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Critical materials: On a Passage from Lawrence's 'Odour of Chrysanthemums'

From Walter Nash, Language and Literature: An Introductory Reader in Stylistics, ed., Ron Carter (George Allen and Unwin, 1982), pp. 100-120. We would like to thank Walter Nash and Ron Carter for permission to republish this article.


II Setting: Symmetry and Perspective

An eminent feature of this passage is the symmetry of its scenic arrangement; it begins and ends with the lively bustle of the little engine and the silent, shadowy 'passing' of the miners. The engine appears first in 1, the miners following in 4-5, while at the end of the text the miners reappear in 58 and the engine in 59. The inversion (engine-miners/miners-engine) seems to suggest that industry has the first and last word; machines have greater vitality than human beings. (The engine is of course mentioned at one other point - in 40-1 - but the reference is made in direct speech, and is not an element in the general pattern of scenic description.)

Within this frame other symmetries are incorporated. Thus, in 6 the cottage 'squats' three steps down from the cinder track, while in 56-7 a woman and a boy (two of the inhabitants of the cottage) are seen standing at the foot of the three steps. There is another striking example of symmetrical recursion in the dishevelled pink chrysanthemums of 13-14, which reappear as the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums in 48. These two phrases occur at almost exactly correspondent points in relationship to the beginning and end of the text. By line 14, indeed, the scene is set, and we return to it, after the presentation of the actors, in 47ff. Its elements, and their placing in the text, may be recapitulated thus: engine (1) - miners (4-5) - steps (6) - chrysanthemums (13-14)/ /chrysanthemums (48) - steps (57) - miners (58) - engine (59).

The layout plots a simple scheme of movement, from the railway line to the house to the garden, where the central encounter between the woman and the boy takes place, and so from the garden back to the house and the railway line; a tour in the course of which attention is carefully drawn to the chrysanthemums that figure in the title and symbolise the theme of the narrative. Throughout the text, shifts in perspective are marked by the occurrence of constructions (mainly adjuncts) indicating a position or direction. Some place adjuncts - for example, past the house (59), opposite the gate (60) - look forward to another scene, but the majority relate to the staging of the current action: At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings (5), Round the bricked yard (8), Beyond (9), Beside the path (12), towards the brook course (21), before the raspberry canes (31), towards the house (47), at the foot of the three steps (56).

The position of these elements in their respective sentences is of some relevance to the structure of the text as a whole. The first four of the quoted instances make a well-defined group; as their typography indicates, each of them occurs at the beginning of a sentence. The second paragraph, in which these examples occur, is in effect a set of stage directions - a register in which the 'fronted' place adjunct is not uncommon. There is, however, a further stylistic point. The effect of this positioning is to create a powerful end-focus on the scenic elements in the sentences concerned - for example, on the low cottage, the few wintry primroses, the dishevelled pink chrysanthemums. The adjuncts thus point to features of landscape which constitute not only a background imagery but also a source of feeling, in that they condition the reader's responses to the text.

In the remaining examples the place adjuncts have receded to a post-verbal position where as a rule they merely specify the location or direction of a movement on the part of one or other of the actors. The focus is now on people, on humanity depressed and struggling, rather than on the vegetation that so compellingly symbolises the depression and the struggle. The place adjuncts lose something of their dynamic importance and become mere labels of position. In one instance (and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path, 48-9) this softening of emphasis is particularly noticeable; the place adjunct along the path occurs after, and is in a sense subordinate to, the process in handfuls. The latter is involved in the emotive energy of tore at and dropped in a way that the former is not. These differences in the positioning and semantic implication of the place adjuncts are by no means fortuitous. They are symptomatic of a deliberate shift of emphasis, further discussed below, from environmental colouring to human response.

© Walter Nash
February 2010

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