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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.

Contents

VII The Environment

It is an essential feature of the text that the environment should not be a mere background, but should seem to be informed with a covert and in some respects hostile animation. The human actors encounter the dispiriting shapes of non-human presences.

The first phase of the text is largely devoted to the establishment of a sense of the environment as a psychic shadow-partner to the human world and here the descriptive modifier is a pervasive device: the ribbed level (5-6), a large bony vine (7), ragged cabbages (12), dishevelled pink chrysanthemums (13). There is a shadowy anthropomorphism in these constructions, a suggestion of the skeleton (ribbed, bony), of poor clothing (ragged), of neglected appearance (dishevelled). The environment lives a depressed and impoverished exis-tence, like its occupants. A feeling of resignation is implicit in the very sentence-structure e.g. in the 'existential' sentence There were some twiggy apple-trees, etc. (11) and in the sentences with 'fronted' place adjuncts and intransitive verbs (grew, hung) which suggest 'state' rather than 'event' (see Leech, 1971: 5). Only in one powerful instance (A large bony vine clutched at the house, etc., 7) do sentence-structure and verb-type project a sense of agency and volition.

A skilful feature of the style here is that the constructions quoted above, with their shifted, metaphor-making collocations, are set among other premodified noun-phrases where there is little or no metaphoric intent, e.g. a low cottage (6), the bricked yard (9), a few wintry primroses (9), the long garden (10), a bush-covered brook course (10), some twiggy apple-trees (11), the felt-covered fowl-house (15). These constructions are purely descriptive; the metaphor- hearing phrases lurk among them and in a way are natural extensions of them there is, after all, a descriptive similarity between bony vine and twiggy apple-tree.

A related point is that the supremely symbolic chrysanthemums are also made to 'lurk' in the general hyponymy of vegetation which includes the wintry primroses, the bushes by the brook, the apple- trees, the winter-crack trees, the cabbages and, a little later in the text, the raspberry canes. At a first encounter, the chrysanthemums are seemingly no more than neglected flowers in a straggly and soured garden. If it were not for the title of the story, we might pay no particular attention to them. There is, however, a further stylistic focus upon them, a device of presentation which they share with the vine and the raspberry canes. All three items (vine, chrysanthemums, raspberry canes) are marked in the text by subordinate or complementary constructions with like or as if: as if to claw down the tiled roof (8), like pink cloths hung on bushes (13-14), like whips (32).

In the first and last of these instances, the focus is powerfully sharpened by the inclusion in the construction of verbs or nouns with antagonistic or punitive connotations ('clutched', 'claw', 'whips'). There are fairly obvious reasons for this heavy stylistic underscoring. The image of the bony, clutching vine marks the beginning of a description of the cottage, the garden, and the two actors; from the outset a note of hostility and struggle is sounded. The stylistic emphasis is thus related to the general structure of the text. Similarly, the allusion to the raspberry canes makes the point that the child lives against a background of hostility; to some extent the plants symbolise the environment he has to contend with, and to some extent they express the character of his relationship with his parents. It may be noted incidentally that this is another point in the text at which there is an 'intersection' of structural elements, that is, of the description of the environment which mainly occupies the opening and closing phases of the passage, and the encounter of personalities which constitutes the central phase (cf. the allusion to the engine in 40, and my comment on this).

The initial reference to the chrysanthemums (hung . . . like pink cloths hung on bushes, 13-14) is not quite so emphatically underscored; indeed, there is a gesture of ineffectuality both in the simile itself and in the apparently flaccid repetition of hung. The reference is marked, if we are alert to it, but not so strongly marked that we cannot he distracted by other matters. Strength of allusion is postponed until the flowers are referred to a second time, after a human encounter, when the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums (47-8) assume something like a personality. Common collocations of ragged and wisps 'ragged clothes', 'wisps of hair' suggest this to the reader and perhaps suggest also a pathetic contrast with the earlier description of the woman, whose smooth black hair was parted exactly (18-19).

© Walter Nash
February 2010

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