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.


The Rainbow

There is one other corpse-washing scene in Lawrence's early fiction. It is found in the 'Marsh and the Flood' chapter of The Rainbow, one of the many passages in Lawrence that shows his debt to The Mill on the Floss. Tom Brangwen has been drowned. His wife Lydia and his daughter Anna confront his dead body:

Almost in horror, she began to take the wet things from him, to pull off him the incongruous market-clothes of a well-to-do farmer. The children were sent away to the Vicarage, the dead body lay on the parlour floor, Anna quickly began to undress him, laid his fob and seals in a wet heap on the table. Her husband and the woman helped her. They cleared [sic] and washed the body, and laid it on the bed.

There, it looked still and grand. He was perfectly calm in death, and, now he was laid in line, inviolable, unapproachable. To Anna, he was the majesty of the inaccessible male, the majesty of death. It made her still and awe-stricken, almost glad.

Lydia Brangwen, the mother, also came and saw the impressive, inviolable body of the dead man. She went pale, seeing death. He was beyond change or knowledge, absolute, laid in line with the infinite. What had she to do with him? He was a majestic Abstraction, made visible now for a moment, inviolate, absolute. And who could lay claim to him, who could speak of him, of the him who was revealed in the stripped moment of transit from life into death? Neither the living nor the dead could claim him, he was both the one and the other, inviolable, inaccessibly himself.

'I shared life with you, I belong in my own way to eternity,' said Lydia Brangwen, her heart cold, knowing her own singleness.

'I did not know you in life. You are beyond me, supreme now in death,' said Anna Brangwen, awe-stricken, almost glad. (R 247-48)

This version of the corpse-washing scene essentially duplicates the attitudes expressed in the conclusion of the final version of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. In death Tom is unapproachable, and his wife feels her own singleness. The short scene in The Rainbow is definitely inferior to the ending of the story. Its awkward diction and its brevity are part of the problem: such a confrontation should be highly charged emotionally, but Lawrence has not even bothered to polish or develop it. In fact most of the emotional content of the scene in the story is absent here, and instead we have the feelings of the women presented almost intellectually. The conceptualization of the passage in the novel is the same as that found in the ending of the tale, but in the novel there is too long a string of adjectives without relation to the feelings of the women. Tom is 'inviolable', 'inviolate', 'unapproachable', 'inaccessible', 'inaccessibly himself', and 'absolute'. The dead Walter Bates is just as inviolable and absolute, but these qualities are rendered dramatically. The dead Tom is simply a 'majestic Abstraction'. The speeches (presumably interior monologues emanating from somewhere deeper than 'the old stable ego—of the character') of the mother and daughter only serve to underscore the abstractness of the scene.

The story of Tom and Lydia was the last section to be added to The Rainbow (see mark Kinkead-Weeks, 'The Marble and the Statue: The Exploratory Imagination of D. H. Lawrence' in Imagined Worlds: Essays on English Novels and Novelists in Honour of John Butt, ed., Ian Gregor and Maynard Mack (London, 1968), 384). It seems fairly obvious that the revised 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' came before this little scene. The brevity of the scene and the stiffness and abstractness of its language suggest that Lawrence had already worked out the situation to his satisfaction when he revised 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' for book publication and that he simply borrowed the same insights, written out sketchily, when he needed the same scene for his novel. The pressure of emotional urgency can be felt behind all the earlier renderings, but once he had at last gotten the scene 'right' in the story, he was able to make almost casual use of it in the novel.

Of greater interest, however, is the closeness in feeling and concept between the first section of The Rainbow and the final version of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'. The marriage of Tom and Lydia Brangwen, like that of Walter and Elizabeth Bates, is a study in human isolation. The basic insight of the final version of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums' is closely related to a main theme of The Rainbow, and of course they share the same sort of narrative intensity. The final confrontation of the story presents a vision of human relationship very reminiscent of that depicted in the life of Tom Brangwen and the Polish lady he marries. Tom and Lydia's story has much in common with the revised version of the tale. Lawrence learned how to write about Tom and Lydia Brangwen by writing about Walter Bates and his proud wife.

Throughout their lives, the relationship between Tom and Lydia is marked by their separateness. Tom waits for something in his life to happen to him until one day he sees a strange woman passing. 'Her face was pale and clear, she had thick dark eyebrows and a wide mouth, curiously held. He saw her face so distinctly, that he ceased to coil on himself, and was suspended. 'That's her,' he said involuntarily' (R 23-24). Tom does not know her. In marrying her he does not know her. In their marriage he never comes to know her.
Mrs. Lensky's foreign origin serves to underscore her apartness. When Tom sees her in church, he is struck by 'the foreign woman with a foreign air about her, inviolate, and the strange child, also foreign, jealously guarding something' (R 28). After church 'he became aware of the woman looking at him, standing there isolated yet for him dominant in her foreign existence' (R 28). As for Lydia, 'she saw him fresh and naive, uncouth, almost entirely beyond relationship with her' (R 31). 'She did not know him. He was a foreigner, they had nothing to do with each other' (R 32).

