Friday, December 17, 2004

D.H. Lawrence--Let's Discuss.

Our next poem is by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930): "When I Went to the Circus." For a short biography of this extraordinary novelist, critic, poet, and painter, click here.

Extra special thanks to Jett who suggested the poem, and when I couldn't find it, typed the whole thing out and sent it to me. Thanks, Jett!


When I went to the circus that had pitched on the waste lot
It was full of uneasy people
Frightened of the bare earth and the temporary canvas
And the smell of horses and other beasts
Instead of merely the smell of man.

Monkeys rode rather grey and wizened
On curly piebald ponies
And the children uttered a little cry--
And dogs jumped through hoops and turned somersaults
And then geese scuttled in in a little flock
And round the ring they went to the sound of the whip
Then doubled, and back, with a funny up-flutter of wings—
And the children suddenly shouted out.

Then came the hush again, like a hush of fear.

The tight-rope lady, pink and blonde and nude-looking, with a few gold spangles
Footed cautiously out on the rope, turned prettily spun round
Bowed, and lifted her foot in her hand, smiled, swung her parasol
To another balance, tripped round, poised, and slowly sank
Her handsome thighs down, down, till she slept her splendid body on the rope.
When she rose, titing her parasol, and smiled at the cautious people
they cheered, but nervously.

The trapeze man, slim and beautiful and like a fish in the air
Swung great curves through the upper space, and came down like a star
--And the people applauded, with hollow, frightened applause.

The elephants, huge and grey, loomed their curved bulk through the dusk
And sat up, taking strange postures, showing the pink soles of their feet
And curling their precious live trunks like ammonites
And moving always with a soft slow precision
As when a great ship moves to anchor.
The people watched and wondered, and seemed to resent the mystery
That lies in the beasts.

Horses, gay horses, swirling round and plaiting
In a long line, their heads laid over each other’s necks;
They were happy, they enjoyed it;
All the creatures seemed to enjoy the game
In the circus, with their circus people.

But the audience, compelled to wonder
Compelled to admire the bright rhythms of moving bodies
Compelled to see the delicate skill of flickering human bodies
Flesh flamey and a little heroic, even in a tumbling clown,
They were not really happy.
There was no gushing response, as there is at the film.

There is so much to do with this poem. Mostly, I am struck by the response of the human beings to the parading, performing animals and humans. They begin “frightened” and “uneasy,” just from the smells of animals and canvas. Children “shout out” when they see the monkeys. There is a “nervous” cheer for the “nude-looking” “tight-rope” lady,” her almost-naked appearance being to primitive or animal-like for the comfort of the audience. The same for the “trapeze man,” who receives “hollow, frightened applause.”

It is striking how the audience is just as uncomfortable with the human acts as they are with the animal acts. It is as if, in the three rings of this circus, animals and humans are on a level playing field, all of them serving the same purpose, which is to parade their trained talents in front of a crowd. The audience senses this “equality” between man and animal, and are forced to consider that they, as human beings, may be just as trained—to applaud in the proper places, and to obey their compulsion to watch the disturbing show.

The stanza with the elephants is the one I find most poignant. The audience watches the elephants “taking strange postures” “with a soft slow precision,” disturbed by the elephant’s talent and ability. The people resent “the mystery / That lies within the beasts.” Why? I believe it goes back to the leveling of animals and people—that elephants are capable of the kind of great beauty and intelligence that only people should be capable of. To be confronted with the idea that they may not be the most significant creatures on the earth, but only one of many—this is what the people resent.

But, in the end, they are still “compelled to wonder… admire… and see” the show, despite how it disturbs them. They don’t responds with enthusiasm however, not the way they would “at the film.” Why? Because a film is not real. You can always leave a movie thinking, “well, that’s just a story, that’s just a movie.” But what these people witnessed was real life confronting them with what is potentially their own insignificance.

Thoughts? Please share!


jett said...

I'll make a couple points. First, I love the phrase "hush of fear". I actually used it one time for something. It's just great.

I think there are two overall themes that stick out here for me and which is why I love this poem. It's probably in my top 3 of all time. First is the theme of our mortality. The people are forced to face it. Those in the audience acknowledge those in the circus who don't mind risking their lives and there's that unease that comes with "yeah, this is real and something could happen." Then realizing we all are mortal.

The other is our place in nature. Humans (for whatever reason) like to think we're 'above it all' but we aren't. Our history is full of that. The earth was flat. The earth was the center was the universe when it's not. Our non-chalant attitude toward the environment etc. The more we learn the more we become uncomfortable with what we learn because in truth we are all just a minute part of nature and it is disturbing when you are forced to accept that. You see this in the circus. Everyone in the audience (except the kids who are too young and Lawrence points this out) is uneasy with that realization. But the trapeeze artists and the handlers etc. learn to accept it. The audience can't. I think we see that in people everyday. Those who never acknowledge that 'this is all we are' as opposed to those that say 'well, that's them'.

Ok, a third point. The film... for me it is what we 'think' life should be as opposed to experiencing first-hand the unpredictability of 'real' living. Playing it safe vs. come what may. How many of us have majored in something, taken a job etc. because it was safe and provided security? An audience seat as opposed to being on the wire where yeah, you might fall off but who really enjoys life more?

I hope that just made sense. The imagery is great in this poem (and like those in the poem I'm envious of that :) and does justice to the overall scheme.

Anonymous said...


Hi. I never saw your comment from a few weeks ago. I was cleaning out comment spam or I might never have seen it. Thanks you for your observations.
I never thought much of Lawrence - his lifestyle impinges and he never had enough talent to overcome that obstacle so here's a little poem as an apology:

The sea is awash with roses O they blow
Upon the land

The still hills fill with their scent
O the hills flow on their sweetness
As on God's hand

O love, it is so little we know of pleasure
Pleasure that lasts as the snow

But the sea is awash with roses O they blow
Upon the land

jett said...

Lawrence didn't have the talent??? You don't have to like his stuff but to say he doesn't have the talent? Give credit where credit is due.

Amy said...

Hi Warchild,

Can you explain what you mean by "his lifestyle impinges?" What about his life do you think was an obstacle to his writing? His bad health? His traveling? His mother? His marriage? Do you think it's a fault that his writing tends to be very autobiographical? I'm curious.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

the last part of the poem is the most important! why was it left out?

When modern people see the carnal body dauntless and flickering gay
playing among the elementsneatly, beyond competition
and displaying no personality
modern people are depressed.

Modern people feel themselves at a disadvantage.
They know they haveno bodies that could play among the elements.
they have only their personalities, that are best seen flat, on the film,
flat personalities in two dimensions, imponderable and touchless.

And they grudge the circus people the swooping gay weight of limbs
that flower in the mere movement, and they grudge them the immediate, physical understanding they have with their circus beasts,
and they grudge them their circus life all together.

Yet the strange, almost frightened shout of delight that comes now and then from the children
shows that the children vaguely know how cheated they are of their birthright
in the bright wild circus flesh.