. Thus, in his Preface to Complete Poems (1928), which appeared two years before he died, he explained that "the crisis of volume I is the death of the mother, with the long haunting of death in life" (Complete Poems 28). Conceding the presence of poems for Lydia Lawrence even in the sequence written for his wife Frieda, Look! We Have Come Through, he nevertheless declared that thereafter there was "a big break" in theme, "a new cycle" (Complete Poems 28). His words promoted the critical notion—still extant—that "after he had shaken off his mother-attachment by writing Sons and Lovers, he "grew 'into a separate existence which cannot be interpreted in terms of Mrs. Lawrence' " (Fr. William Tiverton, quoted in Moore 52).

Lawrence scholars disagree on the subject of Lawrence's absorption in his mother, either in life or in art, during his later career.2 My own view is that Lawrence's oedipal fascination persisted and that he wrote about his mother with open passion or with a malice born of it until he died. I am not, however, primarily concerned in this essay with establishing the endurance of Lawrence's oedipal feeling or with studying its broader psychological forms of expression in the fictions, for that has been done most persuasively already by scholars such as Daniel Weiss,3 Graham Hough, and Judith Ruderman. [End Page 196]

Instead, I should like to analyze Lawrence's repeated use of a trope from folklore to express complex feelings about his mother: the tale (and central image) of Sleeping Beauty from the Grimms' story "Briar Rose." It came to him not only by fond reading of Grimm (and probably Perrault) but also, doubtless, through the popular Victorian tradition of Sleeping Beauty paintings and poems with which, as a young "Pagan" student of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, Lawrence was familiar. I shall argue here that Lawrence chose to treat his mother as a Sleeping Beauty for both emotional and artistic reasons; that in thus rendering her story, he began to shape his philosophy of the "baptism of fire in passion" (Sons and Lovers 318) necessary for true human fulfillment; and that the haunting image of Lydia Lawrence, asleep on...


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