When Tom goes on a windy March night to ask Lydia to marry him, in one sense it is Lawrence replaying the marriage of his father and mother all over again. Even more deeply, however, he is acting out in fiction his marriage to Frieda: 'All these things were only words to him, the fact of her superior birth, the fact that her husband had been a brilliant doctor, the fact that he himself was her inferior in almost every way of distinction' (R 36). It is no accident that a single fictional situation has its roots in both the marriage of Lawrence's parents and of Lawrence himself, for when the collier's son eloped with the baron's daughter, he was re-enacting the marriage of his parents in an extreme form. With this in mind, it is not surprising to learn the ages of Tom and Lydia at marriage:

'But I am much older than you,' she said. 'How old?' he asked.
'I am thirty-four,' she said.
'I am twenty-eight,' he said.
'Six years.' (R 41)

In the spring of 1914 Lawrence was twenty-eight and Frieda was thirty-four. Apparently one of the lessons he was to learn in their first years together was one of separateness. This is the lesson of the first section of The Rainbow as well as of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'.
As Tom approaches the house of the woman he has come to court, he looks through the window and sees Lydia in a rocking chair before the fire, with her little daughter sitting on her knee. 'Then he heard the low, monotonous murmur of a song in a foreign language' (R 38). He feels cut off from her: this haunting image of human isolation helps establish the framework for the meeting of Tom and Lydia. A highly charged, moving scene ends with the decision that they will marry. The language at the end of the chapter is curious language for the description of a betrothal, but it is in perfect accord with the level of emotional and artistic development that Lawrence had reached. It is also precisely the language of 'Odour of Chrysanthemums': 'They were such strangers, they must for ever be such strangers, that his passion was a clanging torment to him. Such intimacy of embrace, and such utter foreignness of contact! It was unbearable. He could not bear to be near her, and know the utter foreignness between them, know how entirely they were strangers to each other' (R 44).

Of course there is a crucial distinction to be drawn. The separateness in the Tom-Lydia relationship produces, at its best, a richly creative and fulfilling—though finally mysterious—harmony, whereas Elizabeth Bates's pride and willfulness break the male-female polarity and destroy her marriage. Tom doesn't know Lydia socially but 'knows' her intimately in the unknown; Walter Bates doesn't know his wife at all. Nevertheless, my point holds: the emergent idea of separateness, expressed in remarkably similar language, is central to both novel and story.

This idea is not an isolated one in Lawrence's career. The 'double measure' that George Ford finds in Lawrence — his impulse toward communion, his impulse toward isolation — has its roots in the fiction from the beginning, but it comes to fruition only with Frieda (see George H. Ford, Double Measure: A Study of the novels and Stories of D.H. Lawrence (new York, 1965)). Many of the characteristic Lawrentian beliefs crystallize in the late revisions of the Prussian Officer stories and in the writing of The Rainbow.

Ursula must reject the mechanical Skrebensky in The Rainbow because he is not able to lead her into the unknown, even though she has no conception of the sort of relationship she must wait for. Rupert Birkin arrives in Women in Love in the midst of a crumbling civilization with his concept of star-polarity, and he and Ursula leave for the Mediterranean at the end of the novel. Star-polarity has as one of its bases the knowledge and acceptance of man's essential isolation. With the advent of Frieda, Lawrence was able to shake off the incubus of his past. He gained an inner self-assurance and achieved a rare emotional equilibrium. By May 1913 he was writing that his marriage was 'the best I have known, or ever shall know' (Collected Letters 207). At the same time he quickly realized that he and Frieda remained two separate individuals. Marriage was a sort of creative tension, and the moments of stillness were rare.

Only with the concrete experience of a complete adult relationship was Lawrence able to build a mature love ethic. The cornerstone of star-polarity is the isolation intrinsic in the human condition. Man must retain his own individuality and separateness, says Birkin —knowing full well that man has no choice. Man and woman must come together for renewal, for in love they partake of, and are in harmony with, the vital energies of the cosmos. But then they must separate and walk proud in their own fierce isolation.

'Odour of Chrysanthemums' has long been considered one of Lawrence's finest tales, but only a few critics have fully appreciated its implications. A study of the successive revisions of the original story—in connection with Lawrence's biography— allows us to date with some precision the moment a central Lawrentian belief assumed its mature form. The culmination of the story is one of the starting points for the Lawrence of The Rainbow, Women in Love, and the 1920s.

© Keith Cushman
February 2010

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