Go to the home page for Odour of Chrysanthemums, a text in process

Critical materials: 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'

From Keith Cushman, D. H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories (University Press of Virginia, 1978), 47-76. We are very grateful to Professor Cushman for permission to republish this piece.


English Review June 1911

The ending of the version of the story published in the June 1911 issue of the English Review is badly overwritten. Lawrence was able to rise superbly to the occasion when a passage of carefully wrought descriptive prose was required, such as at the beginning of the story. But he did not come close to sustaining an extensive purple passage about life and death:

Life with its smoky burning gone from him, had left a purity and a candour like an adolescent's moulded upon his reverie. His intrinsic beauty was evident now. She had not been mistaken in him, as often she had bitterly confessed to herself she was. The beauty of his youth, of his eighteen years, of the time when life had settled on him, as in adolescence it settles on youth, bringing a mission to fulfill and equipment therefore, this beauty shone almost unstained again. (ER 432).

The key passage at the height of Mrs. Bates's reverie goes entirely awry:

It was this adolescent 'he', the young man looking round to see which way, that Elizabeth had loved. He had come from the discipleship of youth, through the Pentecost of adolescence, pledged to keep with honour his own individuality, to be steadily and unquenchably himself, electing his own masters and serving them till the wages were won. He betrayed himself in his search for amusement. Let Education teach us to amuse ourselves, necessity will train us to work. Once out of the pit, there was nothing to interest this man. He sought the public-house, where, by paying the price of his own integrity, he found amusement: destroying the clamours for activity, because he knew not what form the activities might take. The miner turned miscreant to himself, easing the ache of dissatisfaction by destroying the part of him which ached. Little by little the recreant maimed and destroyed himself.

It was this recreant his wife had hated so bitterly, had fought against so strenuously. She had strove, all the years of his falling off, had strove with all her force to save the man she had known new-bucklered with beauty and strength. In a wild and bloody passion she fought the recreant. Now this lay killed, the clean young knight was brought home to her. (ER 432)

The diction is inflated throughout. In particular, such details as 'the discipleship of youth', the uppercase 'e' on 'Education', and the man 'new-bucklered with beauty and strength' call unfortunate attention to themselves. This is the sort of language Lawrence uses to undercut characters in such stories as 'Goose Fair' and 'A Modern Lover', but here there is no irony.

Even more curious is the sudden lapse into sociological disquisition on the fate of the poor collier. Lawrence is intent on explaining the hard lot of Mr. Bates in generalized terms. He mentioned his difficulty with the ending in the letter to Louie of 2 April 1911, just after he had finished revising the earlier proofs: 'It has taken me such a long time to write these last two pages of the story. You have no idea how much delving it requires to get that deep into cause & effect' (LL 91). The decision to try to go 'deep into cause & effect' is especially disastrous at the end of a story in which Lawrence had labored so valiantly to maintain unity of tone and mood and to keep himself out of the narrative. Perhaps he switched to the abstractness of this passage because of his closeness to its materials. Given Lawrence's ambiguous feelings toward the father contained in Mr. Bates, perhaps the easy way out was here the only way out. Instead of staying within the terms of the story, he goes outside it to preach a little sermon over the fate of the British collier. In an effort not to judge the father figure, he judges instead the system that produced him.

The sociological intrusion is not the only element contributing to the meaning of this version of the story. Sociology or no, the ending still sides with Mrs. Bates, who 'had strove with all her force to save the man she had known'. There is also a lesson to be learned in mother love:

When they arose, saw him lying in the reckless dignity of death, both women bowed in primeval awe, while the tears of motherhood rose in each. For a few moments they stood religiously silent. Then the mother-feeling prevailed. Elizabeth knelt down, put her arms round him, laid her cheek on his breast. He was still warm, for the mine was hot where he had died. His mother had his face between her hands, and was murmuring incoherently. (ER 430-31)

'Odour of Chrysanthemums' is a story about the basic relationships of mankind. This is one of the reasons the collier's mother plays such an important role. Unfortunately, Lawrence seems to be writing about the fundamental human relationships at a time when he has insufficient experience of some of them. The emphasis on Mrs. Bates's 'mother-feeling' for the man who has been her husband and by whom she has had two children seems psychologically questionable. The passage I have quoted is Mrs. Bates's first reaction, coming immediately after she and the mother have stripped the body. Even if maternal feelings might be mixed into Mrs. Bates's stunned response, one would expect them to be subordinate to her feelings as a wife.

This psychological detail is by no means inexplicable however. At this time Lawrence had been through the long, painfully frustrating relationship with Jessie, which he had broken off in November 1910, just before the death of his mother. His relationship with Louie Burrows was at its height. Louie, the prototype of Ursula in The Rainbow, was much more passionate and full-blooded, but she too had a 'churchy' (Collected Letters 90) background and a strict 'code of manners' (LL 146) that caused him a great deal of frustration. In the spring of 1911 he had had no experience of a complete, continuing relationship with a woman. Indeed he was so within his mother's grip that during her lifetime he was unable to establish a satis-factory relationship with any other woman. As his mother lay dying, Lawrence wrote Louie, then his fiancée: 'So if I do not seem happy with the thought of you—you will understand. I must feel my mother's hand slip out of mine before I can really take yours. She is my first, great love' (LL 56-57). After his mother's death, Lawrence was seriously ill throughout most of 1911. He later spoke of the year as his 'sick year': 'I was twenty-five, and from the death of my mother, the world began to dissolve around me. . .' (Rejected preface to collected Poems, see Phoenix 253).

Lawrence had finished the original version of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' by December 1909. His mother died a year later. When Lawrence revised the proofs of the story in the early spring of 1911 to prepare the tale for magazine publication, he had had no experience of conjugal love, but he had experienced an excess of motherly love. Mrs. Bates kneels to embrace her dead husband with the 'mother- feeling' prevailing.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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