Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Discovering subject: Lawrence's Piano

Jane's morning here and she takes us through a series of exercises involving re-framing of material, either by stripping it down or by rearranging it. The exercises are precis and prescriptive with a certain built in flexibility. One of the poems we look at is D H Lawrence's Piano, in both its earlier, longer version and its later, better known shorter version.

This is that shorter version:

By D.H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.


And here's what preceded it:

The Piano [notebook version]

Somewhere beneath that piano's superb sleek black
Must hide my mother's piano, little and brown with the back
That stood close to the wall, and the front's faded silk, both torn
And the keys with little hollows, that my mother's fingers had worn.

Softly, in the shadows, a woman is singing to me
Quietly, through the years I have crept back to see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the shaking strings
Pressing the little poised feet of the mother who smiles as she sings

The full throated woman has chosen a winning, living song
And surely the heart that is in me must belong
To the old Sunday evenings, when darkness wandered outside
And hymns gleamed on our warm lips, as we watched mother's fingers glide

Or this is my sister at home in the old front room
Singing love's first surprised gladness, alone in the gloom.
She will start when she sees me, and blushing, spread out her hands
To cover my mouth's raillery, till I'm bound in her shame's heart-spun bands

A woman is singing me a wild Hungarian air
And her arms, and her bosom and the whole of her soul is bare
And the great black piano is clamouring as my mother's never could clamour
And the tunes of the past are devoured of this music's ravaging glamour.

It's not a poem I especially love, even in the shorter version,, though it features in I A Richards's classic Practical Criticism. We were asked to note the differences between earlier and later: how the sister disappears, how the wild Hungarian air vanishes leaving the piano appassionato, etc. A great deal has been ditched. But it's not just the ditching, or rather not so much the ditching as the refocusing; the discovery of what the source of excitement was. The music was about the child's sensations of pressing his mother's feet at the piano pedal. We could then go on to talk about the hidden erotic link between those feet and the wild glamorous singer, which, I think, powers the poem in the way a simple sentimental memory of being little might not. There is now something 'insidious' and talk about betrayal. The guilt is there. The search is for the compulsive.

Finding a Freudian reading does not solve the poem or vitiate its energy. The poem has problems of its own with overwriting and display but the realisation of those small hands on the woman's feet as they move up and down in the secret space under the piano retains a frisson, so the experience itself, as divorced from some the writing, is compulsive.

It is just that it might have been more compulsive still. Or is some of that Lawrence yammer, those over the top wrong notes, an aspect of that compulsion? Curioser.

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